Where’s Felicity?: What’s Not in a Name in Colonial Virginia

Every so often, a historian gets an intellectual itch that needs to be scratched, an irksome question that just won’t go away, so off to the side goes the current project until something of an answer might be found to temporarily satisfy the curiosity.  And so it happened to me yesterday, after writing a blog post about #SaveSweetBriar.  In it, I referenced Felicity Merriman, the principal character of one of the most beloved American Girl books, created by my friend, Valerie Tripp, about a young woman who lived in Virginia during the age of the American Revolution.  Having a keen scholarly interest in the way that young people develop passions for the past (mine started with The Mystery of the Old Musket), I’m especially curious about the role that Young Adult and related fiction plays in that process and have been rather surprised by the number of adult women, whom are now themselves historians, interpreters, archivists, and at least one award-winning journalist (my wife), who can trace their interest directly to Valerie’s Felicity. (I’ll share a guilty secret and reveal that I own and have read all of the books, including “Felicity’s Mysteries,” and find them utterly charming.)

Except there is a problem.  As a historian of colonial Virginia, I could not recall having once come across anyone named Felicity.  Not one.  In fact, I couldn’t remember having ever seen any name like it in correspondence or ledgers or on a gravestone or anywhere else.  Given names like that are common enough in New England records and graveyards, deriving as they do, I believe, primarily from a sort of Puritanism fueled by hefty doses of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which resulted in such permanent reminders of the virtues that one should pursue to lead a good Christian life.  Consequently, names like Charity, Prudence, Mercy, and, yes, Felicity, can be found throughout 17th- and 18th-century New England.  But I could not think of one in colonial Virginia.

So, knowing that my loyalists will wait, I decided to take a look.  I just happen to have built up, over the last ten years, a sizable prosopographical database (using Zotero) that focuses on the men and women, free and enslaved, who lived in and around the Chesapeake between 1600 and about 1820 (that later chronological edge keeps slipping further and further into the 1800s).  Having already completed a broader study on male (free and enslaved) naming practices in the Chesapeake (to map birth legitimacy traits), I already had a model ready into which, in my search for Felicity, I could plug the female names and see what came out the other end, in a somewhat scientific analysis.

And I couldn’t find Felicity.  Or Charity.  Or Prudence.  In fact, the only, for lack of a better way to describe them, “New England” name in our entire household belongs to our dog, Mercy Otis.  Of 483 free females in my database whom had anything to do with the Chesapeake in the 17th and 18th centuries, only one — Fortune Randolph (a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s) — had a given name even close, and she had to be excluded in the end because she actually lived in Bristol, England, and never saw America.  Interestingly enough, a full 45 percent of them were named Elizabeth (which is actually the name of Felicity’s best friend in the books and comes from a family of good loyalists), followed closely by Mary (33 percent).  The next closest was a version of Anne (including Ann and Anna) at 12 percent.  The remainder are a wide variety of Susannahs, Lucys, Sarahs, Janes, etc.

Of course, the next question occurring to any historian is “why?”  Why such a tremendous difference in naming practices and, honestly, why so many named Elizabeth and Mary (more than three-quarters of the total)?  The easy and quick answer is also the most interesting: it’s a fantastic illustration of the striking cultural differences between the different parts of colonial America.  Religion is the most obvious difference, as my sample was comprised almost entirely of Anglicans, rather than Puritans or their Congregational successors.  There are other issues to go into–the use of diminutives, for example, such as Betsy and Molly, which seems to me to be a class matter–but they will have to wait.

As my loyalists are beckoning me, I’ll leave you with my findings, in descending order of occurrence.  Ladies and gentlemen, as Train would sing, meet (colonial) Virginia:

Elizabeth, Mary, Ann/Anne/Anna, Lucy, Martha, Susanna/Susannah, Jane, Sarah, Frances, Alice, Rebecca, Hannah, Maria, Margaret, Isabella, Charlotte, Dorothy/Dorothea, Ariana, Winifred, Judith, Catherine, Ursula, Priscilla, Ellen, Joanna, Christina, Agatha, Clara, Letitia, Edith, Amy, Eleanor, Lydia, and Pauline.       

