img_1707img_1706Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh, after about 3 years of construction, on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. It was for more than a century the center of a large, thriving plantation. Flanking the main house were dozens of supporting structures: slave quarters, a dairy, ice house, barns, stables. Down on the river were fish traps.

Slavery at Chatham

Fitzhugh owned upwards of 100 slaves, with anywhere from 60 to 90 being used at Chatham, depending on the season. Most worked as field hands or house servants, but he also employed skilled tradesmen such as millers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Little physical evidence remains to show where slaves lived; until recently, most knowledge of slaves at Chatham was from written records.

In January 1805, a number of Fitzhugh’s slaves rebelled after an overseer ordered slaves back to work at what they considered was too short an interval after the Christmas holidays. The slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and four others who tried to make them return to work. An armed posse put down the rebellion and punished those involved. One black man was executed, two died while trying to escape, and two others were deported, perhaps to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

A later owner of Chatham, Hannah Coulter, who acquired the plantation in the 1850s, tried to free her slaves through her will upon her death. Her will provided that her slaves would have the choice of being freed and migrating to Liberia, with passage paid for, or of remaining as slaves with any of her (Coulter’s) family members they might choose.

Chatham’s new owner, J. Horace Lacy, took the will to court to challenge it and had it overturned. The court denied Coulter’s slaves any chance of freedom by ruling that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that slaves were property, and not persons with choice..

In January 1805, the plantation was the site of a minor slave rebellion. A number of slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and assistants. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered to capture the slaves. They killed one slave in the attack, and two died trying to escape. The posse deported two other slaves, likely to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

However, Hannah’s much younger half-sister Betty had in 1848 married J. Horace Lacy, a prosperous businessman and slaveowner at Ellwood Plantation further to the south in the Wilderness area of Spotyslvania County. Lacy convinced the will’s executors to seek court direction. The Stafford court upheld the manumissions, but the Virginia Court of Appeals (the name at the time of the Virginia Supreme Court) in a 3 to 2 decision overturned the 92 conditional manumissions (only upholding Charles’ outright manumission). The court denied Coalter’s slaves any chance of freedom by ruling that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that slaves were property, and not persons with choice.


Ellen Mitchell, an enslaved laundress at “Chatham”, had known of and counted on Mrs. Coalter’s promise of manumission. When Lacy’s court case took her freedom away, Mitchell, irate, loudly proclaimed how unfair this denial was, particularly as she feared being sent to a plantation in Monroe, Louisiana. To be rid of her (and the problem she represented), Lacy sold her to a slave trader, James Aler, in Fredericksburg. Aler, active in his church and unsure what to do with Mitchell, allowed her a 90-day pass to leave Fredericksburg in early 1860 on a tour during which she and one of her sons attempted to raise money to buy their freedom for $1000. She gave speeches to church and political groups in Washington City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, raising enough money to return to Fredericksburg and buy not only her own freedom, but also that of her children. Lacy, impressed, also freed Mitchell’s mother. The Mitchell family moved to Cincinnati in the free (i.e. slavery-prohibited) state of Ohio. In the 1860 census, Ellen Mitchell was listed as running a laundry business. Today, some of her descendants still live in that area of Ohio.

The 1860 census indicated that Lacy owned 39 slaves at Chatham and another 49 at his Ellwood plantation, as well as some slaves which he rented out.



Haki Kweli Shakur 1-5-51ADM 2017 August Third Collective NAPLA NAIM