Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Watts Collection, documents 226-240

Checklist of documents in the Watts Collection at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia. To consult these documents, go to and click on “Visit HMWV's Virtual Collection!” The documents can be found by a keyword search, or by catalog number using “Click and Search”.

This group of 15 documents is less coherent than most previous groups, but extremely interesting. The first item is a list of bonds due to or owed by Edward Watts in 1842. The next 5 items relate to the Breckinridge family, mainly in 1840-41, but also to the settlement of James Breckinridge’s estate in 1856. Several documents relate to legal matters, where Edward or William Watts served as trustee for mortgaged property, in 1841, 1865, 1872 and 1873. There are two personal letters from Mary Jane (Allen) Watts, one from 1852 about social life at Oaklands, and one from 1853 about a visit to Cincinnati, Ohio. Another personal letter from Letitia (Watts) Sorrel in 1872 announces the diagnosis of cancer in her sister, Emma Gilmer (Watts) Carr. A letter from William Joseph Robertson, brother-in-law of William Watts, to the director of the Internal Revenue Service in 1866 challenges the calculation of taxes owed from the Civil War years. And a letter from Henry Alexander Wise to William Watts raises the question of improper expense charges by a colleague on the Virginia Commission on Boundary Lines in 1873.

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July 1, 1842
List of bonds due to or by Edward Watts in 1842, totaling $2251.19, itemized by the parties' names and amounts; names include M. Peyton, Benjamin Carper, Jacob Carper, Thomas Brown, Jacob Price, James Hannah, William Gill, Richard Fox, and C. Best

January 2, 1841
Note from Cary Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $150 for the hire of two Negroes named Griffin and Patterson

about December 31, 1856
Account statement of the estate of John Selden Breckinridge to Edward Watts, showing bonds dating from 1840 to 1843 with interest to 1856, and various payments made by Cary Breckinridge, leaving a total still due of $228.17

November 16, 1840
Note from John Selden Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $375 for the hire of three Negroes, John Lewis, John Burks and his wife Fanny Burks

November 9, 1833, with additions after December 25, 1841
Note from Edward Watts and William Madison Peyton to John B. Floyd for $668.33, with an account statement including other bonds and credits, including purchase and hire of slaves Ned, Griffin and Patterson, and with assignment of this note to James Breckinridge Watts, and by him to Cary Breckinridge

after December 25, 1841
Statement of bonds of Edward Watts, with interest and various credits and debits, the final sum of $81.92 being due to Cary Breckinridge

January 4, 1841
Indenture between Andrew Lewis, James Francis Preston and Edward Watts, providing that Preston as trustee may sell two tracts of land belonging to Lewis, if Lewis defaults on a loan of $130 from Watts; the tracts of land were in Montgomery County, Virginia, on Bottom Creek

 THIS INDENTURE, Made this 4th day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty one between Andrew Lewis of the first part, and James F. Preston of the second part, and Edward Watts of the third part.

James Francis Preston (1813-1862) was born at Smithfield, the Preston estate in Montgomery County, Virginia. He seved in the Confederate army, was wounded at the first battle of Manassas, and died of disease contracted while in military service. Andrew Lewis (1759-1849) was a son of the famous Revolutionary War general of the same name.

late 1852
Letter from Mary Jane (Allen) Watts, at Oaklands, Roanoke County, Virginia, to her sister Evelina "Eva" Sophia Allen, presumably at home at Beaverdam, Botetourt County, Virginia, urging her to come to Oaklands for a party, and bring her cousin Jane Arthur and brother John Allen, reassuring her about clothes, adding the encouragement of her sisters-in-law Alice Matilda Watts and Emma Gilmer Watts, and describing the young men who will be present; she also tells of a day's activities, going to the railroad station and meeting a number of friends, including the Tayloe girls; and she sends love to her family

Oaklands, Thursday morning [late 1852]
            My dear Evie, I wrote you a hurried note on yesterday morning to apprize you of the contemplated party at the Lick. I have since ascertained that I was mistaken as to the time of its coming off, and as I am particularly anxious for you and Jane to be here I write to hurry your movements. The party [is to be next Wednesday night ...]
            [... John must be sure] and come to the party. Love to Jane. Write to me – or rather come to see me. Tell Mama she must please make you come. I must conclude. Your affectionate sister Mary. Emma sends her love. Alice is sick with a bad cold. She has heard from Mr Lewis. All well.

