One of the things that first attracted us to Staunton, and still does, is the history of the town and surrounding Counties. For centuries, wave after wave of various peoples roamed and settled within the Shenandoah Valley and encompassing Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Starting with Native American tribes and later by the British, Scotch/Irish, German, African, Irish and Jews each group arrived here in the valley with their own stories and under different circumstances.
Learning the history of this town has been an adventure onto itself. Staunton has played a major role in the development of not only the Shenandoah Valley but of much of Western Virginia and other areas of the South. In researching this blog so many interesting facts came to light: That Staunton was the home base of Barnas Sears; Baptist minister and former president of Brown College who took the position of Administrator of a philanthropic fund to establish a free public school system throughout the South. The fund’s patron was George Peabody of Massachusetts. Sound familiar? Think, Yale’s Peabody Museum. Sears Hill, honoring Rev. Sears and overlooking downtown Staunton, offers one of the most impressive views of the city.
On a more personal note, I just discovered that the home we built here is located on what was considered somewhat wilderness and is also very near where had been the encampment of Confederate soldiers under General Jubal Early as his army prepared for what would be the last Civil War battle for the Shenandoah. Early himself set up his headquarters in a home just down the road on West Beverly Street, close to the vital train depot. (1)
Discovering the rich history of our town and region has been fascinating. So, imagine our enthusiasm to attend a recent talk focusing on the Presidents of Virginia, specifically their homes. Each slides or photos of the Presidential homes were accompanied by brief snippets of the Presidents’ lives. Some were very brief, but Jefferson and Washington were given more attention and deservedly so. Jefferson’s Monticello was discussed and specific tours were recommended to see the home and property properly. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings was also spoken of, but without any great detail.
Next discussed was George Washington. Some time was spent on Mount Vernon and again suggestions were given for visiting the home and grounds. Then considerable time was spent discussing the myths of Washington (the cherry tree) and his reputation of being very brutal toward native tribes while fighting them as a member of the British Colonial Army. Hmm, I thought. Life was certainly harsh on the frontier and warfare is seldom pleasant. But, it seemed the speaker was intent on singling out Washington for particular scrutiny. Then the talk proceeded to Washington being a slave owner. It was not mentioned that Washington did, in fact, own slaves obtained from both inheritance and purchase, but that he also, as he became older (and wiser), grew to detest slavery and hoped for its abolition. (2)
But, the highlight for me was a discussion of Washington’s poor old teeth. No, they were not made of wood. They trulymore resembled medieval torture instruments rather than dentures (see top photo). And then there was more. We were told that Washington, in his quest to having dentures made, “yanked” the teeth from his slaves in order to have them fitted into his dental appliances. Yikes!!! Now, that is harsh. If true…
After leaving the lecture and heading home we passed by Trinity Episcopal Church. I mentioned to The Redhead that that evening’s lecture in some way reminded me of a tour of Staunton we had been given last summer by a local tour guide. The tour, by car, had been interesting and many little tidbits of the city’s history were given. It was when we arrived at the Trinity Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown that one particular historical anecdote was offered. It was that Flora Stuart, widow of Civil War Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, became enraged when the pastor of Trinity moved the remains of Black slaves from one side of the graveyard into the White section during an expansion project of the church. Flora, we were told, was so angry with the mingling of White and Black bones that she quit Trinity and founded another Episcopal Church, Emmanuel, a few blocks away. The story at the time seemed odd. After that night’s lecture, however, I determined to seek out the truth about both George Washington’s teeth and Flora Stuart’s “bones”.
