In the fall of 1847, farmer and slave owner William Macon Waller was walking a coffle of about two dozen slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss. Once in Mississippi, he planned to sell them to settle some debts.
The group was traveling what’s been called the “overland route,” 900-some miles through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. While Waller probably rode a horse or a mule, it’s likely the slaves walked as far as 25 or 30 miles a day. Some were small children.
During the journey, Waller wrote letters home to his wife, Sarah. He wrote about a variety of things, among them the progress they’d made, if any of the slaves had been sick, and about things he saw along the way.
Writing from Washington County, Va., on Oct. 4, 1847, Waller tells Sarah about a fascinating family he saw in Wythe County:
In passing on, I meet occationally [sic] rare if not interesting sights. At one house in Wythe County I saw a family of many children four of whom two males & two females were dwarfs.
The mails [sic] one thirty-eight and the other twenty not as large by a good deal as Ben. The females one twenty-seven and the other fully grown not as large as Mat. All the senses of each perfect. The balance of the children of good sise [sic] and their parents large.
The family that so intrigued Waller was the Walters family of Wythe County, Va., four members of which — Hiram, Roxana, Catharine and William — were dwarfs, or as we’d say today, “little people.”
According to newspaper accounts from across the U.S., for many years the siblings performed as the “Virginia Dwarf Family.” Hiram, the oldest, used the stage name “Major Walters.” It was apparently a common practice at the time for people in show business to use military titles.
A Nov. 5, 1836, article in the Charlotte (N.C.) Journal tells of a visit the Virginia Dwarf Family made to that city:
The Dwarfs—We among a number of other citizens of this place, paid a visit to the family of Dwarfs exhibited in this town on Saturday evening last, and we were truly astonished at this singular freak of nature.
The oldest of the four, Maj. Hiram Walters, was 26 years old last April, weighs 43 pounds, and is 3 feet 7 inches high. His sisters, Miss Roxana, who is 20 years of age, weighs 30 pounds, and is 3 feet high, and Miss Catharine, is 18 years old, weights 30 1/2 pounds, and is 3 feet 1 inch high, and his brother Master William, is in his ninth year, weighs 22 pounds, and is 2 feet 1 inch high.
These four dwarfs are children of the same parents and are perfectly formed. They are cheerful and communicative, and altho’ uneducated, they are very shrewd in their remarks.
Their combined weight is 125 1/2 pounds. Their father, Mr. Michael Walters, of Virginia, accompanies them, and carries with him certificates, to show that they are the offspring of himself and wife.
We think them well worthy the attention of the curious.
As one might expect, most stories about the Virginia Dwarf Family were politically incorrect by today’s standards, including observances such as this one made in the Augusta (Ga.) Constitutionalist:
The Major … is full of life, and when his two sisters have him by the arm, struts as large as a peacock. He appears to be of a lively turn; says he should like to get married, could he find a young lady to his fancy, and he seems to think, with the old Dutchman, that a ‘man ish [sic] a man, if he’s no bigger as my dumb [sic].’
It appears that sometime around 1851, younger brother William left show business. Perhaps he was seeking a life out of the spotlight. If he was, he didn’t find it. When William married Elizabeth Sawyers in August of that year, newspapers all over the country took notice, running this story from the Wytheville Republican:
Married, in Ashe, North Carolina, on Wednesday, 13th ultimo, Mr. Wm. Walters (a dwarf, about twenty three years old, and no more than thirty inches tall, and weight thirty five pounds) to Miss Elizabeth Sawyers (a full grown woman) daughter of Martin Sawyers, all of Wythe county, Virginia.
When William and Elizabeth had a daughter, Jane, four years later, it also didn’t escape the curiosity of the press. On Aug. 30, 1855, the Richmond Dispatch reported that “full grown” Elizabeth was “very dutiful and obedient to her little lord, and their union has been blessed by a fine baby, which shows no signs of dwarfage!”
The same article also reported that William’s older brother, Hiram, had no intention of marrying:
He wouldn’t get married, he said — he wasn’t such a fool — he wasn’t so green as his brother to be moping at home with his wife and baby — not he. He was going to be free, and go where he please — he was.
In May of 1861, Hiram, Roxana and Catharine, accompanied by their younger sister, Nancy, and two showmen, John Burnell and J.H. McDaniel, arrived in New York City aboard the schooner Mary Harris.
There, according to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers, the Virginia Dwarf Family was scheduled to perform at Barnum’s American Museum:
More Novelty — At Barnum’s American Museum there is a most extraordinary family of dwarfs on exhibition. They consist of Major Walters, fifty-one years old, and only thirty-eight inches in height, his two sisters Roxana and Kate Walters, forty-two and forty-five years of age, and only thirty inches in height, and a younger sister, who stands five feet and nine inches in height. The family are from Virginia and the Major declares himself a staunch Union man and ready to fight for the government.
What happened to Hiram, Roxana and Catharine after that isn’t clear. All three appear to disappear from the public record after June of 1861.
One story that made it home to Wytheville was that the siblings died of smallpox in New York in 1861 and were buried at Weehawken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J. Newspapers do report smallpox in the area at that time, but the cemetery has no record of their burials.
Interestingly, showman John Burnell, who married Nancy Walters, was buried at Weehawken in 1881, after dying penniless in New York. It’s unknown at this point if Nancy, who died in 1884, also is buried at Weehawken.
Another story that made it home was that Hiram, Roxana and Catharine died sometime during the Civil War, while performing in Europe. It’s said they were even presented to the King and Queen of England.
