A couple of months ago I published a short Silent Sunday post about the Polley Freedom Case, Polley v. Ratcliff, (W. Va. Cir. Ct. Apr. 6, 2012). This case was instituted in 1850 to recover children of the family of Peyton Polley, an emancipated slave who took up residence in Lawrence County, Ohio (a free state). The children had been kidnapped at gunpoint from Ohio and sold into slavery in Kentucky and Virginia. Peyton Polley (1789-1884) was my third great grandfather.
When I published the Silent Sunday post, I knew of circumstantial evidence that strongly suggested that Peyton was a relative but was unsure of the precise relationship. Subsequently, my sister shared her work with ancestry.com that confirmed our relationship to Peyton. Many other sources provided a better understanding of the case and my family history.
The story of the freedom case (actually several cases) spans a period exceeding 160 years. Rather than burden readers with one humongous post, I’m breaking this follow up into a three humongous posts (ha ha). This is the longest of the three. It focuses on the original cases and the circumstances from which they arose. The next post reviews the trial that occurred in 2012, and the final post discusses a bit of personal family history and discoveries of relatives I never knew I had.
As a teaser, one of those newly discovered relatives is John Legend (born John Stephens in Springfield, OH in 1978). Legend is a fairly well-known singer, songwriter and producer. Follow the link below to see a 4-minute segment of a Public Broadcasting System documentary on Peyton Polley with Legend and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University. The short video is a good introduction to the case.
Much of the information I have about the Polleys comes from Jim Hale, the man primarily responsible for reopening the case in 2012. Jim Hale is a distant cousin and a descendant of Harrison Polley, one of Peyton’s kidnapped children who was sold to a slave owner in Virginia. The status of the Polley children in Virginia as slaves or free persons was the subject of the 2012 court decision. Excerpts from Jim Hale’s book are here. These short reads are illuminating.
Explaining the underlying facts of the case is a big task. To make it easier on myself and readers, the italicized text below is taken directly from a portion of an intriguing online article Atiba R. Ellis, Modern Narratives About Race and Slavery: Post-Racialism, Race-Consciousness, and Reparations, Race Racism and the Law, 14 December 2012. Ellis is currently a professor at Marquette University Law School. I’ve interspersed my comments in Ellis’ text.
Polley v. Ratcliff, The Beginning
“In November 1839, David Polley (1762-1847) of Pike County, Kentucky, wrote a will of manumission intended to emancipate his seven slaves. Under the terms of the will, Peyton Polley, along with his six siblings were to “be free and liberated from all servitude” after David Polley’s death. After David Polley’s death in January of 1847 and the subsequent probate of his estate, the seven Polley siblings of African descendants were emancipated. The African Peyton Polley family, which included Peyton’s spouse, Violet, and the couple’s twelve children, remained in Pike County, Kentucky, near Nancy Polley Campbell (David Polley’s daughter) and her husband, David Campbell. The Polley family and the Campbell family had a good relationship.“
In addition to freeing Peyton Polley and his siblings, David Polley’s will provided that after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Justice Polley, his entire estate of land and money would go to the freed slaves! That’s very generous and highly unusual. It appears that the will excludes Nancy Polley Campbell, the only child produced through David’s marriage to Elizabeth. Elizabeth must have died before David.
When David Polley died in 1847, his daughter acknowledged that the Polleys were free but she and her husband instituted legal proceedings to contest the provision of the will that awarded all of her father’s land and personal property to his slaves. Before trial, the Polley siblings agreed to relinquish their inheritance in exchange for $500.
Why would a master bequeath his entire estate to his slaves??? The reason that seems to make the most sense may be the right one. Peyton’s mother is identified only as “unknown female slave.” I’ve seen no mention of Peyton’s father. It is possible that Peyton, and some or all of his siblings, were David Polley’s children! Regardless of the accuracy of that conclusion, it appears certain that, other than his slave siblings, David Polley, his wife and daughter were the only “family” Peyton Polley knew.
“Although the will freed the Polleys under Kentucky law, David Campbell and Nancy Polley Campbell decided to execute a deed of manumission (or bill of sale) to insure the freedom of the Polleys. They took this action because David Campbell, a failed businessman, gained a reputation as a heavy drinker, and allegedly distributed illegal alcohol. He generated a significant amount of debt from his failed enterprises and bad habits, and he feared that his creditors would attach the Peyton Polley family as collateral to secure Campbell’s debt.
To avoid this, David and Nancy sold the Peyton Polley family to Douglas Polley, a free black man residing in Ohio, on January 20, 1849. The Bill of Sale included Violet (Peyton’s wife) and seven children. The Circuit Court opinion states that Douglas Polley paid a sum of $5 for the family, as well as other various debts acquired by David Campbell that prohibited him from leaving Kentucky. However, other records show that Douglas Polley paid as much as $800 to emancipate and remove the family to Ohio. Once this transaction was completed, the Peyton Polley family migrated from Kentucky to Lawrence County, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from their former residence in Kentucky.“
Douglas Polley was Peyton’s brother and one of the slaves freed in David Polley’s will. Peyton Polley’s family lived in Pike County, Kentucky about 75 miles south of the Ohio River. Pike County’s eastern border is the Big Sandy River, an Ohio River tributary. After buying their freedom in 1849, the Polley family embarked on a two-day journey by canoe down the Big Sandy River, crossed the Ohio River, and settled as free persons in Lawrence County, Ohio.
