A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

Recently,  my good friend and fellow blogger Paula and I traveled to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I needed to look at some letters for a project I’m working on, and Paula — lured by the prospect of going to Sugar Shack for doughnuts and just getting out of town in general — agreed to come along.

Prior to visiting the VHS, I had to buy a membership. Because I’m a researcher, I was able to get an annual academic membership, which costs $50. I could have paid less for a short-term membership, but figured this would not be my last trip to Richmond.

Before leaving home, I also filled out the forms required to research and take photos. Because research is so tedious and time-consuming, I wanted to be able to take photos of the documents, rather than make copious, handwritten notes. Filling out the forms in advance would save me valuable time for research once I got to the VHS.

After stopping at one of Sugar Shack’s locations on the outskirts of Richmond — the apple cake doughnut rocks, by the way — Paula and I went to the VHS. We found the parking to be free and plentiful, which was a big plus. I’m a freelance writer and researcher, but often not a paid one, so anything free is awesome.

Once inside, I ordered the records from one of the librarians and got to work.

For a couple of years now, off and on, I’ve been transcribing letters that Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller wrote to his family and friends while taking a group of slaves to Mississippi. They traveled the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Waller and the slaves — India, Ellin, Henry, Sarah, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Susan, Emily, McDonald, Nelson, Foster, Anderson and others — traveled more than 900 miles during the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848.

From what I’ve read in the letters, Waller rode a horse or mule most of the time, while the slaves — some young children — walked 20 to 30 miles a day.

This drawing, made in the mid-1800s by Lewis Miller, shows what the Waller party might have looked like. The original is in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

One of my goals with this project is to find descendants of the slaves so I can tell them what an amazing and brave walk their ancestors made almost 170 years ago. I haven’t found any descendants yet, but I’m hopeful I will.

In transcribing the letters, of which I had only photocopies, there were words and in some cases big passages I couldn’t read. My hope was that seeing the originals I could fill in the blanks. With Paula’s help — “Does this word look like ‘murmuring’ to you? — we’d filled in all the blanks we could in a couple of hours.

It’s a good thing, too, because I find transcribing old handwriting somewhat exhausting, and didn’t know if I could hold out if it took six or eight hours.

One might say, “Exhausting? Seriously?” Sure, it’s not ditch digging, but staring at handwritten documents, trying to figure out, by looking at the letters or through the context — or both — what someone wrote (and meant by it) almost two centuries ago is quite tiring. At least it is to me. Maybe I’m wimpy, who knows?

Since we were done early, Paula and I had the opportunity to spend a little time exploring the collections of the VHS. In addition to the research library, there’s a museum that has lots of information and artifacts concerning Virginia history and material culture.

One thing we saw was the “Woodson musket,” a 7-foot-long musket that was supposedly used by a Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon to defend the Woodson home, in Prince George County, Va., from an Indian attack in 1644.

The Woodson musket, third from top. Virginia Historical Society.

Another story I’ve read is that while Ligon — who’s also been described as a “shoemaker” and “schoolmaster” — used the musket, Sara Woodson — some kind of great-great-great relative of mine — “brained” and threw boiling water on Indians that climbed down the chimney.

While Sara did this, one of her sons hid in a “potato hole” and the under a washtub. Because of this, Woodson descendants are known as either “potato hole” or “washtub” Woodsons. Right this second, I can’t remember which one I am. I’m thinking “potato hole” but could be wrong.

Sara’s husband Dr. John Woodson was killed during the uprising, reportedly within sight of his home.

The “Crown of Thorns” bureau or chest of drawers. Virginia Historical Society.

In another room at the VHS, there was a circa 1890 chest of drawers that’s been called the “Crown of Thorns.” This “tramp art” piece obviously got its name from its spiky appearance.

Here’s the VHS’s description of it:

A folk type popularized by African Americans “Tramp Art” took its name from its use of ordinary woods. This type embodied the ideals of this period: it was new and expressive with varied surfaces and materials and abundant decoration. This piece was owned by George G. Lander, a black physician in Lynchburg.

Paula, a much more avid housekeeper than I am, pointed out that it would be a nightmare to dust. Indeed, it would be.

Paula and I also visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s located next door to the VHS and has free admission. The VMFA currently has an exhibition of Faberge items, many of which belonged to the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs.

Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, along with their children, were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Many of the Fabrege items owned by the Romanovs were later acquired by Lillian Thomas Pratt. In 1947, Pratt bequeathed hundreds of Fabrege items to the VMFA. If you’re a fan of Russian history or just opulent objects, it’s worth a look.

More terrible things discovered by accident

One day, while perusing the Internet when I should have been doing paying work, I happened upon a website that lists people executed in the U.S. from 1607 to 1976.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to morbid subjects. I can’t help it.

A few months ago, I wrote about “The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer,” a boy who was trampled to death by a mule. More recently, I investigated a church “stampede” that happened in Lynchburg, Va., in 1878. Eight women were killed, one of which leaped from a window to her death.

Seriously, though, what drives me isn’t entirely morbid curiosity but a desire to tell little-known stories from history. Some of them just happen to be gruesome.

The execution website includes slaves as well as free people. While browsing the section on Louisiana — you can search by state and other criteria — I found lots of people put to death for the crime of “slave revolt.”

The preferred method of execution for this crime in Louisiana, between 1730 and 1754 at least, appears to have been something called “break on wheel.” I’d never heard of this, so I did what all good, amateur historians do: I Googled it.

