Tales of Knotts Island

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Be aware that the information in these tales is dated and, as expected, may not be as socially, politically, or racially sensitive as current writings.

by Henry Beasley Ansell

from 1907 to 1912


Boys are boys the world over; everything looks large to them; they swim in exaggeration. It is a long time from Sunday to Sunday, an age from Christmas to Christmas; a ten acre patch a large farm; a gray bearded uncle of forty a very old man. When these boys have grown old it is just as natural for them to retain their youthful exaggerations as for water to seek its level. That ten acre lot is still a large farm; and that uncle of forty is still a man of seventy five years old; everything else expands in about the same ratio, except space on the public road, where they skipped and jumped and ran a mile in a few minutes in play. But in that field patch where work was required, great length and breadth still remain.But there were some old people in my youth of whom I have a vivid recollection, and I am sure I am not mistaken in calling most of them very old, for I can see them now bent with age; some of them left children who have long since died of old age; viz: John Beasley, called "Uncle Johnny;" Malachi Beasley, who lived near Colonel Jones's; Henry Beasley, after whom I was named who lived up in the field north of the church lot; David Jones, who lived at the water at the South End; John Newman called Jack, of whom it was said, when he sloughed out of a terrible case of small pox, that he shedded the outside portion of his legs, and hung them on a fence stake like boots. Of course this was not so, but this with other impossibilities, was canvassed on the Island when I was a child. I can just remember him; his face was pitted worse than that of any other small-pox subject I have ever seen. Tully Capps, who lived on that jib of land opposite where the Bonney store recently stood; William Dudley, who lived on the now Bonney farm; Dennis Simmons, who owned the Peter tract in South End, and the tract on which Elias Williams died in the North End; Robert White called Bobby who lived on the land now owned by Rebecca Ansell and her son Alonzo; John, Stewart and Billy Williams, brothers, who lived in line from the Virginia Line South; Zechy Simpson who lived on Knight's Point where his son Albert now lives, he was the one that made that notable duck-shot noted elsewhere.

William Smith, post master who lived at the half-way mark of the Carolina part of the Island.

William Litchfield, the father of James, Jake and others; John Litchfield the father of another Jake, John, Jerryman and Mary; Michael Beasley, who lived here and there; Michael Waterfield who with others found a chest on the sea shore containing a large lot of money. To distribute his share liberally, said Michael, at dancing polics while "Swinging corners" would turn inside out his coat pockets filled with this metal, so all could chance a grab; he also put a shot-bag full of this coin in the crotch of a tree in Holly Tree Branch for safe keeping and never saw it again. The men who were partners in this find, once when going away, gave their shares to their wives, respectively, for safe, keeping. It was said that one Tom Williams, of Coinjock, went on the Islands as wreck master, laid claim to this money frightened the women holders, took it from the places of deposit, and carried it off; that was the last heard of it except Michael's part as aforesaid. After the money of these poor fellows was thus snatched away from them there was a sad decline in purchasing power on the Island, but bounced up at once in Coinjock. Major Whitehurst & son Leven, who owned that nice bank-head farm at the South End; Malachi Ansell, the veterinarian, and believer in "hants." Caleb and Newton Capps; Caleb Ansell, the gifted in public prayer; another Tully Capps, Walter's father; John Simmons; and William Etheredge; N. W. Dudley, my father's neighbor, born 1796. All of these were born in the 18th century. Samuel J. Ansell, my father born September, 1803, and many others the first of the 19th century. These and their families mostly, made up the large congregations of Knotts' Island, three score and ten years ago.

I must not pass without mentioning a few of the good old women of my neighborhood who helped the young ones in any ways: Aunt Tishy (Letitia) White was a good and kind widow lady. She had married twice, and by her first husband (Beasley) had at least four children, two of each sex. The boy, Caleb and Joshua Beasley, were the top and cross-bow makers mentioned elsewhere.

Aunt Tishy attended our mamas at our births and did not forget the offsprings thereafter. She was a great herb doctor--second to none in this respect, so thought the people; especially efficient was she in preparing the proper teas for the mamas, and doctoring the young ones for stone-bruises, boils, sore throats, and many other maladies. From her herbary, with her skill, came a balm, "soothing and curing the young ones. For sore throat, rub it upward with mutton suet, followed by a poultice of febrifuge stewed in vinegar. For stone bruises, apply fat, salted meat; boils, a poultice of low life-ever-lasting."

