Rewriting the Biography: The Tragic Death of Phebe Sims

hebe was up earlier than usual to finish the daily chores before packing up half of the meal she’d prepared the night before. Barely forty years old and mother of eight children she wondered how she found the time to do all the things she needed to do during a day.

Sons William, just thirteen, and Martin, twelve, were already outside helping their father James. Elizabeth, eleven, was keeping the younger ones busy and would be caring for them while Phebe was away. Edward and John, eight and six, had been sent out, each with a bucket, to get water. Their mother knew as soon as she was gone they would slip out to the barn to play or to pester their father to let them help with the outside chores. They didn’t like to be cooped up in the house with their older sister and the babies.

Elizabeth could be trusted to keep Polly, three, out of mischief. Since the new baby’s birth, she was no longer the youngest and missed the attention she was used to getting.

Phebe sat in the rocking chair James had made her with the baby in her arms. She freed her breast from her bodice to feed Nancy Ann. While the baby suckled, her mother’s gaze took in the largest room of the tiny cabin. All seemed in order and as soon as Nancy Ann was finished she would be able to get on her way. After settling the baby in her crib, she wrapped a small triangular shawl around her shoulders and neck, tucking the ends into the low neckline of her bodice.

From a peg on the wall, she took her thick woolen hooded cloak. Her oldest child Jeremiah, sixteen, took it from her and draped it over her shoulders as she grabbed her riding gloves from the sideboard. Jeremiah was accompanying her on her visit to her neighbor and friend who was laid up with the same illness which had plagued the children of the family.

It was still early when they left the Sims cabin. Phebe’s horse carried her as well as the package with the stew for the family of her sick friend. Herbs she thought her friend would probably be running low on since the children had taken sick were bundled up in handkerchiefs and stashed away in the pockets hidden under her skirt.

Phebe and Jeremiah had decided to take the longer route crossing Jackson’s River at it’s narrowest and more shallow point. In the early morning hours, the lofty hills on both sides of the waterway were hidden by a rising mist.

As they approached the small cabin Phebe saw a man was busy hanging out the wash. Although the day promised to be sunny she knew the wash would be frozen stiff by the time he took it down later in the day. Her friend must not be doing well if her husband was doing the woman’s chores. Young Jeremiah would help the man with the barnyard chores while Phebe took care of the rest of the household tasks.

A fire was burning in the fireplace and the main room of the cabin was cozily warm. Loud noises were coming from the young ones being shushed by their sick mother.

Hours later Phebe reflected on the day as she once again wrapped the warm woolen cape around her old work dress of home-spun flax fiber and wool. Her skirt was full-flowing. She was glad to no longer have to wear hoops and had made the skirt with gathers around the waist instead of a bustle in the back. This made it much easier to ride horseback. She usually wore a wide sash around her waist but with all the work having to be done she’d worn an apron which covered the bodice and skirt. She’d lost much weight since the birth of Nancy Ann and the once tight long sleeves hung loosely to her wrists. She needed to take in the seams she’d let out during her pregnancy.

Jeremiah had fed and watered their horses in readiness for the ride home. Days were short and there had been more to do than expected. But her friend was on the mend and the rambunctious children didn’t appear sickly. Hopefully, their mother was the last of the household to be laid up. Phebe knew she would not have to come back to help and prayed her friend’s husband was immune to the illness. Men were never easy patients.

Phebe and Jeremiah mounted their horses. It was growing colder and both she and her son wanted to get home quickly. Nancy Ann would be fussing as she did not like to be fed by Elizabeth, enjoying the closeness to her mother in the evening hours.

Jeremiah slowly guided his horse into the river looking back to see his mother waiting on the bank. They were careful when fording the river. When her son was in the middle Phebe prodded her horse to enter the water. She walked it slowly and had barely reached the middle when the horse reared. Phebe held tight to the reins. The horse plunged forward kicking up its hind legs throwing Phebe into the icy water. Jeremiah had just arrived at the other bank and upon hearing the ruckus looked back. He saw his mother being pulled down under water by her heavy clothing. By the time he reached her, she had drowned.

