When the "Roots" craze hit the Dagnal family, we went digging for African gold -- perhaps a line of kings, or at least a warrior chieftain or two.
We found an English servant.
Of course, that's only half the tale. Or maybe even less than half. But the fact remains that the source of our family name probably was an Englishman, Samuel Dagnall, who came to America in 1698 at the age of 16 as an indentured servant who settled in Virginia.
Many decades later, it seems one of his descendants "went wrong." Thus, the black branch of the clan was born after he married one of his slaves. (All Dagnal first-born males, or at least the black ones, have been named Samuel since anyone can remember) There are very old members of the family who remember this Samuel, which tends to confirm the little evidence we were able to find.
This Samuel is remembered as having been quite mad, and apparently red-haired. That is always told as if the two somehow explain each other.
We learned from a historical society in Virginia that the original Samuel left Liverpool aboard the good ship Barbados. But the family name comes from Dagnall, a tiny little village in Buckinghamshire, which is still there, nestled in rolling green hills.
I discovered this when my English friends insisted I get away to the country, away from London, probably because I had become addicted to the dens of Soho, one of London's most notorious sections, full of artists, authors and punk rockers with pink hair. I asked, just to make my friends happy, if we might go to Buckinghamshire and see if I could find any "relatives," mentioning that our name came from some little corner of some little town there.
"Dagnall is a town there," one friend said. "We pass through it all the time. It has two 'L's instead of one."
Delighted, I set out with a friend to visit my ancestral "home town."
Going to the country in England is not quite like going to the country anywhere else. The nice thing is that there are public buses cheaper than trains and special "tourist trap" excursions, and which run almost everywhere, vaguely according to detailed posted schedules. All you need is a map.
The bad thing for us was that none of them went directly to Dagnall. You have to walk about two miles. That day, we walked for a while in the rain. Pouring rain. Strangest day of the trip, in fact. It was raining one minute, gorgeous and sunny the next. But the rainbows over the emerald hills were worth it. The we took a cab.
Dagnall lies in some of the lushest farmland I've ever seen. On the way there, I wondered aloud if there might be a library there with some sort of history of the town. The taxi driver tittered and turned to us. "Library? You've got to be joking," he said.
I didn't ask why. I was too busy imagining how funny it would be when strolled up to the town hall and announced myself as a representative of the American branch of the Dagnall clan. I was relatively sure there weren't very many black Dagnalls in the area. I was even surer that some of the townspeople wouldn't be all that glad to meet one.
And then we suddenly stopped, right in the middle of nowhere. Well, actually, near a couple of cottages just north of nowhere.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Dagnall," the cabbie winked.
We paid our fare and got out to look around. Which was easy. All we had to do was turn around in a circle, right in one spot, and we had seen it. All of it. There was exactly one pub, one beautiful little church, a few cute little pastel houses and a school that looked deserted.
In fact, the whole town looked deserted. We walked up one side of the one street and down the other side. The town hall, a little blue building about the size of an American two-car garage, was padlocked. The church was empty, too. There was no one home. In the entire town, the town I was named for, it looked as though there was not a soul to brag to. They were all out somewhere in the fields working or off at other jobs -- or hiding?
Undaunted, we entered a pub, where the three patrons -- two men and a woman -- cast uneasy glances at me. I could tell at once, without asking, that I had been right. There weren't any black Dagnalls in town. There weren't any blacks. I was dying to know if there were any Dagnalls left in town. I was dying to know how they'd react if I told them I was a Dagnall or, at least, a Dagnal.
But the looks of three Britishers -- not their words, because there were none -- sent me a message that I was a stranger and it would be all right with them if I remained a stranger. I didn't ask about the Dagnalls or the town. tIn fact, I didn't say a word. I was sort of frightened.
I thanked God I had come escorted by a very blonde British citizen who knew what to ask for. He ordered a pub lunch and two pints, just to say we'd done something there. That done, he spent the rest of our one-hour stay posing me for photographs beside road signs, church social posters, anything with the name of the town on it.
But for now, grandfather Samuel, I think I understand why you left.