Mary Stuart Hall
This essay tells the story of how I came to discover that my 3x’s Great Grandfather was a land surveyor. I am working on including this essay as a piece in a conceptual atlas. The essay provides an introduction to how I came to be interested in making work around land use. As I continue to develop this essay and the atlas, I plan to continue to develop more critical writings that consider our relationship to the land and how I can problematize it in my artistic practice. The photographs are associated with my story and my work.
Mary Stuart Hall is currently pursuing her MFA in Studio Art in MICA’s low residency program. She is doing work around land use and the history of land ownership.
“After much reflection on the subject I proceed to
give you my opinion founded on some
experience, respecting your son’s coming to this
country. If he could enjoy good health and be
contented with your business I would advise him
to remain at Ramsgate; but if he cannot be happy
there I would not check his inclination. The world
is before him; he has youth, talent, education,
and energy of character; these qualities with a
common degree of prudence, your pecuniary aid,
and the blessing of God give him peculiar
advantages, especially as he likes work.”
-William Knowles July 1, 1847
“The plat was prepared by William Knowles between 1835-40.” After driving eight plus hours to Ohio with a letter and the hopes of finding someone who could help me with my research, finding my 3x’s great grandfather’s name in a book felt like more than a small victory. I had begun my trip intentionally without much of a plan of action. Driving north on I-75 until I reached Piqua, OH, I wanted to see if I could find out more about my ancestor whose words had inspired my recent installation of text, concrete, and found images. My installation had been an investigation into the intersection of text, memory, and the construction of meaning. Visiting the birthplace of the letter seemed like more than a natural extension of the project, it felt like I was negotiating an emotional gap through the time and space of more than 150 years since the letter was written. I was drawn to the place not just as a resource for information, but for its potential to physically hold a connection to the past. I wanted to encounter the materiality of the place and see how that would transform the story I was investigating. What I uncovered in the myriad of historical resources was a story about land and property at the most complicated intersection of those two ideas which form the foundation of our country.
The letter that gave rise to my installation and my trip to Ohio, captures a political and cultural moment in the 19th century that seems particularly relevant to our current milieu. In response to a question about immigrating to America posed by his wife’s family in England, he describes the hardship of the life of a farmer and the political division of the country, “To farm this land profitable a man must chop down the timber, build his log house, plough and sow, reap and mow, in a word do all the labor himself or with very little assistance, and then he lives away from society, or is compelled to mingle with men on a fair estimate about on a level with the agricultural laborers of England.” Having arrived in Ohio at a time when the Erie canal had only recently reached the state, one can imagine the labor involved in creating the physical and social infrastructure required to sustain a rich and full life. The letter was written less the fifteen years before the civil war began and it predicts the failure of the Federal government due to the institution of slavery. He says “where the foundation is rotten the superstructure with fall.” William Knowles oscillates from the minutiae of which seeds he needs to plant crops and existential questions around his own identity as an Englishman.
When I first entered the Piqua public library, I found an extensive genealogical research room, staffed with knowledgeable volunteers eager to help. They were well versed in the skills required to research my letter and stocked with the microfiches and primary sources that justify their physicality through the nostalgia associated with the scent and textures of their fragile pages. The volunteer searched their databases for mentions of William Knowles and found several documents that spoke to his life in Piqua. He bought and sold land, his wife Mary participated in church meetings and, most significantly, he was mentioned in regard to platting a very particular section of town that would be known as Rossville. Other than the letter and general online research, I had no knowledge of what his business was or how he made a living. I had no idea what it meant to plat land and I had no idea of the significance of the Rossville township.
Rossville was established in 1840 on the edge of Piqua, divided from the town by a small creek. The settlement of Rossville became associated with its first inhabitants, the Randolph Slaves who found themselves there after a journey of hundreds of miles and many years of legal conflict. In 1833, the more than 400 Randolph slaves were freed by Virginia Senator John Randolph through his will at the time of his death. More than thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the legal precedence for a freed slave depended on the state of residence and which court had most recently ruled on the issue. No where was it more complicated than in a slave state such as Virginia. John Randolph had no direct descendants, but there were people with claims to his estate who challenged veracity of his will, of which there were three versions which all granted freedom to the slaves. After a 13 year court battle, it was decided that the slaves could in fact be released from their bondage through Randolph’s will. Not only had Randolph granted them their freedom, but he had also left them money and assigned an agent to procure them land. Judge William Leigh traveled to Ohio which was seeing a booming economy and population with the arrival of the Erie canal. When they arrived in Mercer County, OH by barge, where their land had been secured, they were met by mobs. They were pushed southward to find land wherever they could settle. Ohio was no more sympathetic to the freed blacks than their original homeland. At that time in Ohio, a new law was in effect requiring freed persons to carry a signed document from a judge proving their freedom. After being pushed back from the land where they expected to settle, they scattered to different towns in Ohio including Piqua where they settled in the Knowles Addition to Rossville.
After I got past my excitement over finding my 3x’s great grandfather’s name in a book and connected to such an amazing and heartbreaking story, I wanted to understand more about what it meant to plat the land and what it must have meant to a group of people who were once property to own land. I wanted to know if platting land was simply a legal registration or a physical process. I don’t think I had ever really questioned the idea of measuring and marking space in order for it to be individually owned with all of the exclusive rights and source of capital that come with it. How we define space through physical, social, economic and legal means has determined and been determined by the political forces of our history. Furthermore, all of the political and economic rights we take for granted were derived from the right to own land. Selling land to a group of people who only recently gained their freedom would have given them much more than the right to profit from the land, it was the chance to be a full participant in our fledgling democracy.
When I think about why this experience shifted the direction of my artistic practice, I’m struck by the idea of creating something from nothing. So much of art making, particularly when the divide between was is and is not art is thin, is about creating the space and circumstances for an object or experience to resonate with significance in a way that it would not otherwise. Depending how the context and the materials come together, somehow collectively, a work of art has a presence and a life that wouldn’t exist outside of that experience. Art is then defined by the social relationships and exchanges that we take for granted. Our relationship to the land and what we mean when we say we own it is a similarly amorphous encounter. We may own the right to use the land, to occupy the land to territorialize the space, but how those rights function in a legal and practical framework depends on the political and legal systems that give structure to our lives. My experience researching Williams Knowles and the history of land ownership has provided the point of beginning for a well of research and ideas to explore how these two processes are parallel and yet completely different. I went to Ohio in search of a physical encounter with the place where my Great Great Great Grandfather started his life in America and I found a story that touches the heart of what it means to name and create space both for art and life.