On the Edge of Discovery: Who is George?

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Preparing for the forthcoming exhibit, “On the Edge of Battle” I have the fascinating experience of looking at every photograph in the collection connected with Chester County in the Civil War.  The photograph of “George” presents an intriguing mystery.

In this ninth plate ambrotype, we see a young African American man wearing a corduroy suit complete with a watch fob. The portrait is presented in a case with red flocked lining. What is curious are the questions raised by two explanatory notes inside the case. One reads: George. Killed in Civil War. Came to say Good bye to Catherine Johnson. He came to West Grove where CAH was teaching to say Good Bye.  The second label reads: Raised by Abram Hoopes in Avondale.

Who is George? What unit did he serve in?  Who are Abram Hoopes and Catherine Johnson?

First I tried finding a match in Douglas Harper’s, Index of soldiers from Chester County,looking for an African American recruit from Avondale who had been killed in the war. The only one I found from Avondale was Samuel R. Wilson of the Massachusetts 54thCo. B, who was captured at Ft. Wagner and later died in a prison in Alabama in 1865.

 I only found two possibilities with the first name of George from that same source. George Wilson was a 29 year old farm laborer from Lower Oxford who enlisted with the USCT in the Third Regiment, Co. C.  He died at Morris Island, S.C. in 1863.  The other was George Merriman, a 22 year old farmer from West Chester who served in Massachusetts 54th, Co. B who was wounded at Fort Wagner, S.C. on July 16, 1863 and died from his wounds on August 1.

Harper’s list turned up three other Chester County men with the first name of George who were not killed in the war. Looking at the lists of African American Civil War veterans buried in Chester County cemeteries – there are 16 with the first name of George!

Now I tried working on the other clues. Who were Abram Hoopes and Catherine Johnson?  I was really hoping to find Abram Hoopes on the 1850 Census with “George” in his household –  that would be sweet! But no such luck. The census did reveal an Abraham Hoopes living in London Grove Township, with a Catherine A. Johnson as a child in his household! This tells me that I have the right household at least.

In 1850 Avondale Borough was not yet incorporated. Abraham Hoopes (1781-1852) was married to Mary Lynn (1785-1833) in 1814 and the couple raised five children on their 400 acre farm. Many hands were needed to run a farm of that size, and in 1850 we find Abraham Hoopes on the property with his two youngest children, Howard and Mary (ages 25 and 24) along with six other unrelated people. Two young girls, Mary and Catherine Johnson were in the household at the time.  It was not that unusual at that time for young girls to be hired out to help in households. Unfortunately, “George” was not in the household that year.

Catherine A. Johnson was 8 years old in 1850, which means by 1863 when African Americans were able to enlist, she would have been about 21 – a plausible age for a schoolteacher.

I knew that the 1840 Census would not be as helpful, because only the head of the household is named while the other household members are just counted. Here I found two free black men in the household between the ages of 10 and 24 years.  If only they were named!

Some mysteries may never be solved, but I would like to hope that tucked away in a Chester County attic somewhere is the answer!  If you have any information please email me at photo@chestercohistorical.org.   Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist