18th-century Virginia Court Documents Found in Worthington Attic: Stolen by Union Troops in 1862?

by George H. Bresnick

The countryside around Stafford, Virginia – bordering the Potomac River, and now part of the Washington metropolitan area – was devastated by the occupation forces of the Union Army in November, 1862. So severe was the physical damage and the loss of population that it is said that the land and the populace around the township of Stafford Courthouse didn’t recover fully from the War until almost 70 years later.

Two-thirds of the documents in the Stafford County Courthouse were either burned or stolen. Only two have been repatriated: a deed book returned from Maryland shortly after the War and a court ledger book stolen by a Massachusetts officer and returned recently to the Library of Virginia by a library in New Jersey that recognized its provenance.

Against the loss of human life and suffering, the loss of a cultural patrimony pales. Yet there are certainly practical effects, such as verifying the deed to a property one would like to buy only to find that most of the evidence prior to 1862 is gone. Of significance also is the psychological impact resulting from the destruction of the written records of a culture by an invading military force.

In 2009 an elderly woman who lived in the old Methodist Episcopal Parsonage, in the village of South Worthington, Massachusetts, across the street from my home, passed away in a nearby convalescent home. When a family member, who was the executor of her estate, asked me to help triage the contents of the house, I found a packet of papers in the proverbial “old trunk in the attic.” The papers were mainly deeds, letters and documents relating to the adjacent village of West Chesterfield. Although I urged the family member to give the papers to one of the local historical societies, she was under too much stress to attend to such details, and the papers were sold to a local antiques dealer along with all the contents of the house. When I learned of this, I tracked down the dealer and bought back the papers for their possible historical significance.

MethodistParsonage_1915a

The old Methodist Episcopal Parsonage in South Worthington, 1915.

The same building in 2001.

The same building in 2001.

Almost all of the papers were from the 19th century and belonged to the Cole and Smith families of West Chesterfield. Amaziah and Rebecca Cole were the progenitors of the family, having migrated from Plymouth County, Massachusetts, to West Chesterfield in the 1770s. Among the papers were deeds to properties belonging to the Cole and Smith families, as well as a date-list of family births and deaths and several handwritten essays and poems. But there were two peculiar documents that differed from the rest: they were from the 18th century (1753 and 1776), and both were legal documents from Stafford County, Virginia.

Ashby-doc-orig-2

Court document commanding that Robert Ashby Jr. be taken before the justices at the Courthouse (Stafford County) on the second Tuesday in May, 1753. The text reads: “George the second by the Grace of God of Great Brittain France & Ireland King Defender of the Faith &c. To the sheriff of stafford County Greeting We comand you that you take Robert Ashby Junr. & him safely keep so that you have his Body before our Justices of our said county Court at the Court House of the said County on the 2nd Tuesday in May next to satisfie Patric & Wm. Bogles three pounds & two shills. & nine pence half penny (with Interest thereon from the 21st of December 1753 till paid) recorded against him in our sd. County Petition also 79 lb tobo. 7/6 costs of sd. Petition whereof he is c[illegible] as appears to us of record. And have then there this writ Witness Henry Tyler Clk of our said Court this 8th day of April in the 33d. Year of our Reign. Henry Tyler 60/” [Transcription by Jerilynn MacGregor.]

The older document (above) is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring a Robert Ashby Junior to the Courthouse for a hearing on the second Tuesday in May, 1753. Apparently “Patric and Wm. Bogles” were tobacco merchants with roots in Glasgow. The other document (below) was a promissory note obligating Joel Reddish to pay “eleven pounds four shillings six pence half-penny current money of Virginia” on a loan provided to him by the James Ritchie & Company of Glasgow, Scotland, dated 24 February, 1776. Reddish was a Virginia tobacco farmer, and Ritchie, the owner of the Company, was one of the “Tobacco Lords” of Glasgow who made vast sums of money importing tobacco from the Colonies and selling it on the Continent. The Tobacco Lords established their own banks and regularly lent money to tobacco farmers in Virginia and elsewhere, enabling the farmers to plant their cash crops. I couldn’t at the time figure out why these documents were found in a cache of family papers almost 500 miles away from Stafford, in rural western Massachusetts.

Reddish-doc-orig-2

Promissory note, dated February 24, 1776, obligating Joel Reddish to pay James Ritchie & Company of Glasgow.

As I was very eager to find out more about the two principals mentioned in the documents, I contacted the Stafford County Library and was told that I had probably reached a dead end, since most of the official records of the County were stolen or burned during the Union Army’s occupation of Stafford Courthouse. I immediately seized on the idea that someone connected with the families was among the occupying forces.

