Friday, January 6, 2012

One Slave's Story

It all began with an article in the Detroit Free Press|mostpopular|text|FRONTPAGE

Discovery of a tombstone bearing the name Elizabeth Lee in a Canadian cemetery and related family oral history have prompted her descendants to claim kinship with Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Henry Lee, according to Elizabeth Lee’s descendant, Elise Harding-Davis, is believed to have fathered a slave, Kizzie, who was the mother of Elizabeth’s husband, Ludwell Lee.

Henry Lee, a former Revolutionary War hero, moved to Stratford in 1782 after marrying his cousin Matilda, eldest daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee. Matilda died in 1790 and Henry, who had been elected Governor of Virginia, married Ann Hill Carter in 1793. Henry and Ann’s last child to be born at Stratford was Robert E. Lee. Henry’s financial difficulties, stints in debtor’s prisons, and his son Henry’s claim on the Stratford estate hastened the family’s departure from Stratford to Alexandria in the winter of 1810-11.

Tracing the history of African Americans at Stratford has always been challenging. Slave names gleaned from court records and Lee family documents comprise most of the information that we know about Stratford’s historic slave community. Probate inventories of the first two Lee owners of Stratford, in 1758 and 1776, list the names of their slaves along with other property. An extensive slave list was made in 1782 when Philip Ludwell Lee’s estate was divided between his widow Elizabeth and two daughters, Matilda and Flora (who married her cousin Ludwell Lee, son of Richard Henry Lee). [For further information, see Jeanne Calhoun’s research report, “The African-American Experience at Stratford: 1782” at ] Philip’s estate slave list included names, ages, value, and sometimes occupations of the 137 slaves living on Stratford and two outlying farms. Also, Henry Lee inherited some slaves from other Lees, and these estate divisions are recorded in the Westmoreland County courthouse. Some of these slaves came to live at Stratford. Unfortunately, only a few of these documents indicate family units that existed, and none of them record any surnames. Only one African American family—the Payne family—has been identified as having once been a part of the plantation’s slave population.

Searching for Kizzie:

None of the slaves in the various inventories and lists mentioned above had the name “Kizzie.” However, court clerks and persons entrusted by estate administrators and county courts to make inventories often resort to creative spellings of names in official records. The two Lee probate inventories do not list any slave with a name that could possibly be construed as being Kizzie. In the April 1782 estate division of slaves, there were two girls allotted to Matilda and Flora with names beginning with a “K.” Those names, as far as I can tell, are “Keavy” (age 5) and “Kenny” (age 3). These slaves were born during the American Revolution while Henry Lee was leading his cavalry and before he courted Matilda and married her in 1782.

More promising is a list of slaves that Henry Lee inherited by will from the estate of John Lee of Cabin Point. John Lee’s widow, who had life interest in his estate and slaves, died childless in 1802. Several Lee nephews, including Henry Lee and Richard Bland Lee, received equal portions of the estate, including slaves living there, in 1803. Henry Lee’s 28 inherited slaves included “Kesey” (age 5). The Westmoreland County court records (Book #8, p. 213) show that the same girl slave was listed as “Keseah” in John Lee’s probate inventory.* Could this child, born circa 1798, be the Kizzie who had her own child Ludwell by age 20 in 1818?

If so, Kesey, as one of the Cabin Point slaves, would have led a very precarious childhood. Henry Lee, in perpetual debt, mortaged his Cabin Point inheritance (to Bushrod Washington) in 1798…even before he officially inherited it. A long legal battle with Thomas Rowand over the ownership of Cabin Point resulted in Lee’s eventual loss of the property. Court documents indicate that Lee’s inherited Cabin Point slaves were brought to Stratford after the 1803 John Lee estate division. Henry Lee sold the slaves from Cabin Point to his brother Richard Bland Lee for $2,000 credit against his debt in 1807; Richard Bland Lee hired out the Cabin Point slaves beginning January 1808. However, records of the transaction do not list Kesey as one of those slaves. Nor is she listed when Richard Bland Lee sold the Cabin Point slaves to Henry Lee, Jr. in January 1810. Where was Kesey after 1803?

