by Karin Wulf
Over the years people have wondered about the name “Omohundro.” Many have asked about the derivation of the name itself and about why the OI carries the name. But there are always questions, too, about how the Omohundro name might be connected to the early Virginia economy that was dependent on the exploitation of enslaved people. That last question—not addressed on the OI’s website as the others are– and the conversations it has prompted over the last months (and in particular at the annual meeting of the OI’s Executive Board and Council in early May 2016) are the impetus for this post.
This is an overdue season of reckoning for many institutions complicit in the economy of transatlantic slavery and in other, often related, economies of oppression and dispossession. As institutions of higher education have recently and prominently wrestled with how to address and learn from their histories, historians have played an important role just in the last year at such places as Harvard Law School and Georgetown University, and more than a decade ago at Brown University. President of the Mellon Foundation Earl Lewis wrote about how “we cannot exorcise the past without confronting it fully.” These confrontations are not meant to resolve a difficult history, but rather to engage it; the American Historical Association’s Executive Director Jim Grossman observed that it is incumbent on us “to keep that past in direct conversation with the present.”
Founded in 1943 as the Institute of Early American History & Culture, the OI was renamed in 1996 to mark a bequest from Malvern Hill Omohundro Jr (known as M. H.) and his wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Overbey Omohundro. M. H. had been a student at William & Mary in the 1920s, but did not complete his degree; accounts suggest that the urgency of Depression-era family economics took him to New York to begin a business career. He came back to Richmond and was in first the fine arts trade and then real estate, both ventures he joined in with his brothers. M. H. began supporting the OI in the 1970s; my predecessor as Director, Ron Hoffman, and his, Thad Tate, each enjoyed getting to know him. With the money he made after the Depression, M.H. was generous to the OI as well as other organizations.
M.H. did not build his twentieth-century fortune on slavery or the slave trade, but the history of a privileged Virginia family is often connected in any number of ways to the economy that privileged them. M. H.’s paternal great-uncle, Silas Omohundro, was a Richmond-based slave owner and slave trader. After working for the large slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria, Silas resettled in Richmond, where he operated “a middling slave trade from a boardinghouse and private jail.” Silas and others of his family began to buy extensive real estate in Virginia and elsewhere; fraught and ultimately litigated contracts among family members during and after the Civil War as well as controversy over the settlement of his estate suggest the complexity of his finances.
Silas owned but also married, had children with, and willed the bulk of his estate to Corinna Hinton Omohundro. His accounts are held at the Library of Virginia, and a number of scholars have used these and other sources including court cases instigated during the estate settlement to write about Silas, his business, and his family. In this space you’ll shortly hear from Alexandra Finley, a Ph.D. student here at William & Mary and a dissertation fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies; she wrote an M.A. thesis on the Silas Omohundro family and is now completing her dissertation on the racialized entwining of sex, family, and finance in antebellum Virginia.
The Omohundro family was, like so many others, implicated in the economy of slavery through both owning and trading human beings as commodities. On the eve of the Civil War more than a quarter of free families in Virginia owned slaves. The Omohundro Institute is not named for someone who directly participated in slavery. Still, the name rightly challenges us for its echo of privilege founded on racial hierarchy and a legacy, if not the wealth itself, of that privilege.
But the Omohundro name also challenges us for reasons that are historically and culturally specific–namely, because in a western European tradition we “name” families patrilineally. The Omohundro Institute must consider the implications of Silas Omohundro’s history because his great-nephew, his brother’s grandson, shared that name. Thinking about the historical context of family histories and family memories is a research interest of mine; I’ve written about the ways that eighteenth-century British Americans wrote and performed their families’ stories and that the state compelled family histories through legal and other practices. As interesting to me as the ways that early modern people construed family connections are the ways that we continue to think about the significance of lineage.
In 1951 M.H.’s father, Malvern Hill Omohundro, Sr. published a weighty tome, almost 1300 pages, The Omohundro Genealogical Record; The Omohundros and allied families in America; blood lines traced from the first Omohundro in Westmoreland County, Virginia, 1670, through his descendants in three great branches and allied families down to 1950. In this Genalogical Record Omohundro noted that Corinna Hinton Omohundro was Silas Omohundro’s third wife, though her age and maiden name were incorrect and her race and enslaved status were unremarked.
