Griffin Dobson, Cynthia Dobson, & Family

Griffin Dobson’s life is unusually well documented for several reasons: he sailed with his enslaver, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, on several naval voyages; he had children with a free woman, Charity Carter, who are mentioned by name in official records; and he bought his freedom and that of his family with a second wife, Cynthia, from Jones.  Nevertheless, we do not know some basic facts about Dobson’s life, including who his parents were, exactly when or where he was born, or whether he had siblings. 

Based on an 1867 San Francisco death record recording his age at death as 49 (which may or may not be accurate), it appears that Dobson was born c. 1818.  According to genealogical research conducted by members of the Carter family, he had five children with Charity Carter, daughter of Keziah Carter, a free woman of indigenous (Tauxenent) and African descent. By 1840, Griffin had begun a relationship with Cynthia, a woman who was also enslaved by the Jones family. Together, they had another five children born c. 1840-1847.  

We know that Dobson accompanied Jones on voyages to the Pacific in 1842-1844 and 1847-1849. During the second voyage, Dobson, with the encouragement and financial support of some of his shipmates, approached Jones with a proposal to buy his freedom.  Jones, by his own account, was “astonished” by the request, but agreed, only “stipulating” that Dobson wait until they both returned to Virginia to claim his freedom.  In 1849, Jones “yielded to Griffin’s earnest solicitations” to leave the ship and take advantage of the California Gold Rush economy to earn money to buy his wife and children. 

A deed recorded at the Fairfax County courthouse on Sept. 22nd, 1852 (and certified by William W Ball, serving as a Justice of the Peace), confirms Dobson’s success.  In the deed, Jones, in exchange for $1200,  transfers ownership of Cinthia (30), Polly (10), Watt (12), Beverly (9), Henry (7), and Edmund (5) to “Griffin Dobson (a free man of Color) of California.”

In California, Griffin Dobson worked in various capacities, including as a bank porter and a waterman.  He also became a Mason, serving as an officer of Hannibal Lodge No. 1, Free and Accepted A. Y. Masons; and was a close associate of Rev. Barney Fletcher, founder of St. Cyprian’s A. M. E. Church (so he, like both his former enslaver and his Carter in-laws, may have played a role in supporting the founding of a church). 

While the Dobsons were by many measures successful in building a life in California, they did not entirely escape the dangers of the slave system.  In 1859, Henry Dobson, who had been apprenticed to a barber, was kidnapped by Missourians who hoped to sell him back into slavery.  Henry was rescued with the help of a Black man on board the steamer on which his kidnappers took him, but Griffin Dobson remained concerned about the safety of his sons as they reached ages at which they would be considered especially valuable property.  In 1862 he took out a newspaper advertisement “warn[ing]” “all persons” “against” “harboring, shipping or advising any one of the four boys of the subscriber, against his will or without his consent.” 

Griffin Dobson died in 1867, just as the United States was entering the Reconstruction era.  His son Beverly (who spelled his last name Dodson) remained in San Francisco, playing an active role in Democratic politics, and working as a coachman and eventually as a grading and sewer contractor. I haven’t fully investigated later generations of this branch of the family, but it appears that Beverly had a son, Beverly George Dodson, who, according to the 1920 census, was the proprietor of a garage and married to Pauline, a naturalized citizen of Mexican descent. 

It appears from census and other records that Griffin Dobson’s children with Charity Carter remained in Virginia, living with or near their free mother and other members of the Carter family.  Griffin and Charity’s son Charles Dobson, like Peter Gibson, a number of his Carter relatives, and other Black men in the neighborhood, voted for the first time on Oct. 22, 1867, helping to establish a Virginia Constitutional Convention and elect delegates to that gathering.  In the 1870 census, we find Charles living near Alfred, John, and Augustus Carter and their families, working as a farmhand, and owning real estate worth $600.  In 1871, Charles Dobson married Rachael Johnson. 

While Griffin Dobson’s life is better-documented than that of many enslaved people, a number of questions remain about him and his family.  I have not learned who Griffin’s parents were, or whether he had siblings.  (Dobson was described in some records as a “mulatto,” raising the possibility that his father was White and his mother enslaved.  If this is the case, one fairly obvious possible candidate for Griffin’s father, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, can probably be ruled out if Dobson was, indeed, born in 1818, since Jones was on a voyage to the Mediterranean from June 1816 to July 1818. However, the timing is tight enough, and the records uncertain enough, that the possibility remains).  

It seems likely that Griffin Dobson was related in some way to other people enslaved by the Jones family with the last name Dobson or Dotson, including Rachel Dotson (mother of William, Robert, and David and nurse to Mark, Mary, and Martha Jones), and Judy Dobson (freed by Elizabeth Jones’ will), but we don’t know exactly how. 

There is also some question as to whether Griffin Dobson was, in fact, legally enslaved at the time that he bought his freedom from Jones.  In a 1995 article “Griffin Dobson: Servant to a Commodore,” Lewinsville historian Frank Gapp raised the possibility that Griffin was one of the people freed by Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will. This possibility has been echoed in other accounts since.  Gapp’s reasoning is based on the possibility that Griffin Dobson may, like Judy Dobson, who is described in the Fairfax County Register of Free Negroes as “emancipated by the last will and testament of Elizabeth L. Jones,” be one of the unnamed “children of Nancy” freed by Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will. 

