In October 1808, William sowed turnips, understood permutation, and got a toothache. He observed “windward meteors” one night, and during another he dreamed he “was accused of stealing a horse named Gold.” He was twenty years old. His whole life stretched out before him. He drank rum, wrestled with Col. Reynolds, and perceived that “the pole of the moon is elevated above my horizon.”
Earlier in the year, he had considered the possible trajectories of his life:
March 14: Rise. I swore I would alter my station of life. Determined one plan of three to be executed: either marry MN, keep Bachelor’s Hall, or travel.
He decided on the first plan—capturing the hand of Mary Norwood, a twenty-six-year-old woman who would drive William to “aukward conduct” and lead him to burn love letters. This pursuit consumed him that year, changed him. By October, he was still pursuing Mary, whom he believed he might marry and his life would then begin.
It was also in that year that William began his log, religiously plotting his life in the small pages of thread-sewn notebooks, each day a flat list: “Went to meeting. Rode on JS chariot. Went home. O’Nail’s child piss’d on my handkerchief.” For the next fifty years, he tracked the menial tasks of his planter’s life: hoeing corn, building fences, killing hogs, damming creeks—alongside his unexpected hobbies: experimenting with fire, observing atmospheric changes, charting bird migrations, studying Greek and Latin. The hodgepodge of his recorded life reveals him to be something of a renaissance man perched on the edge of nineteenth-century Appalachia.
But William never intended for anyone to read these diaries. He kept his record in a cipher of his own design, fashioning shapes and symbols to conceal the terse fragments of his life. Presumably, he took the key to his coded diary to his grave. So he never expected anyone to know that he once “dreampt of murdering children and going to Georgia,” that the Master Mason’s password was “Tubal Cain,” or that on May 30, 1811, he “hug’d Peggy and felt her cunt.”
But William’s corpus survived him, through the Civil War and for decades after, somehow ending up in the possession of a schoolteacher named Ethel Bennett, who left the notebooks behind in her house in Wadesboro, North Carolina, when she died. Her house soon fell into ruin and, in 1975, was slated for demolition when a young man named Steven Scott Smith slipped inside to salvage anything of interest ahead of the city’s wrecking crew.
When he picked up a stack of misshapen notebooks tied loosely together in a corner and discovered they were filled with unintelligible garble—sprawling lines and symbols and equations—he might’ve tossed them back. But instead he gathered all twenty-eight, slipped out the door, and watched the house scatter.
Years passed as he searched for someone who could tell him what he had rescued. Because of the apparent age of the books, he hoped the American Philosophical Society might help make sense of them, but they waved him away. In 1978, he finally pestered the right person in George Stevenson, an archivist at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Stevenson Xeroxed a few pages, attached a short note—I don’t know whether the notebooks contain astronomical observations, a journal, or something entirely different—and mailed them off to a retired NSA analyst holed up in the Smoky Mountains.
It took less than forty minutes and a magnifying glass for cryptanalyst Nathaniel Browder to crack the code spreading across the grainy copies he received. It took him another six years to transcribe William’s life, uncovering all shades of the man: William the cartographer, the teacher, the forger, the fiddler, the militia captain, the sermon writer, the husband, the father, the lover. “The reader is left,” Browder later wrote, “with the lasting impression that here in these pathetic little books is the very essence of Everyman’s life from the cradle to the grave.”
In the beginning, William is timid.
March 23: Went to Mr. N’s shop. Thought to spark Miss MN but my Uncle CG was there. Did not do it due to Mrs. Ohen and S.
March 27: Started to meeting. Did not talk with MN. She looked cross-eyed.
To court Mary Norwood, he retreats into letter writing, agonizing over the first correspondence.
March 29: In the morning halled rails. Mother started to Grandfather’s. I went to writing a letter to MN. Alarmed by fire. Subdued it. Went to writing. Fire alarm. Subdued it. Wrote a while. Went around the fire. Finished writing. Slept.
March 30: Sent the letter to Miss MN.
And then he waits.
April 3: Slept late. Hear’d that MN received my letter on Thursday. It was not returned. Had toothache.
