Author: Katharine E. Harbury


William Roscoe Davis (d. 1904)

William Roscoe Davis was an important African American leader in Elizabeth City County (later the city of Hampton) during the American Civil War (1861­–1865), and served as doorkeeper for the Constitutional Convention of 1867­–1868. Born into slavery, Davis was noted for his intelligence and received permission to work as a boat operator. He spent a considerable amount of his money paying for a lawsuit to defend his wife‘s manumission, but a local judge refused to enforce the couple’s legal victory. Davis was among the first slaves to find freedom at Fort Monroe. A Baptist exhorter before the conflict, he became an ordained minister by 1863. His charisma was so impressive that he became a paid orator who toured Northern states. Later in life he claimed credit for the creation of Hampton Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Hampton University), telling people that his request for a new teacher led to the arrival of the institution’s founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He remained a leader in the community and respected elder in his family, also serving as the Old Point Comfort lighthouse keeper and buying property in Hampton. He died in 1904.


John Custis (ca. 1654–1714)

John Custis was a planter who served as a member of the House of Burgesses from Northampton County and as a member of the governor’s Council. He was the second of three men of that name to serve on the Council. Custis was one of the wealthiest men on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and served in a series of local offices, including justice of the peace and county sheriff. As a burgess, he served as the ranking member of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances and presided over the Committee for Elections and Privileges. He died in 1714.


James Crewes (1622 or 1623–1677)

James Crewes took part in Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677). Born in England, by 1655 Crewes had settled in Virginia, where he kept a store at his Henrico County home and engaged in the fur trade. Fearful of Indian attacks, Crewes and his neighbors persuaded Nathaniel Bacon to organize local men to defend the colony. After Bacon attacked some Indians during the spring of 1676, he was rebuked by Governor Sir William Berkeley. Crewes took Bacon’s side and possibly marched with a company of Bacon’s men to Lower Norfolk County. He was captured and was among a group of prisoners delivered to the governor on January 19, 1677. Singled out at a court-martial as “a most notorious Actor & Assistor in the Rebellion,” Crewes was one of seven men convicted of treason and rebellion against the king on January 24. He was sentenced to hang two days later.


Henry Corbyn (1628 or 1629–ca. 1676)

Henry Corbyn, a member of the governor’s Council, was a key associate of Sir William Berkeley. The native Englander ventured to Virginia in 1654 and married into the colony’s most powerful families three years later. Corbyn became a major landholder and was known for his hospitality. His success, and that of his relatives who used the more familiar spelling of their surname, spawned an old Virginia expression, “as rich as Corbin.” He acquired important local offices, and was sitting on the Council by the spring of 1663.


Miles Cary (bap. 1623–1667)

Miles Cary was a member of the governor’s Council. Born in England, Cary became involved in the tobacco trade, perhaps as a result of the losses his father suffered during the English Civil Wars. By 1645 Cary had arrived in Elizabeth City County. He resided in Warwick County and opened a store. Successful at this business, he became a justice of the peace by 1650. He patented 3,000 acres of land in Westmoreland County and by 1660 was a colonel of militia. In 1659 he was elected to the House of Burgesses and was a member of the governor’s Council at some point before 1664. He helped plan for the defense of Virginia during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. He died in 1667; family tradition holds that he was mortally wounded during a fight against Dutch men-of-war at the mouth of the James River.

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