Hand Me Down Tales From Guinea
The watermen of Guinea have a long history of surviving where the water
meets the land in lower Gloucester County, Virginia.
They farmed the land and worked the water to feed and clothe their
families. In the 1800's, working the water was often accomplished without
a boat. My families of Belvins, Browns, and Bonnivilles provide examples
of this style of life.
The turn of the 19th Century found my clan of Belvins,
living on the lands at water's edge in Guinea. By mid-1800 they had been
joined by the Bonnivilles,
who were followed by the Butlers
just after the Civil War.
The Belvins, Bonnivilles, and Browns are the source of stories of life in
Guinea handed down to me from my parents, uncle, and grandparents. The
family ways of living changed very little until the time my father and his
brother set out in their mid-teens to earn their living from the water.
They were following in the footsteps of the Belvins before them who lived
from the water and the land at the water's edge. My father and his
brother Frank were born in early 1900, and by the early 1920's, were the
first in their family to have their own boat to harvest the Guinea
waters. This boat, not only supplied the means of supporting these two
young men, but it allowed them to support their aging parents. The boat,
though simple by today's standards, opened up a new world for my Belvin
family. It provided a means of transportation for them to meet their
future wives, two beautiful young Bonniville ladies from Robins Neck. It
gave them a chance to afford the Belvin land so their own children could
enjoy the land of their ancestors. And, lastly, this boat was a bond of
partnership between two brothers that lasted throughout their lifetime.
Listening to Father,
and Grandpa Joe Frank's
stories was entertainment for me, but I now realize they weren't just
stories -- They were a window through which I could look back at my
family's way of life, to the 1850's and beyond.
My family lived as their fathers and grandfathers had lived, using the
land to farm and the Guinea waters to harvest. The families had
little-to-no money, but they helped each other to be fed and stay alive.
Amongst this family, there was something richer -- a family bonded
together with love and support. And now, to the Belvin, Bonniville, and
Brown "Hand-Me-Down" tales --
Smooth Talking My Dad
My Dad and I were sitting in my home in Falls Church, VA, when I decided
this was the day to get stories about our family. He was a little
hesitant to get into the details of family, so I sat down beside him,
hugged him, and patted him on his arm, just like I always did as a child
when I wanted something. I asked, "Daddy, who were your grandparents?"
Without hesitation, he answered, "Tom and Gracie Butler.
I've told you over and over. They were Mammy's
parents." "No, no, not the Butlers. I want the Belvins," rubbing his arm
all the more gently. There was a long and complete silence as I waited.
To get the discussion going again, I said, "Okay, the last time we talked,
you told me Grandpa Joe Belvin's
mother's name was Martha
and her parents were George and Fanny.
What was her husband's name? Who was Grandpa Joe's daddy?" He sat a
while, and I could see a long familiar expression on his face as he
thought about it. Then, suddenly, he started laughing out loud and
replied. "Maybe, back then, they were hatched. Maybe he didn't even know
his father. You know they didn't talk of that stuff much back then." We
both laughed about the hatching comment, and I finally said, "Daddy, you
and I are gonna sit on this couch all day until you tell me, and then if
you don't, I'm gonna keep you right here in Falls Church forever!" I knew
that would get his attention because he would leave Guinea for a short
while, but counted the days until he returned. Dead silence again. Then,
finally, he said, "I don't know, but I think Papa's Mammy and Daddy were
Jim and Martha Belvin. I think she had a brother named Ben." "Was Jim
short for James?" I asked. "Nannie Mae, I don't know the difference in
James and Jim. Back then, you got a name, and that's what you were
called. Jim, James ... what difference did it make? No one worried about
names. You were lucky to stay alive!"
Grandpa Joe Belvin's Boat
"Daddy, what kind of boat did Grandpa Joe Belvin
and Uncle George Butler
have for clamming and oystering?" I asked. He looked at me as if I should
know better and replied, "None, people back then didn't need a boat to get
seafood out of the Guinea waters. And, if any of them did have a boat, it
would have been a little skiff or punt. And, Papa used to tell of people
using dug-out logs. I think they called them dug-out canoes." "But how?