When suppuration was produced boils bruises breaking or picking point, apply scented salve composed sweet gum, beeswax, buds the balm of gilead which assuaged, soothed cured. Good woman never made a charge for services" in this respect, but we boys would go help her daughters to pick cotton and do chores.


This lady was the second wife of Uncle Johnny Beasley aforesaid. His first wife was my real aunt. Both of these marriages were consummated before I was born. A large family was the outcome of each union, the last set growing with me. Aunt Molly (nee Wicker) had a fair amount of the school lore of that day; and this, coupled with a large amount of common sense, made her knowledge of the world and its affairs above the medium. She had a bright little boy named John, who loved his books. He was younger than I, and soon caught up with me at school, and then we were in the same class. He was tutored at home, and soon would have been put in a higher class. His mother saw this state and arranged for us to stand together. She took us both in charge as to spelling and reading, which qualifications were a large part of the educational make-up of that day. With her help we got quite efficient in these two branches. At school we tugged with figures and some other studies and we were equals all through. She made us tackle the two volumes, "Tales of a Grandfather" by Sir Walter Scott. She could sit at her knitting at night and make us read by turns, until we could almost read these books by heart, as she had already done. She could sit with her knitting, and correct our mistakes in modulation and pronunciation, with the greatest ease.

These tales told of the ups and downs of Robert Bruce, James of Douglass, MacBeth and the prophecies of the three o1d witches, the murder of good old King Duncan by MacBeth, according to the third old witch's prophecy, how the black Douglass was a terror to the English on the border, and how an English woman to quiet her child was singing the famous Douglass border song:
"Hush ye: Hush Ye: Little pet ye;
Hush Ye: Hush Ye: do not fret ye;
The Black Douglass shall not get ye."

When Douglass, among them as a spy, came at that moment, and laid his iron hand on her shoulder to her great terror, he at once quieted her fears. When the fort was taken, Douglas spared this woman and others of her sex.

Along came the flux and John died, to the great grief of his parents and friends. The mother gave the two books to me, her dead boy's classmate.

There was no one, except Mr. Luke White, more afraid of thunder storms than Aunt Molly. Her husband and eldest son followed the water, and in the squally season were usually away. When hearing thunder, she often came over to our home, with her little children, Jane, Dicy, Frances and John, and would remain till the storm was over.

My father was not afraid of these storm, and would try to quell her fears. About dark, one hot, sultry August evening, (at the same hour that Johnson White and the daughter of Southey Waterfield were to be married), in fodder-saving time, there came two thunder storms, from the west, the first quickly followed by the second; the last, one of the worst I ever saw. Aunt Molly, as usual, took to the bed; her daughter Jane and I were rocking in the cradle. The storm now upon us; the whole heaven was ablaze with the most vivid lightning; after each flash the pealing thunder seemed to tear all the trees around the house in twain. One could smell the intensely, vivid flashes as they shot across the room; it appeared all nature had turned wild and was going to consume us.

Aunt Molly could pray as well as read, and while this unusual electrical display was playing its pranks, she was putting up one of the greatest petitions to the Ruler of the elements that I have ever listened to. Her fervent appeal to Him who rides the storms to protect her, her children, the family whom she was now with, and for the safety of husband and son on the seas, was touching in the extreme. Jane and I still rocked in the cradle, retarded only a second after each flash and peal, to fall back again to our former gait. Were we afraid? No, not so much as you might suppose. We knew no harm could come to us, when Aunt Molly, petition in hand, was pleading for us. The elders of the Virginia Methodist Conference could not cope with her in prayer. In that storm there were five trees struck within one hundred yards of her home. Old uncle John Litchfield, who was miller of Colonel Jones's windmill, said, that in that storm the clouds were so low as to cover the upper portion of the mill shaft. On such occasions we were always glad to have Aunt MoIy with us.

