The Underground Railroad Connection to Prince William
County at Brentsville
Brentsville courthouse and jail located in Prince William County are associated with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom because they served as sites of arrest and jailing of runaway bondsmen and of abolitionists from the 1820s until 1862 while Brentsville served as the county seat.
There was a widespread custom of enslavement in Prince William County to tend crops, such as tobacco (the original green gold crop of Virginia) and corn (the necessary staple). By the beginning of the 19th century, wheat became the important crop and replaced tobacco as the cash crop. In addition, dairy farms and animal farms with sheep, hogs and cattle began to emerge in the community. Many new farmers from New Jersey and New York began moving into the area and bought up inexpensive farmland. Many of these farmers did not own bondsmen, but did buy slave labor from local plantations to work their farms.
The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 were enacted to threaten freedom seekers. Unscrupulous slave catchers would jail enslaved workers as runaways if they could to collect on the large rewards for a capture. In addition, the Acts in 1850 polarized further the existing pro-slavery and anti-slavery sentiments in Virginia and across the nation. Owners of enslaved workers would post advertisements for runaway enslaved works to be taken to jail for return to the owners.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Virginia was galvanized by two brutally suppressed rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser in Henrico County in 1800 and Nat Turner in 1831 in Southampton County. Both occurred during the period when Brentsville courthouse and jail were in use. Local events also indicated that local fears in Prince William County were justified. One means of controlling the enslaved and free black population was the Prince William Patrols member, carved from the Virginia Militia. Assigned by the Justice of the Peace, the members of the patrols were instructed to:
“patrol and visit all Negro quarters [dwellings] and other places suspected of entertaining Negroes or other persons unlawfully assembled to apprehend all Negroes without passes as runaways & Free Negroes for the violation of the law & bring them before a magistrate to be dealt with according to law. January 25 1839”
At Brentsville, the general public was regularly reminded of the resistance to slavery by African American residents of Virginia. Both enslaved and free as freedom seekers were caught, jailed, tried and punished. In addition to runaways, there is evidence that free blacks had to fight for their freedom. White abolitionists were tried, found guilty and fined huge sums of money, while a black abolitionist gave his life in response to the cause.
The first documented evidence of use of the jail to house runaways in Brentsville jail comes from a bill dated June 4 1833 for the medical treatment of a runaway in jail. “Runaway” Negro Man Billy was seen on three successive days (February 21 22 and 23 1833) by Physician James B. T. Thornton.
The second case was that of captured free black William Hyden. In a petition in 1835 to the state legislature deputy sheriff Basil Brawner sought compensation for “expense that arose from apprehension [sic] confinement advertising &c” because Robert Lipscomb was unable to pay his $452 bid for William Hyden. Former sheriff Michael Cleary “now stands charged on the books of the Auditor of public accounts with a large sum of Money which your petitioner will be compelled to pay unless your Honorable body will release him from it although [sic] he has not received nor has he any hope of receiving one cent of the same.” This sum was the price for a free black man arrested as a runaway in Prince William County who had been offered for sale.
New York-born free black William Hyden moved with his parents to Ohio when he was in his teens. Traveling to Washington DC in 1833, Hyden was arrested and offered for sale. According to the petition in 1835, deputy sheriff Basil Brawner sold Hyden to Robert Lipscomb a trader in bondsmen who was an agent for an unnamed buyer. When the buyer refused to pay Brawner futilely asked Colonel James Fewell a passing slave trader going to Fredericksburg and Richmond to sell Hyden. Later Brawner tried to sell Hyden at Court Day in Brentsville. Local traders would not purchase Hyden ”alledging [sic] that his colour [sic] was too light and that he could by reason thereof too easily escape from slavery and pass himself for a free man.” Hyden was jailed for nearly a year until he escaped. The sheriff “made every exertion in his power to regain possession” of Hyden but was unsuccessful.
The third and last case of African Americans involves the crime of an imprisoned runaway. In the case Commonwealth vs. Landon a Slave dated March 4 1839, a special court was held that just included the Justice of the Peace. This limited court representation was legal in trials of enslaved African Americans charged with treason or a felony.
None of the witnesses actually saw him start the fire which started in the room adjoining his. A piece of burned cloth the size of a walnut found in a hole in one of the floorboards was the physical evidence used against him. But what incriminated Landon most seems to be the testimony of another enslaved person Overton (sworn to testify in the trial) who said that he gave the prisoner a piece of lighted coal to start the tobacco in Landon’s pipe. Also someone testified that Landon had been earlier prying at the window in his room. When the fire alarm was sounded it appeared that fire had been burning for about a half hour in the ceiling of the room next to the one where the prisoner Landon was being held. The witness who answered the fire alarm said that it originated in the room where the prisoner was held. Within a month prisoner Landon was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging on Friday April 4 1839.
