Saturday, November 08, 2008

I hope Tom Armstrong got away

I’ve had my head buried in genealogical research today, not looking for anything specific, just randomly picking out any name that falls at the dead end of a branch of the family tree and trying to find a clue to help trace that line back a little farther. I chose this project for today because I’m trying to wean myself away from the political news that has kept me riveted to the television set for weeks on end.

Still, the recent election is very much on my mind, and the historical importance of it captured my attention again today when the cursor on my computer screen trailed across one particular name: John Jude.

John Jude was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side. He was born about 1708 in Powhatan, Virginia, and later lived in nearby Cumberland County. John Jude was a slaveowner.

When a slave named Tom Armstrong ran away, John posted an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette newspaper in which he described Tom as having “a bad scald head” and being “pitted with the smallpox,” telling me Tom Armstrong’s life hadn’t been any picnic prior to his escape.

I learned about this when a Google search directed me to a photo on a University of Virginia website entitled "The Geography of Slavery." It’s a photo of the actual newspaper ad. The site is copyrighted, so I’ve resisted the temptation to capture the photo and post it here. If you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, click here, then go to the second item on the list and click on the date, October 13, 1768.

It’s been 240 years since John Jude placed that ad, but only a couple of years since I found it. I’ve wondered more than once about what happened to Tom Armstrong. Coming across John Jude’s name today, while part of my mind was still thinking about our first black president-elect, made me hope more than ever that Tom got away.

I’d like to think he lived a long and happy life, with a loving wife and many children. I’d also like to think there are some great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of Tom Armstrong alive today, somewhere far away from Cumberland County, and that they’re as proud of our country as I am at this moment.


  1. It is amazing how far we have come but sad at how long it has taken. I am grateful to be alive to see this moment in history....there have been many tears shed in my household this week and more than once I have heard the words "I never thought I would live to see this day". I hope Tom got away too :)

  2. Reading those ads made me so sad. I was thinking about how far we've come today and it made wonder about the first person who had the gall to think they could own another human. How could they not see these men and women as being like themselves?

    I really admire you for digging through your family history the way you do! It's hard work.

    Still can't stop thinking about your stew....

  3. Sassystoppers, as much as I'm aware of the historical significance of the election, it kind of takes me aback to realize that there was a time in my own lifetime when black people couldn't vote. How screwed up was that?


    Creekhiker, there were references to slavery in the Bible, and I imagine that that was all the southern plantation owners felt they needed to justify the acquisition of their own free labor. Slavery may have been abolished, but there are still many people today who use obscure Biblical references to rationalize other un-Christlike behaviors.

    Now, go make that stew.


Your comments might be the very best thing about blogging. I love it when you care enough to share your thoughts here, so go ahead and say what's on your mind.