When we left yrmama’s first cousin eight times removed, William Henry Clopton, in 1862 he was seeking recompense for the seven male slaves who escaped from Selwood plantation to join the Union Army. I first read about the incident below in the Clopton Chronicles, (which contains a wealth of information) but also reads with a distinct editorial point of view. Then I found this article, “Poetic Justice: the Whipping of William H. Clopton, by Leonne M. Hudson, published in the Negro History Bulletin, v. 64, no. 1/4 2001. Of course it has an editorial point of view too, but it’s one yrmama is more comfortable with.
William Clopton had a reputation as the cruelest master in Charles City County, and in 1864 enslaved fifteen people at Selwood. Some of the white neighbors, especially ladies I think, were waiting out the war at a safe distance but William Clopton was at his plantation
On May 5 General Edward Augustus Wild, a zealous abolitionist, landed nearby at Wilson’s Landing with his brigade of black soldiers. One of the first days there they met a civilian while they were out foraging and killed him. A few days later they captured William Clopton and brought him back to camp because he was “actively disloyal.” General Wild ordered soldier William Harris to strip Clopton to the waist, tie him to a tree and flog him with a horsewhip. After a while the whip was passed to three women formerly enslaved by Clopton who Wild had invited for the occasion. The women then took turns whipping their former master. Afterwards, Clopton as taken to Fortress Monroe and held as a prisoner of war.
General Wild was court-martialed for murdering the white civilian and for whipping William Clopton. However, the decision was overturned to avoid the appearance of issuing stricter penalties to black brigades.
According to the 1850 federal census William H. Clopton was a farmer in Charles City County, Virginia. He is also believed to be yrmama’s first cousin, eight times removed up. The original Clopton property there along Black Creek was called Roslyn, and just down the road were the Tyler place, called Sherwood Forest, and my cousin William Clopton’s plantation, Selwood. And by “Tyler” I mean former President John Tyler, and his second wife, Julia. John Tyler’s occupation is listed on the census form as “farmer,” just like William; aw shucks.
Highlights from yrmama’s William H. Clopton Research
On June 29, 1849, William was in court for the trial of one of his slaves, 20 year old Nancy Willis, who was accused and convicted of the felony of setting fire to William Gibson’s house in Richmond. She was transported to the penitentiary and eventually executed by hanging (from the neck until dead, they always specify that) on Friday, the 24th of August 1849. Part of the court proceeding in June was a determination of her monetary value, so that William could be fairly reimbursed. The six justices present each said how much they thought she would bring if sold with public knowledge of her guilt. Then they added up their numbers and divided by six…William was paid $491.66 for Nancy.
You might ask, “yrmama, how does this make you feel?” How do I feel about this? How do you THINK I feel about this? Geez o Pete.
yrmama also found another legal document concerning William H. from about fifteen years later. It is “Record of Slaves Who Have Escaped to the Enemy During the War” from the Commissioner of Revenue for Charles City County. As in, you shouldn’t be liable for paying personal property tax on people who have run away from you to join the Union Army. On 4 April, 1862 these individuals escaped from Selwood: Willis (60), Marston (43), George (37), Jessy (28), Lewis (28), Peter (48) and John (40). I bet old William was pissed. I also wonder if sixty year old Willis might be related to Nancy Willis from the first case.
Phew. Second installment on the way. Gotta let this settle. God bless all their souls.
I was a little nervous when I decided to start publishing identifying information about my slave-owning ancestors. I considered giving my brother a heads up to see if he had any feelings about me outing our forebears. Then I thought, f*$%$ that. The dead, especially the ancient dead, are fair game. I know their abhorrent behavior does not reflect on me. I also know that by being white I have massive privilege, and that the black people whose labor was stolen to build this country are to be held up and regarded with awe. Their value was so immense that the 100 year old nation had a horrible, bloody protracted war over control of it. And their power was so feared that Jim Crow was invented. I could go on.