For instance, how did they get the clams out of the water?" I asked.
"They treaded for clams. The clams were in the creek or river mud, and
people would wait for low tide. When the tide got low, they treaded until
they felt the clams, picked 'em up and tossed them in the bucket." "And,
oysters?" I asked. "Well, oysters were a little different. Oysters
attached themselves to old logs, marsh grass, the shoreline, anything that
was available, even empty shells. They were picked up along the
shorelines and in shallow water. Now, that doesn't mean some of them
didn't have little boats. Brother George Butler, I believe, did have a
little boat just before he died, but Papa didn't. Remember, Papa didn't
depend on the water for his living, but George did. Papa made what little
money he had doing carpenter's work for other people. Worked himself to
death tending the land too, but never sold a thing from it in his life.
Planted and worked the farm for food for the family, which included a lot
of families. Not just back here (now the end of Belvin Farm Road). There
were many families all around us, and Mammy canned the vegetables and
fruit for the winter months. There were no freezers back then. Anyone
who wanted a jar of something knew where to find it. Back in those years,
they came to Mammy and Papa. We always had food from the land and water,
milk from the cows, and meat from the hogs and chickens. George had no
way to make a living other than the water. The Shackelfords used to say
George could catch more clams with his feet than anyone they had ever
known. I believe, though, that George did have a little skiff, or punt,
after he married Old Lady Sarah Gray.
I don't know for sure, but I think Papa helped him to build it."
"Do you think Grandpa Joe and Uncle George would be typical of families
living in Guinea back then?" I asked. "Well, I would think that George,
being the hard-worker he was, certainly made enough from the water to feed
himself, his wife and three children... He made his living solely from
the water, and mostly from clamming. As far as I knew, he always sold to
the Shackelfords. You know, we lost George from the 'old timey flu' in
1918. Just couldn't save him. As for Papa, the little he made came from
his carpenter's work. He may have sold a few clams or oysters, but the
little he got from the water, I believe he brought home to feed the family
or anyone else that needed it."
The Butterfish Rake
I often wondered how butterfish were harvested since they were always in
short supply, and when cooked, all my family considered them a delicacy,
something very special. So, I asked my Dad how they were caught.
"Caught? They weren't caught. Clams are actually easier to get than the
butterfish. You can tread the mud and feel a clam, but the butterfish,
you watch for the bubble when he breathes. The clams, you can just stoop
down and pick them up, but not those butterfish. He'll sink right back in
the mud if you're not fast, and the only thing to get him with is a
butterfish rake. Frank and I, as children and young men, would spend most
of a day trying for those things and come home with less than a bucket
full. Enough for a meal and a few to share with someone else. Good
eating though, but I don't remember anyone selling them, except maybe
neighbors to neighbors. No commercial buying that I know of."
One day my Mom fascinated me by telling how her Grandpa Billy Brown
sold fish from a two-wheeled cart along the road to the courthouse. "How
did he do that?" I asked. "Well, as you know, Grandpa Billy lived right
down there at Munges Creek (now Munday's Creek). He would start his day
out at the creek, catching anything he could, fish, clams, oysters,
butterfish. Anything he could put a price on and sell on the road to make
a living. By mid-morning, that poor fella would be back home from the
creek loading up the cart with the day's catch to sell on the road. Once
the cart was loaded, he'd set out pulling that little cart up the road.
People knew he'd be coming, I guess, and they would buy the day's catch.
Mostly, these were people up the road who couldn't get the seafood from
the water like we could. Sometimes, he sold for money, and other times,
he traded for store merchandise or things other people had that he or his
family needed. All of it meant money though. He learned it from his
father George Brown.
Probably the only way they knew to make a living. Very poor people, I
tell you. Grandpa Billy's father was back before the Civil War, but I was
a very small child when Grandpa Billy sold fish from a cart. I can barely
remember it, but Papa and Mama talked about it many times. Later on,
Grandpa Billy had an old horse. I think he and his son-in-law George
owned the horse between them. As Grandpa Billy got older, he and George
would gather the seafood, mostly fish, from the creek, load up the cart,
hitch up the horse, and go all the way to the Courthouse most days to sell
the day's catch. Those were hard times, but they made an honest living."
