Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wishful Wednesday: To Stand Where My Ancestors Stood

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 
                              -From T. S. Eliott's Little Gidding

Every so often I get the opportunity to spend a weekend steeped in research. The definition of “steep” is: to soak in water or other liquid, as to soften, cleanse, or extract some constituent: to steep tea in boiling-hot water; to steep reeds for basket weaving. to wet thoroughly in or with a liquid; drench; saturate; imbue. That's exactly what I do, saturate myself in the research. The other part of the definition holds meaning for me as well. When I research, I not only soak up knowledge, I also try to extract something from it. So I think it is very fitting to say that I steep myself in research.

This past weekend I steeped myself in soaking up knowledge of the Watts family in Halifax County, Virginia. Saturday afternoon I was waiting for someone to come and take a look at the leak I have under my bathroom sink. I do not recall exactly how I stumbled online to the .pdf file of the form submitted in 2006 to register The Cove plantation and property in Halifax County, Virginia on the National Register of Historic Places. Nonetheless, that is the document that I began to study along with other records for the next several hours into the evening.

Mary Catherine Bateson writes in her book Peripheral Visions that “spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns.” This statement rings true with much clarity when I reflect on the process and journey my research often takes me. Today I was reminded that much of what I recently learned echoes what I had really already known, just a more in-depth version (partial understanding allowing for later returns). This time around the spiral, the knowledge contains richer nuances now that I know more about the family and the area.

The recent publication of the county's architectural history by the local historical society first clued me in to the fact that “Local tradition states that the Watts family lived on the plantation and oversaw its operation...” (page 69). The .pdf file, likely the source for the information in the architectural history book, contained more particulars about how the Watts family connected to this historic site.

I first heard of The Cove back in 1993 through an ad I placed in the local newspaper asking for information on the Watts family in the area. Robert Watts responded to me from Texas to tell me he was born in 1917 and grew up in The Cove. I did not know of any significance then and we never discussed his birthplace further. During the same time period of research, I made contact via letter with the Reverend C. H. Watts who still lived in the area. (Robert's father Ernest and C.H.'s father Samuel were half-brothers.) C.H. replied to my letter by telling me it would be best not to research the past as I might find “horse thieves or worse.” He was an elderly gentleman back then; he passed away at the age of 100 in the year 2000. Learning yesterday from that .pdf file that C.H. was born in the plantation house at The Cove in the year 1900 led me through that spiral again, adding more complexity to the partial knowledge I began with. I still have this correspondence and more in my research files. I note in my correspondence with G.C. Waldrep, author of a series of books on the cemeteries in Halifax County, that I had only been researching the family for four years at the time. This year makes 28 years of research.

The narrative of the .pdf file indicates that the plantation was sold in 1764 by John Randolph to David Lewis Sims (page 17). David had two brothers, William and Matthew Sims. Together the three settled in Halifax County before the Revolutionary War, established plantations and were active members of the community. As early as 1771, the Sims brothers established a ferry along the Staunton River. The ferry was located south of The Cove on lands that were part of the Black Walnut tract owned by Matthew Sims (another home that still stands today). The plantation house in the area of The Cove is said to have been built around the time of William Sims' marriage to Kezia East in 1773. William died in 1778 and his widow married John Hundley in 1781 (page 18). The Cove plantation remained with various members of the Sims family and in 1843 was sold to John Coleman, whose wife was also a member of the Sims family. John Coleman was described as one of the largest slaveholders and landowners in Halifax and Charlotte Counties (page 21).

The .pdf file speculates that the arrangement of the Watts family living on the plantation may have started with the sale of the land to John Coleman who at the time was living in Charlotte county yet had slaves on land he owned in Halifax County (page 22). The local tradition has it that the Watts family was still overseeing The Cove property after John Coleman's death in 1869 and they continued to live in the old plantation house well into the earlier part of the twentieth century (page 25). C.H.'s brother Samuel Durell Watts purchased part of the tract after 1954. He in turn sold his portion to Charles R. Saunders in 1965. Saunders purchased additional land which reunited much of the same land that was sold to John Coleman in 1843 (page 27). Today the property contains 1123 acres and is owned by the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. Ward Burton shares in an online video that Charles R. Saunders was a friend of his and is buried near The Cove's plantation house.

The .pdf file (page 25) mentions that in 1850 there were three Watts families in the Northern District listed as overseers: Samuel R., Richard, and William T. (It should be noted that the researchers missed Linsey Watts also listed as an overseer in the Northern District.) Samuel R. was erroneously listed as James R. Watts during the 1860 census. The .pdf states that James was one more Watts overseer listed that year. That statement is not accurate. There were at least three additional Watts overseers listed in 1860: John H. Watts, James T. Watts, and George R. Watts. Nathaniel B. Saunders, also an overseer, lived two households away from John H. Watts. Nathaniel's wife was Sarah E. Watts and a sister to John H., Samuel R., and William T. (It would not surprise me in the least if I find out that Charles R. Saunders was related to this Nathaniel Saunders family.) All of these siblings have been established in my book as the children of Lindsey Watts and his wife Phoebe Rickman. The 1850 census grossly misidentifies Lindsey's family, giving his wife's name as Susan with two children Ann, age 10 and Thomas, age 8 in the household. I have never been able to reconcile this listing with Lindsey's actual family from other records. Although Lindsey would have had one son and daughter living with him at the time, their names were Martha Jane and George Richard. The latter would have been closer to age 10 as he was born in March of 1839, nothing more is known of Martha Jane. George R. Watts was my direct ancestor. His family bible was passed down to me and includes the notation that Lindsey died on 9 November 1852, two years after the 1850 census was taken.

C.H. and Samuel Durell's family line traces back to Samuel R[yland] Watts. In looking closer at the 1850 census, he and Richard Watts were within five household enumerations from John Coleman. This is undoubtedly the John Coleman of The Cove plantation. (Richard Watts, by the way, was a younger brother of Lindsey's and Samuel R.'s uncle). As far as clues as to which overseer each might have worked for: William T. Watts lived close to the Elijah D. Hundley household in the Mount Laurel area. Lindsey Watts was within five household enumerations of Thomas G. Coleman whose residence Longwood or Long Branch was listed just above the Scottsburg area but no longer stands. The sketch of an 1856 map drawn by William Green found here shows the location of plantation estates in the county. The map lists the residence of T.G. Coleman as Longwood.

I remember GC Waldrep telling me that the Wattses and Rickmans were not particularly wealthy and could be difficult to research, especially trying to find final resting places. I did not take offense to his characterization. I know that the families I descend had little and left less than little behind. Making connections between them and families that did leave something tangible behind stirs me deeply, though. This way I at least have the potential to stand where my ancestors stood. It is the best way I have to make a physical connection to them. Samuel Ryland's grandfather was Thomas M. Watts, son of the progenitor Samuel Watts. Both this Samuel and his son Thomas were listed as creditors and buyers in the estate of Matthew Sims. To confirm this connection between generations and between families means a lot to me. I so want to see and touch these buildings, ones my ancestors saw with their own eyes and perhaps touched with their own hands as well.

Main plantation house at The Cove, Halifax Co VA (2005)

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