Emergence Magazine

Ancestral Structures on the Trailing Edge

by Lauret E. Savoy


Lauret E. Savoy is the author of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, winner of the American Book Award and the ASLE Creative Writing Award. She co-edited The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, co-authored Living with the Changing California Coast, and compiled and edited Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology. Lauret’s life and work draw from her need to put the eroded world into language, to re–member fragmented pasts into present. A woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, she explores the stories we tell of the American land’s origins—and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land.


Studio Airport is Bram Broerse and Maurits Wouters. Together with a small team of creatives, they run a design practice based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The studio has been recognized with international awards for projects such as Hart Island Project (New York), Amsterdam Art Council, and Greenpeace International.

Unearthing the convergent forces, both geological and social, that have shaped America’s Chesapeake region, geologist-writer Lauret E. Savoy surfaces tectonic movements alongside the deliberate construction of race in colonial America—and reckons with her own inheritances in this enduring terrain.

THE LAST BREATH before dawn. A moment of undefined edges slipping between dark and light, when it seems one might step through time and space merged.

From the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge I look over what, at the close of night, appears to be a vast, wind-silenced sea. Fog bound. Mist covered. Soon … slant light details land contouring beneath diffusing vapor; contours bound only by the dawn horizon. These lithic swells of the Piedmont—the foot of the mountains—extend eastward toward the tidewater coastal plain, toward Chesapeake Bay, toward the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

The first time I stood at such an overlook in Shenandoah National Park, a child of eight or nine beholding mist-becoming-earth, I thought eternity resided here. An existence that had to exceed human breadth. In later years I learned other scales of time and the ticks by which it is measured.

The outcrop that gives me footing is such a timepiece. Contorted gneiss, cold to the touch, its grains and fabric expose a small window to Earth’s past. Ancient roots of mountains that formed kilometers underground now lie high on the Blue Ridge. They offer a deep interior view befitting H. G. Wells or Jules Verne.

What I see in these rocks is a composite of violence and catastrophe that extended over a billion years. A testament to Earth’s abiding tectonic movements: Long-vanished ocean basins that preceded the Atlantic opening then closing. Mountain ranges that preceded these Appalachians rising, newborn, when island arcs, pieces of continents, and other landmasses—caught in the tightening vise of closing basins—collided, squeezed, and smeared against one another. Thick Earth-tiles crushed and imbricated to make mountains. Mountains that sutured collision seams standing well within newly-assembled supercontinents as monuments to obliterated seas.

Pangaea—all Earth—is the most recent composite supercontinent, which geologists think coalesced in the collisional assembly of Gondwana, Laurentia, Avalonia, Baltica, and smaller land-pieces nearly three hundred million years ago. The Appalachian Mountains formed in this convergence. Then, in the Triassic Period, as dinosaurs roamed about, Pangaea began to rift where upwelling magma penetrated zones weakened in preceding collisions. With the Atlantic basin’s birth, re-jigsawed continents diverged in the wake. Ranges sibling to the Appalachians now stand estranged across the Atlantic in the Caledonides of Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia. They have kin in bedrock across western and central Europe, in Africa’s Mauritanide belt. The Atlantic basin continues to widen, its margins—its trailing edges—still move apart.

And, for hundreds of millions of years, Appalachian peaks once as lofty as the Andes have yielded to relentless weathering and erosion. This, too, is geological insistence. Residues of decay carried downward by rivulets; by creeks, branches, runs; by rivers—toward Chesapeake Bay and an ocean. These mountains, though long worn down, still form the backbone of eastern North America. That they endure is why I return.

ONE COULD SAY that Africa and Europe were here before, cheek by jowl with North America. Then again, they weren’t. The continents known by these names have existed largely in their present outlines for tens of millions of years, their most ancient cores for billions. Names and notions of these places have followed different, more recent paths. Africa might conjure more, or other, to one’s mind than a large continent south of Europe in which hominids evolved. Europe might be taken to mean other than simply the landmass north of Africa.

Vestiges of repeated geologic collision, rupture, and erosion fill this broad Chesapeake-Appalachian terrain. Human forms of collision, rupture, and erosion occurred here as well. Looming as heavy shadows are traces of a history foundational to the United States and to what the nation would become. Traces that still mark each of us in this country today.

