In 1791, Rachel Veney’s mother Sarah won a case in the district court of Northumberland County for her freedom and the freedom of her descendants. Prior to the verdict, Rachel’s enslaver Charles Dunnaway moved to Culpeper County, bringing Rachel and her children with him. Knowing that Rachel would likely win her freedom, Dunnaway sold her and her children to Bud Ryder who promised to make Rachel and her family impossible to find. Ryder took Rachel and her children to Montgomery County where he sold them to Henry Patton Sr., who had an estate along the New River. Rachel Veney now lived hundreds of miles from her family in Richmond County, kept completely unaware that she should be free.
Sometime before 1807, Rachel learned of the district court verdict that awarded her and her family their freedom. Henry Patton, however, refused to acknowledge it. He challenged her claim on the grounds that she was not the Rachel that was a plaintiff in the suit heard in Northumberland County. Patton’s refusal meant that Rachel Veney would have to file suit once again to win freedom, a right to freedom that had already been established. Rachel initiated her suit against Henry Patton in the county court of Montgomery County in early 1807. She sued on behalf of herself and all of her children, including two sons enslaved to Patton’s relatives. Rachel informed the court that she and her children were free people and were illegally enslaved. She cited the verdict of the Northumberland County district court as evidence.
In order to win her case, Rachel had to convince the court that she was the Rachel, a descendant of Bess and Sarah, who was a plaintiff in the Northumberland case. To accomplish this, she needed witnesses who could testify on her behalf. This meant that Rachel needed to locate people who lived in Richmond and Culpeper Counties who were old enough to remember her and her mother and their Native American ancestry.
They also needed to identify her as the Rachel who was a co-plaintiff in the successful freedom suit against Thomas Smith’s estate. The average life span in the U.S. at the time was around 41 years, less for people of color, so proving her case would not be easy for Rachel.
Further complicating her efforts, Rachel could not depose family members in Richmond County who knew her and could attest to her identity because Virginia law prohibited Black people, enslaved or free, from testifying in court. Rachel would have to convince an all-white jury to deliver a verdict in her favor. She had no income, so she was dependent on the court to provide her with legal assistance (known as in forma pauperus). A lawyer in Richmond County named Foushee G. Tebbs agreed to assist Rachel with her case. In a letter to Patton’s lawyer, Tebbs expressed his support for Rachel because he held “great regard for the right of freedom.” He assisted Rachel with identifying and deposing witnesses in Richmond County. He made a diligent search for the freedom suit filed in the Northumberland County courthouse, but was unable to find it due to the disarray of the court records stored there. However, Tebbs located Rachel’s case along with the suits of her relatives in a compilation of court cases titled Washington’s Notes. He had them transcribed and forwarded to the Montgomery County court.
Rachel took an active part in her suit. The court permitted Rachel to travel to Richmond County and Culpeper County to take part in deposing witnesses. Rachel travelled so much that she became ill and could not return to Montgomery County for a period of time. Being able to travel helped her case because she could provide her legal counsel with the names of deponents, where they lived, and what questions to ask. Witnesses who saw her recognized her as Rachel Veney, the daughter of Sarah. She also provided statements for Tebbs to forward to Patton’s lawyer, including one noting her frustration with Patton’s legal counsel for failing to notifying her of when and where he took some depositions. Rachel also voiced her unhappiness with the repeated questions to deponents by Patton’s lawyer regarding her identity.
After nearly a decade of her case being on the docket, Rachel grew very frustrated with the county court’s delay in issuing a verdict. In 1815, Rachel petitioned the general court in Richmond to have her case transferred to the Montgomery County Superior Court of Law. She informed the general court that this was not just about winning her freedom but more importantly the freedom of her descendants. “[Y]our petitioner is the mother of many children whose liberty depends upon the decision of this suit and should your petitioner die their chances for success would be greatly lessened.” The general court approved Rachel’s petition and ordered the case to be removed to the Superior Court of Law and Chancery. Within a short time, a jury heard Rachel Veney’s case and awarded her and her children their freedom and ordered the plaintiff to pay her one cent in damages. That was the maximum amount that could be awarded to someone freed after years of abuse and exploitation. Bud Ryder failed to live up to his promise. Rachel Veney succeeded in getting her freedom, but perhaps most importantly to her, she secured freedom for her descendants.
The processing and scanning of the Montgomery County chancery causes was funded by a two-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and the Library of Virginia’s innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation program (CCRP), which seeks to preserve the historic records of Virginia’s circuit courts.
``A slave-coffle passing the Capitol``, ca. 1815.
Illus. in: A popular history of the United States. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and company, 1876-1881. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
–Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager
An Overseer Doing his Duty, 1798, Benjamin Henry Latrobe Sketch book, III, 33, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, image from The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas : A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. , Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia, 2006