Zilpha Davis, a Freed Slave of Loudoun County, Virginia

By Meredith Bean McMath

Zilpha's Rock in Catoctin Creek near Hillsboro, Virginia

Zilpha's Rock in Catoctin Creek near Hillsboro, Virginia

This essay was first published in the book, Essence of a People: African Americans Who Made Their World Anew in Loudoun County, Virginia and Beyond, published by The Black History Committee, Thomas Balch Library, 2002

The 1873 map establishing the boundaries of Hillsboro, Virginia bears an intriguing reference: written in the southwest corner are the words "Zilpha's Rock," with a small arrow pointing toward Catoctin Creek.1The stone, which stands six feet long, five feet wide and three feet high in the middle of the stream bed, begs the question: who was Zilpha?

Zilpha Davis was an anomaly: a free woman in a world of slaves, a reader of books in an age of ignorance, apparently independent in a society of patriarchs, a woman who retained her faith and humor in the midst of war. Her vivid personality was drawn for us in a chatty Civil War letter written by Union forager Tom Syphert2. Syphert, the son of a Lovettsville blacksmith, traveled through Lovettsville, Waterford and Hillsboro (then known as Hillsborough3) in hopes of acquiring horses for the Union Army. He wrote his brother

Most of the old residenters are still there, and among others I saw Old John Jones; Old Ben Lasly [Leslie]; Old man Torrison; Barnett Huff [Hough]; old Silas Marmaduke, the Janneys who kept the mill; and above all, I saw Old Aunt Zilpha!

The poor old soul still lives and looks as hearty as ever though she is very old — she has no idea how old she is. The people there gave her a little lot down on the creek as you go down toward Van Vactor's Mill4, and built her a little house on it and there she lives with her little garden, and the neighbors give her the balance. When I went in she was shelling beans and her open bible lay on her lap. I told her that I knowed her but she didn't know me. Says she "wait honey, let me put on my specs and take a good look at you." After gazing some time she said "No, honey; I doesn't know ye." When I told who I was she burst out laughing and crying both and said "why God bless de chile, I guess I does know ye; yes indeed, I knows ye, and all your _____[unreadable} — I'se bussed [kissed] ye a many a time, and your mammy afore ye." She asked about Father and wanted to know if he was still "fighting for de Kingdom." She is very pious and talks more good religion than nine tenths of fashionable white folks. She asked all about all of Grand Fathers family…

I stayed all night at Hammerly's and started at daylight next morning to walk to Snickersville, for there are no horses in the country — the war has swept them all.5

Davis' former owner was Samuel Pursel,6 and she was freed by the terms of his 1826 will. "My slaves I wish to be set free after the following manner," the will reads.

Zilpha I will to be set free on the 25th day of December one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine by her paying unto my Executors or admor [administrators] excepting her portion of an obligation on William Gore which the said Thomas Philips holds and her part and [Zilpha's] part of her sister Daphna's portion of her Father's estates. Zilpha's two children Madison & Sarah Ann I will that they shall be set free from bondage when they shall arrive at the age of thirty-five years. Until that time they with their mother Zelpha [sic] during her term of servitude shall be the property of my beloved wife Margaret with the request that they shall not be parted with out of the family."7

Davis is listed neither in the 1829 Loudoun County Record of Free Negroes, nor in the 1830 federal Census, but her release from slavery is confirmed by Samuel Pursel's estate account of1831.8

"Zilphe [sic] Davis" first appears in the 1840 federal Census, a free, "colored" female between the ages of 36 and 55 who lives alone in Hillsboro and has no "formal profession."9

Purcel's wife, Margaret Copeland Pursel, was to inherit Zilpha's children. Her 1842 will state.

"I desire that all my personal property, excepting my blacks and the part hereafter bequeathed be sold by my Executor after my death."10

There is no further mention of the disposition of those slaves,

Furthermore, after her death in 1849, her estate inventories and accounts make no reference to slaves beyond mention of two "hired servants"[slaves],11 and there is no mention in the county's Record of Free Negroes of either a Sarah Ann Davis or a Madison Davis freed by any member of the Pursel family.

However, it is interesting to find that on September 11, 1849, Samuel Purcel, Jr., son of Samuel and Margaret Purcel, registered several names in the Record of Free Negroes: free born Charles Davis, 20, free born Hannah Ann Davis, 18, and "free girl of color" Jane Davis, 16.12 Two years later, Samuel, Jr. once again registers a group of Davises: "free woman" Courtney Davis, 52, Courtney's daughter, Mary A., 16, and John Davis, 14.13

How these Davises were related to Zilpha Davis, we may never know, but she continued to live alone. The 1851 Land Records state "Zilpha Davis FN" [Free Negro] lives alone, a clock and a dog her only assets,14 and the 1851 "List of Free Negroes over 12" describes Zelpha [sic] Davis as a 60-year old living alone whose occupation is "House work."15

But the 1860 federal Census, there is a change in her status: Zilphia [sic] Davis, is a free black female laborer, now aged 80, has a household which now includes George Fields and Willson Smith, both 54 years of age, male, black, and free,16 with real estate assessed at $50 in her name.

