It is suspected that many young people living today will never reach the ripe old age of 105 years old if they have to follow the formula for longevity as set forth by Aunt Ellen J. Miller, who was born in slavery and now owns a 100 acre farm near Markham in Pittsylvania County. When asked to what she owed her long life she said in a clear steady voice, “My chile, I always worked hard, 'et lot of corn bread and fried meat and 'beyed the Lord.”
“Aunt Ellen,” as she is known to her friends and neighbors, which include many white people who come to hear her tell about the olden days, was born as a slave on the farm of John Easley, near Ringgold, who was the owner of 30 other slaves. She does not exactly know the date of her birth, but she recalls that she was 19 years old when General Lee surrendered [editor's note: the 1880 census gives her age as 30, making her birth year 1850 — but the census records are not always correct]. She relates that she was a house girl in the Easley home, but also did much work, weeding corn and tobacco, and during the [Civil W]ar days she was taught carding to make clothing for the Confederate soldiers.
Asked how she was treated by her owners, she told that she received good treatment because she was a good worker, but explained [that] she had seen some of the other slaves whipped.
During the war days Aunt Ellen recalls the hardships and said that she remembers [that] she never got a pair of shoes except at Christmas, and when they wore out, she went barefooted until Christmas again.
Her father was taken off to fire the boiler on a steam boat in the Confederate Navy, and she said Jim Scott from Pittsylvania was the commander of the boat. [Editor's note: I have not yet found records of a Confederate boat that matches this description; if anyone has information, please share it.]
When the war came to an end, Aunt Ellen stated that it was not long afterward that some ‘Yankee men' came to the Easley farm and told the slaves that they were free, and were no longer under ‘bondage of slavery.' She says [that] they were scared and did not know what to do. She stayed on through the crop season and that fall her aunt took her to Danville. In Danville, Aunt Ellen stated [that] she was hired to do housework for Dr. Billie Green and later Dr. William Boyd. Then her father came and she stated [that] he took her to the Witcher place near Markham, and at Christmas time of 1865 she married John Miller. They had eight children [Susan, Sarah, Louisa, John, Mary E., Bettie, Iverson, and Nannie], only two of whom are still living [as of 1949], Mrs. Nannie V. Clark, of Long Side, New York, and Iverson Miller who lives on the farm of his mother at Markham. There are 150 grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren. Her husband died 39 years ago.
By the help of his wife and children before [her husband] died, he was able to by a 100 acre farm that formerly belonged to Will Petty and Nat Witcher. Aunt Ellen still lives alone in the neatly kept log cabin, and although her daughter-in-law, who lives only a short distance away, brings her meals she still insist[s] on working in the garden. She also tends her chickens, brings water from the spring and does some sewing. Her voice is clear and steady, she has a strong memory, does not use glasses when she sews, and has never dipped snuff.
Though she cannot read, she keeps a Bible close at hand, and often is seen fondly holding it and looking at the Lord's Word. For 70 years she has been a member of the Baptist Church and has attended services regularly even in the latter years.
Last week she was taken ill and the doctor put her to bed, but she still thinks about the time when she will get back to looking after her chickens and the other work around the house.
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County
Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books
Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
Melton: Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills
Melton: Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills
Melton: Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On
Melton: Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse
Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town
This article is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1949–2005 The Pittsylvania Star and The Star-Tribune.