Virginia Family Research

June, 2023

Lincoln — This, the month of the new official American holiday Juneteenth, is a fitting time to look at the history of slavery in the Virginia branch of our own family.  I've been a subscriber to the genealogical research service Ancestry for several years.  The following is a summary of what I've found.  

It also presents an opportunity to raise questions about others' conclusions on certain slavery related matters, some of which seem off-base and in need of correction. 

Most of my ancestors emigrated from Sweden to America in the late 19th century, but my paternal grandmother's roots go back to early colonial Virginia.  Through her, Ressie Mae Zicafoose Oberg, I am a 3rd cousin, six times removed, of our fourth president, James Madison, and a 1st cousin, five times removed, of our twelfth president, Zachary Taylor.  Both were slaveholders.  

Madison, father of the Constitution and drafter of the Bill of Rights, did not free his slaves but left them to his wife Dolley, with the provision that they not be sold without their consent. Taylor also did not free his slaves, asking only in his will that in their old age they be "made comfortable."  

As to my direct ancestors, several Virginians were slaveholders.  Among the earliest were generations of Strother families, of English emigrant origin, dating from the mid-17th century and accounting for the presidential connections.  In the late 18th century, however, Anthony Dabney Strother and his wife, Frances Eastham Strother, freed their slaves on grounds that the practice was immoral, according to an account written by their son Philip Eastham Strother, who became a Methodist minister in Kentucky.  Henceforth my line of Strothers, who descended from another of the couple's sons, Francis, in Pendleton County, Virginia, were not slaveholders.  

Judge Harlan M. Calhoun, a very distant relative, wrote in a foreword to his father's local history of the Civil War, "There had been virtually no slaveholders in Pendleton County."  A closer inspection, unfortunately, shows this is not true.* Notwithstanding the Strother example, my ancestral lines in that mountain county west of the Shenandoah included slaveholders among the Hull, Wimer, Simmons, Ruhlman, Phares, and Hoover families. 

Ancestor Peter Thomas Hull (1706-1776) emigrated to the area, via Pennsylvania, from the German Palatine.  His daughter Catherine married the Palatine emigrant Peter Zickafoose (Ziegenfuss), creating the Zicafoose line in America. Hull's son Captain Peter Hull, who led a Revolutionary War militia company against Cornwallis at Yorktown, eventually became one of the largest slaveholders in the area, with sixteen slaves in 1810.   

Ancestor Philip Wimer (1756-1839), whose parents perished at sea in 1771 as the family emigrated from Frankfurt to Philadelphia, became indentured to a Pendleton County miller.  He subsequently joined Captain Hull's unit and later became a slaveowner in the county along with his son, Philip Wimer, Jr.  (After the Civil War, in the 1880s, with slavery a memory, his grandson Peter B. Wimer moved the family to Lancaster County, Nebraska, near North 84th and Agnew Road, where he was joined by his daughter Susan [whose mother was Sarah Strother], her husband William Clark Zicafoose, and their children Otto and Ressie Mae.)   

Ancestor Leonard Simmons, along with his son Captain Henry Simmons and grandson William George Simmons, also became slaveowners in Pendleton County in the first decades of the 19th century. The 1810 census shows that our 4th great-grandfather Captain Henry Simmons (1760-1825) owned four slaves. His 1823 will gave his slave Reuben to his son William George Simmons. The will also provided that if his "negroe man Larrence...and negroe woman Else should get so old as not to be abel to maintain themselves the heirs must maintain them..." Other slaves owned by Captain Simmons, according to his will, were Anthony, Daniel, Elsey, Hannah, Fanny, and Judey.

Ancestors Christian Ruhlman, Johnson Phares, and Michael Hoover owned fewer slaves.  Michael Hoover at his death had only one slave, Jim, and in his will gave him his "entire freedom."  I don't know what kind of person Michael Hoover was, but to his credit he did what two presidents wouldn't — give a slave freedom. 

Of interest is that several of these families acquired land as a result of Revolutionary War service, and then acquired slaves to work it. 

Census records and wills do not reveal much as to the hows and whys of slave ownership in these families.  Unlike other areas of Virginia, there were no cotton or tobacco plantations in the county, along the branches of the South Potomac River, hence the numbers of slaves owned was fairly small.  By the onset of the Civil War, the numbers had diminished.  Only three of the above families had slaves in Pendleton County as late as 1860.  

Back to the Strother family, in particular to our 2nd cousin, four times removed, David Hunter Strother, pseudonym 'Porte Crayon.'  He was a famous writer and illustrator known throughout America in the mid-19th century for his stories and illustrations in Harper's Monthly.  As far as I can determine, neither he nor his branch of the family owned slaves.  Revisionists** in recent years suggest he was both a slaveowner and a propagator of ugly stereotypes of slaves.  This seems wrong and a slur on his reputation.  His illustrations of the 1859 trial of John Brown and his two black co-defendants — runaway slaves — were sympathetic and aided the abolitionist cause.  A Virginian from Martinsburg, he joined the Union army, fought in thirty battles and approved the burning of VMI for teaching treason; he became a brevet brigadier general and after the war was a supporter of Reconstruction, especially of education for the formerly enslaved.  His detractors need to look at his life and work more closely.