This page illustrates the practice of cross-writing, which was used to save paper. As is the case here, the writer usually filled the paper with normal horizontal lines, and then returned to the first page and continued writing vertically. The Lick refers to Big Lick, the old name for the community that became Roanoke City. Mr Lewis has not been identified.

July 31, 1865
Indenture between John Dabney, William Watts, George Edward Dabney and George Plater Tayloe, selling his two-thirds interest in a water grist mill and the land around it in Montgomery County, Virginia, to Watts, to insure payment of John Dabney's debts of $2000 to George E. Dabney and of $634.59  Tayloe

March 22, 1873
Agreement between William Watts, John Dabney and Lavinia (Langhorne) Dabney his wife, George Plater Tayloe, and James Humphries, regarding the water grist mill and land in Montgomery County, Virginia, held in trust by Watts to insure payment of John Dabney's debt, which is to be sold to Humphries without a public auction; Humphries is paying with bonds from Charles Elisha Pobst, issued in payment for a house and lot in Old Lick, Roanoke County, Virginia, and from John A. Sowers, issued in payment for the Company Mills in Roanoke County, Virginia; incomplete document, continues in 1998.26.242

 This agreement made this 22nd day of March 1873 between William Watts Trustee, John Dabney and Lavenia his wife of the first part, William Watts Trustee and George P. Tayloe of the second part and James Humphries of the third part,

            John Dabney (1822-1887) was born in Campbell County, Virginia, and died  in Greenville, Mississippi.  George Plater Tayloe (1804-1897) was born at Mount Airy, Richmond County, Virginia, and died  at his home Buena Vista, in Roanoke, Virginia. He was a leading citizen of Roanoke County and City, and a friend of the Watts family; in 1830 he married Mary Elizabeth Langhorne, a sister of Lavinia (Langhorne) Dabney.
            James Humphries (1824-after 1888) was born in Roanoke County, Virginia; in 1853 he married Eliza Jane Lore (died 1877), and they left issue. They moved to Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1842, where he was a farmer. He enlisted in October 1864 in the 4th Virginia Infantry and served until Lee’s surrender. In 1865 he was elected justice of the peace in the Alleghany district, and served two years.

May 3, 1853
Letter from Mary Jane (Allen) Watts, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to her mother, Mary Elizabeth Payne (Jackson) Allen, in Virginia, describing her activities while she visits her sister-in-law Letitia Gamble (Watts) Rives with other members of the Watts family, another sister-in-law Emma Gilmer Watts and her mother-in-law Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts; they attend church services with the noted preachers Stephen Higginson Tyng and Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, shop and observe curious sights in the city, call on relatives of Letitia's husband Landon Cabell Rives, Jr, including the noted philanthropist Sarah Anne Worthington King Peter, and make plans for future travel to Kentucky and Zanesville and their return to Virginia. The writer also sends news of her health, which has been poor, and relates the vain efforts of her sisters-in-law to meet the famous writer and lecturer Anna Cora (Ogden) Mowatt, who is in town to give a reading

 I hope dear Jimmy is much better. Tell Henry my next letter shall certainly be to him. Good night my dear Mother and may God bless you all. Your affectionate daughter, Mary A. Watts

Jimmy and Henry were the writer’s two younger brothers, James Madison Allen and Henry Clay Allen.

January 20, 1866
Copy of a letter from William Joseph Robertson in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Edward Ashton Rollins, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in Washington, DC, questioning the 1864 tax assessment of his wife's farm in Roanoke County, Virginia, arguing that non-working slaves should not be used to calculate imputed income, that only products actually sold should be considered income, that his wife, Alice Matilda (Watts) Robertson, and her sister, Letitia Gamble (Watts) Sorrel, should be assessed individually and not as a partnership, and that income in Confederate currency should be converted to US dollars at a more favorable rate

 3d, I think that the Confederate money received by my wife & her sister from the products of their farm in 1864 was not worth as much as one dollar in Greenbacks for fifteen of that currency. The larger portion of it was received in December 1864 when the dollar in gold was worth from forty to fifty of Confederate Currency. And it seems to me that the assessor ought to scale that currency according to its actual value when received instead of adopting an arbitrary rule of putting it at fifteen for one, no matter at what period of the year it was received. May I ask the favour of you to decide whether the assessment has been correctly made, & if you agree with me in thinking that it has not been, that you will cause the errors to be corrected in such manner as may be proper, informing me at your earliest convenience of your decision upon the questions I have submitted. Very respectfully yours, Wm J. Robertson

Alice (Watts) Robertson and Letitia (Watts) Sorrel inherited large tracts of land, formerly part of Oaklands, from their parents, Edward Watts and Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts. The two tracts lay approximately where the Roanoke municipal airport and the adjoining shopping malls to the east are located.

