Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fall color, Sally Hemings and neglected widows

WELL, IT'S BEEN a beautiful week in Iowa. Up here in the northland, the colors are just about at their height and down south in Lucas County, a week to two weeks behind as autumn advances.

The photo up top was taken Monday out at the Chariton Cemetery where most of the color was in the hard maples, including this one in the southwest corner.

I'd gone out to the cemetery to look again at Potters Field, just out of sight to the left in this photo, a significantly large, pretty and peaceful area of few marked graves where until not that long ago those who died in Chariton and couldn't afford a burial plot were interred.

I think I'll say more about Potters Field another time, but what got me to thinking about it was Annette Gordon-Reed's new book, "The Hemingses of Monticello," which I'm reading.

This is a wonderfully complex and detailed examination of the Hemings family, slaves at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and, before that, on the Wayles plantation where John Wayles, father of Jefferson's wife, Martha, had six children by his enslaved "concubine" (a useful word that Gordon-Reed tells us was widely use for relations of this sort at that time), Elizabeth Hemings, herself the daughter of a white ship's master and an unknown African woman.

The most widely-known of the Hemings was, of course, Sally (half sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson), almost certainly the widowed Jefferson's "concubine" and the mother of perhaps seven children by him.

The book is fascinating on several levels, including the genealogical, since Gordon-Reed became a master genealogist herself in the process of tracking down the complex threads that unite the Hemings and related families black, white and blended.

But Gordon-Reed also has a lot to say about the complicated and too often destructive relationships from the earliest days of the United States until the present between its white and black children.

Potters Field in Chariton is where the majority of Lucas County's Afro-Iowan population rests --- not because they were not allowed to purchase lots of their own elsewhere but because they couldn't for the most part afford to do so. And that was a product of white prejudice and not black incompetence.

MOST OF MY FREE TIME has been tangled up in the Salem Cemetery site, setting up the framework and adding text and photos, getting off at least to a flying start. I'd forgotten just how much Salem-related material I have --- and where some of it is.

One thing that turned up was the photo, above, of Alpha (Seaward) Arnold, who is buried at Salem, and two of her sisters that was taken during a reunion in Chariton during the fall of 1881. Alpha (whose husband was David Arnold), then 85, is seated at left. Her sister Mary (Seaward) Tripp/Flint, of Peoria, Ill. (1799-1895) is seated at right. And standing behind them is their younger sister, Sibbel (Seaward) McNall (1811-1891) of New York.

Two of Alpha's children were Lucas Countyans, Capt. Stephen S. Arnold, who lived in Chariton; and Edward, who lived in Benton Township and also is buried at Salem. Stephen's family did not endure in Lucas County, but Edward has many, many descendants who still live here, including Richard Arnold, currently representing the county in the Iowa House of Representatives (regrettably as a Republican), and several of my own cousins, although I am not related directly to the Arnolds.

I thought I'd use Alpha to illustrate a point. Although her husband's grave is marked by a lovely old stone, quite elaborate and I'd guess expensive, her grave is unmarked. We know where she's buried, but there's no sign of her presence at Salem.

That happened (and perhaps still happens) a lot. When the old man died, his widow ensured that his grave was appropriately marked. But when she died, somehow the children found better things to do with their money than buy her a tombstone or even commission an inscription on one that already existed. There are quite a few examples, other than Alpha, of that at Salem (Edward Arnold is not among them; both his grave and that of his wife, Sophia, are appropriately marked). Go to the Chariton Cemetery, however, and you'll discover a substantial stone for Stephen S. Arnold --- a high-flyer in his time --- but no indication at all that his wife, who survived him, is buried beside him.

The message to widows seems to be this: Put "tombstone" in your will!

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