Several of my colleagues have shared the personal stories of enslaved individuals over the past nine years as we work our way through processing and digitizing records for the Chancery Records Index. Inspired by a chance meeting, I told the story of Reuben Bundick—a direct ancestor of one of the Library’s most esteemed patrons. Louise Jones, a recently retired Local Records archivist, initially discovered the story of Tom Butcher, a free individual from Dinwiddie County who happened to be traveling through Pittsylvania County. All freedom suits, regardless of time or place, share a unique and important perspective. This cause marks the release of digital images from Pittsylvania County for the years 1825-1847 (now available on the CRI) and highlights the county’s rich Black history. The story, and all the images, come from the Pittsylvania Chancery Causes, 1828-007 Tom Butcher (slave) v. Rice, etc., Library of Virginia.
In July 1828, Tom Butcher, son of free Jenny Butcher of Dinwiddie County, recounted his story to the jailer of Pittsylvania County as he awaited his fate. Joshua Smith of Dinwiddie County gave Tom’s mother her freedom. Smith also directed, by an instrument of manumission, that Tom’s “liberation” would come when he reached the age of 21. Now 30 years of age, Tom had yet to attain his freedom. In 1814, Josiah Askew married one of Joshua Smith’s daughters. Tom became the property of Askew’s wife.
Josiah, a Methodist preacher, sold Tom several times. Tom was last in possession of a Mr. Rice of Chester District South Carolina—“from whom he eloped.” Captured in Pittsylvania County, Tom was “endeavoring to make his way to Dinwiddie County for the purpose of establishing his claim to freedom”—having to obtain his free papers in person. Samuel M. Lovell, the county’s jailer, states that “Tom was committed a runaway.” The jailer attempts to aid Tom in his quest—by writing a letter to Tom’s former owner, Austin Billups, “a man who had vastly raised him and was well acquainted with him.”
Tom was well aware how crucial Austin Billups’s reply was to his establishing his free status beyond a reasonable. Tom justifiably feared that he would be “removed beyond the reach of redress and confined to slavery.” He knew that at any moment “Rice may identify him and pay the jailer’s charges.” Tom considered these steps “contrary to equity and offensive.” He feared that he was “without remedy except in a court of chancery.”
The court granted Tom’s request to sue in forma pauperis, and Tom acquired counsel. In the course of arguing his case, Tom requested for the following measures: “Rice be enjoined from removing him from the Commonwealth. Restrain Lovell from delivering him to Rice. I am given my freedom and Rice is decreed to compensate me for the time that I have been in his service.” Tom’s mother eventually received Lovell’s letter and passed along the necessary information to James Hargrave. James Hargrave wrote a return letter, dated 15 July 1828, to Samuel M. Lovell. Hargrave reported that “Austin Billups died 3 or 4 years prior.”
Billups actually died in 1823, as verified by the discovery of a lost locality will in the Petersburg chancery causes. Hargrave requested “a response as soon as possible about the probable amount of charges, whether the payment will liberate Tom from jail and the manner in which Tom can be extricated.” Despite the fact that Hargrave corroborated Tom’s story, the cause ended there.
Tom never reached Dinwiddie County. Unfortunately, Dinwiddie County is also a catastrophic loss locality. During the last months of the Civil War, Union troops ransacked the courthouse and stole, mutilated, or destroyed the bulk of court records prior to 1865. No chancery causes exist prior to 1844. Without a first person corroboration, Tom’s case did not stand a chance. We can only speculate on what became of Tom, a man willing to travel great distances and against all odds for something that you and I too often take for granted. So many questions remain with no answers. One thing, however, is certain. His name is Tom Butcher and he is “unknown no longer.”
For more detailed information about freedom suits, see the January 2016 blog post Virginia Untold: Freedom Suits.
The processing and scanning of the Pittsylvania County chancery causes, 1825-1847, was made possible by funding from the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s Circuit Courts.