Free blacks of Virginia: Rhoda Sheffey (Lynchburg)

My foray into family history and genealogy initially began with researching my Sheffey ancestors.  Five years down the line and I feel as though I have a good understanding of the relationship that existed between my African American Sheffey ancestors and their white Sheffey masters and mistresses.  Not the least of which was the fact that both sides of this family were related and that relationship was at least tacitly acknowledged by the white side of the family…if not outright openly acknowledged.

As I’ve written previously, the strength of the connections between these two sides of the family can be shown in their migration patterns after the Civil War.  Black and white relations left Virginia together, living very close to one another in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.

However, I kept returning to one essential question. If the black and white sides of the family were related, and had good relations, why weren’t the black members of the family freed upon the death of their master of mistress? Given the times they lived in, the Sheffeys appear to be a progressive family. This isn’t the place to broach the institution of slavery and its ills. All I can say is that, with only a few exceptions, the Sheffey family were unusual in the practice of slavery. Many of their slaves were taught to read and write, regardless of whether they were kin or not. It’s worth remembering that this was an illegal act in the Antebellum South. They don’t have a track record of splitting slave families apart. In many of the wills I’ve read, every effort was made to ensure that the black members of the family were kept together in family groups.  These black Sheffey family groups kept these family connections alive prior to the end of slavery. White or black, this was a tight knit family in regular contact with one another.

And yet, this question around emancipation continued to simmer at the back of my thoughts.

Previously, I’d only found an old record of one free African American Sheffey from Virginia. Abraham Sheffey, born around 1810, who left the US for Canada in the 1840s. Whether he escaped and emigrated, or was freed, it appeared he was the only free African American Sheffey prior to the Civil War. His trail in the records runs cold after he emigrates to Canada.

And then I stumbled across Rhoda Sheffey and her family.  There isn’t much in the way of information about this Sheffey family group.  However, what little there was enough to begin answering my question.

Rhoda Sheffey family tree, Lynchburg, VA
Rhoda Sheffey family tree, Lynchburg, VA.   Click for larger image

Rhoda wasn’t a Sheffey by birth but a Sheffey either through marriage or a partnership.  There is precious little information about her husband.  He’s simply known as S Sheffey in the marriage record of their daughter Jane. Without a full first name and a county of birth, it’s difficult finding any further information about him.

By 1850, a free Rhoda was resident in Lynchburg without her husband. It’s an interesting locale as the white Sheffey family didn’t really have a presence in Lynchburg until the arrival of Edward Fleming Sheffey (1865 – 1933). In other words, it appears that Rhoda established residence here before members of the white Sheffey family. Naturally, I’ve asked myself why here and not Wythe or Smyth Counties where her daughters had relations in abundance. At the moment, I haven’t the foggiest.

The 1860 Census shows her daughters still reside in Lynchburg. Further research showed that Veto died in 1851 at the age of 11 from smallpox. Closer examination of the census return threw a curve ball for Rhoda’s daughters Kitty, Mary George and Martha Ann. Under occupation, each is recorded as being a prostitute. In their death records, Rhoda, Kitty, Mary George, Martha Ann and Martha Ann’s daughter Jane are all described as “sporting women” – the polite term for their profession in those days. Amazingly, there are burial records for them: Frustratingly, the headstones are so worn through age, and the image too small, to be able to read the inscriptions. It’s a shame as the inscriptions might provide more information about these women.

Incidentally, baby Jane married young and established herself as matriarch of the Robards family of Lynchburg.

And, of course, there’s another mystery. Lucy W Sheffey (1865 – 1869). Lucy is buried near to Rhoda and her children. Born after Rhoda’s death, presumably Jane, Martha Ann or Martha George is her mother.

There’s also a mystery around Willie Jones. There are two William Jones born in Lynchburg in 1866.  One survived to adulthood and married.  The other died in 1872 at the age of 6. Given the tragedy which seems to have surrounded this branch of the family, my hunch is that the William Jones who died so young is Rhoda’s grandson.

I keep myself grounded in the times they lived in. Life for the poor was hard, regardless of race.  I recalled my research on the free black Drew family of Virginia and how they struggled to pay their taxes. Whether it was though death, divorce or desertion, there is no sign of Rhoda’s husband from 1850 onward. As a single black woman with children, there weren’t many options available to Rhoda. Harder still, there wasn’t a black family network of free Sheffeys for her to fall back on for support. She was a on her own.

