Honoring Belle Grove’s Enslaved Community

Historians are currently researching the 276 men, women, and children enslaved by the Hite family at Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown (Frederick County), Virginia. Working to understand and uplift the contributions of the enslaved community is an ongoing effort and a top priority at Belle Grove.

Major Isaac Hite, Jr. kept notes on Belle Grove’s farming operations, property, and assets, including the hundreds of men, women, and children that he and his family enslaved, in a journal that we now call The Commonplace Book (1776-1859). In January 2021, Robin Young and Kristen Laise began to research, write, and produce profiles that share the historical data collected, the connections made, and the conclusions drawn as Belle Grove continues to try understanding the lives of the individuals enslaved by the Hite family. We release a new profile monthly and plan to do so until the end of 2022.

Since 1967, Belle Grove has been a 501c3, nonprofit historic site and museum. If you wish to help or get involved, consider volunteering or donating to Belle Grove, Inc.

What is The Commonplace Book?

Historically, Virginia taxed heads of households on property owned, from mirrors to buggies to horses, and also enslaved human beings. The act of taxation required record keeping and counting, and from the desire to pay only as much as necessary, property owners, particularly large land and human chattel owners, kept handwritten notes—often in thin, bound ledger books. From 1619 to 1865, such books sat on shelves, in drawers, in storage chests, and libraries around the Commonwealth. Historic sites are lucky to have any records that survived. Given that Belle Grove was sold out of the Hite family in 1860 and was occupied as a Union headquarters in the Civil War, we are fortunate to have access to as much as we do. This Commonplace Book—a bound volume of miscellaneous notes from Isaac Hite Jr. and his family, including a ledger of enslaved people, is a key primary source. It is stained, written in various hands, amended with life events without dates, and contain conundrums. Some entries are clearly catch-up record keeping entered weeks later; others are prompt and detailed.

The ledger runs from 1783, when the Madisons deeded the main group of enslaved people were deeded to the Hites, to 1851 when Ann Hite died, a total of 63 years. It has no tidy ending, no wrap of enslaved people’s fates. Over its range of years, the enslaved ledger was used for different functions, known only to the authors. Primarily, it was a purchase record and a birth record. It was an indifferent death ledger. It was an estate planning tool, with notations showing which enslaved people were given to Hite children reaching legal age or marry, as part of their inheritance. At least two or three times, the succession of chronological dates is interrupted by tallies of wealth in human beings or potential people to be sold, such as in 1824 when the family needed cash. Sometimes knowing who was left after the sale of 1824 relies on the luck of seeing their name again in later lists.

The margins offer other tidbits, such as a one-off mention of Ann Hite’s few separately held enslaved people, or the brief catalog of those older than 60 and thus tax exempt. The ledger offers family relationship information of only the mother’s name, never the father’s. If the mother’s name is not listed, it could be a deadend for researchers.

No records indicate any Belle Grove enslaved persons were sold with the land to the new owners in 1860, and while the population had dwindled, the fate and destination of the remaining few are a mystery once they pass out of the pages of The Commonplace Book.

Read this month’s feature on Jordan and Nathan
Jordan and Nathan’s entries in The Commonplace Book

Jordan, born in 1813, and Nathan, born on June 24, 1815, were the sons of Nancy, who bore at least ten children. In researching Jordan and Nathan, historians continue to look for clues in names to help understand connections between Belle Grove’s enslaved men, women, and children. We know that Major Isaac Hite, Jr. sold Jordan and Nathan on November 13, 1834, at which point the brothers likely traveled first to Alexandria, Virginia and then down south via ship to Mississippi. Read about slave trade in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1830s, including The Armfield Coffle of 1834, and what historians think may have happened to Jordan and Nathan after they were sold away from their family at Belle Grove.

Archived feature pieces

Abba’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Abba

Born in 1769, Abba was enslaved for nearly seven decades by four families, mothered a half-Cherokee son, endured loss of her children, and played a vital role in the nursery to the Hite family.

Carter’s entry No. 1 in The Commonplace Book
Carter’s entry No. 2 in The Commonplace Book
Carter’s entry No. 3 in The Commonplace Book

Carter

Although his exact birth date is unclear, we believe that Carter was born May 3, 1806. There are three Carter entries in The Commonplace Book with only one listing his mother as Sarah. Carter’s profile encourages you to become historical detectives, trying to make sense of the three entries, consider who his mother may have been using historical data, and brainstorm his possible fate.

