My Research Adventures


    Ariana was a 19th Century African American woman in Loudoun County, Virginia. She was born in about 1816 and was enslaved by Charles Powell by 1830. She was a mother, a wife, and an instrumental member of the Powell household. Although, her bondage meant that she was denied her liberty, she was denied the chance to build a life that she wanted for herself and her children, and her identity was purposefully hidden from public records. However, in spite of these obstacles, we are able to have a window into her life through the Powell Family Papers.

    We know she lived in Leesburg in a home on Cornwall Street in the late 1840s. She spent her days washing clothes, ironing fabric, raising her children, and serving the Powells. We know she was married, and her husband was enslaved by someone outside of town. But her husband was leased to another man in Leesburg for a time, so she was able to see him often. When he fell ill, it was Ariana and the Powells who nursed him. Through genealogy and serendipity, I know her husband's name was Charles Bingham.

    In 1851, Ariana and her children faced their worst fear when the Powells sold them before moving to Illinois. Ariana and her children risked being separated, being sent far away from their home and family, and would be at the mercy of a new slave holder. So far, no records of this sale have been found. This might have been the end of what we know about Ariana except for two extraordinary events:


    Hattie Powell encountered Ariana and her children in late 1853 when visiting family at Locust Hill, a home 4 miles north of Leesburg. She wrote home to her family in Illinois:

    "I don’t think I ever told you that I saw Aunt Ariana and Nancy, William, Ellen, and the twins Ariana & Susanna while I was at Locust Hill. They came down to see Uncle Tom & Aunt Ginny. They were all looking very well. William walks as well as anybody. Nancy did not know me, but she remembered Miss Nina. The twins are fine, fat healthy children and Aunt Ariana is very proud of them."

    From this encounter, we know the names of 5 of Ariana's children. And even more remarkably, we know that two were twins. It is a relief to read that they were at least together and remained in Loudoun County - even if their fate had been thrown into the hands of another person. If Hattie saw them visiting Locust Hill, it is probable that they were owned by someone in the vicinity of Leesburg.

    I searched the 1860 slave census records for a slave owner near Locust Hill who owned a woman of Ariana's age and a group of children of the right ages and genders to be Ariana's. I found such a grouping at a plantation approximately two miles from Locust Hill. This was at least promising.


    Unrelated to the work above, I was granted access in May of 2018 to the private papers of a 19th century family who lived in southwest Loudoun County. The ancestors of this family knew the Powells well, and I hoped to find Powell letters in their collection. Instead, as I scanned through a diary from the 1850s, I read the names of Ariana and Charles Bingham.

    **GASP!** My jaw could have hit the table! Ariana and Charles Bingham! The date on the page was 1856. This household is over 20 miles from where Hattie had encountered her in 1853. So, how could Ariana be there three years later? Was she sold again and miraculously reunited with her husband? If that's true, could she have traveled all the way from this estate in southwest Loudoun County to an estate north of Leesburg over 20 miles away with 5 small children? Twenty miles would have taken a day in the 19th century over muddy, rutted, uneven, hilly, unpaved roads - even in a wagon. Clearly there is more to know here, and I hope to find it. I sat in stunned silence staring out the dining room window - the same window that Ariana knew over 160 years ago. Despite all the odds, despite every attempt to obscure her identity, I'd found her - without trying - in a most unlikely place - and in a most unlikely way - and in a collection of papers unavailable to the public. It's as if Ariana is calling out to be known.

    The top image is from Winslow Homer's painting, "A Visit from the Old Mistress."

    ©2020 by Alison Herring