William H. Brisby (1836–1916)


William H. Brisby served one term in the House of Delegates (1869–1871), representing New Kent County. Brisby, who had an African American and Pamunkey Indian background, was born free and acquired enough money to establish his own blacksmith shop in 1860. He served as a blacksmith for a Confederate cavalry company to avoid impressment during the American Civil War (1861–1865), but also helped enslaved people and Union prisoners escape. The suspicion of the latter led to two imprisonments. By 1867 Brisby had entered politics as a Republican and he won a seat in the General Assembly two years later by just nineteen votes. He spent ten years on the New Kent County’s board of supervisors and was a longtime justice of the peace. Brisby was strict and sometimes violent with his family, driving his sons out of the house. Late in life he began to suffer from dementia and died in 1916 at the Central State Hospital near Petersburg of kidney failure.

Early Years

William Henry Brisby was born in August 1836 in New Kent County to Roger Lewis, a free African American, and Marinda Brisby, who was of Pamunkey Indian origins. Lewis was much older than Marinda Brisby and died before March 1838. She returned to her family, who had not approved of Lewis, and the boy took his mother’s name. Little else is known of William Brisby’s early life. He had a brother and probably sisters; a nephew and a niece lived with him at one time.

Brisby may have inherited land from his father in New Kent County. Ambitious and industrious, Brisby soon established himself in the free Black community there. He worked on the construction of the Richmond and York River Railroad and used his wages to purchase a set of blacksmith’s tools. With a partner, Brisby set up a blacksmith shop at Talleysville in 1859. The following year he bought his partner’s tools and on January 29, 1860, purchased the lot where his shop was located. One year later he acquired thirty-two acres of land nearby.

Civil War

The advance toward Richmond of the Union Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 brought war to New Kent County. Free people of color were being forced to work on Confederate fortifications near Yorktown. To avoid impressment Brisby served for several months as a blacksmith for a troop of Confederate cavalry stationed in the county. He traveled with the cavalry but at least could still oversee his farm and smithy.

Castle Thunder

On his own again in 1863, Brisby expanded his enterprises in April by purchasing for $900 in inflated state currency a large net for catching fish, which he salted and packed in barrels. He often traveled to Richmond to sell fish and crops and to buy iron and other goods. His cargo on the return trips sometimes included fugitive enslaved people and escaped Union prisoners. Confederate authorities twice imprisoned him for short periods at Castle Thunder on suspicion of aiding the enemy. When Union troops under Major General Philip H. Sheridan commandeered his property in May 1864, Brisby showed Sheridan a testimonial by three Union officers whom he had helped escape, and Sheridan ordered Brisby’s three cows returned to him.

Brisby later testified that the slave regime’s withholding of education made him a Unionist, and as late as 1860 he signed with his mark rather than a signature, often a sign of illiteracy. Somehow, though, Brisby learned to read and write. The 1863 note for the fishing net bears his own signature. Thereafter he continued to study and obtained books, and he took a special interest in the law.

Political Career

In April 1867 Brisby was one of three delegates from New Kent County who attended the Union Republican State Convention in Richmond. After a constitutional convention organized a new state government, Republicans in New Kent County nominated him for the House of Delegates in 1869. Brisby won the election by just nineteen votes and was assigned to the Committee on Officers and Offices at the Capitol. During his two-year term in the General Assembly, he voted with the Republican minority and was a leader among the African American delegates who condemned the erratic behavior of William H. Andrews, a Black Republican delegate from Surry County. When the assembly approved legislation in 1870 creating the state’s public school system, Brisby opposed the requirement that schools be racially segregated and joined most of the other African American delegates in voting against the school bill as their only means of protesting the imposition of racial discrimination. Near the end of the final session, on March 28, 1871, he voted with the majority for a bill to pay the public debt left over from before the Civil War, which subsequently led to budget deficits, reduced funding for public schools, and political turmoil.

On September 11, 1871, county Republicans nominated Brisby for a second term. Newton M. Brooks, a former agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau in New Kent, had sought the nomination for himself and afterward asked Brisby to withdraw. When Brisby refused, Brooks threatened to run against him. Fearing that the presence of a third candidate would give the election to the Conservatives, Brisby called for a second convention at which his African American friend and neighbor William H. Patterson received the nomination and went on to win the election.

General Philip H. Sheridan and Staff

When Brisby petitioned the Southern Claims Commission in 1873 for payment for property that Sheridan’s soldiers had taken in 1864, Brooks exacted his revenge. At his instigation, several men testified about Brisby’s Confederate service as a blacksmith. Their testimony forced Brisby to submit additional evidence and delayed payment of his claim until 1878.