January 17, 1872
Letter from Letitia Gamble (Watts) Sorrel, at Oaklands, Roanoke County, Virginia, to Evalina Sophia “Eva” Allen, in Botetourt County, Virginia, giving news of Letitia's sister Emma Gilmer (Watts) Carr who has recently and unexpectedly been diagnosed with cancer, describing her consultations with famous doctors in Charlottesville, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland,  and Washington, DC; it explains also where Emma’s five young children are, and when Emma plans to return home; includes some news of other family members; with envelope

 Miss Eva S. Allen / Care of Capt John Allen / Waskey's Mills / Botetourt County / Va

Envelopes with printed stamps had been in use since the 1850s; this issue dates from 1870. The addressee, Evelina Sophia Allen, was a sister-in-law of the writer, her late sister Mary Jane (Allen) Watts having been married to Letitia Gamble (Watts) Sorrel’s brother, William Watts. Waskey's Mills was a post village in Botetourt County, Virginia, near Buchanan.

I am truly sorry to hear that yr dear Mother has been so sick. I trust the change you contemplate making will prove beneficial to her. Give her if you please my most affect[ionate] love. And with kindest remembrances to the other members of the family, believe me, dear Eva, always sincerely & affectionately yrs, L. G. Sorrel

Emma Gilmer (Watts) Carr, whose recent diagnosis of cancer is the principal subject of this letter, died less than two months later, on 12 March 1872.

August 14, 1872, to November 29, 1872
Deed between John A. Sowers, in his own right and as executor for the estate of his late wife Emeline Sowers and as trustee for their children Emma and Elizabeth Sowers, of the first part, and James Humphries of the second part, concerning the sale by Humphries to Sowers of a mill in Roanoke County, and by Sowers to Humphries of a house in Big Lick (Roanoke), Virginia, with endorsements acknowledging Sowers' signature and recording the deed in Roanoke County

State of Virginia, County of Wythe
To Wit: I Jno. W. Robinson a Justice of the peace for the State & County aforesaid do certify that John A. Sowers whose name is signed to the writing hereto annexed, bearing date on the 12th day of August 1872, has acknowledged the same before me in my County aforesaid, Given under my hand this 4 day of September 1872, Jno. W. Robinson J. P.

At the bottom of the page are affixed 8 US Internal Revenue stamps of 25 cents each, which have been canceled by writing on each one: “J. A. S. / 6th Sep / 1872”. There are other stamps at the top of the following page. John A. Sowers (c. 1806-1886) appears in the 1870 census in Big Lick, Roanoke County, Virginia as a railroad agent.

February 18, 1873
Letter from Henry Alexander Wise, in Richmond, Virginia, to William Watts, regarding their expense accounts as commissioners on the Virginia Commission on Boundary Lines, and Wise's conclusion that Daniel Coleman DeJarnette, the third member, has overspent his share, having obtained $4697.50, compared to $2457.50 for Wise and $845 for Watts; asking Watts to approve Wise's request for payment of $4320.11 and to come to Richmond to submit his own accounts; and expressing concern that further appropriations may be denied

 Tell me what you wish done with your acct, if you can't come. But, I repeat, come. Pardon so long a letter, intended to be a mere note. Yrs truly, Henry A. Wise
Col Wm Watts

            Henry Alexander Wise (1806-1876) served in the U.S. Congress 1833-44. He was named by President Tyler as U.S. minister to Brazil 1844-47, was elected governor of Virginia in 1855, and was a member of the Virginia secession convention of 1861. He served as a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He moved his family to Rocky Mount, Virginia, during the Civil War, and lost his plantation near Norfolk; after the war he lived in Richmond and practiced law. He was married three times and had fourteen children.
            The boundary between Virginia and Maryland was defined by a royal charter of 1632 as the southern bank of the Potomac River. From the beginning, the two colonies and later states disputed the boundary, over such issues as the use of the high water or low water mark to measure from, the treatment of small inlets, and usage rights. An agreement in 1785 settled some of the debates over navigation rights. In 1877, following the work of the commission on which William Watts served, the two states agreed to use the low water mark and to survey a boundary based on it. Nevertheless the question led to further disputes in the 1950s.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Watts Collection, documents 201-225

Checklist of documents in the Watts Collection at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia. To consult these documents, go to and click on “Visit HMWV's Virtual Collection!” The documents can be found by a keyword search, or by catalog number using “Click and Search”.

