Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Priscilla Bankston (wife of Peter Bankston)

By The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Vold Forde

Priscilla’s last name, birth date, and her lineage are unknown. We know about her through deeds, membership in Mars Hill Baptist Church in 1803, and the intestate settlement of her husband Peter Bankston from 1804 through 1815. She married about 1750-1754, by estimation based on birth dates of children, to Peter, son of Lawrence and Rebecca Hendricks Bankston, probably in North Carolina. Priscilla proved her headright in the estate settlement in January 1804. We can find no death or burial record for Priscilla. Tax records in North Carolina indicate Peter spent his last years as an invalid. He died in Clark County, Georgia either late 1803 or early 1804. Despite having little information available to shed light on her background, with the estate inventory we can imagine his widow in April 1804 on the day of the estate auction:

“Mama!" Wake up Mama!”

How long had I slept? It was hard to stay awake through the auctioneer’s droning and intoning. It gets harder and harder to stay awake these days. Lary's voice forces me to wake up; he hands me yet another piece of paper to sign. What does it say, I wanted to know. How silly that they ask me to sign papers I cannot read.

“It is an inventory of the estate sale” … Lawrence explains gently, laying the paper down on the old pine table Peter made for me so many years ago. Of course, I sign the paper with my customary “Y” mark and hand it to him for consideration.

Lifting the paper he reads it aloud to me with gentleness and patience. The sale is now finished and the legal fees will be paid. Money will be disbursed according to law because Peter did not write a will. Our children receive two-thirds of the sale proceeds and I receive one-third.

Glancing around the room I see the others looking my way anxiously. It is as though I have become the child and they have become the parents watching me closely, assuring and comforting me.

Lary stands at the head of the table nearest me with an inventory I must approve; William, Andrew and John sit on chairs on the opposite side of the table working on lists the auctioneer handed to them. Nimrod and Judith pour fresh coffee while Jacob and Jemima pass plates of freshly baked peach pie. Abner entertains the younger children with battle stories of the Revolutionary War while Hiram listens intently from a nearby stool. Nancy bustles about the room with trays of sandwiches making certain that no one is left hungry.

Peter’s chair is conspicuously empty at the other end of the table. No one sits in Pa’s empty chair. His chair is the most worn and used looking of all of the pine chairs. He spent the last years of his life as an invalid, sitting many long hours from daylight to dusk watching the hands out the window if the weather was bad; or if weather permitted the chair was moved to the porch where he could observe the work in progress. The chair seems far more empty today on this day when our possessions are sold – a lifetime of gathering and collecting – now gone.

And how should I feel on this day with the empty chair across the table – and most of my possessions and household sold to the highest bidder? Of course, that is why I sleep. It is better to let sleep dull my mind and darkness dull the ache in my heart. The ache is ever with me. Life is too soon over. What is that passage from Ecclesiastes? I cannot remember it.

It seems like only a moment ago I was a young maiden, fair and comely, catching Peter Bankston’s twinkling eye. Was it 1750? I think so, but my mind plays tricks. And the years rush past in my thoughts as I remember the births of nine babies: the daughters, the sons, the pain, the joys they brought into our lives through the turbulence with the British ruling the colonies. It was a the worst of times and the best of times - leading to the war that bought our freedom from tyranny.

We were there in North Carolina when it was first settled about the year 1744; from that time until 1754 or thereabouts, there were very few families in that part of the county, we Bankstons were among the first settlers. Our goal was to possess fertile land, and good pasture: the cane was so plentiful, at that time, that cattle were fat all through winter without feeding. Life was good until the British rule became unbearable.

We lost our son, Andrew, to that war; many of our relatives and friends lost loved ones too. Even with heartaches over losses, after the war we became giddy with optimism about the future of this new country. Georgia had land opportunities, too. We joined the throng of wagons moving west taking advantage of new head-right grants to increase our lands.

I think it was about 1784, we settled in northeast Georgia, first Wilkes County, and then Jackson County about 1799; Jackson later became Clarke County, Georgia. Here among the trees so gloriously flowered in springtime and breathtaking in fall, this is where we have stayed, our families increased and prospered. This is where Pa died and so shall I.

What shall I do now with my household sold – the Negroes – my beloved possessions? And then I wonder, do I need them now? For what purpose must I have them? Soon – all too soon - I shall follow Peter into the earth and to heaven beyond.

It is hard to think of the horses and cattle, the cows and calves sold to the highest bidder. It is too much to bear. I must have fallen asleep when they were selling the furniture, the beds and dishes. I could not stay awake when they sold the Negroes: Leanor, her three children, David and his wife, Patience. It is too much for my tired mind to comprehend - to think of a life without Tinah and Isham, too.

It is simply too hard to stay awake and I slip back into the gray mist of sleep. But Lary and Nancy nudge me once again, “Listen, Mama. You will keep Isham and Tinah; and we bought Leanor and her three children for you too. Wake up, Mama. This is the list of furniture and dishes that we purchased to give back to you. The old pine table Pa built for you – and the chairs – are yours for the rest of your life Mama.”

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