William Colson (1805–1835)


William Colson was a merchant who helped establish Roberts, Colson, and Company, one of the first African American transatlantic shipping companies. Born in Petersburg the son of a free black barber, he was probably self-educated. His partnership with Joseph Jenkins Roberts, another free black businessman, began during or before 1829. They acquired a schooner and began to trade between the United States and Liberia, where Roberts moved. The business did well and Colson lived well in Petersburg. In 1835 he visited Liberia to acquaint himself with the business there and to serve a year as a missionary. Not long after arriving, however, he became ill and died.

James M. Colson Family

William Nelson Colson was born in 1805 in Petersburg and was the son of James Colson, a barber, and either his first wife, whose name is not known, or his second, whose given name was Eliza. Colson’s father was one of about fifteen free African Americans who owned real estate in the city early in the nineteenth century. The exact date of Colson’s birth is not known, but when he registered as “a free man of Colour” on August 23, 1825, he gave his age as nineteen and his profession as barber. The clerk who recorded the registration described him as five feet, eleven inches tall with a light complexion, a small mole under his right eye, and a scar on the back of his head near the hairline. On March 2, 1826, Colson married Sarah Herreck Elebeck, also a member of a free black property-owning Petersburg family. They had three sons and two daughters. One of their grandsons, James M. Colson, was an original member of the faculty of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University).

Map of Liberia

Colson formed a commercial partnership before or during 1829 with other local free blacks, including Joseph Jenkins Roberts. The firm of Roberts, Colson, and Company acquired a schooner, the Caroline, and began to trade between Liberia and the United States. Roberts moved to Liberia to head the partnership’s African base of operations, and Colson initially remained in Virginia to manage the American side of the business. Roberts, Colson, and Company became an important commercial connection between the United States and Liberia, but because no company ledgers have survived, its financial success cannot be measured. The company’s few existing records indicate that its American clients included several large partnerships in New York and Philadelphia. From Liberia the company shipped to the United States such items as camwood for cabinetmaking, ivory, and palm oil, and it sent a variety of merchandise to Liberia, including cider, clothing, metal implements, wine, and such fancy goods as feather fans and silks. In 1835 the company purchased a second vessel, the schooner Margaret Mercer.

Colson lived a more prosperous life than most other free blacks in early nineteenth-century Virginia. For example, in July 1835 he paid a total of $191 for a half year of his daughter’s education and to cover his wife’s traveling expenses. When his estate was inventoried after his death, the contents of his house and shop were valued at almost $300. In addition, he owned a half interest in the modest contents of a barber shop in Petersburg and a part of Roberts, Colson, and Company. Colson’s library included books on biography, history, poetry, and religion. Probably self-educated, he was a careful man of business and kept detailed records. The inventory of the wardrobe that he took on his voyage to west Africa in 1835 suggests his economic status and identification of himself as a successful professional man. It lists new linen and fine cotton shirts, several silk vests, silk handkerchiefs, four pairs of kid gloves, 250 Spanish cigars, and more than twenty-five religious books.

Pennsylvania Colonization Society Membership Certificate

Colson began his trip to Africa in the summer of 1835. He intended to remain about a year and perhaps serve as a missionary as well as become personally acquainted with the African side of his business. He arrived in Liberia about the beginning of October, toured several settlements, and contracted an unspecified fever. Colson died in Monrovia on November 12, 1835, three days after staying up all night while ill and writing business letters. The place of his burial in Monrovia is not recorded. Colson’s death led to the dissolution of one of the first African American transatlantic shipping companies, but his partner remained in Liberia and in 1848 became the first president of the new independent republic.

William Colson is born in Petersburg, the son of a free black barber.
August 23, 1825
William Colson registers as "a free man of Colour" in Petersburg.
March 2, 1826
William Colson and Sarah Herreck Elebeck marry in Petersburg.
ca. 1829
William Colson and Joseph Jenkins Roberts establish Roberts, Colson, and Company to trade between the United States and Liberia.
The trading firm of Roberts, Colson, and Company purchases a second schooner.
July 1835
William Colson pays $191 for six months of his daughter's education and to cover his wife's traveling expenses.
Summer 1835
William Colson leaves Virginia for an extended visit to Liberia.
November 12, 1835
William Colson dies in Monrovia, Liberia.
  • Kenzer, Robert C. “Colson, William Nelson.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, 387–388. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
APA Citation:
Kenzer, Robert & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Colson (1805–1835). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/colson-william-1805-1835.
MLA Citation:
Kenzer, Robert, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Colson (1805–1835)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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