Excited to announce that I have signed a contract and my historical novel, The Bereaved, will be in bookstores in fall 2023. Prepare yourself for nattering and humblebrags with a side of shameless self promotion.
We owned property in Virginia and we owned property in Maryland, and unfree people were part of that chattel property at the time. There is very little left of the actual plantations in the state of Maryland, but surprisingly, there is a fairly large influence left behind. Our Bailey, Upshaw and Hillary ancestors lived in Maryland in the 1700s and claimed land plats that were very large in comparison to the quarter sections of land in the Southern states. We visited the Largo and Marlboro areas in Maryland to find traces of the former Largo, Meadows, and Beall’s Pleasure, and found essentially nothing like avenues of trees, brick houses or swanky pillars. Instead, we found parking lots, freeway onramps, and a toxic waste disposal unit. But the neighborhoods have traces everywhere, to wit—
Maryland is lousy with Beales and Upshers, with Largos and Marlboros and so on. The very scope of their plantations is astonishing—how much land they must have had in cultivation. Maybe it just seems big, under the parking lots, onramps, and Lowe’s shopping centers. But these plantations were veritable villages. They sprawled. And the markers today, the length of Old Largo Road, for example — it just keeps reappearing on the map. According to my measurements (and Google maps), the Old Largo Road, which was there before the newer Route 202 Largo Road, is more than six miles long. How much of that was within or alongside Largo itself? How large was Largo? I clearly have more exploration to do, but as one of the landowners in the area, Thomas Beall or Beale (Bailey) would have owned a piece or pieces of land that today would be worth millions. Many millions.
Meanwhile, history is underfoot in Maryland in other ways. How do you get to Baltimore from Burtonsville? You take the Old Baltimore Road.
You want a sandwich? Stop at the Sisters Sandwiches & Such, which used to be the Higgins Tavern, built in 1823, or go hiking in the Blue Mash , where the enslaved used to hide from their captors but now you can do some nice jogging or birdwatching. You can trip over history, traces of the past, if you’re not looking, and it’s everywhere, once you start to pay attention.
The plantations in Maryland were underneath parking lots, and in one case, a toxic waste drop-off facility, so you can no longer see what used to be. But then there’s the Three Sisters Plantation, which has become a housing development, and the main house has been clad in vinyl siding. It’s still there, but not. The Beale houses are gone but their neighbor’s place survived, from 1700s era—Darnall’s Chance was their closest neighbor, and that house remains.
I wish I knew what to say beyond, “This is weird, can you believe it? Look at this!” I joke with people about how they owe me back rent, as if I ever had a thing to do with that era, the ownership of these places, or the captives they enslaved.
But I grew up in houses that my parents owned, and my four siblings and I all went to college. We all went to Cotillion (ballroom dance and comportment classes) and learned to dance the foxtrot and waltz, how to sit and stand and wear gloves and greet our elders. We know how to be courteous in any social situation and which fork to use. We’ve been to the symphony, opera, and ballet, and know how to eat in a restaurant. We have books in our homes, and we enjoy learning. There’s a certain class awareness as well as race awareness in how we live our lives, some more than others. I believe these attitudes are inherited, taught along the way. My great-grandmother sneering at people who worked with their hands ripples down. We worry what people think of us. We don’t want to let down the side.
The privilege is real. I don’t know any other way. I don’t feel guilty about the life I live. I do feel that acknowledgement is vital. We got here because someone else did the work so we didn’t have to. We got here because someone else paid the true cost. It’s deeper than that, but I’m still thinking it over.
We have been in Virginia for some days now, heading first to Accomack County, and thence to Chincoteague, where we had two days of beach, birds, and a boat. I posted a few videos and counted birds. Seeing the bald eagles made my day, and more views of cardinals, Carolina wrens and chickadees, and the black vulture, plus seabirds, added to my pleasure. We had meant to go to Williamsburg and see the homes and buildings but we ended up going to the Jamestown archaeological site instead, which was less about reproducing the past and more about revealing it. Let’s just say I didn’t realize they had resorted to cannibalism. They did.
