Lucy Rountree and family

The ornate grave monument of Phoebe Rountree Florville, daughter of Lucy Rountree, in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Photo by B. Provines (“BjJ”) via

For the past 30 years, the story of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemmings has gained America’s attention through books, movies, and the integration of Jefferson’s descendants, both white and African-American, at family reunions. Unfortunately, Sally’s life mirrored that of thousands of Black women held in bondage in America. One of those stories played out in the life of Lucy Rountree and her children, first in Kentucky and later in Sangamon County.

Lucy was born in Goochland or Bedford County, Va., probably around 1790. She was enslaved by the large Rountree family, some of whom owned large tracts of land and worked it with the help of enslaved people.

At the turn of the 19th century, members of the Rountree family began migrating to Kentucky in search of cheaper and more fertile land. Samuel Rountree (1756-1805), a Revolutionary War veteran, his wife, Mary (1754-1835), and their children, including a son, Henry (1780-1845), were part of the migration. They brought their workers with them, including the young Lucy. The family settled near present-day Glasgow in southern Kentucky.

In order to obtain information on Lucy, one must read between the lines of several documents about her. The first is a bill of sale, dated Feb. 9, 1813, in which the widowed Mary Rountree sold Lucy, then in her 20s, to a neighbor, John Howe. By that time (see below), Lucy apparently was the mother of a daughter, Phoebe.

No record exists in Barren County of Lucy being sold back to the Rountree family by John Howe, although such a sale could have taken place in another county. What is certain is that, in August 1826, Henry Rountree, Mary’s son, sold Lucy to herself – in other words, freed her – in return for “twenty years work done by her.” Also freed were her eight children: Phoebe, Betsy, Isaac, Nancy, Daniel, Judah, Thomas and Sophia. If the timetable is accurate, Lucy would have been working for Henry since 1806, when she was about 16 years of age.

How the 1813 bill of sale factors into that chronology is unclear. However, Henry Rountree’s extensive marital history could be one reason for Lucy’s confusing status.

Henry, a farmer, also showed a strong interest in mining in northern Kentucky and southern Illinois. He began marrying in his early 20s, losing two wives to illness in quick succession. It seems likely that he began a relationship with Lucy either during his second marriage or soon after the loss of his second wife.

Henry married his third wife, Wealthy, in 1813. Coincidentally or not, 1813 was also the year that Mary Rountree sold Lucy to John Howe. Baby Phoebe apparently was about two years old. Phoebe’s name does not appear in the bill of sale for Lucy, but she most likely went with her mother.

Henry’s mother and new wife may have been responsible for the removal of Lucy and her daughter, giving Henry a clean slate to start his life with his newest bride.

Unfortunately, his bad luck with wives continued. Wealthy died within a year of their marriage. Unlike his first two wives, however, she had given birth to a son, Adam. It is very possible that Lucy and Phoebe returned to Henry’s household – and their relationship resumed – soon after Adam’s birth.

Officially, Henry remained a widower for the next 16 years. However, in that same time period, Lucy gave birth to seven more children. On March 4, 1829, Henry, age 50, married again – confusingly, to another woman named Lucy: Lucy Watkins, 17 years old.

Sometime later in 1829, Henry left Kentucky for Illinois in an ox-drawn wagon, taking the freed Lucy Rountree and her eight children with him. It isn’t clear if Lucy Watkins Rountree also was among the travelers.

Again, reading between the lines, it is likely that Henry felt pressure from his mother, his teenage bride and Lucy herself to sort out what had become a very messy domestic life. The white women may have decided that Henry’s second family took up too much of the bridegroom’s money and time.

For the freed Lucy, meanwhile, the move must have seemed a golden opportunity to live in a free state and build a new future for herself and her family.

The Rountrees arrived in Sangamon County several months after leaving Kentucky. Henry rented a farm from Edmond “Dick” Taylor (1802-91) on the south side of Spring Creek, 4½ miles west of Springfield. (It is not known how Henry became involved with Taylor, a politician, entrepreneur and ally of Abraham Lincoln, but they might have met while they were investigating mines, a shared interest of the two men.)