The breaking wheel, as it was called, was a torture device used to execute people. As one might expect, it used a wheel — think wagon wheel — to which the condemned was strapped. Then, the executed person was bludgeoned to death. Bones were broken, sometimes it took days, and sometimes breaking on the wheel was followed up with the person being drawn and quartered.

There were all kinds of variations.

At least one website claimed the French term “coup de grâce” comes from the breaking wheel. Translated as “blows of mercy,” it refers to when an executioner lands a fatal blow to make the execution go quicker and thus, more mercifully.

In short, death by the breaking wheel sounds terrible and you can read more about it here. There also are pictures.

Numerous Central Virginians were on this execution list, too, including six slaves who were hanged in 1863 for murdering their master. Their names were Armstead, George, Seaton, Bet, Jane and Sarah. Their owner was Gen. Terisha Washington Dillard, an Amherst County lawyer and farmer.

H.J. Stephens (1824-1882) lithograph, “Blow for Blow,” dated 1863. Library of Congress.

The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index on FamilySearch lists a Terisha W. Dillard, who served as a colonel in the 90th Regiment (Amherst County), Virginia Militia during the Civil War. Perhaps one of those ranks, general or colonel, was a 19th-century typo. I guess it’s not all that important, but I get bogged down in stuff like that sometimes.

Dillard and his family lived at Islington, a James River plantation near the Stapleton community in Amherst County.

As reported in the May 13, 1863, edition of The Daily Virginian (the Lynchburg newspaper) the murder took place on May 9, while Dillard was supervising work on an island near his home.

According to the book “More Passages: A New History of Amherst County, Virginia,” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy and William P. McLeRoy, the island was called Buffalo Island. It was located in the James River, across from Islington.

Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, said some plantation owners had gardens on islands in the James River. The well-known Cabell family, for example, owned several islands for this purpose, he said. The Cabells owned Point of Honor, a grand home in Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill neighborhood that overlooks the river.

Dillard’s murder was reported in several newspapers, including The Richmond Sentinel, the Alexandria Gazette and The Abingdon Virginian. Here’s what The Daily Virginian had to say about it:

Brutal Murder — Gen. Terisha W. Dillard, of Amherst Co., was brutally murdered by some of his servants, on Saturday last. We learn that he was superintending some work he was having done on an island in the James River, near his residence, in which six hands were employed — four women and two men — when the fiendish purpose of his murder was executed.

He was caught and held by the men, and the women inflicted the fatal blows. His body, we are informed, was horribly cut and mangled, presenting a shocking spectacle of mutilation. After the diabolic deed had been performed, the remains were covered up in the sand, but soon two of the women made confessions of the crime, and with the two men, were arrested. The others are yet at large.

Gen. Dillard was a gentleman of high standing, and much esteemed. At one time, he was director of one of the banks of this city.

The news of Dillard’s grisly murder even made it to Winchester, Tenn., where the Daily Bulletin reported it this way:

Horrible Murder in Amherst, Va. — The distressing intelligence that General Terisha W. Dillard was brutally murdered by two of his own slaves on Saturday evening last reached us yesterday. No particulars of this foul deed have been received, other than the fact that one of the murderers had been arrested and confessed his crime, and the other had made his escape.

General Dillard was a lawyer of prominence and a gentleman of fine talents and popular manners, and the announcement of his untimely and cruel death will fall with crashing force upon his numerous family connections and a number of friends. — Lynchburg Republican, 12th

As usual, newspaper accounts varied, with some papers reporting two suspects and others six, and the number of male and female suspects differing as well. According to the MeLeRoys, some people even thought Dillard’s wife was involved, too. “One local legend,” they wrote, “says the murder was inspired by Dillard’s cruel nature [and] that even his wife Mary Elizabeth was implicated in the plot.”

When the slaves were hanged a few weeks later, the number also differs at five as opposed to the six listed on the executions website. On June 22, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, “The negroes of General Dillard, five in number, convicted of his murder, were hung at Amherst County Court House, Va.”

As described by the McLeRoys, the slaves were hanged at the aptly named “Gallows Field,” which was located “near the modern Amherst Junior High School.” Though it was rumored that Mrs. Dillard was hanged as well, the McLeRoys found no evidence of that.

Notes: For readability purposes, I corrected some misspellings/punctuation issues in the newspaper articles. And thanks to Doug Harvey and the Lynchburg Museum System and Chuck Bradner with Jones Memorial Library for their help with this article.

DNA Results are Back!

Kiss me, I’m four-percent Irish!

OK, don’t kiss me — unless you’re my husband, and then you can kiss me all you want — but I am four-percent Irish. That’s according to the “ethnicity estimate” on my AncestryDNA test results, which I received via email a few days before Christmas.

A few weeks before that, I blogged about sending off my DNA sample. At the time, I wondered what surprises might be contained in that small vial of saliva. Well, I’m here to tell you the results weren’t earth-shattering, but were definitely interesting.

According to my DNA test, I am composed of the following:

36 percent Western Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, etc.)
34 percent Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
11 percent Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, northern Morocco and Tunisia)
8 percent Scandinavia
4 percent Ireland
3 percent Italy/Greece
2 percent Finland/Northwest Russia
1 percent Caucasus (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the “Stans,” etc.)
Less than 1 percent Eastern European

The three surprising things  — I figure the Scandinavians were Vikings who sailed to Britain or somewhere like that — were the 11-percent Iberian Peninsula, the one-percent Caucasus, and the fact that there was not even the tiniest bit of Native American.