For a time I dug into the ugliness of the past just because I felt compelled to, but it remained mostly a matter of, “omg can you believe this garbage?” Recently I stumbled onto the concept of Reparational Genealogy through this podcast. Carolyn ni Lochlainn lays the idea out with a thoroughness I won’t attempt here. Basically, because researching enslaved ancestors is difficult to say the least (white privilege again) we descendants of enslavers can contribute the information we have. The pre-Civil War record keeping that genealogists use was invented for white people and is about white people – censuses, wills, taxes, plantation records, runaway slave notices from newspapers etc.. Identifying enslavers and their exact locations along with whatever records there are of the enslaved – first names, or even just the tally marks made to count up males and females in each age group – can help people make vital connections. Descendants of enslaved people are just as entitled to know their family history as anyone else and I might have access to part of the information someone needs to put their puzzle together.
Downton Abbey taught us that “family” is not just the folks living upstairs. When we allow historical narratives to continue to stubbornly ignore with a wink the team of people that grew the tobacco, built those doggone big houses and had to stand quietly in the corner pulling the rope that worked the dining room ceiling fan, it is dishonest and brutal. I like digging into the nasty business of my slaveowners, domestic abusers and bootleggers simply because I’m not meant to see it. I don’t mean to do anything that would hurt anyone still alive, but when a historical narrative doesn’t match up with the facts or I find a pocket of time and place that is very, very silent I want to investigate. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see the whole picture and put together a meaningful narrative.
One of my seventh great grandfathers was named William Clopton. He was born in Eastwood, Essex County, England in 1655 to Rev. Robert Clopton and Mary Sutcliffe. A preacher’s kid, the Clopton Chronicles suggests that he left home first for London, to escape the Puritan atmosphere of home, and then on across to Virginia.
In Virginia, about 1680, he married a widow, Ann Booth Dennett whose father was Dr. Robert Booth, an early resident of Jamestown. In her book, Jamestown Brides, Jennifer Potter describes how marrying a wealthy widow was desirable to the “planters” arriving in Virginia from England because they came with their late husband’s wealth. They generally got snapped up before the maidens.
Ann and William had five children; Anne, Elizabeth, Robert, William and Walter. Ann’s first husband, Thomas Dennett left a will that names four children that Ann had with him; Anne, John, Sarah and Elinor – it’s kind of weird to me that those don’t aren’t mentioned again in any Clopton records. Was eschewing her Dennett children part of the marriage bargain? I guess supporting four children would put a dent in whatever wealth she brought to their alliance. Did those kids stay around but not get mentioned because they weren’t bloodline Cloptons? Did they stay with their father’s side of the family? Does that reflect badly on William? On Ann? On the Dennetts? Whose decision was it?
William and Ann lived in New Kent County, in St. Peter’s Parish. William was a vestry man at St. Peter’s Church and served as the clerk of the Vestry for many years until he begged off due to debility. He was appointed “surveior of the highwayes” and authorized to collect “tithables” from people to defray the cost of the work. He also collected the tithes for the church – apportioned at one time as 84 pounds of tobacco from each head of household – I think tobacco was commonly used as currency. The church budgets list various costs, including paying parishioners to keep people who could not provide for themselves, like “ancient” people, the sick and lame, or “a Bastard child” and it’s mother.
William Clopton enslaved people, I assume to grow tobacco and work in the house. The St. Peter’s Parish Register, records births, deaths and marriages. Many enslaved babies are included with a first name, their birthdates and baptism dates like this list:
Nane, negro of Wm. Clopton born 29 April, 1704
Jno, negro of Wm. Clopton baptized June 25, 1710
—-bin, negro of Wm. Clopton born June 6, 1706
——, negro of Wm. Clopton born May 8th, 1707
——, negro of Wm. Clopton born May 30th, 1713
——, negro of Wm. Clopton ———–
(Of course this Wm. Clopton is also in the right time frame to be his son, William Clopton.)