John Dean, Sheriff of Bath County, called jurors to assist him in determining the cause of death of Phebe Sims. The twelve jurors were well-known in the county, several even being neighbors of the Sims family. William McClintic, although not known at the time, was the grandfather of Jeremiah’s future wife.

Sheriff Dean, who was also the coroner, met with the jurors in Widow Lewis’ two-roomed house on Wednesday, 22 January 1794. The seventy-two years old sheriff was grateful for the forethought of the court to have a warm room for the inquest proceedings. Bath County being young did not yet have a courthouse. During the first summer after formation of the county in December 1790 court proceedings were held under the large shade tree at the home of Margaret Lewis, the widow of Capt. John Lewis. Later in the year, they voted to pay Mrs. Lewis seven pounds for the use of her two-roomed house.1

John Dean and the jurors viewed the dead body of Phebe Sims. The jurors were charged to inquire on the part of the Commonwealth as to the manner in which she had come to her death. Obviously, they were satisfied with the when, where, how, and after what manner the death occurred as related to them by the only witness, her son Jeremiah. After hearing his testimony, the jurors delivered their conclusion concerning the cause of death to the coroner. “Phebe was accidently drowned occasioned by the horse whereon she rode rearing and plunging and throwing her into the water.

The above narrative is my depiction of my 5th great-grandmother Phebe’s last day. The coroner’s inquest took place in Bath County and I have taken the liberty to assume it may have been in the two-roomed house of Margaret Lewis.

The Coroner’s Inquisition

Closeup of the writing on the cover of the coroner’s inquisition report from Bath County, Virginia (photocopy of original)

Phebe Simms
Inquisition Taken
the 22nd of January
1794 Before John
Dean Gent. Coroner

Photocopy of original coroner’s inquisition from Bath County, Virginia, obtained before August 1995 through a professional genealogy researcher by Rose Mary Sims Rudy.

Bath County to wit

Inquisition indented taken at [place omitted] in the County aforesaid on the twenty second day of January in the year One thousand seven hundred and ninety four before me John Dean a Gentleman and of the Coroners of the Commonwealth for the County aforesaid upon view of the body of Phebe Sims late of said County then and there lying dead; and upon the Oathes of Robert Armstrong Jr., William Morris, John Scott, John Bird, Andrew Baurland, Thomas Barber, James Armstrong, Robert McClintic, William McClintic, John Somwalt, Paul Harpole and Adam Kimberlan, good and lawful men of the County aforesaid, who being Jurors and charged to inquire on the part of the Commonwealth, when where how and after what manner the said Phebe Sims came to her death, do say upon their Oathes, that the said Phebe was accidently drowned occasioned by the horse whereon she rode Rearing and plunging and throwing her into the water.

The witness whereof as well the aforesaid Coroner as the Jurors aforesaid
have in this Inquisition put their Seals on the day and year aforesaid
and at the place aforesaid.

 John Dean [sheriff and coroner]

[Jurors]
Robt. Armstrong

William Morris
John Scott
John Bird
Andr. Baurland
Thomas Barber
Jas. Armstrong
Robert McClintic
William McClintic
Johannes Zumqualt
Paul Harpole
Adam Kimberlan

A Son Accused

But the story would not end here. A few months later John SCOTT, one of the jurors who signed the coroner’s report, accused the sixteen years old Jeremiah of causing the death of his mother.

Photocopy of original record

A scrap of paper with Jeremiah written in the upper right corner includes the following written by James SIMS to Col. Charles CAMERON:

Sir Please to Issue a Writ vs John Scott for saying my son was the Dam son of a Bitch that Drowned his Mother
[signed] Jas Sims
[to] Col C. Cameron

James defended his son and requested damages of one hundred pounds. Charles CAMERON issued an order for the sheriff to bring in John SCOTT on the second Tuesday of May in 1794 to hear the charges.

Photocopy of original record

Cover sheet:
Issued for Saying that Jeremiah Simms was the Damd Son of a Bitch that Drowned his Mother

Photocopy of original record

Inside:
The Commonwealth of Virginia, to the Sheriff of Bath County, Virginia:
You are hereby commanded to take John Scott
if he be found within your bailiwick, and him safely keep so that you have his body before the justices of our court, of our said county, at the court-house on the Second Tuesday in May next to answer Jeremiah Simms by James Simms his father and next friend of a plea of Trespass on the Case Damage one Hundred pounds.
and have then there this writ, witness CHARLES CAMERON, clerk of our said court, at the court-house, the 16th day of April 1794 in the 18th year of the Commonwealth.
Signed: Chas Cameron

It is not known if James SIMS or his son Jeremiah ever received damages from John SCOTT.

The case in Judgment – Simms vs Scott was located in a file of old law cases for 1795 by Constance Corley Metheney, a professional genealogist. Mrs. Metheney sent photocopies of the original records to Rose Mary Sims Rudy in August 1995. She had previously found the coroner’s report for Rose Mary and wrote, “This does verify that the wife of James Simms had drowned and in this case it seems that John Scott had accused the son, Jeremiah Simms.”

The Years After Phebe’s Death

James, who was left with eight children aged between 16 and a few months, waited over two years to marry again. His young bride, Elizabeth COTTON, was likely only about 15 when they married in October 1796. She did not bear him a child who lived until around 1801, five years after they married. Was she too young or did she miscarry or lose babies before giving James eight children? Or did James leave his children from his first marriage in her care for a longer period of time while he went to Kanawha County to look into purchasing land and readying for the move to the area in 1800?

In the next installment, I will analyze the census records found for James SIMS Jr., the oldest child of James SIMS and his second wife Elizabeth COTTON.

Rewriting the Biography is an ongoing theme for the rough draft notes of a new/updated biography of my 5th great-grandfather James SIMS (1754-1845) of Nicholas County.

© 2018, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.


  1. Morton, Oren F. Annals of Bath County. Staunton, Va., The McClure co., inc, 1917. (https://archive.org/stream/annalsofbathcoun00mort#page/108/mode/2up/search/lewis : accessed 13 June 2018) 

Slave Name Roll Project: RELEASING: Mary, Isaac, Charles, and John

I’m rewriting the biography of my ancestor James Sims. The first set of documents being perused are the census. As I study the pre-1850 census listings of my 5th great-grandfather and his children, I’m paying close attention to ALL persons in the households including enslaved persons.

James Sims was known to have had slaves. They were featured in my three-part series on the slaves of James Sims during Black History Month in February 2015. Today on the anniversary of these posts, I would like to feature four more enslaved persons found in a Sims household.

RELEASING Kate, Isaac, Charles, and John

James’ oldest son Jeremiah Sims had three colored persons in his household in Clark County, Ohio, in 1820.1 The headings of the columns are nearly impossible to read and do not match up with the census extraction form for 1820.2 There are too few columns for Slaves and Free Colored Persons. On the page with Jeremiah’s entry, there are two columns with the numbers 2 and 1 – separated by a double line. Could this be to distinguish the number of slaves from free colored persons? Or male from female? The ages and gender of these persons cannot be obtained from the sheet due to the lack of columns. Who are these people?

1820 U.S. Federal Census, Ohio, Clark, German Township, Jeremiah Sims

The answer may lie in the history of Ohio. Slavery was abolished in Ohio by the state’s original constitution when it was formed in 1803. Jeremiah did not settle in Ohio until about 1804. The 1810 census for Ohio with the exception of the county of Washington is lost. This means no record of Jeremiah having slaves in 1810. Who could these people be and were they free or enslaved?

Jeremiah Sims’ Relationship to Thomas Milhollin

Jeremiah was married to Sarah Milhollin, daughter of Thomas Milhollin and Jane McClintic, on 26 November 1800.3 Her mother Jane died about 1801 and her father was living at the time Jeremiah and Sarah went to Ohio around 1804. When did Thomas Milhollin die? Did he own slaves? Did he leave a will?

