Phibby: The Mystery of a Virginia Runaway Slave in a Time of War

Phibby’s View of the James River

One of the aspects of history I love most is the research. While in college I never felt more alive than when in classes where research was heavily required. Digging to find information, and then finding it, gave me a high that is really only understood by those who have experienced it for themselves. I have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to dig through some pretty fascinating archives. The problem is, I always start out researching one thing and end up discovering something far more interesting that takes me in a whole new direction. Well, to be honest, to me, that is not a problem. I enjoy allowing my interest to take me in its own direction. There have been times when I was absolutely interested and excited about the research I was about to work on, but then, out of the folders would come a little scrap of paper that would just seem more important to me. Who really knows why, I sure don’t, but that is exactly what happened when I found Phibby.

Originally, I went into the archives in Virginia to research Union General McClellan’s activities as he led his troops along the James River during the Civil War. The first day of research was supposed to be about finding the exact date that McClellan and his men moved onto a plantation along the James for the specific purpose of setting up a hospital camp. I pulled from the archives the journal kept by the plantation’s overseer and began, with white-gloved hands, turning the 150 year old pages that were supposed to give me my information. The journal was dated 1853 through 1872. On one line after another there were single-line entries stating activities that occurred on the plantation for every single day of each year. Almost every entry recorded the weather for the day, the crops that were either planted or picked, and any activities that went on with the livestock. For example, one entry read “July 1st Weather clear and warm. Planted twelve acres of corn on back side of land.” I sat there and read, with unabated interest, every single entry as if I was reading the novel of the century.

Ever so carefully, I turned the pages of this most fascinating primary source document I have read to date. To most people, the reading I was doing would be considered boring, but for me, I was reading to discover something never known before and that was exhilarating. About half-way through the book I located the date I was looking for….ah, success. That is such a good feeling. But I decided I wanted to keep going to see what else might have been notated in this journal, believing that what I would find would be more information about the Yankees invading the southern plantation. I could never have predicted, however, that I would stumble upon a little note, written in red ink, added between the lines originally written by the overseer by someone not immediately known to me, and that it would be the “something” that would distract me enough to change the direction of my research.

The date was June 30th, 1862 and the red entry simply stated, “nothing done, the negroes all running.” I immediately became interested in the red notes. I read on one date “four negro men and boys ran off today” and on another “five negro men went to the Yankees this morning.” Then, at one point, on a day in July, the author of the red notes added, “15 negro men and boys ran off at different times up to this date.” I decided to jot down these little red notes, just in case I could use the information later on while writing my paper. Excitedly, I continued reading. Then, all of the sudden, as if out of nowhere, there it was. A red note that was different in two ways. First, it was not written between the lines of the overseer’s notations, but rather at the top of the page, alone. Second, the notation contained something that none of the others had included; this note, contained a name. The note was simply written as “Phibby and her two children ran off today.” WOW!! Who was Phibby? And why was she special enough to be listed by name? This became my obsession….to learn about Phibby.

So, where to start to find the answers to my questions…

I decided that I would look to see if there were meal records. I requested a new box of documents that I hoped would provide me with the records and information I hoped to find. I just needed a jumping off point. Several folders down into a box, there it was; a list of names, grouped together by “families,” and the amount of food allowed for all persons living within one family group.

Meal List Dated July 14, 1861 – Available for public view

I searched the document, hunting for Phibby’s name…and there it was. About half-way down and in the middle of the page, grouped with the names of several other enslaved people….I found her name.

Phibby is listed on this meal list.

This was the beginning of a journey to discover as much about Phibby as I could. I started going through all of the boxes and folders containing receipts, tax records, medical bills, shoemaker bills, checks paid out, and anything else I could find. What I learned about Phibby painted an interesting picture for me of an enslaved person that continues to hold my interest to this day. The following is what I pieced together from all of historical evidence available to me.

Based on tax listings, Phibby was born sometime in 1837 on the plantation where she was enslaved. She lived and worked on this same plantation until she ran away on July 25, 1862. This is the date that the master of the plantation noted in red, at the top of the page, in the overseer’s journal. He had written, “Phibby ran off with her two children today.” From the meal lists I learned that Phibby had one son, born sometime around January 25, 1958, and he was named Robert. She also had an infant child. The sex of the second child is unknown because no name was ever given. I know the child was an infant, however, because just one week before, on the meal list, Phibby was listed with “Robert” and a “just born baby” (see the list above for this notation). I am confident that Phibby ran away with a male child, named Robert, who was roughly four-and-a-half years of age and a newborn child. This was remarkable to me because enslaved women who were fortunate enough to be able to remain with their children, rarely ran away because it would have been much harder to navigate, safely or secretly, to their destination–usually north to freedom. Additionally, it would have been much easier for a slave mother to be detected as a runaway with two children in tow, as the slave advertisement would have described, not only the mother and her characteristics, but those of her children as well.