This set of 25 documents can be divided into two groups. One set of 12, dating from 1838 to 1841, is composed of account statements and receipts, most importantly from Richard Tyree, mainly for farming activities. It also includes some legal business, notably Henry Kagey’s will; a letter from Temple Gwathmey, who was both a relative and a grain merchant; and a receipt from the University of Virginia. The second set of 13 contains documents related to the Breckinridge family. It includes a letter about the sale of James Breckinridge’s property in Washington, DC (1998.26.202; see the posting on “James Breckinridge, landowner in Washington, DC”), documents about the settlement of James’s estate in 1854-56, and numerous notes signed by John and Cary Breckinridge in 1842-43, probably loans from Edward Watts against the expected inheritance.

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about August 1838
Fifth and final page of the commissioners' distribution account of the estate of James Breckinridge, signed by commissioner James T. Logan. This page concerns primarily provisions for James’s widow, Anne (Selden) Breckinridge.

August 8, 1838
Letter from Clement Smith in Georgetown, District of Columbia, to Edward Watts near Big Lick (Roanoke), Virginia, enclosing final statements regarding the estate of James Breckinridge, namely: 1) account statement of James Breckinridge with the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank of Georgetown, District of Columbia, signed J. J. Shell, with debits and credits from 1831 to 1838, including payments to Pettigrew, Carroll, and G. W. Nelson, and a final balance of $176.33; 2) account statement of the estate of James Breckinridge with Clement Smith, showing amounts received from the sale of city lots to Thomas Swann and Dr. Henry Huntt, expenses and commissions deducted, and final balance of $1162.77

August 16, 1838
Letter from Richard Tyree, merchant in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Edward Watts in Botetourt County, Virginia, reporting on a recently received shipment of flour, discussing sales of last year's tobacco crop, commenting on weather and transportation problems, and enclosing an account statement for sales of tobacco and various purchases, including coffee, cloth, hymnals and nails; includes mention of a problem in the flour found by inspector Charles M. Mitchell, and references to Patrick, apparently a servant who acted as Watts’s wagoner and agent

Thare is only 2 Sack of your Salt come to hand from Richmond which I send by Patrick. The River is veary low. Boats carry only 4 Hhd [hogsheads] of Tobo [tobacco] to the load and Freight at 35 to 40 cents per 100. On the other side you have a Bill per articles sent for. Yrs Respectf[ull]y, Richard Tyree

Richard Tyree (1779-1852) was born in New Kent County, Virginia, but spent most of his life in the Lynchburg, Virginia, area. He married Mildred Douglas (1785-1857); they had eleven children. Richard Tyree worked as an inspector of tobacco at Liberty Warehouse in Lynchburg and passed the profession on to his descendants; in the 1850 census, he was a commercial merchant, with $20,000.00 in property.

June 8, 1838
Letter from Richard Tyree, merchant in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Edward Watts in Botetourt County, Virginia, about recent sales of tobacco and the shipment of recently purchased cotton yarn, some forwarded correspondence and a deposit made to the Bank of Virginia; mentions Patrick, Watts’s wagoner, and two unidentified correspondents named Heston and Perceval

July 20, 1839
Receipt for deposit in the Bank of Virginia of $130.51 from the sale of flour, with an account statement and cover letter from the merchant Charles M. Mitchell in Richmond, Virginia, to Edward Watts at Big Lick (Roanoke), Roanoke County, Virginia; also mentions A. W. Nolting, a noted tobacco exporter; Lewis A. Crenshaw, a clerk for Mitchell; and Heath Jones Miller, a teller at the Bank of Virginia