The region witnessed perhaps the oldest lengthy convergence of peoples from Indigenous North America, Africa, and Europe in what would come to be called the thirteen British colonies. To tribal societies—to Powhatan, Rappahannock, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Appamattuck, Piscataway, and so many more—the Chesapeake was homeland. Ambitious adventurers established Jamestown in 1607 as the first lasting English settlement on the continent. For the joint-stock Virginia Company, the venture’s goal was profit. Fortune. Nearly every moneymaking scheme would falter in the face of reality—but most required land, which the settlers took.

The brutal mischief of the Virginia Colony’s early commodity experiments bound geological and cultural collisions to the work of chance. Tidewater river sands, glittering with flecks of mica and grains of pyrite eroded from uplands, teased many a mercenary eye—until metal assays dashed dreams of gold. Having chanced upon a suitable climate and fertile soil, settlers began to grow tobacco, tapping its marketability by 1615. The soil came from weathered and eroded bedrock.

Tobacco quickly became the main exportable staple, founding “an empire upon smoke” that made Virginia then Maryland more than tiny cogs of the English economy.1 Planters soon appropriated, exploited, and commodified bound laborers and “plentiful” land as paired commercial elements. Historian Barbara J. Fields put it this way: “no one stood to make a profit growing tobacco by democratic methods.”2 So, here in the Chesapeake region, slavery would become established on a massive scale. Tidewater then piedmont lands would be transformed wholesale. Here, the first plantation revolution in North America would take place.

The legacies of these colonial projects continue with us. Among enduring yields are less recognized, less acknowledged terrains that shifted here, too. Terrains of notions and assumptions, of language and meanings, which collided and ruptured at different moments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Indigenous peoples whose homelands embraced Chesapeake earth and waterways did not identify as part of one monolithic group called Indians. They were Patawomeck, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Powhatan, so many more. Nor is it likely that Native captives sold by traders referred to themselves as “Indian slaves.”

Captives taken by force from the immense continent of Africa came to the Chesapeake region from different societies. Igbo. Ibibio. Moko. Kongo. Wolof. Bamana. Akan. Ga. Others. Still such names do not necessarily reflect the specific ethnicities of individuals who became enslaved.3 What is certain is that these peoples did not consider themselves identical, nor negro or black.

Yet English (then British) colonists imposed these and other labels—some of them borrowed from the Spanish and Portuguese—not only on captives from Africa but also on Indigenous peoples and those with complex ancestries. While working with his own Powhatan-Renapé people, ethnohistorian Jack D. Forbes began tracking the paths such terms took over time and space. He found many examples of colonists initially using words like negro, black, and mulatto as broad descriptors, even of Native people, not as definers of heritage or status, not yet.4 The word white also conveyed various ideas, and humoral theories about the body were used to explain complexion as a measure of health, of character, of emotion, or of environment.5 But meanings would change as a language of difference shifted toward a language of race. The linguistic economy of this colonial-born shorthand would then give power to stereotypes and fictions that became increasingly charged with racist assumptions.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed has noted that “the colonial period in America … in very critical ways helped define who we are today,” because it was then that “the basic meanings of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ were in the process of being defined.”6 By the late 1600s Chesapeake colonists started referring to themselves in their laws as “white” rather than primarily English or Christian. In distinguishing European Christian from heathen “outlandish” stranger—in beginning to link physical markers of difference to assumed inherent incapacity—now-“white” colonists elevated themselves over those held captive by force and stigmatized as deficient. They began to create in their own minds a hierarchy of racial categories that lurched toward the rigid “biological” taxonomies of later centuries. Peoples from Africa and the Indigenous Chesapeake had their own views of these strangers as well as each other.

