Old legal documents often reveal stories that finally end, frustratingly, as mysteries. An example of this is found in the 19th century Loudoun County trial documents for a laborer named Lewin Vermillion. A record of his case is listed (highlighted in yellow for easier reference) in a book of indictments complied by historian Patricia Duncan :
Original Loudoun County court documents, which can be seen here, show that the charge against Lewin Vermillion for helping “negro boy George” attempt to escape bondage dragged on for 14 months. The papers give a glimpse into the mangle of 19th century slave laws. Lewin Vermillion is an improbable hero: he worked as a manual laborer, was “given to drink, and noisy” as well as too poor to own a residence. Yet he risked what little he had to help an enslaved boy with whom he had no known connection. There are – of course – no pictures of either Lewin Vermillion or George. However, because of actions that led to calamity, their lives are not completely lost to history. Here is the story of Lewin Vermillion and George told through sheriff warrants, Court dockets, and Grand Jury witness’ accounts.
Lewin Vermillion arrest 1843
Virginia Loudoun County Court
The following is copy [sic] of the proceedings had [sic] at a – court held on the 23rd June 1843 for the examination of Lewin Vermillion charged with having feloniously carried, or caused to be carried out of the Commonwealth Negro boy George the property of Robert R. Jackson and by said Jackson hired for the year 1843 to John W. Heaton, without the consent of the owner, either the said Jackson or the said Heaton with the intent to defraud the owner of said slave.
Before the worshipful
Robt. Wright Gentlemen Justices
The prisoner was led to the Bar in custody of the Jailer to — he was committed, and sundry witnesses being sworn and examined, and the said prisoner being fully heard in his defense by A. S. Tebbs Esq. his attorney on consideration – of the Court is of opinion that the prisoner is guilty of the offence of which he stands charged and ought to be tried for the same at the next circuit superior Court of law of chancery to beholden for the County of Loudoun. Whereupon the said Lewin Vermillion is remanded to jail thus to be safely kept until such trial be had & thereupon William Cox, John Fowler, John T.W. Heaton, Robert R. Jackson & Samuel Walker came into Court and severally acknowledged themselves indebted to James McDowell Esqr Governor or Chief Magistrate of this Commonwealth in the sum of one hundred dollars each of – respective lands and tenements, goods and chattels to be levied unto our said Governor or his succession for the sue of the Commonwealth rendered. Yet upon this condition that of the said William Cox, John Fowler, J. W. Heaton, Robert R. Jackson, and Samuel Walker shall severally make their personal appearance here before the judge of the next circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery to beholden for the county of Loudoun, and then and there give such Testimony as they may know touching the offence aforesaid and not depart thence without leave of the said Court then this recognizance to be void, else to remain in full force and virtue. Then the court adjourned.
Warrant to apprehend
Loudoun Court to wit
The Sheriff or Constable of the County of Loudoun — — Whereas Robert R. Jackson of the County of Fairfax has this day made information & complaint on oath before me James Sinclair a Justice of the Peace for the County aforesaid that negro boy George a slave the property of him said Jackson, and hired by him said Jackson on or about the first day of January last unto one Jonathan Heaton for the space and term of the current year 1843 has been feloniously carried or caused to be carried out of this commonwealth without the consent of him said Jackson or of the said John T.W. Heaton with intention to defraud the owner of such slave to wit on the eighteenth day of March in the year 1843 from the County a foresaid & that he hath just cause to suspect and doth suspect that Lewin Vermillion late of said County feloniously did carry or cause to be carried the said negro slave out of this commonwealth without the consent of the owner of said slave with intention to defraud the said owner. These are therefore to command you forth with to apprehend the said Lewin Vermillion and to bring him before me or some other Justice of the Peace for said county to answer this complaint and information aforesaid and to be further dealt with according to law & herein fail not – Given under my hand & seal this 15th day of June 1843.
Copy Evidence – Depositions
Commonwealth vs Lewin Vermillion
Deposition of John T.W. Heaton, who proved that some time last January the second day he hired the negro boy George of Robert R. Jackson through Lee A. Saunders agent of said Jackson of the year 1843. He remained in witness’ possession until the 20th day of March last, when he left witness’ on that morning or evening being Monday between 10 and 4 that is of Monday the 20th the defendant resided in the same neighborhood that of Woodgrove [near Purcellville], County of Loudoun about two & half miles south of witness’ residence, at least witness had seen him in that neighborhood frequently just before the Elopement of this boy, had seen the prisoner within eight or nine days previous that is at a public temperance meeting which took place at the village of Woodgrove, on the Sunday before that is the 19th or Sunday before the 12th. It was an appointed meeting and can be fixed by reference to the orders of minutes of the society. Received communication through Mr. Bradford & from Mr. John Fowler who knew witness was ordered to attend. Boy was in Washington confined in Jail & was brought back about 3 weeks after he – going off at his abduction. It was in April Court Day – never gave his consent to his removal or any control of prisoner. Boy was brought to farm R.R. Jacksons by witness’ servant April Court morning.