The lack of connection to America’s first people blows apart some of the oral history from my mom’s side of the family, particularly that my great-great grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was half Native American. It’s a story I heard a lot, growing up, but according to my DNA test, there’s nothing to support it.

I blogged about John Miles, who was a colorful character to say the least, several months ago and you can read that article here.

john w_0001
Oral history in my mom’s family says John Wesley Miles, my great-great-grandpa, was half Native American.

My great-great-grandma, Josephine Lee Miles, always looked Native American to me, but alas, there’s nothing in my DNA to prove that either. You can see a picture of Josephine, taken with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, here.

As most of the family names I’ve seen in my genealogy are British or German, who these Iberians are is a mystery. It could, however, be related to the “Black Dutch” rumor in my mom’s family. When you Google “Black Dutch,” you do come up with Melungeon, and one of the stories about Melungeons is that they were descendants of Portuguese sailors, or claimed to be.

As for my other family history mysteries — what John Miles was doing in the West for 20 years, for example — maybe I’ll find answers from some of the many cousins I’m now connected to on the AncestryDNA site. It will take a lot of work and luck, but if I unravel anything, I’ll let you know.

The 2016 Book List

In tenth grade, I read “Gone with the Wind” during three weeks of classes. I remember sitting in my economics class — front row to boot — and my teacher saying, “Suzanne, put the book away.”

Looking back, regardless of the hot water I got into for ignoring my teachers for nearly a month, it was totally worth it.

A few years ago, I reread “Gone with the Wind,” revisiting the it’s 1,000-plus pages for the first time in 30 years. While I enjoyed Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era story the second time around, reading the book as an adult was quite a different experience.

To be honest, based on its negative stereotypes of African Americans, I’m pretty amazed “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been torched in piles.

It was also during high school that my interest in history was piqued, perhaps by “Gone with the Wind,” but most likely by “Gizelle, Save the Children!”

The nonfiction book, which I checked out of the school library, was about a Hungarian Jewish girl named Gizelle whose mother implores her to save her siblings during the Holocaust.

“Gizelle, Save the Children!” was the first of many books I’ve read since then about the Holocaust and World War II. Most of these books have been biographical, centering on the experiences of specific individuals.

One I read this past year was fictional, but no less gripping.

All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, tells two colliding stories — of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Warner, an orphaned German boy who longs to be an engineer. The story is set in France and Germany during World War II. So I don’t spoil the plot, I’ll just say I mourned a little when the last page was turned.

Here are the other 13 books I read during 2016:

A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson)
The funny story of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This life-affirming book made me believe that I, too, can attempt anything, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The Road to Wellville” (T. Coraghessan Boyle)
A novel set around the turn of the 20th century at the famous Kellogg sanatorium in Michigan. I blogged about this book a few months ago.

“True Grit” (Charles Portis)
The story of an Arkansas teenager determined to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s Indian Country. I also blogged about this book.

Dead Wake” (Erik Larson, who also wrote “Devil in the White City,” another good book.)
This book tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (Mitch Albom)
A novel about a man who learns lessons in the afterlife. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did.

My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok)
The fictional story of a Hasidic Jewish boy who just wants to be a painter, and the struggles that result.

And The Dead Shall Rise” (Steve Oney)
About the 1913 Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the man accused of killing her. (While fascinating, this extremely well-researched tome took forever to read and I blame it for not achieving my 19-book goal this year.)

“The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” (Pat Conroy)
The former is my all-time favorite book, and as for the latter, I don’t know why I waited so long to read it. In each book, set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the late-Pat Conroy tells the story of a dysfunctional family with secrets — and he does it in the most beautifully written way.

Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves” (Sana Butler)
In late 1990s through early 2000s, author Sana Butler was on a quest to interview the children of African-American slaves. And, yes, she finds several still alive.

For the Glory” (Duncan Hamilton)
A biography of Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter from the “Chariots of Fire” story.

Fast Girl” (Suzy Favor Hamilton)
Tells the true story of Olympic middle-distance runner turned Las Vegas call girl Suzy Favor Hamilton and her battle with bipolar disorder.

“The Coalwood Way” (Homer Hickam)
A memoir by NASA engineer Homer Hickam about growing up in West Virginia coal country.

Navajo riders in Canyon de Chelly, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1904). Published in “The North American Indian.” Library of Congress.

Currently, I’m reading, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward S. Curtis. Curtis (1868-1952) is famous for his iconic photographs of Native Americans, such as the one pictured above.

The photographs were published in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.” Curtis worked on the project for three decades. Photos from the series can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.

Also, I was given several books for Christmas — among them “The Boys in the Boat” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” — so 2017 should be a good year for reading.

Happy New Year and happy reading!

My cat, Hector, tucked in beside one of our many bookshelves.

Making a Memory (Jug)

When I was in Santa Fe, NM, in November, I went to this neat antique shop called 136 Grant. It’s located on Grant Avenue, not too far from the Santa Fe plaza and right around the corner from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

136 Grant is housed in the historic Pinckney R. Tully House, which was built by its namesake in 1851. While the Tully House looks like brick from a distance — and I apologize for not having taken a close-up photo — it’s actually adobe, painted to look like brick.

Pinckney R. Tully House

Brick wasn’t easy to come by in mid-19th-century Santa Fe. After all, New Mexico had only just become a U.S Territory in 1846 and the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched from Missouri to Santa Fe, was a far cry from a modern-day highway.

If you travel around Santa Fe today, you might see a row or two of brick at the roof line of some New Mexican Territorial-style structures. It’s there for ornamental purposes and to protect the building, at its most vulnerable point, from erosion.

Without ready access to brick but wanting that Eastern look of home, some 19th-century Santa Feans did the next best thing: tediously faux painted the entire home with brick-red paint and white, brick-sized rectangles. It’s pretty amazing, really. Even from about 12 feet away, the Tully House looks like brick, although you can’t miss the adobe’s rounded corners.

Again, sorry I didn’t take a photo.

136 Grant has a friendly staff and a lot of different vendors. Most of the items in the shop are very different from what you’d see in an East Coast or Southern antique shop. For example, there were lots of Native American items, including pueblo pottery, jewelry and silver work. One thing they did have that seemed typically Southern to me, however, were a few memory jugs.

If you’re not familiar with the memory jug, it’s basically a jug (or jar), covered with clay or mortar that has all kinds of crap stuck into it. That might sound crude, but hey, look at these photos and you’ll probably agree. And I say “crap” with affection because I like memory jugs.

There are some really great examples of memory jugs on the Internet, including here on this artist’s website.

There are different theories as to the origins of the memory jug. One is that they were used in Southern, African-American burial traditions to mark grave sites. Everyday items, once owned by the deceased, would be pressed into clay or mortar that had been spread on the jug. The items used were thought to be useful in the afterlife, sort of like the stuff buried with Egyptian mummies.

Another theory, albeit still involving mourning traditions, is that memory jugs evolved out of Victorian sentimentality and a passion for collecting. As described on this website, “Saving mementos of loved ones has universal appeal … the odd button, a single earring or other bit of jewelry that reminds one of the deceased relative.”

Memory jugs are a little on the tacky side, but I’ve always liked them, and seeing the ones at 136 Grant inspired me to make my own. So, one day when I should have been working on a big writing project for a local magazine, I went to the hardware store, bought some pre-mixed mortar and made a memory jug.

I didn’t have any old family mementos to press into the mortar, but I did have a good bit of what I’d describe as “junk jewelry”: broken and orphan earrings, costume jewelry and that sort of thing. I also had an amber-colored beer bottle that I’d found in an old trash dump in the woods near my house.

My memory jug.

Back before there was city trash pickup, people would just pitch their trash over the hillside. Even when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, my grandparents in Southeastern Kentucky would pitch the trash over the hill. It’s just what you did.

That said, I love sifting through old trash dumps for bottles, broken pottery and other items. You do have to be careful though. Wear sturdy shoes with thick bottoms, to protect your feet from broken glass, and avoid dumps in warm weather, when ticks and snakes are out and about.

But back to my jug. After spreading the mortar on the bottle, I pressed bunches of junk jewelry into the sides until it was nearly covered. Then, I waited for it to dry, which took several hours.

In the end, I’d made a memory … and a memory jug.


A brief history of the swastika

A brief history of the swastika

A few months ago, I bought a vintage, sterling silver bracelet at a local antique shop. On it are stamped a number of symbols, including four tiny swastikas. Now, before anyone starts posting ugly comments about me being a Nazi — because I’m not — let me briefly explain the history behind the swastika.

After reading this article, hopefully you’ll understand why I bought the bracelet, as well as why I’m torn about whether or not to wear it.

In addition to arrows, feathers and other symbols, my silver bracelet is stamped with four swastikas.

According to scholars, the origins of the swastika — also called the “whirling log” — go back about 6,000 years. And apparently they’re all over the place, if you just pay attention. As Dottie Indyke writes in this article in the Santa Fe Collector’s Guide, “… anyone who looks at art or architecture, no matter how casually, will eventually see the symbol.

“The Navajos, Tibetans and Turks incorporated the swastika into their rugs. Arizona’s indigenous Pima and Maricopa people wove them into their baskets and painted them onto their pots. In Asia the emblem is found on everything from clothing to political ballots to the thresholds of houses.

One of the swastikas, or whirling logs, stamped on my bracelet.

“Swastikas are carved into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art and many ancient Buddhist and Mayan temples. At Albuquerque’s KiMo Theater, built in 1927 and recently restored, swastikas adorn the proscenium, entryway and the building’s exterior. Elsewhere in New Mexico, they are evident in the architecture of the Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair and the Swastika Hotel in Raton (now the International Bank).”

According to Indyke, the swastika is “one of the oldest symbols made by humans,” and it originated with the Sanskrit word for well-being, or literally “good be” — a far cry from what it commonly represents today.

Based on my limited knowledge of Native American jewelry making, I think my bracelet is Navajo, or at least made in the Navajo style. I say this because its shape and style are identical to one I bought directly from a Navajo silversmith.

The swastika bracelet is not signed. It might have been made for the tourist trade and maybe for the Fred Harvey Company. The Fred Harvey Company ran a chain of hotels and restaurants in the American Southwest from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

The company was famous for its waitresses, who were called “Harvey Girls.” Fred Harvey also had curio shops, and one of the things they sold was Native American jewelry.

My bracelet dates to sometime before 1940. How do I know this? As Indyke tells it, after Adolph Hitler hijacked the swastika for his own evil purposes, several Native American tribes formally decided to stop using the symbol.

“In 1940, in response to Hitler’s regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed a whirling log proclamation,” Indyke writes.

“It read, ‘Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika … on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing.”

Thus, back to the reason I’m reluctant to wear what is otherwise a beautiful silver bracelet: I don’t want anyone to catch sight of the tiny swastikas and think I’m a Nazi or white supremacist. On the other hand, wearing the bracelet — assuming I’m not assaulted in the process — could result in some interesting, enlightening conversations.