Daniel’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Daniel

Daniel was born on December 29, 1771 and was one of the Hite’s few enslaved men to successfully seek freedom from Belle Grove, fleeing north to Winchester, Maryland and likely on to York County, Pennsylvania.

Major Isaac Hite, Jr. took out several newspaper ads about Daniel’s escape and instructed anyone who knew of his whereabouts to contact a slave catcher at the Black Horse Tavern, a well-attested establishment on the main thoroughfare between Maryland and Pennsylvania. This map shows Black Horse in the upper left corner in yellow, just above the space between the “A” and the “R” in “Marshalls.”

Eliza’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Eliza

Eliza was born on February 17, 1750 at Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Orange County, Virginia. She was a part of the original 15 enslaved men, women, and children who moved with Nelly Madison Hite
from Montpelier to Belle Grove in 1783. Given that Eliza was older than Nelly and experienced in housework, she played an important role to the 23-year-old new wife, who had just moved to Belle Grove with her husband, Major Isaac Hite, Jr.

Emanuel’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Emanuel Jackson

Emanuel was born on April 1, 1815 to Hannah Thorton, an enslaved woman at Belle Grove, and Emanuel Jackson Senior, a free black man. His father bought his freedom, and in 1837, Emanuel Jackson headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to start a new life. His profile is robust with historical data and tells a rare uplifting success story.

Frank & Ben’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Frank & Ben

Ben and Frank were twin brothers who were born on August 17, 1786. Historians were unaware of their mother until recent research and interpretation led them to “Lizza,” which connects the twins to Eliza, one of the earliest enslaved women sent to Belle Grove from Montpelier in 1783. Read how historians used clues in names to connect Frank and Ben to Eliza and how Ann Tunstall Hite’s letters shed light on Ben’s interactions with the Hite family.

Frank’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Frank Thorton

Frank Thorton was born in 1767 and married to Abba. Major Isaac Hite, Jr. bought the married couple and brought them to Belle Grove in 1790. Frank and Abba lived their lives together for over 50 years, with no family separation, which is a level of good fortune not commonly experienced in enslaved communities. Together they had 12 children, none of whom were sold and ten survived to adulthood.

Research updates on Frank from November 2021 are available here.

Hannah’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Hannah Thorton

Hannah was born on February 20, 1790 and came to Belle Grove at just 6-months-old with her parents, Abba and Frank Thornton. As a young woman, she had children with a free man named Emanuel Jackson, who, over the course of a decade, bought the freedom of their four children. Her story introduces the elder Emanuel Jacksondd and talks about life after freedom.

Harry’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Harry

Born on December 4, 1787, Harry is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He arrived as a nearly three-year-old child at Belle Grove in autumn of 1790 as part of the trade between cousins Major Isaac Hite, Jr. and George Hite. He was Abba’s first-born child, and his father was a Cherokee man in South Carolina. Known as “Indian Harry,” he was quiet and permitted to come and go as he pleased. His profile also talks about mental health.

Isaac’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Isaac

Isaac was Abba and Frank Thornton‘s fifth child born at Belle Grove on October 6, 1795. Based on historical data, Isaac does not appear to have ever married or had children, but he was a highly esteemed gardener. Because of his good reputation and standing, Isaac’s life is a little clearer to interpret and understand than others enslaved at Belle Grove, so his profile provides insights into both his family and the Hite family.

Jack & William’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Jack & William

Jack and William are two 18-year-old men who are listed one above the other in Isaac Hite Jr.’s Commonplace Book and noted “to serve seven years.” Outside of their age and the fact that they were to serve the Hite family for a set period of time, we don’t know much else about these two young men. So in this piece, we instead explain common labor arrangements, notable Virginia laws concerning enslavement, and the ways in which enslaved people gained freedom in Virginia.

