By Gordon Trueblood, PhD
As far back as I can remember Elmwood, the legendary brick manor home of the Swann and Pool families, was romanticized by local historians and given mythical status. That Elmwood existed, no one seemed to doubt. Precisely where along the Pasquotank River it was located was much less certain. The best answer local historians were able to project was “off from Brickhouse Point” and now washed out into the Pasquotank River. So, where is Brickhouse Point? “At the very end of Brickhouse Road where it stops at river’s edge,” they said.
I lived in that general area, something about the place where Elmwood once stood didn’t quite ring true. I admit that I bought into the notion that Elmwood, which played such a prominent role in the history of the county, state and country, was forever gone. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were forever gone too, but one could at least pay homage at their tombs. Not so, Elmwood. Local historians were content to let legends be. One particular local historian was rather adept at taking known facts and weaving them into interesting folklore.
In 1914, Catherine Albertson1 described Elmwood as a “large, handsome building” constructed of bricks brought from England. The land on which Elmwood was eventually constructed is first mentioned in public records in September 1663 when Thomas Keel from Bermuda received from Sir William Bartlett, the Governor of Virginia, title to 800 acres of land on what is now Davis Bay2. The intent of this transaction was that Keel would return to Bermuda to encourage others to return to build their homes on the Pasquotank River. Keel died before he was able to return to Bermuda.
Over time, this parcel of land changed hands several times. It was often the subject of dispute involving various pretenders and their heirs. In 1694, Samuel Davis acquired 326 acres of the 800 acres. This land was situated in the area now known as Davis Bay. Samuel Davis passed this land to his daughter, Alice, who married John Billett. At the time of his death, John Billet bequeathed 250 acres on Davis Bay to his son, Daniel. In 1724, Daniel Billet sold the lands to Thomas Swann. Thomas Swann was the maternal grandson of Governor William Drummond.
Thomas Swann was a man of considerable means and influence and “circulated comfortably through the highest ranks of society3.” At the time of his death in 1733, Thomas Swann bequeathed to his son, Samuel Swann, the plantation on which he lived. Samuel Swann increased in wealth and prominence and acquired most of the land surrounding the land he inherited from his father.
At the time of his death in 1768, Samuel Swann left to his son, Samuel Swann, Jr. considerable personal property and a plantation, later referred to as The Elms4 which is the first reference to Elmwood. When Samuel Swann, Jr. died in 1786, he bequeathed The Elms to his brother John. John Swann, a planter of considerable wealth, served as a Royal Councillor from 1751 to 1761. According to the records, he was listed as a planter in Pasquotank County with 2,130 acres, which is the total, contained in the quitrent records. Since his estate was never inventoried, it is not known if this consisted of several tracks of land, or just one.
After just three years of marriage, John Swann died suddenly and he died intestate. The estate descended to John’s young son, and only child, Samuel Johnston Swann. Samuel Johnston Swann died just three years after his father’s death, at approximately 5 years of age. With his death, the rightful ownership of The Elms became a complex and tangled issue that spanned two decades and was eventually brought before the Supreme Court of North Carolina for decision. In the ensuing time, The Elms was variously occupied by the Blounts, the Shepards, and the Pettigrews.
In 1823, Solomon and Martha Gaskins Pool came into possession of Brickhouse Point, surrounding lands, and the former Swanns residence. Although in the transaction there was no direct reference to The Elms and Elmwood, subsequent published sources confirmed that Solomon and Martha Pool’s children were born and reared in Elmwood, and that The Elms and Elmwood were one and the same.
Solomon Pool died in 1832. His widow, Martha Pool, acquired 74 acres of land including Elmwood and some out buildings. When Martha Pool died in 1839 the responsibility for the estate and for the care and education of her children fell on her eldest son, George Decateur Pool, who already had a wife and a child. The financial burden on such a young man for maintaining Elmwood and supporting a wife and child and the additional care and education of four brothers and two sisters must have been enormous. In 1840, he was compelled to sell Elmwood for $6,000 to Thomas Gaskins. It is likely that Thomas Gaskins was a near relative of George’s mother, Martha, and that the purchase of Elmwood was considered a loan. Thomas Gaskins held the title as collateral until George could repay the loan. In a few years, George was once more in possession of Elmwood since he bought back the same property from Thomas Gaskins, for exactly $6,000.
In October 1852, George Decateur Pool sold the plantation to Robert Pendleton for $4,000. One might expect real estate to increase in value. Assuming the plantation was the same as that for which Thomas Gaskins paid $6,000; does this loss in value imply that the manor house was some how/some way lost in the ensuing years?
What is the date and nature of the demise of Elmwood? What seems evident from various accounts is that Elmwood did not emerge from the Civil War. One theory is that it was destroyed by Union troops during the occupation. The most frequently cited demise is that it burned to the ground some time in the decade preceding the Civil War.