On Cross examination states he has seen the prisoner from time to time for ten years past. Doesn’t know that he has any fixed permanent abode he is sometimes with one & sometimes with another generally he believes with Carlisle near Woodgrove or above stated. Often in district – & going from one place to another. His character cannot say about. He is pugnacious – an intemperate man. Boy George a fine boy – a good servant about 14 years of age, smarter than ordinary, very black, lives about 3 / 4 to one mile from Woodgrove has about four servants about him, has lost none in the last year – had never left or threatened to go – had corrected once about a month before he left witness – in habit in staying at home – he corrected him for not staying at home that twice on Friday before boy went off, sent boy to James McDaniels for a pair of overshoes of witness when boy came back he said nobody was there but the prisoner, had a roundabout & pantaloons of drab, shoes with low quarter – Vermillion knew the boy.
Samuel Walker deposed – He resides in Fairfax about 20 miles from Leesburg on the Georgetown turnpike road, saw the prisoner going down the road toward Georgetown D.C. about the latter part of March thinks it was on about the 22nd of March, he was with a wagon driving it sitting on the saddle horse. Three wagons in company all the drivers negroes except prisoner, thinks there was a black boy riding on the off horse, cannot however be positive. Cannot say whether there was or not a driver to each wagon. Knows Vermillion well – a deep snow on the ground – can’t say whether boy or man.
George W. Noland — Says that he is a member of the Temperance society & thinks his knowledge enables him to say that the meeting alluded to by John T.W. Heaton was on the 19th of March.
William Cox – One of the Watch of Washington – on the 24th March last about 10 oclock at night passing house on 12th street in Washington heard loud talking, stopped – a colored man came to the door – heard a white man, seemed to be, with white hat on say to the man that if he was afraid to go home he would go with him and then started to go home with him. They went in opposite directions, witness [William Cox] followed on and overtook them and took colored man to Watch house, let white man go – came out of tippling shop together, was led back by what colored man said, opened house – & found boy there said to be Jackson’s. Boy went by name of Bill Magruder. Boy was lying by the stove. Prisoner there by the boy – rapped at door refused admittance made known his business pretended that no boy there – owner of house said so – threatened to break open, then the owner came down and opened – roused up Vermillion from sleep and heard some words between them before the door opened – Vermillion’s words were these – that the boy was his & no man should take him, unless they took him too, & then witness told them, they would do that too – unless the door was opened. The door then opened & prisoner then told different tale after they got into the house – did not say the boy belonged to him, but that he had hired the boy of a widow woman living in George Town & stated what he was to give a month – said he was a free boy he hired him of Mrs. Jackson and was to give six dollars a month & called the boy to witness it, & the boy did so. They took the boy down, he said he would go along & testify to his freedom – took the boy and went ahead. The other substitute staid with Vermillion. They lingered along – seemed not very desirous of getting on – witness had a word with boy before the Captain of the Watch & Magistrate when after a while Vermillion & other watch came up & prisoner stated to Capt that the boy was free & he could prove his freedom & Capt said he must do so stated he knew his mother and father.
Next evening he was to appear before Capt John H. Goddard to testify to boy’s freedom, he came before time of meeting which was nine o’clock & to the man there in hearing of witness he was going over to get Wm Jackson to come over and testify to boy’s freedom, he was seen to go on street [sic] did not pretend to go to Georgetown. After Captain came, boy was brought out & questioned & that he was brought from state of Virginia Capt then issued warrant & had prisoner arrested on suspicion witness went to prisoner and told him he had better go and see about boy he went with them & when he got there the officer who had the warrant arrested him, he was again questioned & maintained the boy was free.
Cross examination Says he does not know who was on the bed with Vermillion. Owner of house did not offer any resistance after door opened, thinks he was a little in liquor night boy was taken but not drunk – can’t say positively whether it was Vermillion or not that came out of house with negro man at night – Vermillion wore white hat, the house at which they were taken a disorderly house in one sense – good many blacks meet there – Vermillion pretty well known in Washington frequently there.
