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Hand Me Down Tales From Guinea
by Nan
(Nannie Mae) Belvin McComber

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[1], Browns[2], and Jenkinses[3] living on the lands at water's edge in Guinea.  By mid-1800 they had been joined by the Bonnivilles[4], who were followed by the Butlers[5] 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[6], Mother[7], Uncle Frank[8], and Grandpa Joe Frank's[9] 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[10].  I've told you over and over.  They were Mammy's[11] 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[12] mother's name was Martha[13] and her parents were George and Fanny[14].  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[15] and Uncle George Butler[16] 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[17].  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." 

The Fishmongers

One day my Mom fascinated me by telling how her Grandpa Billy Brown[18] 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[19].  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 Hogg[20] 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.*  It said: 

      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 gates before
      them to buy the fish for dinner. 

Possum and Snapping Turtle Delicacies

My maternal grandparents Grandpa Joe Frank[21] and Grandma Lou (Brown) Bonniville[22] 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[23].

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[24] 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 Mammy Indie's[25] 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."

Guinea Medicine

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 Grandpa Billy[26] and Grandma Chrissie Brown[27].  "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[28] 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." 

Punt Rides

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[29], 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. 

End Notes
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 Co., VA).
5. Thomas Henry Butler (ca 1835) and Grace "Gracie" JENKINS Butler (ca 1832).
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 1832).
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." Glo-Quips (September 6, 1994), p. 13.

To contact the author: Nan McComber, 7915 Shreve Road, Falls Church, VA 22043
Phone: 703 560-7832, e-mail: mccomber1@aol.com

 

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