Saturday, November 2, 2019

Ran Away From My Farm, At the Half-Way House

Tomorrow marks one year wedded bliss for my wife and me. To help celebrate, I made dinner reservations at the Halfway House, a 1760s inn and tavern that happened to be situated "halfway" on the turnpike (and later railroad) between Richmond and Petersburg. I received a hearty recommendation from a friend that it would be a nice place for dinner for two history lovers. After I looked it up online to make the reservation, I remembered seeing a reference to it (or at least the area) in a runaway slave advertisement.

I combed through dozens of images that I have saved on my computer and finally located it. It ran in the August 20, 1864 issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. In it, owner J.M. Wolff seeks to have his slave Richard, "about twenty or twenty-one years old" and described as "black," apprehended. Although no specific dollar amount is listed for Richard's capture, Wolf promised to "pay a liberal reward."

A search through the 1860 census did not locate a J.M. Wolff in either Chesterfield County or Richmond (Henrico County). However, additional information contained within the notice did turn up some interesting corroborative findings.

Wolff explained in the advertisement that he purchased Richard from slave traders Lee and Bowman in Richmond, and that Richard was previously owned by Miss Margaret Bottom of Amelia Courthouse. I located Margaret Bottom in the 1860 census. She is listed as 23 years old and apparently living in the household of her mother, Lucy H. Bottom (45 years old), and with a brother, T. J. Bottom, a 22 year old farmer. Margaret Bottom is shown as owning $4,000 in personal property. Lucy Bottom owned $12,688 in personal property. Suspecting that most of those values were tied up in human property, I checked the slave schedules. My suspicions were confirmed. Mother Lucy Bottom is shown as owning 15 slaves. Brother T. J. Bottom is listed as owning six people, and M. P. (Margaret) Bottom owned five individuals. Margaret's enslaved property included one 23 year old black male, the only one among her group that closely fits the gender, age, and color description of Richard.

The advertisement also states that Richard had a wife near Amelia Courthouse and that may be where he was headed. In August 1864, both Richmond and Petersburg, as well as the Bermuda Hundred area where Wolff's farm was located were all under pressure from Union forces. And while it is certainly possible that Richard used the disruption of warfare to head to Amelia County to the west and his wife, his chances were probably best in reaching the Union troops under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, a number of whom were United States Colored Troops.

These advertisements tend to bring up a multitude of questions, most of them likely unanswerable. What motivated Margaret Bottom to sell Richard to slave traders? Where did Richard really go? Was he captured before he was able to realize freedom in the spring of 1865? What did he do for a living after the war? When did he die? Did he and his wife in Amelia County ever reunite? Did they have children? Where are Richard's descendants today? Do they know his story?

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