Witness John Fowler
When the boy was before the Justice & Prisoner was arrested he said the boy was free, he had hired him of Mrs. Jackson of Georgetown & if they would give him time, he would go and bring her & prove the fact – said she lived on Twelth Street. It is said there is a woman living there who keeps a grocery – an old quaker lady. Witness told him she was a quaker – he said he would bring her there in the evening –
Don’t think he was drunk, looked as if he had been drinking – seemed to be quite urgent that they should liberate the boy – he had plenty of time to see Mrs. Jackson if had chosen – from 10 o’clock at night till 10 or 11 oclock next evening.
Communicated to Purcell in Loudoun, that the boy was a boy belonging to Jackson & hired to Heaton & he had better enquire, boy put in jail. Prisoner well known in Washington frequently there.
Robert R. Jackson – got the boy George from jail proved by Saunders, he had hired the boy to Heaton & then he went down and got the boy – boy his property – gave no consent to prisoner’s having him.
Robert Carlisle – who proved, that he thinks it was about the 21 or 22 March he was at his house & said he believed he would go a fishing – he has had his washing done at witness’ house about 5 yrs. Had not drank any liquor that evening – said if it was as cold they could fix up their booths – he worked about – had been at Nichols about a mile off lives about two or three miles from Heaton. Left prisoner at Purcells store – thinks it was Tuesday is not certain of day – day of Brown’s sale – Drinks a little – when so talks more than necessary – was on foot before 11 oclock – thinks it after 20th March – a good deal of ice & snow pretty certain it was Tuesday –
Joseph Taylor – proved that sometime in Feby he spoke for pair of boots to be ready by 20th of March he was going a fishing, on 21st he called & said he could not take them down, he would send by some man who was driving a wagon. He would send money, left shop & went down the road, witness went down the road & overtook him near Hamilton store, had some talk with him near Hamilton’s store – had some talk with him – witness said he thought it was cold fishing – he thought he might do something at it – after 11 when he over took him at Hamiltons – He said he wanted to get as far as Mrs Farrs that night – in the habit of going a fishing.
Thomas Muse –Saw a boy going down the road about the last of March he was in company with a drove & helping a man to drive some cows & calves, witness stopped at Cockrills a little this side Farr’s, the man went to Farrs, sometime in the night about seven or eight oclock boy came back to Cockrills boy was asked why he came back & boy staid all night at Cockrills, next morning they passed Farrs when the man with cows was coming out Vermillion was there & seemed to be helping the man to drive out his cows, assisted in driving his cows about a mile beyond John Farrs. Boy said he was free, lived in Georgetown on High Street was not a real black boy about 12 years old, had a drab colored roundabout and pantaloons on, rather tawny color – boy with them all day – wagon before witness – boy rode a little on that wagon [illegible] off wheel horse and walked some, three wagons in company foremost wagon Wm Greenlease a black driver witness’ wagon in the middle & last Elisha Janney’s with black driver. Vermillion travelled with them till they got near Means about nine miles this side of Georgetown, when they got near Vermillion gathered them & went ahead to Means where he sold seven bushels of corn to Means for Mrs. Greenlease’s wagoner, when they got there they overtook Vermillion. Wm Greenlease’s wagon had load corn and corn meal. Vermillion helped to take the corn out of the wagon. Started from there and went on till they got about one half mile this side of W. Herhurys [illegible], there they stopped & waited. Mrs. Greenleases wagon wanted a horse shod, went on ahead to speak for the shoe & got Vermillion to drive his wagon. Vermillion left them there saying he was going to Georgetown, wagons then went on, when they crossed canal bridge Vermillion came out of a shop near bridge & got on witness horse and drove on to Georgetown and stopped at Benj. Fowlers this side on edge of town. Vermillion went on to town, boy was behind with one of other wagons which were behind. The other wagons went on to town. Vermillion principally with Greenlease’s wagon. Boy almost entirely. Saw boy and Vermillion together behind wagon of Greenlease.
Mrs. Jane Farr — Vermillion staid at her house last March does not know time said he was going fishing about which she knew, did not see anyone with him Tuesday or Wednesday night, about sunset, a boy came that evening with a drove two or three hours before Vermillion said he was a free boy said he lived in Georgetown drove belong to Mrs. Harness two white men with him early in the winter too early for calves and might have had one or two. Vermillion took a drink or two but not out of the way boy said he was along with Greenlease’s team & was expecting their wagon along. Told the boy to go along there with the team, boy then went off.
Thomas Gregg – Never knew anything but that he was honest has known him twelve or fifteen years – has worked for him.
William Wilson – Have known prisoner [Vermillion] 15 or 18 years kept his house sold flour etc worked a good deal always found him correct though very correct & honest, given to drink and noisy.