As Gapp notes, Griffin Dobson is not listed in the register, but he was frequently away from Fairfax, and would have been on his final voyage with Jones when Judy registered, along with her five children, in March 1848.  Another argument in favor of this possibility is that Griffin Dobson would have been very young in 1822, making it possible that he could be among the unnamed children included in the will.

On the other hand, it is possible that Dobson was Judy’s married name, and/or that she was an in-law or other relative rather than a sibling of Griffin Dobson.  Her children would have shared her free status regardless of the status of their father, who is not named in the registry.  In that case, Griffin Dobson may not have been one of the unnamed children included in Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will and may have enslaved in law as well as in practice until he bought his freedom. 

Whatever his legal status, once Griffin Dobson started having children with Cynthia, he had a powerful incentive to remain with Jones until he could formally arrange for their freedom, even if he believed he could claim his own freedom through legal means. If Dobson was legally free, this seems like a more likely explanation for his not asserting his claim than the “enduring bond” between the two men that Gapp posits.  Jones, who was mostly at home during the late 1830s, may even have helped create this incentive by encouraging Dobson’s relationship with Cynthia and/or discouraging his relationship with Charity Carter (perhaps by limiting his mobility). 

What does seem clear is that Griffin Dobson was aware of the various ways an enslaved man might free himself and/or his family, and took advantage of several of them, including having children with a free woman, and creating and/or seizing opportunities to buy himself and, later, enslaved members of his family when circumstances were favorable.  Despite Jones’ “great surprise” at Dobson’s 1848 proposal, it seems likely that Dobson had been aspiring to and planning for freedom for some time.

Peter Gibson

Most of what we know about Peter Gibson comes from a brief but eventful period in his life that begins in 1861 when federal troops seized the Jones family‘s cows and horses, which he had been tending, for military use, and ends when he voted in the referendum on the Virginia Constitutional Convention in October 1867 – the first time Black men voted in substantial numbers in Virginia, and the first chance for many of the men the Jones family had enslaved to exercise their newly-recognized citizenship rights. 

In 1878, Peter Gibson testified before the Southern Claims Commission in support of Mary Walker Carter Jones’ claim, relaying his memories of a night in 1861 when Union troops seized the cows he “had been milking all of [his] life” from Sharon.  Gibson responds to a question about his age in 1878 with “forty, I think” (reminding us that enslaved people were often deprived of very basic information about themselves).  This suggests that he was born c. 1838 and would have been in his early twenties in 1861.  It also suggests that he had spent all or most of his life at Sharon, working with the cows from an early age.  The enumeration of enslaved people claimed by Thomas ap Cateby Jones’ estate in the slave schedules of the 1860 census includes one man aged 22; that may be Gibson.   

An 1867 document in which Gibson appears reflects just how much, and how quickly, the Civil War changed the power structure in Virginia, and provides a glimpse of a Black community that is becoming more visible in public records. On October 22nd, 1867, Black men as a group voted for the first time in Virginia, in an election that authorized a Virginia Constitutional Convention and selected delegates for that convention.  The voter rolls for Fairfax County’s 5th District show that Gibson was among the “Colored” voters who overwhelming supported the convention and chose as delegate Orrin E. Hine. 

Hine, born in New York, was a former Union soldier who worked for a time as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent. He supported the creation of independent African American institutions, including the First Baptist Church of Vienna, whose founders he assisted in obtaining (or, more accurately, given some founding members’ indigenous roots, reclaiming) land for a church. The defeated candidate was Mottrom “Mott” Dulany Ball, recently returned Confederate soldier, and son and grandson of Lewinsville land donors belonging to the Ball family

Other available information suggests that this was a vote for both self-determination and self-defense.  In a Freedman’s Bureau report, Hine described Mott Ball as one of the “ruffians” who attacked a “religious gathering” at the home of Robert Gunnell, an established Black farmer in the Langley area.  At this point in his life, Mott Ball was clearly not ready to recognize his African American neighbors as fellow citizens (and fellow Christians) with equal rights, including the right to gather, as the early Lewinsville congregation had, in a private home for worship.   

The “Colored” voter list includes 226 men in all, nearly equal in numbers to, and much more united in their views than, the 252 men listed on the corresponding “White” voter roll.  It provides a glimpse into the Black community in the Lewinsville and Langley area in 1867 (of course, we only see the names of adult male members of the community, since neither Black nor White women could vote).  Robert Gunnell participated in the vote, as did Cyrus Carter, founder of four Baptist churches in the area: Chesterbook, Shiloh in McLean/Odrick’s Corner, First Baptist in Vienna, and Mount Zion Baptist in Arlington.  

