The Wilderness Road Regional Museum at Newbern in Pulaski County is about a two minute drive from exit 98 of Interstate-81.
The museum is home to a remarkable cache of local history documents, principally from the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Over the past four years, this miscellany of documents has been processed, organized, digitized and made available for viewing by the Newbern Project.
The Newbern Project was a four-year collaborative effort between Emory & Henry College’s Appalachian Center for Civic Life and the Wilderness Road Regional Museum to accession, organize, catalogue and analyze the museum’s documentary holdings.
Project work began in the summer of 2012 and concluded in June 2016, at an overall cost of $137,000. The project’s master registry lists 14,722 documents, and the project’s master name index lists 29,606 persons. The project workers were 80 students from Emory & Henry College under the direction of Dr. Talmadge (Tal) Stanley.
The Newbern Project final report is dated June 30, 2016. Stanley formally delivered that report and lectured about it at the museum on Sept. 18. Stanley is a tenth-generation Southwest Virginian who grew up in Dublin in Pulaski County, so his engagement with the project has been both professional and personal.
I was in the audience when Stanley spoke. The final report is online at http://tinyurl.com/NewbernProject and includes this writer’s photographs of Stanley speaking and museum official Dr. Carolyn Mathews introducing him.
The categories of cached documents includes the financial records of Pulaski County, ledgers of county stores, court records, voting and election records, records related the Civil War, both World Wars, and records about the New River and the Claytor Lake dam.
Gathered here are the historical remains of many ordinary people leading ordinary lives in a fairly typical western Virginia County. As Stanley wrote in the final report: “A careful review of the holdings will make clear that this treasury tells this story without adornment or mitigation. There are difficult and embarrassing things here. We have not always lived up to our ideals.”
Of particular interest in the Newbern files are the records of African-Americans in the decades prior to the Civil War. The Library of Virginia online collection about the lives of pre-Civil War African-Americans (called “Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection”) contains no entries for Pulaski County.
The Newbern Project contains dozens of such entries.
“Students who have worked in the Newbern Project have a much keener understanding of the ways our communities have been shaped in the crucible of slavery,” Stanley noted.
Virginia’s 1806 emancipation law made criminals of freed slaves who stayed more than one year in Virginia, and decreed they could be then sold at auction to the highest bidder.
An 1856 law allowed free blacks to petition their local court to be sold into slavery to a master of their own choosing. For at least 110 petitioners, this unattractive course of action was preferable to leaving their homes and families forever.
The Newbern Project records several cases of hitherto unknown re-enslavement petitions. For example, on Dec. 3, 1855, the Pulaski County Court indicted Frank Harmon, “a free negro,” for “remaining in the Commonwealth contrary to law.” After passage of the 1856 law, on April 22, 1857, Harmon petitioned the Pulaski County Court to enslave himself and requested Anthony Owens as his owner.
The court assessed Frank’s worth at $1,100, which Owens had to pay. On Sept. 21, 1859, Elizabeth Ratcliffe “a free woman of color” filed a petition to become the slave of William W. Breeding and on an unspecified date, “Charlotte, a free woman of colour, above the age of eighteen years,” filed a petition to become the slave of Philip L. Woolwine.
On a less serious African-American history note, in December 1870, the Pulaski County Court indicted the former slave William Morrison for “speeding on his horse through downtown Newbern.” Found guilty, he was fined $1.
The museum’s web site is www.wildernessroadregionalmusem.com. Clicking there on the Archives/Research/Resources link takes you to the master document registry and names index, and to their associated finding aids.
To make an appointment to view specific documents, call the Wilderness Road Museum at 674-4835.
— Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.