‘Journey to Natchez’ update

It’s been terribly long since I’ve posted on Appetite 4 History. Since I last wrote, ages ago, I’ve been working part time for the marketing department of a local college and also working on my book, (working title) “Journey to Natchez.”

I’m two chapters into it, and probably ought to be working on it right this second, but on this rainy day I’m just not feeling all that motivated. So, here we are.

For those who are unfamiliar with the project, “Journey to Natchez” will tell the story of a group of people who traveled 1,000 miles from Amherst County, Virginia, to Natchez, Mississippi, in the fall and winter of 1847-48.

The group included slaveholder William Macon Waller and about 20 enslaved people, including men, women, and several children who were taken from their families. Some of the enslaved people’s names are known and others are lost to history. Waller planned to sell the slaves in Natchez to cover debts at home.

While Waller rode a horse or a mule, the enslaved people, including the children, walked about 25 miles a day. The forced migration took about three months.

The book is based on letters Waller wrote to his family on the way to and from Mississippi, but my research goes well beyond the letters. My goal, through the letters and other historical accounts and sources, is to tell a more full account of this journey.

Unfortunately, none of the enslaved people with Waller left a record of their experiences that I’ve been able to discover. That doesn’t mean I haven’t looked over the past seven years, and will continue to look, for records they or their families might have left.

It’s hard to imagine there isn’t someone out there today related to India, Foster, Anderson, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Sarah, Nelson, Henry, Susan, Emily, “Piney Woods Dick,” “Runaway Boots,” Ellin, Pleasant, or Charlotte.

There might even be a family out there who has always heard that they came to Mississippi or Louisiana from Virginia, but doesn’t know how or why.

If any of these names or this story rings a bell, I’d love to hear from you and share what I’ve found so you can know more about what your ancestor went through and survived.

In the meantime, though, I’ll keep writing and researching and will, hopefully someday, finish this book.

The 2017 Book List

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read. Lately, that’s been somewhere between 15 and 18 books. This year, it was 16. Here are the books I read in 2017, with some thoughts about each:

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (Timothy Egan) — I really enjoyed this book about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, who was famous for photographing American Indians over a 30-year period. Because I’m also working on a book project that could take decades, Curtis’s journey gave me hope that I can finish my “big idea” someday, too.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah) — I enjoy watching Trevor Noah videos on YouTube, but I like him even more after reading his book. It’s funny, touching and just a great memoir.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin) — A novel about a bookshop owner who becomes an accidental father. I loved it. I don’t read a lot of novels, but I definitely recommend this one.

American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (Daniel Rasmussen) — I didn’t know that this 1811 slave uprising even happened before I found this book at my local library. Also, it was good research on how to go about writing my own narrative nonfiction book, what do to about citing sources, etc.

The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown) This book has been popular for a while, but I finally got it as a 2016 Christmas gift from my husband and read it. I learned a lot about rowing and enjoyed the story.

A Lucky Child (Thomas Buergenthal) — The true story of a boy who survives the Holocaust. Good book.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) — I need to read this book a second time. I enjoyed it, but wondered whether there was something “deeper” that I had missed along the way. With all the press that it got and all the “smart” people that liked it, I think I was supposed to be more wowed than I was. I did enjoy the story, though, and plan to re-read it someday.

In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson) — I always like Bill Bryson. His books make me want to travel and have adventures. This book about his travels in Australia did that as well.

Thirteen Moons (Charles Frazier) — I really, really liked this novel, more than I thought I would. It’s the story of an orphan who is sent to operate a general store on the North Carolina frontier, in Indian Territory, in the early 1800s.

Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years (Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delaney with Amy Hill Hearth) — As the title indicates, two sisters tell the story of their lives. The African-American sisters grew up in North Carolina and later migrated to Harlem, where they were both very successful and never married.

Looking for Lost Bird (Yvette Melanson with Claire Safran) — The story of a Jewish woman who discovers her Native American ancestry and goes west to find her family. The book also was made into a move called, “The Lost Child.”

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped our History (Molly Caldwell Crosby) — Worth reading just for the opening story, but I learned a lot that I didn’t know about the yellow fever. I definitely learned to stay away from it and it made me (temporarily) terrified of mosquitoes.