April 9: Hear’d MN would not return my letters.
He keeps his distance during the spring, working by letter and proxy.
April 9: Saw a poor boy with a banger. I and sister plotted to get MN to my house.
April 17: I told June that if MN was for jumping off I did not care how soon she let me know it.
April 22: Cold for the season. June come at night. Said MN did not want to jump off.
April 24: Wood-peckers come. In conversation with June, he told me that MN wanted longer time to consider (I am determined to be a neuter!!)
June 19: Swore I wou’d not send MN any more letters before she sent me one or I talked with her.
No matter young William’s nagging sexuality (“dreampt last night of hugging Rebecca Williamson and sucking on her bubbys”) and boastful claims (“told I would have two mistresses in twelve months”), he intends to hold himself chaste for Mary. Despite her silence and indecision, he remains resolute.
July 10: Got 9 turkey eggs. Shall land and marry MN.
I can’t help but connect the non sequiturs in William’s life. The April 3rd toothache comes with Mary’s refusal to return his letters, and then his good fortune with the turkey eggs shores up his confidence and will to win her. William’s declarations appear flimsy on the page, vacillating between patience and stubbornness, and the rumors of the summer spin him back and forth between worry to hope.
July 4: 32 year of independence. Byner communicated that MN wanted to know some things of me. MN said she refused a proposal of matrimony on my account. I swore that she should be the last [who] should lay it to my charge!!!!!
July 15: Byner told me MN wished we was married.
July 25: Dreampt that June was told Carpenter fucked MN. Byner communicated that MN wanted June to fuck her. Went carousing. Thought I wou’d never drink any more liquor.
Finally, in August, he takes a stand.
August 3: Wrote a letter to MN. Dated Monday. Ultimatum.
This time William’s firmness sticks, and he begins to affect Mary.
August 5: June come and communicated that MN thought I was mad with her.
August 9: Saw a phantom. Mother dreampt I married MN.
August 10: Small success. MN looked either mad or sorry.
August 16: Dreampt that I had cloth coats and Mr. Norwood consented for me to marry MN.
August 26: Dreampt that MN wanted Dog cooked for me and I contempted.
August 25: June said MN was willing to wait till winter.
August 28: AN said MN respected me.
And then the meteors.
October 9: June communicated that MN said she had never told that she wou’d not have me. Windward meteors. She be glad of me.
Throughout the year, William had been building a house, and by October he was finishing the chimney and housing his corn, hopeful, readying for his adult life, for Mary. But as 1808 drew to a close something changed. Perhaps William realized Mary would never consent, never make up her mind. Perhaps he grew too impatient. In any event, just before the year ended, he gave up. Gave up on his life plan, gave up on Mary, gave up, it seems, on marriage.
December 7: Fucked E. Jo. Did not promise to marry her.
Last year, I sat at the wobbly table in Grandma’s dining room, sifting through a clear Rubbermaid full of scattered old photos. Standing over my shoulder, she pulled something from the bin, steadying herself on her walker.
“Look here.” She held a yellowed newspaper clipping in front of me like a handkerchief.
The 1979 article from the Asheville Citizen Times told of Browder’s ongoing mission to decipher the diaries and Steven Scott Smith’s initial discovery in the ruined house. It also told of the man behind the cipher: “William Thomas Prestwood,” the article opens, “kissed the girls all over Western North Carolina during the course of his lifetime. But he was true to the gentleman’s code: he didn’t tell.” Later, the writer describes William as a “tireless lover,” and a “quiet discreet man” who “loved a good time and a willing woman.”
“He’s one of ours,” Grandma said after I’d finished reading. “My great-great-granddaddy.”
My grandmother’s people, the Prestwoods, came onto this land—one hundred acres of forest and fields in Fruitland, North Carolina—just before the turn of the twentieth century. Her granddaddy Asbury (William’s grandson) packed up his brood and moved seventy-five miles west, and set to digging potatoes and building a Methodist church in the haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We have been here ever since.