Henry soon returned to Kentucky, although he may have returned at least one more time to see his Illinois family.

According to Rountree family tradition, Lucy eventually was able to buy land in Illinois herself. And in 1834, Sangamon County records show that Lucy sued one Joshua Bassford for breach of contract on a sale to him of two steers and a wagon.

Phoebe Rountree married William Florville, a barber and friend of Abraham Lincoln, in August 1832, bringing a child to the marriage – a baby boy named Samuel Henry. In his own will many years later, William Florville referred to Samuel Henry as his adopted son; Samuel (1832-94) went by the last name Florville and is buried under that name at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

However, the baby’s given names were those of the two generations of Rountrees, Samuel and Henry, who had enslaved Lucy. Could 40-year-old Lucy have given birth to yet another son of Henry’s? In naming this child, she finally would have been free to acknowledge the child’s paternity without fear of reprisal by the Kentucky Rountrees. With children at home still to raise, it’s possible she gave her youngest child to her daughter and her prospering new son-in-law.

Of course, the simplest explanation is that Phoebe brought her own child, father unknown, to her marriage. The mystery of Samuel Henry’s paternity probably is lost for all times. However, the Florville family has an oral tradition that Henry Rountree fathered all of Lucy’s children.

The dates of his marriages, the lapses between his marriages, the first sale of Lucy and the final and unique sale of Lucy to herself strongly suggest a long and intimate bond between the white man and the enslaved woman. The evidence does not show whether Lucy was a willing or unwilling partner with Henry, but clearly, Henry Rountree had the upper hand in most aspects of their relationship.

Henry’s life indicates he approved of and benefitted from the system of slavery. Granting freedom to Lucy is the only known record of Henry freeing one of his slaves.

The Florville family also has passed on another oral tradition about Lucy Rountree: at some point while in Kentucky, she is said to have organized a group of women known as the “Patty-Rollers.” In its original meaning, the term refers to men who patrolled the roads in search of slaves travelling without passes. Lucy’s patty-rollers had a different purpose, according to the family lore: They used their collective power to seek out and punish men in the neighborhood who abused women.

Lucy died in Sangamon County sometime between 1835 and 1842. She is thought to be buried in an unmarked grave in a small cemetery outside of Springfield. She deserves to be remembered as a remarkable person who contributed much to early Sangamon County.

Phoebe Rountree Florville’s birthdate

Different sources give widely different birthdates for Phoebe Rountree Florville. Her  tombstone at Oak Ridge Cemetery says she was born in 1804, while her obituary in the Oct. 14, 1897, Illinois State Register gives her age as 76, suggesting she was born about 1821. After the death in 1868 of William Florville, Phoebe married shoemaker Reuben Coleman (1807-80); however, her gravestone lists her as Phoebe C. Florville.

What appears to be the best estimate of her birth year – 1811 or 1812 – comes from two other sources. The 1880 U.S. Census says she was born about 1812. And an 1843 Sangamon County Circuit Court document declaring that four of Lucy Rountree’s children – Phoebe, Isaac, Daniel and Judah – are “absolutely free” includes the statement that Phoebe, by then married to William Florville, was about 32 years old at the time. That implies Phoebe was born about 1811.

The statement includes a brief physical description of Phoebe: she was 5 feet, 1½ inches tall, “copper colored,” with straight hair and a mole under her right eye.

The document in question, unearthed by the late Springfield historian Richard Hart, was signed by Dick Taylor; it confirms the validity of a statement by Henry Rountree attesting to the free status of the four Rountrees.

Hat tip: Much of this article is based on conversations between contributor Mary Beth Roderick and Robert J. Smith (1923-2013), a great-great-grandson of William and Phoebe Rountree Florville. Smith, a graduate of Feitshans High School, Howard University and Bradley University, was an educator and principal in St. Paul, Minn.

Contributor: Mary Beth Roderick. Roderick, who now lives in Stafford, Va., is a Springfield native with a longstanding interest in Abraham Lincoln and his family and friends, including the Florville family.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


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One Response to Lucy Rountree and family

  1. Marcus Roundtree says:

    My last name is Roundtree with a d same name I always knew that I was a great piece to the life puzzle

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