Memorials of a Southern Planter (Susan Dabney Smedes) — I confess, I skimmed a couple of chapters of this book because I read it primarily for research for my book project. I also skimmed a book about Natchez and two books about historical resources related to Natchez, including what can be found in the Natchez Trace Collection at the University of Texas. “Memorials,” however, is the story of the family of a “character” in my book, Col. Thomas S. Dabney.

The Training Ground (Martin Dugard) — Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Mexican War. Now, I know something. It also sort of factors into my book project, because the story takes place at the same time as the Mexican War and would have been a topic of discussion among people. It also was prominent in the newspapers in 1847 and 1848, when my story takes place. Also, one of the people mentioned in my book (when it’s actually a book) will be someone whose son enlists in the Army during the Mexican War. So, it might come into play.

Truevine (Beth Macy) — Another book that taught me a lot about how to write the sort of book I’m working on. It also was a very good story and I learned a lot about the circus/carnival industry, which also plays into my book project.

The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty) — I found a copy of this book at Goodwill and figured I should get it and read it. After all, reading it would make me sound very smart, and Southern, right? In the end, I got through the book but I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps I’m not smart or Southern enough to “get” Eudora Welty. I guess that means I’d better not try any Faulkner!

Clotilda found?

Today, I saw this article online about how a reporter in Alabama had possibly found the long-lost Clotilda, the ship that is said to have been the last one to bring African slaves into the U.S. in 1860.

I wrote about the Clotilda about a year and a half ago after returning from a trip to Mobile, Alabama. While in Mobile, husband John and I also visited Africatown, a community where survivors of the Clotilda settled after Emancipation and where some of the survivors are buried.

And, in case you missed my post last month, a book about Clotilda survivor Cudjo Lewis by Zora Neale Hurston will be published in May 2018. Lots of press about the Clotilda lately. Good.

I’m also working on my (very late, sorry) Book List for 2017. I read 16 books last year, some of which were pretty darn good, so I want to share those titles with you. Hopefully soon.

Zora Neale Hurston book about Cudjo Lewis to be published

I saw this article online today, about a previously unpublished book by the late-Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The new book, titled “Barracoon,” is about one of the last surviving American slaves, Cudjo Lewis, who was brought to the U.S. in 1860 aboard the Clotilde (also spelled “Clotilda”).

Cudjo Lewis - NYPL
Cudjo Lewis. New York Public Library.

The book, based on conversations Hurston had with Lewis in Alabama in the 1930s, will be published in May 2018.

A barracoon, for those who haven’t heard the word (I hadn’t until recently), was a place where slaves were confined.

Also, I blogged about the Clotida about a year and a half ago. You can read that story and see photos of Africatown Graveyard, where Lewis is buried, here.

Finding Foster

As many of you know, I’m currently researching a book about a man, William Macon Waller, who took about 20 of his slaves to Mississippi in 1847-48. His plan was to sell the slaves in Mississippi to cover debts he had at home in Amherst County, Va.

Part of my research has involved finding out what happened to the individual slaves. I haven’t had much luck yet. After all, the men Waller sold the people to were mostly large landholders with hundreds of slaves. Finding evidence of one, among all the others (some of which had the same names) is, not surprisingly, difficult.

So, I decided to focus on one for now: Foster.

On the off chance that someone else out there, possibly a descendant, also is looking for Foster, here’s what I know about him:

Foster was probably not an old man in 1847, when Waller and his slaves left Amherst, Va., bound for Mississippi, via the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. He had to be able to walk 25 miles a day.

So, I’m guessing he was born sometime between 1810 and 1830.

Also, when Foster was eventually sold, he sold for $1,200, two or three times more than anyone else sold by Waller on that trip. In fact, Waller took Foster to New Orleans, where he would bring a better price. So, it’s my assumption that Foster was a skilled worker of some kind, maybe a carpenter or something like that.

Waller and Foster left Vicksburg, Miss., on a steamship called the Mount Vernon sometime in the first week of January 1848. The ship took them down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Waller left Foster in New Orleans, where he was sold, sometime around the first week of February.

And that’s all I know, except that it’s likely Foster was born in Virginia.

Maybe you’re looking for an ancestor, named Foster, who was black or mulatto, and a slave born in Virginia. While he was sold in New Orleans, based on shipping manifests that I’ve seen online, he could have ended up in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, or some other slave state. And if he survived to Emancipation, he could have returned to Virginia or ended up someplace else.