Washington’s teeth were fairly easy to research. Mount Vernon has wonderful records and also the only known complete set of George’s choppers. Washington, himself, was a meticulous record keeper, including his expenses. It seems that Washington did buy and obtain teeth for his dentures. Things of beauty they were, because each set included various teeth: animal, metal and even some of his own that had fallen out. No wood, though. And, it seems, that Washington did, in fact, buy several teeth from his slaves. Now, according to the records at George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, the fact that Washington made note of the purchase of teeth from particular slaves indicates that perhaps the teeth weren’t for his own use but perhaps for someone else – Martha or maybe a friend. Another fact is that the selling of teeth for use in dentures for another person was, while not common, at least unremarkable. It was a way for poorer folks, both free and slave to obtain money. Today we might consider the selling of blood, sperm, eggs or some other body parts or becoming a surrogate mother for compensation as being a similar practice. But, it appears certain that Washington did not “yank” teeth from his slaves in order to make them into his own dentures. (1)
Flora Stuart, or Mrs. General Stuart as she preferred to be addressed following the death of her very famous husband, Civil War General J.E.B. Stuart was a bit harder to research, especially the facts surrounding the graveyard story. Flora’s family, like so many others during the war, had been torn apart by the conflict. Her father was a career Army officer and remained a soldier on the side of the Union during the war. At the start of the war J.E.B. Stuart chose to defend his State and joined the Confederate Army. This familial split lasted until after the war ended. J.E.B Stuart was killed in the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864. By age 28 Flora had already lost a child at birth, another child to sickness and then found herself a widow. it was an emotional blow that put her into mourning the rest of her life. Following the death of her husband and the ravages of war and close to being destitute, Flora Stuart accepted some financial help from her husband’s brother. She also began a career in education, teaching schools in South West Virginia and culminating in becoming Principal at the prestigious Virginia Female Institute, an Episcopal school for girls. Years later this still very highly regarded school would be renamed in Flora’s honor, Stuart Hall. Incidentally, Robert E. Lee had previously been on the Board of the Institute and his daughters attended there as students. (2)
While in Staunton, Flora was a member of the nearby Trinity Episcopal church. The pastor was the Rev. Quarrier Hullihen.
Prior to becoming an Episcopal minister, Hullihen was a member of J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry. Sometime during an 1888 renovation of the church, workers unearthed several graves and Rev. Hullihen ordered that the remains of the graves be disposed of quickly. No record of how or where these remains were disposed of can be found nor are there any records of who the deceased were. Hullihen was criticized by a number of congregants about this incident and also about his spending of funds on new church pews during the renovations. In 1891 the church Treasurer resigned his position over disagreements with Hullihen regarding finances and Hullihen’s authoritarian manner. The problems at Trinity continued until 1892 when eighty four (84) members of the congregation petitioned the pastor to leave Trinity. He refused, but encouraged those that were dissatisfied with his service to leave the parish. In the Spring of 1893 those members did leave Trinity to start their own parish after having secured permission from the Episcopal Bishop. Flora Stuart was one of those at least 84 members that did leave. By 1899 the congregation had raised enough money to commission the erection of a new church building, Trinity Emmanuel Episcopal Church which today still stands across the street from Stuart Hall on Frederick Street.
The architect was T J Collins. Emmanuel Episcopal Church was his second architectural commission in Staunton, His first was St. Francis Catholic Church.
Following the death of her daughter, Virginia, Flora Stuart moved to Norfolk, Virginia in 1898 in order to raise her grandchildren. She retired from the Virginia Female Institute (now Stuart Hall) shortly afterwards in 1899.
Flora Stuart was a woman held in high regard by nearly everyone that met her. She accomplished much and suffered more throughout her life. Flora was never a wealthy woman and certainly never had the means to fund the building of a church. And, there are no records of any sort regarding Mrs. Stuart ever leaving Trinity Church because the bones of Blacks were mingled with those of Whites. As a matter of fact, J.E.B. and Flora Stuart did own 2 slaves. They had been given to them through the estate of J.E.B.’s father, a lawyer and Democratic politician, as a wedding present. These slaves had been given their freedom in 1859, before the Civil War, while J.E.B. was still in the Union Army. Both he and Flora were decidedly against slavery. (3)
We live in odd times. History is distorted. People of honor, courage and grace are maligned. Is it because of sloppy research or the need to embellish or twist the past to make a point or forward an agenda? I don’t know. But we all, professional and amateur historians, teachers, parents – and all good citizens, have an obligation to know and tell of our past – truthfully and not chop it up.
2) Staunton, Virginia: A Pictorial History, David J. Brown, SHF 1985
(3) News Leader, (Staunton, VA 3/2014
” History of Trinity Church 1746-1996 Comformable to the Doctrine and Discipline” Staunton Public Library archives
News Leader, (Staunton, VA) 4/24/2000
Encyclopedia Virginia, Flora Cooke Stuart (1836-1923
Photo of Washington’s teeth: Mount Vernon.org
Very insightful look at the history of your home area and great points on research to boot. Thanks for sharing!