It is possible to witness (belatedly) Chesapeake settlers inventing their rules of slavery and defining their rules of race.7 Colonial leaders—most of them enslavers—systematized and legalized what had become daily practices and customs of perpetual servitude. Not all at once, but when needs arose. As historian John C. Coombs bluntly states, these men “were serving the interests of their most important constituents: themselves.”8

For instance, Maryland’s General Assembly enacted, in 1664, its first law defining slavery as lifelong and heritable. Records of Assembly proceedings9 allow us to observe the upper and lower houses negotiating over two days, working their way toward resolution:

The Upper House of Assembly
Munday 19th Sept 1664


Then came a Member from the lower howse with this following paper (vizt)

Itt is desired by the lower howse tht the vpper howse would be pleased to drawe vp an Act obligeing negros to serve durante vita they thinking itt very necessary for the prvencon of the damage Masters of such Slaves may susteyne by such Slaves ptending to be Christned And soe pleade the lawe of England

Wherevpon was drawne vp an Act intituled An Act for Slaves, and ordered to be sent to the lower howse….

Then came Mr Henry Adams wth the Act for Slaves with some amendmts of the lower howse &; desired to have the Act perfectly drawne vp here. Whereupon the vpper howse sent this following paper to the lower howse and desired their answere therevnto in wryting before they proceed to the drawing vp the Act in wryting Concerning Slaves, vizt This howse desires to knowe what the lower howse intends shall become of such weomen of the English or other Christian nacons being free that are now allready marryed to negros or other Slaves vizt

[1] Shall such weomen be forced to serve as long as their husbands live? yea or not

2 shall the issue already borne of such marryage be bond or free? yea or not

[3] shall the issue hereafter to be borne of such marryage be bond or free? yea or not

Yea or not. These lawmakers invented the game as they played it.

Tobacco yields made it clear to them that unending servitude provided the most reliable and profitable form of labor. Besides, property rights had to be protected. These men (who were English and Christian but not yet “white”) legislated durante vita or lifelong captivity for those outlandish strangers they could enslave. They also made slavery heritable, initially in line with the English tradition of basing one’s status on that of the father.

Yet Maryland’s 1664 act also aimed to control English, Christian—but not yet “white”—women, who were often indentured servants:

And forasmuch as divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaves by which alsoe divers suites may arise touching the Issue of such woemen and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negros for prevention whereof for deterring such freeborne women from such shamefull Matches
Bee itt further Enacted by the Authority advice and Consent aforesaid That whatsoever free borne woman shall inter marry with any slave from and after the Last day of this present Assembly shall Serve the master of such slave dureing the life of her husband And that all the Issue of such freeborne woemen soe marryed shall be Slaves as their fathers were

Being forgetful of one’s free condition as an English woman; disgracing one’s nation. This law effectively enslaved such women, in fact if not in name, for the sin and insult of marrying enslaved (heathen, outlandish) men. “Race does not explain that law,” historian Barbara Fields points out. “Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.”10

Maryland would in time follow Virginia lawmakers in legalizing partus sequitur ventrem, the principle that defined children of “negro womens” as bond or free according to the condition of the mother. The benefits of such hereditary status to owners were clear: in their view, one’s human property could increase regardless of how enslaved women were impregnated. By adopting this form of status descent, not practiced in England, the tobacco colonies took another step in shaping their new world.

“There was logic but no prior design in the development of this barbarous system of human debasement,” colonial historian Bernard Bailyn reminds us, “nor had it been inherited or borrowed from abroad. It had been devised in the course of three generations by ambitious planters and merchants in the Chesapeake colonies desperate for profits, familiar with human degradation, and freed from moral scruples by their deep, pervasive racism.”11 Lacking clear legal precedent, facing few obstacles to greed or opportunity, lawmakers and planter elite served their own interests again and again. Their control of Chesapeake society and land embraced the power to define what they considered legitimate values, language, and terms of debate. It’s not surprising that, several decades before the American Revolution, a slave system based on race had become the key organizing element of this society.

Slavery would span over two centuries here; all the while legislators would continue revising, expanding, refining, and codifying their laws. By the time the new United States held its first federal census in 1790, more than half of the country’s nearly 700,000 enslaved souls lived and labored in Virginia and Maryland alone. The cotton boom of the Deep South lay in the future.

Property-owning whiteness had come to presume liberty, privilege, and authority for those now accustomed to being “white.” In their eyes, blackness (having no right-ful place) could be contained and chained, regulated and policed, exploited and degraded. The preferred view of most Chesapeake “whites” was that slave was synonymous with negro or black. An indivisible pairing. Even today, many people in this country presume that any person of African heritage who lived in the United States before 1865 had to have been a “slave.”

