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This is part two of a two-part blog series on Gilbert Hunt and his first wife, Judy Martin. You can read the first part here.

Gilbert Hunt was an exceptional man, not only for his actions, but for the sheer number of sources about his life found in the archives. Not many people of color from nineteenth-century Virginia, whether free or enslaved, have anywhere near as many written records detailing their lives. Gilbert’s first wife, like many other free and enslaved people, had very few details known about her life. In fact, only two things were absolutely known to be true:

  1. She was married to Gilbert Hunt.
  2. She was enslaved.

Note that neither of these facts are her name.

Gilbert Hunt’s first wife was the reason he ended up at the Richmond Theatre on the day it burned in 1811. She was enslaved, according to the Barrett pamphlet, by a “Mrs. George Mayo.” Hunt said, “My wife’s mistress called to me and begged me to hasten to the theatre and, if possible, save her only daughter.” This is one of the only instances where his first wife appeared in the story of his life. She was an unnamed specter in the biography of Hunt’s life, even while her own life in bondage was the impetus for Hunt traveling to the theatre that night.

However, there was a petition from a woman named May Elizabeth Leftwick (maiden name Martin) in a chancery suit which started my descent into a research rabbit hole. In the suit of William Beverly Swan vs. Robert Howard, trst. etc., May Elizabeth declared she was the biological daughter of Gilbert Hunt and a woman named Julia or Judy Martin. This was the first primary document I found which provided a potential name for Gilbert’s first wife. While I didn’t necessarily doubt the statement May Elizabeth Leftwick had made, a deposition in the suit claimed that Gilbert Hunt never had any children other than his adopted son, William Beverly Swan. Due to these competing facts and because the suit never resolved whether May Elizabeth was Gilbert’s daughter, I hoped to corroborate her statement with another source.

The best way to find the names of enslaved people is by looking into the documents their enslavers left behind such as household accounts, deeds, and wills. So, to find Julia or Judy Martin, I first had to find the papers of Mrs. George Mayo (otherwise known as Elizabeth Ann Carrington). It was to my luck that Mayo was not only born into a prominent Virginia family but also married into prominent Virginia families. It was more likely that the papers of those families would not only have survived but could also be found in an archive somewhere in Virginia. It is rare that papers from a nineteenth-century woman would be found in her birth family’s records, so I turned my attention to finding a collection which contained the papers of George Mayo. Elizabeth married George Mayo sometime between 1784 and 1794. However, George Mayo died in 1798, a full thirteen years before the Richmond Theatre fire, and left behind no will or accounts of his estate. Any possibility of finding Judy Martin in those records would have been impossible.

To my surprise, Elizabeth Ann Carrington remarried in March 1811 to John Preston, future treasurer of the Virginia General Assembly. Multiple repositories across Virginia hold records from the Preston family and have created finding aids of those collections available on Archival Resources of the Virginias. I contacted each archive, noting that I was not certain of a name and was looking for records which included the names of people enslaved by John Preston circa 1811 (the only year I could be certain Judy Martin was in the home of Carrington).

The first page of the petition filed by May Elizabeth Leftwick in the suit of William Beverly Swan vs. Robert Howard, trst. etc.

It is important to note that when looking into Judy Martin, I was making multiple presumptions not based off of written fact but based on reasonable guesses. I presumed she was brought into the Carrington/Preston marriage based off of two facts. First, Louisa Mayo, Elizabeth Carrington’s daughter, was said to be teaching Gilbert Hunt to read. As Carrington and Preston had only been married for at most nine months, I didn’t believe a close enough relationship could have developed in such a short timespan between Hunt and his wife’s enslaver’s daughter that would prompt her to teach him to read. Second, in the pamphlet published by Philip Barrett in 1859, Elizabeth Carrington is not referred to by her birth name or her new married name but is instead named as Mrs. George Mayo. Even forty years after her second marriage, Hunt still referred to her by the name of her first husband. This, to me, implies that Hunt had first known Carrington and developed a relationship with her while she was still using that name. This is relevant because John Preston was not known to spend much time in Richmond prior to his marriage, so if any accounts included a “Judy” prior to 1811, it could not be the “Judy” I was searching for.

Two of the repositories I had contacted for a reference request were too far away for a workday research trip and kindly emailed me what they had found in the Preston family papers. Unfortunately, they could not find a Judy or Julia Martin or any variation of that name. My last hope were the papers at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. I had requested multiple items be pulled, and as the museum is only a short drive from the Library of Virginia, I went in-person. After viewing multiple letters, receipts, and accounts in Preston family papers and finding no results, I turned to a collection from the Edmundson family.

Undated list of enslaved names from the estate of John Preston, found in the papers of Henry Edmundson from the Edmundson Family Papers. Henry Edmundson was one of the trustees appointed to handle John Preston’s financial problems.

Edmundson family papers, 1781-1949, Accounts, 1809-1824, Mss1 Ed598 a 750-769, Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

As mentioned previously, John Preston was the Treasurer for the Virginia General Assembly from 1811 to 1819. His accounts were found to be in arrears and after a judgment was issued against Preston for $87,000, trustees were given control over multiple properties to oversee their sale. The proceeds from the sale were then to be deposited back into the treasury. One of the appointed trustees was Henry Edmundson, whose family papers included multiple lists of enslaved people from the estate of John Preston.

In the third list, ten names from the top in the first column, I found a “Judy”. I should note that the list was undated and provided no additional context beyond listing the enslaved people considered part of Preston’s estate. However, the documents surrounding the list all date from either Preston’s time in the treasury or immediately after, and pre-1811 lists of enslaved names from the Preston estate do not include anyone by the name of “Judy”.

In the narrative of Gilbert Hunt’s life, his first wife disappears sometime before he purchased his freedom in 1829. It was assumed she had either died or was sold somewhere far away from Hunt since they were enslaved by different individuals.

Given that John Preston’s property was sold to repay his debts, it’s possible that this is when the marriage was forced to an end. Marriages between enslaved people in Virginia were not legally binding and any sustained relationship was at the mercy of circumstances.

Finding the names of enslaved people is difficult and often the evidence is not as certain as you might hope. But putting in the time and effort to create as concrete a truth as possible might mean putting a name back into the historical record and to give someone who was almost entirely intangible in the records a measure of corporeality. Nothing is known about Gilbert Hunt’s wife other than her relationships to the two prominent figures in her life: her husband and her enslaver. In all likelihood, we will never know much more than that, but we can at least give Judy Martin a name.

Thanks to the librarians and archivists at Swem Library at the College of William and Mary, Special Collections at Virginia Tech, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture for their help in finding Judy Martin.

Richmond City Chancery Causes is currently closed for processing, indexing, and reformatting, a project made possible through the 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. Images will be posted to the Chancery Records Index as they become available.

Jennifer Taylor

Local Records Archivist

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