Ten other men with the surname Carter, many of them probably members of the extended Powhatan/Hatton/Carter family into which another man enslaved by the Jones family, Griffin Dobson, married, appear on the list, as does a Richard Odrick, likely a member of the family that gave Odrick’s Corner its name.   In addition to Peter, there is a second man with the family name Gibson, Alfred.  And there are two members of the Dobson family: Charles (son of Griffin Dobson and Charity Carter) and Reed (exact family connections to be determined).  As we learn more about people enslaved by Lewinsville’s founding members, we will undoubtedly be able to identify more who exercised their newly-recognized citizenship rights in 1867. 

Peter Gibson is harder to trace beyond 1867.  His name is a common one, and the erosion of civil rights in the post-Reconstruction era made it difficult for many freedmen to participate in activities and build the sort of wealth that results in regular appearances in public records.  There are several Black Peter Gibsons listed on the 1870 Virginia census, but none live in Fairfax County (suggesting that he may have traveled from elsewhere to make his deposition, or that census takers may have missed him and any family he had). 

Peter Gibson may (or may not) be the “Uncle Peter” the Evening Star’s Rambler columnist, John Harry Shannon, found living at Sharon in Nov. 1914.  Shannon describes Peter as the sister of “Aunt Rachel,” also living at Sharon in her old age, who may be Rachel Dotson, who raised Mary, Mark, and Martha Jones.  He also describes “Uncle Peter” as discoursing at length on the quality of the horses, cows, chickens, and crops once raised at Sharon.  This may suggest that “Uncle Peter” is, indeed, Peter Gibson, who was able to give the Southern Claims Commission interviewers a detailed account of livestock and crops present at Sharon c. 1861, including their numbers, quality, and market value. 

There is also a 1920 death certificate for a Peter Gibson, boarded in the Old Folks Home in Henrico County by Fairfax County.  His age (also approximate) suggests that he could be the Peter Gibson enslaved by the Jones family, but whoever provided the information for the certificate knew very little about him; the spaces for spouse, parents, birth place, and birth date are all blank.  Whether or not he is the same Peter Gibson, the story suggested by those blanks reminds us of the struggles African Americans faced in the decades after Emancipation and Reconstruction. 

Rachel Dotson & Family

Rachel Dotson raised the three younger children of Thomas and Mary Walker Carter Jones and was remembered by Meriwether Jones as a “faithful servant.”  In 1867 one of Rachel’s own sons, William, sent an inquiry to the Freedman’s Bureau inquiring into her whereabouts and wellbeing, and that of his brothers Robert and David, after a long separation. 

Rachel is mentioned in three places that I have found so far: in an 1867 inquiry from her son, William Dotson, to the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Fairfax Courthouse, in Meriwether Jones’ 1864 will, and (probably) in a 1914 column written by the Evening Star’s Rambler columnist, John Harry Shannon. 

William’s inquiry was relayed via a letter written by Robert P. Fleming, who describes himself as “editor of the ‘Jefferson Journal’.”  The Jefferson in question may be Jefferson City, Missouri, but the state isn’t specified.  William relates that his mother was enslaved by the Jones family and “raised all of [Commodore Jones’] children,” but lists only the three younger children, suggesting that his memories of events at Sharon may begin after the early 1840s, when Meriwether Jones left home to begin his naval career.  William asks for word of Rachel and his brothers, Robert and David; I have not found any record of an answer.   

It is not clear from the inquiry when or under what circumstances William left Virginia, but it seems that it has been some time since he saw or had news of his family.  Given his location further south, one strong possibility is that the Jones family sold him, perhaps during the settlement of Thomas ap Catesby Jones’ estate. 

There are also some Freedman’s Bureau and pension records suggesting that William Dotson may have served in the war, either as a laborer or as a member of the US Colored Troops infantry, but, since his name is fairly common, it’s hard to definitively connect those records to the William Dotson who sought word of his mother and brothers.   

In an 1863 memorandum regarding an insurance policy that apparently served as his will, Meriwether Jones left $100 to “our faithful servant Rachel as a reward for her great fidelity in the trying scenes she has passed through.” It is not clear whether Rachel was legally free at the time Meriwether wrote; that would probably depend on her geographical location during the war. 

It does appear that she — assuming she is the same Rachel William Dotson is searching for; Meriwether doesn’t provide a last name for the Rachel he mentions – was, indeed, alive in 1863, and probably traveled with Mary Walker Carter Jones and/or remained at Sharon during the war. 

In 1914, William Harry Shannon spoke with a woman he called “Aunt Rachel” and a man he called “Uncle Peter” living in a partly-ruined building behind Sharon.  He allowed that “perhaps they have other names, but Aunt Rachel and Uncle Peter are known by those names to everybody throughout a wide section of Fairfax County.”  The building may have been the former slave quarters that, according to Mary Walker Carter Jones’ claim for damages after the war, she had remodeled for the Storm family’s use c. 1860 (which may, in turn, have been the house where Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will describes Amy and Nancy living in 1822).  In any case, by 1914, it was in very poor repair, “a section of the front wall fallen out.” 

