What an interesting time we're living through. Every day we're finding and reading about new developments dealing with the COVID-19 virus plaguing the globe. We're all in various stages of self-isolation and social distancing, and we're all feeling helpless and trapped as something we don't fully understand runs rampant, and we're starting to comprehend our inability to do anything to alter our situation. As we stare at the face of a possible quarantine period stretching for MONTHS, I wanted to bring to light some other voices who also experienced great struggle and uncertainty in their lives.
Today's Voice is that of Milly Fairfax, an enslaved woman held in bondage by David Huffman, of Page County, Virginia. We know very little about Milly, but we do get one brief, significant look into her life. The letter that follows was either written by her or, more likely, dictated by her.
March 7 1837
Page County, Va
I take this opportunity to inform you that I am well at present and my children are and I hope these few lines may find you well.
Further I wish to inform you that I am to be sold and I wish you to get a home for me as it is not of my power to get one as you know my situation.
Perhaps Mr. Bryarly would buy me and my two little children hannah is already sold some time ago and I am afraid I shall go to the slave traders if you cannot get a home for me I wish you to come to see me if possible I am living at David Huffman’s about eight miles from Luray on the little Hawk’s hill creek in Page County.
Nothing more at present but remain your well wishing friend
Fielding Fairfax Milly fairfax
PB I wish you to get me any where at all the persons that own me say the will take a fair price for me and a man in good circumstances it wishes to buy me and have not money enough it [missing word] not matter they say they will wait
Milly's letter is addressed to her husband Fielding Fairfax, an enslaved man held in bondage on the grounds of Walnut Grove Plantation in Clarke County, and owned by Samuel Bryarly. The glimpse we get into their lives is at the brink of sale - Milly's sale. She is writing to her husband to please find a place for her and their two remaining children nearer to him: "perhaps," she says, "Mr. Bryarly would buy me..." Milly and Fairfax are experiencing an abroad marriage - where two individuals are recognized as being married, but are living in separate places. In this case, on separate plantations. They had, at the point of this letter, three children, presumably together: the two little children and Hannah, the older daughter who had already been sold.
In the world on 19th century slavery, nothing about this story is unusual. Thousands of men and women experienced abroad marriages, and even more lost their children to sales. Milly is desperate NOT to go to the slave traders. She knew what that would mean for her and her family - very often, women with young children, we do not know the ages of hers, were separated upon sale. Although mothers and children were sold together, and sometimes steps were taken to make sure they stayed together, there was never any guarantee of this. Milly also notes her "situation." Perhaps she is pregnant. Certainly a woman on the sale block who had already produced three healthy children and was showing signs of producing another would be very desirable to purchasers. There was talk in the enslaved community about the fear of being sold "down south" where conditions were much worse. Milly would have known that all this was a possibly for her.
Her husband, too, would have been aware of what could be awaiting his wife. We do not get any record of Fielding begging her case to Mr. Bryarly, or any kind of response from him at all, but this does not automatically equate to indifference on his part. He may not have been literate, or the letter he wrote back may not have survived. What we do know, however, is that over a year later, in 1838, we have a letter written from a third party to Mr. Bryarly concerning the purchase of Milly and her children. Someone had to have brought the sale to his attention. Sadly, we do not as yet know what became of her. The letter does not specify Bryarly as the purchaser, and there seems to be a bit of reluctance on his part. We simply do not know.
We, across the distance of almost 200 years, are unable to put ourselves into her shoes and understand what she was feeling when she wrote that letter, or what she was feeling when, over a year later, she was still in an uncertain position. What we can do, however, is appreciate the anxiety she must have been feeling.
Melanie is the current archivist for the Clarke County Historical Association, in Berryville, Virginia. She is a graduate from Shepherd University, where she earned a degree in History.