Lot 4 of 613:
1822 Document Emancipating slaves by a Virginia woman  

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Unique slave emancipation document signed by an anti-slavery Virginia woman who was declared insane

Barbary [Barbara] Wilson





Document Signed. Bath County, Virginia, Jan. 5, 1822. 1pg.+  court validation signed on verso by Charles L. Francisco, Court Clerk and two witnesses.

“…being upon principle opposed to holding any person in Slavery and for other good causes and considerations…have liberated emancipated and forever …quit claim to and discharge from my Service my black man Slave named Harry aged about thirty two years and I do hereby bind myself my heirs executors and administrators forever to release and discharge from my own or their Service the said black man….”

While surviving documents of emancipation stating principled opposition to slavery are rare, the background of this case is near-unique: Barbara Wilson was the octogenarian unmarried daughter of Irish immigrants who came to Virginia before the French and Indian War. When she was a child, Indians attacked her family’s cabin in the Shenandoah Valley, carried off her younger brother, knocked her to the ground and cracked her skull with a tomahawk blow. Some sixty years later, after two sisters who lived with her had died, finding herself in possession of 14 slaves, six of them infants or children, she decided to set them all free. Besides the Black man Harry, she declared three to be “mulatto” and the rest “white” - possibly anticipating a court challenge, which in fact, immediately ensued.  Wilson’s relatives brought suit to have her declared of “unsound mind“ – and to have a guardian committee take charge of her estate, including the just-freed slaves. Wilson herself died 3 years later, while the 14 “freedmen” she had emancipated were again enslaved. The slaves brought a “pauper” suit of their own, which dragged on for 14 years, contending that they were in fact white, and should never have been enslaved, as Wilson had recognized by her act of emancipation, accusing the guardian committee of  “lawless conduct” in “forcibly” depriving them of their freedom. The committee responded that the slaves were not white but mulattoes, and that Wilson, ever since the Indian attack, had been “extremely imbecile” and in her “dotage” when she freed the slaves, who had “acquired great influence over her”, as had one of the witnesses, who had defrauded her of her property.  After more than a decade of litigation, a court decided that while Wilson had been “very infirm” and of “weak mind”, she had not been insane and had a right to emancipate the slaves, who were at last set free in 1836.

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