A Query into the Questionable Tale Regarding the Attempted Rescue by Capt. Humphrey Hughes (1775-1858) of Napoleon Bonaparte Imprisoned on the Isle of St. Helena

Capt. Humphrey Hughes annotated

There has been no shortage over the years of tales of daring-do regarding the various rescue attempts of former Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, from his prison exile on the Isle of St. Helena.[i] Among those anecdotes recently found, is one involving a “Captain” Humphrey Hughes of Cape May, New Jersey who, so the legend goes,  failed in his attempt and was imprisoned. While incarcerated his portrait was purportedly sketch and said portraiture has been passed down among his descendants.[ii] What validity there is to firstly, his rescue attempt, thence secondly  whether the provenance of the portrait itself is valid are both the subject of this essay.

To begin our query, it’s instructive to start with some preliminary background information regarding  who Capt. Humphrey Hughes was.

Among the earliest attempts to sort out the Hughes of Cape May and their connection to Mayflower Pilgrim, John Howland, was theologian and genealogist, Rev. Paul Sturtevant Howe, in his 1921 monograph, Mayflower Pilgrim Descendants in Cape May County, New Jersey, 1620-1920.[iii] Using primary sources, Howe laid out the case of Cape May’s 17th century settlers and their familial connection to their Mayflower ancestors, while correcting and refining earlier sources as he went. As for the Hughes, they were among the earliest landholders as well as whalers.[iv] The progenitor of his Cape May line, according to sources Howe reviewed, was an earlier Humphrey Hughes, quite likely the same Humphrey who owned the 206 acres of land, according to Dr. Maurice Beasley’s Sketch of the Early History of the County of Cape May, which Howe consulted.[v]

However, there were other early Cape May Hughes, those from whom Rev. Daniel Lawrence Hughes (1820-1902) descended and who’s own great-grandfather, Jacob Hughes (1711-1772),  had settled in Cape May as early as 1711, reportedly  from Wales, according to the genealogy he published in 1891 which Howe likewise heavily consulted. [vi]  These two Hughes lines converged with the marriage of Rev. D.L. Hughes to Elmira William Hughes, in Cape May in 1843, she, the granddaughter of Captain Humphrey Hughes (1775-1858).[vii] The Jacob Hughes, already noted, married in 1743 in Cape May to Priscilla Leaming (1710-1758), although for Priscilla, Jacob was her second marriage.[viii]

There are two known 19th century sources for the Capt. Humphrey Hughes-Bonaparte rescue story – each suffering from inherent weaknesses which we’ll examine in detail. The first of these is the two-volume compendium, published in 1897 for members of the New Jersey bar, The Judicial and Civil History of New Jersey.[ix]

“Captain Humphrey Hughes, who during the war of 1812 sailed under letters of marque issued by the French government and gained considerable fame for his attempt to rescue Bonaparte from his imprisonment at St. Helena—an attempt which, but for the premature discharge of a weapon caused by the fall of a sailor. would undoubtedly have been successful.”

Typical of such hagiographic works of the period, no source citation is given for this account. It has ever since simply been taken prima facie and passed along unquestioned and cited often whenever Capt. Humphrey Hughes is mentioned biographically. There is much in the historical record to show that Privateering, as legal piracy was termed during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812,  was an attractive and sometimes profitable undertaking to adventurous seamen.[x] However, whether Capt. Hughes participated to the degree family lore claims, is another question entirely.

The second account is a verbatim repetition of the first published in 1900 in Volume Two of the two-volume set, Biographical, Genealogical and Descriptive History of the First Congressional District of New Jersey Illustrated, published in 1900 by New York-based Lewis Publishing Company.[xi]

A careful analysis of the claim, however, reveals its several fault lines. Firstly, there is the matter of the “…letters of marque issued by the French government…”

That’s incorrect because it was not the French government from whom Hughes received his letters of marque, but from his own. On April 3, 1776, the Continental Congress provided its seaman a means by which  to aid the Independence movement that was both profitable (albeit dangerously so,) for them and greatly aided the Revolution’s virtually-non-existent naval forces: it created letters of marque in an instrument known today by its lengthy title:

Instructions to the commanders of private ships or vessels of war, which shall have commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, authorising [sic] them to make captures of British vessels and cargoes.

As William Young, a Juris Doctorate candidate at the Washington & Lee University School of Law explained in his 2009 essay, “A Check on Faint-hearted Presidents: Letters of Marque and Reprisal” :

In stark contrast to the wealth and military power of Europe during the eighteenth century, America’s thirteen colonies possessed little in the way of financial resources or naval might during the Revolutionary War. The use of privateers allowed the fledgling nation to supplement its small navy and do a great deal of harm to British commerce. During the Revolutionary War, America had just sixty-four ships in its official navy and commissioned only twenty-two “men of war” during the conflict. In contrast, the federal and state governments commissioned around 2,000 privateers during the War.[xii]

Moreover, although letters of marque were issued to seaman during the War of 1812, there is no record of them having ever been issued to a Humphrey Hughes, born in 1775. Instead, the record shows they were issued to who was likely his father, Humphrey Hughes, born in Cape May in 1752. The entry from the “Letters of Marque,(1778-1782)”  section in Volume 1 of Thomas L. Montgomery’s,  Pennsylvania Archives, lists Humphrey Hughes as the captain of a twenty-ton sloop named New Comet owned by Thomas Leaming & Co. It carried a crew of twenty-five and six gun carriages. Hughes’ Letters of Marque were issued November 9, 1778 by the Continental Congress. We can tell because he and Leaming jointly paid a $5,000 bond.[xiii] That exorbitant surety was part of the requirement per the act already noted which both codified privateering and set forth its rules of conduct.[xiv] Bonds were required to assure the vessel would not be put to any illegal means. Moreover, there is the faithfully transcribed bond itself recorded by Raymond Finley Hughes, a mid-20th century genealogist claiming descendancy from Humphrey Hughes. The bond not only clearly identified the bond holders but also their intended purpose of the vessel.[xv] There is also the rather obvious fact that, if born in 1775, the younger Hughes would have only been three years old in 1778.

According to several vague accounts Hughes the elder “died at sea”. There is also good evidence he died during his seafaring adventure as a privateer in 1778 — the same year he purchased the bond and acquired his letters of marque. For example,   Jane Whilliden, (1756-1790) wife of Hughes the elder married the next year to Jeremiah Edmonds on July 1, 1779 in Cape May.[xvi] She was Edmond’s second wife. Unfortunately, the marriage ended abruptly and tragically with Jane’s death in 1790 leaving the newlywed a widower to raise his step-son, Humphrey the younger. One document which seems to bear this out is the will of Humphrey’s maternal grandfather, James Williden, who executed the document October 11, 1780. In his will he explicitly directs Edmonds to,  ”take care and educate and maintain the son of my daughter Jane [Williden] commonly known by the name of Humphrey Hughes, until he shall attain the age of 14, etc.,” [xvii] In 1780, Humphrey Hughes the younger was only five years old.

From a closer analysis of the extend record, we can begin to understand that part of the problem for latter-day researchers and their descendants appears to be their reliance upon 19th century writers like Whitehead who managed  to conflated the two Hughes men by attributing to Hughes the younger a letter of marque issued to his father; Such early writers further complicated the confusion by  misidentifying another document issued to Hughes the younger some years later. That second instrument was not a privateering document at all but rather a Certificate of Protection. One way we know which document Hughes the younger had was by his own sworn affidavit which he gave to Richard Palmer, a Philadelphia County Justice of the Peace in 1806. He explained to Palmer that:

“…on or about the month of April last [he]…received from the Custom House of the Port of Philadelphia a certificate of protection as an American seaman…”

              Hughes further explained he’d managed to lose his certificate and would return it if ever he found it again.[xviii]

Unlike letters of marque, a seaman’s letter of protection could be had cheaply at a local Custom’s House and were issued to nearly any seaman applying for one for as little as twenty-five cents, or roughly the equivalent of $5 U.S. dollars today.[xix]  This, at a time when British impressment (forced military service,) of Americans captured on the high seas was a serious problem. Certificates of Protection thus were granted to American seamen as a means by which to  prevent their being made slaves of British military servitude. Replacing one, such as in the Hughes case, was a matter of re-applying via documents establishing one’s identity or, barring that, a sworn statement. Ergo, the deposition. A more in-depth overview of the historical significance and context of these certificates and why they were issued to seamen plying their trade along America’s eastern seaboard is available from the National Archives here.