Rachel, who is 79, lives upstairs; as Shannon relates, “her chamber is up a set of stairs which few persons of eighty years would care to climb.”  Shannon and his party of “ramblers” apparently climb those stairs, since he reports on the pictures on the walls – including portraits cut from newspapers of both Robert E. Lee and General Grant and of various religious leaders and “a good many sacred pictures in gorgeous colors” – and on Rachel’s most prized possession, a feather bed. 

At least in talking with a party of White visitors accompanied by Mrs. F.G. Carper, one of the current owners of the land, Rachel’s conversation centers on “the days of long ago.”  She tells Shannon and his party the story of Thomas and Mary Jones’ wedding at Salona, and relates the damage done to Sharon by what she refers to as “Yankee soldiers.”  Similarly, Peter talks about the high quality of the Jones’ horses, cows, and chickens, and about the crops they raised. 

Shannon relates that Rachel and Peter are brother and sister, and that they were enslaved by the Jones family, but beyond that we learn little from the column about them and their lives.  It is not clear whether this Rachel is William Dotson’s mother Rachel, but it seems possible. 

If Rachel is 79 in 1914 then she was born in 1835, perhaps a bit late to have raised the Jones’ older children, although enslaved girls began work at a young age.  It’s also possible that Rachel is older than she tells Shannon; while she doesn’t relay the story of the Jones’ 1823 marriage in a way that suggests she actually witnessed it, it does sound like she may have heard it from someone who did. 

The column provides no information about any other family members that Rachel and Peter may have, where those family members are, or whether they are in touch.  Nor does it explain how Rachel and Peter came to be living at Sharon long after the Jones family sold the property.  Have they been here all along, or have they returned in their old age?  If so, what sort of relationship do they have with the Carpers, who now own the property?  And what help, if any, do they have as they live out their older years in a building that seems to be in the process of falling down?    

Other unanswered questions include whether Rachel Dotson, Griffin Dobson, and Judy Dobson (freed by Elizabeth Jones’ will) were related in some way.  Dotson, Dobson, and Dodson can be variant spellings of the same last name, so it’s possible that there is a family relationship. If so, we don’t know what it is, or whether Rachel and Peter were in touch with kin in California.   

Elizabeth Lee Jones & the People she Enslaved

Although she did not live to see the formal founding of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in 1846 (and is not buried in the Lewinsville cemetery), Lewinsville members recognize Elizabeth Lee Jones as one of our founding mothers – one whose choices form a complicated and often puzzling picture. 

Elizabeth was apparently the first participant in the Salona house church to take practical steps toward forming a formal congregation by leaving land for a “church and church yard” in her 1822 will.  While that will was disputed and Lewinsville currently sits on a different portion of the Turberville land grant, Elizabeth’s bequest probably helped inspire the later land donation that made the formal founding of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church possible. 

She was also, like other White members of the early congregation, dependent on the labor of enslaved people for her livelihood.  In her will, she sought to leave those she enslaved to the recently-formed  American Colonization Society (ACS).

The ACS was a sometimes-uneasy coalition of White Americans with varying beliefs about slavery who agreed on the project of transporting free Black people from the United States to a colony in Africa that ultimately became Liberia.  It is unclear what Elizabeth’s own views on slavery were, though she does seem to have supported the portion of the ACS mission that involved including Christian missionaries among the colonizers. 

Elizabeth was born to Lettice Corbin Turberville Jones and Catesby Jones on the Northern Neck of Virginia.  The exact birth dates of some of the couple’s seven children are hard to determine, but sources seem to agree that Elizabeth was born sometime between 1778, when her parents married, and  1786, before their first son, Roger, was born. 

If, as some evidence suggests, Elizabeth was her parents’ oldest child, she was probably very close in age to her aunt (Lettice’s considerably younger sister), Martha Corbin Turberville Ball.  In any case, they were closer to being contemporaries than their niece/aunt relationship might suggest.  All sources seem to agree that Elizabeth was Roger’s (and Thomas ap Catesby’s) older sister.  Both of their parents died relatively young: Catesby in 1801 and Lettice in 1804.  By that time, Elizabeth would have been an adult, but still quite young herself. 

Like Martha and Mottrom Ball, Elizabeth moved to Fairfax County, settling on part of the Turberville land grant there, sometime in the eighteen-teens.  She, too, may have been fleeing British attacks on the Northern Neck during the War of 1812.  In any case, she had arrived by 1815, when Thomas stayed with her while recovering from wounds received in that war. 

Elizabeth apparently maintained a household separate from those of her relatives, and is often credited with arranging for the building of Sharon, the house she, and later Thomas and Mary Jones and their children, occupied (the notice of Elizabeth’s death that appears in several ACS publications, which describes her as having “died at the seat of her brother, Thomas ap Catesby Jones,” obscures which sibling first called Sharon home). 

An 1819 letter written by Harriotte Maffitt, daughter of Rev. Maffitt, mentions seeing “Miss Betty Jones” at Salona on the preceding Sunday, suggesting that she attended services there.  It certainly seems that Elizabeth valued the chance to participate in worship, and wanted to offer that opportunity to others.  When she wrote her will in April 1822, she included a bequest of “four acres of . . .land . . .as a site for a church and church yard,” “to be improved and dedicated to the uses and purposes of divine worship in such manner. . .as. . .may . . .be prescribed by the Rev[eren]d William Maffitt” or another Presbyterian pastor from a list she supplied. 