As I was growing up in the company of my grandmother, she and the family spoke of their heritage as "Pennsylvania Dutch" (Dutch meaning Deutsch, or German), not Virginian.  Which was quite true, because several of the ancestors came from the German Palatine, first to Pennsylvania then on to Virginia.  Whether they knew much about the rest of their heritage, including slavery, I don't know.  

In all families there are heroes and rogues, sometimes even combined into single individuals; I'm curious about them all, especially now with more tools to look into both the good and the bad of family history.    


 *The reason Judge Calhoun distorted the historical facts was to make the case that our relatives who fought for the Confederacy were motivated by principle and that defense of slavery had nothing to do with it.  He wrote: 

Confederate soldiers of that county [Pendleton] were not believers in or supporters of the institution of slavery.  They fought for their conception of the rights of the people as individuals and for local self-government, much as their forbears had fought for such principles in the War for Independence. 

For some reason, he could not acknowledge that many of those Confederate soldiers had actually grown up in slaveholding families in Pendleton County. See 'Twixt North and South, by Harrison M. Calhoun, edited by Harlan M. Calhoun, Former Judge, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, McCoy Publishing Company, Franklin, WV, 1974, p. xi.    

**See, for example, "Race and the Rise of a Mass Visual Culture: The Case of David Hunter Strother’s Virginia Illustrated" by Christopher Lukasik, American Literary History, Volume 32, Issue 3, Fall 2020, Pages 446–479,  The author writes, misleadingly:

The publication of David Hunter Strother’s Virginia Illustrated under the pseudonym Porte Crayon in Harper’s Monthly (1854–56) provides a compelling case study through which to consider the role of race in the development of a US mass visual culture. The media combinations found within and the reception history of Virginia Illustrated demonstrate the importance of racialized viewing to the early success of Harper’s Monthly at a critical moment in media history. To be sure, Virginia Illustrated circulated racist stereotypes to be mass consumed, but the image/text operations of Strother’s literary sketches and illustrations also extended the privileges and pleasures inherent in the performance of the white male gaze to the expanding readership of Harper’s Monthly....  

This fashionable academic jargon is simply not an accurate description of the man who was chief of staff to the Union general (coincidentally his mother's first cousin) who emancipated slaves in three states before Lincoln's own emancipation of them.  Porte Crayon's detractors either want to distort his life for their own purposes or they have not done their homework on him.    


States: Beware of Education Policy Dangers

June, 2023

Lincoln — States like Nebraska are taking up ideas that have superficial appeal as good education policy but are fraught with dangers the states haven't thought through.

One such idea is completion of the federal FAFSA college financial aid application as a requirement for high school graduation, as described in a recent article in the higher education trade press.

I would not recommend it.  Do states understand that FAFSA data are often shared by colleges with enrollment management consultants to determine family price sensitivity?  Here is how Josh Mitchell in his book The Debt Trap describes what one such typical consulting company does with FAFSA family income and other data.  

Firms like Ruffalo Noel Levitz help schools determine how much to discount for each student to make as much money as possible overall. The firms use hundreds of variables – including race, home address, SAT scores, parental education level and wealth, and even how many times the student visited campus during recruiting – to gauge each student’s “price sensitivity.” That phrase refers to how much his or her family might be willing and able to pay. The firms study the behavior of the past three years of freshman classes and then suggest, down to the dollar, what the school should charge students of different characteristics.

More than requiring students to fill out the FAFSA, states should first be pressing the federal government to crack down on colleges and their enrollment management consultants who use data collection against the interests of students, families, and, ironically, federal financial aid programs themselves.  The secretary of education already has the necessary authority, under current law, to prohibit practices that undermine higher education access.  

Another suspect idea is providing generous state tax credits for contributions to private and parochial elementary and secondary schools, on the theory that this will provide more opportunity for  disadvantaged students, including minorities.  But the money may not wind up being applied to that purpose, in practice.  Money is fungible. 

States should look at the experience of U.S. higher education when federal grants, loans, and tax credits were made widely available to financially needy students and families.  Tuition-charging institutions soon adjusted tuition levels, tuition discounts ("scholarships"), and loan offerings to maximize income, employing sophisticated enrollment management consultants to shape admissions and financial aid policies.  The end result, in the case of higher education, has been more opportunity for the non-needy and increasingly large debt burdens for minorities, as documented in many analyses of the distribution of student and parent debt, by race

States would be wise to prohibit those K-12 schools benefiting from state tax credits from offering loans to pay tuition as part of dubious and downright unconscionable enrollment management plans, to head off a repeat of the nation's backfired higher education experience.*  At a minimum, states should require such schools to meet standards for admissions and pricing that regulate discredited scholarship displacement, lead generation, and recruiting practices.    

I do not express these cautions from any particular political, ideological, or religious standpoint.  Rather, the concerns are based on a career in public budgeting and finance during which I have seen many education policies result in opposite effects from those intended, and in diminished government fiscal capacity to address real educational challenges as they arise. 


*  Loans are already a common means for families to pay private K-12 tuition.  The formidable enrollment management company EAB is positioning itself to move into K-12 education with the same techniques it employs in higher education, to maximize institutional revenues and enhance brand identification.  One prominent K-12 lender that was a U.S. Department of Education postsecondary contractor is no longer, due to many successful lawsuits including one from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.