Martha Fowler Hill is an important linchpin in my black Wythe Sheffey family story in the township of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. And while this post is really about her daughter, Martha Ann, Martha certainly had her role to play in this interesting discovery.
Two of her daughters had children by two of my 2x great grand uncles. Mary Ellen Hill married Iazwell Sheffey. And her sister, Martha Ann, had William Royal Sheffey Hill with Iazwell’s brother, James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey.
Martha Fowler Hill’s son, John Joseph Hill, also married a Sheffey cousin, Laura Elizabeth Carpenter.
Suffice to say that roughly half of Martha Fowler Hill’s children married Sheffey family relations in Speedwell. Discovering her ancestry shed some interesting light on the Sheffey story in that part of Wythe County,
When it came to researching one Martha Ann Hill, I kept coming up against one very formidable wall. I just couldn’t find any information about her. Not for love nor money. And there was a very good reason for that. Her maiden name wasn’t Hill. It was Fowler. That Fowler name was like a sledgehammer, no, more of a battering ram, which obliterated that wall of silence…and allowed me to sprint past 1849 (the year of Martha Ann Hill’s birth) back to 1760, the year her grandfather, Granville Fowler, was born.
So why had I spent years looking for a Martha Hill? That was how she was listed on two of her children’s marriage certificates. And a child’s death certificate. Her children weren’t wrong. Far from it.
And this is pretty much where I remained with her for the past five years. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Angela, a distant cousin of mine, she uncovered additional marriage certificates which shed some light on Martha Ann. It all had to do with her mother, who was another Martha (just to make things that touch more confusing).
Martha Fowler gave Martha Ann her rightful maiden name – Fowler.
I had long suspected, but had no proof, that Martha Ann Fowler was a free woman of color. Armed with her correct maiden name, there she was in the 1860 census (although the name is spelled incorrectly) with her mother, her siblings, an aunt and two cousins.
Mary Ann most definitely started life as a Fowler. And a child of a free woman.
While Martha Ann is absent in the 1850 census (which leads me to question her actual year of birth), her mother, Martha Fowler, is certainly accounted for.
The image above shows Martha Fowler (Martha Ann’s mother), with her mother Rosanah Dicy Fowler, as well as her siblings (Martha Ann’s aunts and uncles) and her oldest children.
Martha Fowler’s mother, Rosanah Fowler, born around 1792, had also been born free.
Martha Fowler would come to marry Joseph James Hill from Cripple Creek, Wythe County, Virginia. Whether they were married or we common law husband and wife is unclear. I can’t find a marriage certificate for them. However, with African American genealogy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t married. It only means that if they were officially married, it wasn’t registered. Or the record simply became lost over time. or hasn’t been digitized. This presents an issue.
All of Martha Fowler’s children were born with the surname of Fowler. However, at some point after 1860 and before 1870, all of her children took the Hill name. Was Joseph Hill their biological father? Or did he unofficially (or even officially) adopt them?
He appears on more than one marriage certificate for Martha Fowler’s children. Below is the marriage record for daughter Malvina Hill:
If he wasn’t the biological father of Martha Fowler’s children – or at least the father of all of them – her children certainly thought of him as their father. Only a DNA test from this family line can confirm a biological link.
So now I have Martha Ann’s family tree:
I had to laugh at this point. Black American genealogy is difficult enough. Name -swapping to this degree made a challenging task even more challenging. I’m happy I stuck with it. And I’m even happier that I have cousins just as keen as I am in unraveling family history…and sharing their discoveries. I owe Angela quite a bit for this stunning lead.
The story of these women didn’t end there.
What I soon discovered was a history of generations of free mulatto women who, while not married to them, raised children with white men. It’s been kind of interesting to see these men listed in one census return with their wives and children – and then listed again in another census return for the same year with their mistress and the children they had by them.
Uncovering Martha Fowler’s correct maiden name is also shedding light on the community of free people of colour in and around Speedwell, Wythe, VA. At this stage in my research, it looks as though this community had been long established by the 1790s. Within it were names from other branches of my Sheffey family tree that I knew very well: Carpenter, Brown, Robinson, and Gannaway. All of these families were free people of color and had been since at least the 1750s (for the Browns and Carpenters) and the 1680s (for the Gannaways).
At this stage in researching this line, I do have one fundamental question. How did a relationship between a free woman of color and enslaved men work? Iazwell and his brother James were both enslaved. Mary Ellen Hill and Iazwell Sheffey married in 1870, a few years after the close of the Civil War. However, there are hints that they had a relationship before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Her sister Martha Ann Hill had one child with James ZM Sheffey before the end of the Civil War – William Royal Sheffey Hill (born 1864). With a free-born mother, William would not have been born a slave, unlike the majority of his half-siblings. James ZM Sheffey had a number of children with women who were also slaves. All of these children were born enslaved.
It was a situation that must have made for a challenging family dynamic. And this was by no means a unique situation. It was a family dynamic repeated throughout the southern states.
How would a relationship between a free woman of colour and an enslaved male work? Did they have visitation rights? Probably so, if the years of birth of their children are anything to go by. I also suppose it was completely at the enslaved person’s owner whether or not these visits could happen, as well as their frequency and duration. How much access to their fathers did the children of such unions have? And what did they think of the situation? Did it shape how they viewed their fathers?
Did it really matter? Given the number of mulatto children with absentee white fathers, would it have been materially any different to have had a father who was absent due to his slave status?
I have a lot of social as well as practical questions where this arrangement is concerned. As if you couldn’t guess. 😉
My take-away is this: Finding women’s (true and correct) maiden names can be tricky but essential. It’s worth bearing in mind that the name you see for a female relation on a child’s marriage or death certificate may be a name by a new marriage – and not her maiden name. Ultimately, a woman’s death certificate and/or marriage certificate will (hopefully!) provide the necessary details about her parents.