Elizabeth’s financial support came from inherited wealth, including the labor of over a dozen enslaved people, some of whom did the work of her household, and some of whom may have been hired out, with the money they earned adding to Elizabeth’s income.  We have some information about these people (though not as much as many of us would like) from Elizabeth’s 1822 will because her bequest to the ACS, and the arrangements she made for them until the ACS was ready to carry out its plans, required her naming them and in some cases describing their family relationships, ages, and occupations.   

“In the meantime,” she specified, “said slaves. . .shall serve my relations” and “shall receive such moral and religious instruction and be as habituated to the useful arts of domestic life as to prepare them as well as circumstances will allow for their ultimate destination of emancipated colonists.”  She also recommended to the ACS trustees that “my boy Davy, son of Nancy,” “be immediately put to school. . .to be educated as a missionary to Africa, or as minister of the Gospel to be settled in the proposed colony in Africa.”  If the ACS was unable to carry out its colonization plans within ten years of her death, she wrote, the enslaved people divided among her relatives “shall be absolutely and unconditionally emancipated and free.” 

Finally, she specified that “the three old women Letty (commonly called Spinning Lett), Amy, and Nancy, considering them too old either for the purpose of colonization or of intermediate service. . .be permitted to go free,” and charged her brother, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, to whom she had left her home and the bulk of her land, with “continu[ing] to Amy and Nancy the asylum they now enjoy of the house and garden” on that land. 

This suggests that at the time of her death the Sharon farm included both a main house and outbuildings that housed enslaved (or, in this case, freed) people, and that at least some of the people enslaved in her household had the opportunity to cultivate food for their own use (a fairly common arrangement which had benefits for both enslaved and enslaver). 

Other enslaved people listed in Elizabeth’s will include Edmond, a blacksmith; unnamed children of Nancy; Arianna and her unnamed children; the “remaining women and girls” Maria, Belinda, Mima, and Kitty; and Harriet and “her child of future issue” (perhaps in utero or yet to be conceived at the time of writing). 

Because of legal disputes over the estates of several generations of the Turberville family, Elizabeth’s will was not carried out as written. The land on which Lewinsville Presbyterian Church currently sits is several miles away from the plot she had surveyed for the purpose.  Nevertheless, the provisions of her will probably helped inspire the land donation by Elizabeth’s aunt, niece, and nephews that made the formal founding of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church possible.   

It is also unclear whether all of the enslaved people named in Elizabeth’s will were, in fact, freed, and whether any of them traveled to Africa.  In part because Elizabeth divided the people she enslaved among so many of her relatives (in some cases leaving who went where up to the relatives, or even the drawing of lots), tracing what happened to each individual requires considerable research (currently a work in progress).

There is, however, some available information.  The Fairfax County Registrations of Free Negroes describe two women, Judy Dobson and Harriet Conway, as being freed by Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will, and record that their children, all of whom appear to have been born after Elizabeth’s death, shared their free status.

Based on her age and other information in the registration, Judy Dobson, who was 29 when she registered in 1848, is probably one of the unnamed children of Nancy included the will.  The somewhat unusual wording in her registration – she is described as “Daughter of Nancy a free woman of colour, and Emancipated by the Last Will and Testament of Elizabeth L. Jones deceased” – may indicate that both she and her mother were freed by that will. 

By 1848, Judy had five children: David (10), Emanuel (9), Thomas (6), Silas (3), and Nancy (1).  The repetition of family names provides further confirmation of her connection to family members named in the will (and, although Judy’s son David is too young to be the Davy named in the will, he may be the older Davy’s nephew). 

Harriet Conway, who was 46 in 1848, may be the Harriet assigned in the will to serve Martha Corbin Turberville Ball until the time comes for her emancipation.  Registrations show that at least one woman named Harriet who was freed by Elizabeth Jones’ will (sometimes given the last name Conway, sometimes not) appeared with her children and grandchildren at the 1848 court session to document their free status. 

Harriet’s descendants included Armistead Reed (25), Joe Reed (23), Susan Parker (20) and her children Richard Henry (2) and Ann (3 mo.), Fanny (13), and Thomas (6).  In 1849, two more sons of Harriet Conway, James (18) and Ellick (16), registered. 

Armstead Reed, Richard Henry Parker, and two other Parker siblings, Mary (12) and Ada (10), show up in a shared household on the 1860 census as “free inhabitants of Washington, D.C.” The same household includes Armstead’s wife, Sarah, Frances Reed (26), a washerwoman (who could be the Fanny registered in 1848), Thomas Reed (18) and William Harris (13).  While Armstead, Sarah, and Frances are described as being unable to read and write, Richard, Mary, and Ada have all attended school in the last year, and the younger adults appear to be literate. 