By the way, all three members of the household are listed as unable to read or write. Unlike Tom Syphert, the census taker never saw the open bible in Zilpha's lap.

From this 1860 census, Brenda Stevenson (Life in Black and White) theorizes

Laundresses Nancy Robinson and Priscilla Lewis and an eighty-year-old laborer, Zilphia Davis, were the only women who still owned property in 1860 …. [though] even with two male boarders, Zilphia Davis barely was able to hold on to her status as a property owner.17

But there is no record of a Loudoun County property belonging to Zilpha Davis. In fact, there is no evidence the house ever passed from the hands of the owner(s) of the adjacent mill,18 so why the census taker provided a real estate assessment is unclear.

It seems hard to believe, but Zilpha's former home may still exist. The cabin may be the "log house owned by the Gavers" referred to in a local history. According to that account, the cabin stood near the creek in this area, but at the time of the great Johnstown flood [1889], the Sappingtons who lived there had to move out because of damage from the high waters. This house was later moved down the road and is now owned by Mr. Paul A. Larsen."19

The cabin (which sits above the creek on the north side of Gaver Mill Road) has endured quite a bit of remodeling over the years, but the original log house still stands under gray clapboard.

By 1870, Zilpha disappears from the Federal Census. All that remains of her longstanding presence in Hillsboro is a silent, powerful testimony written in stone: the mighty rock in Catoctin Creek named for her by parties unknown.


1 1873 Map of Hillsboro in The Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, Hillsboro: Memories of a Milltown (Leesburg: Potomac Press, 1976), 27.

2 Like Loudoun County's Quakers, many Lovettsville settlers migrated to Virginia from Pennsylvania, retaining both familial and philosophical ties to the North. When war broke out, many of the men joined the Union Army. Described in John Divine et al., Loudoun County and the Civil War (Loudoun County Civil War Centennial Commission, 1961), 11; and John E. Divine, Bronwen C. Souders, John M. Souders, To Talk is Treason (Waterford Foundation, 1996), 7.

3 Antebellum Hillsboro was the second largest town in Loudoun County, boasting a tannery, boasting a tannery, a saddle and harness-maker, a cooper, a joiner, two general stores, five mills and three taverns.

4 Thomas Pursel built a grist mill in Hillsboro on the south side of Catoctin Creek in the late 1700s. The mill eventually passed to Henry Gaver in 1853 when it became a woolen mill. Gaver's Mill was managed by Mr. VanVactor until the Civil War. In 1864, this mill was destroyed by the Union Army during the famous "Burning Raid." (Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, Hillsboro: Memories of a Milltown (Leesburg: Potomac Press, 1976) 1873 Map of Hillsboro, p. 11)

5 Tom Syphert, to his brother, 16 August 1863, Civil War Files, Thomas Balch Library.

6 The name appears in family records as Pursel, Pursell and Purcell, with the latter eventually becoming the official spelling of the Purcell family surname.

7 LCWB, R 206, Will of Samuel Pursel, 26 September 1826.

8 "By [account] of cash in the hands of Thomas Phillips belonging or coming to Sylpha [sic] a slave of the deceased the surrender of which was the condition of said Sylpha's freedom…. $59.97." LCWB, T 55, Estate Account of Samuel Pursel, 10 January 1851, 56.

9 FedCenLC, 1840, roll 564, p. 214, Thomas Balch Library

10 LCWB, 2 D, Will of Margaret Pursel, 20 December 1842, 327.

11 LCWB, 2 F, Inventory of Margaret Pursel, 29 November 1849, 105; and LCWB, 2F, Bill of Sale, Margaret Purcel, 162; and LCWB, 2K, Final Accounting, Margaret Purcel, 299.

12 LCRFN, 1844-1861, 11 September 1849, 100-101.

13 LCRFN, 1844-1861, 14 October 1851, 133.

14 For these small luxuries she is taxed $1.12. LCLB, 1851. Please note that the Land Books list no page numbers; a "Zilpa Davis FN" can be found among other other "Hillsborough" residents in the section headed by the name John Weadon, one of the three District Commissioners of the Revenue.

15 LCCC, "List of Free Negroes over 12 in the District of John Weadon, Commissioner of Revenue in year 1851," 10.

16 Zilpha's real estate value is assessed at $50 and her personal property at $10. Her place of birth is given as Maryland. BCLC, 1860, roll 1659, 642.

17 Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 298.

18 Zilpha Davis does not appear in the mill property deed track, but there is an intriguing reference in the 1853 Pursel-to-Gaver deed : "[I]t is to be noticed that there are two lots included within the aforesaid lines that are excepted – the first being a lot sold by Thomas Purcel to Mahlon Morris now occupied by N. Briggs…" LCLB, SC 399, "From William Thomas Pursel to Henry Gaver," 11 August 1853. There is no deed record of the Purcel-Morris exchange, leaving one to wonder if Zilpha Davis was given the cabin without benefit of the transfer of deed.

19 HBC Hillsboro 33.