Lives intertwined in antebellum Fauquier
The lives of people from Fauquier County who played significant roles in the Civil War are well-chronicled, from the Confederate officers and private soldiers to the women who kept the home fires burning.
Given the time and place, most of those stories are about white Southerners. There were exceptions, most notably Dangerfield Newby (1815-1859), who participated in the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry led by abolitionist John Brown on October 16-18, 1859.
The story of his life and death demonstrates the complexity, inhumanity, and suffering of the enslaved in the antebellum South. It is worth noting that a law pushed by President Thomas Jefferson and passed in 1807 made the importation of slaves into the United States a federal crime. However, the domestic slave trade in the southern U.S. was allowed to flourish.
Dangerfield Newby was born in Fauquier County to a white father, Henry Newby (1783-1861), and Elsey Pollard (d. 1884), an enslaved woman owned by landowner John Fox (d. 1859), who owned the large Great Run Tract in Fauquier County near Fauquier Springs.
Henry and Elsey had two farms, the first a 45-acre property near the Fauquier-Culpeper County line that he sold to his brothers in 1830, and then a 246-acre farm on the Old Richmond Road.
Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, but Henry and Elsey lived together as man and wife. Dangerfield was the first of their 11 children. As the law required, the status of a person born of an interracial couple was determined by the race of the mother, and so Dangerfield and his siblings were born slaves.
“By 1840, Henry Newby held nine slaves, including a male between 10 and 23 years of age, who was most likely Dangerfield, and a female between 24 and 35 years of age, probably Elsey Newby,” wrote Peter Schwartz in Migrants Against Slavery (2001). “By 1850, he possessed 17 slaves. It is likely that those of working age labored on Newby’s 150 improved acres.”
It was in the early 1840s that Dangerfield married Harriet Jennings, an enslaved woman owned by Dr. Lewis A. Jennings who owned property along the Rappahannock River below Fauquier Springs, a home in Warrenton, and a farm at Brentsville.
Dangerfield and Harriet eventually had seven children, and it became his primary goal to purchase the freedom of Harriet and their children from Jennings. For years, Dangerfield worked as a blacksmith and was hired out to work on the Rappahannock River Canal.
“Dangerfield Newby was a quiet man, upright, quick-tempered, and devoted to his family,” wrote Thomas Featherstonhaugh in John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry, published by the Southern History Association in 1899.
Freeing the slaves
It was the intention of John Fox and his sister, Elizabeth Blackwell, to free their slaves before they died. A Virginia law passed in 1856 stipulated that slaves emancipated by their owners had to leave the state within 12 months or they could be sold back into slavery. Fox urged many of his former slaves to move to free states in the north, but many safely stayed in Fauquier, establishing Blackwelltown near Midland and Foxville below Fauquier Springs.
Henry Newby sold his farm in 1858 and filed a deed of manumission in Culpeper County for Evangeline Newby, 26, and her three children. He then moved with the rest of his family group to Bridgeport, Ohio, where there was work digging coal.
They were listed on the 1859 census as “a white, 70-year-old farmer, along with 21 other people designated as mulattoes,” and Elsey, who was recorded as black, according to Schwartz. Of the group, 13 had the surname Newby, and nine, Bywaters.
“Henry was one of those slaveholders who held their wives and children in bondage and then freed them,” wrote Schwartz. “Henry acknowledged Elsey in his will as the mother of his children and willed most of his property to her.”
Under the Ohio Supreme Court decision Anderson v. Poindexter (1857), a slave owner’s establishment of residence in Ohio automatically freed that person’s slaves in the state. Now free, Dangerfield made the risky journey south to do what he could to free his own family, or at least part of it.
The fatal raid and aftermath
The original agreement allowed Dangerfield to purchase Harriet and their youngest child Lucy, then a baby, from Jennings for $1,000. However, after Dangerfield had finally earned enough money, Jennings significantly raised the price.
It is likely that Dangerfield’s frustration that he could not free his family compelled him to join John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He believed that a successful insurrection like the one planned by Brown and the war that would follow would bring about the end of slavery, and all of his family would be freed.
“Dangerfield Newby’s personal stake in the Harpers Ferry Raid was immeasurable,” wrote Schwartz.
In addition to Dangerfield, there were four other African Americans in Brown’s 22-member raiding party: Lewis Sheridan Leary and John Anthony Copeland of Oberlin, Ohio; Osbourne Perry Anderson, who was born in Fauquier County and was living in Chester County, Pennsylvania; and Shields Green, who had fled from slavery in Charleston, South Carolina.
The conduct and result of the raid are well-documented. Brown and his men successfully occupied part of the arsenal but were quickly taken under fire by local citizens. Confined in the arsenal fire engine house, the raiders were overrun by regional militia companies and a force of U.S. Marines that arrived on the scene.
According to raider Osbourne Perry Anderson in A Voice from Harper’s Ferry (1861), Dangerfield Newby was with a group of raiders on the streets of Harpers Ferry on the morning of October 17 when he was shot from a store window by a local citizen. Knocked to the ground by the first shot, Dangerfield returned fire, but was then shot in the head, dying instantly. His attacker was then killed by Shields Green.