The fact that Phibby had the confidence to run away, with her children, is even more remarkable when I tell you that in the November 1861 property records, Phibby was listed as having “no value.” This courageous, enslaved woman had no value because, as the records stated, she was “deformed.” There were other enslaved women with similar notations. It was noted that one woman was “worn out” and another had a “broken back.” Both of these women were listed as having no value as well. There were two enslaved people, one male and one female, who were listed as having no value because they were “too old.” The remainder of this slave owners human property totaled 104 slaves valued at $29,425.00.

Well, of course, now I wanted to find out what Phibby’s deformity was so I hunted…for anything that would lead me to this answer. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I believe I found what I had hoped to learn. Phibby was born in 1837. I know this from the lists kept concerning the births and deaths of all slaves on the plantation. In 1843, a letter was written to Phibby’s master from a doctor in Richmond. He was writing to thank the man for bringing the “negro child” to his office and a summary of his recommendations followed. The doctor discussed the “club foot” of the child and made comment that because the child was only five years old, it would be better to bring them back in a few years, giving the foot a chance to grow so the full extent of the deformity could be measured. The letter did not give the child’s gender but one can reasonably assume from this letter that Phibby, who was five years old in 1843, was born with a club foot. I can make this assumption because there were no other children or adults in any of the tax records listed as having any deformity, other than Phibby. So, because she was born in 1837, because there was a five year old child seen by a doctor for a club foot in 1843, because Phibby would have been five in 1843, and because she was the only slave listed as having a deformity, I believe the child with the club foot and Phibby to be the same person.

By this point I was so excited that I was finding more and more tidbits of information, shedding some light on Phibby, the human being, I could not stop digging. I was quickly disappointed, however, as the number of clues to WHO she was quickly dwindled down. I did, however, learn some things about her and her life as a slave on this plantation.

I found a small receipt for shoes. There were two types of shoes. Single-soled and double-soled shoes. From the receipt I learned that, in 1861, the master of the plantation paid $195.00 for shoes. Single-soled shoes cost $1.75 and double-soled shoes cost $2.50 per pair. The shoemaker wrote the receipt for ten pairs of single-soled shoes and 70 pairs of double-soled shoes. There was a notation that in 1862, old shoes were re-soled and no-one received new shoes that year. It is impossible to know, and I hope to continue this research to discover the answer, but I wonder if the every-other-year issuance of shoes was due to the Civil War or if that was the way in which items were issued on this plantation. It can be reasonably assumed that, based on what we know about the slave structure and division of labor on plantations, that the single-soled shoes were for house slaves and double-soled shoes were given to field slaves. This did not seem like much more than an interesting fact until I found a chart listing what materials, clothing and blankets specifically, were issued to the slaves in 1853 and 1861. In 1853, all slaves received a “blanket sheet” and it was noted that a new blanket was issued every other year. This, clearly, had nothing to do with the war as the date on this listing was eight years before the start of the war. In 1861, the list of shoes issued stated that Phibby received a pair of size 8, double-soled shoes. That was the first bit of insight about Phibby that made me feel sad for her. I was forced to face the realization that Phibby was a field slave. Life for a field slave was hard; all of slavery was hard, but the field slave had an extremely hard life. Life for Phibby would surely have included very laborious work, in any weather, from sun up to sun down, six days a week. But this information added to what I believed I was learning about Phibby, so I counted it as valuable.

Two Family Slave Cabin from the Plantation where Phibby was Enslaved

This is where I bumped into a dead end. I know that Federal troops were holding a line along the James River and it was noted a few times that those who lived along the James could see the boats from their houses. At one point, Phibby’s master mentioned that, as of May 1864, some thirty-nine “women, chidren and ‘bucks’ had run off to the Yankees.” Listed among them, Phibby and her two children.

Where did she go? Did she reach freedom? Did she make it to the end of the war? Did she find a life once slavery ended, or was her life as hard after the war as it was before? I wonder what became of her children? I want to know if they have descendents still living; descendents who might know nothing of their ancestor? And I wonder how I can find my answers?

I am currently looking to find Freedmen Bureau records for the surrounding area to see if Phibby was ever listed anywhere within those files. I am also trying to determine where I can find Federal records, if they exist, of any slaves who ran away during the war so I might try to find her that way. I discovered this person, Phibby, by accident. I wondered why she was the only enslaved female to have run away from her plantation and why was she the only slave noted by name? When I found her, Phibby was just a note written in red ink, at the top of a page in an overseer’s journal, but I discovered that she was more than that single notation. She was a person, a mother, a woman who wanted to leave the clutches of slavery and find her way to freedom. Phibby was brave enough to risk her life to take her children with her. Had she been caught, she very likely could have been killed, as running away was punishable by death for slaves. Why did she feel she needed to run away at that particular time? Where did she find the courage? Did something happen that drove her to run? Phibby was the first woman to run away from the plantation. From the accounting Phibby’s master left behind, as late as July 16, 1863, one full year’s time, she was the only woman to have run away.

Phibby, I hope, will make her way back into my life as I continue to hunt for records that may list her in the post-war period of Reconstruction. I hope to be able to post again to say, here’s the rest of the story.

This oak tree is 300 years old and is on the plantation where Phibby was enslaved

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