According to federal census records, one of Amaziah Cole’s children, Amaziah Cole Jr., had a daughter, Lucy, who married Wareham Smith, originally from nearby Chester, Massachusetts, and like the rest of the Cole family members in the area, they raised their children as farmers on Ireland Street in West Chesterfield. Wareham and Lucy Smith had two sons, Ptolemy and John D., both of whom were of military age at the start of the Civil War in 1861. For some reason, only John entered service, mustering in as a private in the 37th Massachusetts Regiment Volunteers in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in September, 1862. He and his Company D were sent first to Washington, D.C., and then on to Stafford Courthouse, where they remained camped for two weeks in October/November 1862, in preparation for what would become the Battle of Fredericksburg.

I assumed that it was during that sojourn that Private John D. Smith acquired the two stolen court documents and subsequently sent them to his family in West Chesterfield as “war booty.” They could have been sent in the regular regimental mail from Virginia. However, in the summer of 1863 the 37th was sent to New York City to help quell the Draft Riots instigated there primarily by Irish immigrants who felt mistreated by the U.S. Congressional draft laws. During that stay in New York, Private Smith might very well have sent the two documents by mail to his family back home.

With the help of the town clerk of Chesterfield, MA, and the chair of the Chesterfield Historical Commission, I was able to obtain a list of 96 Chesterfield men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, including in most cases their dates of service and regiments. There were at least eleven men who served in the 37th Massachusetts Regiment Volunteers, but only John D. Smith seemed to have had a close relationship to the Cole/Smith families. A review of the regimental histories of the other units represented revealed that only one other (the 7th Massachusetts Regiment Volunteers) had camped at Stafford Courthouse, but again there were no men from that regiment with obvious connections to the Cole/Smith families. Thus by elimination, the most likely source for the documents was Private Smith. Sadly, he never returned to Chesterfield, as he was killed in the bloody Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia on May 6, 1864, and was most likely buried in a mass grave at the Wilderness Battlefield. One other company member from Chesterfield was wounded at the Wilderness, and he subsequently died in a Washington, D.C., hospital and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Ptolemy Smith, the brother of John D., married Mary E. Smith, and moved down the road from West Chesterfield to Worthington in 1866, where he was an active member of the South Worthington Methodist Church, as were his mother Lucy Cole Smith and father Wareham Smith. It is likely that it was through Ptolemy and his descendants that the Cole/Smith family papers ended up in a trunk in the attic of the Parsonage. Ptolemy and Mary had a daughter, Idella, and a son, Howard Clayton. Idella married Wilbur T. Hale, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal New England Conference, in 1896. They lived in many places around the State where Wilbur was minister, settling finally in West Springfield, MA, after his retirement. Wilbur died in 1955 and Idella in 1959 leaving no immediate heirs. Howard Clayton also moved to West Springfield as a young man, and had two sons: Rexford and Wayne C. Smith. In Idella’s obituary, printed in the Springfield Union newspaper, Wayne C. Smith is listed as the executor of her estate. One year later, in 1960, Wayne C. Smith purchased the Methodist Parsonage in South Worthington from the New England Conference of the Methodist Church for $1. In 1968 he sold the old Parsonage to Beatrice Mercer, the elderly woman who kept the Smith/Cole family papers and the Stafford court documents in a trunk in her attic. It is likely that they were left there by Wayne Smith, who acquired them either from his aunt Idella or from his father Howard Clayton.

Jerilynn MacGregor, one of the local historians with the Stafford County Historical Society, has provided more context on the two documents:

The two 18th-century documents being returned by the H. Stanley Bresnick Foundation provide fascinating glimpses into Stafford’s early history. The Robert Ashby, Jr. document reveals that Ashby owed the mercantile firm of Patrick and William Bogle £3.2.9. This company operated a store in the town of Aquia, now part of Aquia Harbour subdivision.

While the 18th-century economic system was based upon tobacco, it had some striking similarities to the financial structure of our own time. Prior to the American Revolution, Virginia’s economy was centered on tobacco and credit. Tobacco, represented by “tobacco notes,” circulated and was used to purchase goods and real estate and to pay taxes, fines, and debts. Individuals maintained accounts at local stores, purchasing items on credit with the expectation that they would pay their bills after the fall tobacco harvest. Merchants ordered their store goods from England and Scottish suppliers, also on credit. They were unable to pay the suppliers until their customers paid their store accounts. A bad growing season could mean economic disaster for customers, merchants, and suppliers alike.

In coastal Virginia most of the merchants were Scottish. They were noted for their tenacity and even ruthlessness when it came to debt collection. The Ashby document most likely records the Bogle Company’s efforts to collect a past due store account. In addition to the £3.2.9 debt, Ashby was required to pay 79 pounds of tobacco as a court fine. If he failed to do this, the Stafford Court would sell so much of his personal property as would satisfy the debt and fine.

Robert Ashby, Jr. (c.1720–c.1780) lived in the upper part of Stafford now occupied by the Quantico Marine Corps reservation.