Where There’s a Will, There’s No Way?: Saving Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar College has been recently likened to a setting from an American Girl book, which is true enough, I suppose.  It is, indeed, a beautiful and serene space, almost idyllic and out of time, one full of young women (and their horses) whom, by trying to better themselves, hope to better their world.  So it’s more or less the school that Felicity Merriman, and her Penny, would attend in a heartbeat were they alive (and real) in 2015.  And that’s a terrific thing; Sweet Briar is a safe place where girls are allowed to become women, and prepared to meet a world more contentious than they deserve.  And I can attest to that personally, as a former member of the University of Virginia faculty (and a UVa alumnus), I taught Sweet Briar students during summer sessions, and, as a historian and equestrian, have been to the college a number of times, and found the members of its community as bright, earnest, and engaging as any I’ve encountered at Brown or Harvard.  Not to slight Wellesley or Smith, both splendid places, but I think that Sweet Briar was made as much for the fathers of today’s Felicitys as it was for the modern Felicitys themselves.

That’s why, as someone quite familiar with the college, I was especially distressed to learn that it is to be shuttered like an English country house at the end of a shooting season when the current term comes to a close due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” but without the ceremony, one suspects.  Goodbye students, faculty, and staff (and equine residents)—the doors will be locked and keys likely turned over to lawyers and accountants come June by a vote of the Board of Directors.  To note that the decision appears abrupt is to muddy the picture.  Without a doubt, the school has been in serious financial trouble for some time.  The enrollment has dipped and the terms of the Will that created it, and current unrestricted endowment funds, do not lend its administrators much painless flexibility.  The writing was, as they say, on the wall, when the Board chose expedience over courage in washing its collective hands of the place, its 114-year history, its tens of thousands of alumnae—and the Directors’ responsibility to them all.

Other observers have reflected on this or that aspect of the story, as if it is already a matter for reflection, rather than for action.  Is it a harbinger of the fate of small liberal arts colleges across America?  What will the soon-to-be unemployed faculty and staff do in an already crowded academic job market?  And what about the horses?  Frankly, I’m not terribly concerned about any of that, except for perhaps the horses.  Colleges everywhere are in the midst of dramatic change to curricula and methods and staffing in order to remain both solvent and effective as institutions of higher learning, embracing, for example, digital and distance learning.  Even the seemingly most secure universities, such as my current institution, Harvard, are acting in bold and creative ways to expand and ensure their reach.  And Sweet Briar’s faculty might be considered as paid lower than their counterparts at other institutions, but with light class loads, little to no publishing requirements, a relatively low cost of living in the region, and an average salary still higher than the median national household income, I don’t think too many people, inside or outside of the “Ivory Tower,” are going fret much about their fates.

That brings us to the most important part of the Sweet Briar situation: the students—past, current, and, hopefully, future.  Having worked with a number of Boards of Trustees and Directors of different sorts, in my experience they are often an institution’s worst, but most pampered, enemies.  More often than not, they tend to know very little about their charges (other than what senior administrative staff allow them to know) and, an even more insidious factor, have no real, personal stake in whether their involvement results in success or failure.  In Sweet Briar’s case, the conclusion is painfully obvious, regardless of the names on the letterhead: this Board—not the faculty or staff or, most certainly, students—failed to discharge its responsibility, yet can simply walk away.  The students and staff are not so lucky.  Instead of immediately closing the doors of the school to, according to the Directors, save the students from a future of consistently lowering standards and a diminished experience, they should instead have admitted their own, personal defeat, resigned en masse, and turned over the leadership of the institution to a set of people with the vision, creativity, and willingness to implement the sort of change, however painful it might be in many quarters, that Sweet Briar requires–the college community itself, which includes the people of the surrounding area.