As a boy, I cut trails from my house off in the woods to Grandma’s, which sits just above the hay field hemming in her father’s and grandfather’s houses. On any given day, I blurred through the forest and fields to lay hands on the homes of four generations of my pastoral Prestwood kin.
I doubted such a clear connection between William and us, especially given Grandma’s aged memory and the ease with which the clipping had been forgotten for decades. Living on Prestwood land my whole life, I’d never heard anyone speak of William or his diaries. Still, I tracked down the only copy of Browder’s transcription I could find (he printed seventy-five) and promptly bought it from a woman in Tennessee. The entries never reach more than three lines per day, some merely read “Do” (ditto), and some years’ original notebooks were never recovered, leaving a few gaps in William’s life. However, in those pages, I quickly find William after Mary Norwood’s final rejection: sexually awakened.
August 30, 1809: Courted N. M’Lemore. Fucked her. Heard she was married.
August 2, 1810: Holp [helped] thresh wheat. Lay with P. GA—
August 6, 1810: Put leather away. Felt ZC cunt.
January 5, 1811: Went to J. Gandy’s. Byner and Sex.
January 19, 1811: Borrowed two books. Went to our hill. Fucking Mrs. Powell. Forged a letter for HM.
January 20, 1811: Court’d M. Windon. Come home. Asked Betsy Gandy for a fuck.
May 30, 1811: Plough’d cotton. Hug’d Peggy and felt her cunt.
August 11, 1811: Funned with P. Kelly.
October 7, 1811: Riding . . . Coming from a meeting . . . Fucking.
June 21, 1812: Went TC Jr.’s meeting. Saw M. Sm . . .’s wife’s cunt . . . at piss. Stay’d all night
This man—sneaking into closets and haylofts and forests with dozens of married and unmarried women—seemed wholly opposite to the quiet, religious Prestwood men around me. He was a man who invented symbols with which to track his sexual partners:
Yet it took only a brief foray into genealogy to find William sitting atop my family tree, starting a line of descendants—Fabius, Asbury, Albert, Betty, David—leading to me.
I’ve been with my wife since we were eighteen. I did no rabble-rousing in my twenties, was married by twenty-four. My parents started dating in eighth grade. My grandmother married in her teens. Yet by the time William was my age, thirty-one, he remained single. He had expected to be betrothed a decade earlier, but Mary Norwood’s reticence forever changed the shape of his life. The strangest discovery in digging into the documented life of your great-great-great-great-grandfather is that any shift in his trajectory is a shift in yours. Had William married Mary Norwood as he intended, I wouldn’t be here.
In 1818, William met a twenty-year-old woman named Celia. Unlike the passing flings of his twenties, this affair quickly grew routine: he hauled his fiddle to her door over and over, courting her for more than a year.
December 2, 1818: Kept school. Night. Celia. Cotton Picking.
February 28, 1819: Went singing Celia. Night.
March 1: Felt Celia’s cunt. She felt my prick. Snow.
March 3: Night. Celia felt my prick.
March 7: Nancy’s child died. Night. Celia felt my prick.
March 12: Went to William Brown’s. Night. Celia cunt prick.
March 14: Celia. Night. Celia. Prick.
April 1: Celia etc. Home.
April 10: Went to Mr. Lowdermilk’s. Night. Celia etc.
On May 5, 1820, he recorded sex with a woman named Byner in the morning and Celia in the evening. Less than two weeks later, on May 14th, William married Celia, wild oats now apparently sown, and she became the first and only woman to appear in his diaries in plain text, free of a symbol. Then, life grew predictable and domestic.
May 24: Plow’d. Night with my wife.
June 5: Plow’d. Night. Wife.
June 16: I and wife went to her mother’s.
July 1: Plow’d. Went Celia’s mother’s
July 2: Come home. Pouted.
July 6: Went after Celia.
July 7: Fuss.
The following summer, Celia gave birth to their first child, a son.
June 16, 1821: Celia sent out (1:45 pm). Evander born.
June 17: Lingle and whiskey.
July 29: Plow’d. Evander turn’d over. Saw tumble bug fucking.
