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. 

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