Of course all families are more than a patriline. M.H.’s maternal great-aunt, Elizabeth Van Lew, was, in the words of her principal biographer, Elizabeth Varon, “a rare elite white southern abolitionist.” Van Lew headed a Union spy ring in the Confederate capital of Richmond during the Civil War and in the assessment of George Sharpe, the Union’s head of military intelligence, “for a long, long time she represented all that was left of the power of the U.S. government in the city of Richmond.” Varon observes that Sharpe’s was “a remarkable statement for a nineteenth-century man to make about a nineteenth-century woman.”
The Van Lews came from Philadelphia, and Elizabeth was educated there—it’s cited as a source of her antislavery views. Elizabeth Van Lew’s legacy as an abolitionist and insurgent during the war was extended afterwards. As the appointed postmaster in Richmond, she employed black men and women much as she had done during her days as a spymaster. But her record on race is not straightforwardly progressive either. She too owned slaves; she may have been influenced by their views, and she may have secretly freed many. She was also enthusiastic about schemes to send formerly enslaved people back to colonies in Africa, and she may or may not have sent one of her most trusted allies among her slaves, Mary Richards, to Liberia and then called her back into slavery and service as a spy. Maggie Lena Walker was born in Van Lew’s house, where her mother had been a slave, was likely freed and remained for a time to work as a cook.
Does it make a difference that the OI’s Mr. Omohundro shared a family background with both slaveowners and abolitionists, a slave-trader and a Union Spy in the capital of the confederacy? I think it does, not because Silas Omohundro’s slave-trading is somehow balanced by Elizabeth Van Lew’s abolitionism, but because both are emblematic of the many ways that ideologies of race saturated the early American past. It reminds us that as historians the most important, urgent work we do is to conjure the past contexts that have shaped our own. There are not single or linear paths from the past to our present or future, but there are critical dynamics that have shaped who and what we are as individuals, communities—and institutions.
The Omohundro Institute has a long tradition of supporting and publishing scholarship exploring important and varied histories of race and slavery in early America. In the October 2012 William and Mary Quarterly Annette Gordon-Reed reviewed the OI’s 2nd edition of Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812. Gordon-Reed first read White over Black a few years after it was first published by the OI in 1968 during a Texas summer when she was only twelve years old. “White over Black was the first serious history book I had ever read,” she wrote, “and it suggested to me a model of how one might go about writing history.”
Not every work of scholarship can claim to have inspired such a precocious reader, and one who would write Pulitzer-winning scholarship herself on race, slavery and the American national founding, but Jordan’s and other OI books and the extensive scholarship published in the WMQ have informed and inspired scholars and scholarship for seven decades. Supporting scholars and scholarship is what the OI does and does best—it is our core mission. Supporting scholars and scholarship on the rich diversity of Vast Early America has been an increasingly important priority. The challenge and the opportunity of reflecting on the Omohundro legacy, however, requires us to ask what more we can do, and what we can do differently.
The Omohundro Institute is an institution with a history; it is also a community with enormous potential. In the next months I will be sharing with you some of what this community is doing in reflection and with respect for that history. This will include a different form of fellowship support, and a local project on race and slavery. It will include ongoing conversations here and elsewhere on our website, at our conferences, and in our publications about the many forms of diversity and the many histories of which our scholarship is, and as scholars we are, a part.
The OI’s 75th anniversary in 2018 is always in my sights. M. H. made a substantial contribution to the Omohundro Institute for its 50th anniversary, the language of which is quite simple: he wanted this gift to serve “the most pressing needs” of the organization. It is a pressing need, as we aim toward 2018, to be good historians not only of the early American past, but of our own organization. I have no doubt that we will look back to this moment and find that we did some things of enduring value, and others that we wish we had done better. The mistake I am determined we will not make is to leave these issues unexamined.
I’ve done some work for the Lemon Project at W&M as the College examines its own (sometimes surprisingly complicated) involvement with slavery and segregation, and had looked into any connection of Mr. Omohundro and a fortune based on slavery. I thought the connections were remote enough that I didn’t pursue things, but am pleased to see this scrupulous examination of important issues.
The history of the William and Mary Quarterly in its origin and early decades would surely be interesting to explore too–I briefly mention that history in an essay I published in the W&M Bill of Rights Journal, “Thinking about Slavery at the College of William and Mary.”
I am a member of the Omohundro family, though my name is removed several times. I possess one of the original Omohundro Genealogical Record books and received a letter many years ago about someone working on an updated Genealogy. Are you aware of any new such version either published or currently being compiled?
Thank you very much!
I actually have the book all the way up to about 1966 I think
hi I am a decendant of the family. You asked about someone trying to update the genealogy record. That would have been my grandfather Lewis Douglas Mitchell his mother was winona luthy. I also have one of the last updated books on the family and would love to try to get an updated list.