Judah’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Judah

Judah is the only enslaved person whose death we have a record of the Hites lamenting. Born in 1794, she was pregnant when she arrived at Belle Grove in 1817 and bore 10 more children with Anthony, another man enslaved by the Hite family. Judah is most notable for being the Hite’s cook, which put her at the center of Belle Grove’s household affairs. Her story continues to draw people in, and historians continue to discover little clues that help us get a better understanding of her life. This piece shares new facets of Judah’s family that we’ve recently learned, talks about her jobs within the Hite family, introduces her children, and explains her death April 2, 1836.

Lucy’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Lucy

Lucy was born during a baby boom at Belle Grove on March 16, 1806. We know a little about Lucy’s family but not much else about her life. Lacking the typical records used in family history research, we employed onomastics, which studies the history of proper names, to look for other clues to understand Lucy’s life.

Research updates on Lucy from November 2021 are available here.

Milly’s entry in The Commonplace Book
Mary’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Milly & Mary

Milly, born in 1819, and Mary, born on March 6, 1821, were Judah’s first daughters born at Belle Grove. Their profile explains the expectations for enslaved children, what it may have been like to grow up at Belle Grove, their health, and their fate.

Molly’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Molly

Born in 1737, the glimpses of Molly’s life come from careful parsing of three sets of records from 1794 to 1796. They seem to indicate protective measures that were set in place at a critical transition time between the passing of the estate of Isaac Hite Sr. to Major Isaac Hite, Jr. and reveal she had a special importance to both men. She became the only enslaved person to ever be granted free status by either. Furthermore, she must be recognized as being among a tiny contingent of enslaved Africans who pioneered settlement of the Shenandoah Valley alongside Europeans in the 1730s.

Research updates on Molly from November 2021 are available here.

Richmond’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Richmond

We do not know too much about Richmond aside from the fact that he was born on April 25, 1821 at Belle Grove, that his mother’s name was Philis, and that he was the second youngest of his mother’s nine children. His story provides insight into Belle Grove’s baby boom of 1819-1823, enslaved women as wetnurses, and the history of naming enslaved men after cities.

Watch the video tribute for Richmond’s 200th birthday here.

Robin’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Robin

Born on July 25, 1755 at Montpelier, Robin was a well-reputed blacksmith mentioned in letters written by future President James Madison. He was a part of the group of twelve enslaved men and women who were deeded to Nelly Madison Hite and her husband, Major Isaac Hite, Jr. in 1801 to complete Nelly’s inheritance.

Shadrach’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Shadrach

Born on January 7, 1767 at Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Orange County, Virginia, Shadrach is believed to have been the overseer of a small piece of land called “Shadrach’s Tract” before he was deeded to Nelly Madison Hite and her husband, Major Isaac Hite, Jr. in 1801 to complete Nelly’s inheritance.

Research updates on Shadrach from November 2021 are available here.

Advertisement in the Virginia Gazette,
October 14, 1789, p. 3.

Suckey

Born in 1762 and originally enslaved by Isaac Hite, Sr. (father of Major Isaac Hite, Jr.), Suckey unsuccessfully sought freedom in 1789 with a local Scotsman named John Rutherford. Major Hite inherited her in August 1796, where she remained enslaved at Belle Grove until at least 1827. Suckey’s story touches on enslaved individuals seeking freedom, period clothing, and domestic housework performed by enslaved women.

Research updates on Suckey from November 2021 are available here.

Truelove’s entry in The Commonplace Book

Truelove

Although her name may be as unique as it is mysterious, Truelove’s life was far from romantic. Born on January 28, 1754, she was one of two female tobacco-field workers at Belle Grove during the short window in which the plantation produced tobacco. Her life was filled with ups and downs, bearing children, losing children to death or the slave trade, and performing laborious tasks until she ultimately died at age 74.

Young Truelove in Major Isaac Hite, Jr’s fiber processing records

Young Truelove

Two Trueloves lived at Belle Grove, one born in 1754 and the other, Young Truelove, born on November 16, 1783. Belle Grove has an incomplete set of fiber processing records, which span 1819-1837. Some undated notes indicate that Young Truelove received up to 12 pounds of wool on three occasions, most likely to spin into thread. This glimpse opens a vast panorama of history. In Young Truelove’s profile, explore the world of raising the most prized sheep of the 19th century, merinos, and the role that enslaved people at Belle Grove played in fiber processing tasks that produced very fine wool cloth.