The Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society in Hanover, Pennsylvania may seem an odd place to find this Virginia root hunter. But one of the perks of belonging to my local library is accessing their subscription to Family Search files which includes ALL the digital files within the vast Salt Lake City-based repository.
Every Thursday you can find me in front of a computer, exercising my eyes on handwriting of folks long gone from Mecklenburg County’s red soil. For some weeks I have been tracing the land purchases and sales of William Wills Green, a colonial ancestor in my Dodson branch.
Today while summarizing a few 18th century deeds, I found a connection within two records that I zipped past during my first read-through.
In the spring of 1778 William W. Green purchased land along a creek off of Church Road, in Mecklenburg County, from Peter and Mary Oliver. The 500 acre parcel included buildings, woods, waters, ways [paths], and cost £500 current Virginia money.
In the fall of 1781 William Green sold that same parcel of land, identified as lying on Butcher’s Creek, to William Wills of Amelia County–for £100 current Virginia money.
Add these two facts from other records:
Abraham Green, Sr. , William’s father, purchased land in Amelia County (VA) in 1741, and it seems likely that William Wills Green grew up there.
Butcher’s Creek is west of Allen’s Creek. The land in between the two creeks is showing up in deeds of William W. Green and Edward Dodson, Sr., including land that Abraham Green sells to his son, William.
Carrying this information into today’s review, I find myself asking:
Is the 1781 buyer, William Wills, the man for whom my 4th great-grandfather is named?
Is the relationship a reason that Green took a £400 loss on the land?
Were the Greens and Wills consolidating community and power during the Revolution? Or did Wills purchase the land to give William W some extra funds during that turbulent time?
Back to the past for me. Will I find William Wills in Amelia County deeds? Next door to the Green family? Roots push deeper into the past, ever deeper.
The leaves from our deciduous forests are turning yellow, or brown, and dropping with alacrity to the ground. They carpet every surface–grass, water, rocks, moss, driveways.
For years I have used the family tree metaphor to structure my genealogical research. Only today did it strike me that leaf litter can also be an inspirational metaphor, as in those leaves, those ancestors, that get dropped, and disappear to nurture the soil of the family’s winding tale.
And as a review of this deed transcription suggests it is often women who carpet the family forest floor.
On 15 June 1770, Samuel Whitworth sold 120 acres of land to William Wills Green, my fifth great-grandfather. The parcel included houses, outbuildings, orchards, woods, water, and parts of Allens Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia…land that lay not far from where my father grew up.
William W Green took possession of the real estate on the same day. His neighbors included Edward Beavils, Francis Moore Neal, Abram Green, and Thomas Whitworth.
No women were present for the sale. No dower rights were acknowledged.
English common law crossed the ocean with the European settlers from which I descend. Among the provisions of this legal framework was coverture, the principles enshrined to govern married women, prohibiting their agency to hold property, run businesses, conduct trade, and act as citizens.
Therefore, though I know from William Wills Green’s last will and testament that he had 10 children, there is no record of their mother in this deed, or among the long list of deeds I have uncovered. There is no acknowledgement of the women with whom she quilted and cooked; no indication that a midwife helped birth all those babies; no public record of any domestic work that contributed to the Green estate development.
Which is frustrating. I have to snuffle in the leaf litter of history to discover the women in my past, more imagining than documenting their stories to fill out my family tree.
If you are a women’s studies buff, please leave any sources and ideas for research questions in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
I look through a viewfinder at least once a day. Photography makes me practice seeing different points of view; the very act of framing the familiar often reveals a hidden detail that adds unexpected meaning, an “aha!” that leaves me changed.
Genealogy can be a framing exercise too, with questions serving as viewfinder. During research on my dad’s neighbors, the Crute family, I posed the question: If the Crute’s provided regular part-time labor for the neighboring Strickland tobacco acres, did the Stricklands reciprocate and provide needed labor to the Crutes? Looking for reciprocity opened up the space to confront the Jim Crow-era world that set the context for my father’s memories, and consequently the lore that was handed down to me.
