Ken Burns – Please, Love Thy Loyalist Ancestor, Too

I never thought I’d say this, but Ken Burns disappointed me. Of course, the documentary films he’s given us are priceless –  The Civil War – Baseball – Jazz, and recently, The Roosevelts. But this same Ken Burns, when he learned one of his ancestors was a Loyalist (or Tory) during the American Revolution, reacted as though told Darth Vader was his father. Considering that Burns also has a Virginia ancestor who owned slaves, – this stung and stunned me.

It happened that I was watching the October 2014 Season 2 episode of the wonderful PBS series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that featured Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, and Anna Deavere Smith. I gave myself several months , to make sure I wasn’t overreacting,  and here I am. I’ll give you two reasons why, the first, as you may have guessed, is that I have Loyalists in my tree; second, Burns, steeped in history, should know that in any war, people caught up in power struggles – are not simply good guys or bad guys. Ken Burns, of all people, should realize that it wasn’t the Civil War, but the American Revolution that first pitted brother against brother.

Most Americans were farmers, many with deep roots in the land, some with Mayflower ancestors. Through generations of tilling, toiling, and building, families developed farms and expanded homes that they were proud to pass on to their children. They obeyed the laws and paid their taxes; they prayed for peace, so they could get on with their lives. But sometimes their neighbors wouldn’t let them. From U.S. History.org:

Patriots subjected Loyalists to public humiliation and violence. Many Loyalists found their property vandalized, looted, and burned. The patriots controlled public discourse. Woe to the citizen who publicly proclaimed sympathy to Britain.”

D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Bristol County, Massachusetts (1883) mentions my own revolutionary era ancestors among the Chase, Hathaway, Briggs and Paine families below:

   “At a legal town-meeting held at ye public meeting-house house in Freetown on ye 31st day of May 1777, ye following Tories were voted for trial, viz.: George Brightman, William Winslow, Luther Winslow, John Winslow, Jael Hathaway, Solomon Terry, Abiel Terry, Abiel Terry, Jr., William Hathaway, Silas Hathaway (2nd), Silas Terry, Ebenezer Terry, Benjamin Tompkins, Ralph Paine, Job Paine, Job Paine (2nd), George Chase, George Chase, Jr., Bradford Gilbert, Ephraim Winslow, Ammi Chase, Horah Durfee, Jonathan Dodson, Job Terry, Silas Sherman, Benjamin Cleaveland, Abraham Ashley, John Briggs. – Then Maj. Joshua Hathaway was chosen agent in behalf of ye said town.”

Another book, Divided Hearts – Massachusetts Loyalists 1765 – 1790 by David E. Maas (1980), lists some of the names above: [Note: inimical means hostile or malevolent]

Ammi Chase – Freetown; shipwright RM & L 1777 Family L guilty inimical trial 1777

Eber Chace, Jr. – Bristol County RM inimical trial 1778

Ezra Chace, Jr. – Bristol County RM inimical trial 1777

George Chace, Jr. – Freetown; husbandman RM F; guilty inimical trial 1777; J 1777

Silas Hathway – Freetown; boatman RM inimical trial 1777

Illustration for the American Revolution

It wasn’t only neighbors who turned against one another, families were wrenched apart too, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. My 5th great-grandfather, James P. Chase (1745-1816), born in Freetown, was chased away from there, lived in New York for a time, then fled with the 80,000 or so other American loyalists to New Brunswick, Canada. James, however, may be seen as a bad guy, because he actually profited from the war, and I wouldn’t argue. But he paid an awful cost.

Nearly all of James Chase’s 17 brothers and sisters remained near their Massachusetts birthplace, even his brother, George (1755-1787), the Loyalist sympathizer mentioned above. His brothers, Edward Chase (1742-1815) who served 4 days in the Third Company of Freetown Militia in August 1780 and Greenfield Chase (1854-1810) who served in the First Company for 6 days – are Patriots to their proud descendants.

I hope Ken Burns will eventually find a way to embrace his Loyalist ancestor. Those times were difficult for all Americans; terrifying for those tortured by mobs; deadly for those who fell defending their homes and families from the British – or from former friends and neighbors. I believe, people of character acted with honorable intent, whether they chose to stand for tradition  – or to blaze new trails in the history of the world, both Patriot and Loyalist ancestors are worthy of respect.

For those interested, there is even a membership organization called Loyalists & Patriots.

Sources & Resources:

Wikipedia – Loyalist (American Revolution); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loyalist_(American_Revolution)

AmericanRevolution.org; The Loyalist Pages; http://www.americanrevolution.org/loyalist.php

Divided hearts, Massachusetts loyalists, 1765-1790 : a biographical directory / compiled and edited Maas, David E. [S.l.] : Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ; [Boston] : New England Historic Genealogical Society, c1980.

U.S. History: The American Revolution; 11b. Loyalists, Fence-sitters, and Patriots; http://www.ushistory.org/us/11b.asp

History of Bristol County, Massachusetts with Biographical Sketches; D. Hamilton Hurd, (1883; reprint, Philadelphia, PA: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1883), 285-308. Cit. Date: 12 Jul 2014.

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