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July 5, 2012

From Fly Creek: Chattel: tangible property other than land


— I’m hoeing out my desk, top and file-drawer contents, a task easier than Hercules had with the Augean stables, but maybe not much.

You’ll remember that an angry god assigned Hercules 12 labors, including killing a lot of really horrific animals (some with multiple heads) and, of course, mucking out the Augean Stables.

Anyone around here with a dairy herd will immediately sympathize with Hercules since those stables hadn’t been cleaned in 30 years and housed more than 1,000 cattle. That’s a lot of dung. But he did it by rerouting two rivers to wash out the filth.  (Nothing’s mentioned of hishaving to comb out the 1,000 plus cows’ tails. I hope not.) Anyway, I began my own Augean job by culling out of and off my desk twenty years of papers that had simply aged out of any importance.

That was half of the job done, right there. Then I began sorting and ranking in importance what remained. I found some treasures and want to share one with you now.

It’s a copy of the Will and Testament of my Great-greatgreat- grandfather Richard Owings of Anne Arundel County, Md., written in 1818.

He was a very wealthy man, though when after his wife’s death, the estate was divided among their nine children, and nobody ended up rich except the oldest son — not my ancestor Basil. The oldest got almost all the land, and his descendants made out like bandits. On that land Baltimore/ Washington International Airport now sprawls. You may have landed or taken off on runways laced across the Owings erstwhile tobacco fields.

My lineal ancestor Basil, somewhat embittered, pulled up stakes and moved south to Shady Side, Md., where his combination general store/ post office was later trashed by four marauding Yankee  soldiers. (I remember hisdaughter and my great-grandmother, a frail old woman, pointing out the broken latch on the milk house door, smashed by the “damned Yankees.” Of course they’d never had it repaired; they nursed their outrage with it.

Then, in the 1890s, his son Basil Jr., hoped to raise the family again to his proper station by sending two daughters north to a posh ladies’ seminary at Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. The older hit pay dirt and married a rich insurance man. My grandmother Annie, however, fell in love with a young military cadet and got yanked home to Shady Side and forced to send the boy’s ring back to him. She ended up married to Grandpa Sam, a bandy-legged, tobacco-chewing shipwright and carpenter. Her father Basil must have seethed the rest of his days. You’ve read all about that in my book, “From Fly Creek.” I hope.

But back to Basil’s wealthy dad Richard who, of course, left everything to his wife Ruth, to be divided at her death among the youngsters. Ruth was left in great shape, with a huge tract of arable land outlined closely in the Will.

Then comes the list of house and farm chattel: “also the following Negroes Ben, Lucy, Eliza, Maria, Bob. Toney, Nate, and Jerry.” And, immediately after, “Also her choice of four of my best Horses. Twelve of my best sheep. Six of my best Cows. Twenty of my best Hoggs [sic]. . .” It’s the matter-of-fact bequest of those nine Humans that must surely horrify you, as it did me. And not just those nine. In token bequests at his death, Richard left a slave or two to most of his children.

His daughter Polly got “Matilda, plus two feather beds and furniture, that is to say, two pair of sheets, two Blankets, one quilt, one underbed [trundle] and bedstand for each bed with Bolsters and pillars [sic] and one hundred and Twenty Dollars in cash.” Two bequests stand out for other reasons. He left his son Richard “all my wearing apparel” (same size, I guess), plus his gold watch after his wife’s death.

And my Great-great-grandfather Basil? He got “two feather beds and furniture in like manner as is described to my Daughter Polly also a negroe boy by the name of Thomas …” No cash.

Again, no cash. Maybe that’s why Basil headed south to Shady Side with only the boy Thomas as company, the two of them on the seat of a wagon full of feather beds, bolsters, and small furniture. More likely, though, it was young Thomas driving the team, while Basil rode ahead, smoldering.

Misused? What about Thomas and Matilda and Ben and Lucy and Eliza and Maria and Bob and Toney and Nate and Jerry and Charley and how many others unnamed?

Misused? Why, at the time that word no more applied to the Negroes than it did to the horses, cows, sheep, and hogs. No more than it did to the feather beds. It was, all of it, just chattel.