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.   

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