This quick exchange occured between Bartholomew and a field hand named Chess just one day after he arrived at Kennon’s plantation to begin a four year indenture.
The Farming of Tobacco — Henrico County, Virginia—1685
Having consulted with Elizabeth Kennon for some time during the early morning hours, Bartholomew was late reaching the quadrant of land destined for clearing. It had been named section 9, which left Bartholomew to wonder how many sections existed.
“Can ye ride a horse?” the short, fast-moving older man asked him before hitching a wagon.
Bartholomew had to admit that he had never been on the back of a horse but was willing to give it a try. But today he would not learn to ride a horse. He was carted from the stables to section 9 in a wagon pulled by two mules. A few minutes after leaving the stables, Bartholomew realized he and his riding companion had not exchanged names.
“My name is Bartholomew Stovall,” he said, extending his hand. The man looked at him and nodded, but never offered a word as the wagon made its way down the rut-filled roadway.
Noticing several wagon trails that branched off the main trail, Bartholomew considered that it was cut to use for farming. Then they turned off the road and entered a grassy area toward a knoll. At the top, he was stunned by the site. Hills, two or three feet high, covered the acreage as far as an eye could see. Each had been strategically formed and stood a distance of no more than four feet apart.
Following the cutoff, the man turned to Bartholomew and said, as if offering a late confession, “Well, my name’s Chess.”
Turning with a nod, Bartholomew said without thinking, “Chess? Is that C-H-E-S? I’ve not heard that name.”
Chess looked away as if he was confused then finally admitted, “I don’t know letters. Say ’em again.”
“C-H-E-S. It’s a good name.”
“Can you teach me to write it?” he asked without embarrassment.
Bartholomew looked in the back of the wagon and saw a metal shovel. He placed it in his lap and put his finger to his mouth. “This is C,” he said, forming the letter on the dust-covered surface. After finishing the spelling, he held it up for display. “C-H-E-S,” Bartholomew said so the man could understand.
“Naw, that ain’t right.”
Both studied the spelling until Chess said, “It’s got another one,” pointing at the S.
“You make it,” Bartholomew urged, handing him the shovel.
Chess reluctantly took it and put his finger to his mouth. Staring at it for a long time, he finally asked, “Where do I start?”
After Bartholomew pointed the way, Chess wet his finger a second time and slowly made the same pattern, only larger. When he was finished, he held it up, displaying the most perfect S one could possibly imagine. It was much clearer than the other letters because Chess had put his finger to his mouth at least four times during the writing.
“That’s about a fine an S as I have ever seen,” Bartholomew told him.
Staring at the shovel, Chess asked, “Can you read?”
Bartholomew stared at him and said in frustration, “C-H-E-S-S. Chess. That’s reading, man. Read it on the shovel. It says Chess.”
The man stared at the letters, pondering the meaning, moving his head from side to side as if to get a better view, then said, “Well, I’ll be damn,” and then he threw the tool to the back of the wagon.
Traveling on, Bartholomew finally asked, “How far does this go?”
“Top of that hill.” Chess pointed to a distant knoll.
“No, Chess, how large is that?” he asked, looking back at the endless lines of neatly formed hills.
“Three hundred acres. That’s section 4. It needs to be turned.”
Bartholomew’s jaw dropped. He looked at Chess and asked, “How many sections are there?”
“Right now, six. This one’s goin’ fallow when we turn it. That’s why you’re here. They need more land cleared so they can grow more tobacco. I hate the shit.”
After they topped the knoll, Bartholomew saw the task. Just in front of them was a line of trees that spanned from his right to left for as far as he could see. He tried to imagine so much wealth and finally asked Chess, “How much land do these people own?”
“All of it,” Chess returned, smiling back at Bartholomew