1845|The Southampton County, Virginia Harrison Family Fallout—-Martha, Henry, Betsey, Hannah and others included…

The Library of Virginia (LVA) has digitized chancery court records for many of the counties of the Commonwealth.

From the LVA website:

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a chancery cause is a case of equity where “Justice is administered according to fairness as contrasted with the strictly formulated rules of common law. In layman’s terms, a chancery case was one that could not be readily decided by existing written laws. A judge, not a jury, determines the outcome of the case. These types of court documents are useful when researching genealogical information and land or estate divisions and may contain correspondence, lists of heirs, or vital statistics, among other items. Cases in chancery often address estate and business disputes, debt, the resolution of land disputes, and divorce.”

In other words, if you have one iota of an inkling that you have a family history connection to Virginia, you certainly want to review these records.

As it relates to my Turner family ties in Southampton County, Virginia, there’s this:

SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY, VIRGINIA LVA CHANCERY #: CO1845-006 Plaintiff(s) ADMX OF Benjamin Harrison ETC Catherine Harrison ADMX ETC Defendants(s) EXR OF Henry Harrison ETC


Anthony (Enslaved)
Betsy (Enslaved)
Carter (Enslaved)
Charles (Enslaved)
Clara (Enslaved)
Discy (Enslaved)
Hannah (Enslaved)
Henry (Enslaved)
Jim (Enslaved)
John (Enslaved)
Judy (Enslaved)
Martha (Enslaved)
Mason (Enslaved)
Sukey (Enslaved)
Susan (Enslaved)
Tom (Enslaved)

Just who are these folks? Well, Henry’s my 4th great-grandfather, and he, along with his sister, Betsey, were among the beneficiaries in the last September 10, 1853 last will of Edward P. Turner, deputy sheriff of Southampton County.

Genetic genealogy research has revealed the DNA connection among descendants of Henry and Betsey, and the traditional genealogy paper trail cemented the connections in the Fall of 2020, when the 1844 last will of Henry Harrison was discovered.

Henry and Betsey were the children of Martha, according to the will. Another child of Martha-Hannah, heretofore unknown, was also named in the 1840 document. Martha and her children, along with a number of other souls, were emancipated in Harrison’s will.

This did not sit well with Henry Harrison’s family, specifically his widowed sister-in-law, Catherine Harrison. She legally set about to wrangle back the valuable chattel that had been signed away by her legally “childless” kin.

The above-styled case was Catherine’s legal argument in the arena of chancery court.


















Here is the complaint of the plaintiffs:

In Cir. Supr. Court of Law + Chy for Southampton

Note by Th.s S. Gholson counsel for Harrison’s + Wm A Jones

The pltffs in this cause claim by virtue of the will of Benja. Harrison Jr. There is no controversy or dispute as to the identity of the property, slaves +c-

Indeed it is admitted that the slaves mentioned in the complts bill are “Susan and her descendants.” The Bill admits that Henry Harrison survived his brother Benjmn. The question then submitted, comes properly before the court by a demurrer to the Bill—Have the pltffs as heirs +c of Benja. Harrison according to their own showing, right to recover the slaves in controversy?

The clauses of Benja. Harrison’s will bearing upon the question are the following.

“I give to my son Henry Harrison one half of my land, the part he now lives on, to him and his heirs forever. Also one negro woman named Susan with her present and future increase. Two feather beds and furniture—two cows and calves, one yearling—the horses and yearling he hath in his possession at this time—two ewes + lambs and six hundred and fifty to him + his heirs forever”

and the following

“If either of my sons should die without issue then + in that case I give all of the estate of every kind which I have given him to the surviving brother + his heirs forever”

Benja. Harrison (the son) died first-(several years ago) + left wife + children——the pltffs—-

The crux of the complaint is that the heirs of Benjamin Harrison Jr, brother of Henry Harrison, believed that they were entitled to the estate and enslaved of Henry. They cited a clause in the father, Benjamin Harrison’s 1807 will, that stated that the entire estate should be given to the “surviving brother” and his heirs forever.

A very interesting aspect of the complaint was the statement, “Indeed it is admitted that the slaves mentioned in the complts bill are “Susan and her descendants.” Also, the reference is made ad infinitum about Henry dying “without lawful issue.” To me, the totality of this reads as parentage and legacy for Susan’s children/descendants.

After the official complaint, case law was presented. The following cases were referred to:

The Act of Oct. 1776,

Timberlake vs. Graves 6 Munf. 174

Gresham vs. Gresham 6 Munf 187

and —Didlake vs. Hooper Gilm. (184)

also—-Callava vs. Pope 3 Leigh 107

Catherine Harrison and the other plaintiffs didn’t stop at case law, they subpoenaed the emancipated souls named above at least three times as a legal tactic to win the case:

Sadly, according to the February 3, 1845 subpoena, it was reported that Hannah had died, so was not able to be served. This would explain why she, unlike her siblings Henry and Betsey, is missing from subsequent census records. I now know to check for Hannah’s name in the Southampton County death register for early 1845. Perhaps there are even more answers there. As it is, this chancery case is amazing and revelatory in so many ways.

After all was said and done, in 1845, November Term, the final word was given:

Final opinion of the case…

+ Hon. JW Robinson: Opinion is continued..

My opinion then is, that Henry Harrison has as much right to sell or convey the slaves in question as he would have had if he had bought them with his own money, And I am consequently of opinion that the children of his brother Benjamin can sustain no claim under the clause of the will above referred to~. Hon: Robinson

—-B.W. Leigh who says, “Whether the limitation over to the “surviving brother” was good in its evaluation or {illegible} Benjamin Harrison or his representation can maintain no claim to the slaves in question because he did not survive his brother——-

B.W. Leigh

So there it was. Catherine Harrison and her children were of the belief that because they were heirs of Benjamin Harrison Jr that they were entitled to the estate of Benjamin’s late brother, Henry Harrison. However, the counsels interpreted the clause included in Benjamin Harrison Sr’s 1807 will to the letter. Because the “surviving brother” was Henry (as Benjamin Jr had died several years before 1844) Henry had all the rights to do as he wished with his estate, which happened to include emancipating sixteen souls, “Susan and her descendants…”

Was the fallout over? What happened to the other emancipated souls? Were they all able to remain in Virginia?

The searching and answers for those questions are a situation for another day…

The Genealogy Situation Room

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