Readers, what do you think? Should I wear it or not?

Also, on this blog there are numerous photos of whirling logs/swastikas used in architecture.

Who do I think I am?

A few days ago, I sent off for the AncestryDNA kit. It was Cyber Monday and they were running a 30-percent-off special, so I figured, “Why not?” Actually, my sister Theresa told me Ancestry was running the special and offered to pay for half of it, making the offer even more attractive.

Considering Theresa and I shared a womb, as two thirds of a set of triplets — the other’s a boy — it can be assumed that we have the same ethnic background. So, no need for two tests. What a bargain!

With lots of English and German surnames in my genealogy, I suspect my results will be pretty boring, but I’m hopeful there will be a surprise or two. One mystery I hope will be unraveled is the rumored “Black Dutch” ancestry on my maternal grandmother’s side.

My mom’s family, at least back to the early 1800s, were from eastern Kentucky, particularly Knox and Whitley counties, near the town of Barbourville.

When I was growing up, Granny always told us her family was Black Dutch. I never knew exactly what she meant, and still don’t really, as there are so many explanations for the term. Depending on the source, Black Dutch has been used to refer to German gypsies, Melungeons, Sephardic Jews, Native Americans, mixed-race people and others ethnic groups.

Theresa saw a photography exhibit at the Smithsonian many years ago about German gypsies and she said the people in the photos looked a lot like my mom and her siblings.

Granny, Allie Arizona Miles, is in the center, front. Her parents are on either side. Allie’s siblings, Ike, Julie, Vida and Ethel (although I might have the order wrong), stand behind them. Circa 1915.

My Granny, Allie Arizona Engle, was the daughter of John Jefferson Engle and Louisa Melinda Warfield. John Engle was descended from Melchor Engle, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the mid-1700s.

You can read more about Melchor here at FindAGrave.com.

Being the only known German surname on my mom’s side of the family, I suspect the Engles are the source of the Black Dutch story.

Another family history mystery I’d like to solve through DNA testing is that of what my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was up to in the late 1800s. I blogged about him a while back, and you can read that here.

To paraphrase, in about 1880, John left his wife and young son in Kentucky, saying he was headed out for a sack of cornmeal. He didn’t return for about 20 years.

josephine bill sidney claudie.jpg
Maybe some Native American ancestry comes from Josephine Lee, first wife of John Wesley Miles. She’s pictured here, standing behind her son, Bill, and his wife, Sidney. Sidney is holding my great aunt, Claudie. Circa about 1900.

The story I always heard was that he had a Wild West adventure, heading to Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas. There, he was rumored to have started a new family before eventually returning to Kentucky, toting a sack of cornmeal like nothing ever happened.

I’d like to find the descendants of that other family in Texas, Oklahoma or wherever they are.

Also, John Miles claimed half-Native American ancestry, so I’d like to know if there’s any truth to that. The alleged Native American ancestry also might have come from someone else, or might not exist at all. Hopefully, DNA will shed some light on that.

So, that’s it for now. I haven’t even got the test kit yet, but when I send it off and the results come back, I’ll be sure to let you know what it says. I’m hoping for surprises, scandal and intrigue, but I’ll settle for not boring.

The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’

The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’

A few weeks ago, while researching something entirely different, I stumbled across the story of Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence. Widely known in the 1860s as a “redeemed slave child,” Fannie was a poster child for the abolitionist movement.

Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence, a redeemed slave child, five years of age, as she appeared when found in slavery. Van Dorn, photograph artist, 285 Fulton St., Brooklyn. (Library of Congress)

At this point, you might be thinking, “Slave child? Isn’t that little girl white?” No, despite her fair complexion and light brown hair, she’s not. In the mid-1800s, when Fannie was born to a mulatto slave mother and a white slave owner, she would have been described as an “octoroon,” or someone who is one-eighth black.

At the time, terms like quadroon, octoroon and quintroon were used to describe people who were one-fourth, one-eighth and one-sixteenth black. Regardless of how white Fannie appeared or how little African ancestry she actually had, she was considered black.

Fannie, posed in prayer. R.S. De Lamater, photographer, Hartford, CT. (Library of Congress)

You can find many carte-de-visite photographs of Fannie online, including on the Library of Congress website. In the photos, the cherubic child is photographed in various poses, among them kneeling to pray while clad in an angelic, white nightgown.

Because these photos were used as anti-slavery propaganda, this was all about strategy — not only the sweet, innocent pose, but also because Fannie appears to be white. The thinking was that one might be more apt to support the cause, emotionally and monetarily, if one could imagine that praying child as one of their own.

But who was Fannie?

There’s an entry on FindAGrave.com about Fannie, written by a Rick Lawrence, who may or may not be a relative (he didn’t respond to my message). According to Lawrence, Fannie was born in 1858 in Rectortown, Fauquier County, Va.

Fannie’s mom was said to be a slave named Mary Fletcher and her dad was reportedly Fletcher’s owner, Charles Ayres. Ayres, who went by the middle name “Rufus,” was a white lawyer and farmer.

As described by William Page Johnson II, who wrote an article about Fannie and her family for the Historic Fairfax City newsletter in 2015, “Like many slaveholders, Rufus, who was unmarried, took full advantage of the relationship and had at least three children by his slaves Mary Fletcher, Jane Payne, and Ann Gleaves.

“However, unlike most slaveholders, he acknowledged them and provided for them in his last will and testament.”

