THE HAUNTS OF BLACKBEARD
A family narrative in its basic form can be but a patchwork of begats and biographies -- geography, demography and general history point up the mortar between these pieces and give glow to what could be a fragmented story.
The move of the Whichard family to North Carolina brings a juncture for such finishing work to be added to our document.
In the earliest English settlements in North America -- in 1607 at Jamestown along the southernmost of the large river flowing form the Appalachians into the Chesapeake and in 1620 at Plymouth Rock in the Massachusetts Bay far up the New England coast -- the whole expanse of wilderness was then called "Virginia" to honor Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen and the last of the Tudors.
Dynasties changed, and in 1629 King Charles I -- the second of the Stuarts of Scotland to occupy the throne of England -- granted to Sir Robert Heath, his Attorney General, a large tract of land south of the Chesapeake -- between the 31st and 36th latitude -- which was called The Province of Carolana, or "The Land of Charles."
It encompassed what today is both of the Carolinas save it was deemed to "stretch from sea-to-sea," in an extension not only uncharted but vaguely conceived.
Little was done by Heath in the way of development of this territory, and these were still considered "Indian Lands."
The government of the Stuarts was overthrown in 1649, King Charles was executed, and Parliament -- under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell -- established The Protectorate which ruled the British Empire until the monarchy was restored in 1663.
At that time King Charles II rewarded eight of his prominent courtiers who had helped him regain the Throne and these men became the Lord Proprietors of "The Province of Carolana."
The seat of this proprietary government was in Charleston and a representative was then appointed to supervise the northern portion of this grant.
However, problems arose with this form of governance, and the settlers -- pioneers in an essentially empty and untamed land which required their diligence to master -- were determined to have the autonomy they had left England to secure.
In 1690 the Proprietors appointed Philip Ludwell as the governor of the northern reaches of their territory, and some historians say this is when North Carolina began; however, it was some years later, in 1712, when the separation of North and South Carolina became official, and the boundary was not finally agreed upon until 1735.
Here then were overlapping processes abroad in the mother country and the colonies which, vis-à-vis, were each cause and effect of one another.
And all during this time, colonists -- whose families had initially settled in the Jamestown area of the southern Chesapeake -- were beginning to drift south into "The Land of Charles."
One could wonder at the accuracy of the word "drift" for these were more arduous expeditions than might be supposed.
The mesh of creeks, small rivers, large rivers, sounds and bays along the coastal plain of the Atlantic shore was a barrier to overland traffic, but at once, was a boon to communication before roads when travel was by boats, canoes and small sailing craft.
As has been noted, just as rivers from Appalachia in Virginia find their way to the Chesapeake, so the rivers of North Carolina empty into an interconnecting system of shallow sounds behind "The Outer Banks" -- that string of sandy barrier islands which separates the sea-coast from the mainland of North Carolina.
The Chowan is the northernmost of these rivers and empties into the Albemarle Sound via the Roanoke River.
These two streams have their headwaters in Virginia.
The only graphic record of Nathaniel Batts, as the first white settler in what would become North Carolina, is a primitive map dated in 1655 which bears the location of his homestead at the mouth of a creek on the Chowan River, a site now underwater due to erosion.
Some years later an early colonial governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, also built his home on the Chowan -- actually on the shore of is estuary.
This became the seat of the colonial government during his tenure, and a small village grew up around "Eden House," this being one of the first settlements in the colony and the site of present day Edenton.
The next river south is the Pamlico/Tar which has a unique name and a unique history.
The large uppermost tract of the Carolinas was initially divided into three counties for the purpose of local government: Albemarle from Virginia down to the Roanoke, Brunswick form the Cape Fear south into South Carolina and between them was the County of Bath.
The Pamlico had retained its Native American name, as did the sound into which it emptied, when they were first explored by seafarers sailing through the shifting inlets between "The Outer Banks."
Later, explorers coming overland from the north and west found its upstream portion, and due to the panoply of pine forests along its shore and the turpentine there from which soaked into its landings, it was named the Tar River.
In the fullness of time it became evident that the Tar and the Pamlico were, respectively, the headwaters and estuary of the same river, but the two names for these segments still persist.
In 1704, along a branched creek about a dozen miles above the junction of the river and the estuary, the first town laid out as such in North Carolina was there established and was named Bath for the shire of which it became the county seat.