I first became interested in the “real” Elmwood and not the ‘mythical” Elmwood in 1956 when almost by chance “Aunt Carrie” Pool, an ex-slave in her 90s told me about a cemetery where Solomon and Martha (Gaskins) Pool were buried, less than a quarter of a mile from where I lived. The cemetery was small (four tombs: Solomon, Martha and their two young daughters Ann and Jane), and situated about a quarter of a mile from the road, in the middle of a field. It was, for all intent, a lost cemetery since local genealogists of the day had no knowledge or record the site. The tombstones were still standing, though ensnarled in a thicket of briars and almost engulfed by the undergrowth.
In a later visit with Aunt Carrie, she told me of a magnificent plantation house “down by the river”, built entirely from bricks. She could not describe it, because she had never seen it with her own eyes. She heard about the plantation from “the old folks” when she was a young lady. I suspect Aunt Carrie may have descended from slaves who worked the Pool plantation (Elmwood). When I asked her if she knew where the plantation manor had been located, she said that it was not far from where Solomon and Martha Gaskins were buried, almost straight back to the river from the cemetery.
Several times that summer I went “straight back to the river” from the cemetery, but I found nothing remarkable. Incrementally, I was becoming convinced that the site of Elmwood probably had washed out into the river, or maybe Elmwood was bigger in people’s imagination than in reality. It always seemed peculiar to me that when, in 1914, Catherine Albertson wrote her eloquent description of Elmwood, she was already giving it a “local legend” aura when, in fact, if Elmwood did exist, in Catherine Albertson’s day it would have still been in the living memory of many people. Maybe, I thought, Elmwood really was just an overblown legend.
Then one day, just a little distance west of “straight back to the river” I came upon bricks in the field which was along the water’s edge. At first it did not get my attention until I realized that they were not just chance pieces of unrelated matter. With a little digging and poking, I discovered more bricks and many of the bricks where scorched black by fire. As I searched through the weeds and undergrowth in the area, and the edge of the field, the bricks began to appear in increasing number, many scorched, some not. The first time I sensed I might be onto something was when I knocked away the briars and bramble and saw “Solomon” and “Martha” written on two tombstones. The second time I sensed I was onto something was when the scorched bricks began to appear in increasing number. This was beginning to have a “fit” with other pieces of the puzzle: that Elmwood was a magnificent brick estate and that it was destroyed by fire.
In the same area, over time I began to uncover fragments of slipware, glassware, blown glass, even the spout of a metal teapot and part of a metal caldron, not to mention a very large old key which is now in possession of the Museum of the Albemarle. Some pieces were found in the field, turned up by many seasons of plowing; some fragments were in the undergrowth on the edge of the field; and some were already at the water’s edge slowly being pulled into the Pasquotank River.
My father always encouraged me to learn more about the site. A couple of times he accompanied me to the river’s edge and made some interesting observations. He pointed out ballast stones lying by the edge of the water. I had thought they were just “rocks” until my father pointed out the difference. They were not indigenous stone from the area. Since the bricks that were used to construct Elmwood was reported by Catherine Albertson as having been brought over from England, my father encourage me to examine the bricks and fragments of brick for possible dates or inscriptions. I never found an inscription or date on the bricks. There is, however, another signature contained within each brick. It is possible for them to be examined in a laboratory to determine their composition, and a further examination of the composites will reveal if the bricks are from the area or not. If not, further analysis can be done to reveal if they were from England, even what part of England.
Once following a large storm, my father told me to go to the river for a look because the storm would have blown the water out into the channel. I went to the river, and he was right. What was once hidden under water was now revealed. About a hundred or so feet from the river’s edge I could make out what I can only describe as “structures”. There were wooden posts coming up from the river’s bottom. They did not seem to be randomly placed, but to be organized, but I was unable to determine what their purpose may have been. Further out I saw other posts that looked like they may have formed the foundation of a pier. Something was also circular and hollow, like the walls of a well. I was not wearing proper shoes and clothing, and as the weather was cold, I did not venture out very far.
There were a couple of times when I visited the site when I came across a large, dark gapping hole in the ground, about 25 feet from the river’s edge. It appeared as if the ground had caved in on a hollow space which I thought may have been a cellar or even a vault. I was truly afraid to approach the hole, not for fear of skeletons, but for fear that the ground might collapse under me and earth fall in on top of me. Back then, Mr. Charlie Smith who owned the land never tilled the field over that spot.
I became unequivocally convinced that I had found the unbroken link between Solomon and Martha Pool’s final resting place and the site of Elmwood. In spite of all of my claims and assertions about the significance of the site to people who should have picked up their ears and listened, no one did. What could a pimply-faced, bespectacled little nerd possibly know about Elmwood?
