Free blacks in Virginia: The Roanes of Charles City County, VA

Some of my more interesting genealogy and historical detours come out the blue. More than a few of them have come in the form of unknown distant relations making contact either through or this blog. The subject of this blog is a result of one of those interesting and inspiring detours.

Lashawnda R. contacted me through about individuals I had in my Roane family tree. Quite a few messages sent back and forth and we worked out, more or less, how we’re related. I still can’t quite get my head around the whole ‘cousin one removed’ or ‘cousin twice removed’ business. More importantly, our information sharing sessions have brought to light the history of the vibrant, proud, long-standing community of free blacks in Charles City, Virginia. My direct link to this community is through Jacob Roane, born around 1832.

The first definitive proof of Jacob Roane’s residence in Charles City is through his marriage certificate to Frances “Fannie” Green (yet another Roane-Green marriage) in 1860.  It doesn’t  however, state how long he lived in the county prior to his marriage. His first 28 or so years remain a stubborn mystery. I haven’t been able to locate older official records for him. So his Virginia county of origins, parents’ names, etc remain unknown. So, for the time being, I can only assume he was a fairly late arrival to this long-established community of free people of colour.

Jacob Roane may have arrived late to this community of free people of colour, however, this community seems to have welcomed him with open arms. He and his children married into many of the long-established families in this county. Barbour, Brooks, Brown, Christian, Green, Harris, Hilton, Lowery, Milton/Melton, Richardson, Robertson, Thomas, Smith and Tunley are some of the families they married into.


Interestingly, my great aunt Ella Bates Roane of Varina, Henrico County, Virginia married into the Christian family of Charles City when she married Thomas Matthew Christian in 1915. As you will see from the map above, Varina isn’t that far from Charles City. It’s approximately 20 miles to the west – about a half-day’s ride by horseback. This has led me to focusing my research on the relationship between Jacob Roane’s line and the Varina Roane line. As covered in earlier posts, Roane cousins from different lines remained in close contact both prior to and long after the Civil War. With a steadily increasing understanding of how these rural communities operated, I’m not a big believer in coincidences. Patience and diligence will uncover the connection between Ella’s Roane line and Jacob’s Roane line.

When my grandmother Susan Ella Roane, Ella’s sister, married Emmett Nathaniel Thomas, it would appear that she too married someone with a connection to Charles City.

A little bit of historical context.

The Charles City region was part of the native lands peopled by the tribes of the Algonquian nation. In 1619 it was a legal borough of the Virginia Colony. With the production of tobacco came slaves. Twenty-three black slaves were known to have been brought to Charles City County before 1660 (see  The earliest record of a free black living in Charles City County is a petition for freedom dated 16 September 1677 petition by a woman named Susannah (surname not documented). The county also has an interesting link with African history. Lott Carey, a slave born in Charles City, purchased his freedom and that of his children. Carey is documented as one of the founding fathers of Liberia in Africa.

At the very least, there have been free people of colour in the county since the latter half of the 17th Century.

Historical records documenting free people of colour

The Charles City County Historical Society has kindly made its Charles City County Registrations of Free Negroes and Mulattoes – 1823 – 1864 available online. It contains a wealth of information on this community. The Charles City County Historical Society has also made a number of other black history information available, for free, through a number of excellent and easy-to-use databases:

The Marriage Database alone has provided me with a wealth of information – giving many of the ladies in my family tree last names. This has allowed me to place them into a proper family context.

Collectively, these are invaluable resources for anyone tracing their Charles City County ancestral routes. Through them, Lashawnda (who let know about Marriage Database) and I have been able to piece together the family connections for the free black families in the county. In essence, over 300 years of marriages between the free black families in this county created one vast family.

One vast family of free people of colour

It’s not surprising how such an extensive extended family could come to be. As Lashawnda pointed out tome, this has always been a very rural and isolated part of Virginia. In the pre Civil War era, communities of free blacks in rural areas tended to marry within their community. There were limited alternatives.  One option included purchasing a slave and then freeing that person so they could marry.  The business of buying and freeing a person in order to marry them was expensive. In some periods in Virginia’s history (see the post below), going this route could mean having to leave Virginia due its emancipation laws. Virginia didn’t want a large population of freed slaves. Marriage to another free person of colour was simply the easiest and simplest option.

So my thanks once again to cousin Lashawnda for providing an interesting historical detour. The more I read about the history of Charles City and its community of free blacks, the more insightful their history becomes.

So, if you are a descendant of one of the families listed below, I’d highly recommend researching the information in the databases given above. Please note there are many more families than these which are included.

  • Barbour
  • Brooks
  • Brown
  • Christian
  • Green
  • Harris
  • Hilton
  • Lowery
  • Milton / Melton
  • Richardson
  • Robertson
  • Thomas
  • Smith
  • Tunley

More information about Charles City County can be found via:,_Virginia

10 thoughts on “Free blacks in Virginia: The Roanes of Charles City County, VA

  1. Yes, I am a desendent of the Richardson Family from Varina area along Longbridge road. My Greatgrand-father purchased 33 arcres of land from the Hughes Family in the late 1800’s. Somewhere my Greatgrandfather and Grandfather and other ‘s are buried on what was recorded as family property, but I’m not sure where it is ther. my hope is to find there final resting place.

  2. I am a Roane and I have dabbled into the Charles City database and acquired some pretty good family history. My Roane heritage has a few connections with several families here in Charles City. Barbour’s, Brown’s, Hilton’s, or Hilton’s just to name a few.

    1. Hello. This has been a tricky group to research due to missing records. I’m truly hoping the newly discovered and recovered Charles City records will have some vital clues.

  3. Stumbled on this site and your links to Charles City resources helped uncover a lot of good info on
    my Christian relatives! Thanks!

  4. Curious about Ella Bates Roane mentioned in your post. Do you know the source of her Bates name? I am a long-time volunteer with the CCC Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History and the author of many of the databases you have been using. It is gratifying to know they are useful. My interest in Bates comes from an effort to find a William Bates who was a dining room servant at Shirley Plantation who escaped with Union gun boats and enlisted in the US Navy, serving on the Wabash. I found a William Bates in the 1870 census working at Curles Neck (Varina neighborhood) and would like to learn if Ella might be related to him.

    One of the early land patents on the Weyanoke peninsula was to a Roane. The land was on the south side of Mapsico creek and may be a part of Kittiewan Plantation (owned by the ASV today). The Roane surname among CCC enslaved appears in the same neighborhood at North Bend Plantation.

    1. She is the 2x great-granddaughter of the enslavers, Isaac Bates (1785-1857) and Frances “Fanny” Donahoe (1786-1857) of Halifax, Virginia through their son, David C Bates).

  5. Are any of these families related to Dr. Junius Roane? He lived in Charles City (died 1907) and was a surgeon.

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