Recently, my good friend, fellow blogger and travel partner, Paula, visited Maymont, a Gilded Age estate once owned by wealthy Richmonders James and Sallie Dooley. Maymont is now owned by the City of Richmond and is open for tours.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.)