top of page

My Research Adventures


From Winslow Homer's "A Visit From the Old Mistress"
From "A Visit from the Old Mistress" by Winslow Homer

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, he was sent to Ariana and the Powells to be nursed. Through genealogy and a descendant, we know her husband's name was Charles Bingham.

In 1851, Ariana and her children faced their worst nightmare when the Powells sold them before moving to Illinois. They risked being separated, sent far away, and being at the mercy of a new enslaver. Ariana chose this moment to have her daughters baptized, and that moment was recorded by the rector of the St. James Episcopal Church of Leesburg. Her decision leaps out like a plea to God and a last desperate act of a mother for her children. So far, no records of their 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." [1]

From this encounter, we know the names of 5 of Ariana's children. 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 enslaved by someone in the vicinity of Leesburg.

I searched the 1860 slave census records for someone near Locust Hill who enslaved a woman and a group of children of the right ages and genders to be this family. I found such a grouping at a plantation approximately two miles from Locust Hill. This was promising.


Unrelated to the work above, I stayed at an old plantation in May of 2018 that operates as a B&B today. It is still owned by the descendants of those who lived in the house in the 19th century. While there, I learned that the descendants still have their family papers, and I was allowed the privilege of seeing them. 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 spotted the names of Ariana and Charles Bingham.

Rebecca Dulany's Diary, 1850s, Private Dulany Family Papers

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? Had she been sold to this household by the Powells to be reunited with her husband? If that's true, how 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 (as seen above)? Twenty miles would have taken a day in the 19th century over muddy, rutted, uneven, hilly, unpaved roads - even in a wagon. Could she have been sold twice? That remains a mystery, but the diary proves where Ariana and her children were by 1856. I was alone in the large house and stared in stunned silence out the dining room window for a long time. This was where Ariana endured the Civil War. This was where she learned of emancipation. Despite all the obstacles, I'd found her - and in a collection of papers I had not heard of and that are unavailable to the public. The likelihood of this is unfathomable.



[1] Harriet Powell Llangollen Virginia to Nina Powell no place October 10 1853. Powell Family Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

bottom of page