I don’t know about you, but one of the best ways for me to profitably kill time is to randomly browse old newspapers online. It is amazing what they can tell us about community sentiments of the past. And I don’t read old newspapers just for the articles; the advertisements provide important information, too.
Among the dozens of classified ads appearing in the November 29, 1859, Richmond Daily Dispatch are those selling everything from oysters, to boots, to cows and calves, to artificial teeth, to java coffee, to “negro clothing,” and, of course, enslaved human beings.
Two notices seek “Runaways,” men, ages 15 and 18. Rewards of $25 each are offered “to any one who will apprehend and commit to jail” Thomas, and an unnamed “mulatto boy,” “so that I get him again,” so reads the ads. Two other notices appear advertising captured runaways. S. O. Duval, the jailor of Chesterfield County wanted the owner of 25-year-old Richard James Branch to come forward and claim him. Likewise, John Hutcheson, the sheriff of Henrico County advertised Jacob, who was 30-years-old. The owner was to “come forward prove property, pay charges, and take said negro away, or he will be dealt with according to law.” If enslavers did not come to claim their human property within a stated period of time prescribed by state law, the sheriff offered him or her for sale at public auction to cover the cost of their keep and add to the county’s treasury. It was all part of these law enforcement officers’ regular daily duties.
Another intriguing ad stated: “VIGILIANCE COMMITTEES.—The citizens of Hanover, Louisa, Caroline, and Spotsylvania, are invited to meet at Beaver Dam Depot, on Thursday, December 1st for the purpose of appointing VIGILANCE COMMITTEES.” Noting when this advertisement ran, just about a month and half after John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, and the date of the meeting set for the day before Brown’s execution, I suspected that historic event had something to do with what the meeting wanted citizens to be vigilant about.
However, to confirm my suspicions, I hoped I could find a report of the proceedings of the meeting. A thorough search through several future issues did not disappoint. Only four days later, December 5, 1859, the Daily Dispatch ran a column titled “Public Meeting in Hanover.” It stated that R. H. Nelson presided, and Alfred Duke served as secretary at the meeting “of intelligent and influential citizens.” The assembled group passed four resolutions:
“1. Resolved, That all classes in our community have one common interest in opposing the wicked intermeddling of abolitionists in our affairs.”
“2. Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to each other to keep a strict eye on all suspicious persons, particularly on all strangers whose business is not known to be harmless, or anyone whatever, who may express sentiments of sympathy or toleration with abolitionists either directly or indirectly.”
Yes, they were worried about a John Brown-type individual or group coming into their community and stirring up the enslaved population. And a significant population it was. Of the counties mentioned in the original advertisement, the 1860 census—made about six months following this meeting—recorded the following enslaved population information: Hanover County 55.8%, Louisa County 62.3%, Caroline County 60.6%, and Spotsylvania County 50.2%. The average population of these four counties was a 57.2% enslaved. Put another way, almost six out of every ten people in these four counties lived enslaved lives in 1860.
The third resolution set “Vigilance Committees” to be appointed in the 4th and 6th magisterial districts, who were to carry out the resolutions. Suspected person were to be brought before the chairman and two committee members, and either bring the suspect to trial, or “drive them from the neighborhood.”
The fourth resolution requested that the delegate or senator from these counties seek an amendment to the law concerning trials so that a Justice of the Peace could require a sheriff to assemble a jury for the trial “of any person brought before him on a charge of encouraging or promoting insurrection, or insubordination among the slaves; and also, to have the sentence of the jury executed without delay.”
Wondering if I could find additional information on this meeting, I continued my search. Bingo! The December 8, 1859, edition of the Richmond Daily Whig, also commented on the meeting, but in greater detail than the Daily Dispatch. Its title: “Meeting in the Upper End of Hanover.”
The Daily Whig edition also explained that a Dr. Bucker of Louisa County offered an additional resolution that was accepted: “Resolved, That the Committees be requested to extend their action to adjoining districts and counties, when necessity may seem to require it, and their aid is called for.”
In addition to the resolutions, and the names of the primary officers, the Daily Whig article also listed the names of members of the 4th and 6th district committees. Curious to see what stakes that these men had in the institution of slavery, I decided to search for them in the 1860 “slave schedule” census. Unfortunately, first and middle initials with last names identify many of the men, making positive connections to the census difficult. However, I was able to find eight of the 24 men named to the District 4 committee listed as enslavers, and six of the 25 named men in District 6.
