VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - Andy Ott has always loved rummaging through old things, ghost towns, discarded jalopies, battered Tom Swift novels. His Virginia Beach home could probably stand forever by the sheer number of history books he's bought and stacked on shelves over the years.
About 15, 20 years ago, Ott, as typical, bought a couple of volumes from an antique store. As typical, a folded piece of paper remained stuck in its pages.
It was likely a scrap used as a bookmark, he thought, maybe a forgotten shopping list or a note to Aunt Grace.
Atypical of what he'd normally do - give the scrap a new home in a trash can - Ott unfolded it.
To this day, he still doesn't know why.
One side of the light blue paper contained a perfunctory notation: "Bill of Sale from Daniel Fisher. $13.00"
The other side contained a passage that still haunts Ott.
In part, it reads, "Daniel Fisher of the County of Princess Ann(sic) and State of Virginia have this day sold unto Daniel Ward of the same County one negro woman Eliza and Child also one boy name (sic) Ned and one Girl name Mahalia for the sum of thirteen hundred dollars…Nov. 6, 1858."
A woman and three children. Sold like sacks of flour.
Ott kept the paper in a protective sleeve in a folder on his bedroom dresser for years until he decided a few months ago what he wanted to do with it.
He wanted to find their descendants.
Ott, 73, is a retired mechanical engineer and can pick apart most technical conundrums. He didn't know how to tackle this. He made calls to find someone who would and was led to Mary Lovell Swetnam, a special collections librarian at the Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library in Virginia Beach.
In Swetnam, he found someone as excited about the mystery as he.
Swetnam has been teaching genealogy classes for more than 25 years but has been a family researcher since she was a kid. She grew up with a grandmother who told family stories. Her father once borrowed a massive paper family tree from a cousin and spread it out on the living room floor. The family crawled around on it searching for names.
Swetnam is not one to get caught up in tracing her roots back to Adam and Eve, though.
"I think it's more important to know one ancestor really, really, really well, what they wore, what they ate, who their neighbors were," she said, "rather than have a list of names and dates."
Ott, too, could not stop thinking about how these four people on the bill of sale had their own lives. The piece of paper was one appalling glimpse into theirs.
"My family goes back to 1880 in America when my family came from Germany, but these people have roots that go back farther than that," he said. "These people have deeper roots in America than I do."
Then when Ott considers the date on the receipt, 1858, he realizes that the four had no inkling that a war would boil over just three years later and that their lives would again change.
"They were soon to be free."
Piecing together lives that had no meaning to many is difficult.
Enslaved people were tools to be used and required little paperwork to track.
A century before Virginia Beach became a city of sand dunes and suburbs, it had miles of small farms that used enslaved labor to cultivate pigs and corn.
An 1894 William and Mary Quarterly article, "Slave Owners in Princess Anne County, Virginia," examined 1810 records and noted that, "It will be seen that in this county the large majority of the heads of families owned slaves. This by no means represented all the families interested in slave property.
Many persons preferred to hire slaves, and, besides the hirers of slaves, there were many persons who, while not owning slaves, were dependent upon that species of property, such as overseers, store-keepers, physicians, etc. These last had a more substantial interest in slaves than the nominal slave-owners."
Swetnam began searching for the buyer and the seller because they would be easier to find.
The 1860 census, which occurred two years after the sale, shows a 42-year-old Daniel Fisher living in the Pungo area. He had $5,000 worth of real estate and $1,580 worth of personal property, which includes farming tools, livestock and humans.
The four-digit personal property figure tells Swetnam that Fisher still owned enslaved people after he sold off these four.
Other people were listed in the household, including a 60-year-old woman named Olivia Salmond.
Swetnam ventured back to the 1850 census and the accompanying slave schedule, which lists the enslaved by age, gender and color - "b" for black, for example, "m," was mulatto or mixed race. The form didn't ask for names.
She found no mention of Fisher owning slaves in 1850 but found a Salmond with six. Swetnam wondered if the slaves in the bill of sale came into the Fisher household through the Salmond connection, such as if Salmond was related to his wife and started to live with the family in the 1850s.
The 1850 slave schedule included a female aged 15 and two youngsters, a 2-year-old girl and 2-month-old boy.
Swetnam did some math, fast-forwarding eight years to 1858, the year of the sale.
Eliza was listed as an adult woman and Swetnam supposed that she was the mother of the child since they were phrased together in the receipt. Could Eliza be the 15-year-old in the 1850 record who would then be 23 in 1858? Swetnam found in a slave birth index that Fisher registered the birth of a child to Eliza in September 1854. The child was a boy named Samuel. Swetnam now had a name for the child.
Swetnam hypothesized that Ned and Mahalia were likely younger than 16 since they were referred to as "boy" and "girl." If they were able to do a full day's work they would usually be called "man," "woman or wench." Could Ned have been the 2-month-old and now 8, and Mahalia, the toddler, now 10?
"But this is all speculation," Swetnam said.
She then looked for the buyer, Daniel Ward. She found one in the 1860 census listed as a 36-year-old farmer with a wife - Fanny - and two small children.
She remembered that the library had a collection of donated papers from a Ward family in Virginia Beach. She sifted through it.
She found a family tree that showed Ward and that his wife's maiden name was Fisher. Swetnam felt that she probably had the correct "Fisher" and "Ward" in the sale receipt. Maybe they knew each other and were selling human beings among the family.
She looked at other details on Ward. He owned a good chunk of property with the census listing its value at $2,000. His personal property was valued at $2,870, so Swetnam was sure he had slaves.
She pulled up the 1860 slave schedule.
Swetnam was hoping that the ages listed would correspond with the ages she came up with earlier.
War came to the area in 1861 and parts of the county were occupied by federal troops. Many enslaved began to flee to freedom. The 13th amendment in 1865 ended slavery for all.
How did the war impact Eliza, Samuel, Ned and Mahalia? Did they stay in the area? Were they even still living at this point?
Swetnam looked through the 1870 census, hopeful. But she found no listing of an Eliza or Elizabeth, for which Eliza could be a shortened name, connected with a name "Fisher," "Ward," or "Salmond" - if Eliza took on any of the names of an owner.
The same with the two Mahalias she found in Norfolk.
She found two "Neds" in the 1870 census, a 15-year-old Ned Gould who was working for a Josiah Land. Another, a Ned Raby, was 16 and working for a William Fentress.
Could her original math have been off and one of these could be the Ned?
After weeks of research, Swetnam had no clear leads for Ott.
"We're kind of fishing with blindfolds on," she said.
It was disappointing, Swetnam said, but not uncommon.
It is what happens when one group of people is treated as humans and another is considered disposable property.
Now, Swetnam and Ott are turning to the public.
Maybe someone out there has completed some genealogical tracking and has an Eliza, or Elizabeth, or a Ned (or Edward since Ned was a common nickname), Samuel or a Mahalia they have tracked back 162 years to Princess Anne County.
Ott, who loves peoples' stories and old things, once considered sending the slip of paper to the Smithsonian.
But he wants nothing more than to meet possible descendants and give it to them. Until then, the blue paper is in an acid-free protective covering at the library, under lock and key.
"This would be a stunning piece of their genealogy. That's somebody's great, great grandmother," Ott said, the sound of wonder in his voice.
"Nothing would please me more than to be in a room with those descendants and to see that they thought this was as cool as I did. ... If we're lucky, it will be one person there. If we're really lucky, there will be 20 or 30."
Then he pauses.
"It would warm the cockles of my heart."