Road Trip!

Soon, my friend, Paula, and I will head to Mississippi for a week of searching old courthouse records and archives, and maybe even knocking on some doors. We’ll be looking for evidence of William Macon Waller and the slaves he sold in the towns of Raymond and Natchez in 1848.

If you’re new to the blog, for the past couple of years I’ve been transcribing and researching letters that Amherst County, Va., slaveholder William Macon Waller wrote while taking a group of his slaves from Virginia to Mississippi.

My goal is to write a book telling this story.

Waller and his slaves took the overland route, traveling through Virginia, Tennessee and likely Alabama before entering Mississippi’s eastern state line at Columbus. The slaves, including several children, walked 25 or 30 miles a day for 900 or so miles.

According to the letters, it appears Waller rode along on a horse or mule.

slave-coffle-virginia-lewis-miller-drawing
This is what the group might have looked like as they traveled to Mississippi. Credit: Slave coffle, traveling from Virginia to Tennessee. Lewis Miller, Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, 1853-1867. Courtesy, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

Waller was selling his slaves to pay debts he had at home. On the advice of friends and family, he sold them in the deep South because prices were better in cotton country.

In Raymond, he sold “Sarah and child,” Henry, and three sisters named Lucy, Louisa and Sarah Ann.

forks in road
It’s possible Waller sold some of his slaves at the “Forks of the Road,” a huge slave market in Natchez. Today, there are interpretive signs and memorials at the site.

In Natchez, he sold Ellin, India, Pleasant and Charlotte — all children — along with Anderson (also called Tups), Susan, “Nelson and wife,” “Piney Woods Dick” and “Runaway Boots.”

There were four or five others, but I don’t know their names. It’s possible, they included individuals named McDonald and Emily, but I’m still working on identifying whether they were along on this journey or not.

I’ve included the slaves’ names because, first of all, they weren’t just “Waller’s slaves.” They were people with lives and families. Some, including the girl India, were forced to leave their families in Virginia.

Also, there might be someone out there who recognizes these names or this story from their own family’s oral or written history. If so, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to tell you more about what your great-great-great-relative survived and share details about their life that you might not know.

Of course, all of this travel and research will make me and Paula hungry, so we’ll also be eating some good food in Mississippi. Hopefully, we’ll hit at least one spot on Garden & Gun magazine’s “Fried Chicken Bucket List.”

And then there are the tamales. Apparently Mississippi is famous for them. Really, it’s a thing. There’s a festival and everything. So, in Natchez, we’ll drop by Fat Mama’s Tamales.

Husband John and I ate at Fat Mama’s a couple of years ago, while traveling home from a wedding in Louisiana. It was definitely worth the detour, as was the town of Natchez, which is an architectural showplace perched above the Mississippi River.

big house
One of the many old mansions in downtown Natchez.

In the spring and fall, Natchez hosts Pilgrimage, when many of its historic houses are open for tours. Paula and I will arrive in town the week after spring Pilgrimage ends, but that’s OK, because we’ll be staying at a historic plantation called Glenfield.

Glenfield, previously called Glencannon, was once owned by William Cannon. According to another letter I’ve transcribed — this one written by a man named James Ware, who helped Waller find buyers for his slaves — Cannon bought the aforementioned Piney Woods Dick and Runaway Boots.

While Cannon didn’t buy the Gothic revival cottage until about three years after Waller came to Natchez, it’s possible that Piney Woods Dick and Runaway Boots lived and worked at Glencannon. So, as you might imagine, we had to stay there.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for photos and (hopefully) a report of amazing historical and culinary discoveries on the road.

armadillo
John and I drove a few miles up the Natchez Trace, an old trade route and now a scenic highway. Along the way, I yelled for him to pull over so I could see a live armadillo. There are lots of dead ones between Tennessee and Mississippi, so I was glad to see this tiny live one along the roadway. It was really hard not to reach down and pet it. 

 

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Thoughts on a Book: “The Boys in the Boat”

I’ve been a little slack about blogging over the past couple of weeks. One reason is I’ve been more interested in planning an upcoming research trip to Mississippi than I have been about writing.

That and I’ve been a bit lazy.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you about a book I read recently, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” by Daniel James Brown.

Husband John gave me the book as a Christmas gift. Actually, John gives me lots of books, which I really appreciate. This past Christmas, John and his mother gave me several books, and I’ve been working my way through them over the winter and spring.

“The Boys in the Boat,” as the subhead well indicates, tells the story of the eight-man rowing team (the ninth man is the coxswain) that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

While the author writes about all of the team’s members, their coaches and the Berlin Olympics in general, he focuses a lot on the life of rower Joe Rantz.

As the passage on the back of the book jacket describes him, Joe was “a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world.”

Joe, like the rest of the boys, was a member of the University of Washington’s rowing team. One might not think about the Pacific Northwest when one thinks about rowing — also called crew — but Washington has been a powerhouse in the sport of rowing for decades.

Like Joe, the other “Boys in the Boat” weren’t the sons of doctors, lawyers and titans of industry, like one might imagine their Ivy League counterparts to be. They were the sons of loggers, laborers and farmers who, like many people during the Great Depression, were struggling to make ends meet.

You can learn more about “The Boys in the Boat” on the PBS website. In 2016, the PBS series “American Experience” ran an episode on the team, and there are videos, photos and articles that tell more of its history and the history of rowing.

In addition to the history of this particular rowing team, by reading this book I also learned a lot about the sport of rowing and the history of the 1936 Olympic Games.

About rowing, among other things, I learned that one, six-minute race uses the same amount of energy a person would expend by playing two, 40-minute basketball games, back to back.

That kind of makes me want to take up rowing for its bang-for-your-buck quality, if nothing else.

About the 1936 Olympics, which occurred during the early years of Adolph Hitler’s reign, I learned about how the campaign against Germany’s Jewish population, which would eventually spread across Europe as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was officially toned down for the Olympics.

The Berlin Olympics was Hitler’s chance to show off Nazi Germany, after all, and to normalize his regime in front of an international audience. Everything would look nice and pretty, all of the people visiting for the Games would have a good time, and Nazi Germany would look like an OK place to be.

Jesse Owens - LOC
Jesse Owens starts the 200 meter at the Berlin Olympics. Library of Congress.

So, I imagine it was extra satisfying for those spectators who didn’t fall for Hitler’s ruse to watch not only the Washington rowers defeat the German rowing team, but also to see Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter and jumper, win four Olympic gold medals.

Regarding a completely different book — albeit one also set around World War II — I just finished reading, “A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” by Thomas Buergenthal.

You can read more about the author and his story here. The book was a quick and interesting read and I recommend it.