I’ve been digging around the roots of the family tree, and discovered an ancestor from the 1640s in Virginia who had a wee farm. Of 2,000 acres. Don’t get too excited—he probably came over as an indentured servant, and a lot of the farm was marshy—more sea than land. We aren’t talking royalty here-- He was a tobacco and sustenance farmer. Aside from farming, he must have loved the sea, since he dwelt within sight of it until the end of his days.
His name was Richard, and he had three wives over his long life. Wife one was Dorothy, definitely an indentured servant, according to the records. How desperate was an Englishwoman like Dorothy, to indenture herself to live in the dangerous, god-forsaken colony that was Virginia? Richard agreed to buy her freedom from another planter, by “replacing” her with a servant from the group due to arrive on the next ship. She gave him the son from whom I am descended.
The next wife was Ruth. She was a pistol, and Richard must have loved her to put up with her wild ways. Ruth was convicted of fornication, and had two sons “from the other side of the blanket.” Richard stood by her and got along so well with the two illegitimate sons they eventually took Richard’s surname. Now that’s being broadminded, all the way around, for the 17th century or any other time.
Wife three was Elizabeth, a much younger woman, who was with him to his death. Richard referred to her in his will as his loving wife, leaving her a life estate on his farm. The will mentions distribution of the acreage, cows, sheep, horses, tobacco, bedsteads, and a few other basic, household goods among the five children. Not a bad estate for a man who had arrived in the New World with nothing and did not own slaves.
In those days, conditions in Virginia were so harsh, that many, especially indentured servants, did not survive their first two years in the colony. The first year, called the “seasoning,” would have included scorching, blistering heat, followed by an icy winter, when water drawn in buckets for the livestock was frozen by morning. Clouds of biting insects, diseases, back-breaking work, crop-failure, and scant food for many years was the lot of most colonists. Setting traps for game, netting fish, eating venison, turtle, wild duck, geese, and mud-hens, and glad to get them.
Richard, who’d been converted to membership in the Society of Friends by an itinerant preacher, noted in his will that he was departing this life with much more than he deserved. He committed his soul to God, his body to Mother Earth. I can find no known remnant of his dwelling place or his grave. Much of the land is still under cultivation, right down to the marshy edge of Gargathy Bay, with its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.
The place names from Richard’s day fascinate me. The creek near his homestead he’d named “Long Love Branch.” The plantation--no, not Tara—it was probably originally one room and a dirt floor-- was called “Arcadia,” a reference to a district in ancient Greece, a symbolic, lost, rural place of innocent bliss, as the dictionary tells me. A school near the site of his farm bears the name Arcadia to this day.
You may have heard a Latin expression:
Et in Arcadia ego.
Roughly translated, it means “I too lived in Arcadia,” and as an inscription on a grave marker meant the departed one had also enjoyed the metaphorical pleasures of an idyllic place, his own personal Arcadia.
I too lived in Arcadia.
Learning about Arcadia, Richard’s farm, explains a lot to me. In high school my group of friends joked a lot about running away to live on an island. I was the one who actually did, when I slipped off to live for 15 years on Ocracoke Island, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I worked as a commercial fisherman for years, and I’m sure that Richard took what fish, clams, crabs, and oysters he could from the teeming waters near the farm. Although I have never raised enough food to sustain me, I’ve dabbled in gardening, dirt under my fingernails, since I was a child. I have had a compulsion to plant flowers, herbs, and vegetables, even when I lived on sandy Ocracoke.
My years on the remote island were often idyllic, although not without struggles and heartbreak. Yet, there I was free. The simple kind of free that comes from not owning much, having few bills, being able to walk to work or the grocery store, futzing around in a garden, having a few books and the time to read them.
So when I discovered Richard's Arcadia, I was not entirely surprised. Not to get all New Age-y, I believe some of us have a genetic memory that may affect our lives in ways we don’t fully understand. These memories pull on us, giving us dirty hands at the end of a summer day, calling us to live near the sea, and making our ears prick up at the sound of Canada geese flying overhead.
As their 10th generation granddaughter, Richard’s and Dorothy’s blood is present in me, even across four centuries.