As a summer research intern at Montpelier, I’ve dug into the transcription of property deeds and land indentures of Orange County dating from the early 1800s to the 1850s. Most of these documents are fairly dry, some confusingly detailing land boundaries before the invention of Google Maps, others simply describing debts and the consequences of not paying them.
On the other hand, it is a stark reminder of the time period when this same dry legal language is used to describe the sale and transfer of enslaved people. The most unexpected discovery of my transcriptions has been the emancipation of numerous enslaved people well before the well-known Emancipation Proclamation. The reasons for these emancipations differed from deed to deed. Some slave owners would cite “good conduct” or “good services” as the reason, while others would accept a payment.
Considering the oppressive presence of slavery in the United States at this time, these cases would surely be the exceptions rather than the norm. Then I came across the will of a Lucy Johnson Quarles, who turned out to be one of the most surprising exceptions I’ve found so far.
The woman in question is Lucy Johnson Quarles, wife of the late William Quarles of Orange County. She was born on February 28, 1775, in Louisa County, Virginia, into the well-known Johnson family.1Lucy Johnson Quarles (1775-1841), www.findagrave.com, accessed 8 July 2019. Find-A-Grave Memorial ID: 99454848. Her father served for several years in the House of Burgesses and later as a High Sheriff in the same county. She came from a relatively large family – nine siblings in all. She then married William Quarles, then owner of the Bloomsbury estate, around 1802. They had no known children.2Sarah Travers Lewis (Scott) Anderson, Lewises, Meriwethers, and Their Kin, (Richmond, VA, 1938; reprinted Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008),176.
The Bloomsbury estate in Orange County, Virginia, where William and Lucy Quarles lived. It is known as “one of Orange County’s true architectural gems” and “the oldest extant dwelling in the county.”3Ann L. Miller, Antebellum Orange (Orange, Virginia: Orange County Historical Society, 1988). Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Upon the death of William Quarles, Lucy Quarles took into possession about 18 enslaved people. Two years later, another account4William Quarles Accounting of Estate. October 1, 1836. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 15, pp. 16. had 57 slaves living on the estate. Now aged about 61, Lucy Quarles began writing her last will and testament. The majority of her 1841 will reads out as one might expect, with money and enslaved people given to her siblings and their children.
That is, until “Item 21st.”
It reads, “Feeling a deep interest in the welfare of my servants, and a desire to place them in a situation to be comfortable after my death; I hereby emancipate all the slaves I now own at my death…” In addition, she desired “to enable my servants choosing freedom to remove to some country where they may live comfortable and enjoy their freedom,” and so directed her executors “to advance and pay out of any funds belonging to my said estate the sum of Two thousand dollars toward effecting that object.” According to Virginia law, a newly emancipated slave had 12 months to leave the state. As a result, she wished for her executors to gather her slaves together and explain the above as a choice, meaning if they “decline the offer of freedom[,] They have the liberty to choose a master or mistress.” She elaborated on this condition, explaining that if the spouse or children of one of the enslaved people lived on a nearby plantation, this would allow families to remain “where they are likely to be permanently fixed near each other.”5Lucy Quarles’s Will. June 12, 1839. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 251-52.
Image of Lucy Quarles’s 1841 will. The 21st Item is the longest portion of the will and details the specifics of emancipation for the people she had enslaved. (Will Book 9, pp. 251-52, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. Courtesy of the Orange County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.)
This was likely an unprecedented act in Orange County. Indeed, the deed book indices of the Orange County Courthouse list very few emancipations stretching back to the late 18th century.6Orange County Courthouse. Deed Book Index, pp. 74-456.
The Illusion of Choice
After Lucy’s death on August 25, 1841, the executors stated that they met with the slaves at Bloomsbury on August 20, 1842.7Lucy Quarles list of slaves. August 20, 1842. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 99-101. How did these enslaved people respond to the offer of freedom?
Before answering this question, it is important to note that Lucy Quarles did not offer freedom to the entire enslaved community at Bloomsbury. As aforementioned, she willed several of them to her relatives.8Lucy Quarles’s Will. June 12, 1839. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 251-52.
Lucy bequeathed “Clio with her present child and her future increase” to Lucy’s niece. The very words of the will suggest hopeless, inescapable servitude, even for children that Clio had not yet borne. For Sukey Madison, freedom was offered at the price of separation from her daughter Martha, whom Lucy willed to Nancy Clark, “who lives with me.”
Despite the uncontrollable dynamics of Lucy’s will and the hard choices forced on the enslaved community, nearly all – 66 of 73 who had the choice, that is – chose freedom.
Above: Executors stating that approximately 60 slaves chose freedom. Below: Executors showing the seven enslaved people who chose to remain with Peter T. Johnson. (Executors of Lucy Quarles, list of slaves. August 20, 1842, Will Book 9, pp. 99-101, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. Courtesy of the Orange County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.)
