Even though John Butcher learned to read but couldn’t write and Charlotte Butcher never learned to read or write, all of their children had at least some schooling. Mary Butcher graduated from the colored high school in 1884. She became a seamstress and lived at home with her parents along with two of her sisters-Agnes, a cook; and Hattie, a seamstress.
John J. Butcher, remembered as “one of Carlisle’s most highly respected colored citizens,”1 was born enslaved five miles from Winchester, Virginia, around 1832.2 On his death certificate John Butcher’s father’s name was listed as Frank. His mother’s first and maiden names weren’t recorded. Both of his parents were also born in Virginia.
John Butcher’s wife Charlotte Roy was born around 1843 at Prospect Hill, a large slave plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia.3 The couple married in 1862, the same year their first son, William, was born.4
Since slave property was recorded by age, gender, and owner it could be hard to trace details about specific individuals. A surprise encounter in Carlisle recorded on the front page of The Evening Sentinel in May, 1890, provided a link to John Butcher’s enslaved past in Virginia. The story said, “A slave owner and his former slave once owned by him met on a Carlisle Street on Wednesday afternoon after twenty-five years separation and enjoyed the unexpected meeting very much. The colored man was John Butcher.” The two encountered each other when Joseph Barton, John Butcher’s former owner, was in the area visiting relatives. Witnesses described the scene as “very interesting.”5
A search of census records showed that Joseph and Caroline Barton were listed in the 1860 Slave Inhabitants Schedule from Winchester, Frederick County, Virginia, Magisterial District No. 8, with their property: 2 males (ages 29 and 28) and 1 female (age 19).6 It’s probable that John Butcher was the 28 year old male and Charlotte was the female.
John and Charlotte lived like the majority of other slaves in Frederick County, Virginia: on small farms or plantations with an average of 2 or 3 other African Americans.7
Three days after the Union Army began its occupation of Winchester in January 1863, Union Major General Robert Milroy’s troops began traveling the countryside announcing the newly issued Emancipation Proclamation telling slaves they were free and “had the right to claim wages from their masters or quit them.” 8 John and Charlotte would have heard the news along with all the other slaves in the Winchester area.
The exact date isn’t known but “sometime between the Emancipation and the Battle of Gettysburg”9 John and Charlotte joined hundreds of other African American refugees fleeing from Virginia into the lower Cumberland Valley. Known as “Skedaddle Ground” during the Civil War,10 the Cumberland Valley was a natural geographic highway, offering shelter and a supply of fresh water to former slaves. All through the war, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of former slaves poured north from the Shenandoah Valley into the Carlisle area. It is estimated that as early as 1862 over 5,000 African Americans migrated into the Cumberland Valley and the Carlisle area.11
The danger of kidnapping and re-enslavement escalated during Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania although with no verified abductions in the Carlisle area. Confederate soldiers were determined to round up as many African Americans as possible, returning “contraband” to their rightful owners. Estimates vary but Lee’s Army seized hundreds of former slaves in the lower Cumberland Valley during the Gettysburg Campaign.12
After the 100 mile trip from Winchester to Carlisle, John and Charlotte lived for some time in the countryside before moving their family into town.13 Not everyone welcomed the newcomers and excerpts from local papers reflect the unrest and turmoil. The Volunteer thought it time “to take steps to check this influx of Negroes.” Another local paper, The American Democrat, “advocated a law preventing Negroes coming into this state with the idea of settling.”14
In spite of these obstacles John Butcher, known for his “thrift and industry,” started supporting his family by selling large quantities of neat’s foot oil, an extract made from the shin bones of cattle.15 Neat’s foot oil was in high demand during the latter half of the 19th century for softening harnesses, saddles, and other leather goods.16 John Butcher eventually owned what was described as a prosperous business.
In addition to selling neat’s foot oil John Butcher was hired as a laborer by George Hench and “became his faithful employee for 25 years.“17 Hench was a master tanner who had retired to Carlisle after operating several successful tanneries near Loysville in Perry County. During his residence in Carlisle Mr. Hench had a reputation as a progressive citizen, very active in reforms and benevolent to the poor. He was highly respected in both Perry and Cumberland Counties and was well-known for his honorable business dealings.18
John and Charlotte would name a son born in 1886 George Hench Butcher.19
John Butcher’s family settled in Carlisle’s third ward, the town’s “industrial center” and home to the majority of Carlisle’s African American citizens. Due to its proximity to the LeTort Spring Run on the east end of town, the third ward was the site of Carlisle’s tanneries, breweries, and butchers. 20 The third ward provided the location and necessary water resources for John Butcher to operate his neat’s foot oil business.
Five years after his arrival in town John Butcher joined the growing number of African American property owners in the third ward. Butcher’s first property was a lot he acquired in 1868 on Walnut Street from John Gutshall and his wife Hettie.21 In 1877 Mary Hench, George Hench’s executrix, “granted and conveyed” to John Butcher a lot on Chestnut Alley.22 In 1890 The Sentinel reported “John Butcher is building 2 new brick houses on his property on Chapel Alley,” an area where two-thirds of Carlisle’s African Americans called home. Butcher is listed in the 1892 tax records as owning a brick home on Walnut Street, 2 small brick houses on Chestnut Alley, and 4 small frame houses on Chapel Alley along with paying tenants.23
Butcher’s family home at 35 Walnut Street was described in the Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory in 1910 as “being situated upon one of the nicest residence streets in town and is a model of comfort to his declining years.” He would live in that home for 49 years.24 The house’s location was unusual as most African Americans lived in the alleys or “avenues” behind the more prosperous white residents whom they served on Hanover or High Streets.
At the time of his death on March 13, 1919, Butcher’s obituary described him as “a kind and devoted husband and father, a good neighbor, and an example that men of both races could do well to emulate. “It was said he was known for “the living of a clean life.”25 He was survived by six sons and three daughters: William (1862); Mary (1864); John G. (1866); Agnes (1868); Charles (1871); Albert (1877); Hattie (1878); Frank (1881); Alice (1884); George (1886); Joseph (1880).26 A daughter, Fanny, died at age 10 months in 1889.27 Butcher was a member of the Baptist Church and was buried in Union Cemetery.
The Inventory and Appraisement of his estate, March 29, 1919, listed John Butcher’s assets as consisting of $8.00 in cash and interest, 1 Liberty Bond worth $50.00 and ½ interest in a lot of hogs valued at $125.00.28 Charlotte opted to take as her Widow’s Appraisement March 31, 1919, “the late balance of her exemption to wit the sum of $495.00 and out of the money in the bank and the sale of hogs as found in the inventory.” Her other asset was listed as a cook stove worth $5.00.29