Sunday, March 30, 2014

Virginia Time Travel

I love the feel of a book, the older the better. Writing online is fun, saves trees, yadda yadda yadda....but for the sheer thrill of holding something that connects past and present, there's no place like the Virginia Room in Fairfax County's Regional Library in Fairfax City. Just a few miles from home, it's where I go to learn more history about where I live.

This week I went to find out more about grist mills that once operated along county streams, but I got sidetracked. There are shelves full of books about Civil War reparations, Confederate soldiers, cemeteries public and private where locals probably locate ancestral secrets.

But my family ancestry stretches to Eastern Europe (where many relatives still live), so in Fairfax I must live vicariously by researching someone else's roots. And sometimes roots turn up in a place you least expect it--like the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center.

A few months ago, I took my sister and my brother-in-law from southeastern Pennsylvania to the Fairfax Museum, a well-cared-for former schoolhouse with a permanent exhibit on former local residents and area history. A 1756 map showed land just one tract away from George Washington's Mount Vernon owned by John Posey--my brother-in-law's surname. John Posey operated Posey's Ferry, also marked on the map, which ran from a dock on the western side of the Potowmack River to Maryland.

As a retirement project, through my BIL Lee Harrison Posey has started compiling a family tree, something he hopes that his four children and eight grandchildren will some day appreciate. John Posey may be the most famous ancestor he's found.

On a search for ancestral land, we drove to the Mount Vernon area. The piece of land sloping down to the Potomac that was Posey's still sports a small dock, but it's a private land in an area where million-plus-dollar houses are going up fast. We stood in the roughed-in-street near a developer's trailer and imagined what it might have looked like more than 250 years ago. The creeks and inlets that pierce the land all around here once were John Posey's. We drove to a street around which the river bends, gazing at well-secured mansions, each home distinctive in its own way.

At the library, in abstracts of Fairfax County deed books, I learned that Posey rubbed elbows with George Washington. His land, which grew to 351 acres, was separated by only one tract of land from Mount Vernon. He is identified as a "planter," later landowner and "gentleman"--a self-made man. He had as many as four tenants who worked the land for him, and owned nine slaves. (By comparison, according to the records, Washington owned more than 2,000 acres and had 88 slaves. Not all landowners had slaves.)

Posey's ferry, according to records, "later belonged to Washington, who had it discontinued because of lack of use." Records starting in 1754 detail Posey's buying and selling land. He was indentured to others, and others to him. Land changed hands often, for money "pounds sterling," "current money in Virginia," or "pounds and shillings."

In 1754 Posey sold 630 pounds of tobacco (I think; the record was unclear). Did he plant tobacco?

Whatever he planted, he got in a bit over his head.  In 1766 Posey and 4 others were brought to court before Sheriff Sampson Darrell for owing "one thousand pounds current money in Virginia," owed to "Sovereign Lord George the Third"--the English king. One of those who owed was Abednego Adams. An African American?

Later Posey sold to George Washington slaves to satisfy a debt. Posey had married Martha of the Harrison family, which increased his land holdings. By 1767, it looks like he was in way over head; records (including one in his own hand) show that for 200 pounds sterling he sold to Washington "goods and chattles to wit twenty horses and mares...80 heads of hogs...8 good feather beds...4 guns, 2 of which are silver mounted" plus 1 ferry boat, 1 scow, 1 battle (a flat-bottomed boat), 1 tent, and 3 cases with silver spoons. So much for the wealth.

My brother-in-law says his "second cousin, six times removed" was indeed an interesting person. Thanks, he says, but he's not a direct descendant. He does, however, have a brother named John, and the Harrison name has been used as a first or middle name for generations in the Posey family. Now it's clear why.

Next time at the library, I swear I'll learn more about Fairfax County grist mills.

I'll bet some of my neighbors could share their famous local ancestor stories. (Post a comment below.) Promise I won't get sidetracked like I did with John Posey. But he must have been a heck of guy to go from modest means to wealth and back again (or worse, if he's selling his beds and pigs to George Washington).

If only he'd been able to keep that land near Mount Vernon, history would have been rewritten.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cheap Staycation: Walk My 'Hood

I love getting away, but sometimes it just isn't possible for health, money or other reasons (and sometimes I just like the comforts of home). So I've been exploring my suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood. It's called Mantua and is in Fairfax County, in northern Virginia.

I know that the term staycation has fallen out of favor, but I can term my explorations as such because that word fits. Truly, I am lucky to live in wooded hills packed with wildlife. Last weekend while on a walk, a raccoon peeked out of a storm drain pipe. Red foxes walk through my yard every day, searching for squirrels too stupid to stay on trees. There are baby foxes, I suspect, in the yard in back of mine.

There's a Lotte Korean grocery store on one edge of the 'hood. I walk there to buy fresh inexpensive vegetables and fish. A Trader Joe's is at another end of the 'hood; that's where I go for cheap wine and wonderful cheeses. A post office is on the same road. My neighborhood has 1,550 houses (more households, if you count apartments within some and multi-family living situations), yet there is no blue mailbox to deposit mail. Even with online bill-paying and email correspondence, it would be nice to have a place to deposit a birthday card or sympathy card. (I hope that even the most social-media conscious among us dares not send email when someone loses a family member of friend. Then again, I fear I'm just a dinosaur for thinking that people like to actually talk to people.)

Mantua's boundaries roughly are between Route 236 (Little River Turnpike), Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard), Prosperity Avenue and Pickett Road. Each of these carries lots of cars. Usually I am the only one walking on them. My explorations will go as far as I can, now that this long winter with snow still on the ground on March 26 has turned to Spring.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My 'Hood

Gardening in the shade of glorious tall trees--only dummies would try it. Okay, so I fall into that category. Snow is still on the garden on March 26. I have spinach and lettuce seeds all ready to go. Cardinals and squirrels have been scratching through the snow, hoping to find something. Never have I planted a garden this late. It's officially Spring.
This year, I didn't start seeds indoors, as I have a few times. Poor old Frisker passed away last year, but I learned that even an old cat could not resist the temptation of climbing on a wobbly ancient card table in front of the living room window to nibble on greens.
I've given up on zucchini, although one year I had a baby-sized one and made my husband take a photo of me holding it. The horrendous storms we seem to get every year flood the roots.
Ditto for cucumbers, which attained only Gherkin-pickle size in my plot.
Yellow beans? Unfortunately, they thrive no better than green varieties.
To get even a cupful of raspberries from my plants, I need to wake up around 5:30 a.m. and compete with birds. They usually win.
This year, I'm going to plant a smart garden.
But first the snow must melt so I can put up deer netting (which works for catching squirrels, as well as trapping snakes, like last year).
Oh, yes, besides squirrels and birds, a herd of white-tailed deer munches on anything they can reach.
That's why I hope my green-thumbed neighbors who go more for landscaping lawns than growing veggies plant some deer delicacies.