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18th-Century York County Family Supports Storyline For American Revolution Museum at Yorktown Farm

Farmhouse and Kitchen

Artist’s depiction of the farm house and kitchen on the Revolution-era farm at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

It is often difficult for today’s museum visitors to understand the lives of those who lived more than two centuries ago, especially if those lives are presented in the abstract. Stories of real people who are facing real dilemmas help visitors recognize that many of the issues they encounter in the 21st century — the loss of a parent, the need to support oneself, relationships with neighbors and family, the aftermath of war — would have been the same issues that confronted a farm family in 18th-century York County, Virginia.

In developing the forthcoming American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, planners decided that the new farm replacing the existing museum farm would include a slave quarter to more directly interpret the lives of enslaved African Americans. Through this farm, the museum could tell the story of farm and family life — of both slaves and slave owners — during the Revolution. To better ground interpretation of the site in the period, museum staff wanted to identify an actual farm family that had lived in York County and owned four to six slaves.

Fortunately, almost all of York County’s colonial-era records survive, so it was very likely that records of an actual family who met the interpretive needs of the site and would reflect the reality of York County life in the third quarter of the 18th century could be found. The search began by reviewing York County probate inventories, focusing on those from the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th. The inventories are rough guides to an individual’s economic level and personal property ownership. However, it soon became clear that reviewing the inventories one-by-one was not only time-consuming but was not the best way to go about finding the right family. Use of personal property tax records and other York County records made it possible to decide on someone who would be a good fit for the farm: Edward Moss (ca. 1757-1786).

new farm at Yorktown museum

Artist’s depiction of the Revolution-era farm at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Edward Moss was a fourth-generation descendent of the first Edward Moss (?-1664/65), the founder of the large Moss family of York County. His great-grandson, James, died in 1762, leaving Edward and his older brother and sister, John and Ann, orphans. The three children were placed under the care of guardians until they reached the age of majority, with John apprenticed to a local wheelwright and Edward, in turn, apprenticed to his brother. Ann married in 1772, the same year that the enslaved men, women and children in their father’s estate were finally divided among the three siblings. Two of the enslaved teenage boys who were awarded to Edward were hired out to provide income for his upkeep until he was of legal age.

After Edward Moss reached his majority, he married, started a family, and was comfortably within the picture as a resident of a rural area of York County, with the livestock and tools for farming. He did not own his own land – his brother, John, had inherited that from their father – so he leased land from one of his wealthy cousins, in the area of York County where his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had lived for generations, in order to provide for his growing family. He had family members who looked out for him and helped him when they could. Interpreting how these familial connections could smooth the way for those individuals needing help and support is important in understanding the nature of family and community in late 18th-century Virginia.

What made Edward Moss different from many young men his age was that, at his death, he owned six enslaved men, women and children, whose value constituted more than half the total of his personal property and put him in the top quarter economically among York County’s residents. Edward’s particular circumstances will give historical interpreters the opportunity to talk about what happened to enslaved people after the death of their owner. When a slaveholder died, the slaves that were part of the estate were treated like any other property and either given to a family member, moving from household to household within the family, or sold to satisfy the debts of the estate. For Edward Moss, inheriting three slaves from his father gave him some continuity in his life in that he knew these individuals, something especially important for someone who was orphaned at a very young age. But for the enslaved people, the death of an owner introduced another measure of uncertainty into their lives. Perhaps they would be “sold away” and sent to another region of the county or even out of Virginia, leaving behind relatives and friends living on neighboring farms and nearby towns.

The choice of Edward Moss will also enable visitors to learn how the Revolutionary War affected York County residents. During the summer of 1781, Lord Charles, General Cornwallis, left the Carolinas and occupied the area around Yorktown proper in order to defend what was supposed to be a deep-water harbor for the British fleet. During the time that he and his troops occupied Yorktown, they confiscated crops, livestock and household goods in order to support themselves. Edward was directly affected by the British occupation of Yorktown and the surrounding area by having some of his property confiscated, as did many of his neighbors and family. The loss of two pairs of scissors might not have been of much consequence, but certainly the loss of a horse was much more serious. Understanding how the war affected families and individuals who were not combatants is part of the larger story the new farm site will tell.

By Martha Katz-Hyman, Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

2 thoughts on “18th-Century York County Family Supports Storyline For American Revolution Museum at Yorktown Farm

  1. JoAnn Moss says:

    I am a descendent of Edward Moss I am his great great great granddaughter JoAnn Moss I would like to be known as a descendent of my bloodline

  2. this will add greatly to our understanding of our enslaved ancestors.we also nneed to hear about the free African americans in york county and how they got free.i found mmy family The Roberts free fpr many yrs but do not know how they got free.

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