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 Major 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.