The Reddish document is similar in content. Joel Reddish (1748–c.1826) lived at Reddish Hill (now the site of Margaret Brent Elementary School and Mountain View High School). This document is a promissory note in which Joel pledges to pay James Ritchie and Company £11.4.6. Ritchie and Company were merchants and tobacco shippers who also operated a store in the town of Aquia. A Loyalist, James Ritchie returned home to Scotland at the outset of the American Revolution, leaving numerous uncollected debts. This promissory note was likely an attempt to create a legal paper trail on those owing money to the company.

After the Revolution, the British Mercantile Claims Commission was established to track down those who owed pre-Revolution debts to English and Scottish merchants. Documents such as Joel Reddish’s note would have been used to prove outstanding debts due creditors.

On November 13, 2013, in a ceremony at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Representative for western Massachusetts, Richard Neal, unofficially presented the two Stafford County documents to Robert J. Wittman, the U.S. Representative for Virginia’s first congressional district. On the following day I repatriated the documents in person by donating them to the Stafford Courthouse. The Clerk of Court received them, and will display them permanently in a glass case in the Courthouse.

Stafford-with-USReps-2

(From left to right) Rep. Richard Neal, Rep. Robert Whittman, and Dr. George Bresnick meet on November 13, 2013 for a symbolic transfer of the Stafford County court documents.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

George Bresnick has been researching Worthington history since moving to the village of South Worthington in 1999, and has continued his interest in the area even after relocating to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2010. During his tenure as Chairman of the Worthington Historical Commission, the South Worthington Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. As founding director of the H. Stanley Bresnick Foundation, George reconnects material objects of historical significance with people or organizations closely associated with those objects. The repatriation of the Stafford County court documents to the Stafford County Courthouse is part of that effort.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Ms. Jerilynn MacGregor and Mr. Al Conner of the Stafford County Historical Society for information regarding the Union Army’s occupation of the Stafford Courthouse and the ill fate of the court documents. I offer thanks to Sandy Wickland, town clerk of Chesterfield, MA, and Dee Cinner, chair of the Chesterfield Historical Commission, for information regarding the residents of Chesterfield who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Also thanks to Diane Brenner of the Worthington Historical Society for genealogical information regarding the Smith family. Finally, I appreciate the efforts of Anita Dodd, chair of the Historical Commission for Stafford County, and Barbara Decatur, clerk of the court for Stafford County, for arranging to receive and display the Stafford County court documents.

For further information: This New York Times article from December 5, 1862, details the “utter ruin” of Stafford County Courthouse during the Union Army occupation.

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7 Responses to 18th-century Virginia Court Documents Found in Worthington Attic: Stolen by Union Troops in 1862?

  1. Helen Sharron Pollard says:

    Great story George, heartening to know the documents were returned to their rightful place.

  2. Susan Martin says:

    I saw mention of this fascinating story in the latest Country Journal, and what intrigued me the most was seeing the name Private John D. Smith mentioned. Is it possible that before he went off to war he could have married a Sarah Straw and had a daughter born in 1845 by the name of Elizabeth C. Smith who married Eugene Leston Parker? If so, you may just have found my very elusive ancestor, John Smith! If you or Diane Brenner could add to my family genealogy, I would be most grateful! Please call me. I am on Dingle Road in Worthington. Thanks a million!

    • George Bresnick says:

      Hi Susan,
      Thanks for the comments on the article. I am afraid that our John D Smith can’t be the same as your John Smith. Our John D was born in about 1841, and was 21 or 22 years old when he entered the Union Army at Pittsfield. As far as I can tell, he was single. If you can give me more information about where your John Smith was born, and any other family connections, I might be able to help you locate him.
      George Bresnick

  3. Susan Martin says:

    Hi George,
    I’m having some difficulty locating my genealogy notes on him and his family. I know I have them and I also have his card entering the service in Dalton, and was thinking he was 18 at the time. If so, that might make him a brother instead of a father to Elizabeth. I will definitely follow up with you as soon as possible. I really do think our John D. Smiths are the same or from the same family.

  4. Susan Martin says:

    Hi George,
    I was able to find his enlistment card, and our John D. Smiths are different. My John D. Smith was an inhabitant of Dalton when he was mustered into the service as an enlisted man of Company K, Captain W.H. Cooly, 34th Regiment Mass. Vol. on 7/31/1862 at Camp John E. Wool (or Woods), John E. Woods, adj’t. His age was not given, unfortunately. I thought that he was probably the father of Elizabeth C. Smith 1845-1934 who married Eugene Leston Parker 1844-1918. If so, I believe he was married to Sarah Straw, as her name was Sarah Straw Smith (we have pictures of her). Sorry to have bothered you, but it was fun for me while it lasted!
    Sue Martin

  5. George Bresnick says:

    Susan,
    Thanks for the update. No bother…it’s all part of expanding our network of interested parties.
    Happy sleuthing.
    George

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