The years became decades. Still, no one would listen; one reason being the wide-spread belief that Brickhouse Point was the mass of land at the end of Brickhouse Point Road, and that was where Elmwood once stood, but a little further out now swallowed up by the river. Even today, the housing development at the end of Brickhouse Point Road is erroneously called “Brick House Point.” All USGS maps show that Brickhouse point is the point of land, forming the eastern boundary of Davis Bay and projecting out into the Pasquotank River. This projection of land, within the present boundaries of the United States Coast Guard Base, is just a few hundred feet from where I found the scorched bricks and artefacts. My take is that local historians were feeling too warm and cozy with the legend of Elmwood and its gentry and gala balls. They didn’t want to wake up and smell the scorched bricks.
When I came home for visits from university and later from work abroad, I always returned to the river. I took my niece with me; in fact to her it was the most exciting part of my return home. She loved digging the ground and river bank for artefacts and what ever treasure they might reveal. It was also increasingly evident that more and more of the river bank was eroding away along with more tangible evidence of Elmwood. In the 1980s with adult maturity finally on my side, I decided to try one more time to earn the site the attention and consideration it so richly deserved. I went to the Museum of the Albemarle and met with the Director, Barbara Taylor. I brought with me a sample of the artefacts and bricks I found at the site, as well as the old key. She was enthused by what I said and what she saw. She wanted to visit the site.
A couple of days later, Ms Taylor accompanied by Raymond Sheely drove to mother’s home, and we walked through the field to the site. Both Ms Taylor and Mr. Sheely expressed great interest in what they saw; both felt they were standing on historic grounds. Together, the three of us collected additional artefacts from the field and from the waters edge. Back at the Museum, the artefacts were catalogued and sent to the Research Branch of Archives and History in Raleigh for analysis.
It was quite a while (a year or more) before the Research Branch of the Division of Archives and History completed their analysis and produced a report. The earliest fragments of slipware and salt-glazed stoneware dated to 1670 – 1690 period. Other fragments dated as late as the mid 1800s. It was evident that the artefacts speak of an early site, a site that shares a long history. The opinion was that the find was a significant one and deserved thorough archaeological investigation. Subsequently, in 1987 the Division of Archives and History produced “A History of the Brickhouse Point Area of the Pasquotank River.” This document was to serve as the starting point for further investigation of the site.
Under the guidance of Ms Taylor, the Museum of the Albemarle made a request of the state to receive matching funds in order to conduct an archaeological survey of the entire county, with a particular focus on the Elmwood site. In my letter back to Ms Taylor in March 1988, I wrote:
I am most impressed with the work and investigation of the artefacts. I am truly encouraged by your interest. I am anxious that you succeed in securing the matching funds from the state in order to conduct an archaeological survey of the county. I also feel the site to which I directed you should be professionally excavated. I feel a certain tincture of anxiety, however, since, as you are aware, many of the artefacts are now washing into the river. I feel that with each day’s delay, precious history is escaping our grasp, and subsequently our knowledge.
The final paragraph of the historical report on Brickhouse Point produced in 1987 by the Division of Archives and History in Raleigh reads as follows:
The Brickhouse Point area on the Pasquotank River is one which is extremely rich in terms of its history and archaeological potential. It is significant not only for Pasquotank County but for North Carolina in general. Particularly during the colonial and antebellum periods, it was associated with a series of prominent individuals who made it the base of their social, economic, and political activities. It is hoped that the area can be studied by a professional archaeologist at some point in the near future, and that this report will provide useful historical background for that study.
Twenty years have passed since the report and recommendations were produced. There has been no attempt to study the site, perhaps one of the most historically significant sites in North Carolina. There has been no attempt to gain greater knowledge and understanding of the site, and subsequently of our history. I feel the people of Pasquotank County and North Carolina have been let down by the very bodies whose job it is to preserve our history and to promote understanding of the history and material culture of the Albemarle Region. Time continues to pass and I have all but abandoned hope.
In 2001 I found the following notice posted to Old Albemarle and Pasquotank County Discussion Board:
“Please contact me if you have any info on solomon pool who married martha gaskins around 1800. Also interested in family before 1800. I will gladly share info on pool family from 1800 to present. sincerely, john pool 8 June 2001”
This was a God-send to me. I found direct descendants of Solomon Pool and Martha Gaskins. I could finally reunite them with their family, and restore to them the dignity they deserved. I cannot express the enormous relief I felt when I responded to John Pool’s message. It gave my soul a sudden thrill. I no longer had to worry what would happen to the final resting place of Solomon and Martha and their two young daughters. The Pool Family has taken on this responsibility with extraordinary zeal and commitment.
The last time I saw Aunt Carrie Pool was just before Christmas 1962. I passed by her house one cold evening to drop off some Christmas gifts and visit for a spell. She was pretty much bed-ridden, but otherwise alert. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I recall the two oil lamps (the house had no electricity), and the wood stove that provided the only source of heat. It couldn’t have been much more different than a hundred years before when she was bound to the service of the Pool family. Aunt Carrie passed away in early January 1963. I still wonder to this day what other knowledge she took with her, which we may never know.