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: Today
Part 3: Hill’s family history: Thursday
By Zann Nelson
The illustrious baseball career of John Preston “Pete” Hill is now and forever a matter of legendary record in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. However, to historians and family members alike, his personal stats are equally as important.
Research has proven irrefutably that he was born in Virginia. But Virginia is a vast state; was Pete born to the farm, the city, the seashore or the mountains? A birthplace often provides the single thread imbued with color, character and strength that connects the generations.
Pete Hill’s Social Security application recorded Rapidan, Va., as his birthplace. However, on one other document a different location was named. In 1916, while Hill was returning from the winter baseball season in Cuba aboard the S.S. Chalmette, the passenger manifest listed his birthplace as Buena Vista, Va.
Rather than confusing the issue, the seemingly insignificant factoid actually lends more credence to the theory that Pete was born in the village of Buena, near Rapidan, in Culpeper County, Va.
In the southeastern corner of Culpeper County, the Rapidan River acts as boundary between the counties of Orange and Culpeper. In 1853, Rapid Ann Station, so named for the river that skirted the streets of the tiny village, was established on the Culpeper County side to support the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. A post office was approved in 1854 and continues to serve residents along both banks of the river.
Slightly to the west of the village is the county of Madison, where one can also find the name Rapidan. The designation is for a magisterial district named for the same river, but defining an area much closer to the river’s headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Brief history of the railroads
The Orange and Alexandria (O&A) Railroad with its four depots in Culpeper County would bring untold commercial opportunities to the Southern agrarian populace until its presence became a sought after commodity during the American Civil War.
The four years of conflict ravaged the countryside and destroyed the railroad, but its rebuilding would have a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of African Americans living in Culpeper County.
Despite the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, Culpeper’s freedmen were undereducated, homeless and without viable means of support; prospects for a better life were meager. But they were not without faith.
In 1872, the O&A railroad merged with at least two other rail lines, changed its name to the Virginia Midland RR Co. and initiated connecting service to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and all points north. The steel roadways became the pathways to the true fruits of freedom and the beginnings of the Great Migration from the farm to the factory.
Buena or Buena Vista?
There are two localities in Virginia known by the name of Buena Vista: one near the town of Lexington and the other in King and Queen County, but neither is remotely close to Rapidan.
There is, however, a little community known as “Buena” located in Culpeper County, Va., and situated approximately two miles north of the village of Rapidan and directly across from mile marker No. 76 on the rail line.
Long before the discovery of some of the world’s finest granite lying just inches below a rather poor soil, Buena had become an enclave for the area’s newly freed blacks soon after the Civil War.
By the 1880s the settlement and surrounding area were populated with the families of Hill, Fry, Strother, Wilhoite, Price, Graves, Porter, Moore and numerous others.
Those who ventured north into unknown territory with the promise of a good job often left behind parents and siblings determined to set down their own roots in an old place many had learned to call home.
The Cedar Grove Church was founded in Buena in 1883 and soon to follow was the community school.
Unlike most rural hamlets of the period whose businesses were owned and operated by whites despite a largely black customer base, Buena was completely segregated. The businesses were all black owned and operated.
A post office at Buena was not established until 1892, but when it opened Robert Murray, an African American, was named the first postmaster.
Why was Buena not listed as the birthplace?
Prior to state- and/or county-mandated record keeping, individuals identified their residence with the nearest post office. Until 1892, even if one was born, lived or died in the village of Buena, all reports would have registered the event as having occurred in Rapidan.
Perhaps, while on that ship in 1916, knowing there was now a post office in Buena, Pete listed the tiny hamlet as his actual place of birth. Most likely, the word Vista was added arbitrarily by someone else, assuming that the more common name was intended.
Logic and facts lead to only one conclusion: the reference to “Rapidan, Virginia” on the official documents is the very same Rapidan area of Culpeper County.
Furthermore, at the time of Pete Hill’s birth, had there been a post office closer to his home, certainly the name given for the birthplace would have been Buena, Virginia.
Now that the physical location of the designated birthplace has been substantiated, perhaps the more important question remains to be answered: “Was the family of Pete Hill deeply imbedded in the granite subsoil of Buena or just passing through?”
Riding the rails from Rapidan to Pittsburgh
By Zann Nelson
How does a young black man from the impoverished rural regions of backwater Virginia, struggling with the new culture of the emancipated south, find his way to the baseball fields of Pittsburgh?
It varied: From the Underground Railroad to the real-deal, the steel rails of the “Iron Horse.”
In 1863, an estimated 93 percent of African Americans lived in the slave-holding Southern states. In 1900, an estimated 90 percent remained, but by 1930, the African-American population in the South had decreased by 40 percent.
Scholars place the first Great Migration of African Americans — those that would flee their homeland in the South for the “promised land” of the North — as occurring between the years of 1910-40.
When war-based factories in the industrial cities of the north cranked out production prior to World War I and the influx of foreign-based immigrant labor declined, the job market for blacks exploded.
In Culpeper and surrounding areas, the migration started much earlier. Travelers bound for a new life headed most frequently for the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The 1880 census reveals vast numbers of African Americans residing in Pittsburgh having been born in Virginia. They moved north to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons:
Motivation — Poverty, lack of work, racial violence, Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination and a lack of educational opportunities.
Appeal — Employment, racial equality and opportunity for advanced education
News — Tales of the “promised land” traveled along the path of the rail line by word of mouth and the distribution of black-owned and operated newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Currier and the Chicago Defender.
The word was circulated among the community and centered in the church. Family members who had already made the journey were the best source of information.
Means — The large industries — meatpackers, railroads, steel mills — sent recruiters into the ripe rural areas, seeking able-bodied workers eager to work for a lesser wage.
There is precedent for the practice of paying the transportation cost for a worker and possibly the immediate family.
The Culpeper exodus
Blacks from Culpeper began to flee in the 1870s, but why earlier than many others?
Their flight to a better life was facilitated by the construction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, built in 1851-1853.
The tracks were laid through the outlying parts of the county on fields that were less than fertile and would become pockets for black settlements. Placed on these tracks were four stations in Culpeper County — Brandy, Culpeper, Mitchells and Rapidan — making it easy for one to envision the burgeoning communication network.
The original O&A railroad moved between Orange County and the city of Alexandria. In 1872, a new development would alter the lives of those who lived along the rail.
New mergers called for new agreements, and as of 1872, the newly named Midland Railroad began offering passenger service from Alexandria to Washington, D.C. and points north. For the first time, a traveler could board the train in Rapidan and ride well past the Mason Dixon Line.