Mystery Monday – Sally Bell

On 19 January 1829, James Roche,of Charles County, Maryland sold two of his slaves to Obadiah B. Brown of Washington, DC. Given the time period and the close proximity of Charles County to the District of Columbia, this wasn’t an unusual sale, but Roche added a little more detail to his bill than is normally found.

At the request of James Roche the following Bill of Sale was recorded the 21st day of January Anno Domini 1829 –

Know all men by these presents that I James Roche of Charles County Maryland have this nineteenth day of January one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine, sold conveyed and confirmed and do hereby sell convey and confirm unto Obadiah B. Brown of Washington in the District of Columbia for and in consideration of the sum of three hundred and fifteen dollars to me in hand paid the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, my coloured woman slave named Sally Bell aged about thirty years and also the daughter of said Sally named Kitty aged about three years, said Sally is the wife of Simon, a slave of Gen’l John P Vanness of Washington aforesaid and said Kitty is the youngest child of said Simon & Sally. I do moreover hereby warrant and defend to said Brown the sole and entire property in said slaves against all claims from me or under me or any other person-

Witness John Rathbone
Thomas B. Brown

James Roche

The mystery here is “why did James Roche add the details of Sally Bell’s husband?”

General John Peter Van Ness represented New York’s 6th district in the United States Congress from 6 October 1801 until 17 January 1803, during which time he married the wealthy Washington heiress Marcia Burns and was appointed a major in the District of Columbia militia by Thomas Jefferson. Mr and Mrs. Van Ness made their home on Constitution Avenue between 17th and 18th streets, near the cottage where Marcia’s father, Davey Burns, had lived. This home has been demolished and in it’s place is the headquarters of the Organization of American States (recognizable to genealogists as the building next to the DAR library). In 1830 John P. Van Ness became the Mayor of the City of Washington.

Obadiah B. Brown appears to be the Reverend Obadiah Bruen Brown who served as both Chaplain of the House and Chaplain of the Senate, and was the pastor of the First Baptist Church, on 10th street in Washington for forty three years. The Rev. Brown was instrumental in the founding of Columbia College (now George Washington University), and a manager of the American Colonization Society. He was also a member of The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, as was John Peter Van Ness.

Was James Roche simply name dropping, or had Rev. O. B. Brown sought out Sally Bell and Kitty so that the family could be reunited in Washington? Was the family reunited? How had they become separated in the first place? If Kitty, at three years old, was the youngest child of Sally and Simon, had the family been separated for all of that time? How many other children were there? Where were those other children? Did the family emigrate to Liberia?



“Charles County Court (Land Records)” index and digital images, Maryland State Archives ( accessed 23 February 2015), image copy, James Roche to Obadiah B. Brown Bill of Sale, dated 19 January 1829, Charles County Deeds, Book IB 18: 218-219.

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