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.