January 3, 1839
Account statement for 1838 from Richard Tyree, merchant in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Edward Watts, in Big Lick (Roanoke), Virginia, showing credits from the sale of tobacco and other items, and debits for salt, sugar, molasses and other household supplies, sundries, and payments to other parties, especially William Watts, son of Edward Watts; also mentions James Breckinridge Watts, William’s elder brother; Patrick, the Watts’s wagoner; and numerous individuals or companies doing business with Watts: Peck White & Co, Utz & Pettygrew, Peyton & Johnston, Morgan & McDaniel, Henry Sumpter, Samuel W. Christian, James Frelwell, William Martin, Pitzer, and Garnett

September 1-7, 1839
Account statement for 1835 to 1839 between Thomas A. Lovelace and Edward Watts, with both credits and debits for various goods, including pork, bacon, lard, flour, corn, wheat, hemp, tar and boat timber; and payments to or from third parties, including Richard Tyree and Dr John Hook Griffin; along with an authorization from Lovelace to John M. Petty to dispose of the crops named within, and a receipt from Edward Watts acknowledging Lovelace's right to crops not yet harvested; also mentions Jno Gordon, David Bower, Bramblett, Gish, Foster, and Sally, a slave whose broken arm was tended by Dr Griffin

June 20, 1832 – October 18, 1840
Last will and testament of Henry Keaggy ( usually spelled Kagey) of Botetourt County, Virginia, dividing his land and goods among his sons Henry Kagey and Christopher Kagey and his daughters Anne Kagey, wife of Henry M. Frantz, and Mary Kagey, wife of Jacob Strickler, and providing for the support of his widow, Catherine Landis (Graybill) Kagey, with several codicils; the document includes a metes and bounds description of the land, mentions furniture and German books, and a bond executed to the testator by Samuel Strickler and Benjamin Hupp in 1818, replaced or repaid over the lapse of time, leading to the codicils; witnesses to the will were Charles Oliver, Edward Watts, Michael Zigler, John Smith, and Peter Smith; also named were Leonard Houty, John Gish, William Carvin, John Strayer, Zachariah Barly, James Breckinridge Watts, and Christian Gish

In testimony of this being my last will & testament I have hereunto set my hand & seal this 20th day of June 1832. signd sealed and acknowledgd as his last will & testament, Henrich Kagaÿ {seal} in presence of Charles Oliver, Edwd Watts, Michael Zigler, John Smith, Peter Smith

The testator’s name is spelled in many variants, the most common being Kagey. It derives from a Swiss-German name, Kägi. In this document, Edward Watts consistently writes Henry Keaggy, but when the testator signed, which he did four times, the signature looks like Henrich Kagaÿ. The testator was born in 1758 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and died in July 1844 in Roanoke County, Virginia. He married Catherine Landis Graybill (or Grabill, derived from Krehbiel), born in 1758 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, died in 1838 in Roanoke County, Virginia; they had five children.

September 16, 1839
Letter and account statement from Temple Gwathmey, in Richmond, Virginia, to Edward Watts, in Big Lick (Roanoke), Roanoke County, Virginia, reporting first on sales of some tobacco, and then on news of the family and friends, including his son Robert “Carter” Gwathmey, Carter’s wife Emily Stone (Smith) Gwathmey, their ailing infant daughter Evelina Smith Gwathmey, and Carter’s brother William Watts Gwathmey; the death of Robert Beverley Randolph and the poor health of his children, Charles Randolph, Nancy Anne (Randolph) Kennon, and Lavinia H. Randolph; and the activities of Temple Gwathmey's wife Caroline (Heth) Gwathmey; named in connection with business were Rogers, J. Sizer & Son, Baron d'Hautrieve, J. S. Apperson, and the writer’s own company, R. & T. Gwathmey  

[Charles their only son is going to Philadelphia to have an operation] performed on his back, which the Doctors say, there is 10 chances to 3 <that it> will kill him, & both of the Daughters are in extremely delicate health. Caroline is now with Mrs. Kennon, she took Carter's little daughter with her, whose health she writes me is much improved by the country air. The few friends of yours left in the city are well, but the [town is pretty much deserted.]

The author of this letter, Temple Gwathmey (1783-1848), married on 4 September 1811, at Flat Creek, Campbell County, Virginia, Anna Maria "Nancy" Watts (c. 1794-1819); she was a sister of Edward Watts. The Gwathmey family were merchants and bankers in Richmond, Virginia.
            The passage quoted concerns the family of the recently deceased Robert Beverley Randolph (1786-1839); in 1808 he married Lavinia Heth (1791-1815). He bought an estate on the James River, enlarged the house, and renamed it Norwood. With his father-in-law Henry "Harry" Heth, he managed the near-by Midlothian coal mines. 
             Caroline was Temple Gwathmey’s second wife, née Caroline Heth, whom he married in 1829. She was related, probably as an aunt, to the Randolph children. Mrs. Kennon was one of the Randolph daughters. Carter was the writer’s son, Robert Carter Gwathmey (1816-1859). The girl in frail health was Evelina Smith Gwathmey (1838-before 1850).