            Thus far the first part of the claim has been addressed and it’s fair to conclude the Humphrey Hughes named is probably Humphrey Hughes the elder, but as a privateer he was conflated with his son insofar as who had the letters of marque and what it was reportedly for. It’s also been shown why letters of marque and certificates of protection were two different instruments, issued at two separate times to two different people: very likely father and son.

The second part of the same claim, however, implies Hughes (with his letters of marque) attempted to rescue the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte from his imprisonment on the mid-Atlantic isle of St. Helena and that his failure to do so resulted in his capture and imprisonment there and that during said incarceration his portrait was done. We’ll address this claim next.

The claim, as already noted, bears no citation to any known authority or documented evidence. But there is plenty of documentation and historical accounts we can assess to get at what likely happened and then see how that comports with the claim.

As already noted, Humphrey Hughes’s portraiture provenance is likely based on the dubious claims by 19th century writers such as Whitehead, whose account has gone untested against available evidence. That leaves us to examine what the records surrounding these events might tell us. First, we have to understand something about Napoleon’s exile to such a remote island. It was more than a thousand miles from the nearest land mass, a location so remote and so well guarded, Napoleon’s escape was never achieved; it was here that he died in 1821 after six years of banishment. For a sense of its remoteness, here’s a description from Norwood Young’s 1915 monograph, “Napoleon in Exile”:

[St. Helena] is 1140 miles from the nearest land in South Africa, 1800 miles from South America, 700 from the island of Ascension,1750 from Capetown, and 4400 from England.[xx]

The trip aboard the British naval vessel, Northumberland, with his entourage took more than two months; they finally dropped anchor,  October 15, 1815. It was not a deserted wasteland; it was a rocky, remote, volcanic island and British outpost which at the time was administered exclusively as a kind of fiefdom by the East Indian Company, though used extensively as a way station for ships along trade routes. It was inhabited by a colony known as Jamestown of some 600 “whites” and others and there were more than 1,000 slaves in use according to records.[xxi]

Moreover, fearful of another Alba-like escape, the coming and going of every ship arriving and departing the island was strictly monitored by the British which heavily garrisoned and fortified the island during Napoleon’s exile. The contents of those lists are now housed with the  British Library ‘Western Manuscripts Collection,” among the Sir Hudson Lowe Papers, (Add.MS 20161) and nowhere do they list prisoner ships or prisoners among their manifests as being bound for St. Helena.[xxii] Of those vessels which did drop anchor at St. Helena, such as the convict transport ship, Friendship, in October, 1817, (which stayed long enough to drop off a few well-vetted Napoleon visitors,) its 101 women and four grown children convicts were bound for the British penal colony, New South Wales, Australia.[xxiii]  Also, it’s worth noting, Napoleon’s exile did not begin on St. Helena until 1815 – some thirty-seven years after Hughes the elder — who had letters of marque — had died. This is not to say St. Helena had no incarceration facilities; it is to say, the island was not in the habit of accepting convicts shipped in from elsewhere.

Further, while there is a rich history of Napoleonic rescue plots, only one may  have caught the ex-emperor’s interest and it involved a kind of proto-submarine vessel. Historian, Mike Dash,  explored this fascinating tale for the Smithsonian Institute’s blog in 2013 with his essay, “The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine.”[xxiv]

If we accept that it may have been Hughes the younger who attempted the rescue, it had to have occurred while the Northumberland was enroute, but there are no records of any such rescue attempt, and no mention of any in the numerous accounts of life aboard the vessel during its voyage; there certainly was none made while Napoleon was alive on St. Helena. The island’s location gave it’s lofty, cliff-positioned garrisons unobscured views of the Atlantic for miles in every direction. And any approaching vessel was spotted long before it ever reached the island’s few places to land. Visitors likewise were carefully vetted requiring passes and escorts. And there was no getting anywhere near Longwood, Napoleon’s prison home after sunset.

Thus, if there was no realistic way for Hughes to have hatched a plot to rescue Napoleon, there would have been no incarceration for doing so. In short, no prison, no prison portrait.

This essay has explored the tale involving a family anecdote passed along to modern descendants connecting their ancestor to what appears to be an untested claim regarding how a portrait of Captain Humphrey Hughes came to be. It has assessed how 19th century writers likely conflated two men for one and ascribed to one of them documents a father and son likely possessed separately and in so doing attached to one of them perilous and valorous actions for which there is no actual evidence. The claims defy both known records as well as the space-time continuum, not to mention basic biology. (Dead people do not go on voyages of daring-do with letters of marque to rescue exiled fallen emperors.) How then to explain the Humphrey Hughes portrait? It’s a good question which certainly should be of interest to those who own it, rather than a fiction which does not hold up under scrutiny.

