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Tales of Old Nansemond: The tragedy at Scotts Creek (1901)

Three Drowned in Nansemond – Sons of John Eley Perish in the River Sunday – Three lads, sons of John Eley, (colored), were drowned in Nansemond river, near Exit yesterday.

Four brothers were on the scene, when one, aged about 6 years, got beyond his depth. A second plunged in after him and was followed by a third, who rescued the little fellow. The two, however, became exhausted, and the third boy jumped in to save them, when all three were drowned. The little fellow, for whom the others lost their lives gave the alarm, but it was too late. The ages of those drowned were 8, 10 and 12 years, respectively.”1

Gave Lives for Brother – Two Little Colored Heroes Perished in Noble Attempt at Rescue – Seeing the peril of a younger brother, who was being swept into deep water by a strong current, two sons of John Ely, colored, who lives near Exit, Va., this afternoon gave up their own lives in a frantic effort to save him. The youngest boy, aged about eight years, was bathing in Scotts Creek, half a mile from Exit, when his brothers, aged about ten and twelve, who were on the bank, heard a pitiful appeal for help. Turning, they saw the boy was waging an unequal battle with the tide, and with no thought of their own danger, threw themselves into the stream. They managed to reach the drowning youth, but their combined efforts were not enough to get him ashore. A spectator says the two older boys, when they realized the futility of dragging out their little brother, could have saved themselves, but they would not, and with locked arms all went down together. The bodies were recovered.2


From the details provided in the articles, the three brothers who tragically drowned were the sons of John and Mary L. Edwards Eley (Ely), who lived in the Chuckatuck district of Nansemond County (now the City of Suffolk), Virginia, between 1870 and 1920.

As the three brothers died in 1901, I looked to the 1900 U. S. Census for more information. The family was documented in the Chuckatuck Borough of Nansemond County (Suffolk). The household included John Eley (37), day laborer, wife Mary (40). daughters Louhalia (7), and Maggie J. (2), and sons J. E. (13), R. H. (12), C. H. (9), and J. T. (5). Unfortunately, the sons are identified only by their initials in the census record. However, the ages of the three elder sons are very close to the estimates contained within the two articles by the Richmond Times Dispatch, and the Washington Post. If correct, that would mean that the three brothers who perished that fateful day in Scott’s Creek were J. E. Eley, R. H. Eley, and C. H. Eley.3


1900 U. S. Census. The family of John Eley, Chuckatuck District, Nansemond County, Virginia.

In the 1910 U. S. Census, the family of John and Mary L Edwards Eley are again documented in Chuckatuck Borough, including daughters Louhalia (17), and Maggie J. (13), but absent sons J. E., R. H., and C. H Eley. Only son John Thomas Eley (15), the youngest son identified in the 1900 U. S. Census, and witness to the tragedy, and Roosevelt Eley (8) are documented. Mary L. Edwards Eley is noted as the mother of nine children, with four surviving by 1910.4


1910 U. S. Census. The family of John and Mary L. Edwards Eley, Chuckatuck District, Nansemond County, Virginia. Sons J. E. Eley, R. H. Eley, and C. H. Eley are not documented in the household.

It is not known where J. E., R. H. or C. H. Eley, are buried. Their mother, Mary L. Edwards Eley, died on July 8, 1913, in her home on Milners Road, Suffolk. Her daughter, Louhalia, was the informant. The location of Mary’s burial was documented as “Nansemond County,” with undertaker B. B. Elliott, in charge of the remains. 5

It is possible the family rests in Oakland Cemetery (Little Bethep Baptist Church Cemetery), a historically African American cemetery located behind Oakland Christian Church in the Chuckatuck Borough of Suffolk. Currently, the cemetery has many unmarked graves. We are working with the members of Little Bethel Baptist Church on the identities of the individuals in unmarked graves.


Oakland Cemetery (Little Bethel Church Cemetery), November, 2020. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

  1. “Three Drowned in Nansemond,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 25 June 1901, p. 10, col. 3; ProQuest, image copy (https://www,lva,virginia.gov: accessed 13 November 2019), Historical Newspaper Collection.
  2. “Gave Lives for Brother,” The Washington Post (Washington, D. C.), 24 June 1901, p. 4, col. 2; ProQuest, image copy (http://www.lva.virginia.gov: accessed 13 November 2019), Historical Newspaper Collection.
  3. “U. S. Census 1900,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 November 2019); Chuckatuck, Nansemond County, Virginia, dist. 0023; p. 37; citing “Year: 1900; Census Place: Chuckatuck, Nansemond, Virginia; Page: 19; Enumeration District: 0023; FHL microfilm: 1241719.”
  4. “U. S. Census 1910,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 November 2019); Chuckatuck, Nansemond County, Virginia, dist. 0008; p. 38; citing “Year: 1910; Census Place: Chuckatuck, Nansemond, Virginia; Roll: T624_1636; Page: 19B; Enumeration District: 0008; FHL microfilm: 1375649.”
  5. Ancestry.com. “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014,” database online (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 13 November 2019), entry for Mary L. Eley, death certificate no. 17703, Suffolk, Virginia.

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