Since they could claim the proceeds of their labor, this family was able to build some wealth.  Armstead, who was a huckster in 1860 with real estate worth $1400 and personal property worth $100, is listed on the 1870 census as keeping an “Eating House” and owning real estate worth $5000 and personal property worth $300. 

Even as we are able to track some of the positive effects of Elizabeth’s bequests, the will’s provisions raise other questions:

Did Elizabeth Lee Jones seek to free the people she enslaved and send them to Africa because she genuinely believed in the mission of the American Colonization Society, or because it was the best she could do for them given her and their circumstances, including Virginia laws limiting manumission?  In other words, was her decision to include the ACS in her estate plan driven primarily by her relationships with other members of the White elite, by her relationships with the people she enslaved, or perhaps by some combination of the two? 

Was she aware that many of the American Colonization Society’s members were at least as interested in removing free Blacks from the United States as in emancipating those who were enslaved? 

What role did Elizabeth’s faith play in her decisions regarding the people she enslaved, both during her lifetime and as she prepared for death? 

Was she conscious of the irony of describing women and girls who were currently doing the labor that kept her household running (or, for that matter, a man with the highly-valued skills of a blacksmith) as in need of training in “the useful arts of domestic life”? 

What did she envision happening to Nancy, whom she judged too old to join the colonization project, once Nancy’s children left for Africa?  Did Elizabeth think that Nancy, being free, could make her own decision when the time came?  What did Nancy and Davy think of the plan to train Davy as a missionary or minister? Had he shown a desire or aptitude for such work?   Was he interested in going to Africa? 

And how would they have felt about Elizabeth calling Davy “my Davy”?  Is that a term of affection, a claim of ownership (including a claim of greater right to determine the direction of Davy’s life than his mother or Davy himself), or, quite possibly, a bit of both? 

Belinda Brown & Family

What we know about Belinda Brown, including the text on her gravestone here in the cemetery, comes mostly from the perspective of the Ball family, who saw her, like most of the people they enslaved, as extraordinarily loyal and devoted to the welfare of their enslavers.  The basic information the Balls relay here and in William Selwyn Ball’s memoir, written c. 1930, seems to be accurate, but there are notable gaps in the record.  

For instance, this is one of the few stones in the cemetery without birth or death dates, suggesting that the Balls either didn’t know when Belinda was born, or didn’t consider that information significant. Similarly, there is no direct mention on the stone or in William Selwyn Ball’s memoir of Belinda’s parents or children, though he mentions two marriages, and includes at the end of the volume a transcription of a letter sent by Belinda to William Selwyn’s sister Rebecca while Belinda was visiting her children in Richmond.   

What does seem clear is that Belinda worked as a nurse in several Ball family households, that she lived on the Ball property after the war, and that she had a family of her own, including husbands named Silas Pierson and John Brown, and children who were living in Richmond in 1892.  Finally, while William Selwyn Ball described Belinda as one of the Ball family’s loyal slaves, it is possible – though by no means  certain – that she was in fact a free woman, working for the Ball family in part so that she could stay close to enslaved kin. 

William Selwyn Ball relates that Belinda worked as a nurse, raising children in the families of Spencer Mottrom and Mary Dulany and William Waring and Dorothy McCabe Ball.  After William Waring and Dorothy’s oldest daughter Mary Gray Ball Judkins, beside whom Belinda is buried, died in 1858, Belinda also helped raise Mary’s son William Judkins.  William can be found living with his grandmother and aunt, Martha and Lucy Ball, in the 1860 census.  In 1870, the first year that formerly enslaved people appeared in census records as citizens rather than property, Belinda, 38, with the last name Johnson (which seems to have been her family name), shows up, living in a household that included Dorothy McCabe Ball and six of her seven surviving children.   

According to both official records and William Selwyn Ball’s account, Belinda had a first, prewar, marriage with a man probably named Silas Pierson (official records provide the last name Pierson; William Selwyn Ball provides the first name Silas).  William Selwyn notes that “they had a lovely ‘white people’s wedding’ and went with the family when they refugeed” south during the war.  However, “just before the close of the war,” Silas committed what William Selwyn saw as an act of “treacher[y]”: “he took the single wagon and horse and went around the neighborhood in Albemarle, begging for provisions for Miss Dolly [Dorothy McCabe Ball], and immediately set out for Washington, sold the horse and wagon in Culpeper Court House, and was never more seen.” 

In short, like many enslaved people before and during the war, Silas claimed his freedom by leaving his enslavers.  William Selwyn writes that Belinda, whom he calls “Beedy,” “was greatly grieved at her husband’s conduct and never wanted to see him again.” He does not seem to consider that Belinda might have been upset at Silas for leaving her behind rather than because he left the Balls (or took the horse and wagon). 

After Belinda returned to Fairfax County with Dorothy McCabe and family, she (like they) lived in one of the cabins built during the war as quarters for soldiers within a fort that was erected on the Ball property.  She also met and eventually married John Brown, whom William Selwyn called “a fine man, and suitable to her age.”  William Selwyn portrays Belinda as concerned about remarrying without first divorcing her first husband (it’s interesting to note that in the same postwar period Mary Lee Jones Beall, who lived nearby, was seeking a divorce from her long-estranged husband William; Belinda may have been aware of this). 

