Letter from the Colonies (Fiction)

Fiction by Van Smith - published in a 1991 newsletter of Historic Prince William with this introduction:

"Your loving and obedient son..." is a letter that Van Smith created for the HPW Newsletter. Van has a passionate interest in history especially that part of it centered around Occoquan. This town has caught his imagination with its special charm and its habit of survival. He has studied maps, documents and artifacts to become thoroughly imbued with a sense of the Town's history. He has served as president of Historic Occoquan, Inc. and has written other articles and lectured on the area and the Town. In the following, Van uses his imagination, enriched by his knowledge of the actual history of the area, to write this fictional letter from a young man to his family back home in England. (The Editors)

Here, from the year 1700, is an eyewitness account of life at the plantation seat which became Occoquan. Augustine Herrman's map, dated 1673, has a tiny rectangle about where Occoquan stands today. A number of these rectangles dot the banks of the Potomac River on Herrman's map. Each represents a plantation with a dwelling and cultivated fields.

Not all of the early land grants were thus "seated." Many absentee owners obtained land only for speculation and resale. Not so Occoquan. Someone had decided that the slope on the south bank of this river was the place to settle and grow tobacco.

Our eyewitness is an imaginary young man from a wealthy family in England. Perhaps a second or third son, whose older brother would inherit the entire family fortune. Imagine that he, with no prospects at home, sailed for the Virginia colony as an indentured servant, under contract for seven years to the owner of this seat. Imagine the owner, his master, to be an early Hooe whose family name is familiar to us today.

While we are at it, let's imagine the whole story. Our young man's account is accurate but fictional, collected from several descriptions of early Colonial life in the Tidewater. Other than the existence of a mill and tanyard, we know nothing about the Occoquan of 1700.

"I am arrived upon this savage shore, so far from the home I cherish, but filled with hope at the opportunities before me. I walked abroad this morning. The earth, at this early spring of the year is soft and so full of the rains of winter that it makes a small puddle around my foot with each step. My feet do not long remain dry. Water stands in each of the marks in my path left by oxcart wheels. I walk to one side of the track to avoid the worst mud. Alas, so do the oxcarts avoid their former tracks, so the path becomes wider and wider and wanders hither and yon in search of dry ground. The center of our endeavors here at Major Hooe's plantation is the river bank, my destination, where all our commerce takes place. Across the river from where I stand rises a sizable bluff. A tiny stream flows from a small steep ravine cut into the bluff and offers the best way to the high land north of the river. Major Hooe's seat lies upon the south river bank which slopes upward to a ridge. Beyond the ridge, stretches rolling country of mature hardwood forest and open grassland. The deep gloom of the forest admits no undergrowth and one might drive a carriage over the forest floor between the huge tree trunks without impediments.

"Our world, however, is connected by waterways and there is no need for us to struggle with the hazards of land travel. The path to each planter's front door lies upon the water. I fear, however, that I will not travel overmuch until I have worked out my indenture and tutored Major Hooe's children to his satisfaction.

"If I turn round and put the river at my back I behold a huge meadow where tobacco will be planted in patches offering the best soil and drainage. The plantation house where dwells the family, occupies a knoll where the highest ground is nearest the river bank. It commands a view toward the mighty Potowmack but is above the damp miasma which rises from the water at night. It is constructed of squared tree trunks set into the earth like palisade posts, one at each corner and one wherever one wall meets another. Two such posts form a door. When these posts have been set in their holes and the holes backfilled, then are long slender branches woven vertically and horizontally between them. This wicker or wattle is then daubed with clay in the manner of our poorer sorts of houses at home.

"The family dwelling is much improved over the servants quarters, sheds, corn cribs , workshops, and other outbuildings because it has wood sills between the posts and two windows of leaded glass. The wood sills support floor planks smoothed with an adze.

