I just spent two weeks in Virginia visiting Courthouses, Archives, Libraries, Plantation houses and the neighborhood (Old Town) in Fredericksburg where Free blacks lived. I was in Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia and immediately fell in love with those states. Except for Washington DC most of the area is still quite rural and they are not in a hurry to have Developments dotting their landscape. It was a very enriching and educational experience for me. I noticed many Plantation houses dotted the landscape, a grim reminder of the not too distant past.
The Plantations I visited were Wakefield (the birthplace of George Washington), where my ancestors Mary and Patty Bowden were born. Kenmore (Owned by George Washington’s brother-in-law, Fielding Lewis) , Nottingham (my ancestor Patty Bowden served from this house) and New Post (part of Nottingham). Wakefield is located in Westmoreland County Virginia and is right off of a main stretch of Highway. I got the best interpretation of how my ancestors lived from my visit there.
We looked at the Plantation, which was large, and I wondered how 75 slaves were expected to grow tobacco there. During the Colonial, period the kitchen and outhouse were separate from the main building. We went inside of the kitchen and there was a "Mulatto" girl. Her name was Kadisha and she was about 20 years old and was dressed in period clothing. She had on a blouse buttoned up to her neck, a bonnet over her head, long skirt and black boots. There was a huge fireplace in the kitchen over, which hung the pots to cook the food in. Kadisha said that most of the vegetables and meat were prepared in that kitchen and then taken to the main house. During the re-enactment, Kadisha explained that the skirt of the servant often caught on fire. Over the fireplace were herbs, which were dried and used for medicinal purposes. Those who worked in he kitchen were also responsible for making teas and other medication for the Master and his family.
Kadisha then explained that the house servants did not sleep in the house (unless they were white). Those who worked in the kitchen slept over top of the kitchen. She showed us a room next to the kitchen, which depicted how the sleeping room was arranged. There was a bed of straw with a white Muslim type covering around it. She said that each night before they went to bed the servants would beat the straw to chase the bed bugs away. As she was demonstrating how it was done, I felt as if I was watching my ancestor and a sad feeling came over me.
From the kitchen we went to the Main house, which was actually a replica of the original house since the original house burned down (In fact several of the Washington houses burned down)? Augustine Washington Junior (George’s brother) was out of town when it happened and the slaves had a day off. What was interesting to me was the kitchen was the only building left standing. The Main House burned to the ground and only some items were saved. My cousin and I gave each other "the look" as is to say we know what happened. However, our guide was quick to assure us that the slaves took no part in the burning of the house. It was an accident caused by a spark from the fireplace in the kitchen (hmm).
The original house at Popes’ Creek was occupied by Augustine Washington Senior and his first wife Jane Butler (about 1720-1730). During that period, the Washington’s were still just farmers with few assets to their names. They received head rights (land) by bringing Indentured Servants from England and Ireland, who then worked to pay their indentures off in five to seven years. There were few slaves until Augustine Senior and his sons married into the Butler, Aylett, Ball and Fairfax families. With the women came dowries of money and property, including slaves.
The House on Popes’ Creek would have been considered one built for a Middle Income Planter. It had a Main Hall going from the Front Door to the Back door, four rooms down stairs and four bedrooms. The beds slept in by the Master were not made of straw, but possibly, Down stuffed mattresses. The Mattresses was probably made by the slaves, who slept on beds of straw. We climbed the stairs to look at the second floor where the bedrooms were located and the difference in where the "Mulatto" Servants slept, was like day and night. The rooms were large and airy with netting over the beds to protect against flies. Their were Slop pots in each of the rooms (guess who emptied them) and toys in the children’s rooms.
As we were leaving, we noticed the sheep, Geese, horses and Oxen, basically the same animals on the old Plantation.
We were then taken to the slave graveyard, which is located on land still owned by Washington descendants. The Graveyard is non-descript and sits under a huge tree miles away from the family plot of the Washington family. The Park Ranger said the graves are in a circular shape, which was the way Africans buried there dead (that was news to me). This was the end of our tour and it gave me a better perspective on how slaves and servants lived during that period.
The other house that left an impression was New Post, which was built by Alexander Spotswood, who married Augustine Washington Juniors’ daughter. This house was larger but still had outside kitchen and restroom. There was a rusty bell hanging on a rope from the main house to the Kitchen, which was rang to summon the servants. This house sat on twice as much acreage as Wakefield and I wondered how many slaves worked on this farm. The farm is still a working farm and I noticed there were black faces in the fields although they were now operating equipment.
My cousin and I spoke of our ancestors as we headed up the road away from the Plantations. He told me that there was a slave cottage in Charles County Maryland, which was burned down. It was a reminder to them of slavery and they wanted it removed. We agreed that it is painful, but we do not want to forget, nor do we want America writing a history that does not include slavery. It is not black peoples’ shame, it is Americas’ shame.
Places to visit for Research:
Westmoreland County Courthouse, Montross VA
Fredericksburg Courthouse , Fredericksburg VA
Central Rappahannock Regional Library, Fredericksburg VA
National Archives, Washington DC
Wakefield Plantation, Westmoreland County VA
Old Town Fredericksburg (Go to Visitors Center in Fredericksburg and they will give you a tour and/or a map.)
Shiloh Baptist Church, Fredericksburg (church has been in operation since early 1800’s)
We were well received and the staff was helpful (they are understaffed) in showing us where information was. They allowed us to look through books that went back to the early 1800’s. We found a lot of information in the little courthouses and libraries. My suggestion is that those who are seeking information in small towns go and search the records. You will save time and money in the long run.