Many years later, I read a reprinted article by Sally Nelson Robins, which
was written around 1911.*
Guinea was the land of the "fisher folk", and on certain days its fish
carts, heralded by conch
shell trumpets, would distribute seafood along
the various thoroughfares. Chief among these
fish peddlers were the
Browns of Guinea whose voices were almost as strong of sound as the
awkward trumpet which they used, and the cooks were always at the various
them to buy the fish for dinner.
Possum and Snapping Turtle Delicacies
My maternal grandparents Grandpa Joe Frank
and Grandma Lou (Brown) Bonniville
lived with us for a few years before Grandma Lou died, and he continued to
live with us off and on for many years. I didn't know it then, but I have
since found out that Grandpa Joe Frank's family came from the Eastern
Shore of Virginia (Accomac County) to Guinea. After they were married, my
grandparents moved from Guinea to Robins Neck. One day, Grandpa Joe Frank
came to our door and told my Mom he had killed a possum and asked her if
she'd cook it for him. I first thought he was kidding, but I should have
known better since he definitely was not a kidder. He was a very serious
person, to say the least. "Papa, I've never cooked a possum, but if
you'll clean it and tell me what to do, I'll certainly try," she said.
Typically, none of his children ever refused him. They always did as he
asked or told. I just knew if I didn't find somewhere else to eat that
night, I certainly would go without, considering I was feeling squeamish
already. This was to be the first of a number of elegant feasts prepared
for my Grandpa Joe Frank. Although she probably did, I can't remember my
Grandma Lou eating the delicacies Grandpa Joe Frank brought home for our
table. My Mom prepared the possum as instructed, "cut him up and wash him
well; draw (soak) him in salt water; change the water and parboil him
until tender; take him out of the pot and let him dry a little; salt,
pepper, flour, and fry him just like you would a chicken." My Dad and
Uncle Frank were away at James River oystering for this possum cooking
episode, but there were more during their time home. I can't remember who
ate what, but on possum nights I always managed to find a good meal next
door at my Aunt Emma's.
One day, curious about these elegant meals of possums, snapping turtles,
ducks, wild geese, and rabbits, so enjoyed by Grandpa Joe Frank, I asked
him why he liked that stuff and where did he learn about eating it. To
this, he replied, "Well, child, why not? It's good eating, so why not eat
it?" No argument from me on that one! I knew better! No one questioned
Grandpa Joe Frank! But, eager to know more, I said, "Well, you could be
eating chickens and stuff like that." Appearing a little impatient, he
replied, "Chicken is not the same. Sure chicken is good, but you know
chickens were not always available, and neither was beef and pork. And,
besides, they all taste different. When I was growing up, my Pappy
would come home sometimes with three or four possums or a couple of
snapping turtles, and that would make us a couple of meals. With some of
hot biscuits, that's all we'd need. Times back then were not like they
are today. You just couldn't go to the store and buy like you can today.
Took money to buy with, and people lived on what they had around them. As
a boy, my Pappy taught me early how to kill a bird with a sling-shot.
When it snowed, we would open the window, throw some bread out for the
birds, load our sling-shot, and pluck-em off as they came for food. If we
were lucky, we had a meal for Mammy Indie to cook for us that night."
"But, Grandpa, didn't it make you sad to bait the birds and kill them like
that?" I asked. "What? Sad? No one thought about sad when it came to
getting something to eat. Children did what they were told and asked no
questions." "But, how did you keep the stuff? There was no
refrigeration, right?" "Oh, we salted it if the weather was warm, and in
cold weather, we set it outside."
Grandpa Joe Frank always had a medical treatment or a cure for any
ailment. For my wasp or bee stings, he applied a piece of his "Apple"
chewing tobacco; if a baby tooth needed pulling, he tied one end of a
string to the tooth and the other end to a doorknob, closed the door
quickly, and wham! The tooth was out; and cuts and scratches were
immediately soaked in salt water or wiped with coal oil (kerosene). He
always took a baking soda tonic before going to bed (cleansed the
stomach); and an upset stomach or stomach disorder always called for a
good dose of epsom salts. My Grandpa Joe Frank died when I was in my
early 20's, but the times I had with him in my early years have taken on a
different meaning. Back then, I marveled at his bizarre and antiquated
habits, but now, I realize that what I saw in him had been handed down
from generation to generation in our family.
