If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making Sweetgrass Baskets

Miss Margaret's sweetgrass baskets
Last month I gave myself a birthday gift--sweetgrass basketmaking lessons. To me, this is the best kind of research there is. Hands-on!

I am very interested in the rice culture of colonial South Carolina. I hope for it to play an important role in one of my books. While my husband attended a professional conference in the Georgetown, South Carolina area, I toured an old rice plantation, Hopsewee.

I will write more on the plantation itself soon. While I was on the website investigating what they had to offer, however, I noted they offered the basketmaking class. I promptly emailed them and signed up.

Miss Margaret
On a very soggy May 9th, after touring the plantation, I met Miss Margaret outside their tea room where she had surrounded herself with her works of art. This craft was brought to the Charleston area about 300 years ago by West African slaves, and the methods and designs have changed very little since then. Miss Margaret informed me that some within her community were unhappy about these lessons to outsiders, but my participation was purely for fun and curiosity.

I was the only student so I got the best possible attention. The baskets are made from a local reed called sweetgrass which has the most wonderful natural scent. Apparently it is quite hard to come by these days, as I was informed by my tutor. “I don’t know who would sell it to you,” she said.

Again, not to worry. If I get very ambitious, pine straw is also used and we have a glut of that in my town. The bands that weave the grasses together are made from strips of palmetto fronds, which are specially treated to keep them flexible. That secret is also safe; I don’t know how to do it.

Miss Margaret started a basket for me before I arrived. “I don’t teach people how to start ’em,” she told me. I really don’t know what the community is worried about. She obviously left out plenty of crucial information.

The tool I used
I watched closely as Miss Margaret worked. We used a simple tool made from the handle of a spoon which had been rounded and smoothed by one of her family members. With this, I eventually learned to work the grass and bind the rows together.

Miss Margaret is seventy-five years old and has worked this art all her life. Although I am basically a shy introvert, I felt immediately comfortable with her and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Her personality was delightful.

I’m not sure how she felt about me as a student, however. When learning, I like to repeat the instructions given in my own words to be sure I understand. On a couple of occasions, while I did that, she leaned forward and said, “LISTEN to me!” and repeated her instructions more slowly. Hmm.

Finally, she said, “You’re a school teacher, right?”


“You ask an awful lot of questions,” she said flatly. I don’t think it was a compliment.

Well, within two hours I made myself a little basket to collect--whatever. I had a fun time learning something most people don’t know and met a perfectly charming person while doing so. On top of that, I have a very cool conversation piece in my den.

Happy birthday to me!

My masterpiece!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Another Roadblock, Another Lead

It’s been eating at me. Am I a descendant of Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams? I love to watch Finding Your Roots on PBS and wondered if matching a DNA test with a known descendant was possible. Like I’ve got that kind of money.

There are many people who list my known ancestor, Frances Bingaman Pryor, as one of the couple’s children, but more academic investigations do not. So I decided that if it could be verified chronologically, I would make the leap of faith that we are descended from her.

According to census records from England in 1861 and 1871, Frances was born in Mississippi around 1826. Her sister, Cordelia Bingaman, lived with her in England and died in New Jersey at the age of 63. I found her obituary in the old Red Bank Register of 1891. Therefore, she was born around 1828.

But when was Mary Ellen Williams born?

Looking for evidence of Cordelia’s earlier life, I discovered that both her name and Mary Ellen’s were listed on the New Orleans Register of Free People of Color. This information has been bound in a book published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane. I had to have a copy.

When it arrived in the mail, I boldly ripped open the envelope. The answers to my questions lay inside. I flipped to page 126 and there it was.

Mary Ellen Williams registered as a free person of color in April of 1857 following an act of the legislature allowing her move from Natchez. This I knew from previous investigations where her protector, Adam Bingaman, had appealed to his legislative cronies to act on Mary Ellen’s behalf. At that time she was thirty-eight years old.

That puts her year of birth at 1819. She would have been seven years old when Frances was born. Mary Ellen Williams is NOT my ancestor.

HOWEVER, Cordelia Bingaman is also named in the register. To my surprise, she was listed in 1857 as the three-year-old daughter of Amelia Bingaman. This was not my great-great aunt, Cordelia. But it says that her mother, Amelia, was born in Natchez in 1827. Could she have been another sister to Frances and Cordelia? Did she name her daughter after her own sister?

On, a descendant of Amelia Bingaman lists her mother as the child of Adam L. Bingaman and a woman named Millie. Could Millie also be the mother of Frances?

Stay tuned as I delve into this possible link.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"The Feast of All Saints"

While Ann Rice can be credited for starting our modern fascination with vampires* (The Vampire Chronicles), her second novel, The Feast of All Saints, is a study in the 1840’s New Orleans world of the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. As I have noted in earlier posts, the system of plaçage played a huge role in the lives of these people, a life I believe my ancestors knew well.

Rice’s website describes her book as “a painfully historically rich and accurate novel that delicately and clearly draws patterns of irony and injustice together through complex family relationships and social structures.” In 2001, it was made into a mini-series with an all-star cast which Rice claims is the most faithful adaptation of her work. See the trailer below:

Watching this movie added another layer to my understanding of the privileges and deprivations imposed on those then called “colored.” Amazingly, the mini-series has been divided into twenty-one segments and posted on YouTube, but for a less chopped-up version, we rented from Netflix. Either way, it’s a fascinating scrutiny of this long-ago way of life.

*These days we are inundated with vampires. Hollywood has even turned Abraham Lincoln into a “vampire slayer”! (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Is there no end?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Benjamin January, Detective

“A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures...and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.”

So begins’s book description of A Free Man of Color, the first in the Benjamin January mystery series.

Like millions of others, I love a good mystery. But what sets this series apart is where it is set--in New Orleans of the 1830s when the transition from a Spanish/French culture to an American one was just beginning. The protagonist is also unusual. Benjamin Janvier/January is a man of mixed heritage, but free. His mother was a mulatto slave, freed to become the placé e (consort) of her master and she took her slave son, Ben, with her. The boy grew to be educated in Paris, as was the custom for young free men of color, where he became a trained surgeon as well as an accomplished musician.

Life circumstances, including saving his own skin, led him to also become an amateur detective. You see, the murder in this story was that of a young, ravishing octoroon during the Bal de Cordon Bleu, the Octoroon Ball where placé es were presented.

Now you see my interest in this book. If you have read my posts (go to Labels in sidebar, click "placage") regarding my family history, you will know that I suspect my ancestors have been part of the tradition known as plaç age. One way to research a lifestyle is through fiction, thereby utilizing the research of someone else. Truth be told, doesn’t all research depend on the knowledge and discoveries of someone else?

I'm reading this one now.
Of course, I do not take the customs and lifeways of novels as facts. But they are a jumping-off point to verify such things on my own. For instance, author Barbara Hambly has the Octoroon Ball held a mere passageway from a corresponding ball for legitimate wives, daughters, and nieces. This is fascinating and amazingly bold of these husbands and brothers, but I have yet to find confirmation of this practice from another source. It may just create great story tension--which it does when a plantation mistress, the former student of January, sneaks into the Octoroon Ball in disguise moments before the murder takes place.

If this period of history and the very unique racial hierarchy of New Orleans interest you--and you love a good murder mystery--I highly recommend this book. There are at least eleven books in the series and I am reading the second now. I will tell you that the beginning is a bit of a struggle to keep straight with several characters having confusing French names. But stick with it; it soon becomes clear and exciting.

With the search into my past, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world I had never heard of before. Research boring? I don’t think so.