Martha Ann Fowler Hill: Smashing genealogy walls with the correct maiden name

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.

Image of map location for Speedwell Township, Wythe County, Virginia
The red pointer marks the location of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. It is a very, rural and sparsely populated area of southwest Virginia.

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.

image of William Royal Sheffey Hill's marriage index record
William Royal Sheffey Hill’s marriage index record. His mother is listed as Martha Ann Hill. Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
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.

An image of the 1860 Census with Mary Ann Fowler
Mary Ann Fowler in the 1860 Census. Source Citation Year: 1860; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M653_1385; Page: 968; Image: 327; Family History Library Film: 805385 Source Information 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
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.

An image of Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census
Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census.
Source Citation Year: 1850; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M432_982; Page: 251B;      Image: 99 | Source Information 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
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:

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.  Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014. Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.
Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
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:

Martha Ann Fowler Hill's family tree
Martha Ann Fowler Hill’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.

13 thoughts on “Martha Ann Fowler Hill: Smashing genealogy walls with the correct maiden name

  1. Brian …. Thanks again for another great post. I’m sure your John Joseph Fowler is my 3rd great-grandfather. Eli Henry Fowler is my 2nd great grandfather. John too, was married to a slave, Susan Smith (McClanahan) Fowler. Send me your email address again so that I can give you the rest of the info. I am just beginning to test this side of my family.


  2. Another masterful piece of work, Brian. Kudos to Angela as well.
    Brian, if you get a chance can you look on page 4, Line 38 of Colored Persons of Wythe County on 2/27/1866.
    It lists a Joshep Hill(45) born in MD residing in Wythe cohabitating with a Martha Fowler(50) born in Amelia residing in Wythe. They have been living together since Jan 6, 1843. It lists 9 kids: Nancy F(22), Mary E(21), Martha A(18), John J(16), Catherine B(13), Dicia L(11), Malvina(8). It also lists Frankie A(32) and a Susan J(26).

    This should confirm that Joe and Mary were INDEED married.

  3. Brian, I forgot to mention that Martha Fowler’s last owner was Stephen
    Fowler from Amelia County, Va. This is also where Martha was born.(Hmmn)
    Joseph Hill’s last OWNER was John A. Sanders.
    Does the Sanders name sound familiar? It should. He was born around 1792 and he last OWNED JEMIMAH SHEFFEY(1770) and IAZWELL SHEFFEY(1835).

    1. Hi Fontaine

      Aye, I’ve seen that record too. I’m not sure why Amelia was given as her county of birth. She was definitely born in Wythe County. And worked for Stephen Fowler in Wythe, and not Amelia. She was free born and free throughout her life. In 1850 and 1860 she’s cited as being a servant. So Stephen, who I suspect was her white uncle, was her employer and not her owner. Again, if this is the information she provided, I’m not sure why? Maybe she was being cautious or suspicious for some reason. Or the person wrote the information down incorrectly. Ahh, the joys of genealogy 🙂

      And indeed, the Sanders/Saunders family did own quite a few ancestors & relations in Wythe and Smyth Counties. James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey and a number of his children were also owned by this family.

  4. I am finding your research so informative and I have many of the same questions you do. I have been researching the family of Celia Hale (a free black woman) and Kenley Clark (probably a Nuckles slave). All of Celia’s children were born free and took the name Hale, but in the cohabitation records and marriage or death records Kenley is the only father. I wonder if they took the name Hale because that was the “free” name.
    I have one Sheffey in my records. Stuart Sheffey married Johanna Austin (1904-1964). Johanna’s great grandparents where Celia and Kenley.

    1. Hi Virginia. Thank you. I think we both have a lot of questions about the same people. I have the same people in my tree. The Nucholls connection makes sense. Henry Sheffey’s Second Wife Was A Nucholls. She came to the marriage with a number of slaves. I wonder if that’s how the AfAm Clarks fit into the picture?

      I have four Clark women in the family tree from that generation. I just can’t connect the dots between them: July Clark, Ann Clark, Margaret Clark and Mary Clark. All married Sheffey men in Wythe and Smyth Counties. I wonder what their connection to Kenley would be. Two were owned by John Sanders/Saunders. The other two were owned by Ezra Nucholls Sheffey

      1. Have you checked the cohabitation records for Smyth and Wythe counties or their marriage records for the Clark ladies. Brian, you and I have communicated re the Sheffeys from Smyth County. Now I am also working on the Fowlers who weave throughout my family. Jeanette told me about your blog. Very interesting.

      2. Those Hills were my family in Wythe County, and they too had been free for quite some time. They seemed to be back and forth between Surry NC and Wythe. Merilla Hill is shown in Surry County North Carolina in 1810 with 9 “Other Free” . Rachel Hill who was my 3xgreat grandmother shows up there in 1830, but with no husband and a large brood herself which increased to 8 in 1840. Her mother’s name however is Polly Stewart(Charles City) and John Johns(Goochland) who she alleges were Indians in her Guion Miller app. She then settles in Wythe County Va. along with many other Hills from N.C. The Hills were FPOC in several areas of NC and Va. where FPOC clustered. Gideon Hill here puzzles me because I cannot figure out the relationship between he and Elizabeth Findley or the Richardsons in the household as well.

      3. Thank you for that NC lead. I think that might explain some gaps in the VA records that I have. Interestingly, I have Stewart connections on my Charles City Roane side of the family, stretching back to the 1790’s.

    2. Hi Virginia. I have a quick update for you. I’ve been working on this line again with a few people on We think we’ve finally found Kenley/Kenney Clark’s father: Fugate Clark. DNA is being triangulated to confirm this. Just so you know.

      I’ve confirmed that the father of my 2x great grandmother, Margaret Clark (Wytheville), was Randolph Fugate Clark. Randolph was Fugate Clark’s eldest son. I have quite a few shakly leaf shared DNA matches on Ancestry via this connection, which includes descendants of Kenley. At this point, we believe Kenly was my 2x great grandmother Margaret’s uncle (meaning Kenley and Randolph Clark were half brothers).

      I hope that makes sense!

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