In that era, the Big Sandy River served as the border between the states of Kentucky and Virginia. In 1861, the area of Virginia adjacent to Pike County, KY became part of the new State of West Virginia, which basically seceded from Virginia at the start of the American Civil War when Virginia and other southern states seceded from the Union.
“After the Peyton Polley family took up residence in Ohio, David Justice, a well-known slave catcher, reached an agreement with David Campbell to settle a $1,000 debt in exchange for ownership of the slave children. On this basis, David Justice claimed that he was the rightful owner of the Polley children and took matters into his own hands to regain his property.“
David Justice was the nephew of David Polley’s wife and Nancy Polley’s first cousin.
“On the night of June 6, 1850, Justice led a gang of four white men from Kentucky across the Ohio River into Ohio. They assaulted the Polley household and kidnapped seven of the Polley children: Hulda(1833-1907), Peyton (Jr.)(1842-1917) Harrison(1839-1910), Nelson(1841-1855), Anna(1846-1930), Louisa(1847-1892), and Martha(1844-1910). Justice sold four of Peyton Polley’s children, Harrison, Nelson, Louisa, and Anna, to William Ratcliff of Wayne County, Virginia for $1000. Hulda, Peyton (Jr.), and Martha were sold to James McMillian of Fayette County, Kentucky.“
In fact, the total number of kidnapped Polley children was eight not seven. In addition to Peyton’s seven children, the bandits also absconded with Mary Jane Polley(1850-1930). She was Hulda’s daughter and Peyton’s grand daughter. Mary Jane was just a few months old when she and her mother were abducted.
To be clear, Justice was the leader of the raid but he did not actually enter Ohio the night the children were stolen. Justice hired and directed the thugs and waited on the Kentucky side of the river. He had been barred from Ohio under threat of arrest and prosecution after previous failed attempts to gain possession of the Polley children legally. Ohio authorities had examined Justice’s claim and rejected it as fraudulent.
“The cases for the freedom of the Polley children were litigated separately in the two states where the kidnapped children were taken. Hulda, Martha, Peyton (Jr.), and Mary Jane won their freedom after the case was tried in Pike and Fayette County, Kentucky in 1853. Securing the freedom of the remaining four children in Virginia proved much more difficult.“
There were Polley Freedom Cases in both states where the children were taken. The Kentucky cases were successful. In 1853, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the judgements of county trial courts, and the children, who had been sold to different owners in Kentucky, were then returned to the family in Ohio. Virginia was a different matter.
“Governor Reuben Wood of Ohio initiated proceedings in Virginia, just as he had in Kentucky. Leroy D. Walton filed a writ of habeas corpus for the case of Peyton Polley v. William Ratcliff in 1851 in Cabell County, Virginia. The writ was issued, but William Ratcliff was allowed to retake possession of the Polley children until subsequent proceedings resolved the matter. The efforts undertaken by the State of Ohio continued through the governorships of Salmon P. Chase and William Dennison. On September 15, 1854, the case finally proceeded to trial, and the court declared the Polley children free persons. However, in 1855, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the decision on the grounds that the Cabell County Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. Under the law at the time, the case should have been tried where the persons in dispute resided, Wayne County, Virginia.
Once the matter had been dismissed, John Laidley, a representative of Ohio and resident of Virginia, filed suit against Ratcliff to sue for the freedom of the three remaining Polley children. Laidley filed this lawsuit in 1856 in Wayne County, Virginia. Both Governor Chase and John Laidley shared Ralph Leete’s sentiment that “it is wrong to let the case be abandoned now; if the Federal Government could spend $100,000 to reduce one man to slavery, certainly the State of Ohio should not withhold the necessary amount of means to restore three persons to [freedom]. The Polley case remained pending until March 22, 1859, when an incomplete and unsigned order was filed by the court on the record. The order suggests that counsel for Ratcliff was to show cause why the assignment of John Laidley as counsel should be set aside, reversed, and annulled. Ohio had spent more than $3,000 in prosecuting the suits and it was unlikely that the Virginia Polleys would be returned to freedom. After entry of this incomplete order, there was no further record, entry, or action in the case until 2012.“
In 1855, Nelson Polley died while wrongfully enslaved in Virginia. However the number of enslaved Polley children in Virginia again became four when Anna or Louisa bore a child at some point before they were freed at the end of the Civil War.
It is commendable that many public officials in Ohio from the prosecuting attorney of Lawrence County, to the state legislature which passed resolutions to retain counsel on behalf of Peyton Polley and pay the legal expenses, to Ohio Governors Wood, Chase and Dennison were very determined to recover the Polley children and punish the kidnappers. Many of those individuals staunchly opposed slavery. Others strongly objected to ruffians coming into the state in the middle of the night and carrying off its citizens at gunpoint.
Naturally, the family was also a driving force behind the efforts to recover the children. A letter dated November 25, 1859, from Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Ralph Leete to Governor Chase’s representative, A. M. Gangener concludes: “The frequent visits from the mother of these children to make inquiries about them and her anguish, are enough to move any person of correct feeling to energetic action…”
I’ll save final thoughts for later.
Hale, J., 2014. Long Road to Freedom: The Story of the Enslaved Polley Children. S.l.: Lulu Publishing Services.
Atiba R. Ellis, Modern Narratives About Race and Slavery: Post-Racialism, Race-Consciousness, and Reparations, Race Racism and the Law, 14 December 2012.
Education | The Story of Peyton Polley Season 1 Episode 9, A look at how John Legend’s ancestor, Peyton Polly, attained his freedom.
Hale, J., 2014. Long Road to Freedom: The Story of the Enslaved Polley Children. S.l.: Lulu Publishing Services