As the years passed, I came to realize that my childhood and that of my
Grandpa Joe Frank were very, very different. He had grown up in a time
when killing the wild animals was a necessity for putting food on the
table for a family, as in the days when the Eastern Shore of Virginia was
nothing more than a wilderness.
Grandpa Joe Frank's Homemade Molasses
I had heard my Mom and Aunt Emma talk about the delicious molasses that my
Grandpa Joe Frank made, and I wondered how he did it, especially in
Gloucester, Virginia, climate. "Grandpa, is it true you grew your own
sugar cane and made molasses?" I asked. "Why certainly, child. I grew my
own sugar cane. Planted it; cut it, and cooked it in a big iron pot over
the hot fire outside. All you have to do is keep stirring it until its
done and put it in the jars. It'll keep for a long time. And, it's
good! People used to wait for my molasses." "Did you sell it?" I asked.
"Sell it???? Why, no! It takes a lot of cane to make a little molasses.
I gave it to people. Made sure I had enough for my family and gave the
rest away. That was sure good with Lulie's (wife) hot biscuits. And, add
some of that good possum gravy and you've got a good meal." As a child, I
thought he was kidding about the possum gravy, but now I know he was
serious. He told me one time that people back then made gravy with the
grease they fried the meat in and saved the gravy to make another meal.
Luxuries of the Plain Life
My Mom told me stories about her childhood trips, in her Papa's little
punt, from Robins Neck to Munday's Creek in Guinea to visit with her
and Grandma Chrissie Brown.
"One part of the house had an old floor with no covering on it, but the
other part was just plain dirt," she said. "But, how could they keep warm
in these conditions?" I asked. "People kept warm by the old wood stove,
but times were hard. I remember Mama
telling me a lot of the children had nothing more than a fish box to sleep
in. They would put corn shucks in the fish boxes or half barrels, and
that's what they used for children's beds and baby bassinets. As the
children grew, the corn shuck mattresses were laid on the floor for them.
They just didn't have enough money for beds. And, remember, these
families had a lot of children. Some of them had a homemade bed frame
with slats across it, and the corn shuck mattresses laid across the
slats. A lot of them just slept on a pallet on the floor." "What is a
pallet?" I asked. "Oh, they'd just spread a couple of quilts or old
clothes down on the floor and that would make a pallet for the people to
sleep on." She answered. "Did you have to sleep on that stuff?" I asked.
"No, we always had a bed frame, either made of wood or iron, to sleep on.
We children slept together though. And, if it was real hot in the
summertime, we'd make ourselves a pallet at the door to stay cool. But,
as far as I can remember, Papa and Mama always had a bed for all of us."
Curious about my Mom's boat rides from Robins Neck to Guinea, I said, "I
always thought you were afraid of boats and the water. How did you manage
to cross that river in a little punt?" "Well, Nannie Mae, looking back on
it, I suppose I was too young to know better. And, besides, if we wanted
to get over to Guinea, it was the only way we had to get there. When we
were in Guinea, we could make a little money. We children, Ida, Emma,
Dick, and I,
used to pick peas over in Guinea. If we made twenty-five cents in one
day, we thought we had made a good day's work. And, Mama always liked to
come back over to Guinea to see her family." "Where did Grandpa Joe Frank
land the boat?" I asked. "Oh, we'd just leave from Robins Neck. We lived
on the creek over there, I think it was Whittaker's Creek, very close to
Lands End. Papa would herd us into the little punt, and we'd cross the
water until we came to the creek landing just down the road from Grandpa
Billy's. Back then, they called it Munges Creek." "Could you swim?" I
asked. "Swim? Why, no! None of us could swim, not even Papa, but you
always knew he'd take care of you. No matter what, he'd always take care
of his children."