[i] Emilio Ocampo, “Rescuing Napoleon from St. Helena,” http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/pdf/j2011ocampo.pdf
[ii] Mary Evertz  to researcher, email, July 13 2017, “This is a photo of the pastel portrait of Captain Humphrey Hughes (1775-1858) made while he was in prison on St. Helena trying to rescue Napoleon and they were caught when one of his men tripped on a landyard [sic]. This portrait has been handed down from generation to generation of direct male descendants of Capt. Humphrey Hughes, now in the home of one of my wife’s Hughes cousins. Got the exact picture he’s talking about on ancestry except his is pastel instead of black and white.”
[iii] Digitized original, Rev. Paul Sturtevant Howe, “Mayflower Pilgrim Descendants in Cape May County, New Jersey,  1620-1920,”  Albert R. Hand, 1921, Cape May. http://www.archives.org 
[iv] See: Richard M. Romm, “America’s First Whaling Industry and the Whaler Yoweman of Cape May 1630-1830” master’s thesis, Rutgers University, 2010.  https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:WCZ6EpG2VcEJ:https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/27287/pdf/1/+&cd=19&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us 
[v] Maurice Beesley,  “Sketch of the Early History of Cape May County,” Office of True American, 1857.  
[vi] Rev. Daniel Lawrence Hughes, “The Covenant Fulfilled in Pious Households from 1711-1891” J.D. Landis, 1891. Author’s person family copy, inscribed to his maternal great-grandmother, Emma Sinclair Hughes (1863-1956) by her father, Rev. James Potter Hughes (1827-1920) brother to Rev. D. L. Hughes.
[vii] Ibid. p. 96. An unsigned, digitized original is available at https://archive.org/details/divinecovenantfu00hugh
[viii] Raymond Finley Hughes, “Hughes family of Cape May County, New Jersey, 1650-1950 : a genealogy of the descendants of Humphrey Hughes of Long Island, 1650 and later of Cape May County, New Jersey.” Self-published, c. 1950, p. 5.  Hughes’s findings comport with Dr. Howe’s who writes, “Priscilla Leaming, mother of Margaret, married twice, first John Stites, second Jacob Hughes,” p. 35. Both she and Jacob are buried in the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Cold Spring, Cape May County, New Jersey.
[ix] Digitized original, John Whitehead, “The Judicial and Civil History of New Jersey, “Volume 2,” Boston History Company, 1897.p. 411. The work’s original intent was to give both a comprehensive overview of the history of New Jersey laws (Volume I) and in-depth biographical sketches (Vol. II) of  New Jersey lawyers and jurists of its day. Hughes is included in the biographical sketch on Richard Thompson Miller, a circuit court judge of Camden County because Miller’s great-great grandmother was Humphrey Hughes’s wife, Esther “Hetty” W. Williams (1781-1870) http://www.archive.org.
[x] https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/2013/06/03/the-war-of-1812-privateers-plunder-profiteering/
[xi] Digitized original, “Biographical, Genealogical and Descriptive History of the First Congressional District of New Jersey Illustrated Vol 1,”  Lewis Publishing 1900, p 578. http://www.archives.org  Lewis Publishing Company, a New York publishing house, was a popular 19th-century publishing house of local and state histories. Many of its titles have been digitized. See:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Lewis%20Publishing%20Company
[xii] William Young, “Letters of Marque and Reprisal in the United States The Revolutionary War” in  A Check on Faint-hearted Presidents: Letters of Marque and Reprisal, Washington & Lee University School of Law, May 2009 pdf. http://law2.wlu.edu/deptimages/law%20review/66-2young.pdf
[xiii] Digitized original, Thomas L. Montgomery, “Letters of Marque,(1778-1782)”  in Pennsylvania Archives, Vol. I., Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1906,  p 614.
[xiv] Digitized original,  “In Congress, Wednesday, April 3, 1776: Instructions to the commanders of private ships or vessels of war, which shall have commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, authorizing them to make captures of British vessels and cargoes.” United States Continental Congress, John Hancock, John Dunlap, and Continental Congress Broadside Collection,  Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/90898006/
[xv]  Raymond Finley Hughes, “Hughes family of Cape May County, New Jersey, 1650-1950: A genealogy,1950, self-published, p. 10. In his genealogy, Hughes faithfully transcribed  the $5,000 dollar bond taken out by Humphrey Hughes and Thomas Leaming in 1778 wherein they explicitly state the purpose of the ship and their Letters of Marque.
[xvi] William Nelson, “Marriage Records 1665-1800” in Archives of the State of New Jersey, First Series, Vol. 22 p. 452.
[xvii] Raymond Finley Hughes, “Hughes family of Cape May County, New Jersey, 1650-1950: A genealogy,1950, self-published, p.44.
[xviii] Digitized original, Humphrey Hughes affidavit regarding his lost Certificate of Protection,  Richard Palmer, Justice of the Peace, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, March 15, 1806, http://www.ancestry.com 
[xix] Estimate based on results provided at www.measuringworth.com
[xx] Digitized original, Norwood Young, “Napoleon in Exile at St. Helena (1815-1821)”, Stanley Paul & Co, 1915, http://www.archives.com p. 87.
[xxi] “Slavery on St. Helena Until August 1834” St Helena Island info website. http://sainthelenaisland.info/slaves.htm#itmcd  March 12, 2019, Although the webmaster is a permanent resident and purveyor of St. Helena tourist swag, the information on his website is well cited and exceptionally thorough. In terms of the East India Company’s monopoly of affairs on the island, see: Digitized original, “Period 1673-1836” in G. C. Kitching, Records of the Island of St. Helena, Lat. 15° 55′ S. Long. 5° 428W, The American Archivist, 1946, Vol 9-10, p.159-162 https://books.google.com/
[xxii] It is worth noting that St. Helena was, in fact, as a place of exile for Napoleon, a habitat on loan from the East India Company to British authorities, just as Lowe, the island’s governor was beholden to both his EIC overlords and the British Crown. The Crown supplied the military force necessary to fortify the island while Napoleon was exiled there. See Kitching, 162.
[xxiii] Lally Brown,  “Ahoy Napoleon!”, January 23, 2015, Dawlish Chronicles blog,  http://dawlishchronicles.blogspot.com/2015/01/ahoy-napoleon-guest-blog-by-lally-brown.html
[xxiv]Mike Dash, “The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine,“  March 8, 2013, Smithsonian.com website http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-secret-plot-to-rescue-napoleon-by-submarine-1194764/  See also: Emilio Ocampo, “Rescuing Napoleon from St. Helena,” http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/pdf/j2011ocampo.pdf
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Coming soon to a website near you….

Website Project

 Narratives in Black and White: Historical Profiles of Mixed Race Couples from the American Antebellum and Beyond.

© 2018 Alex Colvin
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(Click the image to visit the site (under construction)


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Image of Charles Colvin Cabin found on 1997 Google Earth satellite image: an update

© 2017, Alex Colvin
all rights reserved.


Last revised: July 4, 2017

This revision included new genealogical data regarding the relationship between the cabin’s last known occupant and the current land owner.

Charles Colvin log cabin GE satellite image 1997

Though the resolution is less than ideal, the Charles Colvin cabin can be clearly discerned in this 1997 Satellite image. Elevation approx. 700 feet. Source: Google Earth

Thanks to a research collaboration between James Carr, longtime Pendleton County, Kentucky resident, and The Colvin Study, the image of Charles Colvin’s cabin built in the late 1790s has been positively identified in older satellite images of land in Pendleton County, situated just a few miles south of Falmouth. Charles is believed to be the progenitor of a line of Colvins which today number several thousands and whose present-day descendants can be found in numerous states including Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, to name a few. Originally from Culpeper County, Virginia, Charles died in Pendleton County in 1810.[i]

Carr was a critical contributor to this latest development as he was able to provide not only a positive eyewitness account of the cabin’s location but was also personally acquainted with its last occupant, Charles “Charlie” Karl Ritter, who died in Harrison County, Kentucky in 1996.[ii] Explaining his friendship with “Charlie,” Carr recalled, “I can see it now with the smoke from the chimney curling up through the morning air as Charlie made his own breakfast and prepared to meet the day.” [iii]  Records show Charles Karl Ritter, was a lifelong Pendletonian and a first- generation German-American whose father,  Joshua Ritter, (1850-1910) immigrated to the U.S. in 1869.[iv] Pendleton County, property records for the parcel on which the cabin sat is listed  as Ideal Drive, Falmouth, Pendleton County, Kentucky,  with the owner listed as Mildred Showalter. [v]  Additional research was able to determine that Mildred was actually Charles’s niece. Mildred L. Ritter,  (a widow from her 1st marriage to Harry Samuel Sydnor [1920-1940] according to marriage records, ) married 2nd to  Howard Showalter in 1942 in Indiana; she was the daughter of Charlie’s brother, William Jacob “Willie” Ritter, Sr. (1892-1967) [vi]

Charles Colvin was among some of the first Colvin members of his line to venture into Kentucky. Records show, on August 13,  1799,  Charles purchased over 390 acres of what was considered the Howell Lewis survey paying fifteen shillings an acre or £300.[vii]  It was believed his log cabin was located on this acreage.  It’s location was alluded to in  Nell Bradford Woolery,’s 1940s self-published narrative, “Some Old Homes of Pendleton County,” [viii]  but with little elaboration. Moreover, the log cabin was not within the same area where the  Four Oaks enclave was established which can be clearly discerned from an 1884 atlas which lists several of Charles’ relatives by name.[ix]  In addition, many of those same relatives, such as Birkett Landrum Colvin,  (1827-1905) can be found depicted in several photographs taken in 1886, wherein Birkett and his family can be seen posing inside and outside their home in the Four Oaks community.[x] Charles’ land  was a few miles north, as the crow flies, in an area whose borders began less than a mile outside Falmouth proper. In the days of horseback travel, at a trot, he could have been in Falmouth within twenty minutes.  He also purchased three  one-quarter-acre town lots from the city of Falmouth the same year.[xi]

Though the image is less than ideal, the structure can be seen on the satellite imagery. Finding the cabin’s location involved using a combination of  period United Stated Geological Survey (USGS) satellite imagery, and Pendleton County Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping data. Though demolished sometime post-1997, why it was demolished is unknown.  It had apparently managed to survive the Great Falmouth Flood of 1996 because, according to Carr, its location  was above the area flood plain. Nevertheless, the cabin is absent in 2003 satellite imagery, which is the next year of available digitized data for the area.  Images post-2003 show a small structure built a hundred yards or so directly in front of the area where the log cabin was located. When the cabin and the lands it sat on left the Colvin family remains under investigation.


