People sang. Sometimes they were forced to. Slave traders brought a banjo or two and demanded music.
The turnpike ran farther west—40 miles to Winchester, and then to the brow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every few miles, Armfield and his chained-up gang came to a toll station. He would stop the group in its tracks, pull out his purse and pay the man. The tollkeeper would lift the bar, and the coffle would march under it. About August 25, they reached Winchester and turned south, entering the Shenandoah Valley. Among the people who lived in these parts was John Randolph, a congressman and a cousin of Thomas Jefferson.
Along the way, the coffle met other slave gangs, construction crews rebuilding the Wagon Road, widening it to 22 feet and putting down gravel. They were turning out the new Valley Turnpike, a macadam surface with ditches at the sides. The marchers and the roadwork gangs, slaves all, traded long looks.
Route 11, a two-lane that runs between soft and misty mountains, with pretty byways.
Long stretches of U. Northern Shenandoah was wheat country then, with one in five people enslaved and hoeing in the fields. Today a few of the plantations survive.
I stop at one of the oldest, Belle Grove. The Valley Turnpike once ran on its edge, and the coffle of saw the place from the road. Relatives of President James Madison put up the stone mansion at Belle Grove during the s, and it lives on as a fine house museum run by a historian, Kristen Laise. A walk through the house, a look at the kitchen where all the work was done, a walk through the slave cemetery, a rundown of the people who lived and died here, white and black—thanks to Laise, Belle Grove is not a house museum that shorts the stories of slaves.
Recently, Laise tells me, she stumbled on evidence that in the s a large number of people went up for sale at Belle Grove. Hite expressed regret that he had to charge interest if buyers insisted on using credit. The nicest families in the Shenandoah tipped people into the pipeline south. Frederick County Visitor Center. In Edinburg, a history bookshop. In Staunton, the Visitor Center.
People do know, however, about Civil War battles. The bloodletting here has a kind of glamour. A few people launch into stories about the brave Confederates. A few bring up their own ethnic lore. A woman at a tourist store clarified. My oh my, the Scots-Irish—they were like made of brass. The children were asleep in some tents; and the males, in chains, were lying on the ground, in groups of about a dozen each.
Featherstonhaugh, a geologist on a surveying tour for the federal government, described the slave trader as a raw man in nice clothes. John Armfield wore a big white hat and striped pants. He had a long dark coat and wore a mustache-less beard. Early the next morning, the gang readied again for the march.
On September 6, the gang was marching 50 miles southwest of Roanoke. They came to the New River, a big flow about feet across, and to a dock known as Ingles Ferry. Armfield did not want to pay for passage, not with his hundreds. So one of his men picked a shallow place and tested it by sending over a wagon and four horses. Armfield then ordered the men in irons to get in the water. This was dangerous.
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If any man lost his footing, everyone could be washed downstream, yanked one after another by the chain. Armfield watched and smoked. Multiply that by The men made it across.click here
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Next came wagons with the young children and those who could no longer walk. Last came the women and girls. Armfield crossed them on flatboats. Today, on the same spot, a six-lane bridge crosses the New River, and there is a town called Radford, population 16, Born 50 miles that way, Radford for 20 years.
On the dark slope after 40, since you ask. Daniel is pleasant, happy to talk about his hardscrabble days. He is white, a face etched by too much sun. It is an easy chat between strangers, until I bring up the slave days.
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He shakes his head. His face acquires a look that suggests the memory of slavery is like a vampire visiting from a shallow grave. Armfield and his caravan came to the Shenandoah from Alexandria. Other coffles came from the direction of Richmond. One of them was led by a man named William Waller, who walked from Virginia to Louisiana in with 20 or more slaves.
In the deep archive of the Virginia Historical Society I discovered an extraordinary batch of letters that Waller wrote about the experience of selling people he had known and lived with for much of his life.
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He was an amateur slave trader, not a pro like Armfield, and his journey, though from another year, is even better documented. Waller was 58, not young but still fit. Thin and erect, a crease of a smile, vigorous dark eyes. She was fancier than he. The Wallers lived outside Amherst, Virginia, and owned some 25 black people and a plantation called Forest Grove. They were in debt. They had seen the money others were making by selling out and decided to do the same. Their plan was to leave a few slaves behind with Sarah as house servants and for William to march nearly all the rest to Natchez and New Orleans.
Waller and his gang reached the Valley Turnpike in October. But something happened early on, although it is not clear just what. The people who accompanied him included a boy of 8 or 9 called Pleasant; Mitchell, who was 10 or 11; a teenage boy named Samson; three teenage sisters, Sarah Ann, Louisa and Lucy; Henry, about 17; a man named Nelson and his wife; a man in his 20s called Foster; and a young mother named Sarah, with her daughter Indian, about age 2.
There were others. The three sisters had been taken from their parents, as had Pleasant, Mitchell and Samson. Most of the others were under Waller planned to sell all of them. Days and nights down the Valley Turnpike, the spine of the Blue Ridge, destination Tennessee, where Armfield would hand over his coffle and board a stagecoach back to Alexandria.
Here the mountains thicken into the Appalachian South of deep hollows and secret hills. In the old days, there were few black people here, a lot of Quakers and the beginning of an antislavery movement.