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A Story of Emancipation in Christiansburg

Slaveholding was widespread in Montgomery County.  By 1840, enslaved persons made up twenty percent of the population.  In Christiansburg, enslaved persons resided in half of the town’s households. Yet, not everyone was satisfied with the institution of slavery. Among those locally who wanted something different was Dorthea Bratton, the daughter of a prominent Staunton physician and statesman, Col. William Fleming and the widow of Captain James Bratton. Mrs. Bratton became convinced that the plan of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816 to help freed black people immigrate to Liberia in West Africa, was the best choice for the slaves under her ownership.

In August of 1847, Nicholas Chevalier, the pastor of the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church and principal of both the Montgomery Male and Montgomery Female Academies, wrote a letter to the secretary of the American Colonization Society (ACS) on behalf to Dorothea Bratton, who wanted to free twenty of her enslaved persons and send them to Liberia. Chevalier said that Mrs. Bratton, then 70 years of age, was financially unable to pay their passages and supplies. Concerns about the project from Mrs. Bratton, the potential emigrants, and the opposition from her son-in-law, Dr. Hugh Kent, warranted the assistance of ACS. Reverend Chevalier wrote that this was “exactly one of the cases contemplated by the ACS founders & those who contribute to its funds.”  

Chevalier’s personal feelings about slavery may have been complex. He was born in Connecticut, a non-slave holding state, and professed to the ACS secretary that he was a life member of the society. Yet, census records show that he held three enslaved persons (a young woman and two children) in 1850 and four enslaved persons in 1860 (a young woman and three children).  However, Chevalier’s wife, Bethany Stuart, was a Southerner with strong ties to slave-holding. She was the sister of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart and her father, Archibald Stuart held many slaves on his Patrick County plantation.

After a legal battle, Mrs. Bratton was able to emancipate two families as well as four children without their parents. On December 22, 1847, this party left Christiansburg for Baltimore accompanied by an ACS agent. On February 5, 1848, they sailed for Liberia aboard the Amazon arriving in Monrovia, Liberia on March 14, 1848. Two of the Bratton members died shortly after arriving, probably from malaria. Like so many other black immigrants to Liberia, the party was plagued by sickness and other troubles during the early part of their settlement, but there is some evidence that by September 1848, they were sending more favorable reports of their situation.

Photograph of Dorothea Bratton’s Grave Stone Courtesy of FindAGrave.com

Despite the difficulties both to herself and her first group of emigrants, Dorothea Bratton undertook to send a second group of twelve emigrants to Liberia in July 1848, but in the end only four made the journey. In 1850, the census found Dorothea Bratton with only a ten-year-old free black named James Brown in her household. Mrs. Bratton died August 6, 1852 and is buried in Kyle Cemetery in Christiansburg, Virginia.