[i] Charles Colvin Last Will and Testament, March 15, 1810. Recorded  May 24, 1810, Pendleton County, Kentucky Deed Book B[1803-1815]:287. See also,  Pendleton County, Kentucky Court Order Book B:243.
[ii] “Charlie Ritter” listing, U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, www.ancestry.com See also digitized original, 1910 U.S.. federal census, Joshua Ritter hh, Falmouth district, Pendleton County, Kentucky sons include Charles Ritter (13) and his brother, William (18) hh 232, line 51, www.ancestry.com
[iii] Carr to Colvin email May 14, 2015 wherein James Carr related memories of “Charlie Ritter”.
[iv] Joshua Ritter household,  digitized original 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Falmouth District, Pendleton County, Kentucky, line 90, hh 172. www.ancestry.com
[v]  Pendleton County Property Records, GIS interface,  showing parcel: 051-00-00-020.00, 145 Ideal Dr. Falmouth,  Kentucky.
[vi] Digitized original, William J. Ritter, Jr., hh, April 1, 1940 U.S. federal census, 31 U.S. Hywy 27, Falmouth District, Pendleton County, Kentucky, hh 400, line 41; Mildred is listed in her father’s home as Mildred L. Sydnor with her husband “Harry” Sydnor. Harry Samuel Sydnor, according to his death certificate,  died that same year in December. See also, digitized original, Mildred L. Sydnor, widow, marriage record to Howard Showalter, Wayne County, Indiana, September 19, 1942. Father listed as: Will J. Ritter. www.ancestry.com
[vii] Pendleton County, Kentucky, Deed Book A: 38. The Howell Lewis survey, as it is known, consisted of some 10,000 acres in Kentucky devised to him by his father, Fielding Lewis,  upon his death in 1782.  Howell Lewis was a nephew of George Washington, his father, Fielding, having married Washington’s sister, Elizabeth “Betty” Washington   in  May 7, 1750. See also: “Fielding Lewis’ Will” transcription, George Washington Foundation website, http://www.kenmore.org/genealogy/lewis/fielding_will.html  See also, Howell Lewis thumbnail bio, George Washington Foundation website, http://www.kenmore.org/collections/portraits/howell_lewis.html
[viii]  Nell Bradford  Woolery, “Some Old Homes of Pendleton County,”  unpublished manuscript,  March 7, 1940, Pendleton County Library Collection.   http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/natreghome.do?homesearch=true&term1=87000145&termAttribute1=Use.Identifier/Standard&selectedCollections=NPS%20Digital%20Library&goToFull=True
[ix] ” McKennysburg Precinct 2  Pendleton County ” Atlas of Bracken and Pendleton Counties, KY 1884  , J.D. Lake & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, plate 41. www.kentonlibary.org  digital collection.  
[x] Colvin Family at Four Oaks,” 1896,  Carol Kirkwood Collection to author. In this image is a small gathering of Colvins and Wiggins among whom are  Birket Landrum Colvin (1827-1905) and his wife, Sarah “Sallie” E. Beckett (1840-1918) and their children.
[xi] Pendleton County, Kentucky Deed Book A: 74.
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Pilgrim’s Rest and the Colvins. (revised)

Pilgrims Rest, LOC Prints and Photo Div. I

Pilgrims Rest front view, ca. 1936. Library of Congress. Photographer unknown.

In 1938, Susan Morton, a worker with the Virginia Historical Inventory, a preservation-minded program under  F.D. R.’s  Works Progress Administration,  visited Pilgrim’s Rest, because her agency was tasked with inventorying old properties throughout Virginia.[1] Being one of the oldest estates in the county, dating  to the early 18th century, Pilgrim’s Rest fit the criteria perfectly.  She’d visited and reported on other Colvin estates in the area such as Truro, Hazelwood, and Tenerife — all of  which  belonged to members of the particular  family  I have been studying for some time, but none of those homes, while old and certainly historically valuable,  would make it onto the National Register of Historic Places.

A while back, I was contacted by Elizabeth Colvin, grand-daughter of Bruce Steel Colvin, (1932-2000), and  great-granddaughter of  Dr. Henry Lynn Colvin, (1900-1974). In her email, she complimented me for my efforts and kindly offered to assist if she could.  I am always gratified when this blog gets the attention of living descendants of its subjects.  In Elizabeth’s case, her g-grandfather was the first Colvin to come into possession of that venerable old home which had been in place for well-nigh three centuries. The lands today are highly prized by archaeologists for its abundance of pre-historic Native American artifacts.[2]

Pilgrims Rest is significant not only because its architecture represents old Tidewater style, (the double-chimney is a dead giveaway, see insets below, ) but because it sits on land which was once part of the original Foote tract.

Those who know Piedmont Virginia history know that Richard Foote and his compatriots (fellow developers, as it were, ) Robert Bristow, Nicholas Hayward, and George Brent, had received their patents totaling  some 3,000 acres directly from the crown (that’s King James II.) The quartet thought things would work out if they invited scores of Huguenots (outcast French Catholics) to settle in their new idea for a neighborhood to be called Brent Town. It was named after George Brent who was — you guessed it  —  a Catholic from neighboring Stafford County. But things didn’t work out the way they planned. The Huguenots never came, mostly due to terrible marketing ideas in Europe by the four, and competition by others wanting immigrant settlers just as badly, and so, slowly  those huge tracts dwindled either via direct sale or lineal passage to smaller and smaller ones. But the home, Pilgrims Rest, remained, eventually passing –  along with some 640-acres —    to Rev. Levi Hazen (a Methodist minister)  who by 1849  re-christen his plantation Mt. Wesley. (After  Methodism founder, Rev. John Wesley,  no doubt) It was the good minister’s grandson, Melvin Colvin Hazen, who acquired the property in the early 20th century and re-renamed it Pilgrim’s Rest.   It was this “Melvin Hazen” who is named in her  1930s WPA report  by  Susan Morton when she was out trekking around old homes in the area during that Goliath New Deal historical project. And it was that same Melvin, again, who was visited by folks from the Historic American Building Survey during the same period, and whom, after taking their notes and measurements,  took some of the only 1930s-era photos known to exist of the home and which are now safely housed with the Library of Congress.

Pilgrims Rest, LOC Prints and Photo Div. III

Pilgrim’s Rest rear view. ca. 1936. Library of Congress. Photographer unknown.

It was during those New Deal years, however, that three nephews of Melvin Colvin Hazen  first acquired Pilgrims Rest – bringing it officially into the Colvin family for the first time. And in the 1940s, Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Dr. Henry Lynn Colvin, a Washington, D.C.-based pediatrician,  bought out his cousin’s shares and acquired the estate and who performed  some restoration and renovations  in 1956. But by 1982 it passed out of the family, sold by Dr. Colvin’s widow, Virginia Colvin [nee Steel] to Dr. and Mrs. Thom Thomassen.

In 1993, the Thomassens, in turn, sold the estate to Dr. and Mrs. Rodney J. Klima, the 1257OPcurrent owners.    Dr. Klima, an orthodontist,  serves the Fairfax community. [3]   Nevertheless, by  1989,  Pilgrims Rest’s historic features made it a candidate for listing with the National  Registry of Historic Places.[4] In addition to helping restore the main house,  in 1996,  the Klimas began  salvaged an 18th–century Kingsley Granary outbuilding which had sat, dilapidated and  abandoned, near its original site along the banks of what had been Broad Run. Years earlier, in 1968, that water course was flooded to create Lake Manassas to expand the county’s water supply. Threatened with submersion, the Klimas bought the structure from the county and had its two-stories worth of stone and beams hauled in pieces to its new site at Pilgrim’s Rest where they restored enough of it to not only re-purpose it as a guest house, but to included it along with Pilgrim’s Rest in an updated application to the National Registry of Historic Places.[5]

By 2004,  Pilgrim’s Rest took its honorary place on that valuable directory. In 2013, Pilgrims Rest was added to the Virginia Landmark Registry.

[1] Susan Morton, “Report # 191, Pilgrim’s Rest,” 1938,  Works Progress Administration,  Virginia Historical Inventory, Library of Virginia
[2] Pilgrim’s Rest registration forms 1989, 2004, National Register of Historic Places
[3] Kilma Orthodontics website, http://www.klimaortho.com/meet-dr-rodney-klima
[4]  Pilgrim’s Rest registration forms 1989, 2004, National Register of Historic Places
[5]  Dave Marino-Nachison, “18-Century Kingsley Mill outbuilding to be relocated,” September 17, 1996, Manassas Journal.
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What’s in a name? Refining the Historical Record of Catlett’s Station

Catlett Station

Catlett’s Station, August, 1862. Note Federal troops on boxcar roofs. Library of Congress. Photographer, Timothy O”Sullivan.

