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  • Writer's pictureHistory Revealed

A French Connection in Virginia

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. Image courtesy of Molly Kerr.

With the catastrophe ravaging Paris with the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, we wanted to take a moment to appreciate France's contributions and evidence in the Glassford ledgers in this week's #TranscriptionTuesday.

When looking at people's names, the Virginia communities of Colchester and Alexandria had French Mason, as well as, Daniel and John French. No specific locations mentioned in the ledgers reference French origins (or at least contain the word "French"), but there are a few instances of items with French in their names. In a continuation of our Facebook discussion from 12 February 2019, we find the colonial stores in Alexandria and Colchester had access to the global economy and connections to France, even when Great Britain and France were at war.

Alexander Henderson's orders to Glasgow, Scotland, for goods for the Colchester store provide us three items that were defined as "French": indigo, gunflints, and women's kid gloves. Henderson's order in 1759 included six pounds of "French Indigo" and a dozen "Womens Kid Gloves, French fash[ione]d". In 1765, Henderson ordered 1000 "French Gun flints" and again, women's gloves, this time described as two dozen "French kid".

French Indigo

Indigo is a dye that has been in use for thousands of years. Of the over 300 species, two are primarily used in the creation of the dye: indigofera tinctoria (native to India and Asia) and indigofera suffructiosa, sometimes identified as indigofera anil (native to South and Central America).[1] It was most likely the indigofera anil or “French” indigo that Henderson sought for sale in his shop in Colchester. Although indigo production was on the rise in South Carolina by the late 1740s (and favored the indigofera anil species for growing), by using the moniker of "French", we assume Henderson requested the indigo being grown in the French West Indies for its premium quality not in South Carolina with its perceived lesser quality.[2]

The French West Indies included the island districts of Guadaloupe and Martinique, and eventually expanded throughout the Caribbean during the colonial era. Saint-Domingue (the present day Haiti) produced the finest quality 'french' indigo. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

From 1759 to 1765, Henderson made five requests for indigo, but only in his earliest request did he include the modifier "French", otherwise it was simply described as good or very good indigo.[3] None of the purchases identified in the ledgers to date place any kind of qualifier, whether it be french, good, or very good, and only described the dye as indigo.

In thinking about where the indigo was sourced, we need to acknowledge the enslaved labor that went into its creation, especially when identifying its manufacture in the French West Indies where it would have been made entirely with enslaved labor. Like tobacco, indigo came to the global market through the strength, patience, and knowledge of enslaved Africans who tended the plants as they grew and then, in the hottest months of the year, harvested and processed the indigo into the product available for sale in Colchester and Alexandria, Virginia.

In October, 1760, George Haden purchased one ounce of indigo for 1 shilling, 3 pence - not an inexpensive purchase (Colchester 1760/1761, folio 35).

In the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger in which much of the requested six pounds of french indigo would have been sold, just under one pound of indigo was purchased in eleven transactions. The price varied from 8 pence/ounce to its greatest at 1 shilling, 4 pence; the most common price was 1 shilling, 3 pence per ounce.[4] At the moment, there is little evidence for the price variation found in the ledgers; we assume it may have been a combination of availability, as well as, social standing and credit with the store, but a fuller understanding awaits our database.[5]

Of the three items described, the 'French indigo' passed through the greatest number of hands on its way to its use in Colchester, Virginia: from the enslaved Africans and the local sellers in the French West Indies, to ships transporting it where it most likely made its way to Great Britain, to the British market where it was purchased by the John Glassford & Company, then back on ships heading to the Virginia colony for sale by Scottish factors and purchased by colonists in Colchester, who may have provided it to enslaved people to dye fabrics for clothing. From start to finish, enslaved Africans played a role in indigo's production and use.

French Gunflints

Absalom Thrift made only two purchases in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1767: a hank of silk and six french gunflints (Alexandria 1767/1768 ledger, folio 160).

Of the three elements needed to fire a weapon in the 18th century, gunflints were the least purchased at the stores in Alexandria and Colchester, Virginia, while gunpowder and shot were common. The most likely reason? Powder and shot were a one and done use, while gunflints could be used repeatedly for firing pistols and muskets. At the stores, gunflints were generally purchased by the half-dozen as seen by Absalom Thrift's purchase at the Alexandria store in 1767 (folio 160). What is unusual is the inclusion of 'french' in connection to Thrift's gunflints.

In 1765, Alexander Henderson's order for 1000 'French Gun flints' marked his largest request for gunflint - and the only one in which he described the gunflint desired as 'french'. In 1760, he ordered 300 gunflints and 300 best gunflints; in 1764, he ordered an additional 300 gunflints.[6] Even without the descriptor as 'French', the gunflint sold by Henderson was likely to be from France.

