Updated: Apr 6
Searchable databases of digitized pages of American newspapers are literal goldmines when it comes to historical research. If it wasn’t for their existence, I would have to have done a lot of traveling – and spent a lot of money – to find the information about Robert Jefferson that has enabled me to tell his story.
For instance, in my last post, I talked about how I found the name of Edward Christian’s wife, who died in 1811. I believe her death set into motion the incidents that led to Edward’s demise in 1820, as well as Robert's eventual fate.
Last week, I found another piece that might shed more light on what happened to Robert’s siblings, if not what happened to Milley, their enslaved mother, as well.
To William P. Flood, Esq.
Sir: – At the last Chancery Court hoden at Winchester, it was decreed by the said court in a suit in which you and Mrs. Flood are plaintiffs, and we and others are defendants, that an account was ordered to be taken by the Commissioner of the said court of the descendants of a negro woman named Molley, and their value, as well in kind of those who remained in possession of the parties in the suit, as of those who had been sold. To which decree, now of record in the said court, we refer you. We are informed, notwithstanding said decree, you are selling several of the descendants of Molley, so as to preclude the commissioner from executing said order. This is, therefore, to warn you not to sell any of the said negroes, the descendants of Molley, under the heaviest penalty which can attach to any individual for a contempt of the process of the court, as we will on your failure to produce all the descendants of Molley, who were in your possession at the date of said decree, move the said court to inflict any penalty on you, to compel the production of said slaves – to answer the said decree. We give you this notice that you may not be selling unadvisedly.
EDWIN B. BURWELL
MANN P. NELSON.
August 4, 1836.
I can’t help but think that Molley is, in fact, Milley. Court documents from 1817 spell her name Milley, though other publications spelled it Millie. So, anyone who has done genealogical research knows that misspellings of one person’s name are ubiquitous. One has to analyze the documents and the other information therein to be sure we are looking at the same person, even with the different spellings of that person’s name.
If this is, indeed, Robert’s mother, I’m hoping with all that I have in my being that the Library of Virginia will be able to fulfill my request, mailed Monday, for copies of this case file.
In the 1817 indenture, in which William P. Flood paid a debt owed by Edward Christian to a man named John Dixon, Milley is listed as collateral along with her four sons: Albert, Robert, Richard, and Henry. The terms of the indenture, or mortgage, provided Flood authority to sell the woman and her children to recoup his money, if it wasn’t repaid by Christian, in June 1818. Any profits, less Flood’s $325 loan plus interest, were to be posted into a trust for Harriet’s children. It’s important to note that the indenture doesn’t provide any income from the sales to her surviving husband, Edward. That makes me think that Harriet’s family had the money, and Edward did not.
It seems to me too much of a coincidence that William Flood would have owned enslaved women named both Molley and Milley, and both with descendants. Because Flood had been given authority over Milley and her children on behalf of Harriet’s children, this letter from Burwell and Nelson makes me suspect that Flood only sold Milley and Robert (who said $450 was paid for him, but doesn’t say how the price given for his mother), and simply kept the other children who, by 1836, most certainly would have been older teenagers or adults.
Based on the laws of the time, as well, I have to believe that Burwell and Nelson were the spouses of two of the three daughters listed in the Edward Christian family in the 1810 census. The women would not have had any legal standing to bring about the lawsuit, but their husbands would have done so – particularly if there was money owed them.
Because there is no documentation to prove otherwise, it appears Christian never repaid Flood for the loan. And we know from his own words that Robert and his mother were sold together, probably before 1820, and that Robert, at least, ended up as property belonging to Georgia slaveholder Asa Dearing, eventually ending up in or near Canton, Mississippi, as the human property of Asa’s nephew, John Thomas Dearing.
Less clear is what happened to Milley, and I have been totally in the dark about the fates of Robert’s brothers or any other siblings he may have had. I have only one piece of documentation that might indicate Robert’s brother, Richard, may have been purchased by Virginia tavern-owner Henry E. Dawson and shipped to his slave-trading brother, Samuel J. Dawson in New Orleans in 1832 via the brig Tribune. Of course, this information is based on my own premise that Richard took (or was given) the surname Christian, rather than Jefferson or Rutherford/Reddiford, which was Milley’s surname.
“Negroes for Hire.
THE subscriber as Trustee for the children of Mrs. Harriet Christian, late dec’d, will offer for hire on the first day of January next, opposite the door of Robert Fulton’s Hotel, in Charles Town, a negro woman aged about 26 years, and a boy aged about 11; the woman is well known in this place, and has the character of being as valuable a slave as any in the valley, she is an excellent cook, washer, and table servant; the boy although of tender years, is remarkable for his activity & usefulness. – Bond with approved security will be required.
ROBERT C LEE.
Charlestown, Dec. 11, 1812.
I’m not sure who Robert C. Lee is, but it’s possible he was either a family friend or relative of Harriet Christian, whose maiden name remains a mystery for me to solve. And it isn’t clear which of Milley’s sons was the 11-year-old. It could have been her son Albert (who I suspect is her oldest child, based on the theory that they were listed in the indenture by age). But also it could have been Robert, who would have turned 10 in March 1813.
Why do I really feel the need to know all of this? Mainly, I just want to know all I can about Robert and his biological family beyond his presidential father, Thomas Jefferson. Also, I’m hoping that I will find more clues to understand why Robert went to Canada for two years before retrieving his wife, Celia, and daughters, Lucy and Georgeanna, from Mississippi and bringing them north to Jefferson County, Indiana.
If I can determine the surnames of the siblings, it may help me find them living in the Black communities in Ontario, Canada, where the self-emancipated started new lives after fleeing American slavery. From there, I hope to find their living descendants and see if they will agree to DNA testing.
So, keep your fingers crossed for me and this project. It’s been a long, but fascinating journey over the past nearly five years.