Today,  the Village of Catlett is located on Route 28, roughly three miles from the Prince William County line, and some two and a half miles east of the Village of Calverton. In fact, it has so long been historically known as Catlett, it may be hard for latter day Catlett residents and researchers to imagine that it was not always known as Catlett; in fact, it began as a humble railroad station first known as Colvin Station, operated by Richard Colvin, Jr., its first depot agent and was part of a tract of land Richard owned and subsequently sold. Thus, a refinement to the historical record is in order.

Catlett was allegedly named in honor of Col. John Catlett, who took out the first land grant near there in 1715. However, Fauquier County land records show it was Samuel G. Catlett, John’s 6th  great-grandson who, on April 9, 1853, purchased for $3,000 dollars from Richard Colvin, Jr.  the tract which contained the train station.[2] The deed’s legal description reads:

Beginning at a rock and Cox oak by a road thence S89.9E270 15 poles to a stake and stone set thence S1.25N 45 poles to another stone thence S50 W 219 poles to another stone thence N26W 184 poles to the beginning containing by estimation one hundred and sixty three acres more or less.

Curiously, there is an extant myth implying that Samuel’s acquisition of the land from


Richard Colvin to Samuel Catlett deed p. 1 of 2. Photographer, Alex Colvin

Richard was by way of a “trade,” rather than outright sale.[3] However, the deed record clearly contraindicates this. Certainly a trade would have been possible; the lands of the Catletts and Colvins were, after all, adjacent and the families had been neighbors for at least two generations by the time Samuel Catlett acquired the parcel.[4]  Certainly trading and bartering commodities among friends and neighbors was customary. It would certainly not be odd had such a transaction occurred given that the head of one family had been homesteading in the area since 1807. [5]  And while it’s clear Richard never traded his land, a review of his father’s holdings and how Colvin Station came into his son’s possession is worth a review.

1807 is the year Richard Colvin, Sr. first appears in Fauquier County land tax records where he is listed as being in possession of a 101-acre parcel, along Cedar Run which he is leasing, from “Singer.” [6] Owing to lax period recording customs, it appears Singer did not immediately record whatever lease he had with Richard; period Fauquier County deed books for the years 1801-1810, for example, contain no surname Singer or variant; neither does it appear in the indices of these three separate volumes.[7]  It bears mentioning that no landlord or property owner was compelled by law to record his deed; its recordation value was measured in how it proved ownership in legal disputes.

In 1812, Richard improved his landholding by an additional 202 acres, which he likewise leased in two 101-acre lots.[8] His landholdings remained at this level through 1817; the clerk in the 1816 entry used the term “lease” to account for how Richard held his then 304 acres.[9] In 1818, Richard purchased his first additional parcel of 187 acres, while continuing to lease his other 304 acres.[10] The following year, in 1819, Richard increased his landholdings again by purchasing a 328-acre tract. He likewise continued to lease the 304 acres.

The 1824 Fauquier land tax records show Richard was being taxed on three separate tracts of land: the first, consisting of the 304 acres already noted which was adjacent to the Foote family property line; the second, containing 209 acres was located along the waters of Cedar Run and the third, contained 328 ¼  acres was located near the “Walnut Branch” of the same waterway.[11] Richard was assessed $7.03 at a rate of .08 cents per $100.00 of value. These lands were listed by the commissioners as being sixteen miles “NE” of the courthouse in Warrington.[12] These land descriptions correspond, as one would expect, to several portions of the lands described in the plat of Richard’s lands which was provided during his estate probate in 1828.[13]

Clearly the records show that,  like many pioneering settlers of the area, it was by incremental means of acquiring land,  Richard Colvin managed to accumulate over 1,500 acres in similar fashion by the time he died in 1825.

As to Richard Colvin, Jr., he acquired his land – a lot of some 227 acres which included Colvin’s Station — by means of an award from the court-ordered division of his father’s estate because his father left no will. The land division proceedings (surveys, etc.,) were begun by Richard Colvin Jr. on October 23, 1826,  through Richard was rather young at the time for the task.[14]  But the story doesn’t end here.

Two years later, on October 25, 1828, the young Richard Colvin’s division of his father’s estate was executed. It was not recorded, however, until after the final degree on June 28, 1832, which also ended a concurrent friendly chancery suit initiated by his mother, Lydia Colvin [nee’ George.] Richard Colvin Jr.’s allotment to his father’s heirs, (including himself and the railroad station,) was also executed and recorded the same day: July 28,  1832. [15] In that allotment, Richard received “Lot No. 1”,  which consisted of 127 acres, 29 and 67/100 of a pole. No rail line was yet extant. However, when it arrives in 1852 as the Orange & Alexandria, not surprisingly, Richard Colvin Jr. was its first depot agent.[16] After the sale, the name of the station changed from Colvin’s Station to Catlett’s Station The railroad was built in 1852 which was later named Virginia Midland and then, finally, The Southern Railroad.

But there was no “trade,” despite the obstinacy of the myth.

The hefty price Samuel Catlett paid is an obvious reflection of  the land’s value because of the station, not insignificant considering the role the station ultimately played in the development of the village overall.

For modern-day descendants and researchers of Charles Colvin, Sr and his heirs., however, Catlett’s early development may be of less significance than the role it  played in the lives of their ancestors who lived in the vicinity. Two examples will suffice: both Civil War-related.

Firstly, it  was Catlett Station which Union officers used as a Fauquier County-area depot and staging area during the early years of the conflict. Because of his proximity to the area landmark, likely explains why, for example, Union soldiers encamped on the nearby farm of William Colvin., Richard Colvin, Jr’s younger brother.  The decimation of William’s farm is detailed in a previous post. As noted in that essay, it was, in fact, timber used from William’s first-growth forests that was used rebuild the Confederate-destroyed Cedar Run Bridge and the Orange and Alexander railroad tracks which ran across it.

As another example, it was a nephew of that same William, George Marian Colvin,  (1840-1862 — George’s father was George Colvin [1802-1873] another of William’s older brothers,)  who served in the Confederate Cavalry as a scout under Commander,  J.E.B. Stuart. That George who was mortally wounded during Stuart’s famous Battle of Catlett’s Station.[17]

George Marion’s military index record card shows he enlisted at Brentsville in Fauquier County on April 23, 1861,  as a private to serve the requisite one year of service.  However, a year later, on April 23, 1862 he was elected 2nd  Lieutenant, and finally, on September 13, 1863, he died of Typhoid Fever in Culpeper,  a common cause of death at the time both among the military and civilian populations.[18] He was  buried in the family plot at his homestead, Hazelwood in neighboring, Prince William County.[19]

This refinement of the Catlett Station record is offered in the spirit of  strengthening the cultural and hereditary ties between modern-day descendants and their ancestors who lived near today’s Catlett’s Station in the interest of cultural preservation. However, those ties can only be maintained when family historians and preservationists understand those ties correctly, and leave myth where it rightfully belongs.



[1] Fauquier County Government website, Community Development page, Sec. 2 Catlett http://www.fauquiercounty.gov/government/departments/commdev/index.cfm?action=ccmtoc

[2] Colvin, Richard and Fanny to Samuel G. Catlett, deed, executed  April 9, 1853,  recorded  April 9 1853, deed book 53 (1853-1854) pp 278-279, reel 23, Library of Virginia. The designations, “Jr.” or “Sr. “never appear in historical records, but they are necessary post nominals to assist researchers in distinguishing this individual from his father, Richard Colvin who d. 1825 and is buried in the Colvin Cemetery in Catlett next to his wife, Lydia.

[3] M.D. Gore, digitized original WPA Report # 269, Teneriffe, Works Progress Administration of Virginia Historical Inventory, 13 July 1937, Historical Inventory online database. Library of Virginia http://www.lva.lib.va.us/index.htm  Unfortunately, Gore did not record from whom she acquired the data concerning the pedigree chart included in her report or whether she composed it herself based upon her interviews. At the time of her visit, she noted that the home was owned by Dr. Ernest Colvin, (Earnest Melvin Colvin,) great-grandson of Richard Colvin, Sr., Both he or his wife, appear to have been the primary interviewees. It is in this report that Richard Colvin, Jr. is identified as Colvin Station’s “first depot agent.”