In November 1859, that will came into play when Ayres was killed by a neighbor. An article headlined “Fatal Affair” in Richmond’s Daily Dispatch states that Ayres was “shot and instantly killed” by James Phillips, and that “the difficulty between them originated about the location of a road.

“Ayres struck Phillips with a cowhide, when the latter drew a pistol and shot Ayres, killing him on the spot.”

A subsequent article in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser describes a more drawn-out incident, involving multiple locations and an additional suspect or two, but the end result is the same: Ayres is dead.

(Both of these articles can be found in the Library of Congress newspaper archive, Chronicling America. Just search for Virginia, the year 1859 and Ayres.)

After Ayres death, the aforementioned slave women and the children Ayres fathered with them were freed. Unfortunately, because of laws at the time, that also meant they had to leave the state of Virginia. Because Mary Fletcher was married to another slave and had other children who were not freed upon Ayres’s death, she chose to remain enslaved.

But during the Civil War, in 1862, Mary Fletcher, Fannie and several other slaves, including others named in Ayres’s will that remained in slavery, escaped. There’s a long, detailed description of the escape in Johnson’s story, but in short, the group flees to Union territory.

Fannie and Catharine Lawrence, her adopted mother. Photograph by Renowden, 65 Fulton Av., Brooklyn. (Library of Congress)

What happens to Fannie’s mom after this is uncertain — Johnson includes some theories in his article — but Fannie ends up being adopted by a Civil War nurse named Catharine Lawrence. Lawrence was acquainted with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Lawrence takes Fannie, who’s about 5 years old at the time, to New York. There, she’s baptized by Beecher as “Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence.” It was at this point that Fannie’s “career” as a “redeemed slave child” began.

According to Johnson, before baptizing Fannie, Beecher held her up to his congregation, declaring dramatically, “This child was born a slave, and is redeemed from slavery!” upon which there was an “audible gasp from the astonished, and equally horrified parishioners, who assumed the child to be white.”

Johnson goes on to write that Beecher told his congregation of the terrible fate awaiting Fannie, had she not been adopted by Lawrence. Because of Fannie’s “near-white complexion,” Johnson writes, “Fann[ie], and others like her, were in danger of being abused by their white masters, or worse, being sold as Fancy Girls, a 19th century euphemism for light skinned slave prostitutes, which were then common in New Orleans.”

Or as Beecher put it:

… Look upon this child. Tell me have you ever seen a fairer, sweeter face? This is a sample of the slavery which absorbs into itself everything fair and attractive. The loveliness of this child would only make her so much more valuable as chattel; For while your children are brought up to fear and serve the Lord, this one, just as beautiful, would be made through slavery a child of damnation.

It was an effective ploy, albeit for the good cause of ending slavery.

A little drummer girl. Kellogg Brothers, photographers, 279 Main St., Hartford, Conn. (Library of Congress)

Sometime shortly after that, photos of Fannie were taken and widely distributed. As Johnson tells it, the pictures were “wildly popular in the North, making Fannie the most photographed slave child in history.”

While Johnson doesn’t say Fannie was abused or neglected in any way, he describes the tactics Beecher and Lawrence used as “exploitive.”

According to the Find A Grave entry, Lawrence raised Fannie “as her own child.” This is supported by the 1865 New York census, which shows a 6-year-old Fannie living in the town of Schoharie with Lawrence and her older brother, Henry Lawrence, a farmer.

Find A Grave also states Fannie married while in her teens and had two children. Johnson’s research led him to this quote by Lawrence, which supports this and also suggests the marriage was not a good one:

The little one that I adopted and educated, married one whom I opposed, knowing his reckless life rendered him wholly unfit for one like her. When sick and among strangers, he deserted her and an infant daughter and eloped with a woman, who left her husband and two small children.

Fannie is believed to have died sometime before 1895. Her burial site is unknown, although it’s believed to be somewhere in New York.

You can read Johnson’s article, in its well-researched entirety, here. It includes a lot more information about Fannie and her family, including the story of her older sisters, who also were brought north and adopted, but to even less happy endings.

And here, you can read an NPR story about other children who were photographed for anti-slavery campaigns.

Walk (and eat) your way across Santa Fe

Walk (and eat) your way across Santa Fe

If we hadn’t walked to the Bataan Memorial Museum, we wouldn’t have eaten “Santa Fe’s Best Hot Dog.” It’s that simple: when you walk instead of drive, you’re more likely to stop at a take-out window for Chicago-style hot dogs smothered in green chiles and cheese. Or see the world’s biggest raccoon, eating pears.

OK, maybe I’d better stop at the pear-eating raccoon and back up.

One year, for our annual trip to New Mexico, my sister, Theresa, and I decided not to rent a car. Unlike past trips, we wouldn’t spend our days driving through the Land of Enchantment, stopping to take photographs, chase tumbleweeds, bird watch, visit ancient ruins and eat green chile cheeseburgers at roadside diners.

Nope, that year we decided to do something more relaxing: hole up in Santa Fe for a week. We’d visit our favorite restaurants, shops, museums and galleries, and the ones we’d meant to see on past trips. We’d experience all “The City Different” had to offer, and we’d do it all on foot.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

So, in late November of that year, Theresa and I flew to Albuquerque. We caught a shuttle to the Inn on the Alameda and by lunchtime we were sitting at our favorite Santa Fe bar, Del Charro Saloon, eating green chile cheeseburgers.

We discovered Del Charro a few years years ago. Although not completely devoid of tourists — obviously, we were there — Del Charro feels like Santa Fe’s equivalent of “Cheers.” It’s a few blocks from our hotel and most everything on the menu is less than $10. The house margarita is a steal at $7, and because you’re walking, you can have [almost] as many as you like.

