Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Feisty Henry A. Wise in Brazil

Portrait of Henry A. Wise. .
By Charles Fenderick, 1840.  Frame-gold leaf
molding. From the ESVHS Collection.
Written by: Dennis Custis

On August 2, 1844, the most celebrated ship in the American Navy, The Constitution arrived in the beautiful harbor of Rio de Janeiro.  Salutes were fired by Brazilian ships in the harbor welcoming the new Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from The United States of America.  This new minister had spent the previous twelve years as a zealous defender of Southern causes in the United States House of Representatives.  Four months shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, this tall, angular man with long flaxen hair looked too combative for the diplomatic service.  He was.

Henry Alexander Wise was the first (and only) Eastern Shoreman to hold such an important diplomatic position. It is unlikely Wise would have been able to stomach three years in Brazil had it not been for the support of his wife and five children.  Sarah Sergeant was Wise's second wife and, fortunately for Wise, an expert linguist.

Most of Wise's correspondence deals with one or the other of these diplomatic situations;  the dispute with Mexico over Texas, the conflict between Argentina and Britain and France in the La Plate River area, the Columbia Affair, and the illegal slave trade.  In the first three situations Wise's diplomacy met with little success.  It was in his dedicated opposition to the slave trade that Wise thought he "devoted his best energies."  Given the fact that Wise had been the unquestioned champion for slavery in Congress, it might seem incongruous that Wise became the most dedicated opponent of the slave trade to Brazil.

For Wise "there is but one true test of anything, and that is, is it right."  Slavery was right, but the slave trade was illegal; therefore, he was obligated to use the power of his office to right the legal and moral wrong of the slave trade.  The slave trade was a staple business of Brazil and Wise raised the ire of the Brazilian government.  "My strenuous opposition to the prostitution of the flag of the United States to the nefarious uses of the slave trade has rendered me naturally unpopular in the country."

It is debatable whether Wise or the Brazilian government first reached the conclusion that it was time for the Shoreman to return to Accomack.  However, it is certain that when Brazil demanded his recall, Wise was determined to stay, The Brazilian government thought Wise possessed a "morose and gloomy temper," and ought to be "taught a lesson."  The "Lesson" Wise wanted the Brazilians to learn could easily be taught by the American Navy and Marines.  His country did not respond but Wise's defiant attitude remained unchanged and he did not regret any of his actions.  When Brazil asked Wise to sign a document which would admit wrongdoing on his part, Wise responded, "I would have my right hand cut off and stuck on a post to point the way to a gibbet before I would permit my thumb and forefinger to touch a pen to sign the paper of such degrading notes!"

Dennis Custis speaking at
To Kill a Mockingbird &
Southern Culture Event
Eventually Brazil stopped demanding Wise's recall which allowed Wise to resign.  On September 1, 1847, The Columbia conveyed a stubborn and prideful Shoreman out of the harbor of Rio de Janeiro.  A month later, Wise reported to Washington and by early November, was back at his home, Onley, on Onancock Creek.  Wise's retirement to country life was brief; he would later serves as Governor of Virginia and Brigadier General of the Confederate Army. Upon his death an admirer wrote that Wise was "a knightly figure of heroic age, single hearted, lofty-minded, honest, generous, brave, a noble product of the loins of The Commonwealth he loved so well."

Excerpt from Historical Society Newsletter: Summer of 1997

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

150 Years Ago Slavery Ended on VA's Eastern Shore

Written by Kirk Mariner

This month contains a date which, while long overlooked, is crucial to our peninsula’s history. For it was on April 11, 1864 — one hundred fifty years ago this month — that slavery came to an end on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

New York Times, October 17, 1863
Provided by Kellee Blake.
It was not the Civil War that ended slavery here. Slavery continued even after the Union Army invaded and occupied the Shore in November 1861. It was not Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves, for his proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those in areas then in rebellion against the United States, and specifically excluded, by name, Accomack and Northampton counties. Nor did the slaves of the two counties have to wait until December 18, 1865, when the 13th amendment to the Constitution ended slavery throughout the country.

Rather, the demise of slavery on the Eastern Shore came about quietly and undramatically.

Not all of Virginia seceded from the Union in early 1861, not Chincoteague and Tangier on the Eastern Shore, and not a number of counties in the western part of the state where slavery had never taken deep root. Delegates from these western counties met in Wheeling to set up a rival government to the “rebel” one in Richmond, and on June 25, 1861, Lincoln recognized them as the “reorganized and restored government of Virginia.” Thus throughout the rest of the Civil War there were two Virginias: Confederate Virginia, whose capital was Richmond, and “loyal” Virginia, whose capital was Wheeling. Loyal Virginia remained a part of the Union, represented in the U.S. Congress, throughout the war.

