Buried Truth: The saga of Pete Hill; birthplace records

Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Buena, Culpeper Co., VA

Pete Hill’s Social Security application recorded Rapidan, Va., as his birthplace. However, in 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 lends more credence to the theory that Hill 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 the 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 (until recently) continued to serve residents along both banks of the river.

To the west of the village is the county of Madison, where a magisterial district carries the name Rapidan defining an area much closer to the river’s headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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, situated approximately two miles north of the village of Rapidan along the rail line.

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 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 Baptist 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. When it opened Robert Murray, an African-American was named the first postmaster.

Why was Buena not listed

as the birthplace?

Prior to state- 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, Hill 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, Va.” on the official documents is the very same Rapidan area of Culpeper County.

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 embedded in the subsoil of Buena or just passing through?

This column was previously published in the Orange County Review, May 31, 2018

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