The Will of Thomas Rowlett: Spider Web in a Family Tree

I first came to know the Rowlett family through my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Jane, who married James Dodson in antebellum Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

When Sarah was a young girl, Congress addressed the needs of its elderly war heroes by passing the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1832.  This legislation provided full pay for any man, enlisted or officer, who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or state militias.  William Rowlett’s application is an extensive justification of his claim that also serves as biography.  It is this document that offered my first peek into Sarah’s Rowlett lineage, connecting her to the surname found in Chesterfield County (VA) and to the Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County (VA) neighborhood of Sarah’s adulthood.

The pension files include documentation of William marrying Sarah’s mom, Rebecca Short, in 1825 while living in Chesterfield County.  It is clear from the tangle of story lines that this was William’s second marriage, that he had children from the first marriage, that he had served in the Revolution while living in Chesterfield County, that he emigrated to Mecklenburg County after the war ended and lived there for some thirty years before returning to Chesterfield County.  Between 1825 and the filing of the pension application, an elderly William, Rebecca, and Sarah relocated to Mecklenburg County, on a farm near James Dodson, and his parents, Edward and Mary Green Dodson.

In my last post I offered a brief synopsis and a transcription of the last wishes of a Thomas Rowlett. Written in the closing days of 1805, Thomas’ will confirms some relationships that I have been guessing about–neighbors and cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and 3rd and 4th great-grandmothers–since first investigating Sarah Jane’s lineage.

Thomas Rowlett listed four primary relationships as beneficiaries of his estate :

  • his mother, Sarah, thought to be a second wife, and also known as Sarah Neal Archer.

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  • his brother, William, not known to have married.

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  • his sister Mary, who it is thought married a first cousin, William Rowlett, also known as 3rd-great-grandfather, William Rowlett, father of Sarah Rowlett Dodson.

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  • his deceased sister, Martha, daughter of Sarah, wife of William Wills Green, and mother of Mary Green Dodson, my 3rd great-grandmother.

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This one document helps confirm how intertwined my  branches are.

So, in short:

Sarah Jane had much older half-siblings:

  • Sarah, who married Thomas Coleman.
  • Thompson, who married Mary (Polly) Dodson.
  • William.
  • Peter.
  • Thomas.
  • John.
  • Mary.
  • Archer.
  • Martha.

The oldest two remained in Mecklenburg County, and I have accounted for them.

The others may have returned to Chesterfield County, and pose more questions than my brain can handle right now!

My 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Green Dodson, lost her mother before 1803, when William W. Green is recorded as having married widow Mary Hinton Poindexter.  The will suggests to me that as a young girl Mary might have been at least partly raised by her elder siblings.

  • Archer.
  • Abraham.
  • Elizabeth who had married James W Oliver in 1799.
  • Sarah.
  • William.
  • Martha.
  • Lewis.

Mary also had two younger sisters:

  • Susanna.
  • Rebecca Cole.

As I continue to gather documents and sift stories, I have an increasing number of relatives , neighbors, cousins to inquire after, to listen for.  I know folks refer to this genealogical hobby as building a tree, but right now I feel more like a spider spinning a web that collects specks of the past.

What story will come from these patterns?

Source:

The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Rowlett. Mecklenburg County (VA), Will Book 5, p 320, 1806; accessed digitally from Family Search (familysearch.org) September 13, 2018.

 

 

A Family Tree Can Provide More Than Shade

wood-nature-leaves-tree.jpgI think most of us who succumb to the genealogical fever scramble to collect names and dates, and align them in some order.  Bits and bobs of family history hang from stout lines of inquiry, like leaves on a June sugar maple.

I want to spread a blanket over its roots, and linger in the shade of these ancestors, telling stories of prosperity and perseverance.  But when I look up into the Dodson-Rowlett-Green branches, I see what those leaves are blocking, what is providing the shadowed comfort of family tales.

The light of ingenuity and survival contains the stolen humanity of enslaved people.

I can feel their presence, though I may never know more than an age, sex, or first name.  And I feel impelled to reframe my family’s progress and reputation, to fully account for their choices and the impact that those choices had on their children, neighbors, community, and on the very ideals of a developing democracy.

I am climbing my family tree, again, adding leaves and uncovering roots that go well beyond my known kin.  I wonder what I will learn when I step out of its shade.

 

 

Mystery Among the Roots

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. Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.28.46 PM

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

 

 

 

Leaf Litter from the Family Tree

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.

Falling LeavesFor 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.

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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.

 

 

Points of View

DSC_1923I 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.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932
The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46.

Mecklenburg County, VA 1932 Map Key

 

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?

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