If this rings a bell with anyone out there in Cyberspace, please let me know. I’d like to know more about your ancestor and talk to you, too.


Sergei Troubetzkoy talks symbolism at Presbyterian Cemetery Sunday, Aug. 6

On Sunday, Aug. 6, Lynchburg’s historic Presbyterian Cemetery will host its final “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour will be led by Sergei Troubetzkoy, who will talk about the symbolism used on tombstones and cemetery statuary.

Troubetzkoy has many years of experience in the tourism industry in Lynchburg, Richmond, Staunton and other places around Virginia. He also wrote a book about Staunton, Va., for Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

‘The Thing’ (A Fish Story)

One of the families I’ve been researching as part of my big book project is that of Col. Thomas Smith Dabney, a Virginian who moved to Hinds County, Miss., in 1835. He was a plantation owner, slave owner, and father to 16 children with his wife, Sophia.

Col. Dabney lived in a house called Burleigh, which was located about 10 miles from Raymond, Miss. My friend, Paula, and I went to Raymond during our research trip to Mississippi this past spring.

Burleigh was torn down many years ago, and despite our best efforts, we could only get the most approximate idea of where it was located.

Col. Dabney bought Henry, one of William Macon Waller’s slaves. To give you a quick recap, Waller and his slaves traveled through Hinds County in the winter of 1848. They were on the way to Natchez, Miss., where Waller planned to sell about 20 of his slaves to cover some debts.

Along the way in Raymond, Waller sold several slaves, including Henry, to Dabney and his neighbors. That would be the main reason I’m researching the Dabneys: to try to find out what ultimately happened to Henry.

I’ve also been reading, “Memorials of a Southern Planter,” written by Col. Dabney’s daughter, Susan Dabney Smedes. She wrote the book in the 1880s, after her father’s death. Knowing history would not be kind to slave owners and thinking highly of her father, she wanted to tell the story of his life and put him in the best light possible for posterity’s sake.

The other day, my research of the Dabneys took me to the University of Virginia, more specifically, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. There are Dabney family papers there, many related to Richard Heath Dabney, a grandson of Col. Dabney’s and a former professor and dean at U.Va.

In one box of Dabney family papers, I found a journal, written by Virginius Dabney, the colonel’s son and Richard’s father. It told stories of his life at Burleigh and summers at Pass Christian, Miss., where the Dabneys had a vacation home.

This particular story — a fish story — was from Virginius’ childhood, and probably occurred sometime in the early to mid-1840s. He wrote the story down in 1890, when he was in his mid-50s.

While fishing on the Gulf of Mexico with his father and a third, unnamed person, what Virginius describes as a “mysterious object” breaks their fishing line over and over again. It happens every day for a week to 10 days, and eventually earns the creature a nickname: “The Thing.”

I’ll let Virginius take over from here:

We called the mysterious object that robbed us of our hooks daily “The Thing,” and every morning as we rowed out we were filled with intense excitement in the expectation and hope of discovering what it was. My father was in constant hope that this mysterious monster would tackle his man-eater hook, and at last he did so.

He had given me previous instructions [of] exactly what I was to do when he called out “The Thing!” One morning, seizing the line which was slowly gliding beneath him he cried out, “I’ve got him! Untie the boat!” I fell over the thwarts (seats) in my haste to seize the rope, draw up the boat, and untie the rope, but before I could do so my father gave an exclamation of disgust as he found that his line had parted.

This carried our excitement to the highest possible pitch. Next morning we lost all interest in our ordinary fishing and thought only of The Thing, for whose benefit my father had provided a new hook. We continued to lose our small hooks for a week longer, but at last my father gave me the welcome order to untie.

Then began one of the strangest struggles between man and unknown monster that I have ever witnessed.

Whatever it was, he could not break the line, for not only did my father play him but as he moved hither and thither the boat danced lightly over the water and made it impossible for the creature to break the line.

This struggle lasted for perhaps half an hour without our being able to form the least idea of what we had hooked. Backwards and forwards, against the tide and with it, we were dragged on the surface of the water which at last began to grow very muddy. The water where we fished was not more than 12 or 14 feet deep.