There is the argument that she and her family could have left Virginia for a better life. However, if Virginia was all she knew, and was the state where all of her black relations resided, it would take a fiercely brave woman indeed to leave the known and familiar for the unknown.  Rhoda’s story is markedly different from what I’ve found on the Drew and Roane families. The Drews had been free prior to the Revolutionary War. A number of Roanes, freed from the 1830’s onward, also had established a family network of free Roanes which embraced and supported newly freed family members.

The white Sheffey clan of the 19th Century were noted for two things: strong political beliefs that were ahead of their times in many ways…and strict moral conduct. This was a very religious family.

It’s conjecture at this point, however, I believe that Rhoda and her husband were one of the first of the black family members to be freed from slavery by the Sheffeys. Given the hardships faced by Rhoda, and the path she, her elder daughters and Martha Ann’s daughter Jane, travelled; the Sheffey family very well may have decided not to emancipate more members from the black side of the family.  Jane’s marriage either came too late or wasn’t enough to change opinion.

A friend and fellow genealogy buff added a different interpretation. He makes a good point. His observation was that if enslaved black members of the family knew of Rhoda’s circumstances, and were familiar with the hardships and tragedies that she faced on her own, they may well have opted not to be freed.

To-date, no other free black Sheffeys appear in the records. Is it coincidence or is there a connection? Time and further research will tell.

While not plainly evident, Rhoda succeeded in one respect.  Despite the hardships and sorrows she faced, Rhoda kept her remaining children together, as is shown in later census records. She persevered.

7 thoughts on “Free blacks of Virginia: Rhoda Sheffey (Lynchburg)

  1. Brian
    Jemianah Sheffey(B1770) may have also been a free slave at the time of her death(1870). Yes, I know I have no proof of it, but I believe she died in 1870. She was living with her presumed grand son, Tazewell, per 1870 US Census. He was listed as 35 and she as 100. But he got married on Dec 29, 1870 to Mary Ellen Hill. Why did he wait so late in the year to get married?. The most likely answer is uncertainty.(I got married in Dec, lol). I believe after his “grand mother” died he was freed-up to marry.

    Anyway, I was looking on the various slave lists for 1850, 1860 and other years for slaves matching her age and other data. Although there were slaves listed in their 80’s and a few in the 90’s, NONE seemed to be a match(different state, age, etc). Other than a calming factor to other slaves, I see very little market value for a 80 to 100 yr old slave. SO WHY NOT FREE THAT SLAVE? The slave owner would be free of ownership costs(medl and food) since there was vey little, if any, income from work.

    I believe the last known owner for her and Tazewell was Colonel John Adam Sanders. He owned at least 40 slaves in 1860, The oldest being an 80yr old female(Jemianah w/h/b 90).

    Take Care,

    1. Thank you or the comment, cousin Fontaine. Thanks for looking into those census records…you know what a time consuming endeavor that is! I’m trying to track down the last Will and Testament for Henry Lawrence Sheffey. I believe Jemimah was owned by him. I’ve found quite a few Sheffey wills online – but not his.

      Just so you know, Vanessa Williams, a descendant of ‘Tazwell’ has been in touch. His correct name is Iazwell Sheffey, which was confirmed by her grand-mother, Iazwell’s grand-daughter. Vaness’as gran was a hoot, she had all kinds of funny family stories. She also confirmed that the Wythe and Smyth branches of the Sheffey family were in close contact.

      I’ll try to grab some time and look for the last wills and testaments for the Morrison, Sanders and Spiller families.

      The Sanders connection makes sense. The Sanders, Sheffeys, Spillers and Morrisons were all related.

      I have to possibilities for why the older generation of slaves weren’t freed. In my post about Rhoda Sheffey and her children, Rhoda and her husband were two of only three enslaved Sheffeys that were freed. I haven’t found any other freed slaves from the family. Rhoda and her children had such a tough time of it that I think that either the Sheffey slave owners decided not to free any more slaves – or the Sheffey slaves themselves opted not to be freed.

      When you read the Sheffey, Saunders, Morrison and Spiller wills from 1840 to 1860 (where I’ve found them), they make every effort to keep the black Sheffey family groups intact, ensuring the continuity of family. I’m not defending this choice. I’m noting it as it’s not exactly typical among slave owners. This seems to be a consistent approach among the extended white Sheffey family. It suggest conversations were had on this subject.

      All the best as you look through those census records!