(I’ve found no evidence of that, either, but perhaps it was a more romantic story to tell than dying of smallpox.)
Things didn’t work out so well for William, either. William was reportedly a rough character, prone to brandishing weapons. In April of 1859, while running a grocery store in the east Tennessee town of Union, William shot and killed a man named Elijah Cross.
William was charged with and convicted of murder, as reported in the North-Carolinian and other newspapers. The North-Carolinian also revealed a motive:
Convicted of Murder — Wm. Walters, a dwarf, well known about Bristol, has been convicted at Blountsville, Tenn. of murder in the first degree. Walters shot a man named Cross for making improper overtures to Mrs. Walters, who is said to be a woman of unusual personal attractions.
What happened after that is unclear. A Dec. 7, 1859, article in the New Bern (N.C) Daily Progress indicates William was granted a new trial and the case was moved to nearby Greeneville, Tenn.
Some have said the conviction was eventually overturned.
It hardly matters, however, as William was to face a bad end himself a few years later. On Dec. 30, 1863, the Wytheville Dispatch reported the following, under the headline “Murder in Wythe County”:
We are informed that Wm. Walters, the little dwarf (who was only 3 feet 2 inches high and 40 years old) was murdered on the evening of the 24th, by a man named Roberts.
It appears that they were returning together from a still-house at which place Walters had exhibited a considerable amount of money to possess which by Roberts, is thought to have led to the commission of the horrid deed.
Roberts was heard to say by a man named Etter that he had killed Walters, but pretended it was done in self-defence [sic]. Roberts is still at large but it is thought cannot escape as he is well known.
A decade later, William was still making headlines, if only as part of an apparent feud between rival area newspapers and without sympathy from reporters. On Feb. 4, 1873, the Bristol (Tenn.) News reported the following:
The Wytheville Enterprise says the dwarf Wm. Walters was not killed in the manner stated by the correspondent of the Courier Journal, but that his taking off occurred in a gambling spree near Cullop’s mill in Wythe Co., Va., with one Steve Roberts a wooden legged individual, who, because Walters won all his money, cut his throat from ear to ear, and then limped out of Virginia into Kentucky, and has never been heard from since.
Well, well! Cock Robin being dead, it is immaterial who killed him.
19 thoughts on “The story of the ‘Virginia Dwarf Family’”
The dwarf story is very interesting. It brings back to mind the family of black dwarfs who lived near Altavista in the 40’s. And of course, before and after… they would walk to Lynchburg on saturdays. I often saw one or a family group always on the west side of ft 29 troddong along as we drove by.
Thanks! I was researching William Macon Waller and saw a mention of the family in his letters. There was no name given, only that they lived in Wythe County. I thought, “I bet I can find out who they were!” So, off on a tangent I went. I wonder if anyone else will recall the Altavista family. We’ll see. Thanks for reading!
Very interesting story about the Walters dwarfs. I am a ggggg granddaughter of their grandfather Michael Walters. I sometimes wonder if there were any more Walters descendants with Dwarfism other than the known four?
Very interesting Suzanne! Love it!
At last pictures! I’ve heard about these “little people” for quite some time 😉
Thanks for reading! I was very excited to find the photo!
A fascinating story. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks, Lynn! I’m hoping to one day discover what happened to the three in New York. I think it will require a trip to New York, however. Hopefully, I can do that!
Please let me know if you find anything new. I’m a Walters descendant. Their grandfather was my ggggg grandfather. I’ve never been able to find any additional information on the Walters Dwarfs.
*Their grandfather was Micheal Walters Sr. son of George and Christiana Cruey Walters. Michael and his father were born in Germany and Christiana was born in Holland. Some think they were born in England but that’s positively not true.
I really like the style of your writing as in personalizes what could otherwise just be data.
Thanks, very much!!!
Thank you so much for sharing this information! The Walter’s siblings would be my first cousins, several times removed. My father on this side of the family also has a dwarf first cousin, so there may be a genetic factor connecting this. The picture is so interesting, as well as the story of the youngest sibling, William, very tragic. It appears his wife, Elizabeth may have died only a few years later, and she was even younger than he. I am in the process of finding out what may have happened to her. Do you know the origin where the ship’s manifest of the Mary Harris shown above sailed from? I cannot find any other record of these siblings other than what I have read in Mary B. Kegley’s “Early Adventurers on The Western Waters Vol. 5,” p.405 which also repeats the legend that they were presented to the King and Queen of England on tour.
Hi Staci! I have a lot more information than what I’ve included on the blog and I’d be happy to share it with you, including information about Elizabeth’s death and William and Elizabeth’s children, and lots of articles about the Virginia Dwarf Family and their performances around the country. Send me an email (email@example.com) and we’ll start talking! Thanks!
I would love to see all of your information. Is it online?
It’s not online, other than this story, but I’d be happy to send you some things via email.
I am also a first cousin several times removed. I was curious to know if there were any others in later generations with dwarfism too. I have a lot of genealogy information on the Walters family but have been stalled on George Walters who would have been a great grandfather of the Walters Dwarfs.
This is my email address. firstname.lastname@example.org
I came across this again today and don’t know if I sent it to you or not. The Walters dwarfs grandfather was the brother of Michael Walters who was the son of my 5 greats grandfather, Michael Sr.
Do you have any info on William/Billy Walters children with Elizabeth/Betsy Sawyers? They would have been born in the 1850s or 60s. From what I’ve been able to find, they might have had two children, Jane and Michael, but I can’t find much about them anywhere. Would like to find a direct descendant of Billy. Thanks!