A Window Through Time
Grandpa Joe Belvin passed away when I was a small child, but the ways of
survival on the fringes of the land and water in Guinea were passed down
to him by his Grandfather George Belvin and Uncle James Green. My Dad and
his younger brother Frank married two Bonniville sisters in the late
1920's, and the three families lived in Grandpa Joe and Grandma Nannie's
house for many years. Just before I was born in 1940, my Mom and Dad
moved into their new home which had been built by Grandpa Joe and the two
sons. The stories of the Belvin family were told to me by my Dad and
Uncle Frank who inherited the Belvin land.
My Grandpa Joe Frank and Grandma Lou Bonniville lived with us off and on
for many years. Great-Grandpa Joe Henry Bonniville was born in Guinea in
mid-1800, the George Washington Bonewell family having migrated from the
Eastern Shore of Virginia a little earlier. Grandma Lou came from the
Billy and Chrissie Brown family of Munday's Creek in Guinea (known then as
Munges Creek). My Great-Grandma Gracie Jenkins Butler descended from the
Armistead/William Jenkins family, also in Guinea.
The mid-1850's found our beautiful Guinea waters abundant with oysters,
clams, crabs, fish, and butterfish; fertile soil to grow vegetables and
fruits; and land to raise cattle, horses, and hogs. The Guinea watermen
were independent, self sufficient and lived their life almost as a clan
unto themselves. Hard work was their forte! Honesty was their motto!
Survival, under trying conditions, was simply a way of life.
1. George (ca 1795) and Frances "Fanny" (ca 1.795) Belvin.
2. William (ca 1792) and Susan (ca 1794) Brown.
3. Armistead (ca 1785) and Rebecca Nancy Jenkins (ca 1784); William (ca
1811) and Nancy (ca 1813) Jenkins.
4. George Washington Boneville (b 1813 Accomac Co., VA, d 1876; Gloucester
Co., VA) and Nancy "Ann Foster" ROBINS Bonewell (b 1823; d 1882 Gloucester
5. Thomas Henry Butler (ca 1835) and Grace "Gracie" JENKINS Butler (ca
6. Joseph Henry "Dick" Belvin, Jr. (1902-1985).
7. Mattie Lee BONNIVILLE Belvin (1910-1994).
8. Frank Via Belvin, Sr. (1907-1984).
9. Joseph Franklin "Joe Frank" Bonniville (1881-1964).
10. Thomas Henry Butler (ca 1835) and Grace "Gracie" JENKINS Butler (ca
11. Nannie Missouri BUTLER Belvin (1869-1932).
12. Joseph Henry "Joe" Belvin, Sr. (1861-1943).
13. Martha BELVIN West (ca 1844).
14. George (ca 1795) and Frances "Fanny" (1795) Belvin.
15. Joseph Henry "Joe" Belvin (1861-1943).
16. George Robert Butler (1888-1918).
17. Sarah Elizabeth Gray (ca 1896, Smithfield, Isle of Wight Co., VA).
18. William "Billy" Brown (ca 1850).
19. George Brown (ca 1825).
20. George Washington Hogg (ca 1871).
21. Joseph Franklin "Joe Frank" Bonniville (1881-1964).
22. Louisa "Lou" BROWN Bonniville (1882-1953).
23. Emma Lou BONNIVILLE Belvin (1909--).
24. Joseph Henry "Joe" Bonniville (1851-1916).
25. Indianna "Indie" ROWE Bonniville (1857-1911).
26. William "Billy" Brown (ca 1850).
27. Lucretia "Chrissie" BROWN Brown (ca 1840).
28. Louisa "Lou" BROWN Bonniville (1882-1953).
29. Ida Mae BONNIVILLE Green (1907-1991); Emma Lou BONNIVILLE Belvin
(1909--); Joseph William "Dick" Bonniville (1913-1976); and Mattie Lee
BONNIVILLE Belvin (1910-1994).
*Robins, Sally Nelson. "Old Article About Guinea."
(September 6, 1994), p. 13.
To contact the author:
Nan McComber, 7915 Shreve Road, Falls Church, VA 22043
Phone: 703 560-7832, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org