Week 19: Racial Classifications
As we have seen, last wills and testaments that relayed personal property and slaves to descendants, inventories of property and slaves, and bills of sales even of African American children have all been a large part of the Shenandoah County Will Books before 1865. Today, I'm pausing to point out certain terminology that is really important to notice in these primary source documents.
First, "mulatto", which is a racial classification that refers to mixed African and European races. In Virginia during the pre-Civil War time period, the status of the child was determined by the status of the mother. That means, if the mother was enslaved, so too was the child. In terms of any mulatto children listed in the Will Books of Shenandoah County, if they were enslaved it was because their mothers were enslaved. For example, Will Book V lists "1 mulatto man named Anthony aged 32" (p. 226) among the inventory appraisement of slaves and personal estate of a recently deceased Mount Jackson area resident. The Minute Book 1774-1780, lists the sale of a mulatto girl, Martha (p. 148). In another will from 1784, "1 Mulatto Boy Toby" (Will Book B, p. 80) was to be "freed at 21" years of age. This implies that his mother was enslaved and his father was most likely either the property owner, himself, or someone in his family - a situation that was not uncommon in enslaving families. Martha, Anthony, and Toby, by the way, lived in areas of the county that today pool into Honey Run Elementary School and Mountain View High School.
Second, the Will Books vary between "Negro", "Black", and "Colored" for racial classifications for Africans and African Americans. Even for free African Americans mentioned prior to 1865, they always have a racial designation in primary source documents. This doesn't happen for people of European descent, whom we would classify as "White" on records today. It's really important to recognize this because our county and our society intentionally distinguished between the two races. Even further, by the use of racial classifications for African Americans in Will Books, Minutes, and similar primary documents, it reveals subliminal messages about whom was considered a normal, everyday citizen with certain inalienable rights and whom was not. These primary source documents were all written by people of European descent, a.k.a. "White" people. Our county was set up on an assumption that was part of our colonies' and our country's foundation. Benjamin Franklin says it best:
"The number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind" (Four Hundred Souls, ed. by Kendi & Blain, 2021:122).
For me, what stands out are my own ethnic backgrounds: French and German people were considered swarthy by one of our country's founding fathers. Swarthy means "dark-skinned." According to Franklin, the only "lovely white" and "brighter light" ethnicities were Anglo-Saxons.
A quick perusal of our county's claim for origins includes the following description: "Permanent settlement began in the 1730s as German and Scotch-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania began to arrive, attracted by the Valley’s fertile land" (SVTA, accessed 18 March 2023) and "Shenandoah County, Virginia, in the center of one of the most scenic valleys in America, was settled by Germans during the middle of the eighteenth century" (SCHS, accessed 18 March 2023). According to Franklin, Orange County (a.k.a. Shenandoah County today) was founded by dark-skinned people. And in some ways this is accurate since colonial Virginia, especially under the leadership of governors Spotswood and Gooch and out of fear of French alliances with Indigenous Peoples, was encouraging German and Scotch-Irish settlers loyal to the colonial government to inhabit the backcountry of Virginia. In the early 1700s the backcountry was the eastern part of the Appalachian mountains, namely the Shenandoah Valley. By creating a buffer, the colony was protecting itself from raids by French-supplied tribes of Indigenous Peoples (Monacan, Manahoac, Tutelo, Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois, Cherokee, etc) who were being pushed away from the Shenandoah Valley region.
However, it's not a completely accurate picture of our county's origins. Yes, large land grants, especially from 1726 to 1736, were given to one or two loyalists that could afford expenses associated with 5,000 to 100,000 acre land tracts, which would then be patented off to settling families in smaller parcels. In 1730, John & Isaac Van Meter, for example, acquired 10,000 acres from Gov. Gooch, surveyed the land, then parceled it out in 1,000 acre allotments to settlers. Once that had been done, the brothers could acquire more land to parcel out and did so until 1734. It was a similar situation for Jacob Stover, who acquired land along the Massanutten Mountain and Rockingham County in 1730. Jost Hite and Robert McKay arrived in the Cedar Creek area in 1731 and also took over the Van Meters' claims in 1734; and so forth. They recruited settlers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and even New York, with a preference for Protestants. One such settler, who received smaller tracts of land from these larger landowners and specifically Hite, was Daniel Holman, who arrived in the Forestville area in 1736. With him were twelve enslaved Africans. Drawn to the fertile lands near the Shenandoah, Opequon, and Potomac Rivers and its tributaries, these large landowners were typically German, Swiss, and English. But what is always left out is the fact that further cultivation required a lot of work and with these large landowners came enslaved Africans to provide that labor. Nancy Stewart, in her studies of African Americans in Shenandoah County, reflects on the fact that even among many of our settling German families, there were often one or two enslaved Africans living with them. Larger landowners also hired out their enslaved Africans. And as we have seen in the will books and will see in the minute books in coming weeks, our own county government engaged in and managed such renting of enslaved Africans.
While not in the same numbers as found in the Piedmont region, enslaved Africans were a part of our county's foundational history. The presence of enslaved Africans and their contributions (as well as those of free African Americans) to settling the Shenandoah Valley are missing from Shenandoah County's historical narrative. Our county should feel convicted to finally embrace this truth, recognize the contributions of Africans and African Americans, as well as include this information in our histories. When we fail to do so, poor name choices for our public spaces, whether they be the names of public schools or our county's district names, result.
From a descendant of someone Benjamin Franklin would describe as "swarthy," I encourage you to really consider the biases and inequalities that have resulted in our country's laws and in our county's preserved histories and social practices as a result of racial designations that led to citizenship privileges for those that wrote and maintained those laws and histories. We inherited this legacy. We didn't choose it. But, we have a responsibility not to allow it to define us or our communities, today.
And keep this in mind as we continue to look through primary source documents. I certainly would not be classified by most as dark-skinned, but knowing that historically others would have classified me as "swarthy" gives me a greater sense of compassion and responsibility for what and whom I celebrate and honor, today.
3/19/2023 08:33:56 pm
I particularly liked this line "We inherited this legacy. We didn't choose it. But, we have a responsibility not to allow it to define us or our communities, today."
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SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.