I have been getting acquainted with my 19th century grandmothers during the last few weeks, creating more questions than stories at the end of each day, which is frustrating at many levels.
I catch myself re-centering the family account around the men, specifically the white men, who populate the records. It is a habit. A learned way of processing the world that I resist, unsuccessfully, as I try to bring womenfolk out of the past’s shadows.
So I end up tossing the paper into the bin, or cutting whole paragraphs of text, or moving the whole post to trash.
And I begin again.
This week I will (re)focus my attention on Mary Green Dodson, 1787-1858, daughter of William Wills and Martha [Archer Rowlette] Green; wife of Edward Dodson, Junior; mother of James H, my 2nd great-grandfather; and cousin to Sarah Jane [Rowlett] Dodson, my 2nd great-grandmother.
Mary grew from girl to woman, wife to widow, mother to elder, in the watersheds of Allen’s and Butcher’s Creeks, Mecklenburg County, Virginia. I have looked out on those woods, walked those hills, with red clay, that Mary saw every day, clinging to my shoes. Childhood treks from Chase City to the country that had held generations of ancestors made little impression on me until I strolled up cow-worn paths with my father, his drawl spreading stories of his childhood on my children.
I have lots of records for many branches of my families, but I return to those from Mecklenburg County time and again, because of this connection to the white feldspar-studded land. And this genealogical homecoming has prodded my reckoning with the unspoken family lore.
The land and its tobacco guaranteed food security, housing security, community esteem. And none of that was possible without the work of black people-enslaved, sharecroppers, tenant farmers.
When I reconstruct pieces of Mary Green Dodson’s life, I also feel those African Americans emerging from shadows.
I hope I do all of these folks justice with my story-telling.
Their hopes, dreams–and nightmares–built this country.
In building out my Dodson ancestors’ social and economic ecosystem I asked questions about the enslaved. I wondered if I could find evidence of how their journey from emancipation through Reconstruction differed from the post-war opportunities of my family.
In doing this research I uncovered what I believe to be a family tree of Lucy Boyd Dodson, enslaved on my 2nd great-granduncle’s farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Benjamin Franklin Dodson was married to Delia Boyd Dodson, who became executrix of his estate in 1864 after he was killed by a Union sniper at Petersburg, Virginia.
The inventory that Delia filed that autumn included the names of the enslaved:
Nancy and 2 children (Caroline and Lucius)
Lucie and 3 children (Henrietta, Virginia, and Elie (Elsi))
Lucy is found in the Virginia Slave Birth Records as the enslaved of Benjamin Dodson, bearing four children between 1854 and 1860, including Henrietta named in the Probate Inventory. The 1860 mortality schedule lists the deaths of two of her children, Martha and Robert. Another son, Alexander, is unaccounted for in the inventory or following records.
The 1870 census records Lucy Dodson living in the Boydton District of Mecklenburg County on a farm with Archer, Armstead, Henrietta, and three more children not listed in the inventory, Kesiah, Nathan, and Mary. Virginia and Elie, from the 1864 inventory are not included in the list.
The 1880 census records Lucy as the wife of Armstead Dodson, living in the Boydton District with their two children, John and Harriet. Nathan is working as a house servant at the next-door neighbor’s farm. Kesiah and Mary are working as servants in the household of Delia Dodson’s sister, Harriet Boyd Dodson Cogbill, in Boydton.
Henrietta may have moved to North Carolina in 1871 and married Paul Merryman.
Kesiah, Mary, and John have left no trace that I have found. But Nathan and Harriet moved into the 20th century leaving bread crumbs of data in marriage licenses and death certificates.
Harriet married Frank Swift, moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and had several children: Willie, Ruth, Elmira, Mary, and Ernest.
Nathaniel B. Dodson moved to Brooklyn, NY in 1887, and married a Mecklenburg County gal in 1898. SarahGoode and Nathaniel had several children: Lillian, Nathaniel Jr, Evelyn, Ralph, Harold, Edith, Kenneth. Their youngest, Owen Dodson, was a poet, playwright, and Howard University professor of theater. James V. Hatch wrote a biography of the “dean of Black Theater” after Owen’s death in 1983. Reading Sorrow Is The Only Faithful One has been a fascinating way to confirm some of my hunches about Lucy, Armstead, and their children.
Lucy and Armstead remained farmers on the land near Taylors Ferry Road, Mecklenburg County for the rest of their lives. Lucy died before 1900, as Armstead is listed in the 1900 census as a widowed farmer living with his brother, Archer (of the inventory list perhaps), and two grandchildren, John H. and Lucy Dodson. Armstead died on March 14, 1913 and was buried at Shiloh Colored Church, Boydton, Virginia.
This sketch of Lucy’s life will be painted in as I compare her life to that of the widow Delia Dodson, a process that I expect to be a rather uncomfortable reckoning with the inequities perpetuated from slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow through my life. The present is much the past.
I am constructing a public tree for Lucy in Ancestry.com, a platform that is amazingly cumbersome in trying to record how African Americans moved from enslavement into freedom! I welcome any suggestions that would make that tree more helpful to family seekers.
The Mecklenburg County, Virginia U.S. Federal Census of 1860 enumerated two Dodson households–my white 2nd great-grandparents, James and Sarah, and his brother and sister-in-law, Benjamin and Delia.
In the U.S. Federal Census of 1870 James and Sarah were enumerated with 9 children; Delia, widowed by a Union sniper bullet in 1864, was listed with 6 children. An unrelated white Dodson family, William, Lucy and 4 children, is also listed.
Sixteen additional households carried the Dodson name, and 6 individual Dodsons lived with other families. All of these Dodsons were black and mulatto. The freed. The emancipated. The formerly enslaved men, women, and children of my ancestors.
Abram, John, Mary, Frankey, Philip
Lucinda, Alexander, Alexander
Reuben, Nansey, Alice, Clarisa, Nancy, Edward
Armstead, Lucy, Archer, Henrietta, Keziah, Nathan, Mary
Richard, Harriet, with Celia Hepburn and her children, Mary F. Margaret A., Robert H.
Edward living with Stokes, Harriet, and Elvira Walker
Ellen Dodson living with Clarissa, Samuel, Oton, Margaret, Matilda, Samuel, and Henry Hepburn
Susan living with a white family
Alice living with a white family
Nancy living with the Dailey family
Richard, Harriet, Mary F., Margaret
Narcissa with the Gillespie family
I am humbled to realize that I spent almost a decade documenting “my line” before asking the whereabouts of the unnamed of 1860, enumerated by a number, sex, skin color, and age. In the 1870 census their names and occupations, who they live with, who they live by, begin to unravel a knotty, complicated story.
I am in the process of mapping their social network, curious to know if I can connect these names to previously collected Dodson records, picking up strands of my ancestral story with all the Dodsons of Mecklenburg County.
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.
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.