I have little fear of these storms, yet, I have a great sympathy for those who have. Since I have been married and reared quite a large family of children, mostly girls, I have had a striking verification of this fear. I have, as far I have been able, tried to explain to my family the laws of conduction and nonconduction, the most suitable place in the room to sit, etc.; but let an electrical explosion take place, it strikes terror to the most of them from mother down, and a sudden hustling takes place seeking places of safety, with apron covered eyes, hand stopped ears--there will be no company for the father but the storm.

The fear of these electrical storms is a characteristic common to most women. No doubt, the cause of this, in a great measure, is, that they are mothers of little ones growing up under their apron strings, the care of whom often taxes the mother's nerves to the utmost. Unlike the men, they see little of the comedy of life found in society and the world outside their homes and neighborhood; hence, these sudden thunder bursts strike terror to their already over taxed nervous system. Girls, more closely under the care of the mothers than are boys, imbibes their mothers' fears more readily, hence, more women fear these storms than men.


This lady was the second wife of Captain Henry White whose death has been set out elsewhere. She was a Dudley before marriage and was half sister to Susan Fentress, who married the Captain's son Henry as noted before. This Lydia White was one of the most sweet-tempered old laides I have ever known. A winsome twinkle could always be detected in her eyes. She could always be found and depended on to aid and comfort, when sickness and distress had settled down upon a neighbors family. Indeed her whole deportment denoted a high standard of refinement. Her sister Susan and brother William Fentress partook in great part of these same high qualities.


This lady was the second wife of Malachi Beasley; she had been married before to a John Litchfield and by him was the mother of three children, whom I recollect, --Clarrissa, Caleb and John. Caleb died when a boy, the other two married and have children and grand children now living. By Beasley she had at least one, Edmund, who lived till he died, on his share of his father's land. All her children by both husbands are dead. I can see this old lady, as if living and before me today neatly dressed, with white-bordered cap on her head covered with her tidy bonnet. I still see her come into church, and walk slowly up the aisle toward her church corner. I can still hear the squeak of her shoes as she walked down the aisle, for most shoes in those days were pegged.

Margaret White, called Peggy, the wife of Luke White was a good Christian woman, and, like Lydia Beasley above mentioned, was a punctual church goer; she sang her doleful, plaintive minors out of her "Pious Songs." hymn-book.

Well, I shall have to quit on this line; for I could fill many pages in naming and describing scores of the good old mamas of the Island of this past time.


I must not pass, however, without mentioning an unmatched and exceptional character, Henry Beasley, familiarly called "Hen" Beasley. His whole musical make-up was exhibited in the cadence and harmony of the fife and drum.

He played well the fife and beat the drum; and he hummed, talked, sang and marched in unison with their music; they furnished a martial heaven on earth for him. He kept the Island boys in steady nightly drills, and did more than the parents to cure their unruly dispositions and to implant patriotism in its stead. He had a boy named William Johnson, who could also beat and blow; indeed, as said Henry could not perform on both these instruments at one and the same time, there was usually a boy who could hammer the drum and some who could trill the fife; so he could always find helpers to his nightly parades, though all were subordinate to leader Henry.

Almost any night about the premises of Justice John Jay Waterfield (this being the election and muster ground, where stores and merchants now abound) could be heard the silvery notes of Henry's fife, and the quick roll beat of the drum calling the boys from two miles around to ranks. In thirty minutes a score of the boys would be on the ground with firey patriotism, the seeds of which had previously been implanted in them by their leader. These boys would now be arranged in double military file, officered and marched down the road, following the blast of music with lively exactness. This music of drum and fife sent waves of patriotism to the old folks at home, and added no little to their contentment, for they knew their boys were there with "Hen" Beasley, their efficient leader; every one knew whence this music came.

What the Island boys would have done without this military leader is hard to guess. If said Henry ever saw any trouble, others never knew it. This world is full of trouble, but Henry did not partake of it; however, even if trouble had have seized him, the drum and fife in one minute would eraticate it. His turn was to please others, hence the boys in military jollification.

Hen Beasley now is dead and gone;
His place will never be filled;
He's singing now the loved refrains
Of the songs in life he trilled.
And if the boys he taught so well
Upon the Island plain,
Will like their leader do the right,
They'll meet him once again.


