Boykin's Tavern--Mustering for the American Revolution and The War of 1812

Boykin’s Tavern–Mustering for the American Revolution and The War of 1812

We set off this morning (3/26/14) for Surry County Historical Society trying to unearth a few of our more obscure relatives and fill in some gaps in the research. While I have logged many hours in libraries researching information, it always impresses me in these kind of places how kind and helpful the staff are–primarily since most of them are volunteers. We were given files, books, handouts, and advice. About an hour in, I reaffirmed the fact that my life calling is not to research. It’s not that the information isn’t interesting–it is. Nor is it that I don’t like reading–I do. It’s just that the part I love about research is physical–the going, seeing, doing, searching, and discovering of it–in real life, not a book. I like to be where they were and imagine them there. I like poking around for things others have missed. And I especially like connecting to the people who can give you the next piece of the puzzle–the inside scoop. It’s like a treasure hunt or like looking for a needle in a haystack. Every once in a while, you find what you’re looking for.

At the Surrey County Historical Society, I discovered a few gems. First, I got to read about William Swan and his wife Judith. While William Swan himself was fascinating (more on that later), his travelling companion takes the cake. This man, known as “Old Cone” had been a gunner when fighting against the Spanish Armada, had his own cannon, had taken a gold earring from a pirate who’d been killed when he attacked the Swan, turned it into a wedding ring, and married an Indian woman. He also gave his land to my relative’s grandson when he died. Another of my relative’s grandchildren told the story of our ancestor. What interested me was the account of how many times Col. Thomas Swan had been married. In giving the account, Samuel Swan (his son) talked about the two marriages of his grandfather and five marriages of his father. I always read about the mortality rate at the time, but to see a man go through five wives, not because of “irreconcilable differences” but simply because they kept dying, usually in childbirth, is wild. And this is not an exceptional situation. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around.

The doorframe from Ed's story

The doorframe from Ed’s story

One of my favorite things about the Surrey County Historical Society was a volunteer named Ed. Ed had previously been a docent at Smith’s Fort Plantation, which I had just learned was property belonging to John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Since learning about their own multiple marriages, they were on my mind, and Ed was able to share some incredible information. He and another patron shared that John Rolfe had truly been in love with Pocahontas and not just married her for political reasons. He referred to a four page letter John Rolfe had written defending the marriage, specifically because he knew people would have complaints about it, and he wanted to address them. (You can read it here: He also shared a fun story about Smith’s Fort Plantation. He told us when we visit, to go around to the side and look at the door. Many of the bricks over the door frame have been replaced because the man who owned the house in the 1920’s sold bricks from the house to visitors who came to see the 1751 house. (Obviously, Pocahontas and John Rolfe never lived there, though he probably grew tobacco on the land).

The oldest Peanut

The oldest Peanut

After leaving Surry County Historical Society, we headed over to the Isle of Wight County Museum. This place was an absolute treasure! In addition to being free, which is always nice, it has a vast array of displays from many eras. Of particular note are two items from Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The first is a Peanut dated 1890–the oldest peanut certified by date. The second is a ham, which is over a hundred year old. But, in addition to these relics, the Museum is very hands on with exhibits designed to be touched–like cotton to be carded, fossils to be unearthed, or even a Civil War tent children can climb inside of. I also particularly liked the 12 questions of secession. Written by Dr. John Robinson Purdie, these 12 questions involve such interesting reflections as, “What complaints of the South against the North will secession remove?” and “Will secession annul the election of A. Lincoln?” Interesting considerations, to say the least. I always remind my history students that we look at events with a full knowledge of how they turned out, whereas the people walking through them didn’t have the benefit of such insight. Leaving the Union was not a small decision, and I love that there were men at the time who said, “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through before we jump into it.”

The 12 Questions of Secession

The 12 Questions of Secession

After leaving the Museum, we headed to the Isle of Wight Circuit Court where the records are now kept. This involved a lot more pouring over wills, land grants, marriage licenses and books–all to discover the ancestor we were really looking for was…back in the courthouse in Surry. Alas. We did however find a list of inventory from one of our ancestors, which was fascinating as all the possessions he had in the world fit in one small paragraph and mostly involved farm equipment and candle sticks. How much has changed! We found a few good documents and decided to call it a day.

Smith's Fort Plantation

Smith’s Fort Plantation

On the way home, we stopped by Smith’s Fort Plantation, but were unable to head down to the fort, as it was a muddy mess with the ever encouraging “Drive at your own risk” sign. Had we had a jeep, the risk would have been substantially smaller, but with no one to pull us out in the event of an emergency, we decided mom’s Kia was better left on solid ground. It was too far to walk in freezing gale force wind, so we decided this is one adventure we’ll have to leave for another day. We also were unable to get through to look for Ginny’s nest. But that’s one thing I love about this area–there’s always more adventures to be had the next time you return.