[4] Photocopy of microfilm of plat and survey of estate division of Richard Colvin, dec’d. Surveyor, Zachery Cox, executed, 4 September 1828; recorded 1832, Fauquier County Will Bk 12, 1831-1832, Reel 35, pp 407-411, Library of Virginia. In the 1850 U.S. Federal census for Turners District, Fauquier County, Samuel Catlett and Richard Colvin are six enumerations apart. Digitized original  of Samuel Catlett and Richard Colvin households, 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Turners, Fauquier County, VA, lines 7, hh 605; 34, 611 respectfully, www.ancestry.com .

[5] Richard Colvin entries, 1807, Fauquier County land tax records, Reels 95, 1789-1807 & 1809-1815; reel 96, 1816-1834,  Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research (CLCGR). [A review of land tax records from 1805-1823, shows Richard first appears on the tax ledgers in 1807. In 1812 he was in possession of  three parcels, two of which were 101 acre tracts and one of which was 102 acres – all being “of Singer.” In the 1815 entry, the clerk used the term “lease” to describe how Richard held his 304 acres. In subsequent years, Richard began purchasing land. Typical of the period, Richard was liable for the land taxes, even while a leaseholder. Further, no taxes were collected in Fauquier in 1808 which accounts for the ledgers absence during that year.

[6] See endnote  5.

[7] Microfilms of Fauquier County, Virginia Deed Books: 15 &16 (1801-1804, 1804-1807), Reel 8; Deed Bk. 17 (1807-1810), Reel 9, ] Library of Virginia.

[8] Richard Colvin entry, 1812, Fauquier County land tax records, Reels 95, (1789-1807 & 1809-1815; 1816-1834), Book. A, no page,  CLCGR.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Richard Colvin entry, 1818, Fauquier County land tax records, 1789-1807 & 1809-1815; 1816-1834 (Reels 95, Bk. A, no page, CLCGR. In this entry, the clerk used the notation “fee” to indicate that Richard held his 209 acres in fee simple.

[11] Richard Sommers, ed., “Map of Northeastern Virginia and Vicinity of Washington, in The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, Fairfax Press, N.Y. 1983, Plate VIII, CLCGR. This branch is clearly discernable in Sommers’s atlas by which one can easily deduce the vicinity in Fauquier where Richard’s land was located.

[12] Richard Colvin, Sr. entries, Fauquier County, Virginia Land tax records, 1816-1834, (Reel 96), Bk. 3 of 3, pp 3,  CLCGR.

[13] Photocopy of microfilm of plat and survey of estate division of Richard Colvin, dec’d. Surveyor, Zachery Cox, executed, 4 September 1828; recorded 28 July 1832, Fauquier County Will Bk 12, (1831-1832), Reel 35, pp 407-411, Library of Virginia. Researcher’s should note a period transcribed version of this same document exits at the Fauquier County Circuit Court at Warrington under Chancery Case, 1832-056, Colvin, Lydia &c vs. Colvin,  Lawson &c

[14] John K. Gott, “Fauquier County, Virginia Guardian Bonds 1759-1871,”  Heritage Books, 1990, pp 54.  In this bond, Richard Colvin, Jr. is named as one of his father’s orphans, implying, as previously noted, he was under the age of 21. Nevertheless, in many states, Common Law held that Executors of Wills — who if male — could be as young as 14.

[15] “Colvin, Richard, estate division,” executed October 25, 1828, recorded  July 28,  1832, Fauquier County Will Bk 12, (1831-1832), Reel 35, pp 406.  Library of Virginia.

[16]  M.D. Gore, digitized original of WPA Report # 269, Teneriffe, Works Progress Administration of Virginia Historical Inventory, July 13, 1937, Historical Inventory online database. Library of Virginia,  http://www.lva.lib.va.us/index.htm  See also: Zachery Cox, surveyor, “Plat and survey of estate division of Richard Colvin, dec’d,”  executed, September 4, 1828; recorded 1832, Fauquier County Will Bk 12, 1831-1832, (Reel 35), pp 407-411,  Library of Virginia.

[17] George M. Colvin, digitized original of his Index Record Card, www.footnote.com  (explain IRCs)

[18] Ibid. Interestingly, the digitized index record cards of George M. Colvin’ lists his death date as September 1, 1863. Two separate sources — including his headstone engraving — list it as September 13, 1863.

[19] Ron Turner, surveyor, Hazelwood Cemetery, 2001, www.pwcvirginia.com/Cemeteries1.htm  The tombstone engraving  reads: “ In Memory of George Marion s/o George & Mary A. Colvin September 13, 1862,” See also, T. Triplett Russell,  “’Hazelwood’ and ‘Truro’”, Fauquier Heritage and Preservation News, August 2004, wherein the author gives an extensive history of Hazelwood, (formerly known as Truro when built and owned by the Foote family,) and the Colvin family which took possession of it in the early 1830s. George Colvin, George Marion’s father, was Hazelwood’s first Colvin owner. It remained in the Colvin family for nearly a century and a half.

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Southern Loyalties and the Ravages of War: The Petition of William Colvin Before The Southern Claims Commission, 1873.



The Southern Claims Commission (SCC) was established in Washington, D.C. during the Reconstruction era by an act of Congress on  March 3, 1871. The purpose of the 3-member panel was to review the claims submitted by Southern loyalists  (southerners loyal to the federal government,) who had “furnished stores and supplies for the use of U.S. Army” during the Civil War.”[1]   Between March 3, 1871 and  March 3, 1873, Southerners filed well over 22,000 claims for property losses totaling over $60 million dollars, a figure comparable to well over $1 billion dollars in 2017.[2] However, only 7,092 claims (32%) were approved for settlements with the government paying out just over $4.5 million. Economic analysis shows that amount would be comparable to between $57.3 million and $8.5 billion by 2015.[3] Each claimant sought to prove his loyalty and loss by his own and the depositions of witnesses.

Significant for genealogists, however,  is how the paper trail created by the claimants’ depositions and those of their respective witnesses, provides not only incomparable insights into the war’s destructive impact on Southern families and their communities, but also how the material confiscations were sometimes brutally carried out by Union troops. Moreover, SCC claims can also reveal the arbitrary discriminatory nature with which Union commissioners often acted even against those clearly neutral during the war. William Colvin’s claim, will serve as an example of the rich offering these records provide.

Three versions of the interrogatories were used by commissioners (and their specially-appointed assistance who traveled to those states and areas too distant from D.C for a claimant to conveniently leave,) to be asked of claimants and their witnesses. In William’s case, the version used was the 1872 version – amended from the original version used in 1871. Lawyers were hired to prepare the numerous documents, including affidavits, and other evidentiary items such as receipts given by Union officers to individuals who relinquished goods to the troops at the time of their confiscation. The lawyers, not surprisingly, charged 50% of any settlement to take a case.

Numerous farmers, shopkeepers, and horse owners in the early 1860s who were unfortunate enough to be in the neighborhood of a passing Union army had goods, animals, and crops seized; in fact, there are many reports of people having their crops taken by armies, a few days or weeks or months apart.

The three commissioners, appointed by the President, were required to,  “receive, examine, and consider the claims of those citizens who remained loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war, for stores or supplies taken or furnished during the rebellion.” The key phrase,  loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war, was deliberately vague enough, however,  to create problems. For example,  only claim applicants themselves were required to state their loyalty to the federal government.; there was no such requirement for witnesses or others mentioned in the claim applications. Were there political motives behind the creation of the SCC? Quite likely. Northern Republicans had long hoped that Southern Unionists would join the Republican Party, and they hoped to cement that allegiance as the former Confederate states returned to full representation in Congress. The SCC was decommissioned in 1879. 

William Colvin: The Claim

Upon his death in 1825, the lands of William’s father, Richard Colvin, were distributed among Richard’s numerous heirs via probate because Richard died intestate.[4] Among the nearly 1,500 acres comprising the estate, William received 132 of them, along with chattel. William, who was born in 1812,  was some sixty years old when he filed his SCC claim in 1873 and the numerous documents — particularly his lengthy 30-page deposition — bear witness to the devastation to his subsistence farm.[5]  By the time he filed his claim, William’s farm consisted of 167 areas and was, according to his deposition, located some 500-600 yards from Catlett’s Station. Some ninety acres of his land was “timbered” while the rest – some seventy-seven acres —  was “under cultivation.”

