Woodbury’s Enslaved

Caroline frequently writes of the others who lived at Woodbury, the enslaved Negroes whose labors were essential for its operation. Indeed, her entries well-illustrate how intertwined were the lives of black and white, enslaved and free in the homes and fields of rural, ante-bellum tidewater Virginia.1King William County was, and remains, a tri-racial community. Unfortunately Caroline’s Journal for these years provides scant evidence for this. The rich and important history of the local Native communities should not ignored by those wishing to understand King William’s history. Then after April 1865 both the newly freed men and women and their former owners struggled to negotiate a new basis for living and working together. It is important to remember that as Caroline was writing neither she, her family, nor the former Littlepage slaves knew the future, how these negotiations would “turn out.” While events on battlefields and the practical application of rhetoric in distant cities would certainly provide a new framework for their lives, the residents of Woodbury would have to work out the details themselves, one-by-one, face-to-face. After all, Woodbury remained a working farm. It would continue to form the basis of sustenance for all who lived there. Crops still needed to be made, animals tended, farm equipment maintained, and products taken to market. Her journal entries from June 1864 to June 1867 chronicle this very human process of adapting to – and creating – a new normal.

In 1860 Lewis Littlepage listed 28 Woodbury slaves on the U.S. Census Slave Schedule. As customary, no names were recorded, only age and sex.2Reflecting that Woodbury was a working farm, only 7 of the 28 were female. Three years later county Personal Property Tax records show he was assessed for 21 slaves of all ages.3Unfortunately, beginning in 1862 any breakdowns by sex or age for slaves were no longer required on the tax forms. We do know that one of the 28 listed in 1860 was a 70-year old male, a “Fugitive from the state.” According to county records, two other male slaves, listed as 31 and 60, died of natural causes in 1862. In addition, as attested by Caroline in an October 1863 affidavit, in June of the previous year six Woodbury male slaves “absconded” to the protection of General McClellan’s army. They were John, 43, Jasper, 45, Needum, 22, Joe, 21, Ambrose, 20, and Shakespeare, 19. She further attested that on 7 July, 1863 United States Army soldiers entered Woodbury and “carried away” a 42 year-old slave named James. None of these men seem to have returned to Woodbury. So it is evident that by the beginning of June, 1864 when Caroline begins Volume 7 of her Journal the workforce at Woodbury was considerably depleted. Then Lewis died. The eldest remaining son at home, 26 year-old Bill, was frequently away with the Home Guard. The next eldest, Zac, had just turned 17. So it fell to Caroline to shoulder much of the responsibility of farm operations and supervision of the “hands,” as well as her traditional role as mistress of the house and its environs. About a year later this larger role was reflected when Caroline began writing in the only volume of her journal that remains.

With contemporary census and tax records providing only minimal information about the enslaved, and later free, residents of Woodbury, we are fortunate to have through Caroline’s words a rich source of additional personal information about them.4The 1885 fire in the King William Clerk’s office destroyed other valuable sources of information. However, teasing out solid information from her daily entries about individual lives is difficult. Most are mentioned only by given names. Family relationships are often unclear. Ages can only be estimated. But by a close reading we may be able to gather enough information to aid family genealogists and historians alike.

As with the family members who appear under The Littlepages drop-down menu, we are developing individual alphabetized entries for all the Woodbury slaves identified in Caroline’s Journal. There are about 25 of them. To aid in writing a narrative for each individual, a separate database has been created that lists every sentence Caroline writes about an individual slave. From studying that database it is hoped some insight into individual lives can be discerned. As we begin with little to go on, entries will initially be much more modest than we would like. And “spoilers” will continue to be minimized. But these bios will be dynamic; they should grow as the months pass, life happens, and more is revealed. Our readers are invited to offer suggestions and help in this process of writing the story of Woodbury’s slaves.