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Martha L. Johnson Family Papers

Identifier: Ms-2001-065

Scope and Contents

This collection contains the papers of the family of Martha L. Robinson Johnson, nineteenth-century matriarch of a Carroll County, Virginia family. The collection consists largely of correspondence to Johnson from various family members and friends, providing a chronicle of the life of a Southwest Virginia family during the mid-nineteenth century, mostly from a feminine perspective. The letters focus on childbirth, death, illness, folk medicine, fashion, sewing, knitting, quilting, gardening, food, spirituality and the Civil War. The letters were mailed from various locales--mostly in Virginia--including Hillsville, Copper Mines, Orange Court House, Lynchburg, Texas House, Chatham Hill, Coal Hill, Warm Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Spring Valley, Grayson County, Cove and Hickory Grove. Though the majority of the correspondence is addressed to Martha Johnson, the collection also contains correspondence to and from her husband, Robert C. Johnson, a Carroll County tavern keeper, postmaster and commissioner of revenue.

Significant among the letters from extended family are those of William Lithgow Robinson, nephew of Martha Johnson and a soldier in Company A, 18th Virginia Infantry ("Danville Blues"). Robinson's letters, which focus on accounts of camp life and battles, include references to Harpers Ferry, Vienna, Fairfax Court House, Germantown, Manassas, Richmond, Centreville, Leesburg, Gordonsville, General Johnson, food, sickness (typhoid fever) and clothing. Robinson describes battle scenes in which he saw dead Yankees "piled up 15-20 to a grave." He reports the Danville Blues fought at Bull Run and lost 41 men. Robinson also mentions alcohol use among his fellow soldiers. On December 3, 1861, Robinson wrote a moving letter to Martha Johnson describing how he witnessed the execution of two men for attempting to kill an officer.

The collection also includes the Johnsons' legal and financial papers. Significant among the legal papers is the 1848 will of Valentine Johnson, of Orange County. The financial records include mostly personal receipts, account statements, and promissory notes but also include several items which appear to be subscription fee bills to local residents from the Hillsville post office. Also among the financial records are several of the Johnsons' account books, including two that were apparently kept by Robert Johnson acting in the capacity of commissioner of revenue. The books list, among other things, resident names and numbers of white tithes, slaves between 12 and 16, slaves over the age of 16, watches, clocks, 2- and 4-wheel carriages, etc.

Among other miscellaneous materials in the collection are a subscription/promotional booklet for Fitch W. Taylor's Voyage Round the World and Visits to Various Foreign Countries of the United States Squadron, a handwritten cure for dysentery, a petition-letter of recommendation for Robert C. Johnson, an obituary for Martha Ann Hounshell, and a canvas pocket document organizer used by Robert Johnson.


  • 1821 - 1882


Language of Materials

The materials in the collection are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open to research.

Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use

The copyright status of this collection is unknown. Copyright restrictions may apply. Contact Special Collections and University Archives for assistance in determining the use of these materials. Reproduction or digitization of materials for personal or research use can be requested using our reproduction/digitization form: Reproduction or digitization of materials for publication or exhibit use can be requested using our publication/exhibition form: Please contact Special Collections and University Archives ( or 540-231-6308) if you need assistance with forms or to submit a completed form.

Biographical Note

Martha L. "Patsy" Robinson Johnson was born in Frederick County, Virginia on February 19, 1803. Evidence suggests that she was the daughter of William and Martha Robinson of Orange County, Virginia. Martha married Robert C. Johnson (ca.1798-1863), the son of Valentine and Ann Johnson of Orange County, probably in the late 1820s. The Johnsons moved several times during the following two decades. In 1833, they lived at Amherst Court House and at Lynchburg, where Robert was a merchant. The next year, they were living in Patrick County, Virginia, where Robert was keeper of a public house and served as master commissioner of the Patrick County superior court. The family was still in Patrick County as late as 1839, though Robert was operating the Red Sulphur Springs tavern that year. In 1840/41, Robert was keeping tavern in Danville, Virginia, while Martha and his daughters lived in Stanardsville (Greene County).

