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? 

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