I too would love to know if an updated book is in the works, Richard Omohundro from Westmoreland, Va is my ancestor too. We are the Fluvanna Line, Richard I, II, III and then William Omohundro. My father was mentioned in Malvern’s book but his grandparents were not correctly named.
P.S. I would love to know more about my Martha Creasy who married William Omohundro. Malvern mentions their family bible, where might we find that?
Nancy – we must be cousins! Not only via the Martha Creasy commection, but we have thr same last name, albeit under different spellings. I make a lot of contributions to Wikitree, most especially on Rhodes, Creasy, Weeks, Harman, Sutphin and Hylton ancestors, but have run into a huge roadblock as concerns the unknown (tp our generation) parentage of my GG-Grandmother, Emily Rhodes (who had 7 children with, supposedly, a John O Shepherd (reflected in my G- Grandfather’s middle name) or, as a 1st cousin once removed believes, an Omohundro. I did take note of a Louisa Tandy who married an Omohundro and they removed to Ohio from my native Fluvanna County, VA; Emily had a son she named Tandy, an unusual name. So all of this is fascinating to me and I hope we can joim forces to learn more about both our common connections and our elusive mystery relation, Martha Creasy. (Note: my G-Grandfather is married to a Martha Jane Creasy – not the same individual, but possibly of the same line?) I certainly welcome any assistance in this 2 decades-long search for both Emily Rhodes’ parents (I think her mother is an Elizabeth E., but cannot definitely say) and also of Martha Creasy Omohundro.
Hello cousin. I see speculation has shifted to Shepherd for the paternal line of Emily’s children. I believe more info has been located on her parents at this point. I would love to connect with you again.
I also have several Omohundros and Creasy in my lineage. My Grandfather William Pettit b.1791 was married to Elizabeth Omohundro b.1796
Hi Michelle! I don’t know how I managed to miss your email from years ago! I know that my Word family in Buckingham county, VA , which is a burnt county, intermarried with our Omohundro family.. Including Langhorne, which is part of my Cary family!
I did find our Martha Creasy Omohundro by way of “find a grave.” I did some phone calling and found very little information, Sad she is buried within the grounds of a circle of pavement, with some unknown others. No one seemed to know who owned the property she is buried on, The church that once was there is no longer there, according to what a resident told me. She is buried in Tennessee. I don’t see the “find a grave photo” that I saw a couple years ago with her tombstone picture. I think I still have it somewhere.
I am also interested in your Shepherd! Shephards married into our Word family as well. Wonder if it is our Martha Shephard Omohundro who intermarried with my Hugh French of Maryland and Virginia
daughter of our William and Elizabeth Creecy/Creasy family.
Michelle please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have taken 2 dna tests and it would be nice to find some others who have too to compare our Omohundro relatives with. My Word family also intermarried with our Omohundro family.
I am a member of the Omohundro line and I would love to have a copy of the Omohundro Genealogical Record. I need to learn more! My family resides in Roanoke , Va and has for several generations. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all carried the Omohundro name. I recently discovered one of my best lifelong friends here in town is an Omohundro too. We would love to have the updated book for research. Please keep us informed of the OI anniversary! We might make a field trip! Thank you so much for you attention!! Sincerely, Owen Weaver
Speaking of early American history, am I correct that chattel slavery evolved about 1660 at the time VA was an English colony, under English rule? Am I also correct that at its founding, chattel slavery did not yet exist in VA, and the earliest settlers of VA (including people like Richard Omohundro) likely did not cross the Atlantic with the intention of owning slaves? Am I also correct that the primary focus of the American Revolution was, and had to be, becoming free from English tyranny, and that, while it might have been nice, including the abolition of slavery in that struggle was unfortunately not possible? Am I also correct that chattel slavery officially existed in the former North American English colonies from about 1660 until 1786 (when the US Constitution was finally ratified by all the original colonies), a period of about 126 years? Am I also correct that chattel slavery existed in the newly formed United States from 1786 until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a period of about 77 years? Based on the length of time under English rule vs American rule, it seems like chattel slavery was more of an English problem than an American problem. Just wondering, since it never seems this is mentioned.
I am also a descendant of Richard Omohundro. My grandmother (who chose to NOT purchase a book) and my mother and uncles are mentioned in that book (although some names are misspelled). Please keep me in mind if they ever, EVER decide to reprint or update and print the book with Omohundro genealogy.