In 1810, the Federal Census shows that there were only 32 slaves over age 12 at Stratford, a number that had been steadily decreasing as Henry and Ann Lee began selling off acreage not included in the deed of trust to his children by his first wife Matilda. Court records show that many of Henry’s slaves were taken as collateral by persons to whom he owed money, and much of Henry’s time during 1809-1810 was spent in debtor’s prisons in both Westmoreland and Spotsylvania Counties. Henry Lee’s personal property tax return for 1810 showed that he owned no slaves by the end of the year. If Kesey had remained at Stratford after 1803, where was the twelve-year-old girl in 1810? If Henry had given his remaining slaves to his son Henry, Jr., who assumed management of Stratford in 1810, Kesey would probably not have remained at Stratford much longer. Henry Lee, Jr.‘s slave population dwindled to only 4 slaves over age 12 by 1815. Interpreting possible scenarios for Kesey’s fate is tempting, but the sad fact is that Kesey seems to virtually disappear from the historical record after 1803.

It’s possible that combing through Westmoreland County court records might produce some evidence for Kesey’s whereabouts after 1803, but that research project would require a lengthy time investment. And what if Kesey is not Kizzie?

What’s in a name?…..

Ludwell was a surname associated with the Lee family since Thomas Lee’s marriage to Hannah Ludwell in the 1720s. Thomas Lee passed the Ludwell name to two of his sons, and four of Thomas’s sons (one married a Ludwell cousin) passed the name to their sons. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee named one of his sons Philip Ludwell. Thomas Ludwell , brother of the Philip Ludwell who was agent for the Northern Neck Proprietary, also patented land near the early Lees in Westmoreland County. When the estate of Squire Richard Lee of Lee Hall (just downriver from Cabin Point) was inventoried in 1798, the inventory listed a slave named Ludwell, who was sold to Squire Richard’s nephew, Richard Bland Lee—the same Lee who purchased the Cabin Point slaves. While slaves were often given a diminutive of the names frequently used by their owner’s family, i. e., Harry for Henry, a family name was sometimes used for slaves when it was not used for a member of the slaveowner’s household. While Ludwell may be an unusual name in Canada, it certainly is not unusual in Virginia and elsewhere. Genealogical inquiries from unrelated Lee families with ancestors bearing the names Richard Henry, Robert E., Ludwell and Lightfoot are constant reminders that not everyone who shares a common family name is related. But, combined with an oral history tradition, the Ludwell name link is tantalizing.

Oral histories are important, particularly to black families who are seeking to trace their history in a world where little documentation survives. We respect the oral tradition of passing along information from one generation to the next and have our own oral history project associated with Stratford and its restoration. The Payne family’s history is entwined with that of the Lees and subsequent owners of Stratford, and new findings are shared between the Paynes and the research department here. While oral history can be helpful in directing ancestor searches, it does not take the place of historic documentation. By itself, oral history often leaves many questions unanswered, but it is invaluable as an impetus to document the oral history tradition. We hope that the descendants of Kizzie will continue their quest to discover unknown family names and relationships. Maybe their journey will indeed lead to the Lees of Stratford.

*Other transcribers have read the name as “Kissey” and “Kesiah.”

1 comment:

  1. I just read the story through a link from another blog ( I posted this comment there, and thought I would add this here as well:

    I am in discussions with a family that has similar oral history about another well-know American historical figure. (I do not feel at liberty to say more at this point.) However, I can discuss my research plan. The research would involve using both solid historical and genealogical research techniques in original records, as well as Y-DNA testing of multiple lines of descent from both the slaveowner and the enslaved ancestors to determine the likelihood of a relationship through both documentary and genetic evidence. There is an added difficulty due to the lack of surviving direct-line male descendants of the historical figure. This is the reason for using multiple lines of descent among other known survivors of the slaveowner’s Y-DNA line.

    I look forward to reading more about this project.