This is the conclusion to my 11-part series on Susan Edwards Johnson’s diary of her travels on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. I found the diary last spring at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
The climax of Susan Johnson’s diary was her journey to a remote outpost on the Black River, in the southeastern corner of the North Carolina coast. After spending 4 weeks at Peter and Sarah Mallett’s rice plantation, she left Point Peter in a stagecoach on February 9, 1801. Her husband, Samuel, had gone 10 days earlier. He was waiting for her at the Black River.
After riding for most of two days, Susan had the coach driver stop where the road crossed the Black River.
She then walked 2 miles to “Milltown,” a rough little settlement where Samuel was overseeing the construction of two lumber mills and a gristmill.
That part of the Black River is incredibly beautiful to me. Ever since I was young, I have loved exploring its blackwater rivers and cypress swamps.
But it’s not for everyone. Today it’s still sparsely settled, and that was even more the case in 1801.
Samuel Johnson and Peter Mallett had forged a partnership to develop the property at the Black River, with Samuel mainly responsible for building the mills and developing the lumber business.
Their property ranged over 16,500 acres of cypress, oak and pine forest. In addition to timberland, their holdings included a thousand acres suitable for rice production and uplands sections prime for the production of naval stores.
“A snug log house”
Susan had been determined to get to Milltown. Once there, she insisted on remaining upbeat.
In her diary, she wrote, “I found a snug log house & things comfortable if I consult only my real wants.”
The “snug log house” was a stifling, windowless, one-room cabin. Samuel does not even seem to have had an oil lamp. In the daytime, Susan could only see by opening the cabin’s door and letting in the light, which, of course, in winter she was often reluctant to do.
Susan was not intimidated. Or if she was daunted, she certainly did not admit it in her diary. She had left her children and come 600 miles to get to that windowless log cabin, and she was not going to be put off now that she had arrived.
She was there to bolster her husband’s spirits, and I feel sure she did. But she had also come to relieve her own fears about his life there. I’m not as sure that she was successful on that front.
At the Black River
I do not know if Susan’s stay at the Black River relieved her anxieties. Her diary does not say. In fact, she described only one incident in any detail while she was there, and it was a curious story about a woman that the local people called a witch.
On the 13th of February, Susan wrote in her diary—
… took a walk this morning with Mr. Johnson. We went into a house & I observed a horseshoe nailed on the side of the door. On inquiry I found out it was put there to counteract the spells of a witch there was in the neighborhood. The people had got so possessed of the idea that a poor woman in the neighborhood had some intercourse with evil spirits & had bewitched many of them, that they determined to destroy her. She was obliged to fly from her own house & hide herself, or they would certainly have killed her.
One man declared to Mr. Johnson that she [the witch] had rode him over a river & another one brot [sic] to court a number of crooked pins & needles which he swore one of his children had vomited up, in consequence of this woman’s witchcraft.
A folk belief in witches riding people at night, when they were sleeping, was common in eastern North Carolina in the 18thand early 19thcentury. People often woke up after a bad night’s sleep and said—or were told— that ”the witch had been riding them.”
Folklorists believe that fears of “witch riding” or being “hag ridden” originally derived from what today we would call night terrors—basically, bad nightmares— and/or from medical conditions such as sleep apnea and sleep paralysis that sometimes have frightening symptoms, such as a sudden inability to breathe or move in the night.
A belief in witches or demons riding people in their sleep was ancient and widespread. Folklorists have documented accounts everywhere from Scandinavia to the Gullah-Geechee region in the Carolina Low Country.
Folklorists have also documented a historical belief in the disgorging of strange or foul objects, including pins and needles, in association with witchcraft and demon possession.
As for its origins, they point to an abundance of cases in the historical literature from the Late Middle Ages in Europe. However, the belief may be much older.
Susan must have wondered what became of “the poor woman in the neighborhood” that was deemed a witch. In her diary, she indicated that she did not believe in witchcraft and the community’s treatment of the woman appalled her.
We do not know what became of the woman accused of being a witch. Her case illustrates the dangers that women faced in coastal North Carolina in that day, if they either refused to conform to society’s expectations or proved unable to live up to them.
Of course, her case also speaks to the fears that people felt in a world that they did not comprehend and to the lives they led that were full of misfortunes in which they could find no rhyme or reason.
“Alone in the dark”
Other than that story, the entries in Susan’s diary scarcely mention what her life was like at the Black River. What she did write does not make her stay sound easy.
Between February 14 and 24, she wrote that she often did not feel well in the little cabin. It was dark and too hot or too cold.
On the 25th of February, she noted that Samuel was away from the cabin as “they were raising the second mill.” As a consequence, she explained , “I was obliged to sit alone in the dark, as the wind blew in the fire & made it smoke….”
A few days later, on March 1st, the picture she painted of her life at Black River was even bleaker. She didn’t exactly complain, but you can tell that the rude conditions were testing her fortitude.
On that day, her diary’s entry said only, “I sat all this morning alone in the dark.”
“The sacrifices of domestic life”
Susan Johnson remained at the Black River for 3 weeks. In her diary, she occasionally mentioned hardships, but she did not dwell on them.
However, in future winters, when she remained home in Connecticut and Samuel returned to the Black River for periods of 6 months at a time, Susan often wrote him there.
In those letters, she often revealed indirectly what she had thought of “Milltown” when she was there in 1801.
In one letter, dated 20 Mar. 1802, she referred to Samuel’s “forlorn situation at Milltown” and wished he could “partake of the comforts we enjoy.”
