It's interesting how a place that is so familiar, so commonplace, can suddenly become a place of mystery, of adventure and intrigue. My neighborhood, and specifically Will's Forest road, has become such a place for me. Will's Forest is a short block that intersects with Glenwood Avenue and lies one block north of Devereux St. I can no longer forge a familiar path past the sturdy turn-of-the century homes of this area, the welcome shade of ancient oaks, the sounds and smells of Raleigh traffic. These no longer hold my attention. Nowadays I find myself searching for Will--the name sake of Will's Forest.
Will is someone who I have only recently become acquainted with, a man whose way and life I am just beginning to understand. In my mind's eye. I see him standing in the forest, short of stature but sturdy, crooked legs and splayed feet, knots of dark wool sparsely cover his head, his large mouth smiling, his eyes alert. He beckons to me and I follow, into the woods. Within, I hear the wind in the trees, like an old house creaking and moaning in the late night, and voices of long ago.
My first encounter with Will occurred during a conversation I had with a friend concerning the historical character of the Glenwood Avenue area. When he mentioned that Will's Forest was named for a black man, a slave, I was intrigued. Historically, the inhabitants of this area have predominantly been white. What were the circumstances that lead to the naming of Will's Forest? The story unfolds something like this:
In the mid-eighteenth century a slaver sailing from the West coast of Africa and bound for the New World encountered a heavy gale off the coast of North Carolina. It went down somewhere between Hatteras and Cape Fear. Approximately two months later a group of huntsmen came upon six naked, half-starved young black men. Of their origin nothing was known. They were t.aken to Wilmington and held in jail where they languished for months, while the authorities anticipated the arrival of a claimant. But no claimant arrived. Time passed and two of the young captives died. The remaining four were transported to Bloomsbury, a cross roads community inland and deep within the forest which would soon become North Carolina's capital. Once again they were held in jail to await a claimant. Two more of them died.
But this was not to be the fate of Will and Mark, the last of the survivors, who now spoke several words of English and answered to these names. In an account written in 1900 by Margaret Mordecai Devereux, Will's life began to come alive for me. The following excerpt from her article introduces to the story Colonel Joel Lane. He is Margaret's great grandfather and the man considered to be "The Father of Raleigh," for on April 5, 1792, in the community of Bloomsbury, Lane conveyed 660+ acres of land to the state of North Carolina for the building of the capital, Raleigh.
"That the three harmless beings now left should be forced to languish in captivity was felt by Colonel Lane to be a great wrong, and as months passed and no claimant appeared, he grew more and more disturbed at what he felt to be a cruel injustice. One day upon visiting the jail he found Will sitting quite disconsolate, with tears streaming from his eyes, he pointed to the pallet where lay the body of Tom, who had died during the night. 'Ratee bite he toe off,' sobbed Will. 'Ratee bite he toe off, po Tom.' Shocked and grieved at the pity of it all, Colonel Lane determined to take upon himself the responsibility of setting the remaining two at liberty. "
And so he did. Col. Lane allegedly built a cabin on a portion of his property where Will and Mark were allowed to live and cultivate their own garden. Nothing was expected of them in return. But by setting Will and Mark at "liberty" I don't believe that Margaret was suggesting they were "freed." If that had been the case the names of both men would appear in some document, somewhere as free men. My research unearthed nothing of the kind.
As to when this area was first referred to as Will's Forest, evidence points to it occurring around the turn of the eighteenth century. Col. Lane had grandchildren who lived in the area at this time and stories of them visiting Will's Forest early on are recounted in Margaret's article. Also, around 1840, Col. Lane's granddaughter and Margaret's mother, Nancy Lane Mordecai, built a grand Greek revival residence in the vicinity of Will and Mark's ancient cabin. This residence was known as Will's Forest. Though Will was probably no longer alive at this time his memory obviously was.
"The question of Will's existence and condition of life is so nebulous," says Elizabeth Reid Murray. "There has to have been that sort of a person, but considering the information we have it is impossible to prove. " Murray, the author of Wake, Capital County of North Carolina. Volume I and From Raleigh's Past is a notable researcher and historian. The only evidence of Will's existence that I have collected has come to me through Murray, one piece being Margaret's article and the other, her half-sister Ellen Mordecai's book, "Gleanings from Long Ago." Both accounts are considered oral history and they alone cannot be considered proof of Will's existence.
But what more proof is needed? What is history, anyway? Is it not just names, dates and the accounts of people who are long since dead? What are facts? Because something is written down does that mean it is accurate? And if it is not accurate can it be a fact? After spending hours of time in search of proof of Will's existence I came to this conclusion: history, as most of what we experience in our lives, is subjective. If we are not able to make that "leap of faith" when.trying to understand something we will most likely not believe in it.
"History is the imprint that people leave behind in the form of memones and recollections that they share with others, " says Dr. William S. Price Jr., Director of the Division of Archives, North Carolina State Library. I went to Dr. Price when I was feeling totally confused about the meaning of history. I found that his opinion was not that different from my own.
"When you don't have documentation to verify a piece of oral history you must go through a process by which you weigh the evidence against the times. You then make a judgement as to the relevance and validity of the information." He also quoted for me a line from Charles A. Beard's essay, "That Noble Dream." "All we can ever hope to know of the past is a fragment of a fragment of a fragment."
Looking at history from this vantage point I realize that what I know of Will's life is a gold mine. And I, along with Murray, have made my leap of faith.
"Yes, I believe in Will," Murray says. "Ellen and Margaret don't make up things like that. They may have heard the stories in a slightly third generation way, and it could have been embroidered upon the way down, but because of their fondness for facts, I believe Ellen and Margaret. "
Indeed, both women's accounts of Will are second and third hand, coming down to them through Margaret's mother Nancy, Nancy's sister Tempe and their mother, Mary "Polly" Hinton Lane. Polly was married to Henry Lane, Col. Lane's eldest son.
Though both Margaret's and Ellen's accounts are similar in content their styles vary markedly, and often details of their accounts conflict. Ellen's recollections are of "Daddy Will, " and they consist of anecdotes of Will as an old man told by Aunt Tempe. Margaret's article, on the other hand, is written in a very direct and straightforward manner, almost as if she herself had witnessed the events. She starts at the beginning, with the ship floundering and sinking, goes on to recreate for the reader's benefit this new world as Will must have experienced it, and then ends the account with Will's final request.
"When he [Will] felt his end approaching he requested that after death he might be buried in a sitting position, his staff in his hand, a little food, a gourd of water, his pipe and tobacco by his side. His last wishes were scrupulously complied with. A large grave was dug upon the creek-side, and there the old man's bones, staff in hand, sit ready for the Last Call."
The area of Raleigh--or Bloomsbury--that Will once roamed is no longer a forest. There are no remains of an ancient cabin, no physical evidence of this man's existence. But he lives through Margaret and through Ellen. The history of the Lane family and of their ancestors is deeply rooted in Raleigh's past. Will is a part of their history, and through the legacy of Will's Forest they have assured him a place in Raleigh's history. Finally, Will also lives through me now, for as I walk the streets of my neighborhood I walk where he walked before me. I am walking in Will's footsteps.
Kathryn Cahow, a resident of Glenwood-Brookly. The date of publication is unknown.