Sometimes, the creature would stand perfectly still and with the boat just above him my father would pull steady without moving whatever it was in the least. But at the close of half an hour he said that he thought it was rising, and soon we saw that this was true. Slowly at a half inch at a time the line was pulled in, then stood still, then moved another half inch, the mud meantime boiling up around the boat in torrents.

“Get the harpoon ready” cried my father.

I did so, and stood leaning over the gunwale of the boat with uplifted arm ready to strike. No three fishermen were ever more profoundly excited than we were as we awaited the slow approach of this mysterious denizen of the deep.

At last something shadowy and dark became … visible and shortly after we found that we had caught an immense sting-ray — one of the most terrible fish of those waters. This particular specimen was about five feet in diameter with a tail which resembled in shape a cow-hide several feet in length, armed with that terrible jagged and poisonous dagger which renders them so terrible.

As soon as he came within a foot of the surface I plunged the harpoon through his body. In his rage, he began to ply upon it with his terrific tail which he waved above his back, cutting great plys [sic] out of the hard wood with every stroke.

We could not take him in the boat, but rowed ashore towing him by line and harpoon. It was the most toilsome row that I ever had — so great was the resistance of his disc-shaped body. But we were determined to bring him to the shore to show to my mother and sisters, who had also been wrought up to the highest state of excitement by our accounts of our previous adventures with The Thing.

It will be remembered that Capt. John Smith was near death at the mouth of the James river by being stung by one of these terrible fish.

Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!

Architectural tour at Presbyterian Cemetery July 2

On Sunday, July 2, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its fourth “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, which has an architectural theme, will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

lily closeup
A lily of the valley carved into a stone at Presbyterian Cemetery.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight architectural elements at the historic cemetery. Participants will learn about tombstone carving techniques and care of stones and symbolism used.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Recently, I finished reading “Thirteen Moons,” a 2006 novel by Charles Frazier. Frazier also wrote the novel “Cold Mountain,” which was made into a 2003 movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.

“Cold Mountain” also has been produced as an opera.

I’ve never read “Cold Mountain” or seen the movie or opera. No real reason why. I just haven’t.

My mother-in-law gave me “Thirteen Moons” as a Christmas gift, along with another novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. I read the latter a few months ago and loved it.

Without spoiling much, if anything, it’s the sweet story of a middle-aged bookstore owner and widower, A.J. Fikry, who unexpectedly acquires a child.

“Thirteen Moons” is the story of Will Cooper. Will is an orphan and indentured servant — he calls himself a “bound boy” — sent to the North Carolina mountains, just outside of the Cherokee Indian territory, to run a trading post in the early 1800s.

When he tells his life story, Will is an old man. The story follows Will through the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which he has lots of adventures and misadventures, and one lifelong love.

The book, for which Frazier appears to have done his research, also deals with the Indian Removal Act, a law signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 with the goal of moving Indians from the southern U.S. to Oklahoma and points west of the Mississippi.

There were two passages in “Thirteen Moons” that struck me, so much so that I took time to write them down on a note card I was using for a bookmark.

In this one, Will is looking back on his life and how he lived it:

But I’d rather think I made my way more like a highwayman, by being willing to pull a pistol — or something metaphorically like it — on the world when I needed to. 

I liked that one a lot. It’s an empowering reminder that sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fight for yourself because no one is going to save you but you.

And this one, on how one might spend their last day:

If you knew that tomorrow afternoon the sun would flame up and consume all the world, would you spend the time between now and then praising the beauty of creation or would you sit in a darkened room cursing God with your last breath? 

I’d like to think that if I ever found myself in that situation, literally or metaphorically, I’d make the most of that last day.

It brings to mind times when husband John and I are on vacation, often in New Mexico or somewhere else in the American West. On our last day, we usually take a long drive, trying to make it to some far-off place we haven’t been yet, cramming it all in, like we might never have another chance to do it.

Realistically, morbid as it sounds, we might never have another chance. For the most part, I think life should be lived like that  like at any point, literally or metaphorically, you could be hit by a bus.

In short, though, I enjoyed “Thirteen Moons” very much and recommend it.

The black-and-white featured photo, used above, is of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, taken between 1895 and 1910. Citation: Detroit Publishing Co, P., Jackson, W. H., photographer. [Over the mts. from Mt. Toxaway, Sapphire, N.C]. Blue Ridge Mountains North Carolina Sapphire, None. [Between 1895 and 1910] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994013352/PP/.