The 1872 version of the SCC questions put before William consisted of two sets: the first set, (questions 1-41), were addressed only to him and concerned essentially the matters related to his personal and political identity and loyalty, and the items confiscated from his farm. The second set, (of eighteen questions, listed as “Items” ) were asked of both he and his witness – in his case, Abraham Hazen — and concerned specific facts about what Hazen allegedly saw taken and by whom.[6] Meticulous details were elicited from deponents as evidenced by question no. 2 of the 2nd  set and its instructions to the interrogator: 

Begin with the first article (Item No. —) which you have specified that you saw taken,and give a full account of all you saw and heard in connection with the taking of that article? 

[The special commissioner should require the witness to state all the circumstances; for it is only by knowledge of all of them that the commissioners of claims can judge whether the taking was such a one as the Government is bound to pay for. The common phrase, “I saw the property taken by United States soldiers,” is not enough, for there was much lawless taking. The witness should be required to detail the facts as to each item, when the items were taken at different times; but if all, or more than one, were taken at the same time, that fact should appear, and then a repetition of the circumstances is needless. The special commissioner must be careful to elicit all the facts, as well those against as for the claim, especially as to those articles of property which were the special objects of pillage and theft, such as horses, mules, cattle, hogs, &c. Claimants must bear in mind that a neglect to observe these directions works to the prejudice of the claimant, and may defeat the claim.] [7] 

Needless to say, neither witness accounts nor the first-hand accounts of the claimants themselves ever met the zealous burden of proof imposed by the SCC; consequently, like the vast majority of Southerners, William Colvin’s claim was “disallowed.” [8] But what had the Union troops taken? Livestock, ninety acres of timber, horses, draft animals, hay, fodder, a new wagon, over 2,500 rails (his entire property fencing, ) the nails that held them in place and, as if this wasn’t enough, they deconstructed and carted off an entire newly-framed barn. The total damage over the course of 1862-1864 was eventually estimated by Commissioners at $1,750.00.[9] It was an amount comparable to between  $22,300 and $3.3 million dollars in 2015 dollars.[10]  Many of these activities were done quickly.

In the spring of 1862, William’s farm was accosted by the arrival of Union troops lead by Brigadier General, John F. Reynolds, who arrived ahead of his men to rouse William from slumber to ask where, on his farm, the best campground might be.[11] It was, according to William’s deposition, well after dark, “raining and snowing.”[12] William was, himself, no stranger to the conflict which had touched his own family. But any Confederate allegiance he may have harbored, went completely undetected by close friends and neighbors. His closest neighbor, feed merchant, Abraham Hazen with whom he spoke often, for example, was also deposed by Commissioners. He told them under oath, “Mr. Colvin regarded me as a Union man. Mr. Colvin was the only man of southern birth that I dare express my opinions to without fear of being reported to the rebels.”[13] William’s third eldest son, James Buchanan Colvin, however, joined the Confederacy at age 17 in 1864.[14] A choice he made without his father’s support. When William spoke to commissioners, in mid-January, James was by then, twenty-six, and  living with him and in whose home he died on October 30, 1873, eight months after his father’s interview. His cause of death is unknown.

Within days, after Reynold’s arrival, some 1,000 Union soldiers were amassing into several campgrounds on his farm, re-provisioning themselves with whatever he had at hand. They remained on the farm for moths, no doubt making a horrendous mess with latrines, fires, debris, tenting, etc.,  and during the first weeks, methodically stripped away  the timber fencing which surrounded large plots of his land. using it for various makeshift needs such as firewood.

At times, according to William, the removal of the fence was done with grotesque efficiency.  “At one time I think I saw half a mile of fencing taken within 20 minutes on the shoulders of the men. I saw them at different times, hauling my rails in their wagons to different camps. [On the farm] I saw the soldiers using the rails for fires.”[15]

Although William was offered three separate receipts for his rails at three different times by three separate officers, he was quick to point out, “I don’t think those receipts covered half the rails taken and used by the Union army at this time.”[16]

During the same period, some forty-two head of William’s cattle were commandeered by encamped Union soldiers. Several times — without an officer present – an armed soldier simply entered a grazing field, shot the unsuspecting animal, then either butchered it on the spot or drove it to a camp where it was butchered. Aghast, William complained and received not an apology, but a receipt. In this manner, over a period of day, except for five head, William’s entire stock of cattle was wiped out.[17]

William’s herd of sheep fared no better; using similar tactics, Union soldiers slew sixty-six of his sheep, leaving one for William and his family. He told Commissioners he “made no complaint.” For his forbearance, William received a voucher and a receipt. After the sheep were removed, next came the draft animals. One horse and two colts were taken. William identified the culprits as: 

cavalry or at all events mounted. I saw the soldiers take the horse and colts. They were taken out of the field not far from the house. There were some eight or ten soldiers. A man representing himself to be an officer rode up and said he must have that horse. They went into the field and cornered the horse and colts in the corner of the field. My daughters were present and one of them caught hold of the horse and refused to let go. And one of the soldiers told her if she did not let the horse go he would run his saber through her. She then let go and they then took the horse away. I was present within ten feet.[18] 

In a separate incident, during the same period, William had put a few young a male horses out to graze, but soldiers of the picket line, who now also occupied his farm, shot one. After the horses were slaughtered or pressed into service, the soldiers next went through William’s stock of some thirty-nine hogs, carrying off some twenty-five of them, and slaughtering others with rifles. Several were left to rot where they were slain.[19] In addition, some 300 bushels of wheat (some twelve acres worth,) were taken, as well as William’s entire stock of oats — some 500 bushels — which had required twenty acres to grow. They went to feed Union artillery horses.[20] Of William’s ninety acres of “old and second growth” woods of White and Red oak, much of it was felled in 1863-64 by Union soldiers to help rebuild the Orange and Alexander (O & A) railroad tracks. Those tracks ran near his land, some 600 yards west, but Confederates had destroyed them along with the Cedar Run Bridge they ran across. That bridge and tracks were  barely a half- mile north of Catlett’s Station, and their destruction had been part of what would be remembered as the Battle of Catlett’s Station.[21] For these timber losses, William never received a receipt. [22] But he recalled clearly how,  “once a week [soldiers were seen] cutting and hauling timber away….”  He saw,  “as many as 9 or 10 teams at a time hauling wood, generally from mule teams.”[23]

Cedar Run Bridge reconstruction 1863

Federal Troops rebuilding the O & A Railroad bridge over Cedar Run. 1863 Timber used came from William Colvin’s farm. Library of Congress. Photographer unknown.

By the time the Union army finished de-foresting his land, he told commissioners, that if the wood scrap, “left had been put together, they would not have made 5 acres.”[24]

Then came the removal of other goods. In August of 1862, a quartermaster showed up with two three-mule teams and wagons to cart off some 5,600 pounds of hay that William had stocked. When William was tendered a receipt, the provider estimated the hay at a mere 600 pounds, but offered William a chance to “come and see” for himself what had been taken to correct any discrepancy. William declined. Soon thereafter, a second quartermaster arrived with another two teams of Union mules and wagons and commenced to load his cargo and continued to do so over the course of 2-3 trips. When the third quartermaster showed up, William was no longer able to discern how much hay had been depleted. Eventually William received a receipt for a mere 1,500 pounds of hay.[25]

The following day, Union troops took William’s new wagon.[26] A “three horse farm wagon,” as he described it. He had owned it six months and had paid $77.00 dollars for it – a sum roughly equal to nearly $1,500  dollars by 2015. [27] On the day the soldier arrived with the mule team, William told Commissioners:

I begged him not to take it he said he must have it that they had broke one of their wagons and must have it to replace the one broken and he took it away and I never saw it afterwards. [28] 

