Ellen “Nelly” Van Vactor’s headstone states that she was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1762; most of the official records, however, put her birth closer to 1780. She had two children: Ery Van Vactor (1802-1850) and Alfred V. Thompson (~1818- UNK). She was reportedly emancipated by Benjamin Van Vactor II before they moved to Greeneville, Tennessee sometime between 1817 and 1818. There was no emancipation certificate for her in Virginia records to substantiate this claim, but her life story suggests that it could be true.
Legitimate speculation abounds among some researchers concerning the relationship between Nelly and Van Vactor. The two most compelling reasons for this speculation comes from Van Vactor himself. The first reason is found in an October 29, 1822 court filing. Van Vactor filed an emancipation petition in the Greene County Courthouse on behalf of Ery and her sons, Jackson and William. In his affidavit, Van Vactor was adamant that Ery was born in his Greeneville home and that he raised her. He wanted the court approve his request to liberate because he did not want them to be “anyone else’s property.” There is nothing out of place with the process that Van Vactor followed. Each prison warden had to go through the ritual of filing official requests in court to legalize natural freedoms endowed by birth.
The timeline of key events concerning the early life of Nelly and her children is less clear-cut than the legal process Van Vactor ensued. If the timeframe of when Nelly and Van Vactor arrived in Greeneville is correct, then Van Vactor’s plea was misleading because Ery was born 15 years before the move is said to have occurred. There could be a logical explanation for the discrepancy, but that was not the most glaring detail to come out of Van Vactor’s filings: Nelly was not mentioned in the request. Of course, if she had been liberated before 1822, there was no need to include her; however, the laws of the land were clear: the child’s “condition” was the same as the mother. If Nelly was not legally bound to Van Vactor at the time Ery was born in 1802, then, by law, Ery’s legal status was free as were her children. Suffice it to say, there was no need for Van Vactor to file the petition—unless he had another reason to protect Ery’s interests.
The second reason for the speculation concerning the relationship between Nelly and Van Vactor was Van Vactor’s Last Will and Testament filed on November 25, 1822. In no more than 108 words, he achieved what took J.R. Ewing a whole season to accomplish in the television drama series Dallas. On page one of the Will, it read in part,
“I give and bequeath unto my son Joseph Van Vactor the sum of five dollars of good and lawful money to be raised and levied out of my estate; will to my Daughter Curtitue five dollars wife of Charles Porter, and also to my Daughter Phoebe, wife of Joseph Melvin Dec’d her heirs not to have any part of the five dollars which I bequeath to her my said daughter Phoebe.”
Van Vactor admitted in the October filing that he was a sufficiently wealthy man, so leaving the modern equivalent of $125 to each of his children was overtly stingy. In addition to the paltry five bucks, he underscored that he did not want Phoebe’s children to get one shiny penny of the money he left to her. Perhaps his mention of Phoebe was facetious because she died a year earlier, in 1821.
If Van Vactor’s feelings were not explicit enough on page one of his Will, page two was the collective eye-bulging, jaw-dropping, hands covering the mouth, gasp in the room. Van Vactor’s tone turned as gently as the page of a book. He continued,
“and I further give and bequeath unto Nelly my house keeper a woman of Color all that I own and possess both real and personal except fifty Dollars which I allow and Devise to her Daughter Ery.”
Not only did he wholly disinherit his children, but he gave Nelly everything he owned. To add injury to insult, Ery received more than three times the amount of what he left all three of his children, combined. For these reasons, some have concluded that the nature of the relationship between Nelly and Van Vactor was more than platonic. It may never be possible to know what role, if any, Nelly had in influencing Van Vactor’s actions in the final days of his life, but is reasonable to conclude that she had some influence. Whatever rationale he used to arrive at his decisions, the court filings may have been Van Vactor’s only way of guaranteeing that his alleged biological daughter and grandsons, were protected from any potential legal disputes by his other children after his death.
Van Vactor died shortly after filing his Will, and Nelly adopted his surname. She wasted no time taking full advantage of her newfound wealth and the network of friends that Van Vactor created. Ten months after his death, Nelly purchased the three-quarter acre lot adjacent to her property for $37. Five years later, she purchased two prime lots on Irish Street for $200. Over a thirty-year period, she owned, rented, or sold at least a half-dozen properties and mingled with Greeneville’s most elite residents. Her neighbors included the mother-in-law of then Mayor Andrew Johnson, who later became president after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson, by the way, taught Alfred the vocation of tailoring. Other prominent political neighbors were the Sevier family, who served in various state government positions as well as the U.S. Senate. The location of her home had a lot to do with her ability to remain viable in the Greeneville community, as did the business relationships she kept after Van Vactor died. She once considered moving to Liberia in 1842 with her son Alfred, selling two plots of land as a down payment for the move, but she got cold feet and remained behind while Alfred, his wife, and children made the journey without her. Her final real estate transaction in Greeneville was the property she sold to the mayor of Greeneville, John Maloney, in 1855.
Nelly lived on her own terms for as long as she could, but time and age being what it is, she moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Elkana Emanuel. Soon after the 1850 census was enumerated, Ery died, and Nelly had a tough decision to make: live out the rest of her life in Greene County near Ery’s children or relocate to Cincinnati, where Alfred and his wife Susan lived. She ultimately decided to move to Cincinnati in 1856 to be closer to Alfred where she remained until her death. The inornate flat headstone Alfred had placed on her gravesite in the United American Cemetery, tells us everything we need to know about her modesty,
Mother of A. V. Thompson
Born in Fredericksburg Va 1762
Died July 12, 1859
Nelly lived a remarkable life—one that men and women alike would have surely envied. She was a confident, unmarried, self-directed, independently wealthy real estate and finance mogul. She ensured that her children and grandchildren were never sold at auction, and that Alfred received a formal education. In a peculiar way, she validated the fears of success enshrined in the laws designed to prevent her from full participation in the American experiment. By example, she demonstrated that women who looked like her or not, could be competitive and successful and still mother their children without fear of labels.
Though it would take more than a century for her story to be unearthed, the Greene County Genealogical Society honored her life with a historical marker to acknowledge her status as one of the first African women to own land in Greeneville and Tennessee prior to 1830, besting all others across racial and gender lines. Ellen “Nelly” Van Vactor may have lived her best life in Greeneville, but her roots will always be in Fredericksburg.
Rest in Power, Nelly; we now know you were here.
Hughes, Stevie, Mitzi Bible, June Pinkston, and Don Miller. “Nelly, A Woman of Property and Means.” Greene County TNGenWeb. T. Elmer Cox Historical and Genealogical Library.https://tngenweb.org/greenetn/nelly-a-woman-of-property-and-means/.
Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Van Vactor,1822. T. Elmer Cox Historical and Genealogical Library.
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.