Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Making the American Revolution Personal: Edward Mossof York County, Virginia

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Making the American Revolution Personal: Edward Mossof York County, Virginia

Article excerpt


It is often difficult for today's museum visitors to understand the lives of those who lived more than two centuries ago, especially if those lives are presented in the abstract. Stories of real people who are facing real dilemmas help visitors recognize that many of the issues they encounter in the twenty-first century-the loss of a parent, the need to support oneself, relationships with neighbors and family, the aftermath of war-would have been the same issues that confronted a farm family in eighteenth-century York County, Virginia. In developing the forthcoming American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, one of two museums operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the museum's interpretive and curatorial staff decided that the new farm that would replace the existing museum farm would include a slave quarter to more directly interpret the lives of enslaved African Americans.1 Through this farm, the museum could tell the story of farm and family life-of both slaves and slave owners -during the Revolution, but to better ground interpretation of the site in the period, museum staff wanted to identify an actual farm family that had lived in York County and owned four to six slaves.

Fortunately, almost all of York County's colonial-era records survive, so it was very likely that records of an actual family who met the interpretive needs of the site and would reflect the reality of York County life in the third quarter of the eighteenth century could be found. I began this search by reviewing York County probate inventories, focusing on those from the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth. The inventories are rough guides to an individual's economic level and personal property ownership.2 Probate inventories from this time period can be problematic, however, as the stability of the pre-war years had vanished and was replaced by incomplete record-keeping, inflation, limited access to imported goods, the confiscation or destruction of property, and the flight of enslaved African Americans. It soon became clear to me that reviewing the inventories one by one was not only time-consuming but was not the best way to go about finding the right family.

To help me figure out a more efficient and productive way of solving this problem, I contacted Julie Richter, an historian who had written her dissertation on York County's Charles Parish.3 In researching her dissertation, she prepared a spreadsheet of individuals in the entire county who had paid personal property taxes for the years 1784-87, and she kindly shared this spreadsheet with me.

These personal property tax records noted the numbers of people (free and enslaved), livestock, and carriages that were taxed. I sorted these records by the total number of slaves on whom taxes were paid. Since the museum intended to interpret a "small" farm, not a large plantation, individuals who paid taxes on fewer than four or more than six slaves were eliminated, resulting in a group of thirtyfive possible candidates, a manageable amount.

For those individuals who had never had inventories taken or for whom such documents did not survive, I turned to the York County Records Project. This project was an effort by Colonial Williamsburg to find every possible reference to everyone-white and black, free and enslaved, men, women and children, travelers and residents-who had lived in York County between the late-seventeenth and early-nineteenth centuries in order to reconstruct the population of Williamsburg in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.4 This record was invaluable and using it reduced the number of candidates to fifteen, making it possible to decide on a person who, from all available evidence, would be a good fit for the new farm: Edward Moss.

Edward Moss and His Family: The First Generations

Edward [[83 Moss was a fourth-generation descendent of the first Edward £13 Moss, the founder of the large Moss family of York County. …

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