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Recently, I came across the story of Charles Drummond, a young, African American man from Accomack County, Virginia, known as the “Giant of the Eastern Shore.”
The first article I found appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
The story was also carried by the York Gazette, and the Staunton Spectator, within a few weeks. The question remained: just who was Charles? According to the news articles, Charles was born about 1860-1861, and lived in Accomack County, Virginia.
Prior to stumbling across Charles’ story, I thought, as a non-resident, that I was somewhat familiar with Accomack and Northampton counties, Virginia. My first visit to the region was back in 2012, to attend a cemetery preservation workshop, hosted by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources at Christ Episcopal Church in Eastville.
Over the years, subsequent trips to the Eastern Shore of Virginia were driven by family history research, following up on the origins and activities of our ancestors. Several, including Vernon Alexander Orton (1914-1972), and Phyllis L. Duke Crudup, were graduates of Hampton University. They’d both moved to Northampton County (south of Accomack), soon after their respective graduations, in order to teach African American children in what was then considered a rural and underserved area for African American education. While in the region, Vernon, my first cousin, met and married Miss Audrey Dunton, daughter of Thomas Jefferson Dunton and Margaret Fatherly, whose forebears were from the Birdsnest region of Northampton County.
Other trips were also genealogy-related. Our family hunted for the graves of United States Civil War troops, and found many, including the gravestone for Pvt. Henry Justice. Henry was a member of Company E, 10th regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, who served in the same company and regiment as my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton (ca. 1842-1918). We saw the shell graves on Chincoteague Island, and historic sites, like the barbershop and grave of Samuel D. Outlaw. Foodie perks included sweet potato biscuits with ham and sweet potato pies from Sting-Rays, soft-shell crab sandwiches at Captain Zack’s, Chincoteague Island, calamari in Wachapreague, seafood combos from the Machipongo Crab Shack, and sinfully delicious homemade ice cream at the Brown Dog in Cape Charles.
And yet, despite dozens of visits and intensive research. Charles Drummond’s story had escaped me. That would not do. So, despite the preparations for Thanksgiving and other deadlines, it seemed the right time to dive into his background.
Charles Drummond first appears in the 1870 Census, in St. George’s Parish of Accomack County. The family included Charles’ father Spencer (30), a farmer, mother Mariam (29), “keeping house,” brother (John) Alfred (3), and sisters Eliza (5), and Martha S. (11 mos.). Spencer Drummond was documented in possession of three hundred dollars’ worth of personal property. 2
In the 1880 U. S. Census, Charles and his family were again documented in St. George’s Parish, Accomack. His household included his father Spencer, mom Mariam, sisters Eliza (14), Martha (7), Mary (7), and Catherine (2), and brothers John Alfred (9), Edmond (5), and Spencer (5). 3
It was in early January, 1880, when Charles became a virtual celebrity. In addition to the article in the Baltimore Sun, referenced above, Charles appeared in at least nine other newspapers. The Clearfield Republican and York Gazette of Pennsylvania, Staunton Spectator of Virginia, and Southern Home of Charlotte, North Carolina, all reported the same “five pounds of meat” story carried in the Baltimore Sun. The Kaw Valley Chief of Perry, Kansas, reported that Charles “has just entered his 19th year, His foot has grown one and a half inches in the last twelve months. He wears No. 15.” 4
There were the unflattering portraits, reported by the Reading Times and The Times of Pennsylvania, and the Weekly Star of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Charles most likely did not welcome all of the scrutiny and attention.
I pictured Charles as a young, African American man, probably unaccustomed to a city like Baltimore, with its large population, having to push his way through the crowd, simply trying to find a decent pair of shoes and clothes.
In the ensuing years, the news media continued to report on Charles’ physical stature. In 1882, twelve newspapers in Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas reported Charles measured “six feet eight inches in height, his shoe is sixteen inches long, and weight 224 pounds. His principal diet since boyhood has been sweet potatoes.” 7
Tragedy soon befell the Drummond household, when Charles contracted and died from complications of tuberculosis, or “consumption,” as it was commonly referred to at the time. He passed away on September 20, 1886, near Onancock, Accomack County, Virginia.
Other newspapers reported Charles’ death, but differed on the point of his height.
The reference to the “Vey tribe” in Africa likely refers to the Vai people of northern Liberia and southern region of Sierra Leone. While the Dispatch’s assertion regarding Charles’ ancestry may have been a somewhat tenuous claim, I do know that Charles Drummond was descended from free people of color in Accomack County, Virginia.
According to vital records, Spencer Drummond, Charles’ father, was born in 1834, Accomack County, Virginia. Spencer was the son of Charles and Araminta “Minty” Drummond of Accomack County. He was documented with his family in the 1850 Census, Accomack County, Virginia, and 1860 U. S. Census, St. George’s Parish, Accomack County.
Charles Drummond’s mother, Mariam, was born Mariam Godfrey, daughter of Levin Godfrey and Martha Guy. Mariam Godfrey was documented with her family in the 1850 and 1860 census records of Accomack County, Virginia. Her father, Levin, was also documented in the records of free persons of color in Accomack County, Virginia, ca. 1850.
Thankfully, Charles’ grave has been protected, avoiding the fate of thousands of African American graves and cemeteries that have disappeared over time from the effects of vandalism, gentrification, and commercial development. He rests with his father, Spencer, mother Mariam, brother John, and sisters Mary Jane and Katherine in the Drummond Family Cemetery, Daugherty, Accomack County, Virginia.
- The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland); 21 January 1880, p. 3, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 26 November 2019)
- Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1870,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com: accessed 1 December 2019), Accomack County, Virginia, dist. St. Georges Parish, citing “Year: 1870; Census Place: St Georges Parish, Accomack, Virginia; Roll: M593_1630; Page: 247A; Family History Library Film: 553129.”
- Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1880,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 1 December, 2019), Accomack County, Virginia, dist. 005, citing “Year: 1880; Census Place: Accomack, Virginia; Roll: 1351; Page: 129D; Enumeration District: 005, page 38 of 79.”
- The Kaw Valley Chief (Perry, Kansas), 31 December 1880, p. 2, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019).
- The Weekly Star (Wilmington, North Carolina), 17 December 1880, p. 4, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019).
- The Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), p. 2, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019). The reference to “Barnum,” was P. T. Barnum, who made a significant amount of money from the racist exploitation of African Americans in his museum exhibits. See: Harriett A. Washington, “Hugh Jackman’s role as P.T. Barnum helps erase the showman’s violent racism.” NBCnews.com (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/hugh-jackman-s-role-p-t-barnum-helps-erase-showman-ncna831991,” 22 December 2017: accessed 1 December 2019.
- The Intelligencer (Anderson, South Carolina), 9 March 1882, p. 2, c. 6; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019); The St. Joseph Herald (St. Joseph, Missouri), 11 April 1882, p. 3, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 30 November 2019); The Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), 15 March 1882, p. 1, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 29 November 2019).
- The News (Frederick, Maryland), 22 September 1886, p. 3, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019). Frederick Decker (1836-1886), the “Ossian Giant,” was paid $80 per month as part of P. T. Barnum’s New York museum exhibit. See: “A Giant Dead,” The Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, N.Y.), 24 March 1886, p. 4, c. 6; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019); Weidman, Marilyn, “The Ossian Giant,” Allegheny County (N.Y.) Historical Society; http://www.alleganyhistory.org/places/towns-and-villages/f-j/grove/related-articles/2272-the-ossian-giant.
- The Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), 22 September 1886, p. 3, c.5; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com: accessed 1 December 2019)