VERGENNES, VT – Researcher and author Jane Williamson knows less detailed information about Sheriff Stephen Bates’ life in Vermont than she found out about him in Virginia.
“His life in Virginia is pretty well documented,” said Williamson, lecturer at Vermont Humanities and former director of the Rokeby Museum.
“I started with his birth in Virginia, and helped him escape during the Civil War and move to Washington.”
Born in 1842, Stephen was the son of Napoleon and Phillis (Phyllis) Bates, who belonged to Hill Carter, a cousin of General Robert E. Lee.
Stephen’s siblings were Nancy, William and Lucy, who died in a cholera outbreak at the age of 1.
Stephen and his wife, Frances Mason Bates, named their son, Frederick Napoleon Bates.
“Her mother worked in the house,” Williamson said.
“Stephen migrated to the home of a slave family named Pride, Anthony Pride, who Judy Ledbetter (Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History) said was a longtime servant at Shirley. They kept all of those lists. That’s one of the great things about some of these plantations that keep all of these records. There is the list with all these names. Next to a Phyllis it is written weaver. Next to another it is written house.
After 1850, when Stephen Bates was 8, he was never enrolled in his mother’s house again.
“So I think her mother was the weaver and the other Phyllis was in the house,” Williamson said.
“In these registers, they are always listed by household, and he and his brother are not listed in their mother’s household. These households are kept together. There are lists: 1850, 1853, 1855. The households are the same in each, roughly. They vary some. People are dying. Babies are born.
Napoleon, a skilled carpenter, did not live in Shirley but was enslaved on a nearby plantation.
“Hill Carter, who owned Shirley, hired him several times,” she said.
“There are records of him being hired for the year in 1848 and 1849, and another year. They managed to have this marriage. It was probably not that far. They stayed together.
Hill Carter was an agricultural reformer.
“He believed in record keeping, so he kept records,” Williamson said.
“The family kept them, thank goodness. It’s a huge collection. The papers are in the Colonial Williamsburg library. They are part of a huge collection of microfilm of plantation records. There is a lot of documentation on his life, which I won’t find here. So far there is a limit to this.
The Shirley Plantation is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the United States and was owned by Robert E. Lee’s grandparents.
“The Carters and the Lees got married,” said Williamson.
“Hill Carter’s mother was a Lee or her daughter married a Lee. I do not know. I don’t care enough about Robert E. Lee to remember it.
“Stephen Bates was not a model. He mentioned to people that when he was in Shirley, Robert E. Lee was there and that Lee or that Lee because he knew it would impress people.
“It helps to impress people if you want to be elected sheriff. It is mentioned in his obituary and in the newspaper articles about him. He rubbed shoulders with Lee in Shirley. The Carteres are like the Lees. They are a very old, very wealthy and very influential family in Virginia that dates back almost to the 17th century. These families are all married, haven’t they. You have to keep the money and the land.
FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM
Napoleon and Phillis witnessed civil war and together survived emancipation.
“She died in 1868, then he remarried,” she said.
“In the 1870 census, Napoleon is with a new wife.”
Williamson finds no trace of Stephen Bates ever returning to Virginia to see his family.
“He could have left Washington in 1868,” she said.
“I don’t know. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I’m wondering. Her sister Nancy married someone named Carter. She lived in this neighborhood. After the war a bunch of between them still lived there. I don’t know if he ever saw them again. I don’t know if I will find out one day. Vermont and Virginia, it’s a great journey.
His brother, William, disappears from the historical records.
“Stephen left in August 62,” she said.
“William left with the Union Forces the following summer in July 63. They were brought together as a unit in the records of Shirley Plantation in 1850. They remained together as a unit until 1853. , ’54, ’55. You see them together until ’57 or ’58. They are part of the Anthony Pride family.
William is identified as a servant in a record of escaped slaves during the Civil War.
“They were both in the house,” Williamson said.
“A coachman is considered a servant. He is a personal servant. Maybe they were both in the shed. The two could have been horsemen. They would have cars, wagons and horses.
Send an email to Robin Caudell: