Over time, family surnames changed for one reason or another. Sometimes it is due to illiteracy in American English, and sometimes it is self-imposed to evade something or someone. For many African Americans, it was essential to put some distance between their wardens or distant white relatives. Adding a “t” to Johnson, for example, gave the family a new identity: Johnston, an instant clean break from the past.
For the Ailstock family, the culprit was the illiteracy of American record keepers. Around 1870, their name took on a new phonetic spelling: Hailstalk, and voilà, an instant disconnection from the past. Fortunately, the records of the original spelling have survived to tell this story about a patriotic family whose origins hail from Angola. The patriarch of the Hailstalk family in Fredericksburg is Prince Kimbundu Ailstock. He was born about 1700 in the Angolan Kingdom of Ndongo, where the Kimbundu people still live. Like most early Africans who arrived here, he spoke in his Bantu-Kikongo language. According to Dr. Robert Slenes, the indentured Angolans of the 17th century gave themselves a new name that told how they came to be in the New World in just one word: Melungeon. He suggests that Melungeon comes from the Bantu-Kikongo word malungu, which means “great canoe” or “Mother canoe”.
Prince Kimbundu was free to marry Margaret (nee Cosword/Cowherd), and from that marriage, they had one son, Michael, born about 1724 in Hanover County. The precise location today would be near the Northeast Creek in Louisa County. Michael and his wife, who was also his second cousin, Rebecca Goins, once owned 353 acres of land in Louisa and had the following children together: Absalom, John, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Michael, Jr., Susanna, William, Charles, Lucy, and James. Generations of Ailstocks benefited from the freedom to move, own, litigate, and marry since their forefather Prince Kimbundu arrived in the Virginia colony, as would be expected.
What was not expected was for anyone in the collective Ailstock family to volunteer to fight for the freedom of American colonists, considering the conditions under which the prince first arrived, not to mention the social and political conditions they endured with their “free” status. However, they believed that freedom was worth defending even though all around them, their African brothers and sisters were swollen with the discomfort of American exceptionalism. They proved their fidelity to the idea of freedom as a human concept that belonged to everyone regardless of status.
Listed in the United States Revolutionary War Rolls (1775-1783), Michael Sr. served in the 6th Regiment as a drummer for two (2) years. His 16-year-old son Charles enlisted in 1776 as a gunner in the 3rd Virginia Regiment and was officially discharged in 1780. Just a few years later, when the first attack on the U.S. Capital occurred, Charles and his younger brother James enlisted in the 6th Regiment during the War of 1812. The pension records for Revolutionary War soldiers show that Michael’s son, Absalom, applied for and began receiving his pension in 1837, some 53 years after the Revolutionary War.
He was initially denied a pension due to a technicality, not of his own doing: he was discharged 4 or 5 days before the minimum eligibility date to receive his retirement without issue like all other soldiers. After submitting his sworn statement supported by others who served with him, he began receiving his whopping $22.78 per year pension at the age of 70. In 1849, he asked the government for an increase in his pension because he felt slighted that all his work during the war was not adequately compensated. He specifically referred to the back-breaking ditches he dug pre-the Siege of Yorktown that General George Washington handily won.
After the Revolutionary War, the Ailstock family began moving away from Louisa. Sadly, they began moving because patriotism wasn’t enough to change the laws, behaviors and attitudes toward people of African descent; they still had to endure the indecencies of ungratefulness. So they moved. Some moved into Caroline, Rockbridge, Culpeper, King George, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg was an attractive lure for entrepreneurs from every walk of life. Locals like John H. Hailstalk took advantage of the economic opportunities as a cooper with his shop located near the 1300 block of Charles Street. Though a cooper by trade, he also had side hustles, like his gift for drumming. As an unofficial member of the Fredericksburg local militia, he was affectionately known around town as “Captain John” because he had once been in charge of a canal boat in the Fredericksburg Canal. Moreover, when the white soldiers were practicing for the Mexican – American War in 1846 or responding to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Captain John gave them the music-inspired sendoff they needed. During the War Against the States, John was temporarily captured by a confederate press gang and forced to cook for their officers. After his release, he learned to hide in the woods anytime the gangs were in town.
Prince Kimbundu’s descendants arrived in Fredericksburg as early as 1826 and have lived here ever since. The contributions these generational American patriots made to the betterment of our nation is an extraordinary example of how to make lemonade out of lemons. While the family stands out for their civic duties, they also made cultural contributions to our everyday language. They learned the English language, and in some small ways, we learned theirs too.
|Red “sweet potato”||Nyambi||Yam|
Coder Fitzgerald, Ruth. A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, Virginia. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn, 1979.
Heinegg, Paul. Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina: From the Colonial Period to about 1820. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield, 2007.
Slenes, Robert. Mother Canoe: Revisiting Malungu – Central-African Archetypes for the Middle Passage (April 8, 2013). https://ssrn.com/abstract=2247108.
About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD
Dr. Royster is the CEO and Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice. Her publication, African Abolitionist T. J. Alexander on the Ohio and Indiana Underground Railroads, examines the life of her ancestors who assisted thousands of self-emancipating Africans in their quest for liberty.