We went on to Shackleford’s, an unincorporated area near West Point and the top of the York River, past a smelly paper pulp company. The Shacklefords were a family that married into the Bailey family about 5 generations ago. Wealth follows wealth, and Frances brought her family’s slaving wealth to the Baileys. The area is farming land, with fields planted with winter wheat, oil-seed radish and other covering crops
The area formerly known as the Shacklefords plantation.
It is pretty country (once the living areas of the Rappahannock tribe), with clear fields, cleared by someone who was likely not a Shackleford, and pretty houses, the oldest most certainly built by enslaved humans. I try to imagine what it was like back then. This part of the country is so forested, there are hundreds of thick trees in every direction, except where it has been cleared — I cannot imagine clearing so many trees to make a tobacco field, a cornfield, a wheat field. All by hand, using hand tools and elbow grease. Long days, Sundays off, perhaps, maybe. I have no idea what it was like to be enslaved, nor to enslave others. It boggles the mind.
We went on to the next site, on our way to Norfolk, to an industrial town called Newport News. I should say under the town, because where there are docks and cranes and container ships, there was once the plantation called St. Marie’s Mount, and enough enslaved workers to make it tun: tobacco and food crops for the family, farm animals to fill the table. Daniel Gookin owned the property (taken or bought from the Nansemond and Kecoughtan). He was the administrator of American Indian affairs, or whatever it was called in 1680-ish, the first in American history, for better or worse. He held the land on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the James River. The soil is sandy and the fishing is very good, but I don’t now how it was to farm there. His son took land across the Bay at Nansemond between the Nansemond River and Chuckatuck Creek, and so they moved along, as they sought fertile soils and better/different/more land. I couldn’t get close enough to stand on St. Marie’s Mount land so I got as close as I could on public land—the King-Lincoln Park fishing pier.
I read off the names of those enslaved by our family in Virginia, and collected some sand and razor clamshells.
I have been thinking about our great-grandmother, Willie Doris (Upshaw) Bailey, that elegant, Southern, snooty lady, who fished in hat and gloves and swore her sons would never work with their hands. She couldn’t abide the song, “Marching Through Georgia.” I have thought her weak and silly and overdramatic, and dismissed her feelings with the wave of a hand. But as we were driving along the backroads of Virginia, my sister said something like she was glad we went one way and not the other because there were more birds to see, “and birding trumps family history.”
As soon as she said the T-word, I flinched. “God, don’t say that word,” I said, “I hate that name.” And then I got it. And I felt—a kinship. I understood the feeling. I know what she meant with her visceral reaction. The South is complicated. So is family. I’m still wondering and searching.
“On your left, hidden almost totally by the trees, is Warwick, whose oldest section is believed to date back to the 17th century. In 1749, the house’s mistress, Rachel Revell Upshur, was bitten by a rabid fox and developed rabies. Her servants smothered her in her feather bed to end her suffering. There are tales of ghostly visitations by Rachel, and when it rains, it is said, her blood still appears on the doorstep of Warwick, left there when she was carried into the house after the fox attack.” — Washington Post, March 31, 1989
So we went here yesterday. It was a little off the beaten path but worth the venture. I thought it was a ruin or a shell, abandoned, but it turned out that someone still lived there. But as we drove in the dirt lane (clearly marked as a public street, but what used to be the grand entrance to the 4000 acre Warwick plantation), there were signs of life. A child’s play structure, curtains, a mowed lawn at the smaller residence on the right… and on the left? A graveyard. An old cemetery, for family.
But the NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere made us reluctant to get out and explore. It’s private property. People have guns. The haunted house legend has attracted lookyloos. They are annoyed. I will write to the local historical society and see if I can determine who is buried there. But one thing I’m betting: it will be White folks, not the enslaved. Not out front where everyone could see.
I really just wanted to see the ruins but it turned out not to be a ruin, so I was unable to explore or do more than snap some quick photos from the car, and take a soil sample for memento. People get techy about their property, with good reason.
We left there, and drove farther up the peninsula. At another point we crossed the Mattapoony River and that is where another Upsher had several thousand acres and of course a lot of enslaved workers to do his bidding.
