Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sic semper amatoribus, or The Romance of the Breakup, Part 1

Caroline County, in northeastern Virginia, certainly has an exciting past. Like most of Virginia, there’s all the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War history. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was born there. General “Stonewall” Jackson died there. Richard and Mildred Loving decided to challenge its anti-miscegenation laws by living there. And, most importantly, John Wilkes Booth (or his doppelgänger) was apprehended there. I have to single out that last one because, back in mid-August, I chose my title because the stars were Virginians. It wasn’t until I read up on the local history this afternoon that I made the connection with the Garrett farm near Port Royal. Now the title seems even more appropriate.

Are lovers tyrants? Emma J. Arnall and her short-term pen pal E.L.R. Dunn were certainly playing a control game with each other. It appears that the two Chilesburg lovers disagreed on the best way to handle a secret love affair and an embarrassing scandal in a small community. They relied on secondhand information from local gossips, which tore apart what little they had in a relationship. The girl appears to have been a spoiled brat, bored with her would-be lover. The guy seems to have been the possessive and jealous type, too oblivious to realize that the reason why she ignored his requests was because she genuinely disliked being his girlfriend. But I’ll get to the letters’ content later. The big question for today is who were these people.

I hope that an Arnall family member will stumble across this and set everything straight. The sketchy records that I’ve found so far suggest the following story: Emma (b. Sept. 7, 1855) was the eldest child of Richard D. Arnall (1829-1916) and Sarah E. Arnall née Mitchell (b. 1833). Emma’s paternal grandfather, farmer Richard Arnall, was born in Hanover County in the 1790s and lived there with his growing family until after the 1830s. He might have served as a private in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812.

Around 1853, Richard D., probably Richard’s oldest son, married Sarah Mitchell, and both sides of the family were residing in Caroline County. In 1860, Richard D. worked as a wheelwright, supporting a wife and three little girls. He must have done well enough financially. His daughters learned how to read and write, and like his parents, he could afford to own a mulatto slave girl, presumably to care for the house. It’s possible that he followed his father’s military footsteps by joining up with one of the area’s many Virginia Militia units fighting for the Confederate Army, but there’s also indication that certain names, like “Richard,” run at triple time in the extended Arnall family. By 1900, Richard D. was working as a carpenter in Henrico County, widowed and lying about his age. Living with him were his daughters Emma J. and Delia (or Delila) C., both their forties and still single. As Emma the spinster worked as a dressmaker, I wonder if she ever thought about the man she’d scared away as an inexperienced girl of seventeen.

E.L.R. Dunn, affectionately called “Dolie,” is a mystery man. The letters seem to suggest that he moved around a lot, but I have reason to believe that, like Emma, he had roots in Caroline County and spent most of his life in that area. Given that only initials were used in the letters, my investigation of Dunn’s background was extremely difficult. However, by utilizing every possible clue in the lone letter from him to his daughter, I was able to unravel a story from the censuses. (I hope members of the Dunn-Melcalf family can fill in the holes.)

In 1850, Dolie’s father Edmond J. Dunn (b. c. 1820) boarded in Hanover County with the widow Maria Anderson and her children. (Her son Robert, a farmer, is probably the “Mr. Anderson” mentioned in one of Emma’s letters.) By 1860, Edmond J. had his own farm in Caroline County, two slaves, a wife Isabella L. (or S.), and a five-year-old son. Dolie must have inherited something from his mother: self-consciousness. Between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, Isabella (b. c. 1827) only aged seven years. E.L.R., however, eventually grew accustomed to his secret name: Eldorus (or Eldoris, depending on which enumerator you choose to believe).

Dolie (b. c. 1854/1855) was 17 or 18 when he started writing to Emma in 1873. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t amount to anything as a farmer. He must have taken the break up well since, by 1880, he was married to a Mary (b. c. 1857) from New Jersey and had an eight-month-old baby girl, “Hester.” Esther would have to wait until the 1910 census for an enumerator to get her name right. In 1900, her five-year-old brother Leroy must have answered the door and informed the government man that his 18-year-old sister’s name was “Essie.” (Yes, I made that up. If that’s true, he eventually got his in return, the later censuses butchering his name into “La Roy.”)

In 1900, Dolie was a postmaster in Bowling Green, perhaps drawn to that position by Emma’s earlier complaints about the mail service. Esther was a postal clerk. It’s possible that, not too long after, she attended the historic Virginia Commonwealth University. She had been staying in Richmond in an apartment near the campus for a while when her father wrote his “Essie” in 1906. Judging from the letter’s contents, he was an attentive and generous father. It’s not likely that he lived long enough to see her married to someone named Melcalf. By 1910, he left surviving a widow, son (who was possibly drafted for World War I), and married daughter. Leroy would eventually marry a Maude S. and have three daughters of his own…keeping up the family’s presence in Caroline County, Virginia.