Gunflints were manufactured in both England and France in the 18th century with French gunflints being the preferred. Typically, French gunflints were made of a honey colored chert while the English gunflints were typically gray chert; their D-shape was the same, it was their manufacture that distinguished a French from an English gunflint with the French type dominating the market during the mid-to-late 18th-century.[8]

French Kid Gloves

Alexander Henderson made twenty-two requests for gloves for both men and women from John Glassford in Glasgow, Scotland.[9] He described the gloves as glazed, colored, shammy, tanned, kid, leather, lamb, buckskin, washed, and bruised. Whether his 1759 order for "French fashioned" meant they were made in France or meant to look like gloves made in France is unknown.

Only women's gloves were described by Henderson as kid and/or French in style in the ledgers. In 1759, in addition to the french fashioned kid gloves, Henderson ordered women's kid gloves; in 1760, he ordered women's glazed kid gloves from London (note he specifically described the location from whence they should come); in 1763, Henderson ordered women's best kid white glazed gloves; and in 1765, in addition to the french kid gloves, Henderson ordered women's glazed kid gloves.

Women's gloves in the 18th century would have been full-length from finger tips to elbows as gown sleeves generally extended to just beyond the elbow, and women in the upper classes were expected to limit the amount of skin exposed.[10]

Gloves purchased in the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger have descriptors of: Black (Womens), Bruised, Buck, Kid (Fine), Lamb, Leather (Washed, Womens), Mens, Womens. None were described as French, and only two pairs were described as kid (without gender associated with them). However, when we look at the Alexandria 1767/1768 ledger, three pairs of 'french kid gloves' were purchased in late August, early September 1768. Again, without an indication of gender, but given Henderson's orders, we assume the gloves were for women and await our database to be able to compare descriptions, purchase price, purchasers, and dates to make a clearer determination.

Thomas Lawson purchased 6 pairs of gloves (4 pairs of glazed kid and 2 pairs of French kid) in Colchester on 12 March 1766 (Colchester 1765/1766 ledger, folio 154).

Further Research Awaits

These three items likely represent only a few purchased by customers at the Colchester and Alexandria stores that came from and/or were inspired by France. While the stores may have been located within a British colony, the customer demands for merchandise went well beyond the shores of Great Britain and included goods from all over the world. We look forward to future research opportunities into the global economy as we work toward the creation of a database to catalog all the purchases made in these John Glassford & Company store ledgers from 1758 to 1769.


[1] Gösta Sandberg, Indigo Textiles: Technique and History (London: A & C Black, 1989), pp. 19 (as found in Anne Mattson, "Indigo in the Early Modern World," University of Minnesota, Accessed 16 April 2019.); Chris Parker, "Indigofera suffruticosa (Anil indigo)." CABI Invasive Species Compendium (, 2013. Accessed 16 April 2019.

[2] Virginia Jelatis, "Indigo." South Carolina Encyclopedia ( Accessed 16 April 2019.

[3] Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden. "Alexander Henderson's Scheme of Goods: Indigo." ( Accessed 16 April 2019.

The 1759 order was the smallest amount ordered, at only six pounds of indigo. In 1762 and 1763, Henderson ordered twelve pounds each year; in 1764, he ordered eight pounds; and in 1765, he ordered 20 pounds of "very good indigo".

[4] Alexander Henderson, et. al.  Ledger 1760-1761, Colchester, Virginia, from the John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Microfilm Reel 58.

[5] Unfortunately, in all cases, the retail pricing was somewhat subjective and dependent upon the social standing of the account holder in relation to the store(s). The price variation was subtle, but definitely present and until we conduct a more thorough comparison of shopper to pricing, we are unable to identify additional examples of purchases when no modifier exists, i.e. kid gloves, gunflint, or indigo.

[6] Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden. "Alexander Henderson's Scheme of Goods: Gunflint." ( Accessed 16 April 2019.

[7] AECOM, "Phase IB/II Archaeological Investigations of the Gunnar’s Run South Site (36Ph162) I-95/GIR Roadway Improvement Corridor Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," Digging I95, January 27, 2016, Accessed 16 April 2019.

[8] Torben Bjarke Ballin. "'State of the art' of British gunflint research, with special focus on the early gunflint workshop at Dun Eistean, Lewis." Post-Medieval Archaeology 46(1), 2012, pp. 131-134. ( Accessed 16 April 2019)

[9] Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden. "Alexander Henderson's Scheme of Goods: Gloves." ( Accessed 16 April 2019.

[10] Baumgarten, Linda. "Looking at Eighteenth-Century Clothing." The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ( Accessed 16 April 2019.

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