Other instances of family separation caused by the system of slavery include Margaret and her 2-year-old daughter Tabbyella. Margaret chose freedom for Tabbyella, yet sadly, Margaret herself was willed to Nancy Barrett, sister of Lucy Quarles. It is unknown who took care of Tabbyella.
Despite the legality of Lucy Quarles’s emancipation, it is possible that this act, from the perspective of other slave owners, could have threatened the foundation of slavery. This view might have led to the unexpected case of the family of William Taliaferro, his wife Roseanna, and their children Aggy, Peyton, Harriett, and William Nelson. In the document detailing the enslaved people who chose freedom, the executors wrote that the family was “Sued for,” perhaps by a previous enslaver, or by a creditor of the Quarles estate. Fortunately, the suit was eventually “compromised,” and the family still chose “to be free,” but not without the reminder that their freedom was a fragile one.9 Lucy Quarles list of slaves. August 20, 1842. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 101.
What of the other seven then?
The Aftershocks of Freedom
According to the executors, the other seven – Sukey Madison, and her infant children Walker, Harry, Madison, and Finley Johnson; Maria Madison; and Peter Parker – chose “Peter T Johnson for their master.”10Lucy Quarles list of slaves. August 20, 1842. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 99-101.
Who was Johnson?
Peter Tinsley Johnson was born around 1811 to David Johnson, brother of Lucy Quarles, and Elizabeth Meriwether as the third son of the family.11Sarah Travers Lewis (Scott) Anderson, Lewises, Meriwethers, and Their Kin, (Richmond, VA, 1938; reprinted Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008),177. According to Lucy Quarles’s will, Johnson received $6000, $300 worth of furniture, and an enslaved family consisting of Winston, his wife Fanny, and their children Lewis, Charlotte, James Barrett, and Henry Mosby. He also received three lone enslaved persons, John, Alexander (son of Sukey), and Thomas.
What was it about Peter Johnson that prompted Sukey in particular to choose him as a master and not choose freedom for herself and her infant children? The documentary record may provide a clue about Lucy Quarles’s relationships and ultimately Sukey’s reasoning.
In Lucy Quarles’s will, she wrote about a woman by the name of Nancy Clark under “Item 17th,” “who now lives with me,” and gave Nancy Clark “Three hundred dollars, with a bed and furniture and a bureau which I have pointed out to her.” In two later additions to the will, Lucy gave Clark an extra “one thousand dollars” and her “servant girl Martha (daughter of my woman Sucky) [Sukey].”
According to the 1850 census, Johnson lived with a Nancy Clark in Orange County, Virginia,12“United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M8DJ-7NN : 12 April 2016), Nancy Clark in household of Peter T Johnson, Orange county, part of, Orange, Virginia, United States; citing family 449, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). their marriage being registered on March 24, 1853.13Ancestry.com. Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014. A year later, a woman by the name of Nancy Johnson was buried in the Taylor-Johnson cemetery in Orange County, where Lucy Quarles (Peter Johnson’s aunt) and David Johnson (Peter Johnson’s father) were also buried, meaning this was likely the family cemetery. This Nancy died on May 9, 1854.14Margaret C. Klein, Tombstone Inscriptions of Orange County, Virginia (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979), 90. Accordingly, when Peter Johnson remarried in 1859 to Georgianna V. Cave, he was labeled as “widowed.”15Ancestry.com. Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014. If Peter Johnson’s first wife Nancy is the same Nancy mentioned in Quarles’s will, this would mean that Martha would have been inherited by Johnson.
If so, it seems that Sukey Madison, in an attempt to reduce the inhumanities of slavery, tried to remain with as much of her family as possible. Knowing that her son Alexander was given to Johnson, she chose, for herself and her family, to stay in the bondage of slavery to stay with her family. If Nancy Clark is indeed the same Nancy that Johnson later marries, it would mean Sukey was reunited with both her children, Alexander and Martha.
What became of the other enslaved people freed through or affected by Lucy Quarles’s will?
