Mystery#1: Getting to grips with James Mitchell Zachariah Sheffey [Mitchell Sheffey]

Mitchell Sheffey and his children
Mitchell Sheffey, the women associated with him, and their children

James Mitchell Zachariah Sheffey, Dicey Brock, Jersey (or Judy) Clark, Emily Cook, Martha Ann Hill and Dicey Ward.  On the face of things this just looks like a simple, straightforward and perhaps boring list of names.  The story that links these names together is anything but straightforward….and far from boring.

For a family tree showing Mitchell Sheffe’s descendants, please see the post below:

The first mystery regarding the gentleman in question involves his names. The official birth record for him names him as James W Sheffey.  And this is one of only two document to surface thus far that assigns him this name.  The marriage certificates of his children, and their death records, cite him as Mitchell Sheffey.

There are four people working on unravelling the mystery behind this man. At first, we weren’t certain if we were actually faced with two men who were brothers: a James Sheffey and a Mitchell Sheffey.  One census record led us to believe that James W Sheffey and Mitchell Sheffey were one in the same person. The 1870 Census names him as James ZMW Sheffey.  The only other document to cite him as James W Sheffey is the marriage certificate for him and Dicey Ward. His name alone gives him a certain laurel within family lore – so far, his is the longest name of any Sheffey I’ve come across.

As he was typical referred to as Mitchell Sheffey, this is the name I will use for him for this post.

While his name provides one mystery, his relations with a number of women at the same time certainly raises an even larger mystery.

Prior to his marriage to Dicey Ward on 31 October 1867, Mitchell Sheffey had relations and fathered a number of children with 3 women during the same Pre-Civil War time period.  All 3 women were contemporaries of each other.  That is to say they were of the same generation .  So what was going on?  Therein lays the mystery.

The four of us researching Mitchell have come up with two theories.  Each is credible.

Theory #1: Slave Breeding.  In the latter years of slavery, when the import of slaves was illegal, there was a slave breeding industry.  And Mitchell could have been hired out to father children for families within Wythe County, Virginia.  There are two arguments against this.  Slave children born under ‘salve farming’ were typically sold to masters far from their place of birth. This was done to sever any bonds between parents (particularly mothers) and children. This lessened the chances of slaves either finding and their children and running away.  It also lessened the chance of slave revolts. The other argument against it is that slave owning Sheffeys haven’t been recorded as breeding slaves for sale.  From what the records show, the Sheffey’s seemed to prefer maintaining multi-generational, stable slave family groups on their farms and estates.   While they may have sold some of their slaves, they tended to sell them to neighbours.  Or slaves went to their relations and heirs. And this probably goes some way to explaining how African-America Sheffeys in Virginia were able to sustain such strong and close family ties before and after the end of slavery.

Theory#2: Worker for hire.  At the moment, we don’t know if these women belonged to the Sheffey family or to neighbouring families. For the following theory to be viable, it requires that the women be owned by different white Sheffey neighbours or by their kin. Before the end of slavery, it was common practice for a slave owning family to hire out slaves for labour. If Mitchell was hired out, then, like a sailor having a woman in very port, he had a woman on the farms where he worked as hired labour. Whether this was encouraged, or the farm owners merely turned a blind eye, we can’t say.

His relations with Jersey / Judy / July Clark ended years before the outbreak of the Civil War. With so many women bearing these names born around the same year, it’s been difficult to find her in the records to see what became of her.  Either a Clark by birth or by marriage, it is likely that she married another and her surname changed.

Relations with Martha Ann Hill and Emily Cook ended with the onset of the Civil War.  Martha Ann Hill was a Hill by birth, so we’ve been able to trace her history post civil-war.  She doesn’t appear to have re-married. Emily Cook, like Judy/July/Jersey Clark was either a Cook by marriage or by birth.  She too shares a similar name with a number of women born around the same year.  So it’s been difficult tracing her in the records to see what became of her.

Mitchell’s relations with Dicey Brock, mother to the majority of his children, continued for some years after the end of the Civil War.  Presumably their relationship ended upon her death.  Her year of death is uncertain as we haven’t found any death records for her. However, given the gap in children’s birth years between Dicey Brocks last child and Dicey Ward’s first child, the little group of researchers working on this tend to agree that Mitchell remained with Dicey Brock until she died.

So far, there is only one official marriage on record for Mitchell –and this was to Dicey Ward, the woman who he spent his remaining years with.
The word “many” springs to mind when I think ponder over Mitchell.  Here we have a man with many names, associated with many women and definitely the father of many children. A great number of African-American Sheffey’s are his descendants.

Oh yes, and a man with more than a few mysteries attached to him as well. Mysteries that can hopefully be solved by perusing some old, probably dusty, long-forgotten records.

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