In subsequent years, William kept school, worked as a surveyor, and maintained his fields. He had more children, settled into comfortable routines: “work’d troughs”; “shuck’d corn”; “fuck’d Celia.” Before long, however, the women returned—some old symbols and some new.
May 1, 1827: Cold. Windy. Byner: Sex.
And the women stayed, their shapes appearing across his pages for the rest of William’s life. Even in his sixties, a grandfather, he absconded with women at every turn.
May 2, 1850: Met CR. Good.
May 7: Met CR in Field. She hug good.
May 12: Frost. Fuck’d CR in bed. Good.
May 18: CR good in Closet.
I mostly like my great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was odd and accomplished. He dissected frogs and shaved his elderly grandfather a few times a week. He worried over his bizarre dreams and read Aesop’s Fables and Gulliver’s Travels. He served during the War of 1812 and dug for gold. In spite of the Methodist and Baptist men and women raising me up on monogamy on this Prestwood land, I admit to a twinge of pride over the rampant romancing in his bachelor years. But reading of his later extramarital affairs, I grow protective of this family I never knew—what of your wife, William? Your sons? My family?
October 16, 1827: Celia had a son (4 AM) born.
It’s strange to be able to stick my pointer finger onto a page, to stab a notch on the bizarre timeline that led from one generation of my family to the next. Had William not fathered that child (“PM Went Celia night. Emission in her blessed body”), I wouldn’t be here. I’m not sure if this fact makes life more miraculous or mundane. Perhaps both.
I’ve just had a son, and when he refuses to sleep at night, I look into his eyes, pull at his toes, check behind his ears, searching for traces of me. How did my rib or essence or ichor serve as the material that fashioned this sturdy, sleepless, wholly himself boy? Of course, I wish it were that simple—that I could claim his cheekbones, my wife his eyebrows. But he’s made of generations of material. Last week, we discovered the palate from which his hair is colored when we attended a family reunion with fiery-headed Maxwell kin running all over. That Scots-Irish DNA raised up to his follicles, covering his head in colors neither my wife nor I bear.
And so it is that my womanizing quadruple-great-grandfather somehow pushed on the matter that crafted Fabius. And before Fabius died in a Union prison after being captured at Gettysburg, he sent Asbury into the world, who settled on this forested land from which I come, and began the family I’ve always known. Yet William’s diaries lead me further back, past the people whose faces I’ve seen and hands I’ve held, to a life that no doubt affects mine but in ways unknowable, invisible. On these pages, this life appears to me in flashes, tempting me to read my own life through the thin code of his.
As I piece together William’s life from fifty-one years of symbols, I realize it’s grace I’ve been given in finding this adulterous, enigmatic man hiding in plain sight in my family tree. Not only have I been allowed a rare glimpse of an ancestor, but I have more than myths and tall tales, more than a lionized ghost or a flat name in a family Bible. I have a whole life, all of its triviality and trifling and contradiction, a full man.
He fuck’d and farm’d until he died in 1859, his last entry recording sex with a mistress named CR. And thus he becomes my Adam. The female form, his apple. More than anything plotted out in his diaries, I can easily trace his life to mine through sin—a taut line leading from one generation to the next. William and I share in hypocrisy, in selfishness, in inconsistency, in fraudulence. Lo, I am one of his sons, tangled up in flesh and dirt, left only to throw my hands in the air, thank God for William Thomas Prestwood, and pray for forgiveness of the sins of my fathers.
There is a portion of the notebooks William did intend for a wider audience. At least, this single passage is free of his code, a section at the end of 1822 and into 1823, written in plain text and titled: “Advice for My Sons.”
I count myself one.
November 6, 1822: The desire of my soul is that my son should be a man and not a child all his life.
November 6: My son, before you do an act, consider our Savior’s Golden Rule, vis, Do so you would be done by. Never do anything that would your conscience or you would be ashamed of.
January 1, 1823: Above all things, my sons, do not seduce innocent girls.
March 20: My dear sons, learn eloquence; not barely what you say, but the proper manner of speaking.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.