It was a spectacular autumn day in the Piedmont of Virginia. The trees were all dressed in their finest reds, oranges and yellows. The day was warm and I was stunned by the beauty of hilly Virginia countryside. I was there in part to follow up on some abstracts that I found with the assistance of various resources on and offline. There was one record, my great great great grandfather's 1886 obituary in Ohio that pointed me in the direction of Charlottesville; and I wanted to know more. I am terrible at long distance research. I went and needed to go Central Virginia to orientate myself with the topography, the sounds, the smells and the crimson soil. I needed to do this so that I could and can better image/understand the people with whom I strongly believe I have kinship. I needed to understand the descriptions the records etched in my mind.
One of the first stops on my trip was the Albemarle Historical Society in Charlottesville. The historical society occupies the McIntyre Library and sits on 2nd and E. Jefferson Streets next to or around the corner from the Jefferson Madison Regional Library. The Jefferson Madison Regional Library resides at 201 E. Main Street. Both of these libraries are just down the street from the main square in Charlottesville. That part of Charlottesville displays some of it's historical past with wonderful restored brick buildings. One of those nicely refinished buildings is the Albemarle County courthouse; a library unto itself. I am sure that this building was restored because the brick housing along with the brick pavement is immaculate. Anyone doing family history or any other type research about the area is lucky because this area lends itself to being actually what it might have been like during a certain period in American history. In other words, someone gets a since of history in this place. Researchers are also lucky to have so many records with so much history within such a small area. To prove this point, there are even more records and history at the University of Virginia. It is just up the road a bit and they have some of the oldest records--thrid only, I believe to the State Archives in Richmond and William and Mary College-- about Virginia's history and and ultimately themes in the history of the United States and North America. I took full advantage of the surroundings. Though it may have been just a bit too much, I made it up to the little mountain upon which Monticello sits to see that small dome that faces the great green expanse of the west lawn. Visiting the cellar of Monticello is a history lesson waiting for any American ready to have their beliefs about the country and nation challenged.
It is really easy to get caught in bigger story of American history in that place. It was difficult to stay focused because the history is everywhere.
Still, the main reason I was in Charlottesville was to find any traces of my family in that place and the remaining traces are in vertical files and history text among several libraries in Virginia. Again I used the McIntyre Library or Albemarle Historical Society records, the Albemarle Courthouse records and made a trip the University of Virginia to get a better sense about this place and its people through records. There was so much to digest in a short span of time from a period that has long past. I was spread thin between the State Archives in Richmond, the University of Virginia and copious records at the Historical Society and Charlottesville's Courthouse .
I did do a little bit of homework before making that fateful trip from California to Virginia. One of the steps I took prior to arriving in Charlottesville was to write the Albemarle County History Society to request a 1995 copy of The Magazine of Albemarle County History; and they complied. This helped tremendously. I requested this particular edition because Mr. Ervin Jordan, Jr. penned one of most incredible articles I had ever (at that point) read about black people in antebellum America. The article, A Just and True Account. Two 1833 Parish Censuses of Free Blacks takes inventory of the lives of people with whom I strongly believe my great great great grandfather shares kinship . The Parishes of Fredericksville and St. Anne's are the focus of Mr. Jordan's( Charlottesville was included because it is in Albemarble county too) article as the State of Virginia required its counties to take censuses of any and all black people and or free people of color. What Virginia was trying to do was "persuade" Afro-Virginians to remove to Liberia. And one of the reasons Virginia wanted to decrease its black and freed people of color populations resides in the fact that the state was trying avoid rebellions like the ones inspired by Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, both in opposition of slavery.
According to Mr. Jordan only a few blacks (if any) and or free people of color in Albemarle County took the persuasion to leave the area seriously. My ancestor(s) was/were one of few who left Virginia. I found an abstract of my great great great parents 1835 marriage record in Ohio. A few years prior to my trip to Virginia, I found the abstract at the Mormon library in Salt Lake City. This lead me to look for any other records in that Ohio county and I found my great great great grandfather's obituary that told me to continue and look east. I believe my great great great grandfather was in his early to mid-twenties when he left the Commonwealth. I don't know if he left with family, friends or just others in the vicinity. The 1850 Ohio Census shows a high concentration of free people of color in Ohio who said or it was reported that they said, Virginia was from whence they came. Still many black and or free people of color refused to live their families and home(s). I understand. They, after-all, some of them, fought in the American Revolution and some of them earned the land they owned in Virginia through service. Why would they give it up? They like native Americans help forge what we know as the United States. Another reason I believe many black and free people of color refused to leave or even decided to leave--yes leave-- has to do with the size of their families; a good number of the families in Mr. Jordan article are huge. My surname listed in that famous 1833 Census, is one of most prolific in the area according to authors like Carter G. Woodson. I believe many remained in the vicinity despite the enormous pressure from the state because they formed tight knit families and sometimes these families ties crossed state, county, ethnic and legal lines; for example I have a lead on my great great great grandfather's grandmother in Louisa County which is Albemarle's neighbor to the east. Once again and at the same time, some black Virginians--as the 1840 and 1850 Ohio Censuses indicate--decided to try to establish homes west of the Ohio River. These cross-state ties were important to the people in those documents and it is important to me because a line--a very straight line-- can be drawn directly to place in which I was doing research.