  2. Thanks Brian
    The noted congressman Daniel Sheffey(B1770) was also a slave owner. When he died on 12/03/1830 his wife, Maria Hanson Sheffey, became owner of his slaves. Daniel had 6 slaves in 1820 and 8 slaves in 1830 in Augusta County, Va. Maria continued this practice in the 1840(12 slaves), 1850(17 slaves) and 1860(6 slaves) . She died in 1862. I’m guessing that Maria used the majority of her female slaves to staff her school for girls established in 1831. This was the forerunner of the Virgina Female Institute established in 1844. In any event it appears that her and Daniel’s slaves were from Augusta County, some 166 miles from Wythe County. So, it appears that most of our early ancestors were from Wythe County with the possible exception of two:
    1. Jemimah or Jemianah- unknown County in Va.
    2. Daniel(B1820) our gg grand. He is listed as being born in Caroline County. This means his mother, who presumably was Black, lived in Caroline County in 1820. Hence, his mother’s slave owner also was a resident of Caroline County at that time. Thus far, no success. For example per 1830 US Census no slaves were listed in a household of 7 for John A. Sanders(age 38). Secondly, he was listed as a resident of Wythe County not Caroline County.

    I’ll check on the Crocketts and Morrison’s next. That’s all I have for now.

    p.s I haven’t found anything on Henry L(what was the deal on him?)
    All the best

  3. Interesting post on Rhoda Sheffey. You might want to try to find the book Free Blacks of Lynchburg 1805-1865 by Ted Delaney & Phillip Wayne Rhodes (2001). The books gives a history of Free Blacks in Lynchburg and history of the Old City Cemetery in which many of them were buried. The names of Rhoda, Veto and Kitty (Catherine) are listed in the book as being “F (free) and buried at the cemetery. The Old City Cemetery has a database with additional Sheffey names. Also in the book is the registrations from the Hustings Court of the Free Black Registrations there is one registration for Mary George Sheffey. She along with 3 other woman registered on June 1, 1863:

    Lucy Garrett, age 18 years born in Buckingham County, Mary Jane HIll (now Bowman) born free in Lynchburg 25 Oct 1822; MARY GEORGE SHEFFEY, born free in Roanoke County 7 May 1847; free persons of color, ordered to be registered “derived their freedom from ancestors free prior to 1st day of May 1806”

    There is also a database for the Duiguid Funeral Home Burial Recordswhich is available online, it details who was buried, who paid, how much.

    I noticed under surnames that you list ROAN/ROANE..there are a number of references to ROAN/ROANES in the Free Negro Register. If you are interested I will send.


    1. Hi Selma. Thank you for your comment. I came across the ¨Free Blacks of Lynchberg¨ a little while ago. It was one of the prompts for this post. A very big thank you, however, for the funeral home link. I´ve made some great finds. Anything you could send me about the Roanes/Rones would be gratefully received. I know there was a communty of free Roanes in Charles City, Richmond and Lynchburg…always interested in finding more.

  4. Hi Brian

    I’ve read the post on Rhoda at least 5 or 6 times.
    What strikes me as puzzling:
    1. There are no Sheffey’s with a first name starting with “S”, that I can think of born around 1810 to 1820.
    2.Given Rhoda’s DOB(1822) and birth yrs of her first two children(1836 & 1837), she obviously conceived these children around 13 and 14.
    3. My next question is an universal one, Do prostitutes have husbands?
    Perhaps, she never had a husband, but instead a life-long companion.
    4. Given her occupation, it would be most beneficial(financially and sociably) for her and her family to live outside Wythe County. In other words the pay is better.
    5. She obviously made an impression on someone with money to generate a headstone of that size and cost for the year 1860.

    That’s my $.25 worhth(inflation)

    1. That’s a good point about the headstone, Fontaine. Rhoda and her children all had rather impressive looking headstones. It never occurred to me how pricey they must have been. Perhaps, at some point, Rhoda was more of a Madame. I’ve been reading about one very famous black Madame in the same city who was very well connected and wealthy.

      There are 2 Sheffey men who may be the mysterious “S Sheffey”:

      I have a Stuart Sheffey in my records. I haven’t been able to find his parents’ details yet. He has a wide range for his year of birth – from 1820 to 1836. He’s associated with Wythe Co, VA.

      Samuel Sheffey. I don’t have any information about Samuel other than he’s associated with South River & Kidville in Augusta Co, VA. He married an Elizabeth. Sam is a bit tricky as there are so many different years of birth for him – spanning 1818 to 1830.

      I’m hoping the father might be named on the original birth certificates and/or Rhoda’s marriage certificate. I haven’t been able to find digitized/transcribed versions of these records…hence hoping the originals might still exist.

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