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The Library of Virginia and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Celebrate Black History Month

William Breedlove
Born: about 1820 in Essex County, Virginia
Died: 15 June 1871 near Tappahannock, Virginia

William Breedlove, son of a white man and a free African American woman, worked as a blacksmith in Tappahannock. A literate man, he accumulated real estate and personal property and may have begun operating a ferry service across the Rappahannock River by 1860. In November 1863 Breedlove and William Chandler, his free black employee, transported an African American man across the river under the impression that he had a pass authorizing him to travel, when in fact he was a runaway slave. The ferrymen were arrested and convicted in Essex County of assisting in a slave’s escape. The penalty prescribed by law was that both men be "sold into absolute slavery."

The prosecuting attorney and some of the justices of the peace who convicted Breedlove and Chandler recommended gubernatorial clemency, believing they had not known that the man was a slave. Other local dignitaries described Breedlove as a valuable member of the community. Governor John Letcher pardoned him in December 1863.

These legal travails may have sparked Breedlove’s postwar political activism. In October 1867 blacks in Essex and Middlesex Counties selected him as their candidate for the state constitutional convention. In the election, Breedlove received votes from only three white men, but black voters outnumbered white voters in both counties, and he easily defeated the white candidate. During the convention Breedlove sat on the Committee on Taxation and Finance. He served inconspicuously and voted consistently with the Radical majority.

In July 1869 the military commander in Essex County appointed Breedlove one of six new justices of the peace for the county. Breedlove also served on the town council of Tappahannock, and his appointment in March 1870 as postmaster there outraged many local whites. He stepped down as postmaster in March 1871, possibly because of failing health. William Breedlove died of "Brain Fever" three months later.

For further information, including a bibliography, see the full biography in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond, 1998– ), 2:212–213.

Additional reading:
Pardon Papers, Dec. 1863, John Letcher Executive Papers, Library of Virginia, Richmond.

Richmond Dispatch
, 15 Mar. 1870.

William Breedlove was convicted of a crime that not everyone thought he committed. Read this document to find out what happened.