This month’s blog is a continuation of the story I posted last month of an enslaved man, Richard, who helped his nephew Tazewell seize his freedom and escape to the North. I’ll share more of what I learned, but I’ll also focus on my research trail which I hope readers might find useful not only in searching Virginia Untold, but also for accessing other resources in the Library of Virginia’s collections.
When Richard approached Columbus, an enslaved man, in the store, he mentioned a newspaper advertisement which posted a $100 reward for capturing Tazewell. Presumably, one should be able to find this runaway advertisement in the newspapers. The Library of Virginia’s Virginia Chronicle database compiles many of Virginia’s historic newspapers. Full-text searchable images allow you to search by phrases and keywords, and limit by location and date.
Notices concerning people escaping enslavement typically include the name of the enslaved person, any possible aliases, the name of their enslaver, and the person posting the ad. I tried many variations of the names “Tazewell” and “Thomas Jones,” the white man enslaving Tazewell, but these searches didn’t turn up any results. I decided to approach my search more systematically. I searched the term “runaway” and limited the dates between 1 February 1856 and 17 March 1856. From this selection, I looked through every newspaper advertisement individually. Finally, I found him!
Where did my original search go wrong? The name “Thomas Jones” had been printed in shorthand as “Thos. Jones.” Although I also had searched the name “Tazewell,” the character recognition did not pick up the name because the print over the “w” is smudged. Virginia Chronicle uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to transcribe the newspaper text into a searchable format — but it’s not perfect. We have volunteers who help us to correct this text. Anyone can contribute to these efforts by registering for a free account on Virginia Chronicle.
Sometime in early March 1856, Thomas Jones placed this ad in the newspaper for Tazewell’s capture. Published almost every day for the entire month of March 1856, the advertisement describes Tazewell as 26 years old, “light black,” and of medium size. Jones included this distinction: “when spoken to he shows his teeth and appears confused.”
You might remember that Richard mentioned Tazewell would send a letter to his wife. I had no delusions about finding this woman. But I was shocked when I read that Jones included another important detail, the name of Tazewell’s wife: Eliza Coles. The advertisement even provided her address. Eliza was a free Black woman living in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district on 22nd Street between East Franklin and Main Street. If you’re a Richmonder, you may recognize this location as approximately across the way from Honey Whytes restaurant and other local favorites in the historic Bottom neighborhood. In fact, it is not far from where I currently live.
In each of the below maps, the red star indicates approximately where Eliza Cole was living in 1856. The blue star indicates approximately where Thomas Jones’s store may have been located. We don’t know where Tazewell would have lived.
According to the advertisement, Thomas Jones lived on N. 30 Main Street. I searched the Richmond City Directory for 1856 and found a Thomas Jones & Co. Grocers & Commission Merchants located at 30 Main Street. There was also a W.B. Jones and Thomas Jones Co. located at the same address. I remembered that the entry for Tazewell in Sydney Gay’s Record of Fugitives described Thomas Jones as a “grocer.”
As I process more records from the city of Richmond, I am learning more about the form of enslavement in an urban setting that characterized Richmond’s antebellum period. Instead of laboring on large farms or plantations, many enslaved people labored in factories, businesses, and homes. Urban centers like Richmond practiced a system of “hiring out,” which entailed leasing enslaved laborers to businesses or individuals for cash payment. This system went hand-in-hand with “living out,” which allowed enslaved people to secure lodgings apart from enslavers.1
Columbus, who we met in last month’s blog, exemplifies this practice by working and living in Mr. Pedro’s store. The arrangements between Tazewell and his enslaver, Thomas Jones, are unclear but we can imagine his daily life required an understanding and navigation of the city that put him in direct contact with a large and growing free Black population. As such, I am finding marriages between enslaved and free Black people in the city. The Virginia General Assembly enacted several laws throughout the early 19th century to prevent interactions between free Black and enslaved people. In spite of this, I have found evidence of networks and relationships continuing to develop, refining my own understanding of antebellum Richmond.
I searched for Eliza in other documents of free Black people in the City of Richmond, many of which remain unprocessed and un-digitized. I found an Eliza Cole (no “s”) in the minute books. Unlike many other localities in Virginia, the City of Richmond did not create registers for free Black individuals. Instead, local officials recorded administrative details concerning the lives of free Black people in the minute books. If you read a previous blog post about Reubenetta Dandridge, you’ve already learned how the Richmond City minute books can complement the loose court records. We hope that another phase of our current project will include digitizing these bound volumes. For now, quick searches in the index yielded a few different mentions of Eliza.
Eliza appears to have lost her free Black registration more than once. The state required free Black men and women to carry their registers with them at all times in order to prove their free status. This was just one of many ways the Commonwealth of Virginia sought to regulate and control its Black residents, even those alleged to be free. In October 1846, Eliza was actually committed to jail for not having her register. Luckily, a woman named Mary Valentine testified on Eliza’s behalf verifying her free status, and Eliza was registered with the court and given a new register. The minute books indicated that Eliza lost her register at least two more times in 1847 and 1855. She was issued a duplicate register on each occasion.
I also searched the 1850 census. I found an Eliza Cole listed as a 26-year-old Black woman living in a Shockoe Bottom neighborhood with three children, Elizabeth (8), Thomas (7), and Sarah Ann (6). Eliza’s profession was not indicated and she was marked as a person who could not read or write. I have not been able to find Eliza in the 1860 census, or any other subsequent records.
Many questions remain: did Eliza eventually follow her husband Tazewell north? Were the children listed with Eliza in the census her son and daughters with Tazewell? If Eliza chose to stay and not follow Tazewell to Canada, what became of their relationship? Many enslaved and free Black people during this time were forced to choose between obtaining individual liberty at the cost of leaving their loved ones and remaining enslaved to keep their family intact. There are hundreds of examples of husbands or wives leaving their spouses, mothers and fathers leaving children behind in the hopes they could acquire freedom and use their newly obtained status to provide help to those left behind. Extended family members were almost always separated in cases of self-emancipation.2 I can’t imagine Tazewell made his decision lightly. He knew his journey would take him far from the only place he knew as home. We will probably never know what that conversation between Eliza and Tazewell over his decision to seize freedom looked like. We honor the stories of Richard, Tazewell, and Eliza by acknowledging their courage and their resistance against the systematic oppression of American chattel slavery.
The court case and loose records that detail the lives of Richard, Tazewell, and Eliza are a part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes, 1840-1860. These records are currently closed for processing, scanning, indexing, and transcription, a project made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the Virginia Untold project.
- Takagi, Midori, “Rearing Wolves to our Own Destruction”: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865, (Charlottesville: University Press, 1999), 21-23.
- Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), 200. Foner provides several examples of enslaved people who left behind family members as documented in fugitive slave lists from the 1850s.
Commonwealth versus Richard, Commonwealth Causes, 1856-1860, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records. Local Government Records Collection. #7798560. The Library of Virginia.
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).
Jail Reports, 1840-1860, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records. Local Government Records Collection. [closed]. The Library of Virginia.
Minute Book, 1846-1848, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109095. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Minute Book, 1855-1856, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109107. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
“One Hundred Dollars Reward–“, Daily Dispatch, 11 March 1856. Accessed via Virginia Chronicle.
Record of Fugitives, 1855, 1856; Sydney Howard Gay papers; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
Sides, William. et al. “Map of the City of Richmond, Henrico County, Virginia .” Baltimore: M. Ellyson, 1856, Print.
Takagi, Midori. “Rearing Wolves to our Own Destruction”: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. (Charlottesville: University Press, 1999).