Apparently the Balls assured Belinda that “a law had annulled all slave marriages” (which was not the case; in fact, the Freedmen’s Bureau was recording marriages contracted during slavery to make them official), and she and John Brown married in 1870, soon after the census was taken – another place where the official record and William Selwyn Ball’s account coincides. 

Belinda and John Brown apparently lived in a cabin on the Ball property, possibly built by John, for the rest of her life.  Two letters, dated  1892 and 1894, preserved by William Selwyn’s sister Rebecca, who lived in Richmond with her husband, provide us the most direct access to Belinda’s own voice (though we still have to take into account that she was writing to a particular recipient, and that she apparently had to dictate her letters, though it appears that, at least in the case of the 1892 letter, her scribe was one of her own children). 

The 1892 letter finds Belinda staying at 1302 30th St. in Richmond, apparently the residence of one of her children, during a 3-week January visit.  While she expresses interest in seeing “Miss Rebecca” while she is in town (either again, or at all; it’s not clear; both women have been sick, and there’s some indication that Rebecca’s husband isn’t entirely comfortable with Belinda visiting), the main focus of Belinda’s visit seems to be her own family: her “dear children” and “kin folks here from the country.”  Belinda does not name the children she has been visiting in the letter (but mentions at least two, or maybe a child and his or her spouse), but she does say that she has “had a happy time” with them, even though she has been sick.

She also answers what was apparently an inquiry by Rebecca into her spiritual welfare, which probably included encouragement to formally join a church: “I am striving to be as good as I can, but you know the African race is not as bright as yours & of course there cannot be as much expected of them, but I am trying the best I know how, to live differently and feel that this is a change.” 

“But Confirmation is a very serious thing,” she continues, “I do not think it is the form but the feeling that makes us good, so I want to make sure that before I act – that – I am safe in doing so.”  This second sentence, which contains some fairly sophisticated theological reasoning (couched in language which, like the rest of the letter, suggests that Belinda and/or her amanuensis were comfortable communicating in a linguistic register similar to that used by the Balls), belies Belinda’s earlier statements about the capabilities of “the African race” – a reminder of just how complex the communication between these two women was.  Belinda seems willing to answer the inquiry, perhaps for the sake of maintaining a relationship with someone she believes means well, but she also clearly has her own well-considered ideas about her faith, and is comfortable asserting them, and following her own judgment about whether she should formally join a church. 

The second, 1894 letter is written from Woodbury, and there is no indication of who took Belinda’s dictation (though it appears that that person may have added some comments of his or her own in parentheses).  She reports that she is in “middling” health, and that “my own children & my neighbors are so kind and do not let me suffer for anything.  Miss Martha [William Selwyn’s wife] came over early Sunday and brought me fresh fish – hot green tea with real cream in it – & some of my own kind of corn bread made by her own dear hands, so you know I must have enjoyed it.” 

So it seems that the Balls did care for Belinda in her old age, just as she had cared for them in their youth, and during what was, in fact, a very difficult time for all of them after the war.  Still, questions remain about their relationship: when Belinda writes “my own children” does she mean the members of the Ball family she helped raise, or are they “my neighbors”? Do Belinda and/or John have children or stepchildren living in the area, and are they also participating in her care?  If so, what did they think of their mother’s relationship with her former enslavers, and, if they know about it, of their plan to bury her in the Ball family plot, “beside,” in William Selwyn Ball’s words, “her beloved Miss Mollie, whom she idolized”?  And when, exactly, did Belinda die?  William Selwyn records her death and burial, but, like the gravestone, does not provide a date. 

Finally, there is the tantalizing question of whether Belinda was, in fact, enslaved, at least in 1861.  William Selwyn records that, when after the war’s end Belinda “was visited by some of our Yankee neighbors with the information that she was now free and could be educated and have her own home,” “she dismissed them with scorn.  ‘I thank you,’ she said, ‘but I have always been free and have my own home, and that I am not educated is entirely my own fault.’” He seems to take this as a description of  Belinda’s feelings about her relationship with the Ball family despite her enslavement, but it’s possible that it reflected her legal status.    

Dennis, Dolly, and “Nurse Mary,” whom William Selwyn Ball identifies as Belinda’s siblings, all show up in the inventory of Mottrom Ball’s estate.  Unless she is listed under another name, Belinda does not. There is, however, a Belinda named among the people to be freed in Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will.  Since Belinda Johnson Pierson Brown was born c. 1832, ten years after Elizabeth Lee Jones died, she is almost certainly not that Belinda. She could, however, be that Belinda’s daughter.  In that case, she may have been a free woman who negotiated her employment by the Ball family in ways that allowed her to remain near enslaved kin. 