The colony flourished, but Bath still only had a population of about 100 people when my friends Warren and Evelyn Parrish built a retirement home there in the 1970's, and when my cousins Jack and Jane Whichard purchased a vacation home several years later.
Settlement of Bath County proceeded slowly, but more so upstream then down stream, and the courthouse became hard of access for those form its western reaches.
Even then, in this new land, litigation was common place, but the positive side of this was that here were being taken steps toward government by laws rather than by rulers, a movement that would gain worldwide impetus, but whose lack yet today hampers human rights among many peoples.
Thus, in 1750 another county was carved to the west out of Bath County -- which had become Beaufort County -- and the new shire was named for William Pitt the Elder, Lord Chatham, a former Prime Minister of Britain who had championed the causes of the colonists.
The first Pitt County Court House was built about 20 miles upstream on the Tar, about a mile back form the south shore of the river -- this wooden structure persisted until this century, though long abandoned.
The mouth of Grindle Creek was north across the river from the courthouse, and it was upstream along this smaller waterway that John and Joyce Whichard brought a part of their family from Pungo Creek in "The Tidewater Hearth" in 1760.
One of the first inhabitants of the town of Bath was William Teach, the owner of an armed sailing ship -- Queen Anne's Revenge -- who used his vessel to prey upon shipping along the Atlantic main.
He is better remembered as "Blackbeard the Pirate" and Bath was homeport for him and his buccaneers.
It has been long rumored that Bath could be a haven for his egregious operations because he shared his ill-gotten pelf with Governor Eden.
As is the way with most human lore, "Blackbeard" is better remembered than is the Royal Naval officer, Lieutenant Maynard, who finally brought him to justice.
The coast of Carolina and the labyrinth of waterways behind "The Outer Banks" also offered the free-booter protection; and indeed, Lieut. Maynard didn't interdict "Blackbeard" until he caught him on the open seas off the Virginia Capes.
Bath stagnated though it has ever been in growth, figured again in more recent history.
In the olden days showboats -- flat-bottomed, paddle-wheel steamers -- made their calls up and down the Carolina rivers, and it was to Bath that came Edna Ferber in the early 20th century to spend a summer and gather material for her best-seller, Showboat.
From the book later came the renowned stage and movie musicals of this name, and in its production versions, both in print and on the stage, the setting for the works was shifted to the Mississippi.
This show by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein was among the earliest of the Broadway musicals, which gave the world a new theatrical genre.
The operetta still enjoys restaging -- one such currently playing on Broadway -- and the movie has become a perennial television re-run.
But, this wasn't the end of theatrical ventures in the small by-way of Bath.
As will be noted elsewhere, the historic outdoor drama was a genre which to my knowledge started in North Carolina with The Lost Colony, written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, Paul Green.
One of the endeavors I enjoyed as a student at East Carolina Teachers College was stage production, and in my day they were truly student undertakings.
Clifton Britton, a student several years older than most in our era, had put on plays in his Northampton County home since he was a shaver.
He brought this interest with him to E. C. T. C. and for our several years there we put on a series of what were taken to be outstanding productions.
In time, The Fine Arts Department became a jewel in the crown of the school as it grew into a university -- likewise, the Department of Music flourished.
Though none now would remember my part in this sort of thing, I still feel a proprietary interest in what these activities came to mean to the college.
Anyway, in the 1970's, for the better part of a decade in not longer, these two departments -- along with the folk of Bath -- created such a pageant based on the adventures of "Blackbeard."
I never saw it, but some who did said it was among the finest of the several such drama which gained currency across North Carolina and subsequently in other sections of the country.
It has since gone out of production, but not completely out of existence.
My friend, Warren Parrish - as has been true for many of his civic involvements -- was the treasurer of this company and he prides himself on its solvency.
There is still money in the bank awaiting any effort to put "Blackbeard" back in grease paint and behind foot-lights.
Warren Parrish says no other symphonic drama can make that claim, much less one which graces a community which hasn't surpassed the century-make in population after nigh three centuries of existence and incorporation.
In time the town of Washington -- known as "Little Washington" to the easterners of North Carolina -- sprang up where the Tar widens to become the Pamlico.
In more time -- but not the very recent past -- Tarboro, Greenville and Rocky Mount came to be small cities along the Tar in its run through the Coastal Plan.
Greenville and Pitt County have been important places in my life and in the story of the Whichard family, and will come to occupy more than a little space in the pages to come.
Meanwhile, let us acknowledge that in the patching of this veneer, the dog has again grown too shaggy, and that it's time to get back into the mainstream of our narrative.
JOHN and JOYCE (LANGLEY) WHICHARD of GRINDLE CREEK, N.C.:
In a deed in 1727 for land on Cinopen Ridge near Pungo Creek, John's name was rendered as WITCHARD.
This land was listed as having been passed along with a "livery of seizing turf and twin," and English common law from an Anglo-Saxon feudal practice whereby a grantor of land actually passed this along by placing a handful of earth and a piece of living bush or tree from the tract into the palm of the grantee.
John Witchard was married twice, first to Joyce Hancock, daughter of William Handcock.
She is said to have died when 48years old and left three sons bearing the WITCHARD name.
John married again, the second time to Joyce Langley Thelaball, she being the widow of Lemnal Thelaball.
Joyce's mother was Margaret Langley and the granddaughter of Francis Mason, both names having been encountered earlier in the Whichard family.
This could have left three groups of half-siblings living under one roof, and though not stated could have caused the confusion and congestion which prompted John and Joyce to move to North Carolina and to change their surname.
In any event, he purchased 128 acres along Grindle Creek, a small tributary on the northern shore of the Tar River in Pitt County.
With this immigration we briefly emerge form the shadows of uncertainty and into the sunlight of assurance in regards to those of our line.
The deed drawn in 1750 for the transfer of 128 acres of land from James Albritton which was registered in the name of John WHICHARD, this becoming the name which the family has since used.
Despite having lived just across and up the river from the mouth of Grindle Creek until I reached adulthood and despite it having a family connection, I never saw it until my middle years when I began to gather material for this effort.
I am not even sure I've seen it yet.
When I've since driven slowly through Pactolus -- the small hamlet near its mouth -- I've crossed a small highway bridge which spans a silted waterway that I assume is Grindle Creek.
There's no roadway sign to help the curious sojourner.
I recently learned it was probably named for a fish, amiatus calva, sometimes commonly known as the Grindle, which again was a name I had never heard before.
Though my uncle, "Big Dave" Whichard, once took me fishing on another fast-flowing creek in that region, I don't remember catching a Grindle though I did catch some fish that "Big Dave" called by various names, and a Grindle could have been among them.
The Grindle doesn't sound like much of a fish, but then, Grindle Creek isn't today much of a stream, so perhaps the names are a good match.
Whatever, in earlier days it sufficed for transportation and communication after my grandfather, perhaps seven times removed, put down roots some two-and-a-third centuries back.
A memory from childhood, which often recurs, is of Sunday afternoon rites our family took out into the countryside.
They always include my parents, my sister and I, and sometimes my grandmother and maiden Aunt Hennie.
To begin with our jaunts were in my father's first car, a used Essex and were later in a Model-A Ford, the first family car, which he purchased new.
Though well remembered these Sunday outings grew more-and-more tedious for a growing boy, and were made tolerable because we always stopped at an auto filling station for a cold, bottled soft drink before returning home -- usually a Coca Cola.
With all those mentioned now gone and still sorely missed, save my sister, Elizabeth, I would welcome another such ride this day.
In those days dirt roads still far out-numbered paved ones, so our routes tended to be repetitious and I particularly remember riding along the road to Stokes.
This was toward the country in which the Whichards had first settled.
After crossing the river from Greenville and heading north toward Bethel, a spin to the northeast was made memorable because it was arrow-straight for its six-mile stretch into Stokes.
Passing beneath this road at fairly regular intervals were large drainage ditches, and at some point it occurred to me that the flat, sandy loam fields through which the road ran had been claimed from bogs.
More recently I recognized that the country in which I had been raised -- and into which entered John Whichard and his family -- must have been much like what they left behind in Tidewater Virginia.
Other families had entered the area by a generation or more before the Whichards, but our family was among the first to come after Pitt County became an entity.
Just beyond Stokes is a crossroads called "Whichards" -- or "Whichard's Station" since the Norfolk and Southern Railway came through nigh a century past -- and, as I understand it, hard by the spot where John and Joyce Whichard settled.
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