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Heritage Center in city can unlock door to past
Local archives helps families uncover roots

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Date published: 5/26/2009

BY EDIE GROSS

Marion Woodfork Simmons’ earliest family history lessons came from tales passed on by her grandparents.

As an adult she scanned microfilm documents, old newspaper articles and, later, Web sites like ancestry .com.

She examined handwritten notes in the margins of family Bibles and chatted with distant cousins, all in an effort to sort out her family’s story.

But finding any pre-Civil War information about her Caroline and Spotsylvania county ancestors was nearly impossible.

There were no birth certificates. No marriage licenses. No land deeds.

That’s because Simmons’ ancestors were slaves.

The U.S. census, the official roster of the country’s residents, didn’t even bother to count them by name until five years after the war had ended.

“Before 1870, only whites and free blacks would be counted. So 1870 is a brick wall for blacks,” said Simmons, 48, who was reared in Washington but now lives in Maryland.

She got her big break at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, a volunteer-run depository for thousands of this region’s historical documents.

Among those documents was a double register from 1866, listing black couples living together in Caroline County as husband and wife—they hadn’t been permitted to marry during slavery—and black children of couples no longer together.

At the top of the very last page of the register, compiled by the Freedmen’s Bureau at the end of the war, were the names Sancho and Lucinda Shakespeare, Simmons’ great-great-great-grandparents.

The names of eight of their children appear there as well, including Louisa Shakespeare, Simmons’ great-great-grandmother.

On a separate page was listed 8-year-old John Lewis, Louisa’s nephew.

Perhaps the most disturbing piece of information in the register was the name of her ancestors’ last owner.

It was also the most valuable.

“The key to get beyond 1870 if your family was enslaved, you have to know who the last slave owner was,” Simmons said. “Slaves were like money. And what do people do with money? They fight over it.

“And where do they fight over it? In court.”

CENTER HOLDS TREASURES

Court records abound at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, housed in the renovated gym of the old Maury School.


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PRESERVING HISTORY

The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center stores thousands of this region’s historical documents and photographs in its quarters at the old Maury School, 900 Barton St. Volunteers at the nonprofit organization help researchers, genealogists and anyone else who’s simply curious track down key information from the past. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 9 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month. To volunteer at the center, become a member or get help with research, call 540/373-3704 or visit the center’s Web site at www.crhcarchives.org.

UNCOVERING ROOTS

Marion Simmons of Maryland was able to trace her Caroline and Spotsylvania ancestors through slavery with help from the center. To see her research, visit her Web site at woodforkgenealogy.com.