If such an arrangement existed, it’s possible that younger members of the Ball family, including William Selwyn, were not aware of it, and so simply saw “Bedie” as one more of the family’s loyal slaves.  An arrangement of this kind — and the events that secured the freedom of Belinda and/or her mother — could also shed additional light on the sources of Belinda’s loyalty to the Balls, to the extent it existed, as well as on the clear sense of independence that she exhibited, even in the highly mediated accounts we currently have of her life. 


Archy’s story is one of the most direct examples we have of resistance among people enslaved by early Lewinsville members: while Mottrom Ball’s estate was being settled, Archy ran away twice from the people to whom he was hired.  The response of the administrator, Lewinsville land donor Spencer Mottrom Ball, reminds us of the very real power he and other enslavers held over the people they enslaved: in Sept. 1846, the estate sold Archy for $725 to the slave trading firm of Bruin and Hill.  At that time, Bruin and Hill were sending regular shipments of human property from Virginia to states farther south.  While we cannot be sure, that is probably where Archy ended up, far from friends and family. 

The first record of Archy I have found is in the inventory that William Swink and others conducted of Mottrom Ball’s estate on Dec. 29th, 1842.  Archy is one of 20 “Negroes” included in the inventory along with livestock and household and agricultural equipment. No ages are provided, but at $375 he is valued toward the top of the range, which extends from $0 for older people, including Sandy, “Old Charlotte,” “Old Nancy,” and “old John,” a carpenter, to $400 for a man named William, who may have had particular skills, or just have been recognized as a particularly effective laborer.  Archy’s relatively high valuation suggests that he was probably at the height of his physical powers, and therefore his value as a laborer, in 1842 – an older teenager or younger adult. 

Many of the enslaved people listed in the inventory were hired out in the years that followed: in other words, they worked for various people, and their wages were paid to the estate, increasing the wealth that would eventually be distributed to Mottrom Ball’s heirs.  Some of the hiring took place within the Ball family (before Martha and her children divided up the legal ownership of the people listed when the estate was finally settled); some was to others in the community. 

Archy was hired to Spencer M. Ball, apparently without incident but for a relatively low amount ($20 a year, in comparison to the $35-$45 the work of other enslaved people brought), for 1843.  In 1844, he was hired to S. Cutts, but the estate only received $13 because he ran away.  Apparently he was recaptured, because in 1845 the estate received $40 for his hire to F.A. Dickens.  He was hired to F.A. Dickens again in 1846, but ran away; the estate accounts show that $13 was received for the work he performed. 

We don’t know why Archy ran away.  The most likely explanation, especially if he was a young single man without children (or had already lost people to whom he was close to sale or relocation), was that he was hoping to free himself by reaching the northern states (which were not yet bound by the Fugitive Slave Act in the mid-1840s, though they would be after 1850).  It is also possible that he was trying to get closer to people important to him: a partner, child(ren), sibling(s), parent(s), or friends.  Since he ran away from two different men who hired his labor, it seems unlikely that he was responding to the labor or living conditions in a particular workplace.  

Whatever his motives, he seems to have taken what he saw as a chance to improve his situation, and instead experienced the consequences of challenging the unjust but very real legal power of people who considered him property. Though we have no record of what happened immediately after his recaptures, it is very likely that he was whipped or physically punished in some other way.  After his second escape and recapture, in September 1846 (one month before Lewinsville celebrated its formal founding), he was sold to Bruin and Hill, a slave trading firm in Alexandria.  At the time, Bruin and Hill were actively shipping enslaved people from Virginia, which had more laborers than lands worn out by several centuries of unsustainable agricultural practices required or could support, to areas farther south that people of European descent were only beginning to colonize and cultivate using enslaved labor.  

Being sold south was one of the threats, explicit or implicit, that enslavers in Virginia could use to exact obedience from those they enslaved.  The word of Archy’s sale may have spread immediately among members of the enslaved community surrounding Lewinsville, or it may have trickled out more gradually, perhaps during the week after Christmas 1846, the part of the year when enslaved laborers had the most freedom to meet and socialize with friends and relatives who lived at some distance.  In any case, it seems likely that the enslaved people who occupied the gallery of the newly-built Lewinsville sanctuary would have been recently reminded of the very real power those who gathered for worship on the floor below held over their lives, and of their willingness to exercise that power.    

Archy’s sale contributed $725 to the total value of Mottrom Ball’s estate.  That amount, and the amounts paid to hire Archy and other enslaved laborers listed in the estate accounts, serve as reminders of just how directly the labor of enslaved people, and on occasion the profits of selling them as property, contributed to the wealth that made the Balls’ land donation, and hence the formal founding of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, possible. 

For comparison, when Lewinsville pastor Franklin Gillespie was researching the history of the church in 1946, he found an 1847 report to the Board of Domestic Missions recording that Lewinsville’s “house of worship was erected at an expense of $650.”  It’s not clear whether that amount included materials, labor, or both, but it gives us some idea of what $725 could buy in 1846 (apparently that amount was more than the equivalent of a building campaign, at least for the materials of what the report described as a “comfortable” sanctuary).  It also gives us some idea of the sort of independent life Archy could have made for himself and those he cared about if he had been able to claim the $40 a year at which the Balls and their neighbors valued his labor.