Landon’s harsh sentence was likely a response to the frustration and fear of slave holders. Arson by bondsmen was one more indication that whites feared enslaved African Americans and generally had little idea whether any particular bondsman presented a clear danger.
“A negro man slave named Landon confined as a runaway the property of William Bowers of Fauquier County on the 10th of February: not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil with force and arms at the County within the jurisdiction of this court feloniously did with force and maliciously set fire to the Jail of the County of Prince William situated in the Town of Brentsville against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth and against the forum of the acts of the general assembly of Virginia.”
The cases of an owner’s murder of his bondswoman Katy and of five years later his own murder in turn by another of his bondswomen Agness show the tensions in Prince William County. In October 1845 Gerard Mason was accused in Commonwealth vs. Gerard Mason with the murder of the enslaved Katy. In William Bates’ deposition he stated: '[Bates] Has been in Gerard Mason's’ neighborhood [the farm Woodbridge on the Occoquan River southern shore] for about two months past – When he [Bates] first came Katy was unable to walk about & has continued so ever since has seen her crawling about her cabin & when crawling would sometimes fall some – [Bates] has been in her cabin three times.” The coroner after exhumation of Katy’s body from a grave on Mason’s property ruled after oaths from twelve county residents that:
“Gerard Mason . . . with some instrument or thing unknown to the jury which he the aforesaid Gerard Mason then and there used . . . upon the head then and there violently and voluntarily struck and cut and gave to the said slave Katy . . . upon her head several severe wounds one of which on the back and lower part of the head is of the length of one and a half inches cutting into and taking off a part of the skull of which said wounds the aforesaid slave Katy shortly after their infliction died."
Mason was found guilty and was committed to jail with sentencing to be held on November 6 1845. The public record is not available for the following years but since he was out just five years later when he was murdered he did not serve long. However his well documented brutality to Katy as noted above was repaid when he died at the hands of enslaved Agness five years hence. Mason’s reputation as a “hard master” in Prince William and Fairfax Counties despite his escape from any long lasting punishment by the court system would have been apparent to fellow bondswoman Agness. She continued to work for Mason after Katy’s death and was likely a witness to Katy’s exhumation. The strength of racial tensions created by the trial of Agness is attested to by local historian Lillian Gaskill who was told the story by Annie Williams (noted Prince William midwife now deceased) in the 20th century.
The National Era in two issues in August and November 1857 carried articles about Prince William’s white abolitionists. In Prince William County there were those who questioned the legality of owning people as property. Two men were brought to trial for their antislavery views. Punishment was swift for those white citizens who too openly objected to slave holding in any way or who made an announcement of being an abolitionist.
On August 27 1857, the paper read: “On Wednesday evening a resident of Prince William County named Crawford was committed to jail by Justice Kankey charged with declaring 'that he was an Abolitionist that he believed a Negro as good as he was if he behaved himself; and maintaining by speaking that persons have not the right of property in slaves under the law.'”
Another selection from November of the same year reads: “On Tuesday last in Prince William County Va. John Underwood was found guilty of 'uttering and maintaining that owners have no rights of property in their slaves' and fined $312.50. The Brentsville Journal a local paper said: ‘A motion was made for a new trial on the ground that the evidence did not justify such a verdict. The decision: “Over-ruled by the court.” Underwood moved to appeal the judgment on the verdict upon the ground that the statute upon which the prosecution was founded was void and an unconstitutional act. Underwood was overruled again and was fined $312.50 a huge sum for that time period. The Baltimore Sun Aug. 11 1857 p2 noted:
“The grand jury of Prince William County Va have found a true bill against John Underwood . . . the fact that Mr. Underwood is a justice of the peace for this county has tended in no small degree to add to the excitement and has called forth violent expressions of feeling in regard to the matter.”
Another anti-slavery activist associated with Brentsville is Dangerfield Newby probably remembered best in the history books as the first person killed at John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Dangerfield Newby was a free black born about 1825 emancipated by his white father. His wife Harriet and children were enslaved owned by Dr. Jennings who moved them to Brentsville in the late 1850’s. His wife’s poignant letters to free them led Newby to raise funds but he was never successful in their release. Reportedly he raised $742 but Jennings refused to sell her and the children to him.
With the frustration and hatred of the system of slavery that separated families he joined the John Brown conspiracy and became a martyr to the abolitionist cause. After his death three poignant letters from his wife were found among his belongings. In her last letter she said 'I want you to buy me as soon as possible for if you do not get me some body else will . . . their [there] has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with you …' It is believed that she and her children were sold away to Louisiana a short time later.
Brentsville suffered severely during the Civil War. The majority of the buildings in town were destroyed along with the county clerk’s office and the roof of the courthouse. The jail was also in “deplorable” condition. By the summer of 1865 county business was once again being conducted in Brentsville. Private homes and churches in town served as the county courthouse and clerk’s office until the courthouse could be renovated. The clerk’s office would never be rebuilt with the clerk’s office being moved into the courthouse.
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