In that letter, she also wrote,
“You certainly know that the acquisition of property will be no gratification to me if you are obliged to make so great sacrifices[.] On the contrary [it would be] a source of the keenest misery….”
A week earlier, Susan had written:
the thot’s [sic] of your forlorn situation, is a constant source of anxiety to me when I think how comfortless every thing about you is, I fear all the money you are going to make will scarcely be a compensation for the sacrifices of domestic life—the only consolation I desire from it, is, that you must be busy, & you had better work for yourself, than others….
Written a year after her visit to the Black River in 1801, those words convey how she felt about his situation in Milltown.
They also reveal the extent to which Susan believed that her husband’s financial misfortunes in Connecticut had damaged his self-esteem.
“On board a Newhaven packet”
The end of Susan Johnson’s journey to the North Carolina coast had arrived. On or about the 1st of March 1801, she left Samuel and the Black River. She rendezvoused with her first cousin, Frances Pollock Devereux, in Fayetteville, and the two women traveled together to New Bern.
They arrived at Devereux’s home in New Bern on March 5th. Susan remained there for six weeks, until Samuel finished his work at the Black River for the season and joined her.
On the 15th of April, they said their good-byes and boarded the ferry across the Neuse River. They rode to Edenton and – I’ll let Susan finish the story—
Embarked on board a Newhaven packet which was to land us at Strafford point but it was night when we came by & we were obliged to go to New Haven where we arrived 3 of May. [A stagecoach] in the afternoon took us home between five & six & found my dear Children & other friends all in good health after an absence of six months.
Susan’s diary ended on that day—May 3, 1801. The rest of her and her husband’s story unfolded over the next four years, at least the part of their lives that concerned coastal North Carolina.
I found those years chronicled in her letters in the William Samuel Johnson Papers at the Connecticut Historical Society.
According to those letters, Samuel continued to spend half of every year at the Black River for several more years. Susan, too, went back once, in 1802, though she had sworn that she would never leave her children for so long again.
Things came to a head in the winter of 1803-1804. Susan experienced a very difficult pregnancy. Her thoughts grew dark, and she wrote to her husband and friends as if she was certain that she would die in childbirth.
That March, in her 9th month of pregnancy, she wrote Samuel while he was at the Black River—
I am comforted for all my suffering by the prospect of the sweet reward which I hope awaits me & as it is one in which you will doubly participate, my resignation is cheerful….
At the same time, Samuel was adjusting his conscience to being a slaveholder for the first time. In the same letter, Susan wrote him—
I have always feared you wou’d be reduced to the unpleasant necessity of purchasing negroe’s [sic] for your business, but am sorry to find it so soon happen but I am of your opinion that it is now unavoidable & hope the success of attending it will compensate for the sacrifice of your feelings.
In earlier letters, Samuel had told her about the difficulties that he was having in hiring reliable free laborers at the Black River. When it came to being a buyer and/or seller of enslaved people, few of the New Englanders that he and Susan met in North Carolina had waited so long.
Peter Mallett’s Death
Susan’s fate changed quickly beginning in March of 1804. First, her spirits lifted after she had a healthy baby and recovered quickly from childbirth. She would live to the ripe old age of 85.
Then Samuel’s business partner, Peter Mallett, died a year later. Apparently Samuel was either not willing or could not afford to move forward without him. He decided to take his profits and abandon the Black River.
In July 1805, Samuel posted an ad in the Wilmington Gazette in which he offered for sale his half of the Black River property— half of 16,500 acres, oxen, livestock, “a few negroes,” two sawmills and a gristmill.
The sale of his holdings at the Black River halted what sometimes seemed to me like an ineluctable momentum toward Samuel and Susan leaving Connecticut and becoming plantation owners in North Carolina. Many of the other New Englanders of their acquaintance had followed that path.
On that note, I have come to the end of my look at Susan Edwards Johnson’s diary.
When I began this series, I thought I might write only a brief note on Susan’s diary. I had no intention of writing an 11-part series and almost 100 pages. However, I found myself returning again and again to her words.
Gradually I came to appreciate how much I could learn from the diary.
Through her words, I visited places I never thought I’d see in the historical record—from the drawing rooms of a wealthy heiress in New Bern, where women of great privilege read novels aloud to one another, to the African Meeting House in Wilmington.
But something more kept drawing me back to Susan and her diary as well. I found that her words shone a light on a woman of that day’s heart and mind, the unique moral dilemmas she faced and the complex layers of family, politics, religion, race and class that framed her life.
But beyond even those things, I found something else irresistible in Susan’s diary.
In what she wrote, in the women’s novels and scientific treatises she read, in the places she decided to visit, as well as in her silences, I came to believe that I could feel a soul stirring, like the faint tremors we feel in the sea when a storm is approaching, yet remains far beyond what we can see.
I felt the life of a woman of great depths and feelings and possibilities, caught, like all of us, in a time and place not of her own choosing, with something deep inside her aching to find a voice and reaching out to us across the ages.
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4 thoughts on “The Witch at the Black River”
Thank you, David. I have enjoyed your discoveries and reflections very much. Jane Holding
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Thanks so much for your kind words, Jane- it’s so good to hear from you….
Thank you for these moving posts. The Black River can still inspire awe and desolation, especially since Hurricane Florence. I’ll be there tomorrow when I go to the Canetuck Community Center (Canetuck Rosenwald School ).
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David, this is an amazing series. Thanks. Fred Hutchins
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