El Santuario de Guadalupe

Over the next week, Theresa and I walked to the historic rail yard and farmer’s market. We shopped for vintage western wear and visited El Santuario de Guadalupe, one of several old, adobe churches in Santa Fe worth seeing.

We walked to the Bataan Memorial Museum, dedicated to the Filipino and American soldiers who made the “Bataan Death March” during World War II. It was on the outskirts of downtown, but we figured if 75,000 soldiers could walk 60 or 70 miles under torturous conditions, we could walk to a museum two miles away that honored them.

Chicago Dog Express

En route, we discovered Chicago Dog Express, home of the aforementioned “Santa Fe’s Best Hot Dog.” (And indeed, they are.) On the way back, we stopped at a corner grocery store, Kaune’s, that sells local foods at prices far less than gift shops on the historic, tourist-infused plaza.

Quick travel tip: When looking for local edibles, skip the gift shops and head to a grocery store or farmers market.

We went to the Spanish Colonial Art and International Folk Art museums on Museum Hill. For full disclosure purposes, because Museum Hill was two miles away and we had a full itinerary that day, we cheated and took a $1 city bus instead of walking.

We walked Canyon Road, a mile-long arts district where you can buy everything from Peruvian folk art to a $137,000 Mary Cassatt painting. We ventured onto Garcia Street, a historic neighborhood with an array of New Mexican Territorial-style homes.

We discovered this tiny chapel on a hillside, outside the tourist district.

We walked down East Alameda Street, turned left on a gravel road and crossed a well-traveled gully up to Cerro Gordo Road. There, on a hillside sits a tiny chapel built in 1928 as a tribute to San Ysidro, patron saint of farmers.

We went to the annual Winter Spanish Market — now held in Albuquerque — where artisans sold retablos, colcha embroidery, straw appliqué, tin work and other examples of traditional Spanish Colonial art. We shopped for Native American jewelry at the Palace of the Governors and visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

The Palace of the Governors, where Native Americans from all over New Mexico sell handmade jewelry, pottery and other artwork. Prices are usually more reasonable than the shops, plus you’re buying directly from the artist.

We sat on the plaza, listening to three old hippies sing classic rock songs. We also walked the labyrinth at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and stopped for bizcochitos, the New Mexican state cookie, at three separate bakeries.

And while walking to the plaza one night, we saw the biggest raccoon on the planet, eating pears. It was round as a barrel and seemed much more interested in gobbling pears that had fallen from a nearby tree than in the pair of tourists looking at it. We watched the hungry raccoon for a minute or so, then ambled off toward the plaza.

It was near-Christmas, after all. The plaza was strung with lights and just a short walk away.

Santa Fe plaza, decorated for the holidays. If you were there, you’d also smell spicy pinon wood, burning in fireplaces all over the historic district.


Here’s the recipe I use for bizcochitos. It makes about two dozen of the anise-seed sugar cookies. There are many variations — some people use wine, others orange juice, some whisky or brandy, and some spell it “biscochito.”


1/2 cup vegetable shortening, lard or unsalted butter or margarine (I use lard.)
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. aniseed (or 1/8 tsp. anise seed extract) (I prefer seed.)
1 tbsp. brandy
1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp. cinnamon for dredging


Preheat oven to 350 and have 2 ungreased cookie sheets ready. Combine the first 5 ingredients in the food processor and blend until the shortening and the sugar are creamed, about 5 to 10 seconds, stopping once to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With a fork, mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Still using the fork, add the shortening mixture from the processor and keep blending until no loose flour appears in the bowl and the cookie dough begins to draw into a mass.

At this point, you can either pat out 2 1/2-inch rounds, just under 1/4 inch thick, or you can chill the dough for 15 minutes and then roll it out onto a lightly floured board with a rolling pin. Rolling out enables you to cut fancy shapes if you like. A quick method is to place a tablespoon of dough on the board and flatten it into a circle with the bottom of a glass or cup.

However you shape them, dredge one side of the bizcochitos in the cinnamon sugar and arrange close together on the cookie sheet with the sugared side up. Bake 10 minutes or until the cookies turn a pale blond. Cool for 5 minutes in the pans, then transfer to a cooling rack. Cookies cut thicker than 1/4 inch will be softer, once baked, than thin cookies. The dough can also be baked at 375 for 15 minutes, in which case the cookies will be browned and crisp. Store in a cookie jar or paper bag, where they will keep for at least a week.

(A version of this article also appeared in WalkAbout Magazine in 2013.)

The Lynchburg Zoo

The Lynchburg Zoo

If you walk to the center of Lynchburg’s Miller Park today, between the Aviary and what’s called the “fireman’s fountain,” you’ll find a flowerbed. The contents of this flowerbed aren’t remarkable — one small tree, a few clumps of hostas, other common plants — but what is noteworthy is its border.

At first glance, the rectangle of flagstone slabs, connected with heavy, iron staples, looks like overkill. After all, it’s only corralling foliage and mulch. But what a lot of people don’t know is that in its previous life this flowerbed was a bear pit.

The old bear pit at Miller Park.

Yes, you read that correctly. There were once bears at Miller Park, along with deer, monkeys, snakes, birds, alligators, wolves and other wildlife. During the early part of the 20th century, the City of Lynchburg operated a zoo at what was once known as “City Park” and later named for local philanthropist Samuel Miller.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the zoo opened. There is, however, mention of it in the Nov. 22, 1899, edition of the Lynchburg News.