The Will and Codicil

The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Milhollin
The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Milhollin

The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Milhollin dated 21 September 1818 was witnessed by Charles Cameron and Charles L. Francisco.4 It was probated in Bath County, Virginia, in the December Court 1818. Executors were Charles Cameron, Robert Kincaid, and Charles L. Francisco. Thomas made the following bequests:

  • All private property (except slaves) to be sold together with the gristmill, sawmill and everything pertaining thereto
  • To daughter Mary all other lands adjoining part sold, with the gristmill, sawmill, and everything pertaining thereto. Daughter Mary to pay executors $200 within two years
  • To Mary featherbed and furniture already claimed by her, all cow beasts claimed by her, falling leaf table and small trunk
  • To son Thomas all other lands, including the part he lives on, son Thomas to pay executors $300 within two years
  • Executors to pay $100 each to sons William and Patrick and to daughter Elizabeth
  • To daughter Sarah $500 “this I give her in compliance with a promise made at the request of her mother”
  • Executors to pay son William $100 to be applied in schooling a son of Mary Akeman’s (now Mary Hoover) which son Andrew was said to be a child of my son Patrick, on condition of the mother’s consent and the child being bound to son William
  • (see Bequest Concerning Slaves below)
  • Balance to daughters Sarah and Margaret and to John Milhollin, a natural son of daughter Esther, dec, who now lives with my brother Patrick Milhollin

Codicil to the will: two tracts being purchased from John Bollar are also to be sold. Dated 8 November 1818 and witnessed by Charles and Rachel Cameron.

The Inventory

The Inventory of the Estate of Thomas Milhollin
The Inventory of the Estate of Thomas Milhollin

The Inventory of the Estate of Thomas Milhollin was submitted on 18 December 1818 by Adam Givin, Charles Cameron, B. Thomson, and Alexander McClintic.5 It included the following items: cart, farm implements, tools, kitchen furniture, saddle and saddle bags and pair of stillards, household furniture, shoemakers tools, gun and shot pouch, old books, wearing apparel, hemp, rye, broke flax, barrels, still, 2 axle tres, oats, wheat, corn, 5 stacks of hay, 13 hogs, 3 horses, 19 cattle, and Negroes named Kate, Isaac, Charles, and John.

Section in the inventory with the names of the enslaved persons

In the middle of page 233 we find:

1 Negro Woman named Kate 150.00
1 negro boy named Isaac 500.00
1 negro boy named Charles 400.00
1 negro boy named John 250.00

The Sale of the Estate

The Sale of the Estate of Thomas Milhollin

The sale of the estate was on 8 December 1818.6 Three pages of items with the names of the buyers and the price they paid. The enslaved persons were not sold.

A Bequest Concerning Slaves

Thomas Milhollin made the following bequest in his last will and testament concerning the slaves found in his inventory.

As it is my desire that my slaves to wit. Kate and her three children Isaac, Charles, and John, should not be retained in Slavery after my decease I will and direct that my daughter Mary and my son Thomas out of the legacies left them do furnish my said slaves Kate and her three children with two suits of strong new cloths and with money necessary for conveying them to the state of Ohio and that my said son Thomas carry them there and deliver them to my son-in-law Jeremiah Sims and that said Jeremiah Sims bind the said Isaac, Charles, and John to learn some trade agreeable to the Laws of that commonwealth until they severally arrive to the age of twenty one years, at which time it is my will that they be free and that the said Jeremiah Sims have and enjoy the services of the said Kate until her residence there under the laws of that state and my will now intitle her to her freedom and also should it be necessary upon the introduction of my said slaves into the State of Ohio to pay any tax to the commonwealth it is my will that the said Jeremiah Sims pay the same out of the legacies left by me to his wife Sarah.

