The Vass Slaves: County Courts, State Laws, and Slavery in Virginia, 1831-1861

By Schweninger, Loren | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Vass Slaves: County Courts, State Laws, and Slavery in Virginia, 1831-1861


Schweninger, Loren, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


(ProQuest Information and Learning: ... denotes "strike-through" in the original text omitted.)

In the name of God Amen," Philip E. Vass of Halifax County, Virginia, wrote on 8 August 1831, "being of sound mind and disposing Memory, Calling to reflection the Mortality of my body & being desirous to dispose of My Earthly possessions; do ordain this to be my Last Will and Testament." Unmarried and without children, Vass left his land-including his interest in a farm owned by his late father, Philip Vass the Elder, in Rockingham County, North Carolina-and personal items to his nieces, nephews, sisters, and brother. "My Wish and desire is that my two Servants, Mary and Jacob," he continued, "and all my Interest in the undivided Servants belonging to my fathers Estate, be Emancipated and that the Sum of Two thousand dollars, be appropriated out of any Moneys, belonging to my Estate to purchase in the State of North Carolina a tract of land." It should be of good quality, worth at least four or five dollars per acre, and not less than 250 acres nor more than 300 acres in size. "My wish and desire is for them to build out of Good Oak logs, three logs above joist, with Cabbin Rough well covered with Good Slabs," a dwelling house; if it were necessary to construct a second dwelling, it should be situated not less than between two and three hundred yards from the original building. "My Wish & desire is that my Negroes be furnished with Two Good Work horses and the Necessary plantation tools to Make a Crop with, & two good Milk Cows, Meat & corn for the first year." If either of his slaves became "Roguish," or a nuisance in the community, he or she should escheat to the Commonwealth of Virginia and be transported out of the country to Liberia. It was also his wish that none of the freed slaves should ever have the right to sell or dispose of the land.1

Vass felt especially close to this small group of slaves who had served his father and him for a number of years. He appointed his father's long-time friend, Halifax tobacco planter Isaac Medley, Sr., as executor of his estate; and he asked Medley to designate thirty-nine-year-old James Young, a close friend, to supervise the relocation of the freed slaves. Following his death, Vass directed, Young should hire a "White Man Workman" to accompany his freed male slaves to North Carolina. Together they would build the dwelling described in his will. The women and children should be hired out, and the proceeds from their hires should be turned over to the estate. In the year following Vass's death, Young should settle all of the manumitted slaves in North Carolina.2

Two weeks after Vass wrote his will, and less than one hundred miles to the east, the largest slave revolt in United States history erupted. Nat Turner, leading a small band of slaves, moved across the countryside in Southampton County, Virginia, killing men, women, and children. Although the revolt was quickly suppressed and Turner and most of his followers hanged, the South would never be the same. By the time Vass died the next year, the atmosphere was charged with fear, anxiety, and suspicion. The events that unfolded for the Vass slaves during the next nearly three decades need to be placed in a context of what might be called the postTurner era.3

Historians have for many years considered the Nat Turner revolt a watershed in southern and indeed American history. Following the revolt, whites in Virginia and elsewhere looked upon their slaves differently than they had before, believing that even the most seemingly loyal blacks might in fact be plotting an insurrection. Slaveholders tightened plantation rules, increased patrols, strengthened surveillance in towns and cities, and enacted a series of laws to ensure better control of their black charges. Although they had viewed "outsiders" from the North with suspicion before the revolt, afterward Yankees became even more suspect. During the 1840s and 1850s, as sectional hostility increased to a fever pitch, whites felt that greater control should be exerted over the slave population. …

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