Jemimah Sheffey – figuring out family relationships via census records

Map of Virginia - showing Wythe County
Map of Virginia, Showing Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties
Map of Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties in Wyth, Virginia
Map with close ups of Fort Chiswell & Speedwell Counties

Sometimes, unexplained inspirations are sometimes the sources of great breakthroughs. If I’ve learned anything through this genealogy journey, I’ve learned to respect my hunches.

I’ve mentioned previously my habit of making notes about family groups that crop up in censes returns.  I do this even if the family group’s relationship to my family tree isn’t apparent.  Chances are favourable that their relationship to my ancestors will become apparent at some point.

I’ve made notes of countless ‘orphan’ Sheffey family groups.  These family groups span from 1800 to 1900.  The other day I was relaxing with a cup of coffee and a pretty simple idea occurred to me.  Why not focus on the 1870 census returns for Wythe, Virginia by printing them out.  I thought it would be a good idea to see how many Sheffeys there were in this county, and if they lived anywhere near each other.  I hoped that having papers laid out on the floor next to each other might unveil something that viewing digitized records on the computer wouldn’t.

My Green credentials cried foul at the amount of paper needed, but this was an idea I was going to run with.

Quite a few print outs later, I duly laid out the censuses returns, in their proper order by house number.  I highlighted all the Sheffeys cited. The table below is a simplified version of the information that I gathered.

Family Group Names Year of Birth Age
(on 1870 Census)
County Name,
Daniel Sheffey 1820 50 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
1. Margaret Sheffey (née Clarke) 1822 48 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Wade Sheffey 1857 13 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Daniel Sheffey 1844 26 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
2. Mary Sheffey  (née Drew) 1854 16 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Margaret S. Sheffey 1868 2 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
3. Jacob Sheffey 1825 45 Fort Chiswell, Wythe
Giles Sheffey 1831 39 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Ann Sheffey 1830 40 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Maria Sheffey 1848 22 Speedwell Township, Wythe
4. James K. Sheffey 1852 18 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Riley Sheffey 1855 15 Speedwell Township, Wythe
William Sheffey 1857 13 Speedwell Township, Wythe
John Sheffey 1865 5 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Mitchell Sheffey 1832 38 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Dicy Sheffey 1841 29 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Edmond E. Sheffey 1858 12 Speedwell Township, Wythe
5. Harris C. Sheffey 1858 12 Speedwell Township, Wythe
William Sheffey 1864 6 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Darthoula N. Sheffey 1865 5 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Amelia J. Sheffey 1869 1 Speedwell Township, Wythe
6. Tazewell Sheffey 1835 35 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Jemimah Sheffey 1770 100 Speedwell Township, Wythe
7 Betty Sheffey 1866 4 Speedwell Township, Wythe
8 Joseph B. Sheffey 1868 2 Speedwell Township, Wythe
Alelia Sheffey 1869 1 Speedwell Township, Wythe

What I was looking at more or less spoke for itself.  And to use a cliché, it was one of those jaw dropping moments.

Family group #1 shows my great-great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey with his wife Margaret Clark Sheffey and their youngest child Wade.

Family Group #2 referenced my great-grandfather Daniel Sheffey and his first wife, Mary Drew Sheffey. Mary’s age varies wildly in various census returns and her marriage record. However, I knew immediately who this group were.  My previous research had indicated that Crockett Sheffey (the Buffalo soldier in my previous post) was their firstborn. However, it would appear that their firstborn was daughter Margaret. As she wasn’t cited in the 1880 Census, I can only presume that Margaret died in infancy.

The houses for Family Groups 1, 2 and 3 are all on the same road.  While I knew the relationships between Family Groups 1 and 2, their relationship to Jacob Sheffey was unclear.  It still remains unclear.  Based on Jacob’s age, my guess is that he is either Daniel Sheffey, Sr’s brother or cousin. Jacob lives in a shared household with people bearing different surnames.  Without another Sheffey residing in that household, it’s difficult to ascertain his kinship to Daniel Sheffey Sr.

My attention turned to Family Groups 4 and 5. These families lived next door to one another. I immediately felt that Giles Sheffey and Mitchell Sheffey were brothers.  I researched marriage records on and this confirmed what I suspected.  Elsi (also spelt Elsey) Sheffey was cited as mother to both on their respective marriage records.  Jacob Sheffey, Sr was cited as father to both on the same records.  So I had my brothers.

