A most sensational past

The gravestone is the marker for Isaac Wilson and Jemima Jane Major Wilson in the Wilson cemetery on Castleton View Road. Photo by Gary Anthes.

The roads leading into Washington, Va. are posted with helpful little signs saying you are entering an “historic area.” Well, duh. Everyone knows that George Washington surveyed the town (in 1749). And you don’t get any more historic than George Washington.

But that “historic” designation has always made me wonder about the rest of Rappahannock County. What are we, chopped liver? If you live just west of downtown Castleton, as I do, is your place not historically worthy? If it has no written history, is it like that tree falling in the forest that no one hears?

“As I came from the mill one day, Mrs. Fossett came running out of the house and Mr. Fossett after her with a chair in his hand . . . Another time he ran out of the house and threw a chair at her . . . She told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. He raised a knife in his hand . . . [and] I think he said her throat ought to be cut long ago.”

History, indeed. The feisty Fossett owned my land in Castleton (and more to the west) from 1838 until 1855. In 1845 he was taken to court for cruelty to his wife, and the above account was given by a Fossett employee. This information came to me recently from public Rappahannock County Chancery Records via the Rappahannock Historical Society, and I confess I found it more interesting than most of the things I have read about surveying.

He said he wished his wife was dead. Then he could live much happier with Mrs. Major.

Mrs. Major, it turns out, was Sarah Major, the mistress of Lewis Fossett and a young widow living on a nearby farm. There’s more to this sordid story, but I have gone about as far as I can in a family-oriented newspaper. My point is not to sensationalize Castleton history, but to show that history is everywhere. Or, more to the point, history is where you find it.

Martha Knighting sits in front of the old cabin on my property where she grew up. Photo by Gary Anthes.

And for me, it’s where the Rappahannock Historical Society found it. After owning land and an old log cabin in the county for 30 years, and wondering about their history, I learned by a chance that the society will conduct historical searches of county properties and prepare “timelines” of them. The charge is $15 per hour and typically runs about $400. My two-volume Property History begins in 1751 when the land was part of a 700-acre land grant from Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax to Francis Slaughter and Robert Slaughter, and it extends more or less to the present day. It’s packed with maps, deeds, wills, court and census records and a written narrative of important events on the land.

Two illegitimate children resulted from the Fossett/Major affair. One of them, Jemima Jane Major, married Isaac Hasitage Wilson in 1835 and had eight children by him before dying in 1900. Whatever his faults, Lewis Fossett evidently felt a keen responsibility toward Jemima Jane. When he died in 1855 he left one seventh of his slaves and the land on which Jemima Jane and Isaac Wilson lived to her “for her life free from the control, debts or liabilities of the said Isaac Wilson.”

Thus did Jemima Jane Major Wilson, the illegitimate daughter of an unspeakably cruel man, become the owner of the land that has since been passed along directly to me through some 10 owners via inheritance and purchase.

A portrait of Jemima Jane emerges from the historical records. I developed an odd affection for her, a woman who had both power and property at a time when most women had neither. I imagined her walking across my land, over the little hills, across the fields and along the streams that I walk today, and I wondered what became of her. Then I noticed a tiny footnote to the account of her death in my Property History – “Tombstone in Wilson family graveyard on Castleton View Rd.”

May time I had walked by this deserted and overgrown cemetery, about a quarter mile from my house, and wondered who might be buried there. Now I knew. I hurried off to the tiny burial site and after painfully working my way through the greenbriars, there it was – a lichen-speckled, four-foot marble obelisk bearing the birth and death dates of Isaac Wilson and “his wife Jane Major.” Nearby was a simple square headstone bearing only the inscription “J.M.W.”

Jane’s land passed on to her children, and then to their children, until Haywood Rutherford of Woodville bought the parcel I now own in 1948. Rutherford’s daughter, Martha, now Mrs. Roy Lee Knighting of Castleton, spent the 1950s as a child in the one-room log cabin that is now a part of my house. Last week, she came home.

Over wine in our modern living room, now attached to the cabin, Martha Knighting told my wife and me of how she and three siblings had slept in the cabin’s loft while her parents slept below near the wood stove. She spoke of the bitter cold leaking through gaps in the roof, of having to haul endless buckets of water up a steep hill from the spring because the cabin had no plumbing or electricity, and of hating to be the one who always had to milk the cow.

And she added a fascinating and mysterious footnote to our property history. Atop a little hill, adjacent to the two-stall barn that had housed the Rutherford’s cow, lies a tiny cemetery, she told us. Two babies are buried there, she recalled. She said she and her brothers passed by there one night on the way to church and heard a baby crying, even though no one in the area had a baby. She refused to go there at night after that.

Indeed, on inspection, although there are no longer grave markers of any kind on that hill, there are two shallow depressions that resemble graves. I will treat them with respect from now on.

It’s a cliché to say that something “makes history come alive,” but that’s just what my Property History, the Wilson graves and Martha Knighting’s memories have done for me. I’ve begun interviewing members of old families in the area, such as the Cannons and Romines, hoping to learn more about those babies. And I’m going to look into having an “Historic Area” sign posted along the road through Castleton.