Atha Sorrells, the Woman who had the Audacity to Challenge Walter Plecker, and Won

The article “Native Americans Lived along Pedlar Creek at the Top of the Blue Ridge” was originally credit to Wikked Lester via the Virginia Historical Association, who has since denied authorship.  He further states that Ruth Knight Bailey, JD, who teaches adjunct law at East Tennessee State University wrote the original essay.  (See followup note at the bottom of the article).  From this article, shown at the link below, I extracted many facts, but much of the rest has been rewritten for this article.  http://shaybo-therisingtide.blogspot.com/2011/08/native-americans-lived-along-pedlar.html

Mormon Missionaries worked among the Blue Ridge communities from 1883-1898.  In its early days, from 1830 to 1846, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints was unique in that it was somewhat color-blind. (Church members generally called themselves “Latter-day Saints” or “Saints,” according to the Bible. Almost everybody else called them Mormons.)

The writings of Joseph Smith, the first president, did indicate that lineage mattered to God, with Israelites receiving covenant promises first and the descendants of Cain receiving them last.  The early church nevertheless welcomed all converts, “black and white, bond and free.”  The Mormons believed that the Indians are one of the Lost Jewish Tribes, brought to America for safety. To Latter-day Saints, this made modern Indians a precious remnant of one of the ancient tribes of Israel, who would gather in an American Zion, which was Utah of course, to welcome the second coming of the Messiah.

Enter Walter Plecker, Virginia’s Registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, much despised by non-whites.  One of his primary goals was to prevent anyone of color from associating in any way with anyone who was not.  According to Plecker, there were two races, black and white, and if you had any “colored” ancestry at all, you were not white.  He altered legal documents, hunted down those he felt were incorrectly “registered” and made the cleansing of white Virginia his personal mission. His Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924 classifying people as black, those with any negro or other nonwhite heritage, which he equated with negro heritage, or white.  This went beyond previously existing legislation that specified 1/16th or more “negro” blood constituted black.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Ashby_Plecker and  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_Integrity_Act_of_1924

The county clerk in Rockbridge County, Va. denied Atha Sorrells (born 1904) a white marriage license. Sorrels sued him and won by proving that “colored” did not necessarily mean “Negro.” She produced evidence to show that she had a distant Indian ancestor but no black ones, thereby falling within the legal exception for one-sixteenth Indian blood. She subsequently married Robert Painter in 1925.             http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=lva/vi02800.xml;query=;brand=default

Atha Sorrell’s case included her family tree which carefully identified Atha, her mother, and her maternal great-grandparents — Joe Clark Jr. and Julia Sorrels.

Key elements were as follows to show that her ancestors were always considered Indian or white.   (Note:  Without the original depositions, it’s impossible to determine the exact relations of the following people.  I suspect that Daniel Curry is not related, but either provided a deposition or testified which is why the connection is made below.)

1. Joe Clark, Sr., born 1797 . . . . Joe Clark owned slaves and bought Peter Curry the father of Daniel Curry who was sold at auction. (Indian and White)

2. Polly Clark (Nee Clark) . . . was mother of James Clark [who bought a writ of] Mandamus for white marriage license – white license granted County Court order Book 1876 pages 137, 174 (Indian and White)

3. Marriage license :[Left box) John Whiteside / Always white No question [Right box] Bettie Sorrells / Always white No Question

4. Marriage License: [Left] Paternal / Joe Clark Jr. [Right] Maternal / Julia Clark (Nee Sorrells)

5. Marriage License: Atha Sorrells / R.L. Painter White License Refused On Account Of Atha Sorrells

Plecker chose not to appeal the ruling, fearing that an appellate court could hold the Racial Integrity Act to be overly vague in its definition of “Caucasian.”

Proceedings regarding the Mormon Elders and the Mason/Sorrels family from the Rockbridge Historical Society, Volume XIII 207:

The elders discovered the craggy landscape dotted with tiny log houses, many belonging to members of the Mason family. One day in 1884, John Mason took Kimball and Welch [Mormons] up to the cabin of his parents, Peter Mason and Diannah Sorrells Mason. Fifteen family members gathered to meet them.

 That night, Elder Kimball wrote in his journal: “[A] stranger sight I never saw. He [Peter Mason] was seventy years old. [He] was born and raised at this same place (top of the Blue Ridge Mts). He was of Indian descent, his skin being almost as dark as an Indians. His hair was long and black. Mrs. Mason — his wife — was very old. She said what she thought and was somewhat of a doctress. They had seventeen children — twelve boys and five girls. Children and grandchildren about forty-two. Indian blood was discernable in most of their faces.”

Look which way you might — poverty was everywhere to be seen. They were but little ahead of the Indian people in education. None of them had ever belonged to a church of any kind.  If the elders had seen any indication that a group of Native Americans lived along Pedlar Creek at the top of the Blue Ridge, they would have sought them out as “chosen people,” just as other elders had sought out the Catawba Indians in South Carolina and the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.

This is, in fact what occurred, with the Mormons visiting and living among these families, and exhorting them to move to the “American Zion” in Utah.  In 1888, the letters of the missionaries mentioned that a group of these people were preparing to move west, including two of Mason’s daughters and their families.  The Mormon focus included Indian families in the Pedlar Community of Amherst County, the Irish Creek community of Rockbridge County and the tip of Nelson County.