On Dangerfield’s body was found a letter from Harriet describing the difficult conditions she was facing as a slave of Dr. Jennings, which read in part: “Dear Husband, I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you don’t get me, somebody else will. The servants are very disagreeable. They do all that they can to set my mistress against me. It is said that the master is in want of money. If so, I know not what time he may sell me. Then all my bright hopes of the future are blasted. For there has been one bright hope to cheer me in my troubles, and that is to be with you.”
There are different stories about what happened next. In The Ghosts of Harper’s Ferry by Steven D. Brown, it is alleged that Dangerfield’s body was horribly mutilated by the locals and left in an alley to be eaten by hogs. This description is also found in The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry by Joseph Barry.
However, according to an eyewitness account written by Willard Chambers Gompf that appeared in the New York Times on October 13, 1929, some of the bodies of the 10 raiders who died at Harpers Ferry, including Copeland and Green, were sent to the Medical College of Virginia in Winchester for use as cadavers.
Other remains, including those of Dangerfield, were buried in shallow graves on the south bank of the Shenandoah River about a mile north of town, “… where the hogs uncovered them,” according to Gompf.
Of those not killed, seven of the raiders, including John Brown, were executed. Five escaped, among them Osbourne Perry Anderson, who became a recruiter for the Union Army and died in 1872.
In 1899, an effort was made to collect whatever remains of the raiders that could be found and place them in a common grave on the farm near North Elba, New York, where John Brown was buried.
While the final resting place of Dangerfield Newby is uncertain, what happened to his family is known. Following the raid, Mrs. Jennings broke up the family and sold Harriet and the children to cotton planters in Louisiana, where their lives were much harder.
Remarkably, Harriet survived her trials there, and was emancipated along with the rest of America’s enslaved by the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until the Civil War was over that she and the children were truly free.
At a Freedmen’s Bureau camp in Louisiana, Harriet met Virginia native William Robinson who had also ended up there. They married and returned to Virginia about 1870, living in Fairfax County near some of Dangerfield’s and Harriet’s descendents. She died there in the early 1880s.
Recalling the Newbys of Warrenton
Other members of the extended Newby family lived in the Warrenton area for many years, owning property and having lasting friendships with prominent families of the day. Research done by Sally Harmon Semple on Grapewood, her home at 319 Falmouth Street, indicates that Georgeanna Ward Newby (1824-1868) and her husband, Robert C. Newby (1822-1884) once owned the 17-acre tract on Falmouth Street on which her home was built. Robert was a first cousin (once removed) of Henry Newby, the father of Dangerfield.
A merchant in Warrenton who ran a general store in partnership with Baldwin Day, Robert later owned a leather tannery on the Falmouth Street property. He was also the District Overseer of the Poor, and served as a deacon and Sunday school superintendent at the Warrenton Baptist Church. Semple found that he made a generous donation toward the 1861 construction of the church.
In 1858, the Newbys purchased the house at the corner of Main and Calhoun streets from Jordan Saunders and William A. Pattie. Robert and Georgeanna had at least five children, but only two survived past infancy: Henry Ward and Lucy.
Georgeanna died in 1868 and, as planned, the children inherited the Falmouth Street property. A year later, Robert married Emma Slaughter “Munna” Latham (1841-1932).
Robert Newby went bankrupt in 1872 and lost the tannery. The Fletcher & Brother partnership assumed ownership of the business which Robert continued to operate with the assistance of Jim Rollins, an African American.
According to Semple’s research, Ned Murray, also an African American, ran the tannery for the Fletchers after Robert died.
Semple notes that the small, two-story board-and-batten building behind the main house at Grapewood was likely used as a secondary residence for tannery workers.
Reading Robert Newby’s 1877 diary, Semple learned that Robert raised vegetables on the Grapewood property and appreciates the continuity, noting that today she “…is an avid gardener on the same land.”
Emma and stepdaughter Lucy were active in the social Baptist Sewing Society, which was “… quite a social group attended by the pastor, his family and female church members, and hosted at the Spilman and Newby homes” and other residences, according to Semple.
According to a brief in the September 20, 1875 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, Thad N. Fletcher – who was married to Emma Newby’s sister, Georgia Latham – purchased the Newby house on Main Street from Robert for $3,500. The home remained in the Fletcher/Tiffany/ Pretlow families until 1963.
Henry Ward Newby was for a time an assistant teacher at St. John’s Academy in Alexandria; Lucy married Augustine Henry Shepperd and moved to Anniston, Alabama. Following their father’s death in 1884, they sold the Falmouth Street acreage to Thad N. Fletcher, who later divided the land into lots fronting on the street. Most of the houses built on these lots date back to 1890-1910 and still stand today.
In 1890, Emma married John R. Turner (1838-1918), a widower with two adult children who had been married to Sallie Alice Turner (1844-1888).
Henry Ward Newby was married to Sallie English of Warrenton (1863-1945), and they had a daughter, Georgeanna Newby Page (1888-1966). She was a schoolteacher in Warrenton before moving to Washington, D.C., and was the last surviving member of the Robert C. Newby family who had a direct connection to Fauquier.