February 16, 2006

The Wild Geese of Eire (Part II)

Genealogists have demonstrated repeatedly that Americans descended from old-line colonial Virginia families tend to underestimate the number of generations their families have been in this country. This syndrome, known as fore-shortening, often attributes details to a grandfather or great grandfather when they actually relate to a more distant generation and may actually confuse facts of one generation with tradition from another. Thus, a family of English origin having a grandfather with two brothers who were of marrying age about 1750, classically is re-told to state that three brothers immigrated together from England to America about 1750 and married. The common pattern is to remember back to some ancestor and then to suppose since nothing is known beyond this generation, then it was this person or the person's parents who immigrated. Although there is no intention to deceive, a date of immigration is arrived at as an estimate. Unfortunately, such a date often gets firmly established in people's worksheets and published genealogies entirely without evidence.

One of the most common indentures in colonial tidewater Virginia resulted when a child's parents died. Such indentures were less common if the mother was still living because she usually remarried very soon to have a means of support. The new mate husbanded the wife and her possessions which were placed in his name in trust for her dower interests, the latter passing to her descendants rather than his. He was expected to serve as master of her minor children by previous marriages in trust for her interests, the relationship of master was often perpetuated by an indenture of the child. Scholars of colonial social customs in Virginia point out that multiple marriages were the rule rather than the exception prior to about 1740 because sudden death from epidemic or Indian attack was so common during reproductive years then. The bane of the colonial Virginia genealogist is that records passing down in a given family often ignore these other marriages, so that books of collective genealogies often do not give the whole picture, listing only one marriage.

Many instances can be cited where a child was indentured to a woman's second or third husband after the woman died. Such indentures, in fact, can be a clue to such second or third marriages. Custom required that a child orphaned by death of mother who had re-married be indentured since the widower had no legal obligations to the child and no means of control or discipline unless the child were bound by an indenture. Death of the wife had erased the husband's mastery of the child as trustee of the wife. Generally a fully orphaned child was allowed to choose the person to whom it would be bound (from among any bidding, although often a mother's second husband or a person of some family connection), but once bound, the relationship was that of indentured servant. Actually during this period in history marriage itself was looked on as similar to an indenture, the wife essentially binding herself to the husband and promising to serve and obey him until death.

There is evidence that Edward Coffey was overseeing "Mosely's Quarter" at the time of Edward Mosely's death. This evidence in the use by Coffey of what the present author thinks must have been the plantation mark for Moseley's Quarter, as will be shown below. In any event, Moseley left Coffey a 2-year old helfer [heifer] in his will. Coffey was undoubtedly living at Moseley's Quarter at the time (from other evidence) and Moseley obviously expected him to have a place to raise such livestock in the future. Moseley specifically referred to him as his "servant Ed. Coffe" in the will. Was this to specifically remind everyone that Edward was a servant rather than a step-son so that he could not claim a greater inheritance on the theory that he should have inherited his mother's dower? Edward Moseley clearly felt affection for Edward Coffey and envisioned him raising cattle, as a helfer is the means by which young cattle are born. But by the same token he wanted to look out for the interests of his own blood descendants. Perhaps Edward Coffey was living happily and productively on land owned by Edward Moseley, only thinking of him in the sense of a father-figure when suddenly Moseley died and status of both Edward Coffey and the land came into question with Moseley's heirs. In any event, Edward Coffey quickly received a judgment for his freedom, corn and clothes, indicating that the indenture was terminated. This would have been the time for a mere servant to have moved on to obtain a start on his own. It is obvious, however, that Edward Coffey's roots were already set down. Edward Coffey's heirs were eventually to have ownership recorded for "Moseley's Quarter", the 200-acre plantation of the deceased Edward Moseley, as a result of a complicated deed which suggests that Edward Coffey was living on this land at the time of his death but had either not yet obtained full ownership or that the full ownership and its consideration had not previously been recorded.

Marvin Coffey (see James Coffey Vol. II, pg. 18) has pointed out that the two hundred acres, although willed by Edward Coffey to his sons Edward, Jr., and John, was deeded to these sons by the heir of Edward Moseley upon the death of Edward Coffey, Sr. This would make it appear that Edward Coffey, Sr., never had a land deed during his lifetime, even though he bequeathed what he considered his own land to his sons in his will. This must have been the land where Edward Moseley expected Edward Coffey to raise the helfer (and her increase) mentioned in Moseley's will. Indeed, the land is proven to have been no other than "Moseley's Quarter" itself by various deeds in the title chair. Edward Coffey, Sr., must have been either a trusting soul or had such an unquestioned degree of authority that it never occurred to him that his land should be made over to him by some paper which could be used to sell or transfer it. This may be because he was himself operating the old Moseley plantation as his own without benefit of deed. In genealogy it is necessary to understand precipitating factors. Legal documents can be correctly interpreted only when the precipitating factors are understood. For example, a person might believe that a land entry recorded in Burke County, North Carolina in 1778 to 1782 might indicate that a person entering the land moved there that year. In reality that person may have lived on the land for many years, the registration being precipitated by the Revolution and opening of the Burke County land entry office by the Whig government in 1778 and its closing in 1782.

Records left concerning Edward Coffey, Sr., seem to have been in two flurries, one from 1699-1700, the other in 1716. During the first flurry, Edward Moseley died mentioning Edward Coffey in his will, then Coffey married and his indenture was certified by the Moseley estate to be terminated. It is important to note here that the Moseley will itself was not the instrument precipitating termination of the indenture, but rather it was the death of Moseley which precipitated it. There is an important distinction which will be apparent later. During the second flurry, Edward Coffey died and the Moseley heir deeded the estate "Moseley's Quarter" to Coffey's heirs.

Now enters a very revealing piece of evidence. Edward Coffey, Sr., apparently had the custom of signing the Moseley plantation mark as early as 1700. Here a little explanation is needed. The colonial plantation mark or seal has been likened to the brand used for marking cattle in the American west although it was undoubtedly used for marking cattle belonging to the plantation, it was much more than a brand. It can be compared with the seal of ancient times used as a "signature" by an authority figure. In colonial Virginia, tobacco was used as currency. The plantation seal, burnt like a brand into the tobacco cask, was like the signature on today's bank notes. It guaranteed the legitimacy of the cask's contents as conforming to the standard of quality and purity that allowed its use as money. The device for making the mark was well guarded by the plantation owner to prevent what would have been practically the same as counterfeiting.

All persons, whether knowing how to read or not, knew the marks of local plantations and identified the marks with the owners. The marks were used in various tobacco warehousing documents and in receipts. The marks were not limited to livestock branding or tobacco warehousing, however, particularly if the present theory of Edward Coffey's use of the Moseley plantation mark is correct. Slaves when trusted on errands or allowed to be out on their own were required to have a pass with the "master's mark" and it was necessary for anyone challenging them, whether literate or not, to readily recognize the mark. Anyone making the plantation mark was either 1) the owner, 2) an overseer having the what amounted to today's "power of attorney," or 3) a forger.

The mark which Edward Coffey made to legal documents was a stiff capital M with a straight top, long dangling straight but somewhat angled legs, and something of an uphill bent. It has the characteristic look of a livestock brand of today and although I have only read about the plantation marks burnt into tobacco casks, it looks exactly like what would be expected Typewritten copies of papers with Edward's mark usually merely show it as an x which we have grown accustomed to recognizing as the universal mark of the illiterate. To oversee a plantation a person had to understand numbers as to be able to read and write a mark somewhat more distinctive than an x, a mark which represented the plantation.

Go to Part III

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