Atha Sorrells didn’t pass away until 1979.  I don’t know if she realized she was the only person, and a woman besides, to beat the mighty Plecker, but we all owe her a very large debt of gratitude for her bravery and fortitude in the face of adversity.  Oh, yes, and one more detail, not only was she brave to stand up to Plecker, she did so pregnant and unmarried.  She married Robert Painter, in victory, on May 31, 1925 and her first child, a daughter, was born in July of that year.  Atha, many hearts stand with you!

Followup note:  On 2-26-2013, I received a very rude note from Wikked Lester.  The article “Native Americans Lived along Pedlar Creek at the Top of the Blue Ridge” was originally credit to Wikked Lester via the Virginia Historical Association.  Wikked has since denied authorship.  He later provided the information that Ruth Knight Bailey, JD, who teaches adjunct law at East Tennessee State University wrote the original essay.

Omitting the rude portions, Wikked Lester says the following: “I have never published, submitted, gave or otherwise presented one scribble of written material to The Virginia Historical Association.  To clarify, this information was simply copied from ancestry dot com, and it included Proceedings of Rockbridge Historical Society, and the journals of the Mormon Missionaries and was presented to a friend [Shaybo], in the form which I recieved it, from which you have ”extracted” your facts ….based on fourth hand information, of which I authored not a word.”

This article has helped a number of people, and I am choosing to leave the article intact, except for correcting the information about the authorship.  Fortunately, I provided the original link as well, which remains, still crediting Wikked and the Virginia Historical Association.

My original goal with this blog and this article was to honor Native ancestors and to help people connect with their Native heritage.  As far as I’m concerned, this still passes muster.  The original article has several sources.  It provides a guiding light and gives people a good resource to turn to, the depositions, of they so desire.  Atha Sorrels was a women with amazing courage and deserves to be honored and remembered.  Additional information is available, for the digging, to family members, like Dwayne Painter, who want to do so.

It’s comments like Dwayne Painter’s (in the comments section) that inspire me to continue.

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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Atha Sorrells, the Woman who had the Audacity to Challenge Walter Plecker, and Won

  1. Yvonne says:

    Roberta, I so enjoyed this post! I’m LDS and have Cherokee ancestors! Thanks for all you’re doing.

  2. Pingback: Walter Plecker’s Target List | Native Heritage Project

  3. Sheila says:

    Roberta, you always go the extra mile in all of your endeavors. Thank you.

  4. Dwayne Painter says:

    My Great Grandmother :), very proud to read this article. Thank you . Feel free to email me@ skinsfan2821@comcast.net, or find me on Facebook , Dwayne Painter.

    • I am so glad that one of her family found this. I’d love to know more about her. What a strong and amazing woman she was!

    • Ashleigh Roberts says:

      I am also grateful too…and these men are my cousins…Wikked Lester and Dwayne Painter. The family thanks you and more importantly…this message was left unheard until it was brought forth. By whatever means…it is factual and documented. Our ancestors are proud!

  5. wikked lester says:

    Thank you Roberta J Estes but Dwayne all ready has accessed the data conserning our families and nothing new has been presented here today other than my distaste for you and your works .

    • I learned a long time ago that what someone says about a person, and especially how they say it, is not a reflection of that person, but of the speaker. Apegish wii-zhawenimik Manidoo

  6. Roscoe says:

    My second great grandfather was William C Sorrell. Still looking for absolute proof of his relationship to the Sorrells of Amherst County, where he was born about 1810. Glad others are also searching for the ancestral roots. Thank you.

  7. dana reynolds says:

    Roberta – I find your posts always helpful, well-balanced and informative. Recently I was contacted by a genetic relative or match on 23andme (which originally had my East Asian percentage at 6 percent), and we discovered we shared some surnames especially the name Turner in West Virginia and southwest Virginia. He said a lot of that side of the family were Native American. I immediately thought his Turner family and mine must have been the way we were related since my Turner-Hale people from Floyd and Franklin County’s Blackwater Virginia area are listed in a 19th c. census and claimed “Blackfoot” and “Shawnee” ancestry. Amazingly when I went to look up the Turners of my genetic cousin from 23andme I found them living just next door to some of my genetically-confirmed ancestors in the Pedlar part of Amherst County in the mid – 1800s.
    Now I am noticing on your site this location of Pedlar and its relation to “Indian” peoples and I think its truly serendipitous.
    Thanks for all your work!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this victory. This is EXACTLY why I started this project….to help the descendants find their ancestors and to honor our Native ancestors. It’s a lot easier to honor them if you can find them:)

  8. google Virginia_Race_Records,_Mormon_.pdf . If you look thru the sources cited , some of the manuscripts and photos came from family members , presented to Ruth Knight Bailey

  9. C. Mason says:

    My Great Great Grandfather was Peter H. Mason. I am from Buena Vista, VA and work in Washington, DC.

  10. Kris Talbot says:

    Does anyone have absolute knowledge of Peter H Mason’s heritage? He is my 3 times great grandfather. I am desperately trying to do my genealogy on that side of the family. Years ago I heard a story that his real mother was an Indian maiden and was given to the Masons on the run because she was being chased by Indian men. She was never heard from again….according to the story.

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