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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 29, 2016

What’s in a Name: Or, Who Put the Omohundro in the Institute of Early American History and Culture

7 min read

by Alexandra Finley

I originally encountered the name Omohundro during my first year of graduate school, when I was an editorial apprentice at the Institute. During our training, then-director Ron Hoffman met with the apprentices to tell us the history of the organization, including how it came to be the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Dr. Hoffman regaled us with stories of the man whose financial contributions to the Institute brought about the change in title, Malvern Hill Omohundro, Jr. M.H., as he was called, was a native of Virginia and a graduate of William & Mary who maintained an active interest in American history. At his death in 1999, M.H. selected the Institute as the primary beneficiary of his considerable estate, which he had accumulated through the real estate market in Richmond.

It was in Richmond that I came across a very different but connected Omohundro, Silas, whose story would change the course of my graduate career. Just a few weeks after learning about Malvern Hill Omohundro, I found myself in the reading room of the Library of Virginia, pouring over the antebellum account book of Silas Omohundro, slave trader. Fellow native Virginian Silas Omohundro worked as an agent of the notorious slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield in the 1830s before operating his own slave jail in Richmond in the 1840s and 1850s. In the apt words of William Wells Brown, Silas made “a fortune by trading in the bones, blood, and nerves, of God’s children.”[1]

Silas’s Market and General Account Book, a detailed record of his credits and debits from 1855 to 1864, tells part of the story that captured my attention as a young historian. In between entries for shackles and other accoutrements integral to the violent business of selling people, Silas wrote down semi-regular payments of cash and gold, to a woman he referred to first as “C.H.” and later as Corinna. Throughout the 1850s, Silas purchased for Corinna, who was also the mother of six of his children, expensive dresses, jewelry, and a costly set of false teeth. Alongside gifts to Corinna, Silas wrote down the money he spent on his children with her: school tuition, apples, tickets to see a hot air balloon. From the perspective of Silas’s financial accounts the Omohundros looked like any other early nineteenth-century family. It was almost impossible to tell that Corinna, the mother of Silas’s children, was also his slave.[2]

The Market and General Account Book thus only tells part of the story. While the tallies and hastily scrawled numbers in Silas’s account book preserve Corinna’s name, there is much left unanswered. An entry from 1856 for “Bill of Negro Clothing to Corinna” for $391 highlights the important role that Corinna’s domestic labor played in Silas’s business, but not the physical and emotional toll that labor took on Corinna. We know that Silas regularly gave money to Corinna to “make market” but not where she went to shop, or if those brief errands gave her any sense of escape or independence. Least of all do we know what it meant for Corinna when Silas recorded in 1858 “Buriel Expences for my Still Born child” and then “Cash to [the midwife] Mrs. Brown for visiting Corinna.”

It is these questions that guide me as a historian and encourage me to transcribe another almost-illegible letter or cryptic ledger. Similar questions and issues guide the work of the Omohundro Institute – questions of race, freedom, unfreedom, and gender–and its affiliated scholars. It is also through these questions that the Omohundro family and the Omohundro Institute are most connected. The money that Malvern Hill Jr. left to the Institute has a lineage that partially goes back to the slave trade. M.H.’s grandfather, John B. Omohundro, was Silas’s brother. It is only appropriate that the same money should fund research that uncovers stories like that of Corinna.

I would like to suggest, then, that the Omohundro in front of Institute of Early American History and Culture call to mind not only the elite French Huguenot family that settled in Virginia in the 1670s but also Corinna Hinton, who after Silas’s death in 1864 consistently signed her name “Mrs. Corinna Omohundro” in legal efforts to collect all the inheritance due her from his estate.[3] Corinna’s story most accurately reflects the questions that guide early American historiography today, as well as the complicated legacy of slavery and the Atlantic and antebellum U.S. slave trades. If Omohundro can bring to mind Corinna’s story, then we as historians are doing justice to the name and profitably employing Malvern Hill Jr.’s bequest.

[1] William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter” a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (London: Partridge & Oakey, 1853), 4.

[2] General Market and Account Book, Silas Omohundro Business Records, Library of Virginia

[3] Richmond City Chancery Court Case File 494, Omohundro’s executor v. Omohundro, John Marshall Court House, Richmond, Virginia


In my family's history of my grandfather, Neil Alexander McMillan: 1855-1935, I discover the mention of a railroad siding on the outskirts of Mullins, S.C, called Omohundro's siding, in the section of the biography written by my mother, Lucy McMillan Joyner, who was born in 1910. She mentions that she always found that name, and the place, interesting. The place, because it was where her father had rail carloads of fertilizer off-loaded until he could load and transport the ingredients (in those days the fertilizer industry was not regularized as it is today, and some of the ingredients, such as Chilean nitrate, were combustible) to his "guano house" where he would mix them appropriately and sell them to his neighbor planters at cost. She made no other mention of the name. She herself, became a librarian, and would have know how to do some research. So that I've been intrigued, in my later years, to try and answer this puzzle. It seems that the more I find out, the more disturbing the reference becomes. I know my mother believed that her family never had slaves. However, I'm beginning to think that she simply was deceived, not only with respect to field hands, but quite possibly with respect to concubinage as well. I have found some info on Silas Omohundro, and Corinna Hinton Omohundro relative to the Richmond based slave trade. As a retired professor, I've lived most of my adult life in Winston-Salem, NC. And none of my McMillan relatives still alive seem to have any recollection of the place my mother remembered as Omohundro's siding. And am wondering if you have any information about early railroads & routs, either for slave trading or concubinage. Thank you for your time.
Janet Joyner  •  July 06, 2020
Hi Mark, I'm working on a book that features Silas and Corinna Omohundro, and I'd love to talk with you. Would you please email me at kristenNgreen at gmail dot com?
Kristen Green  •  February 27, 2019
I am a direct descendent of Silas and Corinna. I also have found that there is little evidence of the origin of the Omohundro name. traces the name back to England through the first Richard listed in the Omohundro Genealogical Record.
Mark Young  •  June 26, 2018
I would love to speak with you if you are related to the Mohundro/ Omohundro's. contact me at
Susan Richardson  •  January 24, 2017
I would love to speak with you if you are related to the Mohundro/ Omohundro's. contact me at
Susan Richardson  •  January 24, 2017
I to am researching this name and would love to talk with anyone who is related.I am connected through the Tenn. Line and would love to hear others ideas and thoughts on where this name comes from.
Susan Richardson  •  January 24, 2017
Yet we still dont know where the name Omohundro came from. It doesnt sound like any English or French name we've ever heard - does it?
karen  •  November 02, 2016
Thank you for also bringing to light historically the role played by a woman who was the mother an ancestors progeny, as well as the man who sired them. Whether these parents may be French or English, Indian or Black, trader or slave, they both should be equally spoken of. If statues and memorials be erected or handed down in one of their names, then let it be in the name of both parties involved. Their work and and their place and time in the past was equally spent living the reality that created our present.
karen  •  November 02, 2016
You state M.H. Omohundro was from an elite French Huguenot family. Other than what M.H. himself claimed, what evidence is there to support that theory. As for Silas, many families have a black sheep some where in the past. Why should someone who lives years later be held "guilty" for the crime of the ancestor? He seems to be the only Omohundro who behaved so dispicably. His family did not even mark his grave in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. He isn't even buried with the other Omohundros there. My own great grandfather was a Union soldier. The "Omohundro Genealogical Record" is a fair indication that the family wasn't elite. They were probably English, not French. Happy researching.
Sue Lynch  •  July 23, 2016

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