Pictured: Park Hall ca. 1900, Dora S. Callahan Collection, Eastern Shore Heritage Center.
By Kellee Blake
February 4, 1774
Shore docks and planters’ parlors buzzed about the Boston Tea Party. Though news might slowly arrive, the Shore’s waterways were a genuinely international information network. Some found the Boston business awful and believed the troublemakers should be punished. Others worried about the “mischief’s” effect on Shore trade, and many just hoped it would be Boston’s problem alone. All knew the seriousness of “going against the King.” Even as lively debate examined taxes, tea, and freedom, some Virginians could wait no longer for independence. They emancipated themselves.
The Virginia Gazette of January 13, 1774, included an advertisement from the Prince George County jailer for two men who “say they belong to Griffin Stith, in Northampton.” Sixty-three-year-old Griffin Stith, Sr., was the long-serving clerk of the Northampton County Court. He lived at Park Hall in Eastville and certainly understood defiance of King George; Stith’s signature was affixed to the court’s unanimous 1766 ruling claiming the Stamp Act “unconstitutional.”
Who were the two enslaved men? How far had they traveled? Who might have helped them? Too often, bold acts of self-emancipation are recorded only in the most ephemeral fragments—a line in a ledger or a newspaper notice for “runaways.” The older of the two men, perhaps twenty-five years old, called himself “Davy.” The other man “Sam” was described as twenty years old. The Prince George jailer also provided clothing descriptions so Stith or some agent would recognize them, pay for their care, and take them away.
According to the jailer, Davy was 5’ 7” and wore a broadcloth coat, red waistcoat, duffil [sic] breeches, cotton gamadoes (leggings), shoes, stockings, and a hat. Sam was shorter and more distinctly attired in an old blue Newmarket (riding) coat, cotton waistcoat and breeches, a red under waistcoat, shoes, and stockings. Sam also wore a striped linen “Holland” shirt.
As it was, Stith had been looking for Sam and Davy for more than a year. They left his Brunswick plantation in December 1773 and Stith advertised a fifty-shilling reward for each man upon return; five pounds more if found out of the country. Stith expected them to go to York where they “had wives,” but soon believed them gone from Virginia. Instead, Sam and Davy made their way to Prince George where Stith’s extended family lived and where the two men likely had close blood relatives. Except for the possibly related mention of a “Sam” willed to Stith’s son in 1784, the record of their freedom journey seemingly ends here.
Griffin Stith more fully engaged himself with the Patriot cause. He was elected to Northampton’s Committee of Safety and his clerkship extended through the Revolutionary War. Future installments of The Revolutionary Shore will feature some of the complex legal issues he administered.
Freedom was and remains a complicated notion: multifaceted, disparately interpreted, uniquely experienced, and perpetually sought. Griffin Stith worked for freedom from Britain’s unjust demands even while Sam and Davy acted for freedom from Stith’s legal and physical bonds. The war brought an escalating pace of self-emancipation for the enslaved of Tidewater Virginia and, soon enough, everyone on the Shore realized Boston would matter and change was indeed going to come.
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