#VastEarlyAmerica / Family Histories

Virginia’s Inheritances

This past week the Washington Post published a terrific piece of investigative reporting by Julia Weil on the Coles family and what they inherited in large measure built on slaveholding. Weil was part of the team that produced the research and report on 1,800 United States congressmen who were enslavers, and she brings that context to this story. (Coleses served in Congress from the earliest days of the U.S.). Walter Coles V inherited an estate in Pittsylvania County in southwestern Virginia that sits on a potential source of more –in fact enormous– wealth: a uranium deposit. Whether the U.S. will ever allow uranium mining, the questions raised by Black families who also have deep legacies of Coles Hill: of enslavement and the work to build lives in the region in the wake of manumission and Jim Crow and beyond. Carole Coles Henry shared pictures and histories of her family and what these mutual legacies of Coles Hill could mean. She asks some basic questions like, were my ancestors buried there? The white Coleses gravestones are visible in Weil’s WaPo story, and there is ample evidence that enslaved people were regularly buried in dedicated sites around southern plantations– especially large ones like Coles Hill. One Coles, Edward, who went on to be Governor of Illinois, was an abolitionist. Thomas Jefferson wrote to him in 1814 to try and dissuade him from his plans for manumission. So much to consider here that is foundationally about genealogy, inheritance, and how law has facilitated deep inequities in early Virginia as elsewhere.

You can read Weil’s; Dec 1, 2022 WaPo story here:

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