While I was doing this tedious leg work, I could not help but notice some of the attributes about some of the families in the area. Mr. Jordon's article opened a whole new line of inquiry. He piqued my interest because I was never taught in official American history courses to question the official narrative. After reading The Magazine of Albemarle County History and comparing that with some records at the State Archives in Richmond, I noticed that many families were multi-ethnic families. When I say multi-ethnic, I include native Americans under that banner. I must say that the whole Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair was like tip of this historical iceberg. After reading Annette Gorden-Reed's, The Hemingses of Monticello, I learned how complicated families were in antebellum Virginia. Gordon-Reed delves into the genealogy and family history of Sally Hemings' mother Betty. She had extra-legal relationship with John Wayles that produced seven children.. And as if this couldn't not get any more complicated Sally Hemings, according Gordon-Reed was one of Martha Wayle's,( Thomas Jefferson's wife), seven half siblings.
With all the records and Mr. Jordan's article, I seized upon the story of the West family. It is one most fascinating families in Central Virginia. Again, the West family was a multi-ethnic, multi-generational and multi-racial family that took on a life of its own in my research. The West family- at least the members of the family that were considered persons of color-- appear in Mr. Jordan's 1995 article because the State of Virginia in the 1830s specifically required counties to count the non-white population in every town and hamlet in order to push emigration; what is interesting about the West family is that Jane West's ( a woman of color) parents were in and created an extra-legal household. Jane's mother Nancy West and from all indications her father David Isaacs, were two people who dared to have a relationship across the entrenched color line. Although Mr, Jordan's article doesn't and couldn't note this detail, I learned about it later after reading Joshua Rothman's Notorious in the Neighborhood. It is also important to note that Nancy West's father Thomas West, a white man, had children or even may have set up a household with a black woman he used to own named Priscilla. Remember all of this is happening in antebellum Virginia.
Mr. Rothman, who again wrote Notorious in the Neighborhood believes Thomas West along with the two brothers David and Isiah Isaacs (who happened to be Jewish immigrants from Germany) were trading partners in Charlottesville. It is very reasonable that the Isaacs brothers were familiar with West family and certainly Mr. West's daughter Nancy. David Isaacs and Nancy's father know each other through business dealings. Isaacs is important to this story because again he created a household with Nancy West which wasn't apparent just looking at Mr. Jordan's work. Isaacs and Nancy West were ( for all intents and purposes) common law spouses without all the benefits and privileges that comes with that status. Nevertheless Isaacs and Ms.West set up house or houses in the area and it was one of the one of the most unusual and extra-legal households to appear in both the area and some records which Joshua Rothman illustrates in his book Notorious in the Neighborhood.
Notorious in the Neighborhood fills in the gray areas and details of the 1833 Census discovered at the University of Virginia by Mr. Jordan. Mr. Jordan specifically talks about Jane West, the daughter of David Issacs and Nancy West in his article. Until I read Mr. Rothman's book, my imagination took off to far away places when it came to trying to figure out how Jane West came to own property in Charlottesville at the time. Mr. Rothman again gave the answers to the questions dancing in my mind. According to Notorious Thomas West died and David. Isaacs was a signee or witness to Thomas West's last will and testament. In his will, I believe the story goes that Mr. West leaves real property--land in downtown Charlottesville--to his daughter Nancy. I believe Mr. Isaacs made it known before Thomas West's death, that he fancied Ms. West and surely Mr. West had some say in his daughter's domestic affairs. The Nancy West---David Isaccs arrangement takes on a quasi-marriage insofar as the laws disallowed households and marriages between people like themselves to exist in the open. These laws were remnants of colonial America and grew stronger and probably applied to a great number of people in a great number of cases.
