Monthly Archives: February 2018

Freedom at Green Spring…Sooner or Later

100_0908In 1777, gentleman freeholder John Moss (c. 1723-1809) established Green Spring Farm in Alexandria. Today, the house that he built for his family in 1784 is open to the public as the Historic House at Green Spring Gardens. As a landowner and a justice of the county court who had served George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Moss was no doubt influenced by the enlightened ideals that triggered the revolution and led to growing unease over the legitimacy of slavery. Yet many “enlightened” slave owners continued to uphold the practice, including John Moss.

In 1795, Moss wrote a deed of manumission for 14 slaves on Green Spring Farm:

“Know ye that I John Moss of the County of Fairfax and Commonwealth of Virginia being fully satisfied that it is contrary to our bill of rights as well as to our principles and sentiments as a free people and also contrary to common justice to hold and keep in a state of slavery any part of our fellow men….emancipate and discharge from bondage…..Old Sarah.. Old Nan..Harry..Maria..Hannah..Nero..Abram..Fox..Nat..David..John..Sam..Milla..and Sal….In witness whereof I hereunto set my hand and seal this seventh day of September 1795.”

~ Fairfax County Courthouse Deed Book Y-1, p.69

By the late 18th century, acts of manumission in the upper South had become more common, and were often cast as benevolent gestures driven by conscience. However, only a small fraction of slave owners were prompted by principle alone. Landowners like Moss had transitioned from labor-intensive tobacco cultivation to grains, which required fewer workers. As reliance on slave labor diminished, manumission became a pragmatic move.

The Virginia Slave Law of 1782 simplified the process by permitting slave owners to provide for it in their will or to submit a deed, as John Moss did, to the county courthouse. The law also stipulated that any slaves over the age of 45 “be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them.” Between 1782 and 1800, the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from one to seven percent. However, expediting the manumission process didn’t always accelerate the journey to freedom.

What Moss granted in his deed was delayed manumission, promising freedom at a specified time in the future. So, while “Old Sarah and Old Nan” are to “go immediately…[with] a maintenance as long as they live,” the others must wait. “Harry to go out free at the end of seven years from the day and date of this instrument of writing. Maria and Hannah to go out free at the end of eleven years from the date hereof.” And so on.

The list continues with Nero, Abram and Fox to be freed in 18 years, Nat in 20, and Daniel in 27. John must wait 42 years to be free, while Sam must serve another 44. Milla’s freedom was delayed 29 years and Sal’s 35.

1784There were many reasons for Moss to impose these varying delays to freedom, and all would have benefitted him. For instance, a gradual process of emancipation ensured a legacy of slave labor for immediate heirs. A promise of legal freedom in the relatively near future could encourage good behavior and deter escape. A long delay could provide an incentive for a slave to negotiate ways to buy himself out of servitude early.

In most deeds of delayed manumission, the longest terms were given to the youngest slaves. The average delay was nine years, but most of Moss’ were far longer. The terms for John and Sam (42 and 44 years respectively) indicate a toddler and an infant at the time of the deed, who would be released just before they turned 45 and eligible for lifetime support. We can assume that “Old Sarah” and “Old Nan” are over 45 so Moss was already legally obligated to support them.

Was Green Spring’s John Moss a man of conscience or an exploiter then? Perhaps both. When Moss wrote his deed of manumission, 70 years before abolition, many slave owners in Virginia were embracing the progressive thought of a new nation that declared liberty for all. Yet they were still constrained by the long-entrenched system of slavery, by cultural conditions, and by concerns for their families’ future needs. It’s very likely that Moss found himself in a moral quandary that forced him to pit his self-interest against his higher ideals.

Author Debbie Waugh is Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

A Sunset Escape to Freedom Along the Potomac

Ellick flight to FreedomIt’s been two centuries plus one year since Ellick’s flight to freedom.

Ellick (sometimes spelled Elleck) was one of 11 slaves owned by Hugh Conn, who ran a ferry and owned land at what is now Riverbend Park. Research by local historic preservationist Debbie Robison revealed that in 1809, when Conn’s estate was inventoried three years after his death, Ellick was about 27 years old. He was listed as the most valued of the Conn family slaves.

