The Sins of Christopher Fiddes

Sometimes a query from a Waterford descendant will, as below, reopen a neglected chapter of the village’s rich history…

Of the hundreds of thousands who emigrated to North America from the British Isles before 1800, the great majority were not free. Most had bound themselves to a number of years’ servitude in exchange for their trans-Atlantic passage or had entered into contracts as apprentices, hoping to learn a trade. Many of the remainder were felons who accepted a period of bondage in the New World rather than face notoriously harsh punishment in the United Kingdom, even for minor transgressions. One of the latter unfortunates summed up
his plight:

Forc’d from your country for to go
Among the negroes to work at the hoe,
In different countries void of relief
Sold for a slave because you prov’d a thief . . .

Waterford’s settlers drew from such indentured arrivals to supplement their own labor. And not infrequently, problems arose. At some point in the 1760s, Quaker Francis Hague, brother-in-law of the town’s founder, Amos Janney, took on an Irish offender, Christopher Fiddes, probably “to work at the hoe” on his farm at the north edge of the village. Unfortunately for Hague, Mr. Fiddes’s contrarian inclinations had accompanied him to Virginia. In August 1769 the new hand was “detected” gambling in a local tavern. At the time he was described as a “servant” of Mahlon Janney, Amos’s son and Hague’s nephew. Perhaps Francis, who was nearing 70, thought that the younger Mahlon might better be able to deal with the refractory Irishman. After all Mahlon had hauled into court that same year would-be runaway Duncan McDonald, and had additional time added to his term of service. But Christopher proved a hard case. Within weeks Francis was obliged to post a notice in the Virginia Gazette:

Run away from the subscriber, living in Loudoun County, near the Quaker meeting house, about 12 miles below the Blue Ridge, an Irish convict servant man named Christopher Fiddes, about 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high, and pretty well set. He had on when he went away a light coloured linsey jacket, a cotton ditto, a felt hat, two homespun shirts patched on the back with new linen, two pair of trowsers home made, a good pair of strong shoes, and a large flag handkerchief. He is very talkative, and of a very proud bold behavior, very near sighted, is a lover of strong drink, and very subject to take too much when opportunity offers, and is then very ill behaved; he walks briskly but heavy, taking long steps with a proud air, and is very subject to set his hands on his sides when speaking to any person; has a down look, and is marked with the small pox, tho’ not deep, but plainly seen. Any person taking up and securing the said servant, so that he may be had again, shall have a reward of THREE POUNDS, with all reasonable charges, paid by FRANCIS HAGUE.

No subsequent mention of Fiddes has been found, suggesting that he made good his escape. Despite the setback, both Hague and Janney continued to employ indentured laborers, as did many others in Loudoun at the time, as the system, when it worked, benefited all. In 1773 for example, Hague took on a new apprentice, an 18-year-old lad “bound to be a farmer.” But in this instance, at least, he was taking no chances. The new boy was a relative, Amos Hague.