There are two main farms that were owned by this part of the Clopton family. The original Clopton home place, which at some point came to be a plantation called Callowell, was west of Crump’s Mill, which is on the southern branch of Black Creek. According to Malcolm Harris there were remains of a stone and brick cellar in the 1970s. Apparently there is a large cemetery there but the stones are hard or impossible to read. Here is a real estate ad from 1857:
The other property associated with this immediate family was called Roslyn. It was farther west and near the border of Hanover County. In the mid 1800s it was the site of a mission church called St. James, established there by St. Peters Parish. The St. Peter’s Parish website describes it as being between present day Orapax Farms (Dispatch Road) and the Chickahominy River. There are large ancient oak trees but no buildings. In Old New Kent County, Harris describes it as having been half a mile east of where Cattail swamp comes off Black Creek. My excellent Google Maps skills show these two do coincide.
William and Co., for a few generations, (I’m mostly following the descendency of his oldest son Robert, my sixth ggggggreat grandfather) kept buying up more land and the 1850 census shows that the ante bellum Cloptons living at Roslyn, or “Clopton Estates,” owned about 4,000 acres. William Clopton, the immigrant, died about 1732 and is buried with Ann Dennett Booth in the churchyard of St. Peter’s.
Here finally is my punchline: You know the Clopton men were not out there hoeing and harvesting 4,000 acres, or even the 400 they held at Roslyn. Marx said that workers create all wealth. Would that wealth have been created without the Clopton bosses, bossing it into being? What kind of twisted koan is that? If William Clopton and his descendants had not been so determined to keep giving everyone in the neighborhood the same couple of names, over and over and over, it would be more possible to determine which ones enslaved how many people. But I think it is fair to lump all those Williams and Roberts who lived in the same decades together and say that as a group they owned the people whose names I shared here. According to the 1850 Slave Schedules the Cloptons in New Kent County enslaved 42 people, and one of those owners was a four year old boy. In 1860 it was 29. I figure that represents the people enslaved at Roslyn and Callowell.
Jamestown Brides; The Story of Englands “Maids for Virginia,” by Jennifer Potter 2019
Old New Kent County (Virginia); Some Account of Some of the Planters, Plantations, Places, by Malcolm Harris 1977
The Clopton Chronicles, a Project of the Clopton Family Genealogical Society. rootsweb.com
The Vestry Book and Register of St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, Virginia, 1684-1786. Richmond, Virginia Library Board, 1937.
yrmama is not a cat person but I have two new, very wild barn kittens. Four eyes peer down warily from the rafters as I faithfully pour out the kitten chow day after day. The larger gray one, William Clopton, now meows at me when I first come in and I don’t know what that means.
Any child who ever tells you they will take full responsibility for an animal doesn’t know what they are talking about and should not be believed. That animal will ALWAYS become yours. yrmama is really allergic to cats so it was one of my thirty two daughters who decided to bring the kittens here. yrmama is no dummy and knew giving permission made for a 93% chance that they would be her barn kittens, and now, since that daughter is completely AWOL from the barn, they are entirely mine. They are destined to remain wild too because yrmama’s already busy (thanks C19!) respiratory and immune systems don’t allow much time with them. But the kitten’s wildness is part of their appeal. This is what it would be like to be luring fox kits, or baby skunks in to eat. (If there is a de-stunk baby skunk that needs a barn to eat cat chow in – call me.)
I have been trying to position the food bowl so that I can see their little butts when they eat, but it doesn’t work so I don’t know their sexes. And it doesn’t matter, since I’m going to trap them one of these days and take them to be neutered rendering kitty gender a completely moot point.
In the meantime I have bestowed genderless names on the kittens in honor of my ancestors who believed that as many people as possible should be named William Clopton in order to bamboozle future genealogists. The big gray one is William Clopton. It’s eyes are a bit too close together which creates a resemblance to Rod Blagojevich. The smaller kitten has front paws that were put on at the wrong angle and has slightly shortened front legs, maybe a form of kittie dwarfism. Consequently, it sits back on it’s haunches with it’s front paws crossed over it’s chest, like a rabbit. Or a kangaroo. Or a T-Rex. My ancestor’s second favorite name was Robert Clopton. This cat’s additional degree of cuteness led me to cute-ify “Robert” a bit, so I call it Bobert Clopton. Bobert might not be able to hunt as well as William Clopton but gets around just fine.