Yet the edge between liberty and bondage was never sharp or fixed in the Chesapeake—not when, for a time, “white” women could be effectively enslaved; not when “not white” people could try to live on their own terms outside of bondage. For there were many thousands of free people of color living in Maryland and Virginia, some of them embodying intricate blendings of heritage across generations. Of course, colonial then state legislatures tried to control and subordinate persons whose presence complicated the order of things, because they were free or of “mixed” ancestry or both. But daily living sometimes eroded legal boundaries. Sometimes laws went unenforced. And, for a time, Virginia even defined some people with less than one-quarter “negro” ancestry as white. The one-drop rule, although considered earlier, wouldn’t become a matter of law there until 1924.

Freedom and enslavement redefined each other in this Chesapeake borderland unlike anywhere else in the nation. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, it was the northernmost state fully invested in slavery—and the largest slaveholding state. Yet almost as many free people of color lived there as in New York and New England combined. Only Maryland could claim more. The line between liberty and servitude, North and South, ever shifted in the middle ground Maryland had become.

Today, motorists taking I-95 between Baltimore and Richmond might experience the route as one long traffic jam if driven on a Friday afternoon. But these two cities, just 130 miles apart as the crow flies, mark the contrast: Baltimore became a port to freedom for many escaping enslavement; Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy.

Between them stands Washington, DC, a national capital placed at the desire of the first president and fellow Virginians with the economic motives of a slave society in mind.

Every place, every landscape, 

is a site of memory

and a site of oblivion or erasure.

IMAGINING HOW Earth’s memory became inscribed in the land enchanted the child I was. Such wondering also solaced me when first assaulted, at the age of eight, by spit-hurled nigger. A key lesson I took then: that only my parents and the land could be trusted not to hate. A key hope I held onto: that the land would outlast human ugliness. Appalachian Mountains, rolling Piedmont, rivers flowing to the sea—all came from a before-hatred time. They had to endure beyond it.

Much that I couldn’t fathom started haunting me then. Racial distinctions between black and white made no sense. No human body that I had seen in my eight or nine years was really white or black. People’s complexions, people’s eyes and hair, spanned a broad range from light to dark even in my own family. My father and some other relatives looked like any “white” persons. To me they were simply kin.

Yet, my parents were silent about their pasts—about our family’s past, about who and what we were, about home. Most of the questions came to me after it was too late to ask.

Now I am coming to realize how deep my ancestral roots grew in Chesapeake earth. How the lives of my father’s predecessors—free, indentured, enslaved, and enslaving—were entangled centuries ago by a fledging society built on violence and bondage. These forebears were entrained in an emerging system of race and racism that tried to force them into separate ranked categories of worth. Some were free people of color living well over a century before the Civil War. At least one was an English or Irish woman who chose an enslaved partner. All had to negotiate liminal spaces between free and not-free, between white and other. The questions I now need to answer are these: What might have survived of their lives, their experiences, their presence in the absence of living memory? How do I honor such family?

That language and law reduced complex ancestries to narrow simplistic planes left many lasting impacts. Nearly lost to history is any expansive sense of lives entwined by converging diasporas from Africa and Indigenous America with immigrants from Europe. Mostly gone are hints of shared intimacies beyond those of force and violence. As Jack Forbes and others realized, too, complexity is further effaced when people in this country today read current racial concepts and definitions into previous centuries, when uses and meanings may have varied a great deal. Nothing remains timeless, fixed, unchanging.

I’ve written elsewhere that the past we all emerge from is broken and pitted by gaps not entirely unlike the fragmented annals of Earth history; that for me, with ancestors from Africa, Europe, and Indigenous America, these gaps grew from many things. From losses of language. From silences spanning generations. From dispossession, diasporas, and forced servitude. From the fullness of lives collapsed under the weight of ignorance and stereotype. From public narratives that still dis-member who “we the people” are in relation to each other and to this land.

