Pete Hill: Culpeper County’s

newly discovered Hall of Famer

About the series:

Part 1: Where was Hill from? Today

Part 2: Exploring Hill’s birthplace: Wed.

Part 3: Hill’s family history: Thur.

An Introduction

In July of 2006, a man named Joseph Preston “Pete” Hill, born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1880, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Among numerous accolades, Pete was called, “one of the greatest line-drive hitters of his era.”

Despite an extraordinary career, spanning a quarter of a century playing ball in the Negro Leagues as an outfielder, Pete’s induction lacked fanfare and the expected “hometown-hero” press.

There are a lot of halls of fame, but none as prestigious as Cooperstown. Having one’s bronzed image and accompanying stats selected for inclusion alongside other baseball greats is truly the accomplishment of a lifetime, the Pulitzer Prize of baseball.

As with many players, the selection was made long after Pete’s death in 1951, nonetheless, there was a distinct absence of fans. More importantly, there was not a single chest-pounding, proud-as-punch family member present.

His induction ceremony was witnessed only by strangers present to share the glory of some other inductee. The few die-hard aficionados who recognized his achievements, despite knowing little of his personal life were more than a little puzzled and began to ask questions.

Their research was extremely thorough and led to a remarkable discovery: the man inducted in 2006, indeed was “Pete” Hill, but his real name was John, not Joseph, his birthdate was not 1880 and he was not born in Pittsburgh.

Brad Horn, Sr. Director, Communications and Education, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, commented, “As an historical institution, providing the most accurate information is paramount to our responsibility as an education center.”

States and local communities lust after the claim to a world class baseball player. Virginia officially claims only four of the 289 Baseball Hall of Famer’s; hailing from Remington, Culpeper, Richmond and Norfolk.

By the summer of 2009, exhaustive research suggested that Pete Hill would become Virginia’s number five and the county of Culpeper just might be able to claim a second Hall of Famer.

The question: Was “Pete” Hill born in Culpeper County, Virginia?

The challenge: If so, can it be proven?

The challenge had been accepted and the ensuing 4 -6 months would be filled with days of Internet and court record searches, field surveys, and extensive discussions with baseball historians, local residents and family members.

— Zann Nelson

Evidence says Hall of Famer Pete Hill was a Culpeper native

By August of 2009, the path to the truth of Pete Hill’s personal life including his correct name, birthplace and birth date was well worn by at least a half dozen baseball historians.

This was my first foray into the vast world of baseball history and I was duly impressed by the depth of commitment and the array of interested persons. Among others was an anesthesiologist from Chicago; a college professor from Buffalo, N.Y.; a Negro Leagues historian from Kansas City and the well known baseball blogger, Gary Ashwill; each was equally taunted by the ”Mystery of Pete Hill.”

Documentation routed from newspaper articles, ship’s passenger lists, WWI and WWII draft registrations, Census records (1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930), a Social Security application and a death certificate all confirmed the following:

Pete’s official name: John Preston Hill

Birthplace: Virginia

Birth year: The day is always listed as Oct. 12; the year varied between 1882 and 1884 with the most consistent date being 1882.

Mother: Elizabeth “Lizzie” Seals Hill, born about 1857 in Virginia

Father: “Ike” Hill, listed by name in only one document with no further information. All Census records list Pete’s father as born in Virginia.

Grandmother: Mary Frances Seals, born about 1835 in Virginia; died in 1912 in Rapidan, Culpeper Co., Va.

Siblings: Jerome Bryant Hill and Walter Vaughn Hill, born about 1879 and 1881 in Rapidan, Va.

Pete’s Residences:

1900: living with mother, step father and two brothers in Pittsburgh, Pa.

1910: living with wife Gertrude in Chicago, Ill.

1920: living with wife, Gertrude and 11 year old son Kenneth, in Chicago, Ill.

1930: living single in Buffalo, NY and listed as divorced.

Marriage: Between 1906-07 Pete married Gertrude Lawson

Children: Kenneth P. Hill, b. 1-21-1909 in Chicago, Ill., d.12-06- 2001, in Gary, Ind.

Occupation: Baseball player, 1899-1924 (1920 Census, Ship’s Passenger Manifest)

Railroad Porter, 1930-1951 (Death Certificate)

Death: Dec. 19, 1951 in Buffalo, N.Y.

The data collected from more than a dozen official documents is substantial with no glaring discrepancies. John Preston Hill, born Oct. 12, 1882 in Virginia was indeed the same “Pete” Hill, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

But what of Pete’s roots, his family, his hometown? The details of his personal heritage were yet to be discovered. It became clear that corroborating evidence was required. But could it be found?

The task would be extensive; it would necessitate a chain of additional records including deeds, wills and marriage, death and birth reports. Personal interviews, photographs and field surveys of house and grave sites would hopefully finalize the conclusions.

The hunt was on.

Let the record show, often the records are incomplete

By Zann Nelson

Based on the quality of records currently available, one might ponder, “How could the records be so skewed?” The simple answer is that the vital statistic record system hasn’t always been available or accurate. Below is a sampling of records and their history.

Birth and death records:

- The Colonial Period: the Anglican Church was tasked with keeping birth and death records, though few of those survive.

- Post American Revolution: with the collapse of the “English” church and its subsequent political powers, births and deaths, if recorded at all, were done so by individual families and often inscribed in a family Bible.

- In 1853, the Virginia General Assembly passed a statewide law requiring the recording of births and deaths. The law was closely tied to taxation as slaves were taxed as personal property.

This law remained in effect until 1896. After Emancipation and the subsequent loss of tax revenue, it is difficult to know how diligently the reporting of births and deaths was enforced.

- In 1900 the official birth certificate was established.

- In 1910, states were required to establish and maintain a vital statistic system

Other records

- Marriage: The system of recordation of marriages followed a similar path tied to the church, county and the individual family.

Marriage records in most county courthouses are available, though not complete.

The 1866-67 Legitimization of Marriage: an act of the Freedman’s Bureau to legalize and record all slave marriages existing prior to Emancipation. At this time, few of these records have been published.

- Virginia Census: 1810-1880, 1900-1930

The information will vary and increases as the system development progresses.

All original records are hand written causing the occasional spelling of names to be questionable

Often the date of birth will vary.

The state of birth is reliable.

- Military records: Mandatory Draft Registration for WWI and WWII: records for both are available online

- Social Security, Death Certificates, Retirement records:

Limited availability depending on date and family relationship

- International Ship Transport:

Passenger Manifest listing vital statistics are available online.

It is not uncommon, due to erratic record keeping, rate of illiteracy, and personal circumstances, for errors in official data to exist.

Consider the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Born under humble circumstances, the only known record of his birth was his own declaration of Feb. 12, 1809.


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