An American Adventure

If only me da coulda seen me, standing there, right there, on the good dark soil of Virginia! After seven weeks, toiling and slaving and being sick and throwing up me guts for that old Ship's Captain Allyard I was standing there on the quay at a place they called York Towne and I was going to work for Lord Culpeper hisself, whoever he were. To be sure, I had to put me mark on a paper that said I'd work for him for the next seven years but I didn't care. I was fifteen years of age and I had me whole life ahead of me. The foreman, a man I was told to call “Mr. Ike”, took me arm and led me down to a row of wagons lined up along side of the quay and put me to work right then, along with some of them strange black men they called negroes. We worked until dark and then after dark with lanterns until all of the wagons were loaded proper. Then he told us all to climb on top and we rode all night, heading for I didn't know where.

I was so tired I slept through the whole trip to the plantation but in the morn one of the negroes shook me and said something I couldn't understand. I got up from the sack I was sleeping on and saw the plantation for the first time. This big place was going to be me home for seven years and I wanted to get a good look.

It was the biggest piece of land I ever seen, before or since. The main house was big but I seen bigger back in Dublin along Ormond Quay. There were buildings everywhere. I learned that they was stables, smokehouses, cookhouses, a tannery, a blacksmith shop, tool sheds, supply sheds, five or six tobacco curing barns, at least three spring houses and sleeping quarters for the negroes and others quarters for us white servants. The fields went on forever, from the buildings out, in every direction. Mostly they raised tobacco. I once stole a smoke of me ma's pipe back in Dublin but I never seen it growing in a field until then. They had fields of corn and vegetables too and pastures for the stock. I suppose you'd say the plantation was about the size of a fair town, what with people coming and going, running around the place, all day and night.

My life in Virginia started right there that day and I was so busy I never had time to be proud that I was now a Virginian or to even think about it for that matter. For seven years long I worked every day, including Sunday after church. My room was out behind the kitchen, in the cookhouse closest to the master's big house. I slept on the floor on a right comfortable straw mattress and covered myself with an old horse blanket that Moses, one of the slaves, give me the first week I was there. Mattie, one of the cooks for the big house, was near my age and she took to me straight away. She used to come in to sit with me late into the night and tell me all about her coming to the plantation and about the negroes and the other servants. The negroes were called slaves and the master owned them outright. They could never leave unless somebody else bought them. She explained to me that we were indentured servants and that meant we could leave after we worked off our passage to Virginia. Mattie taught me all about how the plantation worked and helped me whenever I couldn't figure something out. She stayed with me in my bed on many a cold night and that's something I won't talk about. I will say that I loved Mattie, though I don't think she really loved me back.

Well, all I can say is that I loved working on that plantation and I loved learning everything about running a big farm. The years passed and I grew up from a skinny lad of fifteen to a strapping strong man of twenty one years. By then I could do anything that needed doing on that farm and I could do it as good or better'n any man on the place. I could clear and plow a field, I could plant tobacco, or plant anything for that matter, I could harvest the crops, spike the tobacco, raise and slaughter the stock, build a barn or any building for that matter. I was a right good cooper so I made most of the tobacco hogsheads and I could make better than average brandy from our very own apple orchards.

The foremen all liked me because I'd do anything they asked of me and I'd do it without complaining and without dawdling, unlike some of the others. Most of the negroes liked me because I didn't try to boss them around and I sure didn't act like they was my slaves. The way I saw it was that I was just about as much a slave as they was and so I didn't see any sense in trying to boss them around. Old Ezzie was what I would call my best friend and we spent a lot of time together, laughing about the way he talked and laughing about the way I talked. Some of the other servants didn't like the way I took to Ezzie but I figured they could go to hell if they didn't like it. Ezzie was a good friend and a man I could count on. I don't ask for more than that from any man.

Many a night I'd lay awake thinking about me da and me ma back in Dublin. I never thought about me eighteen brothers and sisters because, to be truthful, I didn't like most of them. The only person I liked was me da. Ma was a mean woman, through and though, and she would take a willow switch to you just so as to watch you yelp. Da ran a store in town and was busy most of the time so whenever ma was with child, which was just about all the time, he would get her a nurse and, after the child came, a wet nurse, just so she'd have enough time to keep scolding and beating us other children. The last time she was going to beat me, just because I stole some of her red yarn to play ball with, I told her to go to hell and ran like Satan hisself was after me; which I'm certain she was. I ran all the way across the town to Inns Quay at the west end of the Liffey, where I waited for a captain going to Virginia who would take me with him. I found me a berth on the Edna and Constant but I had to put me mark on that paper that said I would work my way across the ocean and I would work for seven to ten years after I got there.

Sure and it was worth it! I was going to the colonies! I was going off into the wilderness to find gold and come back home a rich man. Everybody knew that you got rich if you went to the colonies and I was on me way. I was fifteen and I'd be a wealthy man when I came home, sort of like that Alexander the Great fellow, riding triumphant-like back into Dublin. Mattie always laughed at me when I talked like that and said that I sounded like a fool but I didn't care. I was in Virginia and maybe there was no gold but I still enjoyed talking about it, even if it was just a dream. I figured coming to Virginia was dream enough.

In the year of our Lord, Seventeen hundred and thirty seven, I became a free man, free to go anywhere I wanted and free to do anything I wanted. I only had one problem, I didn't know where to go and I didn't know what to do. But it worked out that I was a lucky man because the foreman came to see me on the day I was leaving and asked if I wanted to go off to the west and start a new farm for him. He said he'd equip me, give me two good horses and two wagons, supplies, tobacco plants and such, and two strong negroes to go and help me. He said he'd pay me good wages for the first time in me life and I said, right off, that he had me hand on it.

Well, four days later I had those wagons loaded right down to their axles and I was about ready to go. The negroes were holding the reins and waiting for me while I tried me best to get Mattie to go with me. I went back into the cookhouse and took her back in the corner to ask her to go with me and to marry me, but she just laughed at me like she always did and said I still sounded like a fool. I begged her but she wouldn't budge and she finally said that I should go on ahead and next year, if I still wanted her, I could come back and get her. I told her not to go anywhere because I was coming back next December and I was going to take her home. She just laughed again while I rode away. off toward the mountains west of Fredericksburg. To tell you the truth, it still saddens me, even after all these years, because I never saw that plantation and I never saw Mattie again.

Well, that's near my whole life story in a nutshell. I've had this farm of my own for forty five years now and I've done right well for myself I think. Mary and me raised six pretty fine children and I'm proud of every one of them. My children and their children all live around here and they all come by regular to do the chores for me. I love them all and I just enjoy seeing them working around the place. Mary passed two years ago and now there's nobody here on the farm but old Isaiah and me. I guess that's the way it should be when you do well in Virginia. You work hard, you get ahead and you go quietly. And, now that the war's over and everything's settled down again, we're called Americans. That sounds good to me. It makes me look back through the years and remember how fine a life I truly had. You know, I wouldn't change anything at all except I'd have liked to have seen my family back in Dublin just once before I passed. Well, it's certain they're all gone now anyway and, at eighty eight years of age, I guess I'll join them soon enough.

One of these days real soon my son, Albert, will bury me up there on that little knoll next to Mary and he'll inherit this five hundred acres. Then, it'll start all over again. The old wheel will have turned all the way round and, God willing, Albert will last about as long as I did and do about as well. The way I see it, If you produce a little more than you consume you did all right by yourself. That's the way it works in America and I do believe that's the way the good Lord intended it to be.

Dan Barham 2006



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