Even though the weren't legally married, Nancy West and David Isaacs set up an extra-legal household. Notorious in the Neighborhood points out that Nancy West took up residency on land "she purchased with the money from her inheritance on lot number 46 near Charlottesville's southern boundary." Her partner Mr. Isaacs, according to Notorious had a house one block north and two blocks west on lot 36 ." The 1820 Census shows that " David Isaacs was the head of household with ten free people of color living with him in downtown Chalottesville. So they eventually combined households as she purchased property closer to his and dismissed what others might have thought. She also had enough property to run a business as a baker and rent space to others. It was quite an arrangement. They managed to have some sort of co-habitation arrangement which allowed him to be counted as head of household . " The map in the book does a great job of depicting how close they lived to each other. Notorious says they had seven children--Jane being the one that appears in Mr. Jordan's article--and they managed to make a family under the circumstances. Those circumstances resided more in the minds of individuals who would tried to enforce the strict color line. The color line was an unwritten law that required blacks and whites who might become couples and start families cease from co-habitation. They were playing the game they had to play to live as a couple under this ridiculous scheme. This story became even more interesting as West and Isaacs settled into their extra-legal arrangement and life in Charlottesville.
Mr. Rothman writes that there were economic jealousies that prompted someone to put Mr.Isaacs and Ms.West's domestic business in the unpaved streets of Charlottesville. The Charlottesville authorities convened a grand jury where, West and Isaacs were presented with the charge of "umbraging the decency of society and violating the laws of the land by cohabiting together in a state of illicit commerce as man and wife." According to Notorious in the Neighborhood a grand jury requested West and Isaacs prove they were not committing crimes against society. This was of course a heavy burden since Isaacs and West were a "mixed-raced" couple with seven children. How do you hide this in plan view?
West and Isaacs hired an attorney who stunned the court in Charlottesvile with the truth that in fact they had set up a household but "he questioned whether the state could prosecute on a fornication charge at common law." I am sure they could hardly deny, seven human beings running around the vicinity as free people of color, who looked like one or both their parents. The Charlottesvile court referred the case to the General Court in Richmond. According to Notorious, the court in Richmond ruled "that the State of Virginia could not prosecute Isaacs nor West and the court in Charlottesville followed the higher courts lead." This meant that the couple could return to their life as unusual in Charlottesville; as long as they lived their lives as couples as out of the public view.
Up ahead and the on the road in this relationship, their private lives entered the public domain again. This time, after they had been an unusual and well established couple, living in Charlottesville, Mr. Isaacs' nephew Hays Isaacs found himself in trouble. Some where between what was about to transpire and the life and subsequent death of David's brother Isiah, the former became the executor of his brother's will. This meant that David Isaacs was responsible for any financial trouble Hays Isaacs might get into. According to Notorious trouble for Hays Isaacs came before his inheritance did. He was in debt before he received his father Isiah's estate. This was a problem for David Isaacs because he was responsible for his nephews finances. It wasn't not only a problem for Isaacs but for his common but illegal wife Nancy.
The creditors came calling. They made demands of David Isaacs. More financial demands than Isaacs and West probably had as individuals and almost more than they had as an extra-legal couple. They had to be creative to fight off the creditors pursuit of Hays Isaacs, the son of David's dead brother Isiah. I believe West and Isaacs had to sell some of their assets--the ones they owned together-- to satisfy a small bit of the large appetite of the creditors. Someone noticed their coordination and sure enough the legal authorities came into the picture again. This time the law--or the people pretending to uphold it--questioned how Isaacs and West could jointly own what they owned without being married or at least co-habitation. The case was sent to the Grand Court in Richmond but they refused to press charges because the circumstances of the charges failed to prove that any law which seemed to be left up to the whim of person bringing the charge, was broken. In other works there was no actual evidence that West and Isaacs had sexual relations in public. That left the whole case on shaky ground at best. Once again the Grand Court of Richmond found no reason to punish the couple without fail-safe proof of breaking the accepted societal norms. The couple had to pay strict attention to how they conducted themselves in the company of others.
The West--Isaacs relationship was an interesting tour of American history and detour as I continue to follow the trail of my ancestors in Central Virginia. I think learned more about American history than I ever learned in two and a half decades in American schools. I can't wait to get back to Charlottesville and dive deeper into the records. I really enjoyed looking at those late 1700 to early 1800 documents in those huge portfolios at the Courthouse in Albemarle County. I haven't had the chance to properly scrub the records Louisa's County Courthouse