There comes a time in research when writing must commence in order to know what you do and do not know. Otherwise, you -- and by "you" I mean "I" -- will end up lost in the rabbit hole. My rule for knowing that point has arrived follows that of an archeologist with whom I once did a field school: stop digging when you stop finding anything. I've also adapted that to say that you should stop digging when you keep finding the same things and they are all citing one another. Then, when you start writing, you can begin to ask new questions that push you to look elsewhere.
This is what I keep telling my students: research papers are an organic art. I can't give them a step-by-step checklist or flow chart because the process is rather loopy -- literally if you are trying to draw it out -- but you do sometimes have to just start writing and get into that flow in order to move in a generally forward direction. "Yes, it's a lot of work," I warn them. "So pick a topic that you care about -- or at least won't absolutely hate within two minutes." I actually have had one or two students thrilled to realize that this thing they like to read about just for fun could actually be a subject for serious study.
But, I digress...
This blog accomplishes some of that writing to know what I know; but now I'm also realizing that I have to start an actual chapter. Elizabeth's mother will forever remain a mystery, at least for the purposes of my book, which is supposed to be a synthesis anyway. In the word of Zombieland's Tallahassee, "time to nut up or shut up." Or perhaps to paraphrase Shawshank Redemption's Red, "get busy writin', or get busy dying." Or even Yoda, "do or do not. There is no try."
So, what do we have on Elizabeth's mother?
First, Madison's account and two of the points he establishes with her in his family history. She provides a connection to African and explains the reason that the Hemings family held the positions that they did in the plantation house rather than in the fields. I'm going to also eventually add another post about the third thing that Madison establishes with his great-grandmother, which is the history of racial mixing in his family.
Second, Madison's account is the only known, direct record of a Elizabeth's mother, a women who was "a full-blooded African, possibly a native of that country." Everything else must be surmised.
Third, what can be surmised? Well, this will be one of the sections of the chapter that deals with context and method rather than narrative.
Already, I have blogged about a couple of possibilities about her life. First, that John Wayles was probably not her master when she gave birth to her daughter in 1735 (a date listed in Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book). I also blogged that Francis Eppes IV owned Elizabeth and, therefore, her mother. Yet -- and here is the example of writing to know what you know -- I'm adding notes into my timeline and realizing that Eppes IV died in 1734. This makes me wonder who oversaw his estate and family and the inheritance of his daughters.
Was Elizabeth's mother a final purchase before Francis IV died? Or did someone else purchase her? Maybe Francis Eppes V who died in 1737? Or perhaps the widow Eppes, Sara? They would be the most likely to be in charge of things. Or perhaps Martha Eppes, who later married Wayles, was responsible, since Elizabeth ended up with her? She was an Eppes twice over because she was first married to Llewlyn Eppes (a cousin?), who might also factor into this.
Could Wayles, in fact, have been her master as Madison said? Probably not. Annette Gordon-Reed describes the earliest record of his arrival in Virginia as possibly being 1738, and while that could be inaccurate, his appearance in other records begins in the 1740s. Either way, Elizabeth already toddled about in the world by then.
Dang it! This is going to require some more digging, and probably in places to which I do not have access because of the pandemic. I'll get back to you on that. Suffice to say, that I now know what I don't know there...
Anyway, back to the original train of thought.
Let's suppose that Elizabeth's mother came into the Eppes's possession rather than Wayles's. Francis Eppes IV had a plantation at Bermuda Hundred, next to the Upper James River port, Bermuda Hundred, which Francis Eppes V inherited and on which widow Sara Eppes lived. Therefore, Elizabeth's mother had just as much or greater chance of arriving in the colony there as at Williamsburg, where Madison had placed the action of her life in Virginia.
Annette Gordon-Reed tried to pinpoint Elizabeth's mother in the records of Eppes IV's enslaved women, with the two pertinent documents being Eppes IV's will, drawn up in 1733, and the settlement of his daughter Martha when she married Wayles in 1746. She noted the names Parthenia and Sarah, two names that also appear either in their full or diminutive form in later Hemings generations. Both names appear in the 1733 and the 1746 documents, with the 1746 document also mentioning by name two new children, Betty and Ben.
Assuming that Betty is our Elizabeth Hemings, daughter of an African woman and Captain Hemings and mother of Sally Hemings, then one of the adult women in the earlier document was likely to be that African mother. The early pages of Jefferson's Farm Book, in which he lists the names of people whom he received through the inheritance of his wife, yet another Martha, no Parthenia or Thenia appears, but Sal does. Sal also receives a notation of having died in 1781.
That scenario, which is quite plausible, has Parthenia or Sarah arriving in or before 1733, then getting pregnant late in 1734 or 1735, and giving birth to a baby girl named Elizabeth in 1735. Elizabeth survives to be named in the 1746 document. Yet, 1733 and 1746 are separated by 13 years. Think of how many things change in that period of time, how much can slip through the cracks between the documents. I have another idea about what happened.
You know, how about if I leave my own added hypothesis about what happened for tomorrow? This post may take you a few minutes to read, but realizing what I don't know, and trying to find it to include -- and not finding much of it -- has taken a few hours that has made me want to dig in more.
On a different subject, I think I see what McBride is doing in Good Lord Bird. Onion just might be a type of trickster in the way Huck Finn was a trickster. He has to be wily just to get through some absurd yet deadly situations on one piece. I'm not sure how to describe his point of view, but it isn't quite marginal because he's near the center of major events. At the same time, "swept up in" those events seems an apt description.