“An Overseer Doing His Duty . . .”

“An Overseer Doing His Duty . . .”

Perhaps you’ve seen the image, too? It’s a watercolor of a man—a white man—standing on a tree stump with a long stick, smoking, one leg crossed over the other, as he watches two women of African ancestry wield hoes on land that they are clearing for planting. I’d seen this 1798 sketch by Benjamin Latrobe many times in school texts. But only now do I realize how close to home it hits.

Latrobe, a celebrated architect and engineer, is well known for his work on the Capitol building. Hired by President Jefferson in 1803 as “Surveyor of Public Buildings,” he also worked on the President’s House (later called the White House) as well as the Washington Navy Yard. But before this, and after emigrating from England in 1796, Latrobe lived in Virginia. One day he noted “an overseer doing his duty near Fredericksburg” and drew what he saw in his sketchbook.

There are many reasons why this matters. A personal one is that either of those two women could be my ancestor.

The Chesapeake region with its tidewater rivers, lowland coastal plain, and rocky Piedmont, is a place of convergences in the Atlantic world. Tribal peoples had long claimed the area as homeland. Yet colonists founded “an empire upon smoke” in the 1600s after discovering the marketability of tobacco. Enslaved Africans soon powered its cultivation as the export staple for Virginia and Maryland, two “outposts of the English economy.” This region also witnessed the longest presence and largest concentration of what historian Ira Berlin called “slaves without masters,” the rather “unfree” free African Americans.

I’ve recently learned that paternal forebears were part of Virginia’s tobacco history. What I know thus far is that ancestors lived along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg since at least the mid 1700s, working the land. Rachel Mann, the (as yet) earliest known matriarch, appears in paper records as a bastard child, born free and bound out as a “poor orphan” in 1770. When Virginia law required certificates of freedom be registered and carried about on person, these “colored” Manns claimed free status by the testimony of some of the wealthiest plantation owners. One ancestor, Jenney Mann, is listed as a “mulatto” “tobacco stemmer.”

I’ve written elsewhere that to live in this country is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, residues of silence and displacement across generations. My new writing project, “On the River’s Back,” searches for these marks in the fragmentary history of an African American family of mixed European and Indigenous heritage. It also searches for marks in the tidewater and Piedmont landscapes.

The stories of these people and of this land are entangled with both the rise and fall of tobacco agriculture as well as the origin and growth of the capital city along the Potomac River, the next major river to the north of the Rappahannock.

This work builds on my last chapter in Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape.

I look forward to sharing more of the search with you.

[“An overseer doing his duty near Fredericksburg, Virginia.” Watercolor on paper by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Sketchbooks held by the Maryland Historical Society.]

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