Fred Davis was a peculiar and comical old fellow, foolish, coarse and rugged, one that would be apt to frighten children that met him on the highway. He drank liquor excessively, when he could get it, especially so at public gatherings; when in this condition, he was pugnacious and quarrelsome, and all manner of silly, jeering and mocking expressions were thrown at him for fun, after which a fight might ensue. His wife was named Harriet. One evening, about twilight, his wife came in the house much agitated and said: Mr. Davis, did you ever see the new moon in the eastard?" Fred, "no, no one ever did; what is it that ails you Harriet?" Harriet, "come and look through the trees and you'll see." Fred went out and exclaimed, "Great Jupiter! there is the new moon in the eastard and it is turning to blood, it is. The world will soon be in flames, Harriet, it will." Harriet swooned on the floor, for the end of the world was at hand she thought. Fred ran through the woods to the house of Uncle John Litchfield and said: "Uncle John don't you know we all pretty quick will be in 'tarnity." Uncle John: "You fool; what is the matter with you now? Fred: "The new moon is in the eastard and is turning to blood, she is, and I--ah am sure we shall soon be burned up." Uncle John: "Well, if you think that and you are not prepared to go, you had better be on your knees." Fred: "I'm not ready to go, I 'arnt." Uncle John went out, (he perhaps had seen the moon just before) and returning said: "Fred, you are a fool, the moon is eclipsed." "I have seen her in that fix many times before." Fred rushed through the woods home and said: "Harriet, Uncle John says the end of the world is not coming now, it 'aint the moon is only clipsed, it is. I forgot to break the jug before I went to Uncle John's, I did, I didn't want to die with that jug under the bed, I didn't. Uncle John has saved it, he has." Fred proceeded to draw his jug from under the bed and was soon himself again.

Fred and Jim Ansell, one election day, had been to the election, and were returning home together; and while on the road Fred remarked: "Jim, 'aint it a shame and a disgrace that the whole of this election day has passed and not a fight?" Jim: "Perhaps it is best for you, Fred, for it there had been a fight it is likely you would have got a pommelling." Fred: "Jim, I don't take such chat as that, I don't, we'll soon see who'll get the pommelling;" and for Jim he went. So Jim, compelled to take Fred down, gave him a good thrashing, afterwhich he let up and asked Fred if he was satisfied. "I am Jim, the credit and glory of Knotts Island is saved, it is, and the disgrace wiped out, Jim, it is." Fred went over to the Courthouse during one Superior Court. After arriving, it took but a short while for him to become groggy. Fred saw many, two by two, going aside talking to each other. Fred: "I never so many people taken off for business in my life--no body has taken me off, they 'aint, and can't see into it." Some bystander hearing Fred's remarks, told him if he wished to get into some business, he could tell him how. "I do," says Fred. Bystander: Go up to the Judge, in the courthouse, and tell him you are a horse and no doubt you will get into some business." I--yah will do it, I will." Away went Fred, steeped In grog, up to the Judge, and said: "I am a horse, I am." The Judge, not quite understanding Fred, turned toward him and said: "What did you say?" Fred: "I said I was a horse, I was." Judge: "Sheriff, take this horse, lock him in that stable over there and give him dry fodder till further orders." Fred got no more grog that day, but may have got the fodder. The Islanders got him out at night and carried him home. He said he didn't any more business with Judges, he didn't.

This Jim Ansell, just referred to, was a large, strong man, and quite a "bruiser" when he had tipped the glass too much. He was once and for the first time, on the grand-jury. He was a colt, the jury told him, and as such he should according to custom treat. Jim forked up the treat, and that in the jury room. After this the whole jury were in for fun and frolic. They told Jim that it was also custom for colts to treat the body on pies; that they wouldn't insist upon chicken pies, but would be satisfied with potato-pies, which were cheaper. Jim went down to the booths and wanted to whole-sale the pies of an old lady who had them for sale. She didn't wish to dispose of her pies in that way, for as usual she had to supply her many customers. Reckless Jim took his fist, buried through fourteen potato pies, strung them on his arm, and into the jury room he went, and told his comrades to help themselves.

