Pete Hill: Culpeper County’s
newly discovered Hall of Famer
About the series:
Part 1: Where was Hill from? Tuesday
Part 2: Exploring Hill’s birthplace: Wed.
Part 3: Hill’s family history: Today
Pete Hill’s family roots go back a long way in Rapidan area
By Zann Nelson
Baseball Hall of Famer and most likely the son of former slaves, John Preston “Pete” Hill, born in the village of Buena, Culpeper County, Virginia in 1882, lived his entire adult life north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
He played ball not for fame or fortune, but like so many of the early players, he was driven by a genuine love of the game. When he could no longer play competitively, he managed the team. Then with some irony, his later life brought him back to the very same mechanism that gave him his first opportunity — the railroad.
Though there is no evidence that Pete ever returned to the place of his birth, it is doubtful that he forgot. Many of his friends and relatives had also relocated to Pittsburgh, but Buena was still home and staying in touch with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was a family mandate.
Time has a tendency to eradicate records; letters are destroyed and contact information lost. Pete’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 2006 rekindled the fires of family connections and a desire to reestablish ancestral roots.
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The primary source of data for non-property owning residents is the Federal census data. However, there is a 10 year gap from census to census in which many life changing events can occur.
Despite these circumstances, significant facts have been discovered proving that the Seals and Hill families lived for decades in the area of Buena/Rapidan in Culpeper County.
The 1880 Census record, found the Seals family living in Orange County, across the Rapidan River from the village of Buena. Listed in the household were parents, Edward and Mary Francis and children, Ella, Lizzie, Annie, Mollie, Maria, Emily and James.
According to the death records found at the State Library in Richmond, Edward Seals died in Orange County of pneumonia in December of 1880.
One can only guess as to the causative circumstances, but by the summer of 1881 the family was living on the Culpeper side of the river. According to court records, Pete’s aunt, Emily Seals, died at the age of eight in August of 1881 in Culpeper County.
Further research revealed that three of Pete’s other aunts were married in Culpeper County. The local county marriage records reported the following; the oldest sister Ella Seals married landowner Robert H. Hill in either 1882 or ‘83, followed later in the same decade by the marriage of Annie Seals in 1887 to James Hawkins and Mollie Seals’ marriage in 1888 to E.A. Johnson.
To date, no marriage record has been found for Pete’s mother, Lizzie Seals. Was the marriage performed in another county? Did she never marry the father of the three boys or was it simply unrecorded?
The answers to those questions may remain uncertain. However, a death record in the Culpeper County Court House could provide a clue.
A single line in the record book notated that on November 3, 1887, a 30 year old colored male, whose surname was Hill, died. There was no given name and no cause of death.
Perhaps, this was Pete’s father and with his death came the impetus for Lizzie to relocate. Family history reports that Lizzie arrived in Pittsburgh with Jerome, Walter and John about 1889.
Records also indicate that aunts Annie, Mollie and another, named Mariah moved north and out of state. The trail for Ella is less clear; in 1900 she was living in Buena with Robert H. Hill, but by 1907, he has remarried and was listed as widowed. A death record has not yet been found for Ella, but there is reason to believe, she, too, may have relocated to Pittsburgh.
Lizzie Seals’ only brother and Pete’s uncle, James E. Seals remained in the Buena/Rapidan area. Living for a while in the village of Rapidan, he made a home for Pete’s grandmother, Mary Francis Seals until her death in 1912.
By 1917, Seals had purchased a 23-acre farm located “ 3/4 of a mile South of Buena Station,” became a deacon at Cedar Grove Baptist Church and worked for the railroad as a track inspector. He died in 1935, leaving his land and a few descendants as legacy.
William and Betty Hill of Madison County, perhaps members of the well-known, lighter-skinned Hill family of Culpeper and Madison, settled in the Buena area as early as 1870. Migrating with them were numerous sons and daughters, including Robert, born in 1851.
Historical maps, oral histories and field surveys reveal a network of roads that crisscross Cedar Mountain between the White Oak Church area on Route 15 and the heart of Buena. It was along these now-abandoned cart paths on the slopes of the mountain that the Hills established their home place and began their life of freedom.
On the mountain side, one can still find the simple artifacts of a life, long since abandoned. A stone foundation, the artwork of a hand-dug and stone-lined well and a fence-enclosed graveyard all remain as ghosts declaring, “We were here.”
Did Lizzie Seals live here with her sister and brother-in-law? Was Pete’s birth an event at one of the evident homesteads? Did he spend his early childhood on the mountainside above Buena?
During his lifetime, Robert H. Hill, married three times (the second being Pete’s aunt, Ella), fathered several children and acquired a considerable amount of wealth.
Upon his death in 1914 and the subsequent death of his third wife, only two of his children would inherit his estate. His daughter would receive about 21 acres and the “valuable house,” the son received a larger tract of land and the carriage house. Granddaughter Ruth was to have the piano.
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The journey of the last several months has led to the discovery of several living relatives.
It is the hope of this writer and the extensive cadre of baseball historians that in 2010, the family of Pete Hill will be able to join others at Cooperstown in celebration of his achievements.
Pete Hill is a shining star in the Seals/Hill family legacy and there is still much to be learned. But for now, it is enough to know that his family heritage lives on among the rural landscape and rich history of the African American community of Buena.
To be continued……
EDITOR’S NOTE: The research surrounding the story of Pete Hill has resulted in extensive information, but is by no means complete. The writer, Zann Nelson, former director of the Musuem of Culpeper History and longtime Star-Exponent contributing writer, is developing a book that will include “the rest of the story.” For those wishing to contact Nelson, you can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to her in care of the Culpeper Star-Exponent.