Not mentioned in the Daily Dispatch article, but named in the Daily Whig was Col. Edmund Fontaine, who called the meeting to order. The 59-year-old Fontaine, a resident of Hanover County, was a planter and the president of the Louisa branch of the Virginia Central Railroad. In the 1860 census Fontaine is shown owning $50,000 in real estate and $51,000 in personal property, which included 52 enslaved individuals. Dr. Robert H. Nelson, who apparently served as chairman, was 63-years-old and owned $20,000 in real estate and $50,000 in personal property, with 40 enslaved men, women, and children among his property. Alfred Duke served as secretary of the meeting. Duke, 47-years-old owned $10,000 in real estate and $15,000 in personal property. A search for Duke in the slave schedules came up empty, but with $15,000 in personal property, it is likely that he held some of that wealth in bondage.
It might be one thing if this “Upper Hanover” vigilance committee meeting was an isolated event, but it was not. The December 8, 1859, Daily Whig—on the same page—also had information on separate vigilance meetings in Caroline County, Northampton County, Hanover County, Sussex County, Henrico County, and Clarksville (Mecklenburg County).
And, if these were the only articles in the newspaper about threats to the institution of slavery and the communities’ interest in perpetuating its existence, it might not deserve the time and effort of historical investigation. But there was much other evidence. Another small article reads: “HANG ‘EM.—The conservatives of the large Northern cities are about holding public meetings to express sympathy for the South [in the wake of John Brown’s raid]. The opinion is quite prevalent here that the best thing they can do to restore harmony, perpetuate the Union, and prevent a diversion of Southern trade, is to seize and hang a few such scoundrels as [abolitionist Indiana congressman Joshua] Giddings, [abolitionist newspaper editor James] Redpath, [abolitionist orator] Wendell Phillips, [abolitionist newspaper editor Horace] Greeley, [abolitionist minister George B.] Cheever, [New York abolitionist publisher and politician Thurlow] Weed, et id omne genus [others of this kind].” Ads placed by well-known Richmond slave traders Hector Davis, Dickinson and Hill, and Pulliam and Betts offering at auction that very day, “35 NEGROES,” “50 Negroes,” and “15 NEGROES” respectively. Dickinson and Hill’s ad even states his offerings included, “Men, Boys and Girls and Women and Children.”
In addition, an ad for a trustee’s sale for property located on the James River included “52 SLAVES, all, or nearly so, young and likely [attractive]. . . .” Another sale offered “fifty valuable SERVANTS, consisting of Boys, Girls, Men, Women, and Children,” along with other property including horses, mules, thrashing machines, wagons, and carts.” If owners felt they had a surplus enslaved population they could visit Lucian Lewis, who posted an ad about his office in the basement of Richmond’s Metropolitan Hall. Lewis could arrange “hiring them out” for the coming year for a commission of the rental. One assumes that individuals who desired hiring laborers could also contact Lewis to help fill their needs.
It all went on as an enormous part of Virginia’s social, economic, and cultural life. In fact, it was so much a part of their world that on April 17, 1861, a Virginia secession delegation declared their separation from the Federal Union. “The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution . . . having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution, were derived from the People of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States,” they exclaimed. When push came to shove over the perceived threat to their primary “domestic institution” of slavery, secession was the preferred means of attempting to maintain that way of life. And so war came.
1860 U.S. Census (Free and Slave Schedules) accessed via Ancestry.com
Map of Virginia: showing the distribution of its slave population from the census of 1860 via Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2010586922/)
“Ordinance of Secession of the Commonwealth of Virginia” via National Archives and Records Administration (https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/ordinance-of-secession-of-the-commonwealth-of-virginia)
Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 29, 1859 & December 5, 1859 via Chronicling America-Library of Congress
Richmond Daily Whig, December 8, 1859 via Chronicling America-Library of Congress
Tim Talbott is the Chief Administrative Officer for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. He is the former Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia. Tim is also the founding member and President of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association. He maintains the “Random Thoughts on History” blog and has published articles in both book and scholarly journal format. Tim’s current project is researching soldiers captured during the Petersburg Campaign.