Did you ever wonder why the largest Negro town in West Virginia happens to be located on Kanawha River nine miles west of Charleston?
The reason is one of the most remarkable love stories in the history of the state.
A rich plantation owner chose one of his slaves for his lifelong mate, had 13 children by her, and finally was killed by angry white neighbors -- but not before he took elaborate legal steps to guarantee that his black woman and brown children would inherit all his money and land.
They did, and the former slave plantation eventually turned into the academic community of Institute.
Strangely, the story isn't recorded in any West Virginia history book, even though it was a minor sensation at the end of the Civil War.
Skimpy bits of the tale can be found in century-old handwritten records filed away in the chambers of the Kanawha County clerk and circuit clerk.
The central figure was Samuel I. Cabell, a wealthy pioneer with a strong will and a strong temper. One record in the courthouse says he was born in Georgia; some descendants say family stories indicate he was born in England. Wherever he came from, there's little doubt he was part of the powerful Cabell family of Virginia that produced generals, congressmen, a governor and countless judges and bankers. Cabell County is named for the Virginia governor.
One hearsay family account says Samuel Cabell acquired many slaves in tideland Virginia, crossed over the mountains to the Kanawha Valley, and worked his slaves for a while in pioneer salt operations.
One of his slaves was Mary Barnes, apparently a young black woman of some physical charm. In the manner of many slaveholders, Cabell took her for his own and began fathering mulatto children.
But unlike other slaveowners, he didn't merely use her as one slave bedmate among many, and then ignore both her and the children that resulted. Instead, he evidently became devoted to her, remained loyal to her all his life, accepted her children proudly, and went to great lengths to guarantee that they had full legal rights as his sons and daughters.
He wrote four different wills to protect his dark-skinned family, and also filed papers setting each member free from slavery. All five documents remain today in aged yellow books at the courthouse, written in the ornate script of a court scrivener.
The earliest will is dated Nov. 24, 1851. It says Cabell had no real estate at that time, so he apparently was living somewhere in Kanawha County and using his slaves in industrial work.
The will provided that all his slaves were to be hired out for work for six years after his death, then set free. All, that is, except one select group:
"...My woman, Mary Barnes, together with all her children... I do hereby give their freedom to take effect immediately at my death, and they aren't to be considered as included among the slaves before-mentioned...."
He ordered all his personal wealth, and all the money earned by hiring out his other slaves, to be divided among Mary and her children.
The next record in the courthouse is a property deed dated April 8, 1853, showing that Cabell paid $10,500 for 967 acres of rich Kanawha River bottomland encompassing everything between what is now West Dunbar and Sattes. (It was part of a tract once granted to George Washington by the king of England, then regranted to Washington by the governor of Virginia after the Revolution, then left to Martha Washington after George's death, and finally divided among various inheritors.)
Cabell moved his Negro mate and children and his slaves to his new land and began a plantation.
The next record is the partiarch's second will, dated April 6, 1858. It seems to imply he was worried he might be killed, and that Mary and the children might be sold into slavery if he were. The will begins:
"In the event of sudden demise, this instrument of writing is intended to show or make known that Mary Barnes and all her children -- namely, Elizabeth, Sam, Lucy, Mary Jane, Sidney Ann, Soula, Eunice, Alice, Marina (or Bobby), Braxton, and an infant not named -- are and always have been free, as I have every right to believe they are my children. I want and it is my will that they shall be educated out of... all the moneys, bonds, debts due me, land, stocks, farming utensils and household to be equally divided between them."
Five months later, in a county deed book (slaves were property, remember) it is recorded that Cabell officially set free Mary and the 11 children. The infant had been named Betty by then. (Two more sons, William Clifford and James B., eventually were born.)
Next, still another will was written May 9, 1859. In it Cabell repeated his earlier wishes and spelled out individual cash awards ranging from $2,000 to $3,500 which he wanted bestowed on each child. Some of the daughters had married by this time.
Finally, on Sept. 12, 1863 -- during the Civil War -- the plantation owner wrote an angry codicil which said:
"I hereby revoke this testament and will as to the slave portion. Those that have absconded and those taken away by the Federal Army shall not receive anything and they shall never be released from bondage during their lives. All property and moneys and debts due me shall be given to Mary Barnes and children equally after paying the board and schooling of the six youngest until they arrive of age."
The old man's temper, or his unusual marital status, or something, apparently drew him into conflict with white residents of the valley. In the aged records of Kanawha County Circuit Court, it's written that Cabell was indicted April 5, 1864, on a charge of "intimidating a public officer." But he was released upon pledging to be peaceable thereafter.
The next county record is a single line in a death book:
"(Name) Samuel I. Cabell, (date of death) July 18, 1865, (location) Kanawha River, (cause) murdered, (age) about 60, (parents) ----, (place of birth) Georgia, (consort) ----, (occupation) farmer."
A weekly Charleston newspaper of that day, the West Virginia Journal, was a fiery abolitionist sheet that regularly devoted its front page to poetry, sermons and demands for the hanging of all "rebel conspirators" such as "the arch-traitor, Robert E. Lee." On page 3 of its July 26, 1865, issue (as recorded on microfilm in the State Department of Archives and History), it reported:
"THE KILLING OF SAMUEL I. CABELL
"The community here was thrown into considerable excitement on last Thursday evening, by the report of the death of Samuel I. Cabell, a bitter and open rebel who lived some nine miles below Charleston.
"Seven have been arrested. Their names are Allen Spradling, Andrew Jackson Spradling, Mark L. Spradling, Stark B. Whittington, Lawrence Whittington, William Whittington and Christopher Williams.
