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TideWriters Tales
A Northern Neck Heritage
by Emily Pritchard Cary
     The summer sky is an intense blue as we drive along a narrow country road, the car windows rolled down to admit the heady scent of freshly mown hay and honeysuckle. This perfect day in Virginia’s Northern Neck is all the more exhilarating because we are headed back to my roots.

     A few miles south of Route 3, named the “Great Road” by the first residents, we turn onto a gravel trace canopied with mature oaks. Several hundred yards down the lane, the dense woods part to reveal, as far as the eye can see, acres of blue-green cabbages at the peak of perfection. 

     This is the farm of Corbin Muse, descendant of John Muse, the pioneer settler whose plantation along Pope’s Creek launched an unbroken chain of Muse landowners in Westmoreland County.

     The farm before us is a twenty-first century establishment; its owner supplies cabbages in their prime to Safeway markets throughout the nation. But three hundred forty years ago, centuries of overgrown trees, vines, and bushes on this very plot were laboriously cleared by my ancestor, Thomas Pritchard, before he could begin cultivating the soil.

     I sense his ghostly presence hovering nearby, awed by the modern improvements. If he materialized, how would we recognize him? Was he uncommonly tall with dark, wavy hair and the piercing blue eyes of a Methodist minister descendant described by all as “the spitting image of Abe Lincoln”? Were his homespun trousers and jerkin and his leather boots stained by the elements? Did his hair hang loosely over his collar? Was he clean-shaven or bearded? Surely his hands were calloused from clearing the lush forest, tree by tree, with little more than a horse, crude tools, and the dogged determination to transform that wilderness into a going enterprise. 

     Sheltered by a modest wooden dwelling, he relied upon the plentiful deer, wild turkeys, and fish until his own livestock - pigs, cattle, sheep, and fowl - became the primary source of food. Oxen provided the heavy labor for uprooting stubborn tree trunks and hauling hogsheads of tobacco, the colony’s primary cash crop, to a Potomac River wharf for shipment overseas. 

     By the time Thomas’s son, Christopher, reached manhood, the Pritchard plantation was well established; equally important, the Pritchard and Muse families were firmly entwined.

     Thomas Pritchard arrived at Jamestown in 1620 on the ship “Abigaile” under the command of Captain Each. Family tradition holds that he was one of twelve carpenters working for the Virginia Company. Since superb carpentry is represented in each succeeding generation, this hearsay has strong basis for fact.

     He next surfaces in a list of ten people going to Gloucester County in 1624 for John Smith, subsequently settling at Nutmeg Quarter, Warwick County where, in 1656, “Captain Thomas Pritchard petitions in behalf of the residents to unite with Denbeigh Parish.” As for the title, no proof has been found that he was an officer in either the British Navy or colonial forces. Like the honorary “Kentucky Colonel,“ he perhaps enjoyed a formal courtesy bestowed upon his election to the House of Burgesses that same year as representative from Gloucester County.

     By then, Thomas and his wife Joanna (maiden name unknown) had acquired several parcels of land in the Northern Neck. One significant purchase on August 21, 1665 was “on the north side of Dragon Swamp about three miles from Captain William Clayborne’s.” Another 300 acres purchased in partnership with his friend and colleague Francis West, Governor of Virginia, on November 28, 1668 is described as “land lying by the Great Road that goeth from the head of Popes Creek to Peperte Creek on the north side of said road that goeth from Rappahannock County to Popes Creek on Potomack River.”

     Westmoreland County records show Thomas appearing at least twice in the Court at Montross. The first mention is as witness on February 24, 1663-64 in behalf of Richard Hills in a suit against David Anderson, for which Hills paid Thomas for two days attendance and “three daes comeing to and goeing from the Court.” Did he make the journey (a scant fifteen miles) by horseback or shank’s mare? They, along with oxcart, were the primary means of travel over the slow roadways. Thanks to the abundant waterways, residents could often travel faster to distant settlements than to those relatively near. The boat owned by most families provided a means of swift passage to the farthest reaches of the colonial shoreline and easy access to rich supplies of seafood.

     In time, Thomas purchased Francis West’s share of their joint venture. Combined with his additional acreage, it became the magnificent stretch I now contemplate. Upon his death in 1670, possibly from overwork, the Westmoreland County Deeds Book listed the appraised value of his worth at 2,000 of tobacco. This amount was given into the custody of John Brooks “who intermarried with the relict (widow) of Thomas Pritchard.”
A romanticist may wonder if Brooks and Joanna formed an attachment before Thomas died, perhaps hastening his demise. While economic considerations of that period in history favored consolidation of single neighbors into working units, the other possibilities pique one’s imagination. Was the lady a shrew who drove them both to the grave? John Brooks’ own sad end a felo de se (by suicide) heightens suspicion that such a scenario is possible.

     Both Brooks and his wife are buried in the cemetery on the Muse farm. The whereabouts of Thomas Pritchard’s grave is not known. If tradition was followed, he was laid to rest on the land inherited by his son Christopher.

     Christopher Pritchard’s first appearance in the Westmoreland County Order Book, Pt. 1, 1690-92 is the confirmation of his election as Constable for “that precinct of Washington Parish where Patrick Mulberry last served.” His marriage to Jane Muse, daughter of John, who bequeathed her one shilling in his will of April 15, 1723, signals an active life as carpenter and planter. Although he never moved from his father’s plantation, his court records are found in deed, will, and order books of Old Rappahannock, Westmoreland, Richmond, and King George Counties. These scattered records can be attributed to the oft-shifting county borders.

     During his lifetime of at least 60 years, Christopher played a significant role in the education of young apprentices whom he taught to “Reade and Write, and the trade of a carpenter and cooper.” Thomas Ffield (sic), Henry Williams, John Pritchard, and Christopher Pritchard II, (the latter two his grandsons orphaned at the death of Christopher’s son Thomas in 1722), are among those entrusted to his care through the courts. 
Christopher Pritchard lived a good and productive life for his time in history. The inventory and appraisement of his estate covers two pages. Among his possessions were: 2 Bibles, 13 heads of young hogs, 5 cows and calves, 2 young heifers and 4 young steers, 2 old horses, 2 old beds and old furniture, 2 feather beds and bedstead and furniture, 2 old chests and old trunk, 7 pieces of earthenware, 2 old guns, 1 brass mortar & pestle, and 1 spinning wheel. The total value of the items appraised is 42 pounds, 4 shillings, 8 pence.

     The Pritchards left the Northern Neck behind when Christopher II received a Lord Fairfax Grant dated August 17, 1741. This grant abuts Bull Run where, more than a century later, a Yankee descendant fell in battle with his Rebel countrymen. Over the years, the family continued to follow the frontier westward, spreading the love of land and nature that lured their ancestors to the New World.

     Having inherited the fruits of those early dreams, we drink in the pastoral scene surrounding us. If we had one wish before departing, it would be for the miracle of communication across the ether with those who devoted their lives to cultivating this tiny haven in Virginia’s Northern Neck.

     Note: In the records of colonial Virginia, the surname Pritchard is frequently spelled as Pritchett, Pritchardt, Prichard, and other variations, depending upon the whims of the individual court clerks. 

© 2004 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. 
Contact Emily Cary at ecary@chesapeakestyle.com

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