A Will Dated 1816

Why did Jane, Judith and Lucy
remain in Kentucky three years
before they were able to return to Virginia?

Letters, archived in Richmond
tell the backstory like a movie.

The young women left
with their widowed father
to join an uncle in business
in the neighboring state.
No more than settled,
the father inconveniently
and promptly died.

The two sons of the family
write from college
to report their activities.
The girls write to beg
return to friends and family
at a house called Blenheim.

The brother of their mother took
them into his home.

Like all women of their day,
they had no money, no property
of their own and were the charity
of family or friends when orphaned
or widowed without inheritance.

But wait. The will says they did have property;
two black men and three black women.

How do you spend a person?
Lop off a hand to pay for passage?
Sell them whole?
Not without uncle’s permission.

Were the men sent to the field and tobacco barns
to pay board and room for all?
Were the women in the house pressed to serve—or service?
Was this their value, too precious to export?

We know who was slave but who was free?

Janet Taliaferro