“Take the oyster-shell road to the left and drive for six-tenths of a mile, until you reach an attractive mansion, Brownsville. John Upshur built Brownsville in 1806, adding the wooden portions three years later when visiting relatives made the main house too cramped for him. President Grover Cleveland is said to have stayed here during his fishing trips to the barrier islands. The mansion and grounds are owned today by the Virginia Coastal Reserve, which makes its headquarters there.” — Washington Post, March 31, 1989
We were unable to get to that spot, Brownsville. Time is flying and we have been on the move constantly. I have been trying to keep track of all that takes place, and am grateful for my phone. The sheer number of photos is overwhelming. We stopped for two nights in Chincoteague, to rest and see birds, wild ponies, and take a pontoon boat out to see the islands and water. We saw dolphins out in the open water, and so many seabirds. It was truly magical. Excellent seafood and a picnic on the beach. I named the enslaved people who had lived in Virginia while I stood on the beach, the great Atlantic behind me. See my Facebook page for that video.
Tomorrow we head toward Newport News (a former family plantation), and then to Richmond, stopping at Shackelfords along the way — more family heritage there. And more after that. Thanks for reading along.
We bought apples from the farm table at the Hogs and Hens Festival in Abbeville, and my favorite has got to be Arkansas Black: The crunchiest apple ever, with a durable skin that you have to really bite through, but that makes them good for storing or shipping. I had a bite of a Jonagold and it was all but mushy. NOPE.
It’s a bold name, Arkansas Black. The color is red as rich wine, and the flesh creamy inside. If I could buy those regularly, I would, but as a once-in-a-lifetime treat, delightful. Similarly, this road trip is not something I can do every day, but at least I have this opportunity to do it. I have been posting videos every day since Wednesday and finding them cathartic, breaking silence on the lost people who lived and worked on my ancestors’ plantations. It brings out the trolls, but I am quick with the delete button and the block function.
I do not, as Jane Austen once wrote, write for such dull elves.
There was no land to visit nor acknowledge, although we were on Cherokee lands earlier today, at the Saluda River, and here in Fayetteville, we’re in Manu-Catawba , Skaruhreh/Tuscarora and Lumbee traditional territories.
We stopped for a break at the Saluda Riverwalk and looked for birds. We saw double crested cormorants (common on the West Coast), but I had never seen a kildeer nor a pine warbler or American redstart before. I had many good looks at my new friend the Northern cardinal. It was a good (healing) birding day out in nature. Also saw turtles in the river and sunning on rocks. And what do you know? General Sherman burned down the textile mill right here when he marched through to Atlanta. So we had a little history lesson as well.
As we continued north and east, we finally saw more cotton fields. There was so much rain earlier in the week that we expect they were waiting for it to dry out before cutting. My ancestors grew cotton, or rather, their enslaved workers plowed, planted, grew it, cut it, hauled it to the gin or seeded it by hand. I needed to see a Southern cottonfield. It felt necessary. My next hope is to see a tobacco field or otherwise connect in some way with a tobacco farm or shop.
I made a video this evening when we settled into the hotel, when I had a little alone time to set up and prepare. I have so many spreadsheets, detailing as much as I have gathered about plantation names, locations, acreage, crops, where and when, who owned it, what generation it was, and when that branch joined into the family. I look backward to see what wealth each new branch brought in. Most wives seem to have come from landed families. Wealth marries wealth. There are not a lot of Cinderellas in my history. Wealth is generational, mostly, and usually the next generation does as well or better.
I looked at the land rolling by, at the many dried-up soybean fields, parched without enough rain, and I felt the slight humidity of an October afternoon, thinking on how awful it must have been in high summer before electricity, ice water and air conditioning. No wonder there were dog-trots between houses, screened porches for sleeping, and palmetto fans. Life is usually lovely, if you’re genteel and wealthy. Life was hard, so hard, for the unfree.
I think every day, what must it have been like? I feel it, I hear it, I wonder and think, but I can’t know. I can only imagine.