Following Conn’s death, ownership of Ellick passed to Conn’s children. In 1817, Ellick was convicted of breaking into a store. As punishment, he was whipped and one of his hands was burned. When the jailer released him, apparently there was no one from the Conn household to meet him at the jail, and Ellick fled. About two months later, he was captured by two men who brought him to the Leesburg jail before returning him to the Conn family. Ellick was handcuffed and left on the porch a few hours before sunset as Mrs. Conn refused to take charge of him in her son Jesse’s absence. She sent a servant to Great Falls to get Jesse, and the two men sat down to dinner while they waited. As the sun began to set, another servant interrupted the dinner to inform them that Ellick had escaped again … this time by running over the hill. Advertisements in the August 30, 1817, National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser newspaper offered $30 for his return. The ad read:

$30 reward for runaway, negro Elleck, age about 35 yrs. – Jesse Conn, lvg in Fairfax County, Va

The Conns never saw Ellick again.

Thanks to Ms. Robison’s research, in 2011 the National Park Service (NPS) recognized the Conn’s Ferry site as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. NPS established the Network to Freedom database to tell the story of resistance against slavery through escape and flight. Evidence suggests that the Conn’s ferry landing sat at the site currently used as a boat ramp at the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va.

Riverbend was the second FCPA site to be placed on the Network to Freedom list. Sully Historic Site in Chantilly, Va., is also listed. Sully has a representative slave quarters on its land, which was owned by Richard Bland Lee, an uncle to General Robert E. Lee. Sully was home to as many as 40 enslaved African Americans. Records show there were four known escape attempts at Sully, and it is known that two of escapees did return to Sully.

As we celebrate Black History Month, the Park Authority acknowledges the significant contributions and the struggle for freedom from enslavement made by many African-Americans at sites that are now part of our park system. We are committed to preserving these sites and stories so that they may be shared and remembered for generations to come.

Farming For the Future: Making sure there’s still land for future farms

Farm 5The initial idea for a Virginia Farms program began as an attempt to work a pun into publication. “VA Farms. Is that like farms that operate in Virginia? Or is it an action? Who farms? Virginia Farms!”

At its heart, VA Farms is a continuing project to tell the story of modern agriculture. It brings those stories and the people from local farms to Frying Pan Farm Park to meet park visitors. As a historic site, part of Frying Pan Farm Park’s mission is to educate visitors about how farmers once operated in this part of Fairfax County. The truth is, farming is still conducted in and around Fairfax; it just has a different face. Several faces, actually. The VA Farms program brings those faces to people who eat food from farms, and it aims to balance past and present and to inspire engagement in local food systems.

Farm 4When food consumers meet food producers, a bond forms. This connection to food is lost while shopping at the grocery store when all that can be observed is the same stock-photo produce and meat. It’s easy for an uninvolved consumer to take the hard work that goes into producing these products for granted. When we hear producers’ stories first hand, a certain appreciation and respect develops toward the food purchased from these small farms. When respect is exhibited for food, there follows a reduction in waste and a greater appreciation for our farmers.

Farm 1Respect is not held solely by the consumer. In recent years, soil has been classified as a non-renewable resource. In kind, this new brand of small-scale production does not strictly consider profit margins to be the exclusive ambition of the business. These Virginia farmers use sustainable practices in their farming techniques to be better land stewards. It appears that they are not farming for today, but for future generations in their efforts to rehabilitate the land.

Their stories have had a provocative impact on me as a farm employee. For the past four or five seasons, I have worked with Floris Elementary, a school just a stone’s throw from the farm. Each year, the school’s Green Team, an environmentally-focused group of youngsters, came to the farm to learn about gardening. At the end of the school year, they harvested what was grown and shared it with their friends at lunch. This year, the park will explore a new farming venture. Developing a Farm to School Program with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is in the research phase. FCPS’ Office of Food and Nutrition Services has placed a high value on sourcing locally-produced foods by hiring a Farm to Cafeteria Coordinator. This coordinator seeks funding to purchase locally-grown foods and has installed salad bar options in the school system.Farm 6

Frying Pan Farm Park will continue to keep its agricultural spirit alive and hopes to link its farming past to the present need of local food to feed our immediate community.


Author Patrick McNamara is an Interpreter at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Va. The next Virginia Farms program at Frying Pan will be held on Sunday, March 11, 2018.