A story headlined “Bears for the Park” reports that “two fine bears” just arrived in Lynchburg aboard a Norfolk & Western freight train. The bears were acquired by the city from C.N. Otey, said to be a “well-to-do business man of Wytheville.”

The article further explains that prior to that time Otey had kept the bears as pets.

Why Otey relinquished the bears isn’t stated, but the 1900 U.S. Census might offer a clue. At the time, the 42-year-old Otey was a bartender and married father of six. Otey’s brother and father-in-law also live in the house.

That said, one can imagine Otey’s wife of 15 years, Ella, thinking something had to go. So Lynchburg got two bears.

In “The History of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1786-1946,” author Philip Lightfoot Scruggs writes that the zoo “was initiated through a buck deer being given to E.C. Hamner, chairman of City Council’s committee on parks.” The year isn’t mentioned.

Cover of an early 20th century Lynchburg annual report. (Lynchburg Museum System)

Over the years, the City of Lynchburg’s Committee on Parks reported annual expenses and other statistics related to the zoo. For example, the city’s 1900 Annual Report lists the following expenses were incurred in 1899:

Food for animals — $414.48
Addition to green-house and monkey house — $156.08
Bear pit — $942.20
Fencing — $189.11
Parot [sic] house — $125.14
Winter quarters for monkeys and birds — $110.60
Animals and birds bought — $129.68
Eagle house — $83.85

The Committee on Parks reported in 1902 that former Lynchburg citizen Randolph Guggenheimer, then a resident of New York, had donated money to build the Aviary. Hamner said the building would cost $2,500 “without the heating and painting,” and would “enable us to take better care of the small animals and birds during the winter, and also enables visitors to see them.”

In his book, Scruggs describes the Aviary as “especially interesting” and said its “most fearsome” feature “was a great rattlesnake which so impressed younger visitors that they were likely to think of the aviary as a snake house.”

In 1902, Hamner also reported that the zoo had the following animals in its collection: 13 monkeys, three bears, seven parrots, two ferrets, two cockatoos, 35 guinea pigs, 20 rabbits, five owls, four groundhogs, two caracaras, 60 pigeons, six fantail pigeons, two Australian doves, three silver pheasants, two falcons, three white turkey, four peafowl, six deer, one badger, one coati, three red foxes, three gray foxes, six raccoons, 50 squirrels, two gophers, one turtle, one wolf, five alligators, 100 goldfish and four guinea fowl.

Donations — “animals presented,” as stated in the 1902 report — also were noted. Among these were two cockatoos, donated by Louis Lazarus, and two alligators and a turtle, donated by W.B. Bigbie.

One can imagine the stories behind these donations. Perhaps, Bigbie brought two tiny alligators home from a trip to Florida in a shoebox, only to have them grow too big for the family bathtub. Something had to be done with them, so off they went to the zoo.

Deaths also were reported. In 1904, Park Superintendent R.C. Driver said the following animals had died or had been killed by dogs: “three monkeys, nine deer (killed by dogs), five raccoons, three black-snakes, one peafowl, sixteen rabbits (killed by dogs), thirty guinea pigs (killed by dogs), two ducks, one falcon, two American eagles, one buzzard, three groundhogs, two silver pheasants and one sea-dove.”

The zoo was a popular local attraction. In 1903, Hamner said the Aviary “has now become the main point of attraction and a source of enjoyment for both young and old.” He added, “As the zoological department is constantly growing, so the number of people who visit the park is increasing, and even in wet weather the crowds are large.”

Hamner also noted that the local Knights of Pythias built a squirrel enclosure for the zoo, where the children could “feed [the] animals from their own hands.” This, Hamner added, “can give the little ones much pleasure.”

Sometimes, however, this didn’t work out so well.

Lynchburg newspaper, Aug. 30, 1918.

In 1921, the zoo was closed. As reported in the publication The Playground in 1924, “In 1921, the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, abolished the zoo at Miller Park in order to supply recreation facilities which would serve a larger number of people and permit active participation in recreation activities.”

Photo from 1922 Lynchburg annual report of what was formerly the zoo’s elk and deer paddock. (Lynchburg Museum System)

The Aviary eventually became a public library, among other things, and is currently operated by the city’s parks and recreation department as an events venue. At some point, the bear pit was filled with dirt and plants.

Because it’s been almost 100 years since the zoo closed, photos and personal accounts of the zoo are hard — perhaps impossible — to come by. Sometimes, I forget that people didn’t always walk around with cameras in their pockets.

Also, those who would remember going to the zoo, even in the early 1920s as young children, would be pushing 100 years old today.

There are secondhand accounts, though, if you ask around. For example, Doug Harvey, director of Lynchburg Museum System, remembers his aunt, Lillian Burnette Tweedy, talking about the zoo.

“[She] told us that she rode the street cars from Floyd Street to the park for a nickel to see the bears,” Harvey said. “This was about 1917.”

And Lynchburg native Don Bobbitt, posting on the Facebook group Living in Lynchburg, wrote the following:

I remember, as a child visiting an aunt, and she had a collection of those pictures you looked at through a viewer. I was fascinated by how amazing the old Miller Park was, with exotic flowers and plants and animals, and people dressed in their Sunday finest, walking around. There were dozens of them. But alas, she and her kids are long gone. Perhaps someone has a set of these?

Perhaps someone does. One can hope! And if I find copies, you’ll be the first to know!

Thanks to Doug Harvey, Wayne Fitzgerald and Don Bobbitt for your help with this article.