Disclaimer: I don’t profess to be anything but a very amateur genealogist. So if you glom on to some information from me you have to promise to recheck and verify it at least three times before you repeat it. That said, I’ve got my spreadsheets and trees and expandable file bursting and computer glasses hanging on a cord thingy on my neck. yrmama is the real deal. Feel free to contact me.
So below are some names and birthdates of some of the people enslaved by my direct ancestors or thereabouts. I hope that their connection to the Clopton family tree will be of use to someone else trying to trace their enslaved or enslaving ancestors. (“Thereabouts” is real because of all the repeated names living in the same counties at the same time. Seriously. I have two William Cloptons, first cousins, born in 1721 in New Kent County. Everyone wanted to have at least one son named William Clopton, after the immigrant patriarch, and a daughter named Frances. And to also marry someone named Frances if at all possible.)
1784 – New Kent County Virginia, John Clopton:
Dolstra (or something like that, hard to make out)
1704-1713 – St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent County Virginia, William Clopton:
Nane, 29 April, 1704
Jno, 25 June, 1710 (Jno is a common abbreviation of John)
___bin, 6 June, 1706
_____, 8 May, 1707
_____, 30 May, 1713
1714-1730 – St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent County, Virginia, Robert Clopton:
_____, 7ber 25th, 174?
girl, 12, ___ember, 1715?
Hannah, 5 February, 1717
Dick, 18 November 1719
Judy, 17th May, 1725
Pompey, 27 September, 1726
Venus, 20 March, 1727
Moll, 31 March, 1729
Richard, 5 June 172?, baptized 19 August, 172?
Also a man named Dick belonging to Robert died 1 April, 1720
Walter Clopton – also St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent, Virginia:
A really nice thing about genealogy is that I can call my obsessive behavior research.
Fun Fact: When a baby was born in St. Peter’s Parish, where the Cloptons had their Virginia foothold, it was recorded in the church registry with the name of it’s parents. Congratulations! When an enslaved baby was born or baptized it was also documented in the church register but with the name of it’s owner, not it’s parents. For example, entries for my eighth great grandfather, one of the Roberts: “Margaret, daughter of Rob. Clopton born ye 8th day of April 1717,” is recorded right next to “Hannah, a negro girl of Robert Clopton Born Febry ye 5th, 1717.” A ways farther on is “Robt son of Robt & Mary Clopton born July 28 bapd 7ber 1st 1728.” I’d also like to point out that I saw the names “Xtopher” and “Epaphroditus” while flipping through this church register. Thought you ought to know.
Short Lecture: By 1760 40% of the population in the Tidewater area was made up of enslaved Africans who worked while the planters honed their aristocratic lifestyles. If I’m understanding correctly (thanks to reading some fine books*), within a couple decades the tobacco fields wore out and at the same time migration moved into the Deep South where the big money was in cotton. Growing cotton was extremely profitable if you scaled up to big-ass plantations with free labor. This cotton boom created a corresponding demand for enslaved people who provided the free labor. Tidewater folks were looking to get out of tobacco anyway and it made financial sense to sell huge numbers of people to be literally herded south and west; literally “sold down the river.”
Working Hypothesis: This supports the idea that my fine Clopton tobacco barons faltered financially, sold the people they enslaved, and went west to invest in something new. Through the 1700’s my direct grandfathers were paying personal property taxes on their enslaved people, their horses, cattle, mules, land and buildings. (Seriously. Usually the enslaved people were listed by sex and age group, pretty much like the livestock. Sometimes they had their first names listed. In 1784 John Clopton, probably one of mine, owned Landon, Harry, Dolstra and Dick.) By the 1800s it seems like my string of Williams, Roberts and Johns had decamped to Kentucky.
*American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard, and The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist