James Thomas, Jr. and Enslavement

Black and white photographic portrait of an elderly James Thomas, Jr seated.
James Thomas, Jr. photographic portrait (University of Richmond Alumni Bulletin, Fall 1966)

The business success and wealth of James Thomas, Jr. (1806-1882)—and thus his philanthropy to institutions like Richmond College—were heavily reliant on extensive use of enslaved labor over more than 25 years. At one point in a single year (1860), he held 131 enslaved men, women, and children in Richmond alone, representing a significant proportion of the 150 total “hands” likewise recorded in his Richmond entry in that year’s census.1 Records also document the consistent use of whipping (both at the hands of law enforcement and, in one case, dictated by Thomas) or the prospect of being sold away to control those he enslaved. This page provides additional information about the extent of Thomas’s involvement in the slave system and recovered information about specific individuals held by Thomas through direct enslavement or his leasing agreements with other enslavers. Government records show the numbers of enslaved people he held in Richmond on census enumeration days over three decades: 1840-1860. Contemporaneous newspaper items, correspondence, bills, receipts, and other business records provide many names of enslaved individuals and biographical fragments. To facilitate the work of those seeking their ancestors, the most current list of all names recovered in recent research available here.

Selected Government Records

The census information below reflects only those held in the Richmond area. Evidence shows that Thomas also held people in other localities.2

Census forms with handwritten entries.
Excerpt of Thomas’s 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedule entries (NARA, Ancestry.com)
Census forms with handwritten entries.
Excerpt of Thomas’s 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedule entries (NARA, Ancestry.com)

Enslaved Individuals Enumerated Under Thomas's Name in the Federal Census: 1840-1860


45 individuals—including 4 boys under the age of 103


17 individuals—5 women, 2 men, 7 girls, and 3 boys (likely the Thomas home)4

75 individuals—46 men (18 and over), 3 women (18 and over), 2 girls (13-15), 17 boys (12-17), 7 boys (10-11)5


51 individuals (Location: Ward 2, 3)

16 individuals (Location: Ward 2, 5)

55 individuals (Location: Ward 3, 32-33)         8 individuals (Location: Ward 3, 12)

1 individual (Location: Ward 3, 4)6 

No items found.

Enslaved “Hands”

The 1840, 1850, and 1860 census records suggest that free persons constituted only a small portion of Thomas’s overall labor force:


49 total individuals “employed in manufacture or trade”

45 men and boys enslaved by Thomas7


90 total “hands” working in industry8

75 enslaved people (of the 92 he held that year)9


150 total “hands”10

131 enslaved people recorded11 

Personal Property Taxes, 1851-1852

Tax records provide information on Thomas’s concentration of enslaved laborers in his factories. The numbers of enslaved people on whom Thomas paid personal property taxes included those he enslaved directly and those he “hired” from other enslavers for leasing terms that typically lasted one year. His rapid increase in real estate ownership and slaveholding is demonstrated in his tax records of 1851 and 1852.

Handwritten personal property assessment.
Thomas’s 1851 Henrico County personal property assessment showing Thomas’s holdings, including 11 lots and 60 enslaved people. The assessment also included his carriages, piano, and other items associated with his home. (Courtesy of Duke University)
Typed personal property assessment with handwritten entries.
Thomas’s July 19, 1852 personal property assessment showing Thomas’s holdings including 14 lots, his piano, carriages, horses, watch, cow, and 88 enslaved individuals (Courtesy of Duke University)


Selected Records of Purchase, Leasing (“Slave Hire”), and Sale

Thomas’s records contain dozens of items related to the transfer and trafficking of enslaved people. These include letters, receipts, and executed pre-printed leasing agreements.

Printed and handwritten receipt.
Receipt for $800 for Thomas’s purchase of Edmond, January 5, 1852 (Courtesy of Duke University)
Printed agreement form with Thomas's signature.
Agreement signed by Thomas for the leasing of Nat from Joseph Heirholzer for $65 for one year, January 1, 1852 (Courtesy of Duke University)
Handwritten record of the sale of Henry.
Record of Thomas’s sale of Henry for $1,100 to the slave dealer Silas Omohundru, via Sidnum Grady, July 23, 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)
Handwritten receipt.
Receipt for Thomas’s purchase of Armistead, Tom, and Henry for $2,550, February 3, 1862 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Selected Newspaper Items

The names of many who were enslaved by Thomas are preserved because of their encounters with police and the criminal justice system, leading to reports in a Richmond daily newspaper. The charges reflect the extreme constraints on enslaved persons, for whom singing or being found without a pass resulted in arrest and physical punishment. The accounts describe most of them being whipped 10, 12, or 39 times. 

Title Page for Newspaper Accounts Relating to Persons Enslaved by James Thomas Jr.
Image Transcription: “Watch House Cases—Several negroes were arrested Saturday night for various offences and on being arraigned before Justic Sadler, yesterday morning, were disposed of as follows: . . . . Richard, slave of James Thomas, 10 lashes for stealing coal. . . . .Sam, slave of James Thomas, no pass and drunk, 15 [lashes]”.

"Watch House Cases" (Richard), Daily Dispatch, November 2, 1857

Transcription: Unlawful Assembly – Coleman, slave of James Thomas. . . yesterday awarded a considerable number of stripes for getting into an unlawful assembly at Tinsley’s bakery on Sunday night.

"Unlawful Assembly" (Coleman), Daily Dispatch, September 30, 1856

Transcription: Trapped – William, slave to James Thomas, called at the Post-Office last Thursday, and seeing Mr. Charles Bigger, told him that he had been on Shockoe Hill to carry a bundle, and that the lady whom he served had directed him to call on Master Charles and get a quarter for his trouble. Looking upon the statement as doubtful, and remembering that he had been swindled out of a coat last winter by a negro, Mr. B. told him to call that evening, and in the meantime B. made enquiries of the ladies at home, and ascertained that none of them had sent the boy to him. That evening the prisoner returned as directed, when he was captured and caged. Yesterday morning he appeared before the Mayor and was flogged.

"Trapped" (William), Daily Dispatch September 3, 1859

Transcription: Sundries – Yesterday, before the Recorder, Bob, slave of James Thomas, was ordered 39 lashes for cutting Tom, slave of C.M. Nimmo.

"Sundries" (Bob), Daily Dispatch, April 23, 1861 (CA)

Transcription: Stealing – A negro fellow called Coleman, the property of James Thomas, jr., was arraigned before the Mayor yesterday, to answer the charge of stealing a ham of bacon from Peter Perkinson. After hearing the evidence, Coleman was pronounced guilty and ordered to be flogged to the tune of twenty-five stripes. Dear bacon that.

"Stealing" (Coleman), Daily Dispatch, May 18 1855 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Stealing—Bill, slave to James Thomas, has been locked up to undergo a legal examination for lifting a coat that did not belong to him.

"Stealing" (Bill), Daily Dispatch, February 23, 1857 (CA)

Transcription: Stealing Tobacco – Edward Hancock, slave to James Thomas, on Friday evening last, stole a small quantity of tobacco from his employer, and upon being hailed and searched on his way home, by watchman Boze, discovery of the theft was made. He was ordered 25 lashes on Saturday.

"Stealing Tobacco" (Edward Hancock), Daily Dispatch February 21, 1853 (CA)

Transcription: Stealing Money – A negro names Peter Haskins, slave to James Thomas, Jr, was on yesterday ordered 39 lashes by the Mayor, for stealing the sum of $14 from a man names William Shadwick.

"Stealing Money" (Peter Haskins), Daily Dispatch, February 15 1853 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Serenaders – Two more “negro serenaders,” Nelson, slave to James Thomas, Jr, and John, slave to Watkins Taylor, on yesterday received ten lashes each for disturbing the peace Tuesday evening, with “bones” and “banjo” on Broad street.

"Serenaders" (Nelson), Daily Dispatch, July 30 1852 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Out of Track – A negro, named Richard, hired by James Thomas, was found out of track, by the watch, on Tuesday night, and attempted to elude arrest. The Mayor sentenced him to receive ten lashes.

"Out of Track" (Richard), Daily Dispatch, June 3, 1852

Transcription: Out of Track – A slave named Cary, employed by James Thomas, Jr., on yesterday received 10 lashes for running from the watch when out of track Sunday night.

"Out of Track" (Cary,) Daily Dispatch June 12, 1852 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: No Passes – Horace and Dick, in the service of James Thomas, jr., were both well flogged, by order of the Mayor, for being in the street without passes.

"No Passes" (Horace and Dick), Daily Dispatch, September 26 1854 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: No Pass – William, slave to James Thomas, jr., was enticed out last Thursday night by the music of the circus, notwithstanding the fact that he had no pass; but on his way home fell in with two of the “Charlies,” who laid hands upon him and demanded to know why he was in the street at that hour of the night. Bill immediately declared that he had been sent for a physician to see a sick boy, and gave the name of a celebrated doctor long since dead, which proved the falsity of his statement and caused him to be landed in the cage. Yesterday morning he repeated the same story before the Mayor, believing that a lie well stuck to was a good as the truth, for which he received ten stripes.

"No Pass" (William), Daily Dispatch, June 23 1855 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Thomas, slave of James Thomas, charged with stealing a shawl from Fleming, slave of James Epps, was sentenced to the whipping post. Each established a clear ownership of the shawl, by the evidence, but the Justice decided that Fleming was entitled to it.

"Mayor's Court" (Thomas), Daily Dispatch, January 7, 1861 (CA)

Transcription: Joseph, slave of James Thomas, punished for having a coat supposed to be stolen.

"Mayor's Court" (Joseph), Daily Dispatch, May 1, 1861 (CA)

Transcription: Mayor’s Court – The following cases were disposed of by the Mayor on yesterday: . . . Harrison, slave of James Thomas, for trespassing on the premises of the Fredericksburg railroad, was whipped.

"Mayor's Court" (Harrison), Daily Dispatch, July 10, 1861

Transcription: Mayor’s Court –… Harrison, slave of James Thomas, for trespassing on the premises of the Fredericksburg railroad, was whipped.

"Mayor's Court, Saturday" (Harrison), Daily Dispatch, July 22, 1861 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: A slave named Nick, belonging to James Thomas, Jr., was carried before the Mayor yesterday, charged with being a runaway and being out “after hours.” The Mayor punished the boy.

"Local Matters" (Nick), Daily Dispatch, May 29, 1861 (CA)

Transcription: Impudence Punished – Thornton, slave to Nelson Tinsley, charged with insulting and abusing James Thomas; and Ned Walker, a negro, charged with abusing and threatening Albert Ford, were both tried before the Mayor last Saturday, found guilty, and sentenced to the lash.

"Impudence Punished" (Thornton), Daily Dispatch, December 10, 1860

Transcription: Improper Pass – George, slave to James Thomas, Jr., was arrested and caged for having in his possession a pass belonging to another servant. George attempted to clear himself of all blame, by declaring that he had accidentally got possession of Joe’s pass, but the Mayor had the facts inquired into, and finding that the prisoner had lied, ordered him to received 15 stripes.

"Improper Pass" (George), Daily Dispatch, November 21, 1854 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Improper Pass – Frank, slave to James Thomas, Jr, received ten lashes at the public whipping post on yesterday, for carrying an improperly written pass.

"Improper Pass" (Frank), Daily Dispatch June 12, 1852 (Virginia Chronicle)

Transcription: Caught – Bill Harris, slave to James Thomas, jr., was detected last Friday night in trying the bolt of Benjamin Gray’s door, and locked up. When brought before the Mayor the next morning, he was soundly flogged and then discharged.

"Caught" (Bill Harris), Daily Dispatch, September 14, 1857

Transcription: Disorderly – . . . Sarah Ann Jackson, slave to James Thomas, Jr., also received ten lashes for a similar trespass. Required to procure a proper pass.

"Disorderly" (Sarah Ann Jackson), Daily Dispatch, March 4, 1853

Transcription: James, slave of James Thomas, and George, slave of John Hitchcock, were brought up for fighting with knives in the yard of Mr. H. near Mayo’s bridge. The former was quite bloody, and the other had a slice cut out of his left hand. Mr. H. received a bad cut in attempting to separate them. The case was continued.

"City Items" (James), Daily Richmond Whig, September 17, 1861 (CA)

Transcription: Bad Race – Henry, slave to James Thomas, Jr., convicted before the Mayor of having no pass, and of running from the watchmen when hailed by them, was ordered a flogging, by way of teaching him obedience to the laws.

"Bad Race" (Henry), Daily Dispatch, September 5, 1853 (Virginia Chronicle)

In and Around the Thomas Home

Large three-story brick home on a corner lot with flowering trees and a brick wall surrounding the property.
Undated Photograph of James Thomas, Jr.’s home on Grace Street (reprinted in Mary Wingfield Scott, Old Richmond Neighborhoods, 1950)
News clipping about arrest of enslaved persons.
Report of arrest of two men enslaved by Thomas and a woman and child they sheltered in Thomas’s stable, “City Affairs,” Daily Richmond Times, June 6, 1850 (Virginia Chronicle)

Details of those held at Thomas’s Richmond residence are emerging from primary records. An 1850 news item and a letter written by Thomas’s niece provide a glimpse of two men Thomas held at his residence on Grace and 2nd Streets: Jesse and Nath (his name as it appears in the letter; a likely abbreviation of Nathan or Nathanial). The material also reveals fragments of the lives of an unnamed enslaved woman and her child, to whom the two men provided shelter and aid. The woman had escaped the enslavement of “Dr. Watson” and avoided recapture for between 18 months and two years. For at least a year of that time, Nath and Jesse kept her hidden in the loft of Thomas’s large stable, where she also gave birth to a child.12 In June 1850, she was discovered by two men, “Messrs. Williams and Granger” (likely Francis Williams and Thomas Granger, members of the Richmond Night Police).13 The woman, Nath, and Jesse were arrested. It appears that Jesse was released, but Thomas gave instructions that Nath was to be detained in jail with the woman after he had been “punished for his good offices.”14 The punishment likely refers to whipping. No information has been found on the location of the child. The day the newspaper item was published, Thomas’s niece, Emily Thomas McTyre (1829-1921), described the events to her mother, Thomas’s sister-in-law, Mary J. Morgan Thomas (1805-1854). She refers to Jesse as a carriage driver and “Uncle Jesse,” indicating he may have been an older man. She also reports Thomas’s plan to sell Nath in the wake of the event:

There has been quite a rumpus at Uncle James’ about a woman that has been in his stable[,] it is thought perhaps a year. She ran away from her master Dr. Watson. She has had a child since she has been there. Nath, it is thought, was the head man, he & Uncle Jesse. It is a great secret, but Uncle J. will probably sell N (the other one [Jesse] is a carriage driver). The woman has been hunted for two years.15
Portion of an old plat map showing Thomas’s property.
Lot detail showing the stable (indicated by “X”) on Thomas’s property, Beers Illustrated Atlas of Richmond, Virginia, 1877 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In Factories

Alfred & Edward Hancock

Those who exploited large numbers of enslaved people in manufacturing settings typically used managers to exert day-to-day control over those they held. Managers were generally “white males between sixteen and twenty-six who were given license to discipline slave workers.” That discipline included “striking, cuffing, and whipping.”16 In 1854, an enslaved man named Alfred, who was held by Thomas, was arrested following what appears to have been an incident with a farm overseer or factory manager. In a letter in which Thomas stipulated the physical punishment that should follow Alfred’s time in jail, he did not specify “Alfred’s conduct,” though it appears to have resulted in possible fear on the part of a manager named Mr. Wright. Writing from Warm Springs, Virginia, where Thomas often spent long periods of time, he passed instructions for Wright through his then-office manager, Thomas C. Williams, Sr. (1831-1899), who would become a Richmond College trustee and benefactor. Wright was to retrieve Alfred from jail and “give him as much whipping as he wants and put him to work until I return.” Before turning to matters of his own health, Thomas emphasized the expedience of brutality: 

Unless Mr. Wright is afraid of the chap Alfred, there is certainly no use in keeping him in jail. All he wants is whipping enough & [Wright] will find that it will not take much more than one good one.17
Handwritten letter signed by Thomas.
Letter in which Thomas prescribes the whipping of Alfred, August 18, 1854 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Following his whipping by Wright, Alfred would then be required to drive a team of horses each day until Thomas’s arrival.18 It is possible that he had been held by Thomas since at least 1852. The name Alfred appears on a list of shoes purchased for those who labored in Thomas’s factories.19 To date, nothing more has been located that sheds light on Alfred’s life.

Handwritten bill to Thomas for the whipping of Edward Hancock.
Bill to Thomas for the whipping of “Edward Hancock, a slave,” February 19, 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

The previous year, Thomas paid a bill for the police whipping of an enslaved man he held named Edward Hancock. Hancock was accused of stealing chewing tobacco from Thomas’s factory.20 One newspaper reported his arrest, conviction, and punishment as an example of the lack of gratitude among those leased by their enslavers to factory owners in Richmond. The item concluded, “We therefore always feel a degree of satisfaction—a savage one, if you please—at the detection and conviction of these graceless scamps.”21

News clipping about Edward Hancock’s arrest and punishment.
Report of Edward Hancock’s arrest and punishment, Richmond Daily Times, February 21, 1853 (Virginia Chronicle)

Isaiah Smith & Joseph Henry Hill

News clipping about the capture of Isaiah Smith.
Report of the capture of “a slave named Isaiah Smith, the property of James Thomas, jr.,” “Fugitive Slave Captured,” Daily Dispatch, April 26, 1854 (Virginia Chronicle)

Two men enslaved by Thomas escaped Richmond with the intention of going North. In April 1854, Isaiah Smith boarded the steamship Pennsylvania and hid “between decks behind a large iron pipe.” He made it to Delaware before he was discovered and jailed in New Castle. There he awaited identification by an agent of Thomas’s and his eventual return to Richmond.22

Cipping of reward notice.
Notice placed by Thomas offering a reward for the return of “my NEGRO MAN, Joe Hill” (Joseph Henry Hill), “$100 Reward,” Daily Dispatch, February 9, 1859 (Virginia Chronicle)

In February 1859, Joseph Henry Hill, age 28, escaped from Thomas’s factory. Thomas placed an advertisement seeking his return, describing him as “well known among the tobacco factory negroes.” Hill, Thomas continued, could “read and write well” and “when spoken to he looks at you with a sort of stare, and perhaps a little sullen.” Despite Thomas’s offer of a $200 reward for capture and return, Hill was able to reach the free state of Pennsylvania en route to Canada. In Philadelphia, Hill encountered William Still (1821-1902), the child of formerly enslaved parents, an anti-slavery and abolition activist, and a conductor who assisted formerly enslaved individuals seeking freedom and is considered the father of the Underground Railroad. Still provided the last known record of Hill’s life:

The spirit of freedom in this passenger was truly the “one idea” notion. At the age of twenty-eight his purpose to free himself by escaping on the Underground Rail Road was successfully carried into effect, although not without difficulty. Joseph was a fair specimen of a man physically and mentally, could read and write, and thereby keep the run of matters of interest on the Slavery question.
James Thomas, Jr., a tobacco merchant, in Richmond, had Joe down in his ledger as a marketable piece of property, or a handy machine to save labor, and make money. To Joe’s great joy he heard the sound of the Underground Rail Road bell in Richmond,—had a satisfactory interview with the conductor,—received a favorable response, and was soon a traveler on his way to Canada. He left his mother, a free woman, and two sisters in chains. He had been sold twice, but he never meant to be sold again.23
Sepia photographic portrait of William Still seated.
Photograph of William Still, who recorded Joseph Hill’s account of enslavement and freedom (Courtesy of the Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College)

