One of the things I love about old records is that they are deceptively dry reading. Names, dates, crimes, births, and deaths, all impassively recorded in droning legalese, seem impossibly removed from our world of the here and now. They are blanched of life, and coated in dust. Nothing strips history of its vitality faster than to capture it and pin it to the page, then leave it to moulder in some dank courthouse basement.
Perversely, that’s why I love old court documents. Normally, no one else is reading them, so any little nuggets of historical fascination are all mine to savor. And the earlier the records, the easier it is to see the little chinks of vitality shining through the crabbed handwriting and archaic language. Those Chesapeake people of 200, 300 years ago have been dead for centuries, but their unruliness, idiosyncrasies, and general disregard for the order imposed by the legal system fairly sings off the page. It is almost impossible to miss the people hiding behind the words.
So it is with this penchant for colonial manuscript archaeology that I approached a volume with the title, “Land Office Kent County Rent Rolls, 1658-1704, Volumes 1-4.” No title could possibly be less inviting. But lo! What a delicious lode of Chesapeake social history I unearthed. The rent rolls may have bloodlessly captured surveys and conveyances, acreage and possessors, but it also recorded places names. And for a family in the first hundred years of Chesapeake colonization, the name of your property could explain a lot: where your land was, what resources it boasted or obscured, your family connections, your hopes and visions, even your disappointment or trepidation about the New World.
The land-reflecting names are pretty obvious. “The Hills,” “Broad Oak,” and “The Marshes” all tell us some important feature of the property, as does “Hills & No Dales”. Some are succinct to be almost mysterious, like “Fork,” “Coffin,” “Pool,” or the enigmatic “Soule.” Others are whimsical, and lightheartedly approach the years of toil that turning a malarial swamp to arable land would require, like “Bair’s Grin,” “Forrester’s Delight,” “Warner’s Adventure,” “Providence”, or the delightedly gluttonous “Duck Pye.” “Norrest’s Desire” seems a little overeager for a part of the world where dysentery was a frequent occurrence. A name like “Cock of the Game” rings a bit arrogant and self-important, or perhaps means the land was won in a bet, while “Hen’s Roost” makes me wonder if the family was rich in daughters, chickens, or both. “Covent Garden” seems a bit optimistic (or perhaps nostalgic), given that by the 1683 date of its survey, the original Covent Garden in London was the largest market in England, while the Eastern Shore was a remote, barely-populated backwater.
The ‘faint praise’ names have a whiff of, if not contentment, then at least resignation about the one’s fate in this Chesapeake wilderness, like “Carvill’s Prevention,” (of what, I would ask) any number of places named “Chance” or “Choice," and the slightly desperate "Hopeful Unity”. “First Part Free Gift” is notably not followed by a second free gift. “Stand Off” was the property, we would assume, of the guy who drew first. And we can conclude from the rather non-descriptive “James Inspection” that the land was thoroughly explored yet possessed no remarkable qualities at all- or perhaps was just the property of a truly uncreative soul.
The names that convey fear, ennui, or disappointment are some of my favorites. You have to wonder what would compel someone to saddle a property with a moniker that would seem to doom its future. “Terson’s Neglect” and “Prior’s Neglect”,“ "Doutch’s Folly or "Hangaman’s Folly” all smack of a general sense of failure or absurdity. (I always imagine that those places were squalid little outposts, with ramshackle buildings and hogs rooting through the food scrapings and nightsoil discarded out the window.) My personal choice for most depressing name, by far, goes to the wretched “Cuckhold’s Hope.” We can only hope that their far-flung little Chesapeake tributary gave some restorative solitude to a very publicly humiliated, yet obviously grudge-holding jilt-ee.
For an idle riffing behind a nondescript cover, this little fishing expedition has yielded results that wriggle with messy, disappointing, joyful, fanciful life. The names people designated for their slice of the Chesapeake frontier tell us a bit about the property, but far more about the temperaments and prerogatives of those who were embarking on the best or possibly worst adventures of their lives. We may not know all the details, but once again, history affirms that though the settings and trapping might change, the human experience is truly a property owned by the commons.