Charles, Clarence, and Robert, along with their mom, Cora, figure prominently in Norman Strickland’s childhood. The black family lived on the Boydton-Chase City Road, a bit west of the Dodson/Strickland farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia from the 1920s through 1940, at least. The family also included their father, Mathew (1883-1931) and siblings Willie Bee, Daisy, Alice, Angie, and Odie.
During that era of hardship my grandfather pulled out all the stops; he farmed on Oakview, invested in Chase City real estate, and purchased one school bus after another, contracting with the public school system to transport rural kids into Chase City’s schools. I was told as a child, repeatedly, that George Strickland single-handedly shut down all the one-room schoolhouses in the area.
And he did it with the regular part-time help of Charles, Clarence, and Robert, according to my father.
In the 1940 census, my uncles–Sidney, 17, Clifford, 15, and Paul, 14–were students in high school. My dad,11, had just completed sixth grade. Clarence Crute was 24 years old, farming on his own account, and evidently the primary support for his mother, Cora, and two sisters, Angie, 16, and Odie, 12, who were all listed as occupied in home housework. Clarence had attained a seventh grade education, Angie a sixth grade education, and Odie a fifth grade education. The discrepancies in educational attainment and normal occupation are striking for the two families.
I once asked my father if George had used his buses to transport all the kids, or just the white kids. Were all the one room schools shuttered or only the white schools? Where did the Crute kids go to school?
Norman was stunned, I sensed, as he realized that he didn’t know where the Crutes went to school. A conclusion is unavoidable: George bought buses and transported white kids into better schools, into a system that went all the way through 11th grade. But my grandfather didn’t buy buses to close all the black one room schools. He didn’t even buy buses and hire the Crute men to drive the black kids who made it through the one room school curriculum into the local black high school, the Thyne Institute, founded on the outskirts of Chase City in 1877.
The explanations about the Crute contribution to the Oakview farm were woven as a story of reciprocity. George needed help running the farm as his boys attended school and he gave the Crutes jobs and paid them with a fair share of the tobacco crop. Granddaddy was a good and kind and fair employer, as the story went and the reality of the Crutes’ limited educational choices and work opportunities as a result were simply erased.
My family engaged in opportunity hoarding.
I don’t know where the members of this African American family landed after World War II. From the records it appears that they, like my father’s family surged off the farms and into cities and towns with other work/life options. But my father and his brothers had high school educations; Paul and my dad went on to college and into professional careers. Sidney and Clifford held managerial positions for most of their lives.
What of the Crutes? Did they migrate into the Bronx and Chicago and other destinations north? What work did they find? What dreams did they hold?
And what would their lives have been like, if instead of sitting atop a tractor or behind an team of oxen, they had sat on a bus?
Brainstorming and journaling are good for the future
Sorting through my family lore stash, I came across two sheets of yellow paper, folded into quarters. My father, Norman Strickland, had distinctive handwriting, the product of his years as an electrical engineer. So even though the bulleted pencil notes were not dated or signed, I recognized the scraps of thought as Norman’s brainstorming, sketches for memoir writing that never progressed beyond the legal pad.
“Use green tomatoes to remove tobacco gum from your hands” caught my eye. That tip had prompted a quick jot about where the cotton was grown on his family’s Mecklenburg County, Virginia farm, which led to him thinking about cows, which prompted his noting of the Crute family.
Those last thirteen words kindled a memory of my father standing in the feldspar-studded field of Oakview on a sweltering July day, my kids nearby roaming the hoof-packed cow paths. Norman loved to recall how his father, George Strickland, always had a team of mules hitched up and two tractors going, with crucial assists from tenant farmers. Norman must have been remembering the Crutes.
The note snagged this memory and my curiosity was piqued. Who were the Crutes?