Charles Fleet

Between at least 1851 and 1856, Charles Fleet24 labored in Thomas’s manufactured tobacco factory. In 1853, he was listed among the facility’s tobacco twisters.25 Each year he requested that his enslaver, Dr. Benjamin Fleet of King and Queen County, Virginia, hire him out to Thomas so he could be near his wife, who was held in Richmond. In the years of communication between Benjamin Fleet and Thomas, details of Charles Fleet’s life were negotiated by the two men, including the hire amount Thomas paid to Benjamin Fleet for Charles Fleet’s labor ($75 per year in 1852 and $140 in 1856)26 and the risk that his serious medical issues, including a head injury and a prolonged fever in 1851, would keep him away from his wife if Thomas refused to continue leasing him.27 In his 1855 letter to Thomas’s manager, R.A. Patterson, Benjamin Fleet’s language shifted from occasional paternalistic accommodation to frustration with Charles Fleet’s situation and lack of “gratitude.” Charles Fleet had experienced seizures resulting from his earlier head injury and was hospitalized with pneumonia: 

Charles is & has ever been a mystery to me & what to do with him I know not. I will however give him away (provided I can get any body to take him) before he shall absorb my whole estate in medical fees . . . If Charles were like any other human being I have ever seen, he would command not only my sympathy but the very best in every sense of the word that a kind master cd. do for a servant. But he is as devoid of gratitude for services rendered him even by those of his own colour & race (not to speak of white folks,) . . . I sometimes think of putting him to digging Coal where the light wd. not be so apt to affect his cerebral function, sometimes of one thing & sometimes another. Be pleased to get him away from the Infirmary as soon as his pneumonia disease will admit of his leaving, as if he were to stay there untill [sic] his brain became sound & healthy, he would have to stay there until the “crack of doom” if he could live that long, in all human probability.28
First page of handwritten letter.
Benjamin Fleet’s letter concerning Charles Fleet, January 24, 1855 (Courtesy of Duke University)

By 1856, Benjamin Fleet was again attempting to hire Charles Fleet out to Thomas. His annual negotiation letter included a reminder that it was the Richmond location of Charles Fleet’s wife that made his hiring out in the city so urgent. He was described as “very anxious to get back to Richmond on account of it being so much more convenient for him to visit his wife.” Regarding his previous health concerns, Benjamin Fleet continued, “If he loses more than two or three weeks at the most from sickness, I am willing to deduct the amount of time lost.”29 This is the last record of Charles Fleet’s life located to date.

Lists of Clothing and Medical Services

Thomas’s business papers contain several long lists of those held in his facilities and items and services he purchased for specific people who labored for him. Each line includes a named recipient. 

Winter Clothes, 1853

One list from winter 1853 details the amounts Thomas spent on clothing for individuals laboring in his facilities.30 Leasing agreements between enslavers typically stipulated that enslaved people be returned with new clothes and shoes, and this list would have been kept, in part, to account for such purchases. Some on the list are noted as having been “clothed by Master” (likely indicating a shorter lease term), while a few others received money in lieu of clothing. The occasional practice of cash payments to enslaved people instead of clothing is described by Robert Ryland and has been detailed by historians including Midori Takagi and Jennifer Oast.31

The six extant pages of the list—shown in the images below and organized by job title (twisters, screwmen, stemmers, job men, and job boys) with names and notations—details the amounts Thomas spent on clothing for individuals laboring in his facilities. The original list of names is located in the extensive collection of Thomas’s business papers held by the Rubinstein Library at Duke University.32

Medical Care

Dr. A.G. (Albert G.) Wortham (1810-1873), Thomas’s friend, brother-in-law, and fellow Richmond College trustee, treated the Thomas family and those Thomas enslaved on a regular basis. He billed Thomas using long itemized statements, at times detailing the nature of treatment. Wortham treated enslaved men, women, and children for typhoid fever, consumption (tuberculosis), croup, wounds, and convulsions. His repeated visits to individual women may have indicated pregnancies.33

Handwritten receipt for medical treatment.
A receipt recording medical treatment by Dr. Edwin F. Martin for two enslaved men held by Thomas, James and Tolliver, in March and April 1855, respectively. (Courtesy of Duke University)
Handwritten bill for medical treatment.
Excerpt of a three-page statement from Dr. A.G. Wortham showing medical treatment for members of the Thomas family and some of those Thomas enslaved from August 2 to November 1, 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Danville, Virginia