The route taken by Vermillion, George and the other men taking cattle and goods east out of Loudoun County into the Washington area was likely the road now known as Highway 7. This highway becomes Leesburg Pike when it enters Fairfax County, on it’s way to Alexandria. Vermillion and George headed to Georgetown, would have left Leesburg Pike and continued on Georgetown Pike. An overview on wikipedia gives history of Highway 7 and an idea of the communities along the highway.
The route taken by Vermillion and George could be traced by the stores and homes mentioned as having been stopped at along the way: Cockrills, Farrs, and Means.
Many questions are raised, such as:
1 – William Cox was occupied as “Watch” patrolling the 12th Street area of Georgetown the night of March 24th, when he stopped at the house in which Vermillion was staying, and questioned him and the young boy, George. Since Cox was in an official capacity, working at the behest of the local constabulary or sheriff, are D.C. records available that might have more details of this event?
2 – Witness John Fowler’s evidence is slightly confusing: was “Mrs. Jackson” the same person as the old “quaker woman” who lived on 12th Street and mentioned by Lewin Vermillion? Was Vermillion lying, or could he indeed count on an “old Quaker lady” to possibly give him an alibi?
3 – Was the house where Vermillion and George spent the night after arriving in Georgetown an occasional “safe house” for blacks escaping slavery? Was it ever used as a stop on the Underground Railroad? Witness John Fowler said, “Prisoner well known in Washington frequently there.” Vermillion’s trips to Washington from Loudoun County might make him a useful person for enslaved persons to know, who might risk disappearing into the bustling nation’s capital.
Witnesses mention Purcell’s store and Hamilton; both are locations very near the Quaker community of Lincoln. Several men mentioned in witness statements have Quaker heritage: Nichols, Wilson, Gregg, Janney, Taylor. Quakers commonly used paid labor for farming, since they didn’t own slaves nor would rent enslaved workers from their owners. Some of these witnesses vouch for Lewin Vermillion’s basic decency; William Wilson, for example, said Vermillion “worked a good deal always found him correct.” (Adding, however, that the laborer was “given to drink, and noisy.“)
What would be Vermillion’s motive for helping George? It is possible that he might earn a little extra money by aiding blacks escape Loudoun County. Or perhaps he simply knew the boy, George, and could empathize with him. From the testimony of Samuel Walker, we know all the drivers of the wagons were black, except Vermillion. The other drivers may have been freemen. As a white laborer, in order to earn a living Lewin Vermillion competed directly with freemen and also enslaved labor. Therefore, he may have worked with George in some capacity, liked him, and wanted to help him.
Fourteen months after his arrest and jailing, a Grand Jury on May 28th, 1844, returned a verdict of the Commonwealth v Vermillion case:
Thomas P. Knox court “Not a true bill”
The Commonwealth of Virginia
To the Sheriff of Loudoun County. Greeting
We command you that you cause to come before the Judge of the Circuit Superior Court of Law & Chancery of Loudoun County on the first day of the next special Term of the said Court, to be held on the fourth Monday in May 1844. Twelve good and lawful freeholders of your County, residing as near as may be to the place where the felony was committed of which Lewin Vermillion is accused. Every one of whom is possessed of a visible estate, real and personal, of the value of three hundred dollars at the least, to recognize on their oaths, whether the aforesaid Lewin Vermillion be guilty of the felony aforesaid or not, and have then there the names of the said Freeholders and this writ. Witness Thomas P. Knox Clerk of our said Circuit Superior Court at the Court House aforesaid this 14th day of May 1844 and on the 68th year of the Commonwealth.
Thomas P. Knox, Clerk
V } Venire Facias Commonwealth v. Vermillion
Vermillion: [Space for Plea]
Executed by Summoning
Joseph Lodge 1
Phineas Osburn 2
James Hampton 3
Samuel Lodge 4
Craven James 5
Mahlon Thomas 6 ___________
Jefferson C Thomas 7
Watson James 8
Thos E Hatcher 9
Absolam Beans 10
Jonah Nichols 11
Mason James 12 ___________
Attend at the time and place mentioned May 28th 1844 – “Not a true bill”
S.M. Gibson Deputy Sheriff
A. Gibson, Sheriff
Historian Patricia Duncan helped in the effort to trace Lewin Vermillion’s life. His name is not as unique as first might be thought, and was spelled various ways on historic records. There seems to have been more than one Lewin Vermillion. Duncan came up with the following information:
Southern slave culture was full of traps: Lewin Vermillion fell into one and took George down with him. We only know of this particular event because it ended in failure (similar to the case of Yardley Taylor and Harry.) Yet, had Lewin Vermillion previously shown up at the house in Georgetown before, with other Loudoun County freedom seekers? We might never know; successful escapes leave no trail of sheriff warrants or court documents.