Elvy Russell (1793-1857)

ELVY RUSSELL is not my ancestor. However, he was a relative, and through his genealogy, we can get a better understanding of the Russell family of Gates County, North Carolina, and Nansemond County, Virginia.

I decided to discuss Elvy Russell because, like Elvy Russell Collins, his nephew, Elvy Russell was born a white man but somehow died a colored man. In the Virginia Deaths and Burial Index, Elvy Russell’s race is listed as colored at death on Dec. 2, 1857. He died in Nansemond County, and was living in the same border area near Drum Hill, North Carolina, as the Collins family. His age at death was 64, and his parents were listed as James and Ann Russell. His wife’s name was Julia.

Tracing him back, he appears in the 1850 census as the head of a household of 9 free white persons. He is 58, making his birth year about 1792, while his wife Julia is 57. Children listed are Albert (26), Frances (20), John (16), Fletcher (14), Cornelia (12), Sarah (10), and William (8). These are not his only children. In the 1840 census, he is head of a household of 11. In the 1830 census, he is again head of a household of 11, as well as two slaves. In the 1820 census, he is the head of a household of 5 free whites and 1 slave.

Elvy Russell’s parents were apparently the James Russell and Polly Smith who married in Dec. 1, 1792, in Gates County, North Carolina, James Brady bondsman. James Russell’s acres were inherited by Elvy Russell in 1818, therefore we assume his father James died in 1817 or 1818. Tracing the early Russells is a bit complicated given the reappearance of the names James and Charles. Now I will attempt to try to work it all out for once and for all..

There is one record for an Edward Russell in Chowan County by 1717. It is unclear what became of him, or if he had children. The next important records are the 1743 and 1745 land deeds to Charles Russell in what is now Hall Township, Gates County, North Carolina.

The first deed, in 1743, was from John Langson, and the second is from William Fryer. Both deeds place the initial Russell land in the area of Sarum. However, there is one 1752 reference in the Nansemond Vestry Book for a Charles Russell living in the Drum Hill area, which is where this family eventually wound up. Perhaps they owned land in both places.

Charles Russell was apparently the progenitor of the local Russell family and, rather curiously, he does not appear in any of the mid-1750s militia lists in Chowan County. The last time this Charles Russell appears is in a 1769 deed in what became Hall Township that references a son, also named Charles Russell. This Charles Russell, Jr., later moved to Johnston County, North Carolina. Apparently, he later moved to Surry County, North Carolina, and lived at least until 1830, when he was listed as being between 80 and 89 years old, making his birth year about 1745. This would mean that the elder Charles Russell may have been born in about 1720.

There were other Russells in the area though. There is a 1770 record related to Margaret Russell, “a poor woman,” in Chowan County. There is also a 1787 will belonging to Priscilla Russell that was witnessed by Elizabeth Dilday and Rachel Lawrence. Add in a 1782 apprenticeship of John Russell, “orphan of William Russell,” and a 1787 bastardy bond involving Charity Russell, and you have a whole host of leads.

The only Russell who appears in the Gates County militia lists, however, is George Russell, who had 25 acres in first James Arline, and then Jesse Benton’s, district. Though old district maps do not exist, it is clear from deeds that the Benton and Arline land was on Bennetts Creek and therefore George Russell’s 25 acres were located in that area.

At the same time, in the Nansemond County lists, a James, Mary, and Judith Russell all appear, from 1782 onward, most likely living in an area called Beach Swamp or Mills swamp. This is exactly the area where Charles Russell was described as living in 1752. Perhaps some of his family inherited land there, while others inherited the land in the Hall area. And how does George Russell’s 25 acres on Bennetts Creek fit into this?

What is certain is that James Russell, of Nansemond County, Virginia, took over George Russell’s estate in 1791, and inherited his 25 acres on Bennetts Creek. James Russell’s age is difficult to ascertain, but he was at least 18 in 1781 when Amos Dilday served as a substitute for him in Captain Cole’s company in Hertford County. since Amos Dilday can be shown to have been born in about 1761, we can estimate a similar birth year for James.

He was the head of a household of six in Nansemond County in Willis Parker’s district in 1783. This suggests he was born in perhaps 1760 or even earlier, making George Russell, if he was his father, a generation older and born in the mid-to-late 1730s. It’s possible that George Russell was the younger brother of the Charles Russell (c. 1720 – c. 1770) who owned land at Sarum. Or maybe he was the older brother of Charles Russell, Jr., who moved to Johnston County.

Let’s create a little timeline.

  • 1717 — Edward Russell appears in Chowan County
  • 1743 — Charles Russell acquires land from John Langston near Sarum
  • 1745 — Charles Russell acquires additional land from William Fryer near Sarum
  • 1747 — Charles Russell’s land described in Chowan County court order as being located between Chowan River and Sarum
  • 1752 — Charles Russell listed in Nansemond County processioning
  • 1769 — Charles Russell, Sr., deeds land to Charles Russell, Jr., on “north side of Chowan River in Fort Island”
  • 1770 — Chowan County pays Christopher Johnson to bury Margaret Russell, a “poor woman”
  • 1779 — George Russell witnesses the marriage of John Collins and Sarah Hinton
  • 1782 — John Russell, ‘orphan of William Russell,’ apprenticed
  • 1782 onwards — James, Mary, and Judith Russell appear in Nansemond County tax lists
  • 1785 onwards — George Russell appears with 25 acres in James Arline’s district
  • 1787 — Will of Priscilla Russell, witnessed by Rachel Laurence and Elizabeth Dilday
  • 1788 — Charles Russell, Jr., of Johnston County, sells father’s 175 acres in Fort Island to Samuel Brown
  • 1791 — George Russell dies, James Russell named administrator of his estate, George Russell’s 25 acres pass to James Russell

Given all of this, one might suppose that Charles Russell, Sr., was married to Priscilla Russell, and when she died in 1787, her son Charles Russell, Jr., in Johnston County, was free to sell the 175 acres in Fort Island to Samuel Brown.

It’s also clear that those 25 acres in the Bennetts Creek area passed from George Russell, who died in 1791, to James Russell (1760 – 1817), and that this James Russell was the father of Elvy Russell who was listed as colored when he died in 1857.

One could speculate that George Russell’s wife was a Chowanoke woman from Chowan Indian Town. This might explain a) the reason why some relatives are listed as colored; b) the source of the 25 acres on Bennetts Creek; c) Why James Russell, who was living in Nansemond at the time, attended James Beasley’s estate sale in 1815. At the moment, I could speculate that George Russell’s wife was a Beasley, a Dilday (another family occasionally described as colored in the records), or a Smith.

My ancestor Anna Russell Collins was from this same family. George Russell appeared on the same tax lists as William and Thomas Collins in Gates County. And James Russell was later a neighbor to her husband Thomas Collins in Nansemond County.  If George Russell was her father, then it is possible her mother was this Beasley, Dilday, or Smith woman.

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