I get a lot of big ideas, some of which I actually follow through with.
For example, I’ve run several ultra-marathons, biked the 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail, and about 10 years ago, I wrote, directed, edited and starred in my own short film, “Spook Baby.”
The 28-minute horror/comedy is about the ghost of a dead baby that wreaks havoc at an Appalachian family reunion. You can watch it on Vimeo if you’re interested.
My most recent ambitious project involves the letters of Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller. Over the fall and winter of 1847-48, Waller walked 20 or so slaves more than 900 miles from Virginia to Mississippi, where he sold them. Along way, he wrote letters home to friends and family.
Off and on for the past couple of years, I’ve been transcribing Waller’s letters and researching every aspect of them: the route they took, the people they met along the way, the towns they passed through, what happened to each slave, etc. My plan is to write a book, but the research could take years, even decades.
As daunting as this project sounds, I read a book recently that gives me hope, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” by Timothy Egan. It’s a biography of photographer and anthropologist Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis is perhaps best known for his photos of Native Americans, many of which are included in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.”
Curtis, a self-taught photographer with a grade-school education, worked on what he called his “Big Idea” for about 30 years, from around 1900 to 1930. Thinking Native American culture, language and even the people themselves would soon disappear, Curtis traveled the continent, taking photographs and documenting the language and culture of North America’s first people.
He worked at a frenetic pace, making 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings. Along the way, he became not only a photographer and anthropologist, but an activist. But it all came at a great personal cost.
Over the years, he sacrificed all of his money and energy, and in the end received no compensation for his seminal work. He was so determined to finish his “Big Idea” that he sold the rights to his books, sold his photos and plates, and took no salary. His marriage ended and other relationships suffered, but on he went.
If nothing else, reading about what Curtis went through gives me hope that my “Big Idea” also can happen.
So, in 2017, I plan to travel to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond and to courthouses in Mississippi and Louisiana. There are university archives to visit in various states, and I won’t be surprised if I end up at the National Archives. I’ve already spent countless hours online, searching genealogy websites and newspaper archives, and I’m sure I will spend countless more.
I also hope to have to have a little luck along the way.
One thing I’m looking for are family papers. There are several family names involved in this project — Waller, Mitchell, Massie, Taliaferro, Davis, Dabney and others. I’ve been able to find some of these papers in university and other archives, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a shoe box crammed full of letters in somebody’s attic.
And hopefully, this shoe box will help solve the mystery of what happened to the enslaved people who made the walk from Virginia to Mississippi with Waller: Sarah and child, Henry, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Ellin, India, Foster, Pleasant, Charlotte, Anderson, Susan, McDonald and Emily, and others whose names I don’t yet know.
And hopefully, it’ll lead me to some of their modern-day descendants, who might like to know about the brave, incredible journey their ancestors took almost 170 years ago.