Sometimes a will is not worth the paper it’s written on. Too often, people go through the trouble of creating a formal last will and testament only to have their desires ignored. The chances for dispute or contestation are even greater when there is opportunity for financial gain, as was the case of a 19th century man who wanted a better life for his slaves.
Samuel Gist listed in his will specific instructions for how his enslaved people should be treated after his demise. The will filed in the City of Richmond noted that Gist’s land would be sold and the enslaved people emancipated and taken to Ohio. In all, between 80 and 100 enslaved men and women gained freedom in 1819 and relocated with the assistance of William Hickman as dictated in the Gist will. The men and women affected must have been overjoyed as Gist’s will created a way to escape from bondage. Yet all did not share the enjoyment.
At the time the move to Ohio, an enslaved women named Sarah was away from the Gist estate, living with her husband’s owner, George P. Luck. Luck had sold Sarah’s husband, leaving her with eight children between the ages of 18 months and 19 years, and a ninth baby on the way. To make matters worse, Luck was in debt, and unbeknownst to Sarah he sold the entire family for $7 to Philip Thurmond. When Sarah learned of this she escaped with her children to a neighbor’s home, where Thurmond soon found them and took the family by force.
Thurmond was himself bankrupt and eager to profit from the arrangement. He solicited others for a deal to sell Sarah and her family at the first opportunity. Aware of Thurmond’s financial plight, Sarah insisted that she and her family had a right to their freedom based on the will of Samuel Gist. She believed that Luck and Thurmond were in cahoots to gain a huge profit; otherwise, why would Luck have accepted a meager $7? Sarah was certain that she and her children were worth at least $2,000. Her only hope was for William Hickman to learn of the situation and intervene so that she and her family would be free.
Sarah petitioned the court to file a case against Luck and Thurmond. The suit was styled Amherst County Chancery Cause, Sarah~, etc. vs. George P. Luck, etc., 1833-024. The court summoned Luck, Thurmond, and Hickman to serve as defendants against the assertion that Sarah and her family had been owned by Samuel Gist and were therefore free. In order to maintain custody during the case, Thurmond was required to pay a $4,000 bond: the assessed value of Sarah and the children. If he did not pay the bond, the Amherst County sheriff would take custody of them and arrange for their housing and other needs.
On 12 April 1832, thirteen years after the original round of emancipations, Attorney Henry W. Quarles represented Sarah and her family in Amherst County Circuit Court. The court ultimately ruled that Sarah and her children were entitled to be free, finally fulfilling the will of Samuel Gist.
Sarah~, etc. vs. George P. Luck, etc., 1833-024 is part of the Amherst County Chancery Causes, which are currently closed for processing and digital reformatting.
-Sherri Bagley, Local Records Archivist