Chief Justice John Marshall, who as a young lawyer represented Robert Pleasants in a bid to free slaves (Robert Inman, Library of Virginia)

The largest manumission case in U.S. history led to a unique community in Virginia.

Dear Professor Gates:

My father’s side of the family are the Pleasantses from Henrico County, Va. They were free since around 1760 due to John and Robert Pleasants setting their slaves free and going to court with John Marshall as their lawyer, to fight for this mission. The information about my third great-grandfather Isaac Pleasants has been especially interesting as he sued for damages to his land after the Civil War. 

I would love some advice on how to find out who his parents were and where they came from. Any help or advice would be appreciated. —Kimberly Pleasants

Your ancestors are part of a fascinating chapter in history that has forged a strong community at Gravel Hill, a small rural community southeast of Richmond, Va. When the Quaker landowner John Pleasants died in 1772, his will stipulated that his son, Robert Pleasants, free his slaves according to the following conditions:

[R]especting my poor slaves, all of them as I shall die possessed with shall be free if they chuse it when they arrive to the age of thirty years, and the laws of the land will admit them to be set free without their being transported out of the country. I say all my slaves now born or hereafter to be born, whilst their mothers are in the service of me or my heirs, to be free at the age of thirty years as above mentioned, to be adjudged of by my trustees their age.

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As further detailed in a 2012 article in Style Weekly:

That’s exactly what [Robert Pleasants] did in 1782, once the General Assembly voted to legalize manumission by private citizens. But other heirs protested, and the matter went to court.

A famed lawyer who later became chief justice of the United States, John Marshall, represented Robert Pleasants, successfully arguing that property laws did not apply when human liberty was involved. After years of legal appeals, the former slaves won their freedom for good and settled on the land Pleasants had given them, then called Gravelly Hill.

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Pleasants v. Pleasants would end up being the largest manumission case in American history, involving over 440 enslaved people, explains William Fernandez Hardin in his dissertation for Vanderbilt University, titled, “Litigating the Lash: Quaker Emancipator Robert Pleasants, the Law of Slavery, and the Meaning of Manumission in Revolutionary and Early National Virginia” (pdf). Many of their descendants have remained in Henrico County, Va.

Isaac Pleasants Makes His Mark—but Which One? 

Now to bridging the gap between your third great-grandfather Isaac Pleasants, who was born about 1827, and the slaves freed by Robert Pleasants in 1782.

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Based on the information that you sent us, we found an Isaac Pleasant (via FamilySearch; free registration required)—note the variation in the spelling of the last name—in 1870 who we believe is your ancestor. He was born about 1824 and recorded in Varina Township, Va., with a wife named Nancy and six children. However, it is important to note a second Isaac Pleasant, who was black, living in the county that year, who was born about 1838 and was residing in Jefferson Ward in the city of Richmond. He was married to a Rosetta, with one son. Keep this man in mind while you are researching, and look out for clues that will help you verify that you are looking at records of your own Isaac Pleasants and not this man.

For instance, your ancestor may be the Isaac Pleasants of Henrico County who is described by Encyclopedia Virginia as being a free black Virginia Unionist during the Civil War who said that “it was to the interest of all colored people to be in favor of the Yankees as I had an idea that slavery was a good deal at stake in the conflict between the states and that the success of the North would improve the condition of the slaves, at least.” He may also be the one listed in an article in the Richmond Dispatch about the election of “colored” delegates to a Republican congressional nominating convention on Oct. 2, 1886. We would encourage you to research whether your ancestor was associated with anyone else mentioned in these articles to determine if they are about him, rather than the other black Isaac Pleasants of Henrico County.

When we searched the 1860 census, we discovered that there was only one Isaac Pleasants recorded in Henrico County, a free black person with a wife, Nancy, and two children. This suggests that your ancestor Isaac may have been the only one of the two we discovered previously to have been free before emancipation (and therefore is the person quoted above by Encyclopedia Virginia).

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The record provides few clues about his parents, but it does tell you that your ancestor owned land valued at $60. This helps you determine that the claim to the Southern Claims Office that you located is for your Isaac Pleasants, since you know that he was the only free black man with that name who owned land in Henrico County prior to the Civil War. However, this record does not include many leads to help you work backward in time.

A Revealing Record Gap—Perhaps 

One method you may try to help you locate your ancestor in an earlier census record with his parents would be to look at his neighbors in 1860. It is likely that he lived closely to these people in 1850 as well, so if you have having trouble locating Isaac in a search, you could search for his neighbors and then browse the households around them for Isaac. Search this community page by page for someone who would be a good match for your Isaac.

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We must note here that we could not locate Isaac listed on the 1850 census as a free man. Keep in mind that there were slave owners in Henrico County in 1850 with the surname Pleasants. Some of these households had male members who were the right age to be your Isaac Pleasants. You know that your Isaac Pleasants was free in 1860, since he appears on the 1860 U.S. census, but you should not rule out the possibility that he may have been enslaved in 1850 and freed between 1850 and 1860.

As Professor Gates described in a previous article for The Root,12 Years a Slave: Trek From Slave to Screen,” free black people were never “permanently safe” from enslavement. Even if your ancestor did descend from the persons emancipated by the actions of Robert Pleasants, it does not mean he spent his entire life prior to the end of the Civil War as a free person. Looking into the records of these 1850 Henrico County slave owners may reveal if any of them freed their slaves during this time frame, particularly one named Isaac.

You could also see if the marriage record for Isaac Pleasants and Nancy Atkins at Henrico County, Va., on Sept. 21, 1855, holds any clues about Isaac’s parents. This is just an index, but the original record is on Family History Library film 31855 and can be viewed digitally at your local Family History Center.

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If you are still having difficulty locating your ancestor in earlier records, another method would be to trace how Isaac acquired his land. There should be a paper trail in either deeds or probate records that could tell you who he purchased or inherited the land from.

You know from Isaac’s claim to the Southern Claims Commission (via Ancestry.com; subscription required) that he owned at least 10 acres at the time his land was damaged and crops taken during the Civil War. You could search the deeds index for Henrico County for a deed where he first acquired this land. These records are viewable at a Family History Library, or you could contact the county clerk directly about how to search and obtain copies of the records.

Tax records can also be used to help you determine when Isaac began paying taxes on his land, which could help you determine when he obtained it. Likewise, if he inherited the property, the record may be held in probate records. When searching these collections, be sure to look at any record for Isaac Pleasants in the indexes and take detailed notes—including a description of the land and neighbors—since such details are what often lead to more information about family members.

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We wish you luck in your continued search!


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.