There were, in addition, other parts of Virginia that were in Union hands when the war began: Fort Monroe and its surrounding area in Hampton; Alexandria, Arlington, and parts of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. These also were included in the restored government, and as the war progressed other parts of the seceded state that subsequently came under Union control were added to it.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia officially became a part of the restored government on November 23, 1861, exactly one week after the Union army occupied the peninsula, and for more than a year it sent representatives to the state capital in Wheeling. The western counties, however, were intent on forming their own state, and on June 20, 1863, the state of West Virginia was formed, taking most of the land mass and most of the people of the restored government with it. Virginia was thus reduced to several small, disconnected regions — Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, the Virginia Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore — which then looked to Alexandria as their capital.

When the legislature of the “Alexandria government” convened for the first time in December 1863, Gov. Francis H. Pierpoint identified to the legislators what he saw as the most pressing item of business for his truncated state: The need to bring slavery to an end in Virginia once and for all.

Pictured above are the proposed changes that were to be placed
 in the Virginia State Constitution under the "Slavery" section. 
The report was discussed and voted on on March 10.  Journal 
of the Constitutional Convention which convened at Alexandria
on the 13th day of February 1864 (Alexandria, 1864), pp. 16.
Provided by Kellee Blake.
In urging the end of slavery, the governor offered no religious or humanitarian rationale, but simple practicality, for the reality on the ground was that in virtually every place where the Alexandria government operated the Union army was also present, able and likely to interfere with the day-to-day functioning of slavery. Thus in February 1864 a special convention convened to draw up an amendment to the state constitution that would end slavery. Among its delegates were Arthur Watson and
William H. Dix from Accomack, and William P. Moore from Northampton. Eventually this convention not only amended but also re-wrote the constitution, abolishing slavery in the process.

On April 7, 1864, the convention voted 13 to 4 to adopt the new constitution, Dix voting for it, Watson and Moore against it. The following day it was resolved that instead of having the new constitution approved by the people in a referendum, it would take effect “and be in full force from and after the adjournment of the Convention.” The convention then adjourned four days after making the decision.

On that day — April 11, 1864 — slavery officially came to an end on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

It was sixteen months after the Emancipation Proclamation, a year before the end of the Civil War, twenty months before the 13th Amendment — and two hundred and forty-five years since Africans first set foot on Virginia soil.

For the list of sources please contact

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tangier Islanders Make Medical History

Written by Dr. Arthur Fournier

Tangier Island - Aerial 
Photography By: Neil Kaye
To pass their Boards in medicine, doctors in training must study the rarest and most arcane diseases. When this blogger studied for his boards in 1976, arguably the most esoteric of them all was Tangier Disease – a rare genetic disease technically known as Familial Alpha – Lipoprotein Deficiency. According to the texts, the disease leads to low blood levels of the "good cholesterol", HDL, with cholesterol building up in cells that cause difficulty in the ability of peripheral nerves to function. Naively, I assumed the disease derived its name from the eponymous North African port city. Then, after passing my Boards, I came to the Eastern Shore to work for Eastern Shore Rural Health. It was then I learned the "inside story"of Tangier Disease.

Photo of Teddy Laird
in an article written by
John Pruitt
The year was 1959. It was a time when almost all children had their tonsils taken out, on the unproven theory that their removal would reduce the frequency of strep throats and other upper respiratory infections. The children of Tangier Island were no exception. Dr. Thomas Edmonds Sr., an Ear Nose and Throat specialist from Accomack traveled regularly to Tangier for this purpose. One child, however, Teddy Laird, at that time five years old, had tonsils that proved extraordinary – they were huge and they were bright orange! Intrigued, Dr. Edmonds sent the tonsils to the National Institutes of Health. There they discovered that the tonsils were full of foamy cells containing cholesterol. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health descended upon Tangier Island, convinced that the small number of families who founded the island and intermarried there had created conditions that would result in rare genetic diseases. In actuality, only Teddy and his sister were discovered to have the telltale orange tonsils! In truth, there is little clinical significance to this disease other than the orange tonsils, but the rarity of the condition and the exotic history of Tangier Island captured the imagination of medical researchers and academicians. To date, only approximately 100 patients with Tangier Disease have been identified worldwide. The claim to fame, however, for the first cases reported belongs forever to Teddy and his sister on Tangier Island.

Teddy S. Laird

October 13th, 1955 - April 18th, 2011
Obituary: Dateline – Kinards, SC Teddy S. Laird, age 55 of 33389 Hwy 76 died Monday, April 18, 2011 at home. He was born at Tangier Island, VA and was the son of Peggy Parks Laird of the home and the late Gladden Laird. He was a former employee of Ingles and a member of Joanna Church of God. Surviving is his wife, Amelia Nabors Laird of the home; four stepsons, Reggie Nabors and Kim of Joanna; Johnnie Bunton of Joanna; Eric Bunton and Karen of Conway; Chris Hightower and Nina of Conway and seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by a sister, Elaine Evans. A memorial service will be conducted on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 2:00pm at Joanna Church of God. The family will receive friends Wednesday, April 20, 2011 from 1:00 to 2:00pm at the church. Condolences may be expressed to the family at Gray Funeral Home of Clinton.

Lisa Seachrist Chiu, "When a Gene Makes you Smell Like a Fish"