As my grandmother might have said, the President and Board came to the conclusion that the only way to open this nut was to use a hammer.  And what’s worse, it was done in the name of the students, who don’t seem to have had much say in the matter at all.  Sweet Briar has unique strengths that could be maximized and weaknesses that can be addressed (my grandmother, from whom I learned almost everything good and decent about life, would not have acknowledged that the word “insurmountable” even existed).  Again, other schools are facing similar challenges with nowhere near the same special qualities to help address them (the equestrian program alone is the envy of schools across the East Coast).  For example, more aggressive and creative marketing can target enrollment, and faculty can teach more classes that enroll part-time and non-traditional students, both on-site and online (which sure beats being unemployed).  To continue dispensing my grandmother’s old Chesapeake wisdom—if something is wrong, stop whinging and do something about it.  If that fails, pick yourself up, learn from the failure, and try something else.  But always try.  Where there is a will, there will be a way.  And as any rider whose horse has a big heart knows, no obstacle is entirely insurmountable.

For Sweet Briar, there is an unsurprisingly intense will, at least outside the current Board room, to make sure that its story does not end in 2015.  The #SaveSweetBriar campaign is just beginning and has developed encouraging momentum.  So I suggest that the current President and Directors be thanked for their time and sent on their merry way, leaving the college to those whom actually care about its future—and whom, if they cannot find a way, will almost certainly make one.

Feet of Clay: Benjamin Harrison, Founding Father…and Smuggler?

Berkeley PlantationNot many people know much about Benjamin Harrison (c1726-1791), one of the patriots’ “principal & most violent Leaders” (according to an anonymous loyalist observer), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia.  According to Edmund Randolph, writing long after the American Revolution, Harrison was a “favorite of the day” and “scrupled not to utter any untruth,” although his frankness was “sometimes tinctured with bitterness.”  Not that you’ll get much reliable information about him if you visit the impressive but poorly interpreted Berkeley Plantation, his home on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, he did lead an interesting life, that bespeaks, as my grandmother used to say, “something rustling behind the curtain.”  His father and two sisters were killed by lightning strikes in 1745; his mother died the same year, leaving him, at about 19 years old, and fresh from the College of William & Mary, in charge of his surviving family and hundreds of enslaved men and women.  Even in those circumstances he was a complicated figure: Benjamin Rush reported that pleasure was his ultimate goal, so it makes sense that his favorite book seems to have been Fanny Hill, yet he was also responsible for what might have been the first and largest mass inoculation against smallpox, including his enslaved families, in early American history, when the pestilence threatened his own daughters.

And he was also a smuggler.  Like John Hancock, he was one of those patriots who inveighed against the tightening of the Navigation Acts because it meant more British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and, consequently, threatened his own bottom line.  How do we know this?  Well, we could just say that the apple fell not far from the tree and leave it at that.  Both his father and grandfather were accused of, and investigated for, smuggling dating back to the late 1600s.  But Harrison made it easy for historians by simply telling us.  Hardly an Israelite without guile, documents now at the Houghton Library of Harvard University spell out his schemes in letters with his primary accomplice, a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty.  In the late 1760s and early 1770s, they kept their eyes peeled for any opportunity at all to skirt import restrictions, especially when it came to illicit cargoes of dried fish and wheat from New England.  In 1772, for example, he wrote a letter to his Boston accomplice, complaining about the effectiveness of the officer in command of the British warship then on the Virginia station–the crew of which could have also included Francis Otway Byrd, a Royal Navy Midshipman and son of Harrison’s neighbor, William Byrd III.  Any illegal effort, Harrison wrote in January, “will Depend on the lookout that is kept here by the Men of War,” but “at present there is no doing any thing in the smugling [sic] way.”  But if they were to find their way to rid themselves of the troublesome naval captain, “I shall carry my former Scheme into Execution.”  “[T]wo or three successful Voyages of this sort,” Harrison observed, “would make a fortune.”

I write this not to besmirch the memory of a celebrated American “founding father” (a rather meaningless label that I try, and often fail, to avoid).  After all, passing judgment on people of the past–even of the present, for that matter–isn’t my job as a historian (although I will confess to a sincere hatred of Alexander Hamilton and William Byrd II).  Instead, the point is a useful reminder that these people were, like all people, hopeless flawed and very messy, which is what makes studying and reading about their real lives and experiences so terribly interesting.  Getting them right is especially important now, with shows like “Sons of Liberty” and “Turn” taking our Revolutionary history and throwing it into a multimedia grinder on a weekly basis.  Yes, Benjamin Harrison was a smuggler, which almost certainly influenced his political behavior on behalf of the patriots.  Political economics had an enormous and complicated influence on the course of the American Revolution, which is the subject of my next book.  But, like it or not, those are the kind of persons who made America, men and women with feet of clay whom, in the end, created an extraordinary work of art.