I would like to know whether ANYONE ever determined the origin of the Omohundro family? I know the author of the book never made that determination at the time of printing. He speculated on various possible origins. I am hopeful of finding out “the rest of the story” someday for our family’s records.
So glad to have found this site today. Thank you.
Congratulations to your grandmother, who had the grace to avoid her history of sl
I’m obviously also an Omohundro. My father grew up in DC and Virginia. We’ve never been able to find anything about the true origins of our name. 23andme may provide some insight. If anyone knows anything I’d love to learn more.
Can you please tell me if this is the same M.H. Omohundro who owned or worked for the Old Dominion Real Estate Company located in Richmond, VA.?
Have old (circa. 1930’s) paper documents with that name.
There is an Omohundro Square in Seville, Spain. I was told by my father, James Omohundro, a descendent of Richard Omohundro, that we were French-Norman, then crossed to England with William the Conquerer, then, to our misfortune, crossed the King. The Duke of Mohun is one of our descendants. Anyway, we had to flee back to France. O is a prefix, and dro, or dreaux is the suffix. So, Mohun is the core name. When the call for help to drive the Moors out of Spain came, the Mohuns, or Omohundro’s, went to Spain. My DNA bears out the French, British, and Iberian notes. I also have a copy of the Omohundro Genealogical Record. There are LOTS of Omohundro’s in Texas and Mexico, as well as Virginia, which means that some Omohundro Spaniards became proud papas in Mexico…further strengthening the Omohundro-Iberian connection. I personally met a tall, dark Mexican man named Omohundro in an elevator in Lexington, KY. I told him we are cousins! 😀 I wondered about the secrecy of the Omohundro origins for years, speculating that perhaps they were of Jewish origin escaping Queen Isabelle during the expulsion of the Jews. My DNA does not bear this out. I’m not sure why Richard didn’t give his reasons for immigrating from wherever, but we can surmise that he was a wondrous mix of British, French, and Spanish heritage. I did hear my father say that he arrived in Virginia with LOTS of money, and the plantation at Fluvanna would bear that out.
My grandfather, Albert Sidney Mohundro (he said the “O” was dropped by his forebears) was born in Van Buren County Arkansas to William Mohundro and Abbie Null Mohundro. Albert Sidney Mohundro married Nina Lea Jennings Mohundro. Their union produced my mother, Gladys Mohundro (born 1917) and Pearl Mohundro (born 1920). Gladys married Claude Oved Price and their union bore me, Claudine Price (born 1937)(married Jon Albert Barker in 1957 in Monroe Louisiana), and Kirby Oved Price (born 1949) who currently lives in Monroe Louisiana.
Mr. H. O. Omohundro referred in a letter (in my possession) to my grandfather Albert Sidney Mohundro as “cousin.”
I would enjoy receiving any notification of association with the Omohundro or Mohundro families.
There is a house which is being granted historic status in Connecticut – which early in its existence belonged to an Omohundro; whose grandfather at least was a slave owner. The house is to be forever labeled with this name – a name that evidently indirectly benefited from slavery – should we be advocating for a more neutral alternative? Not sure it is appropriate to maintain an association with slavery, albeit indirectly, when many of the houses nearby were connected to the underground railroad … thoughts??
Like all the living and deceased Omohundro’s, I would love for my children and me to go to our graves having finally discovered a proven origin of our name. Has there ever been an organized attempt to hire professional genealogist(s), here and abroad, to search records for Richard Omohundro and/or his descendants? I, for one, would be willing to work with others to see this happen. Contact me at email@example.com if there is any interest.
Thank you for your blog and updated information. I was lucky enough to purchase a 1st Edition on the Omohundro Genealogical Record book from a book store out East. The book is sign by M.H. to his cousin Nera Pettit, on July12, 1952, his 92 Birthday. Other personal letters by M.H. were also enclosed in the book. I come from the family of Mohundro’s in Western Kentucky. The story goes that M.H. met with my Grandfather Fenton Mohundro and his two brothers in Murray KY, back in 1951 to see if he would purchase his book. He decline….. I am lucky to be in possession of history.
See page 915 of THE RECORD! THE RECORD is available on-line as page images by way of the Library of Congress. My grandfather, Otis Lee Mohundro (author of Mohundro’s Notes on the Transportation Act of 1934) is a member of the Murray Kentucky Mohundro’s. Otis had 2 Daughters, ending that Mohundro Line. Otis’ brother, Elmus, was high school principal in Waco, Texas. I met his widow, son, and daughter. Son Sam had a son Sean, but I do not know if Sean kept the Mohundro name after Sam was killed in a traffic accident. I handled Otis’ copy of THE RECORD as recently as March of this year (2019) in Rolling Hills Estates, CA.