William received no receipt for the wagon. He did receive a receipt for his entire stock of  some 1,000 pounds of corn fodder taken in November, 1862,  when Union troops were “on the march to Fredericksburg.” and passing by his farm. He was approached by a “Captain of  Artillery,” who told William he “had nothing [to give him] for his horses.”[29] Perhaps one of the worst indignities William suffered what when Union soldiers razed a house on his farm in the fall of 1863. The soldiers were encamped both at Catlett’s Station and his farm, and were still re-constructing the destroyed O & A rail lines when they:

tore down and took a [–?–] house from me. The house was 16 feet by 24 feet, two stories high. It had two floors tongued and grooved. It was [–?–] and shingled with a double pitched roof. It had three rooms lathed and plastered. It had a [–?–] chimney up even with the eves of the house and [–?–] brick. I saw the soldiers.[30]

When the Union troops descended of his Fauquier farm in 1862, by his own account, William’s homestead was worth a healthy $25.00 an acre. By the time he filed his claim, ten years later, it was worth only two-thirds that value. His entire claim was disallowed because it was felt William was sympathetic to the Confederacy.  William died fourteen years later on February 20, 1888 at the age of 75. He was laid to rest next to his wife Maria F. Wilkins, (1819-1885),   in the Colvin Family Cemetery in Catlett, Fauquier County, Virginia.[31]

As the files on William Colvin’s SCC claim demonstrate, these records offer genealogists a rich mine of personal information and an unapparelled window through which to glimpse the lives of  their Southern forbearers and the sometimes merciless actions taken by Union troops accosting their farms during the Civil War. Moreover, because these are preserved first-hand accounts of those effected, a clear record is available of both their perspective on the conflict itself as well as the state of their subsistence farms. These rare insights enrich our understanding of our ancestors’ lives as well as our understanding of the conflict in which they found themselves in ways few records used by family historians can.



[1]Furnished stores and supplies…” The wording was intended to imply a cooperative relationship between southern loyalists and Union officers who confiscated materials as they saw fit while the stunned owner watched and who thereafter received a government receipt scribbled on whatever was handy.

[2] Gary B. Mills,  “Southern Loyalists in the Civil War: The Southern Claims Commission,” Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994. For the comparative value analysis, see, www.measuringworth.com

[3]  Ibid, www.measuringworth.com.

[4] Digitized original, Lydia Colvin v Lawson Colvin, June 24,  1828, Chancery Case 1832-056, Chancery case Index database, Library of Virginia, http://www.lva.lib.va.us  Chancery cases of this type were often use in troublesome property divisions during estate probates. In this case, Lydia (George) Colvin, who was the administrator of her late husband’s estate, was petitioning the court for a “guardian ad litem” to look out for the financial well-being of the decedent’s heirs because a mysterious but deedless agreement brought forth by her son-in-law, Frances Manuel, involving 225 acres of the decedent’s estate encroached upon her children’s statutory inheritance rights.

[5] Tombstone at Colvin graveyard. In his rejection claim, the SCC commissioners claim William was some “68 years old.”

[6] Digitized original, William Colvin, claimant, SCC application page, case # 21015, Recorded June 17 1873, filed  June 15 1874, National Archives MF. The claim in its entirety consists of 65 pages of sworn testimony and related documents. www.footnote.com

[7] St. Louis Public Library PDF file, SOUTHERN CLAIMS COMMISSION AMENDED VERSION OF QUESTIONS FOR CLAIMANTS AND WITNESSES – 1872, from http://www.slcl.org/branches/hq/sc/scc/quest-1872.htm

[8] Digitized original, SCC claim rejection.

[9] Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC Summary Report,  www.footnote.com  On page 29 of his   deposition, Willian recites how, in the winter of 1863-64, Union soldiers told him they were hauling timber from felled trees on his land to rebuild portions of the Orange and Alexander railroad tracks destroyed by Confederate forces trying to thwart the Union advance near Catlett’s Station. Rebels had also destroyed the Walnut Creek bridge, which Union forces also needed to rebuild.

[10] See relative worth analysis at:  www.measuringworth.com    

[11] Col. Hugh W. McNeil to Brigadier General,  John F. Reynolds, April 3, 1862,  wherein the union officer certifies that , “1870 rails were destroyed by the men of this regiment…the rails were taken from the property of William Colvin“ pp 48,  digitized original, William Colvin, claimant, SCC. McNeil was colonel of the 1st Rifle regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, who signed this  correspondence ”1st Rifles”.   Reynolds  died,  July 1, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.

[12] Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC,  pp 16, “Item  1 Rails.”

[13] Abraham Hazen deposition, June 17, 1873, William Colvin SCC file, pp 2 of 4.

[14] “J.B. Colvin” entry, U.S. National Parks Service, Soldiers and Sailors database.  https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers-detail.htm?soldierId=A3D02C8F-DC7A-DF11-BF36-B8AC6F5D926A James served as a member of Company “E” of Mosby Rangers (more formally known as the  43rd Virginia Cavalry,) but also known as Mosby’s Regiment, Virginia Cavalry, Mosby’s Men, and Partisan Rangers.  Various accounts consistently describe the 43rd as a raiding party working behind enemy lines using protoguerrilla tactics to disrupt Union communications and supply lines in Virginia from the rear in Fauquier and neighboring counties. They were known to work in small bands, to strike fast,  and then vanish into the countryside eluding capture. By and large the companies were composed of teenaged recruits.

[15]  Digitized original,  William Colvin, claimant, SCC,  pp 16, “Item  1 Rails.”  www.footnote.com

[16] Ibid, pp 18 “Item 1 Rails.”

[17] Ibid,  pp 19, “Item  2 Cattle.”

[18] Ibid, pp 23, “Item 4 Horses and colts.”

[19] Ibid pp 25, “Item 6 Hogs.”

[20] Ibid pp 26, “Item 7 Oats and Wheat.”

[21] Catlett’s Station began its life as a Colvin property. had orginall belonged to William’s

[22] Ibid pp 28, 29 “Item 8 Timber.”

[23] Ibid pp 29, “Item 8 Timber”

[24] Ibid pp 30,  “Item 8 Timber”

[25] Ibid pp 30-31, “Item 9 Hay.”

[26] Ibid pp 32, “ Item 11 Wagon.” Curiously, there appears no “Item 10” in the listing. Why is unknown.

[27] Based on Consumer Price Index as calculated by Measuringworth.com

[28] Digitized image of William Colvin, claimant, SCC ,” pp 32, “Item 11 Wagon”

[29] Ibid.  pp 33, “Item 13 Fodder.”

[30] Ibid pp 33-34 “Item 14 House.”

[31] The birth and death dates of William and Maria are taken from their headstones. Images were provided to the researcher by Melvin Hazen Colvin, Jr,  William Colvin’s second g-grandson and a resident of the area.


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Improved Legacy Image Annotations Provide Needed Context.

As promised in my previous post, I have annotated the legacy image of the Colvin-Douglas family gathering ca. 1891 with more specific and better organized annotations which will help researchers identify the subjects. One thing this image makes clear: the photographer was maintaining the time-honored practice in group photography to keep family members together:  husbands with wives, children with parents, etc.  Very young children, often in 19th century images, were in the foreground, often with the family pet or some loved object.

Also, this very likely was the home of the Douglas family patriarch, John Robert Douglas,  (seated) (1814-1893) This took a bit of census legwork to reach this conclusion. Because J.R. Douglas died in 1893 (two years after this image was taken,) we cannot rely on later census to determine his whereabouts and the 1890 census is no longer extant. Thus we turn to the 1880 records where, John Robert was a resident with his son, John William Douglas,  in Cynthiana County (pictured in last row: 1861-1946). Oddville Pike, named on the original image,  runs through Cynthiana. B. F. Colvin, conversely, in 1900, (the year closest to the image date, ) was living some distance away, in Buena Vista, Harrison County,  with his wife and children. Sarah Alice Douglas (1847-1894, pictured next to B.F. Colvin) was the 2nd eldest daughter of John Robert Douglas and Sara Ann Lang. She married Benjamin Colvin November 7, 1867 in Harrison County, Kentucky. In the image, B.F. Colvin is with his wife and daughters, and seated are his in-laws.

The remaining subjects are an assortment of John Robert Douglas and B.F. Colvin’s heirs and their spouses; there is one unknown subject whose identity will not doubt be uncovered with additional research. For better viewing: right click and click the link “open image in new tab” then in the new tab, enlarge it with your browser. Enjoy!

Douglas and Colvin families 1891

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