The Johnsons seem to have settled by 1843 in Carroll County, Virginia, where Robert kept a tavern. Evidence in the collection suggests that he also operated a store and served as Hillsville postmaster and commissioner of the revenue. The couple had three daughters: Ann, Martha and Alverda.

The Carroll County census for 1860 lists Robert Johnson as "insane." He was hospitalized in the Eastern Lunatic Asylum (Williamsburg, Virginia) later that year and died there around October 23, 1860. By 1880, Martha Johnson was living with her son-in-law, John Early, and his children in Carroll County. She died April 15, 1886.

Ann Johnson (1828-1879), oldest daughter of Robert and Martha Robinson Johnson, was born in Orange County, Virginia. She married John Early (born c.1821), and the couple had several children, including Peter S., Robert J., James L., and William H., and Martha (c.1851-1864).

Alverda "Buddie" Johnson (1830-1917) married twice, first to James H. Hounshell in 1849. The couple had one daughter, Martha (1852-1865). After Hounshell's death, Alverda married Robert Toncrey (born ca.1815), a local dentist, in 1863. The couple's children included Mary E., Laura E. and Alverda J.

Martha Loury Johnson (1832-1916) married William Craig Thornton (1825-1913) in 1848. William worked at times as a tailor, a dry goods merchant, and operator of Hillsville's Thornton Hotel. He also served as justice of the peace. The couple raised a large family, including Alverda R., Emma R. ("Sissie"), Ann Eliza, Margaret B., Martha Elizabeth, Ida May, Agnes W., Jesse Maud, Dora N., Robert Cave Johnson, and William Hiram.

William Lithgow Robinson, Martha Johnson's nephew, was born around 1837. He enlisted in the Danville Blues on April 23, 1861; prior to enlistment, he had worked as a clerk. In October 1861, Robinson was hospitalized at Orange Court House, Virginia with periostitis; he returned to duty on November 18. He was again admitted to the hospital on March 11 for contusion of the leg and was discharged April 5, 1862. Robinson's own letters indicate that he was infected with typhoid in 1861, probably resulting from the contaminated water at Manassas, where, he wrote, "All the streams and springs were contaminated with putrefying bodies of men and horses." He also mentions being wounded in the leg during hand-to-hand combat in October 1861. By 1863, Robinson was working as deputy clerk of Hastings Court House and as chief of police in Danville, Virginia. He died March 1, 1914 and is buried in Danville's Green Hill Cemetery.

Creating a sketch of this family proved difficult. Martha Robinson Johnson seems to have been known as "mother" by both her children and her grandchildren; likewise, Ann Johnson Early was referred to as "Sister Ann" by all family members. The prevalent use of nicknames within the correspondence compounds the difficulty in identifying individuals, as does the large number of extended family of both Johnsons and Robinsons. (Among Martha's siblings mentioned in this collection are Thomas A., William R., Norborne and Richard Robinson; named within the collection as siblings of Robert are Belfield C., Benjamin V., George W., and William B. Johnson, Mildred C. Collins, Lucy Leggett, and Sallie Ann Dickerson.) The sketch above is based on interpretation of the documents and surviving public (especially census) records, and therefore likely contains errors.


0.5 Cubic Feet (1 box)


The collection is arranged by document type. Correspondence--arranged alphabetically by surname, then chronologically--is followed by legal, financial, and miscellaneous materials.

Source of Acquisition

The Martha L. Johnson Family Papers were donated to the Special Collections in 2001.

Rights Statement for Archival Description

The guide to the Martha L. Johnson Family Papers by Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, is licensed under a CC0 (

Processing Information

The processing, arrangement and description of the Martha L. Johnson Family Papers commenced in June 2004 and was completed in October 2006.

A Guide to the Martha L. Johnson Family Papers, 1821-1882
John M. Jackson
2006 (CC0 1.0)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English

Revision Statements

  • 2020-10-06: Finding aid notes updated to new department standards. juliags

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech Repository

Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries (0434)
560 Drillfield Drive
Newman Library, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg Virginia 24061 US