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March 17, 2022 / Joanne Yeck

Snowden: A Plantation in Buckingham County, Part VII

Richmond Whig. Courtesy Library of Virginia, Virginia Chronicle.

Need to catch up? Click here: Snowden: A Plantation in Buckingham County, Part I

John L. Harris enjoyed living at Snowden for less than ten years when he died in Madison Parish, Louisiana on February 9, 1856. Family history perpetuated the legend that he had gone to the Deep South to bring a bride back to Snowden.

Richmond’s Whig ran this simple statement: “Died, In Madison Parish, Louisiana, the 9th February, 1856, JOHN L. HARRIS, of Snowden, Buckingham county Va., in the 59th year of his age.”

Harris’s sudden death led to yet a third legal dispute over the fate of Snowden.

A wealthy man, in 1850, Harris’s substantial personal property was valued at $78,300. This included forty-seven slaves residing in Buckingham County, though he likely owned more, living on his properties in Louisiana and Mississippi.

He had many connections in the Deep South, including members of his immediate family. At the time of his death, he may have been visiting his brother, William Hawes Harris, or tending to his own extended properties in Louisiana.

The Last Slaves at Snowden

Following the death of John L. Harris, the protracted dispute over the rightful heirs of Snowden included not only his extended Harris family but also enslaved women who were the mothers of his children.

In 1937, a fragment of this story was revealed by Mrs. McCraw in her survey for the Virginia Historical Inventory. She wrote that Snowden (over 1,500 acres) was sold at public auction and bought by John Moon for $80,000, adding: “Capt. Harris, by his will, devised a part of his estate to his slaves, each to be paid a definite amount as he or she became of age. Mr. Moon paid these legatees over a period of many years.”

Even if this had been Harris’s wish and he had also freed his slaves upon his death, there would have been many impediments to achieving his bequeaths.

Within months, his holdings in Buckingham County and at least two other states, Mississippi and Louisiana, became the subject of long legal battles. Claimants included brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and, eventually, African Americans who had once been enslaved at Snowden.

In 1868, a group of former Snowden slaves initiated a Chancery Case in Buckingham County against Harris’s extended family, claiming the right to at least some of his Virginia property. The object of the suit was to establish a will, presumably naming these now freed men and women as rightful heirs. Then, Buckingham’s courthouse promptly burned to the ground, destroying the submitted documents.

In the September Term of 1869, the Court concluded that a portion of Harris’s property was to be divided among the following former slaves: Betsy Harris, Henry C. Harris, Josephine Harris, Eliza Harris, Sarah E. Harris, Ellen Harris, Jane T. Harris, Minerva Lewis, Susan Dillard, Margaret Harris, and Selena Harris. Betsy, Henry C., and Josephine Harris were to receive the largest parts of the estate.

Missing and scant court records make the precise outcome of this case virtually unknowable. Just how attorney John Schuyler Moon distributed Harris’s property may never be fully known. What is known is that Moon ended up purchasing Snowden. To add to the confusion, while the Moons occupied Snowden by about 1870, in 1885, the plantation was still taxed in John L. Harris’s estate.

Coming Next: Snowden: A Plantation in Buckingham County, Part VIII

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