January 1839
Receipt from Thomas A. Lovelace to Edward Watts for $200 paid on account

March 1839
Account statement from Robert C. Mitchell, clerk of Bedford County Court, Virginia, to Isaac McDaniel for $1.94 of expenses in a suit on behalf of Catharine McDaniel against Meador

September 14, 1839
Account statement and receipt from the University of Virginia to William Watts for $230 of expenses, itemized, and signed by Willis Harrison Woodley

January 5, 1839
Account statement of Thomas A. Lovelace with Edward Watts for a one-seventh share of income from crops, 1836 through 1838, including tobacco, hemp and corn

about March 1841
Statement of amount of wheat produced month by month in 1839 and 1840, with some indications of the producers' names—Mays, Reade, and Burke—and the disposition of the wheat—sold to Petty

about 1856
Statement to Edward Watts of his account with Cary Breckinridge as executor of James Breckinridge, covering 1841 to 1856, showing mostly payments on bonds from Cary and John Breckinridge into the account and to Edward Watts out of the account

about 1854
Draft of accounts in the names of Cary Breckinridge and John Breckinridge from 1842 to 1854, showing payments and receipts to several individuals and businesses, apparently related to the estate of James Breckinridge

about 1854
Draft of an account statement from 1843 to 1854, with the name Breckinridge, listing bonds and interest due, probably from the estate of James Breckinridge or John Breckinridge

April 5, 1843
Note from John Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $300, payable on demand, witnessed by William Watts

April 5, 1843
Note from John Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $60, payable December 25, 1843, for the hire of a slave named Selden, witnessed by William Watts

On or before the 25th day of December 1843 I promise for myself and heirs to pay to Edward Watts the sum of sixty dollars ($60) for the hire of a Negro named Selden. Witness my hand and seal this 5th day of April 1843, John Breckinridge {seal}

The signer of this note, John Selden Breckinridge (1809-1844), was a brother of Edward Watts’s wife, née Elizabeth Breckinridge; John never married. Nothing more is known of the slave Selden, who had obviously been named after the family of John’s mother, Anne (Selden) Breckinridge.

about 1843
Receipt from Edward Watts to Cary Breckinridge for three payments totaling $750.00, including cash, check and proceeds from the sale of lots in Washington, District of Columbia

April 5, 1843
Note from John Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $55, payable on demand, witnessed by William Watts

July 16, 1842 - February 6, 1843
Note from Cary Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $1101.27, payable on demand for value received, witnessed by William Watts, with notations of two partial payments

On demand for value received I bind myself, my heirs and legal representatives to pay to Edward Watts the sum of eleven hundred and one dollars and twenty seven cents ($1101.27c) with interest thereon from the 14th day of November 1841 until paid. Witness my hand and seal this 16th day of July 1842, Cary Breckinridge {seal}

Cary Breckinridge (1796-1867) was a brother of Edward Watts’s wife, née Elizabeth Breckinridge.

July 16, 1842
Note from Cary Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $1101.27, due November 14, 1844, witnessed by William Watts

July 16, 1842
Note from Cary Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $1101.27, due November 14, 1843, witnessed by William Watts

July 16, 1842
Note from Cary Breckinridge to Edward Watts for $1101.27, due November 14, 1842, witnessed by William Watts

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

London, summer 2011

            My last post in early July predicted that going to London would disrupt my blogging. Alas, it did so more completely than I had expected. From jetlag to distractions both pleasant and annoying, something always stood in the way of sitting at the computer and focusing on family history. Now I hope to return to my customary weekly pace.