Tobacco had been the cash crop on this Butcher’s Creek farm for five generations by the time my father learned that green tomatoes would remove tobacco gum. Until the markets crashed in ’29 and the Southside of Virginia watched its economy slide with the rest of America, my grandfather had been capitalizing on his entrepreneurial spirit. A partner in a Chase City sawmill when he married my grandmother, Florette, in 1921 George remained an active source of farm labor and support for his guardians, Edward, Dora, and Molly Dodson. In 1927, George inherited the Dodson home place, Oakview. Then the depression silenced the saw mill.
Around the time my father was born in 1928, George, Florette, and their four sons were back on the farm, full-time. And the Crutes were nearby.
Matthew Bell Crute and his wife, Cora Hayes Crute, lived just off the Boydton-Chase City Road on land, it is thought, adjoining the western corner of Oakview, with their eight children: Charles (18),Willie Bee (16), Robert (13), Clarence (12), Daisy (10), Alice (7), Angie (4), and Odie (infant). In the 1930 census, Matthew stated that he was a general farmer working on his own account, and all but the youngest two children were in school.
When my father was just a toddler, Matthew was treated by Dr. Funch from April 5-11, 1931 before the 46 year old father succumbed to the Spanish Influenza. Was it after this tragedy that the Crute family supplemented their income with regular part-time work in the Strickland tobacco fields? Did Cora also help my grandmother? In what other ways did the Crutes interact with my father?
May 22, 1938
Early in the morning of May 22, Robert Monroe Crute was found, his skull crushed, his left forearm broken. The physician on call, A. Tyree Finch, recorded that the death was thought to be a result of an automobile hit-and-run. Cora buried her 24 year old son by his father in the home cemetery.
Newspapers recorded Robert’s accident as one of several automobile deaths in that month, as if cars were a mounting cause of concern. How I wish I could talk with my father about Robert, and his death. Were folks suspicious about what had happened?
But fields need plowing
Norman joked about his father’s incessant movement and the expectations on the family to implement George’s plans. Neighbors expressed horror watching twelve year old Norman atop one of the tractors. “You’re going to get that boy killed!” George paid them no mind.
That would have been 1940, and by census records Clarence was the sole means of support for his mother, and two sisters still at home, Angie and Odie. Willie and Charles apparently moved on, as did Daisy and Alice. Norman’s brothers, Sidney (18), Clifford (16), and Paul (14), were still at home, attending school and providing labor. Clarence may have continued with part-time regular tobacco work, taking a share of the crop in payment.
The following decade ushered in an era of migration, accelerated by World War II and its technological advances. Farming, according to my father, was an honorable occupation but not necessarily one to which a kid aspired. It seems that the Crutes dispersed as actively as the Stricklands did, in search of new opportunities. I know where my folk landed. I am still wondering about the Crutes.
As I look at the bits and pieces of the Crute history intertwined with my family’s story, I realize how incredibly important Cora, Robert, Charles, and Clarence were to the Strickland family’s moving through the depression.
I wonder; how did the Crutes see their relationship to the Stricklands? Was there any reciprocity from the Stricklands, any work done on the Crute farm? Ruminating for another day…stay tuned.
These thoughts are for all you white family historians out there. Particularly the ones who are, like me, struggling to tell the unmentionable, the dishonorable chapters of our ancestors’ lives. The plot lines of which extend into our own days, leaving us uncomfortable with our race. Our whiteness.
I have been silent on this blog space, for what seems like a long time. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because what I have to say is so disconcerting to me. I have hung out with my research for months, letting it rattle my bones. Letting the names and the implications of the unnamed disturb my imagination, and disrupt my nostalgia of my southern past.
And humbled I return to this segregated space to confront the taboo against mixing race and family. The taboo against talking straight up about how I can trace my status, my education, my opportunities right back to those of my Dodson forebears in 1772.
I want to reclaim all the past. I want to braid stories of the Dodsons with the connections of the Crutes and dozens of unnamed African Americans who contributed to the Dodson legacy, yet seldom profited from it.
I hope you will return to learn how my dad’s scribbled note prompted my memory of something Norman said, which together led to the documentation of the Dodson Crute Connection.