Of the seven who chose to remain in slavery under Johnson, Peter Parker was emancipated on November 25, 1846, by Johnson. In the emancipation deed, Johnson described Peter as being “about Sixty five years of age” and “of rather a light complexion.” One of the most unexpected descriptions he gave was the fact that Peter had “One leg cut off about the knee.”16Peter T. Johnson, Emancipation of Peter Parker, November 26, 1846. Orange County Courthouse, Deed Book 40, pp. 266. However, it is likely that this injury existed prior to his time under Johnson. In the 1836 account of William Quarles’s estate after his death, there is an enslaved person referred to as “Peter a Man” with a value of 100 dollars, a value deemed by slave owners based on the enslaved person’s ability to work.17William Quarles Accounting of Estate. October 1, 1836. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 15, pp. 16. Since most of the enslaved men in the estate were valued between $500 and $800, Peter may have already been less able to do physical work. In contrast, in the 1841 account of Lucy Quarles’s estate, Peter Parker’s value was listed as “00,”18Lucy Quarles Accounting of Estate. October 26, 1841. Orange County Courthouse, Will Book 9, pp. 279. suggesting further deterioration of his physical condition. So, potentially sustaining this injury between 1836 and 1841, it is possible that Peter may have considered the difficulties of old age, being disabled, and living by himself in 1841, and so chose Johnson as a new master as a form of self protection. It is unclear what happened to Peter after his 1846 emancipation and how his challenges affected his newly free life.
Peter Parker’s value being set at 0 dollars in an 1841 account of Lucy Quarles’s estate. (Will Book 9, pp. 272-279, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. Courtesy of the Orange County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.)
Charles T. Graves, another Orange County slave owner, emancipated 60-year-old Mary “to enable her to move with her [niece] and other relations who were Emancipated by the will of Mrs Lucy Quarles.”19Charles T. Graves Emancipation of Mary. September 29, 1842. Orange County Courthouse, Deed Book 38, pp. 428 It is unclear who her niece and “other relations” were among those formerly at Bloomsbury, but it shows the awareness and intentionality slave owners had towards manipulating and exploiting the importance of enslaved people’s relationships. Graves may have acted in self-interest by freeing 60-year-old Mary to go with her relatives; by the time she became too old to work, he would no longer be responsible for her support.
When Matilda Tibbs was emancipated by Lucy Quarles, a nearby Orange County slave owning family, the Conways, emancipated her husband Frank Tibbs, “to enable him to move with his wife and children, who were emancipated by the Will of Mrs Lucy Quarles.”20Conway heirs Emancipation of Frank Tibbs. September 19, 1842. Orange County Courthouse, Deed Book 38, pp. 419-20 This move came rather quickly and fortunately, considering the enslaved people of Lucy Quarles were told of their choice of freedom in late August 1842, and the Conways emancipated Frank Tibbs in early September of the same year.
Not all families experienced such convenient timing, though. Lucy Quarles also emancipated Jacob Dade, who left for Lancaster, Ohio after being newly freed. This sadly meant leaving behind his wife Francis (also known as Franky) and his son Felix Quarles who were at that time property of Joseph Edwards of Orange County. One year later in 1843, Edwards emancipated Francis, but strangely made no mention of her son Felix Quarles.21Joseph Edwards, Emancipation of Francis. July 18, 1843. Orange County Courthouse, Deed Book 39, pp. 142-43 It wasn’t until three years later that Edwards emancipated Felix, then an 8-year-old boy, confirming in this document that he “is the Son of Jacob Dade and Frances his wife, free persons of colour, of the State of Ohio.”22Joseph Edwards, Emancipation of Felix Quarles. November 23, 1846. Orange County Courthouse, Deed Book 40, pp. 260. This meant that Francis was emancipated yet sadly separated from her son when he was about five years old. Despite Felix’s emancipation in 1846, Felix wasn’t listed as living in his parents’ Ohio home at the time of the 1850 census.23Year: 1850; Census Place: Lancaster, Fairfield, Ohio; Roll: M432_677; Page: 297A; Image: 342 It wasn’t until the 1860 census that Felix (now called Felix Dade) was listed as a member of his family in Ohio – sixteen years after being separated from his family.24Year: 1860; Census Place: Lancaster, Fairfield, Ohio; Roll: M653_960; Page: 34; Family History Library Film: 803960 Even though slave owners used family separation as a weapon of slavery, its ripples stretched beyond bondage and touched and hurt even those who were free.
Above: 1850 census of Jacob Dade’s household. Below: 1860 census of Jacob Dade’s household, showing Felix’s arrival by 1860. (United States Federal Census, National Archives and Records Administration.)
As we can see, the effects of Lucy Quarles’s emancipation sent shockwaves through not only the immediate enslaved community she freed, but also the entire Orange County slaveowning community. Unfortunately, because of the incomplete records concerning enslaved people in the United States around this time, it is difficult to tell where the majority of these newly freed people dispersed across the country. What we can see, however, is an example of enslaved people asserting and fighting for their humanity within an inhumane system that forced them to choose between family and freedom.
Aldo I. Barriente
Aldo was a 2019 summer intern with the Research Department, where he focused on the transcription of documents from early- to mid-1800s in Orange County, Virginia, particularly manumission/emancipation deeds. He is currently a second-year at the University of Virginia, majoring in Linguistics and Computer Science. Aldo also has a research background in indigenous literature of the Americas. He loves learning about languages and the cultures of the people who speak them.