Bruce, I am Jenny Lynn (Parris) Mohundro, wife of Samuel Elmus Mohundro (deceased 1978). I believe you came to visit us in Waco on bicycle, tuning pianos and shearing sheep. Meta Pearl (Collie) Mohundro, wife of Elmus, died in 1980. My children are Sarah Lynn (Mohundro) Blacklock Contreras. She has a son by each marriage, Justin Michael Blacklock and Grant Donavan Contreras. My son, Shawn Michael Mohundro, recently died of colon cancer. He and his wife Gina (Gonzales) Mohundro have two sons, John Michael Mohundro and Jacob Charles Mohundro. None of the boys are yet married.
It may be of interest to you that the walnut bedroom suite made of the walnut trees retrieved from the Mohundro homeplace before property was flooded for the Kentucky Dam project, are in ownership of Shawn’s family. After my mother-in-law’s death, her daughter felt that the heirloom furniture should go to the male descendent who would carry the Mohundro name. Since he has two sons, the name and furniture has continued for another generation.
Silas Omohundro was my 4th generation great Grandfather and Corinna was my 4th generation Great Grandmother
I also have a copy of “The Book” and am interested in the history of the Omohundro name. E-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
I have recently inherited my paternal grandfather’s Omohundro book. It has been passed down through generations. I am a descendent of Thomas Duffy Omohundro. His father was William Omohundro Sr. Can anyone help me find more info. about that side of the bloodline? The book only goes back so far.
My Omohundro ancestor was Richard Omohundro born Sept 21 1683 and died July 12 1745. He married Mary Browning born 1690 in Virginia died 1737 in Virginia. Their daughter Mary Browning Omohundro married Joseph Pinson in 1732. Their son was named Richard Omohundro Pinson and he was born in Virginia in 1745. Anyone have other information on this line? Thank you if so.
Is there an implication that people are tarnished by the sins of forebears, including aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws? This seems wrong to me. I don’t think we bear any responsibility or taint for anything we didn’t do or approve of. I don’t understand the concept of someone having “a connection to slavery” when the person hadn’t even been born yet during the time when slavery existed.
I’m troubled by the importance to the activities attached to the activities of a person’s ancestors. M.H. did not build his fortune upon slavery, so what does it matter what his great-grandfather did? If a Klan member had an abolitionist ancestor, would that somehow make him less racist? Must we examine the pedigree of every donor to every charitable institition? People make their our own moral decisions and cannot be held responsible for the sins of their ancestors. To claim otherwise deprives us of agency and eliminates the possibility of redemption.
I quite agree with your assessment. A simple fact is that most 4th generation + white, Southern Americans have a history of slave ownership in their families; nearly all of those ancestors who plied the land did. That is undeniable. I like to think that the progeny of those slave owners have evolved, much as humanity evolves.
Having reas through the articles on this family and now this set of replies I am struck by the privilege that oozes through this discussion. Here is a prime example of the outcomes of wealth and power: a family with a richly developed family history that is deemed important enough (because of wealth) to be the subject of a Master’s thesis. Even as we deconstruct the past we privilege some families stories as “important” while ignoring others. I would guess that most Americans (black, brown, and white can not tell stories about their families more than two generations back. So we don’t really “know” our history – unless you think these powerless people don’t count.
The word “privilege” really bothers you, doesn’t it. I see you’ve even used it as a verb.
I wonder at your conclusion that a richly developed family history being deemed important enough to be the subject of a Master’s Thesis is because of “wealth?”
Hmmn. “Angela’s Ashes,” “Up From Slavery,” “Our House in the Last World” by Oscar Hijuelos.
I don’t think we privileged Americans are responsible for some Americans not knowing much about their family heritage. Who was it that said “Knowledge is power?”
Hello. I am doing some genealogy research and my Great Grandmother was Marie Omohundro born around 1907 in the St. Louis, MO area. Her parents were Jame and Esperanza Omohundro…both born in the 1880s. From what I have found so far, there were two brothers, James Henry and Frank Omohundro who were born in Missouri around 1880. I have not found anything back further than that, but there are still quite a few Omohundro’s in the St. Louis area. Does anyone see James or Frank in your books born around 1880? Any parental information/information as to where you can see a copy of the book would be appreciated! Thanks!