On November 4, 1869, Brisby married nineteen-year-old Ann Rebecca Cumber, daughter of a long-resident free family. Of as many as twelve children, six sons and two daughters survived. Brisby remained active in local politics. During the 1876 election campaign, the Republican Congressional Executive Committee named him a district canvasser for the Second Congressional District. Brisby served from 1871 until at least 1881 on the county board of supervisors, attended the county organizing meeting of what became the Readjuster Party in 1879, and served as a justice of the peace until at least 1896 and possibly into the first decade of the twentieth century.

Later Years

In 1885 Brisby and his brother, Matthew Brisby, went into debt to buy a steam sawmill, which they moved to his 129-acre property. The sawmill proved unprofitable, and his brother died before 1891, leaving Brisby responsible for all that they owed. He fell further into debt, assisted, according to family tradition, by a combination of alcohol and unscrupulous white men. Brisby began selling his property to stave off his creditors. Finally, in 1907 the county sold the last of his land at auction. A year later he sold the sawmill for $150 and, past the age of seventy, contracted to work there for the new owner.

For all of Brisby’s local prominence, his life ended sadly. A strict, sometimes violent disciplinarian, he drove his sons out of the household as soon as possible. In February 1892 his wife left their home and took their youngest sons to Richmond. Brisby sought a divorce on grounds of desertion, but it was not finalized before Ann R. Brisby died suddenly on August 1, 1894. His beloved younger daughter, Nannie J. Brisby, became convinced that he had caused her death. Her alienation grew when he married Victoria Pearman Holmes, a widow, on February 20, 1901.

Central State Hospital in Petersburg

Sometime after 1908 Brisby began to suffer from dementia. He and his second wife moved into the Henrico County home of his unforgiving younger daughter. In July 1916 his physical condition worsened, and he was committed to Central State Hospital near Petersburg. Brisby died there of kidney failure on November 16, 1916. The place of his burial is unknown.

August 1836
William H. Brisby is born free, of mixed African American and Pamunkey heritage, in New Kent County.
William H. Brisby and a partner establish a blacksmith shop at Talleysville, New Kent County.
January 29, 1860
William H. Brisby purchases the lot of land in Talleysville, New Kent County, on which his blacksmith shop is located.
William H. Brisby acquires thirty-two acres of land in or near Talleysville, New Kent County.
March—May 1862
William H. Brisby serves as a blacksmith for a Confederate cavalry troop stationed in New Kent County in order to avoid impressment.
April 1863
William H. Brisby purchases a large net for catching fish, which he salts and packs in barrels for sale in Richmond.
May 1864
When Union forces commandeer his property, William H. Brisby successfully argues that he helped Union prisoners escape. Three cows are returned.
April 1867
William H. Brisby is one of three delegates from New Kent County who attend the Union Republican State Convention in Richmond.
William H. Brisby, a Republican from New Kent County, wins election to the House of Delegates by nineteen votes.
November 4, 1869
William H. Brisby and Ann Rebecca Cumber marry. This will have as many as twelve children.
William H. Brisby serves on the New Kent County board of supervisors.
September 11, 1871
William H. Brisby, a Republican from New Kent County, is nominated for a second term in the House of Delegates. Brisby later withdraws from the race.
William H. Brisby attends a New Kent County organizing meeting of what will become the Readjuster Party.
Brothers William H. Brisby and Matthew Brisby go into debt to buy a steam sawmill, which operates on William Brisby's 129-acre property, in New Kent County.
August 1, 1894
Ann R. Brisby, wife of William H. Brisby, dies.
February 20, 1901
William H. Brisby and Victoria Pearman Holmes marry.
New Kent County sells the last of land belonging to William H. Brisby at auction.
William H. Brisby sells his sawmill for $150.
July 1916
William H. Brisby, who suffers from dementia, is committed to Central State Hospital, in Petersburg.
November 16, 1916
William H. Brisby dies of kidney failure at Central State Hospital, in Petersburg.
  • Foner, Eric. Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. 1996 ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Kneebone, John T. “Brisby, William Henry.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 234–235. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
  • Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
  • Medford, Edna Greene. “Land and Labor: The Quest for Black Economic Independence on Virginia’s Lower Peninsula, 1865–1880.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100, no. 4 (October 1992): 567–582.
APA Citation:
Kneebone, John & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William H. Brisby (1836–1916). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brisby-william-h-1836-1916.
MLA Citation:
Kneebone, John, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William H. Brisby (1836–1916)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, January 05
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