Every place, every landscape, is a site of memory and a site of oblivion or erasure. The Chesapeake is no exception. Its worlds of 1664, of 1730, of 1865, no longer exist, but they haunt our present. I am heir to tangible and intangible legacies that I must face. No one is born onto a tabula rasa with no history.

Questioned by life, we are held to account. As I’ve written before, I need to re-member.12 To assemble a jigsaw of ancestral fragments and the many forms of absence encountered. To imagine what the remains and the gaps together imply. Even a partial sense might illuminate the braiding of life, race, and land. Perhaps, too, it might help me locate myself within many inheritances—as a descendant, as a Black woman, as a geologist-writer, as a citizen of this nation and of Earth.


ON AUGUST 23, 2011, a few minutes before 2 p.m. EDT, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale shook the eastern half of North America. Millions of people in more than twenty states and a few provinces—from Quebec to Florida, from the East Coast to the Midcontinent—felt the ground lurch. Perhaps more people noticed this quake than any other in US history. The epicenter lay in Virginia’s Piedmont. Unreinforced masonry took the brunt of damage as foundations shifted, walls cracked and spalled. The Washington Monument had to close nearly three years for repairs.

Among the millions caught off guard were quite a few geophysicists. The jolting had occurred along a previously undetected, deeply buried fault that is part of the Appalachian system’s ancient architecture.

The East Coast may not lie near a plate boundary today. But earthquakes still occur here, reactivating old ruptures as this continent adjusts in its continuing tectonic dance. Sometimes called a passive margin by geologists, the trailing edge that is the East Coast belies passivity. Ancestral structures remain, in plain sight and out of view.

  1. The quote on colonial Virginia’s hope “to found an empire upon smoke” by growing and selling tobacco appears in Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 71.
  2. Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” in Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Verso, 2012), 122.
  3. In her book What Is Slavery? (Polity Press, 2015, p. 72), historian Brenda E. Stevenson makes this point: “One must be keenly aware … that African ethnic designations during the period of the slave trade are, at best, vague labels that should be thought of as ‘umbrellas’ under which numerous groups of people, who might have boarded a slaving ship together, or left for the Americas together, were counted.”
  4. Jack D. Forbes, a writer, scholar, and activist of Powhatan-Renapé and Delaware-Lenápe heritage, delved into the history of racial terminology and the relations between Indigenous peoples and those of African descent in his groundbreaking book Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (University of Illinois Press, 1993). He, too, had a complex heritage that involved confluences of different peoples along the Atlantic coast of North America.
  5. In her book Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, p. 10), historian Sharon Block notes that, in the eighteenth century, “European beliefs in humoral medicine offered a means to interpret individual health, character, and behavior through various aspects of physical appearance, including complexion in particular.” Block adds (p. 25) that “European humoral theory underlay the purported causes of visible differences in skin color around the globe.” “Whiteness” did not necessarily indicate English or other European heritage at this time.
  6. Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008), 40–41.
  7. Annette Gordon-Reed, Barbara Fields, Lorena Walsh, Bernard Bailyn, and Ariella Gross are but a few historians who have written about the Chesapeake colonies in the act of inventing their rules of slavery and of race from the seventeenth century on. By examining extant county records, John Coombs has documented how elite office-holding planters in Virginia gained access to and used enslaved people earlier in the 1600s than had generally been considered. The works of these and other historians provide further background and context to older studies like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.
  8. John C. Coombs in Douglas Bradburn and John C. Coombs, eds., Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press, 2011), 263.
  9. Proceedings and acts of Maryland’s General Assembly can be found at the Maryland State Archives website https://msa.maryland.gov.
    Two days of negotiations in September 1664:
    The final 1664 law:
  10. Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” in Racecraft, 130–131.
  11. Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations 1600–1675 (Vintage, 2013), 179.
  12. Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015), 2, 29, 186, 188. In the prologue of Trace, I write that “to live in this country is to be marked by its still unfolding history. Life marks seen and unseen.” The paths to trace such marks traverse “many forms of memory and silence, of a people as well as a single person. And because our lives take place among the shadows of unnumbered years, the journey crosses America and time.” One key hope: we “may find that home lies in re-membering—in piecing together the fragments left—and in reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory, and to be one.”

Read More Stories from Shifting Landscapes

Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.

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