Once a slave, then free, a beloved neighbor

Isaac Sims manumission letter on display at Nicholas County Courthouse

This is the letter that officially emancipated Isaac Sims, written by his owner James Sims in Nicholas County, Virginia (later West Virginia) in September 1836. It is still on display at the Nicholas County (WV) Courthouse in Summersville.

Author’s Note: Isaac Sims is one of the real people who inhabit Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, a historical fiction novel based on real events in my great-great-grandmother’s life. He is featured in Chapter Three.

A beloved community member

On December 9th, 1836–nearly 180 years ago this week–the Virginia General Assembly received a petition from more than 200 residents of Nicholas County, Virginia. The signers requested that a former slave be allowed to live in their community permanently.

Who was this man, and why was he so well-liked by hundreds of his neighbors that they wanted him to remain in their midst after he was emancipated?

His name was Isaac Sims.

The Sims slaves

There were not many slave owners in western Virginia before the Civil War.  According to David J. Emmick, author of Defending the Wilderness, “Slaves were not profitable in the back country farms.” Unlike Eastern Virginia planters who grew plantation crops like tobacco and cotton, the western mountaineer farmers generally tended their mountain and valley farms themselves, with help from friends and family.

James Sims was one of the few slave owners who lived in 19th Century western Virginia. Census records and legal documents from that time show that he and his family arrived from Bath County, VA with 18 slaves .

Isaac Sims was 14 years old when his owner settled on property in Kanawha (and later Nicholas) County along the Gauley River. Isaac’s brother Robert was also a Sims slave, according to published accounts. At some point, Robert escaped from the Sims farm.”Keeping his eye on the north star as he traveled at night, he reached Canada and freedom,” newspaper columnist Clarence Shirley Donnelly wrote many years later.

Isaac remained with the Sims family and, over the years, gained a reputation for being an excellent marksman.  His master, a gunsmith, allowed Isaac to hunt deer on Sundays and sell the skins. Isaac also sold boat gunwales he fashioned from chunks of wood.

Isaac, described as ‘dark, five foot five, and slender,’ married a woman named Emily who was owned by Joseph McNutt, another Nicholas County slaveowner. Isaac and Emily had a son and a daughter, George Addison and Harriet Jane, who were owned by yet another local master, Robert Neil.

Historic documents present a picture of Isaac as a man who was well-liked by the Sims family as well as others in the community. He was allowed certain privileges that other slaves at that time were unlikely to have. For example, he is listed as holding an account at a local store owned by M.J. Landcraft. And James Sims even decided that he would allow Isaac to buy his freedom with the money earned through sales of the skins and gunwales. The price: $150.

Free at last

Having met the terms of the agreement with his owner, Isaac was granted his freedom on September 26, 1836. He was 43 years old. His letter of “manumission,” as it was called, is still posted in the Nicholas County, West Virginia Courthouse today. [see above petition]

But there was a problem. Virginia assemblymen had enacted a law in 1806 that forced  freed slaves to leave the state within twelve months after their emancipation. The idea behind the 1806 act, which was called a ‘black law,’ was that slave rebellions might be triggered by the presence of free people of color living in proximity to the slaveholders’ homes and farms.

This meant that Isaac would have to leave Virginia and face possible re-capture in another slave state. His wife Emily had died by the time of his emancipation, but his children still lived in Nicholas County and he would be forced to live far away from them.

The people of Nicholas County were determined not to let this happen. Sims and other family members, with local judges’ permission, tacked a petition on the front door of the Nicholas County Courthouse at Summersville. People coming and going from court business were able to sign the petition, which by Virginia law was required to be posted for at least two months prior to application to the state’s General Assembly.

The petition reads:


To the Legislature of Virginia

Your Petitioners humbly represent that JAMES SIMS of the County of Nicholas has recently emancipated ISAAC a blackman who is desirous of remaining in the Commonwealth, your Petitioners represent that there are but very few slaves in the County of Nicholas not exceeding sixty — nor is there more than one other coloured person in the County who is free — your Petitioners further state the said black man ISAAC is an exceedingly honest industrious and useful man addicted to no vicious habits whatsoever, but peaceful & inoffensive & meek in all his intercourse & business with the country — your Petitioners would be truly gratified should this Legislature in its wisdom think proper to grant his application — your Petitioners are well convinced that no mischief can result to the country by doing so and as a precedent in this part of the state nothing of evil is to be apprehended.

More than 230 Nicholas Countians signed the petition. I found a few of my descendants’ signatures on Isaac’s petition, including my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Backhouse and his sons, and a few of my Grose family great-grand-uncles.

The Race and Slavery Petitions Project lists two different petitions filed on Isaac’s behalf on December 9, 1836. Each petition lists the same 10 petitioners in addition to James Sims himself. However, one petition is listed as having three pages and the second had five. Even more curious, the first petition is marked “rejected;reasonable,” while the second is marked “no recorded result.”

This brings up a few questions. Why was the petition divided into two? Was the first rejected and the second accepted? Who was the person or persons who traveled to Richmond from Nicholas County to present the petition to the lawmakers?  I hope to find out someday and if I do, I will share that information with you. You can find a digitized copy of the Nicholas County petition in the Library of Virginia’s Legislative Petitions Database.

“We all thought a great deal of Isaac.”

We know from census records, land transactions, ledger books and newspaper articles that Isaac was, indeed, allowed to remain in Nicholas County and lived there until his death, which came sometime before June 9, 1875. Records show his children George Addison and Harriet Jane both died sometime during the Civil War.

In 1850, Isaac is listed in the census as living in the Mathew Hughes household. Mathew was the widower of James Sims’ daughter Margaret. Various records show Isaac buying tools and furniture from estate sales in the 1850s and ’60s. In 1860, we find Isaac living in his own home alone. Land records show that after he was granted permanent residence, he purchased 17 and a half acres of Nicholas County land on both sides of the Gauley River. His real estate value was $1000  that year.

In a 1961 letter to the editor of the Beckley (WV) Post-Herald, Mrs. E.C. Wicker of Hinton remembered Isaac. She was a Sims descendant, and her father Miletus welcomed Isaac into their home, where she says he sometimes spent weekends. “We all thought a great deal of Isaac,” she wrote.

You can find greater detail about Isaac and other Sims slaves in Cathy Meder-Dempsey’s blog, Opening Doors in Brick Walls. Cathy is a descendant of James Sims and her genealogy efforts have provided me with invaluable information about my own family. I am grateful for her intrepid, meticulous research.