Thornton Gregory

On May 25, 1862, Thornton Gregory, age 26, escaped Thomas’s enslavement. Gregory had labored in Thomas’s factory before his escape. Two months later, Thomas placed an advertisement in a Richmond newspaper offering $100 for Gregory’s capture and return. Referring to him as “my negro man Thornton, who calls himself Thornton Gregory,” Thomas provided Gregory’s physical description, a common feature of items seeking the return of those who escaped enslavement. He believed that Richmond was Gregory’s likely destination, pointing to the probability that he had been held there originally and may have had friends, family, or other connections in the city. The following year, Thomas adjusted his framing of Gregory’s escape when he paid his personal property taxes, describing Gregory as among the “Slaves that have escaped to the enemy” during the Civil War.34 No documentation has been located that indicates Thornton Gregory was returned to Thomas’s enslavement prior to the Confederate surrender in 1865. Preliminary genealogical research points to the possibility that at least three generations of his descendants lived in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.35

Clipping of ad offering reward.
Advertisement placed by Thomas seeking the return of Thornton Gregory after his escape in May 1862, Daily Dispatch, July 12, 1862 (Virginia Chronicle)
Form filed to claim Thornton escaped.
Record of Thomas’s claim that Thornton [Gregory] “escaped to the enemy” on May 25, 1862 (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia)

Hanover County, Virginia

Margaret, Georgianna & Others

While numerous sources provide details of Thomas’s exploitation of the slave system in his factories, references to the enslaved laborers on his farms are typically scattered across correspondence from his overseers. One exception is an 1863 list of enslaved people leased for Thomas by the man acting as his agent, Harvey N. Broaddus (1839-1918). The list provides the names of men, women, and at least one child; the names of their enslavers; and the amount paid. 

Handwritten record of names of enslaved individuals.
Record of enslaved individuals leased by Thomas for his Hanover County farm, Plain Dealing, in 1863 (Courtesy of Duke University)

List of “Servants”  hired for Thomas’s Plain Dealing farm in 1863 (including the names of and amounts paid to their enslavers):

Emmly of R.A. Puller—$75

Gabriel, John, and Dandridge of A. Broaddus—$350

Rose Temple, & Sittleton of L.T. Harrison—$250

Roberson of William S. Andrews—$175

Smith of James Andrews—$162

Catherin of J.D. Butler—$75

Isac Parker John and Harriet of R.G. Green—$505

James Hudson of R.S. Pitts—$150

Margaret and Georgianna of B.F. Gresham—$120

John Harris of James G. Gouldin—$175

Ann no bond, no clothes—$36

Fanny & Child—$150

Nelson (carpenter)—$25 per month36

A January 1864 letter to Thomas from B.F. (Benjamin F.) Gresham, the enslaver of Margaret and Georgianna, is both an example of the typical conflicts between enslavers and “hirers” and an illustration of the effects such conflicts had on enslaved individuals.37 Gresham objected that Margaret and Georgianna, “two young women,” had been returned to him without the new sets of clothing typically required in slave leasing agreements. He also noted that Thomas’s overseer had given one of the women a “pair of shoes that would not last a month.” He wrote that he had agreed to a low price for a year of their labor with the understanding that the women would be “well treated and clothed.”38 Gresham insisted that Thomas arrange for the items to be delivered immediately since Margaret and Georgianna were “much in need of their clothes.”39 A historic cold snap had affected the region during the period between the two women’s return from Thomas’s farm and Gresham’s letter to Thomas: one Richmond newspaper described January 2, 1864 as “one of the coldest days ever felt in this latitude by the present generation.”40 To date, no further material has been located that provides information on the lives of Margaret or Georgianna.

Documentation & Lives

The individuals in the summaries above represent a small fraction of those enslaved or held by Thomas whose names appear in newspaper items and in the correspondence, receipts, medical bills, purchasing statements, and other material in his business records. A table that includes all the names encountered during recent research is available here

More Information