Thieves, Strumpets, Tobacco, and the French: A Glimpse into the British Atlantic World, ca1760

On this date, October 10, in 1760, William Fauntleroy appears to have been a bit cranky.  A planter and merchant in Tidewater Virginia, he took a few minutes to pen an epistolary snapshot of life in the 18th-century British world in a fascinating letter to his sister, Elizabeth, then in London.  It covers the British criminal justice system, gender, property, transatlantic commerce, and the Seven Years’ War, then raging in Canada, all through the perspective of one person, with his own bundle of informed and uninformed presumptions about that world.  Although William avoids the one ubiquitous subject that practically no one in colonial Virginia ever wanted to discuss–slavery–this letter otherwise gives us a very human moment and reveals the many ways in which we lose more than we gain when we see the Atlantic as a barrier, and a not a bridge, before the American Revolution.

It does make one want to find out how “cousin Henry” and Mary turned out, doesn’t it?

Sorry cousin Henry did not conduct his matters better in Virginia.  It’s really the fault of that convict wench that served part of her time with me.  If I were you I’d have her hanged for going back to Britain before her convicted time was out.  Her name was Mary Acres and you may easy know where she was convicted from.  I hope Henry is released by now and will reflect on himself and alter his course in life.  Things sent that came by Capt Brough were sent immediately to cousin Sally and Judah Fauntleroy according to your desire.  Sally is married to Doctr Mortimer, a fine man.  Judy is married to one of Col Carter’s sons, a good family and fortune.  I can’t tell what cousin Harry did with the money he got from Mr Hodge but believe when young men gitte so in love with common theaves & strumpettss they can’t have too much money.  I got with the extrs [executors] of your cousin Moore Fauntleroy’s and at last have your just clame inclosed.  Tobo [tobacco] now with so high, thought it most for your Interest considering there being no convoy & war times to send you a good Bill.  I think to send you & Mr Ribright a Little Tobo this year.  As for the war with us, the French lattly has given up Montreale without striking a Blow, so we have all North America from the French.

“Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian.” (c1775)

From the Rev. Mr. Thomas Gwatkin, Williamsburg, Virginia, c1775, to a friend in England.

“A short account of their manner of living may afford you some entertainment.  Their breakfast like that of the English consists of tea coffee and chocolate; and bread or toast and butter, or small cakes made of flower and butter which are served to Table hot, and are called hoe cakes, from being baked on a hoe heated for that purpose.  They have also harshed meat and homony, cold beef, and hams upon the table at the same time, and you may as frequently hear a Lady desiring to be helped to a part of one of the dishes as a cup of tea.  Their tables at dinner are covered with a profusion of meat: And the same kind is dressed three or four different ways.  The rivers afford them fish in great Abundance: and their swamps and forests furnish them with ducks teal blue wing, hares, squirrels, partridges and a great variety of fowl.  Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian.  To dine upon a single dish is considered as one of the greatest hardships.  You can be contented with one joint of meat is a reproach frequently thrown into the teeth of an Englishman.  Even many of the fair Sex would be considered as Gluttons in England.  Indeed I am inclined to believe more disorders in the Country arise from too much eating than any other cause whatsoever.  In the afternoon tea and coffee is generally drank, but with bread or toast & butter.  At supper you rarely see any made dishes, Harshed and cold meat roasted fowls, fish of different kinds, tarts and sweetmeats fill up the table.  After the Cloth is taken away both at dinner and supper; Madeira, and punch or toddy is placed on the table.  The first toasts which given by the master of the family, are the King; the Queen and royal family; the Governour and Virginia; a good price to Tobacco.  After this if the Company be in a humour to drink, the ladies retire, and the Gentleman give every man his Lady; then a round of friend succeeds; And afterwards perhaps each of the company gives a sentiment; then the Gentleman of house drinks to all the friends of his company and at last concludes with drinking a good Evening according to the time of day.”