It was not long before he was arrested for contempt and warranted for the payment of the pies. It cost him only $16.00, the Judge being persuaded to leniency for be it known in those days, that a man steeped in liquor, even in the courthouse, was not an uncommon sight. The grand-jury helped him to pay out in equal shares. In the foregoing I have named a score or more of the old family heads, who lived on the Island during the first half of the last century, when I was a child. Some were tykes of their times, and, however eccentric, were only models of our race and our state of society, influenced by surrounding circumstances; showing into what fashions the human race may be wrought.

These old people are still marked as monuments in my recollection, and seem to me to have been an essential part of the social and religious atmosphere that encircled my youth.

I know not there be such men now. They were wise in the day in which they lived; yet simple, lowly and generous.

It is doubtless the inclination of old age to magnify the past and belittle the present, perhaps because the heart is sickened and jaded with disappointments which press heavily upon it, and from which it turns with disgust, to bestow worship on the far past remembrances.

There may be in this process something personal and selfish, for vanity often lingers in the ruins of old age. Thus, often an old man tottering to his end boasts of the feats he performed when he was young; and his help-mate, also aged and tottering parades the charmes of her girlhood. Doubtless, there is a deception in this glorification of the past; yet I cannot help thinking that, while their book learning was small there was something grand in the old men of his country three score and ten years ago--a grandeur that does not now pervade society. The great masses of society now, though, may be and probably are elevated in many respects above the community of the early days of which I speak.

I have before told you something of the characteristics of Colonel Jones and Dennis Simmons; because these two were officials and held more than others responsible for the peace and moral conduct of the Island. Jones as I have said, was a compromise man; he mollified the bad feelings of neighbor against neighbor in their disputes and quarrels; more over, as Justice of the Peace, he was quite lenient with offenders against the law.

Simmons was also a Justice of the Peace, and respected the law, especially as it was administered in his own person. He was quite severe on those who violated the statutes of the state, but one who violated the statutes of Justice Simmons committed the unpardonable. He was the entire Justice and police of the Sunday meeting-house, and not a boy or girl, nor even a Knotts Island bumblebee that had escaped the boys, could offend, without condign punishment. Simmons, perhaps was not so well beliked, take the Island through, as Jones; as Judge he was more strict than Jones; in wordly affairs, as well as spiritual, the path of Simmons was straight and narrow; he was frugal by habit and disposition, a successful farmer, honored by the church and society. He was a worthy old man, who, like Jones, loved to give in charity, though he told not the world of it; his mould in a business capacity might seem austere; he seldomed laughed, but could detect often a suppressed smile; in short, he was a good man, possessed of a generous Christian nature.

This good old man Simmons, besides these qualifications, was also a doctor. He possessed his deceased son's (Dr. Dennis Simmons Jr.) medical books, and became quite a success in malarial troubles. Calomel quinine and many teas of herbs, were generally given to his patients. Go into that bottom, my boy, gather the leaves of the boneset weed for a decoction; you can tell it from other similar weeds because its leaves grow opposite each other and hug each other around the stem. Boil it to the proper strength, and drink little else till come again. If the patient feels qualmish put a little jamaica ginger in the extract.

So, you see, the old man had something else to do besides church matters farming, and dealing out equity and justice. As he was one of the Island's main leaders and as plain as an old shoe his family of children was somewhat aristocratic; Knotts Island was too far from Norfolk and they wish to live nearer to that city and persuaded the old man to sell out on the Island, and he did so.

He purchased a farm on the north side of Tanners Creek and moved there; his daughter' sweethearts I believe lived in that section and perhaps one or two had married men from the neighborhood of Norfolk, hence the move. He married, I have been recently informed by an old lady on Knotts Island, Judith Haines the beautiful daughter of Ras Haines or Haznes). The following are his children from this union, given to me by Mr. R. L. Upshur of Norfolk:

1st. Sarah W.--who married Abel Lewellyn, hence her daughter Rose Butler Ann Lewellyn men tioned as police in the writer's school narrative.
2nd Martha J.--who married Caleb Littleton Upshur.
3rd Amy D.--who married Andrew Jackson Denby.
4th Eliza--who married John F. Wilkins.

I believe there was another daughter that never married, I am not sure.

The young doctor, Dennis Simmons, was located at Currituck courthouse, by his father and soon after died there. I am sure he never married. This old man Dennis Simmons was the head of the building Committee that erected our first brick C. H.. part of it still remains in the present one. That Court House was built in 1842.

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