Stores boarded up as a precaution in Islington
            The five-week period abroad was in many ways a dire spell. When we arrived, England was abuzz over the scandal of cell phone hacking by journalists and it was rumored that the Cameron government might fall. That story was pushed off the front page by the massacre in Norway, and the massacre gave way in turn to the grotesque spectacle of the U.S. Congress threatening to force the government to default on its debts. Then it looked as if the euro might collapse, and the stock market crashed. Finally, mobs rioted in London, looted stores and burned buildings.
             Yet Exmouth Market, our neighborhood shopping area, was abuzz with people going about their everyday business. The government did not fall. The Norwegian atrocity proved to be the work of an isolated Nordic madman, not the first strike in a new wave of terror. Congress stepped back from the brink. Only time will tell whether we are doomed to economic disaster, but there was no sign of distress evident around us. The mobs committed appalling acts, but the scale of the disorder was much exaggerated by the press and it was soon brought under control. The pundits quoted Yeats a lot, but for the time being at least, the center has held and mere anarchy has not been loosed upon the world.
Exmouth Market
News of the World, final issue
            The riots stunned many people, because England has a justified reputation for stability. Two venerable institutions perished over the five bad weeks. The newspaper most implicated in the hacking scandal, the News of the World, published continuously since 1843, closed forever on 10 July. The Reeves furniture store in Croydon, founded in 1867 and still run by the fifth generation of the family, was torched; the building survived the blitz, but has now been demolished. In reality, though, London is constantly renewing itself, reconfiguring the skyline with dramatic new buildings with nicknames like “the Gherkin”, “the Shard” and “the Glass Gonad”, and creating new zones of activity with ambitious projects like the expanded underground lines and the 2012 Olympics Park. More often than not, the new harmonizes with the old and preserves it, as in St. Pancras Station, where the Eurostar terminates.

            Exmouth Market changes relatively little from year to year. Yet we remember it from twenty years ago, when it was a derelict alleyway, home to winos and a few tawdry shops. It is now lined with trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants, but they preserve something of the by-gone era. Clark’s is a genuine survivor, one of the few pie, mash and eel cafes left in London, and a destination eatery for the nostalgic. Medcalf retains its butchershop façade, but that red circle on the window is a Michelin certificate. One of our favorite places, The Ambassador, closed this summer, but by next summer, a new one will occupy the space.

The vacated site of The Ambassador
British paperback cover of The Hare with Amber Eyes
            On the long flight home, I read a book which several of our friends had warmly recommended, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. The author is a famous ceramic artist, and the title refers to a netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture. But the book is really a history of his ancestors, the Ephrussi family, who were Jewish bankers, originally from the Russian Empire in what is now Ukraine, where they made a fortune in wheat exporting, and then established a financial empire to rival the Rothschilds’ in Vienna and Paris. Charles Ephrussi lived in Paris, where he was a patron to the Impressionists and an habitué of the salons of the Belle Époque; he is reputed to be a model for his friend Marcel Proust’s character Charles Swann. Charles Ephrussi bought a collection of 264 netsuke in the 1870s, the heyday of Japonism in France. The memoir follows the collection to Vienna, where it went as a wedding gift to Charles’s cousin and survived miraculously intact through the two world wars, and then to Tokyo, which became the home of the author’s great uncle Ignace Ephrussi in 1947. Eventually it was left to Edmund de Waal himself and now resides in London.

            That outline of the events does nothing to convey the fascinating portraits of the people and the societies. Nor does it suggest the rich meditation on the role these netsuke, other works of art, and even more ordinary things, play in our lives. Near the end of his story, de Waal asks, “Why keep things, archive your intimacies?” And he explains both his uneasiness about “living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission” and his urgent feeling that “I must be careful over these objects and their stories. I must get it right.” Finally, as an artist who makes his living “from letting things go”, he observes that “Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live”. Things of all kinds, including stories, acquire their meanings through use, which of course implies the risk that they may be altered, broken, destroyed or lost.
            These reflections touched me as if I were reading my own unarticulated thoughts. I wish I had Edmund de Waal’s gift for creating both objects and stories, but even without it, I feel that I share an aspiration with him. Near the end of my London stay, I heard that the new History Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke will have a display built around some things from the Breckinridge and Watts estates – two portraits, an Indian medal, and a girandole mirror from Grove Hill. That mirror has traveled a bit in its two centuries of existence, not as far or as dramatically as the netsuke, but it has been used in the same spirit, I believe. It hung on the wall of the house I grew up in, and some of its meaning lies in the wear and tear it endured at my own thoughtless childish hands. As de Waal might say, the girandole begins again

The girandole mirror from Grove Hill, in my parents’ house in 1983
The object at the bottom is my nephew’s hat, with a Canadian flag