"The rumors of the causes leading to this crime are so contradictory that it is impossible to give any reliable statement of the facts; but if, as the friends of the deceased maintain, the act was a premeditated murder, the guilty party should be punished to the full extent of the law. We have always held up the law as the true guide, and nothing can justify its violation.
"On the other hand, it is held by friends of the prisoners that they had been subjects of repeated insults on account of their loyalty to the Union, and that they went to his house for the purpose of telling him they would put up with them no longer, when, getting excited, Cabell jumped over the fence flourishing his knife, and he was shot in self-defense.
"We can express no opinion, however, until the evidence is revealed."
Unfortunately, the evidence never is revealed -- not in any remaining public record. In its next issue, the West Virginia Journal gives no facts, only polemics:
"...It was established, we believe, that it wasn't a premedidated murder. The charge that the 'Union League' is responsible for Cabell's death contains about as much truth as that the Union men of this country are 'blood-thirsty,' etc. The society spoken of is distinctly a UNION society. Its purposes are LAWFUL and its members LAW-ABIDING."
Later editions merely report that all seven defendants were acquitted, by juries that deliberated only a few minutes in each case. Official records in the circuit clerk's office report simply that the accused men were found innocent.
Folklore around Institute says Cabell was killed because of white resentment toward his integrated family life. But there's no record to confirm it.
It's possible that the white community may not even have been aware of Cabell's personal life -- he may have appeared to be only a bachelor farmer living with his slave workers -- because the wills which claim Mary and the children weren't brought to the courthouse and filed until after his death.
In December, 1865, Kanawha County commissioners ruled that the wills were valid. (Folklore says white relatives of Cabell tried to break the wills, but no court record shows it. There's no mention of it in circuit court or State Supreme Court records, and the county commissioner records for that period are missing.)
At this point, another rich, white Cabell enters the records. Charleston banker-farmer-salt manufacturer Napoleon Bonaparte Cabell, founder of an influential Kanawha Valley family, was named legal guardian for the youngest six of Samuel Cabell's mulatto children. Descendants say Napoleon was either Samuel's brother or his cousin -- exact family records have been lost. Neither man is listed in the famous family's genealogy, a thick volume titled The Cabells and their Kin.
(Napoleon Cabell apparently was as fiery as Samuel. Napoleon died in 1889, and his will in the county records is a ferocious one. He disinherited two daughters who married against his wishes, calling one of the sons-in-law "no better than a thief.... He swindled me out of about $2,000." As for his wife, Napoleon recorded that she "never brought a farthing along" when he married her.)
Other county records tell the rest of the story.
In 1869, Mary Barnes petitioned the county commissioners to change her and her children's name to Cabell. In 1870, the commissioners divided the Cabell land among the mother and children, glvmg each a strip from the river to the hill. In 1871, executors reported that the Cabell estate was worth $42,128 -- a considerable fortune a century ago, equivalent to at least a half-million dollars today.
Before he was killed, Samuel Cabell had striven to give his children the best possible education. There were no schools for Negroes in West Virginia, so he sent them to a private academy in Ohio. The practice continued after his death, and the youngsters grew to be an 1870s rarity: educated, professional-class Negroes. Some were doctors, some became teachers.
Some of the children settled in other states. Some returned to the family homestead in Kanawha County. Those who remained here became leaders among the growing number of residents as the plantation gradually evolved into a town.
The community was called, at different times, "Cabell Farm" and "Piney Grove." Is was one of the few places where freed slaves could live in peace. Even though West Virginia was a Union state, many white residents of the valley despised Negroes. The 1870s newspapers tell of harassment such as beatings by mobs and petitions seeking to ban Negroes from the county.
In 1890, Congress passed a law saying certain benefits would be denied to states that didn't educate Negroes -- so, in 1891, the West Virginia Legislature passed an act creating the "West Virginia Colored Institute." A site was sought, but several communities, including St. Albans, angrily rejected offers to become the home of the black institution.
Finally, according to John C. Harlan's History of West Virginia State College, Gov. Aretas B. Fleming and his staff boarded a boat and chugged down Kanawha River looking for a site. At the Negro colony nine miles downriver, they were met by black residents who welcomed the idea.
Samuel Cabell's daughter Marina sold the state a 30-acre tract for $2,250, and other lots gradually were purchased until an 80-acre campus was acquired. (Marina became postmaster of the town, and was said to be the first Negro woman in the United States to hold such a position.)
The town was named Institute, and kept the name even though the "Colored Institute" later was given other titles and finally evolved into West Virginia State College.
Mary Barnes Cabell died in 1900, an 85-year-old great-grandmother revered by her clan. She was buried in a little family cemetery alongside her slain mate. His tombstone, already weathered by then, indicates he was 63 years old when he was killed, and it spells his name "Cabble," one of the pre-Civil War variants of the name. Two of their daughters are buried in the same cemetery.
Many of the descendants have dispersed, but two granddaughters -- Miss Ruth Holt Cabell and Mrs. Gwen Carter -- still live in Institute, as do a number of great-grandchildren.
Today's Institute is a jam-packed academic and industrial center. In addition to the college, it has the Carbide chemical plant, the dormant Goodrich-Gulf plant, the state vocational rehabilitation center, the state police training academy, and a couple of hundred homes that have become racially integrated with scattered white occupants.
Hardly noticed in the bustle is the final refuge of the two people who started it all. The little Cabell Cemetery has been surrounded by the buildings and driveways of the vocational rehabilitation center. A lone tree bends over the graves of the murdered plantation owner and his beloved former slave woman.
(A Gazette article read at the annual meeting of the West Virginia State Historical Society, Charleston, Oct. 3, 1970, and published in the society's quarterly journal.)