The three children were to be bound to Jeremiah Sims to learn a trade until the age of 21, then freed. Kate was to work for Jeremiah Sims until freed under the laws of Ohio.

1820 U.S. Federal Census, Ohio, Clark, German Township, Jeremiah Sims

On the 1820 census, three persons of color were in the Sims household in Germantown in Clark County, Ohio. Were they the three sons of Kate? Two sons and Kate? Was Kate living in a different household? Had Isaac already reached the age of 21 and freed?

By 1830 Jeremiah was deceased and his widow Sarah had her own household with 2 sons and a daughter. Next door was her son William. Her oldest son Thomas who had married in 1822 has not been located in 1830. Sarah and William did not have slaves or free colored persons in their household.

Is it possible Jeremiah Sims, who died in 1824, left a will including bequests concerning the young men bound to him?

The Last Will and Testament of Jeremiah Sims

On 8 January 1824, Jeremiah Sims wrote his last will and testament.7 No mention was made of slaves. There was, however, a codicil to the will.

Codicil to the Last Will and Testament of Jeremiah Sims

I, Jeremiah Sims, do further add this codicil to my last will and testament, that is to say, it is my will that the two coulered boys living in my family to wit Charles and John shall be bound out at the discretion of my executors aforesaid. Witness my hand and seal to this day above written (8 January 1818). Jeremiah Sims
Saul Henkle
John Callison
James Callison

By 1824, it would appear that Isaac had reached the age of 21 or for some other reason was no longer living in the family of Jeremiah Sims. Charles and John had likely not yet reached the age of 21.

Jeremiah Sims did not include surnames for the two young men living in his family. What surname or surnames did Kate, Isaac, Charles, and John choose to use? Did they remain in Clark County, or even in Ohio?

This was written in hopes of the names of Kate and her sons Isaac, Charles, and John being familiar to a descendant searching for them.

True's statementFollowing my three-part series on the slaves of my 5th great grandfather James Sims during Black History Month in February 2015 I made a commitment to write a post on a monthly basis until I’ve RELEASED all of the names of slaves owned by my ancestors or owned by persons I’ve researched who were relatives or neighbors of my ancestors.

These posts are part of the Slave Name Roll Project (About the Project) administered by Schalene Jennings Dagutis who also blogs at Tangled Roots and Trees.

© 2018, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.


  1. 1820 U.S. Federal Census, (index and images), Ancestry, citing Fourth Census of the United States, 1820 population schedule, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., NARA microfilm publication M33, 142 rolls, NARA Roll M33_88, image 33, page 18, Ohio, Clark, Green, German, image 3 of 3, line 41. Jeremiah Sims (ancestry.com : accessed 21 February 2018). 
  2. Ancestry.com, U.S. Census Forms, 1820 census, https://c.mfcreative.com/pdf/trees/charts/1820.pdf 
  3. Eliza Warwick Wise, Bath County Marriage Bonds and Ministers Returns 1791-1853 (Bath County Historical Society, Inc. 1978). 
  4. “Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1652-1983,” (images), Ancestry.com, citing original data of Virginia County, District, and Probate Courts, Bath Will Books, Vol 1-3, 1791-1830; Vol 2, pages 229-232, images 439-440 of 746. Last Will and Testament of Thomas Milhollin. (Ancestry.com : accessed 25 February 2018). 
  5. Ibid., pages 232-233, images 440-441 of 746. Inventory of Estate of Thomas Milhollin. (Ancestry.com : accessed 25 February 2018). 
  6.  Ibid., pages 236-238, images 442-443 of 746. Sale of the estate of Thomas Milhollin. (Ancestry.com : accessed 25 February 2018). 
  7. “Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998,” (index and images), Ancestry.com, citing original data from Ohio County, District and Probate Courts,, Clark Wills, Vol A1, 1819-1835; Vol 2, 1835-1855, p 94-96, images 56-57 of 565. 1824 Last Will and Testament of Jeremiah Sims and Codicil. (Ancestry.com : accessed 26 February 2018).