"Other buildings, including my own poor quarters, must make do with oiled paper or shutters at the windows and packed dirt floors. The plantation house also has a brick chimney of locally made bricks for clay and wood are abundant. Though some brick comes from England by ship as ballast, local brick is becoming more plentiful. Traveling craftsmen are available as masons, carpenter, joiners, coopers, and blacksmiths. Their skills are in great demand and they can usually work when and for whom they please. It is rumored that a gentleman of Mason Neck on our river's other shore plans a dwelling of brick. English bond below and Flemish bond above. It may have, they say, two chimneys, hand hewn woodwork, and plaster walls within. If 'tis true then the trials of this savage shore may be lessened and we enjoy some of the remembered comforts of England, our beloved home. Chimneys have become a measure of status in this new world. A gentleman with two chimneys is addressed as Major, with four chimneys, Colonel and with eight chimneys, who knows?

"My master will most assuredly improve his dwelling and soon, as he has purchased, at a dear sum, nails and hinges from a burned house in the northern neck proprietary. The house was burned so that the nails could be rescued and reused, so scarce are they.

"I am still gazing up the sloping meadow toward the house with its two large rooms and center passageway under one roof. The quarters and other outbuildings are clustered, or better, scattered behind it so that they will be at least partially hid from view. To my right the tidewater ends and the freshes begin. The river rushes toward me through a long, beautiful glen of tumbled granite blocks before it loses itself in the estuary lying before this plantation. I will explore when time permits and report at a future date. The tidal river flows behind me and on to my left where, perhaps sixteen furlongs, east and beyond my sight, it joins the Potowmack.

"It is not my purpose to have you believe that I am in want or a victim of privation. I have been spared the illnesses that afflicted so many a half century ago. In those times, many who were unaccustomed to the fierce summer suns of Virginia could not survive what they called "the seasoning." Short of food, in primitive shelter, and fearing the native, who could be so friendly and unfriendly in turn, as many as 4 of 5 might succomb over a winter. I am well situated. For example, this morning before my walk, I breakfasted upon fresh baked bread of good ground flour from Major Hooe's mill and hot chocolate made with fresh milk. I expect to make my dinner about midafternoon upon smoked bacon which some here have taken to calling ham, cooked sallet greens, hominy and, if our hunters have been successful, perhaps roast duck. I eat from pewter bowls or porringers and upon special occasion may enjoy a claret or Maderia, come by way of the West Indian trade.

"Major Hooe, I call him thus in honor of his two chimneys, has ordered mosquito netting so that we may rest well and Mistress Hooe has ordered a chair of Turkey-worked cloth out of England. We have linen, cotton and good English wool for our cloaks which though wet will keep us warm, as you well know.

"Do not mistake, we are comfortable. I have seen planters near here turning their pigs out to forage in their orchards, so great is the yield, the pigs are welcome to what falls upon the ground! And chickens be so abundant they are not even included in the plantation inventory.

"We are well served by the vessels which come to the landing where I stand. Vessels come from the Potowmack, the Cheasapeake Bay, and from home. The depth of our river is so great that they need no lighters to carry cargo to our shore. Only the larger ones put a longboat over the side with many oars which at the end of a line, tows the vessel to our landing backwards. With our prevailing west wind the captain, when he would depart, need only make sail and, lo, he is underway straight ahead to the lands beyond our horizon.

"My morning walk then takes me back up the slope and past a palisade surrounding the kitchen garden. A palisade, or fence, is a necessity here for so numerous are the deer and other game that they would dine upon your victuals and leave you to starve. This fence must admit no animal so is constructed of pales (thus palisade, pallisadoe) vertical boards set in a slot in the ground and joined by stretchers (rails) to keep them from sliding sideways. The like may be found in Holland and other northern European lands.

"The duties of my position call and I must save more of my narrative until I write you again which I have promised to do. When next I take pen I shall describe to you our entertainments and my success or lack thereof as a tutor of the Hooe offspring. Be of good heart and know that I fare well."

Your Loving and Obedient Son