Noting counties is an important aspect of family research.  I noted that Speedwell Township and Fort Chiswell Township are neighbouring counties in Wythe.  Looking at distance and ages, I began to suspect that Daniel Sheffey, Sr was Giles and Mitchell Sheffey’s brother.

I returned to and did a marriage records search filtering on all marriages that referenced Elsi or Elsey Sheffey as mother.  Giles and Mitchell came up again in the results, as expected, with some additional results:  Daniel Sheffey, Sr and Tazwell (also spelt Iazwell, Fazewell and Fazwell) Sheffey.  And again, Jacob Sheffey was cited as the father.

I was pretty excited.  Three previously ‘orphaned’ family groups were now bona fide branches of the family tree.

As for wee Elizabeth “Betty” Sheffey, I have yet to find her connection to the family.  She was living with the Gannaway family, a few houses away from Tazwell and Jemimah.  Presumably, her father was a Sheffey and her mother a Gannaway.

Joseph B. Sheffey and his sister Alelia, were the children of Tazwell Sheffey, who lived a few houses away.  At the time of the census, these children lived with their Hill family relations on the mother’s side of the family.  Further research showed their mother was Tazwell’s wife, Mary Ellen Hill, a free born woman of colour.

My remaining question, apart from Jacob Sheffey in Family Group 3, was Jememiah’s relationship to Daniel, Giles, Mitchell and Tazwell.  Aged 100, it was unlikely she was their mother.  She and Tazwell were living in a communal household with no other Sheffey’s in residence – although they did live next door to Mitchell Sheffey and his family. It didn’t seem likely that she could be an aunt. The idiom “all things being equal…” sprang to mind.  And the answer seems straightforward:  Jemimah is their grandmother.

If this hunch is correct, this would make Jemimah the African-American “mother” of many African-American Sheffeys living in the United States today. There are further hunches which require investigation.  If the census information is correct, there is only one Sheffey who could have been her master: Maj. Henry Lawrence Sheffey (1776 – 1824).  An 1820 Property List shows Henry with 7 slaves.  Unfortunately, only their ages and genders are cited.  However, he is the only Sheffey in Virginia at this early date to own slaves.  Given his moderate wealth, my guess is the slaves in his household came via his marriage to Margaret White. Margaret’s father, Captain James White, was a large scale slave owner…one of the richest men in the country. I believe Jemimah’s story begins with this man.

Jemimah was born in Virginia, and not Africa (accoridng to the census record). Born in 1770, I’m probably 1 or 2 generations away from finding her African ancestry. ‘Exciting’ doesn’t begin to describe how it feels to be on the cusp of that kind of discovery.

The family connections I outlined in the table above could be made mainly because this family didn’t leave the area it was familiar with after the Civil War.  The family stayed.  And more importantly, family members stayed close to each other. It was only through this proximity that I could question their relationship to each other. For me, this is one of the reasons why the 1870 Census is so important for African Americans researching their family.

And to think a cup of coffee and an inspiration could bring to light a potentially marvellous family discovery.

The younger generations of the family still ask why I embark on this journey.  Will we ever know what our ancestors were like, what they thought or what their day-to-day lives were like?  Probably not.  Our journey is part of a much larger journey.  To go from a 100 year old slave woman named Jemimiah to 2011 is a journey the magnitude of which I can only grasp glimpses. The stories that emerge, and are yet to be shared here, are a part of us.  With every name and every tale I learn a bit more about myself as well as my family.

4 thoughts on “Jemimah Sheffey – figuring out family relationships via census records

  1. Wonderful discovery. I too find that I lose connections when only viewing the digital records. I am going to try this with my Hathorn line.

    1. I am a descendant of Mitchel (Dicey) Sheffey through his daughter Josephine “Josie” Sheffey (Stephen) Byrd and grandson (Raymond Byrd (Tennie Hawkins).

      1. Hi Brandi. Nice to meet you and Anthony. I just took a look at the familhy tree lionk Anthony sent me and it’s answering quite a few questions already. Thanks for sharing the information!

        I believe there are plans for a Sheffey family gathering in Wythe this summer. Details will be posted on the Sheffey family group page on FaceBook:!/group.php?gid=54899354623

        I hope it happens. It would be great for the extended family to meet each other for the first time.

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