Grappling with Slavery – When Ancestors aren’t a Source of Pride

Ben Affleck’s initial concealment of a slaveholding ancestor for his episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes it time for me to come clean. I too, have slaveholders in the family, and these ancestors shame me more than the murderers and other miscreants I’ve been featuring on this blog.

I’ve had a document with this post’s title filed away for years. Sure, it was a rambling, bumbling, stumbling mess, not ready for primetime, but I kept ignoring it. Any subject would do if I could push off a confrontation with my sense of guilt over slavery.

Slavery in New York and Massachusetts

When I was a greener researcher, with roots in New Amsterdam / New York and New England, the northern states, I believed my family was in the clear on slavery. In retrospect, my ignorance on slavery in the north was stunning. My personal wakeup call came in the will of my 8th great-grandmother, the Amsterdam-born pioneer settler of New York, Sarah (Roelfse) (Kierstede) (Van Borsum) Stoothoff (1626-1693).

“…to my daughter Blandina, of this city, a negro boy, Hans. To my son Luycas Kierstede, my Indian named Ande. To my daughter Catharine Kierstede, a negress, named Susannah. To my son-in.law, Johannes Kip, husband of my said daughter Catharine, my negro, Sarah… To my son Jochem Kierstede, a little negro, called Maria, during his life, and then to Sarah, the eldest daughter of my son Roeloff Kierstede…” (1)

And there it was, the gut-punch, proof positive that my accomplished ancestress (2), kept in bondage a Native American, and black women, and children. Lines in my beloved native state, Massachusetts, were no more civilized. My 8th great-grandfather, Jonathan Rayment (1666-1745) of Beverly, was a deacon of the church for 23 years. In 1705, when he was 39 years old, he made the following purchase:

Capt. Joseph Flint, Mariner, of Salem, sells to Jonathan Rayment, of Bevery, “my Spanish Indian boy named Pito about 10 years old, for a slave.” (3)

As I traced the deacon Rayment to the end of his life in 1745, I hoped after 40 years of piety and wisdom, his humanity would have evolved, but the inventory of his estate lists after items including an iron kettle, frying pan and a silver tankard… “Slaves” beneath that, “1 Negro man… 1 Negro woman…”

A clipped portion

Deacon Rayment’s slaves: Cafar (Kafir) valued at 45 pounds, and Sarah, 37 pounds 10 shillings. (Click for larger view.)

It’s sobering to learn your people committed crimes against humanity, while regarding themselves as good Christians and respectable members of society.

The Awful Truth – Celebrity Edition

Several celebrity descendants of slaveholders have been featured on Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are,  including Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns, and Bill Paxton. They did the right thing right off by facing the findings on camera. They shared their disappointment and righteous anger. They acknowledged we all must accept the bad guys along with the good guys in our trees. And so it should be with our great, multiethnic, multiracial, American family.

Many folks argue that United States “fixed” slavery 150 years ago; that civil rights laws in the 1960s “fixed” segregation and discrimination; that white and black Americans have an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, if that was true, if that was the present reality,  – nice, white Americans, like Ben Affleck, wouldn’t be so troubled over errant great-greats.

The terrible disparity in income, health and life spans between whites and minorities is evidence that our nation hasn’t yet established a culture that supports the American ideal of equality.

We can’t change the past, we can, and should, look it straight in the eye. Instead of dithering over guilt, we can join with nice Americans of all races to build toward a society that truly guarantees an opportunity for a decent life to all. It won’t be easy, but working to “form a more perfect union”(4) is as good an idea today as it was in 1787.

 

Notes, Sources & Resources:

(1) Abstract of wills on file in the Surrogates Office, City of New York  (Volume I. 1665-1707) by New York (County) Surrogate’s Court Abstracts of Wills –Liber 5-6 pgs. 225, 226, 227.

(2)  Sarah learned native languages and assisted Peter Stuyvesant in negotiating treaties with local tribes. In 1682, she was confirmed as owner of a patent originally granted to her second husband, Cornelis Van Borsum (1630-1682) for a lot on Manhattan Island, for her service. She also raised 11 children and outlived 3 husbands.

(3) Essex Registry of Deeds, Book 16, Folio 204, March 12, 1705.

(4) From the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the people We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

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How Ben Affleck reacted after he discovered his slave-owning ancestors

Slavery in the North Website by historian, author, journalist and lecturer, Douglas Harper.

History of Slavery in Massachusetts  Wikipedia article covers freedom suits brought in 1781 that claimed slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new (1780) Massachusetts Constitution, but slavery remained legal in Massachusetts until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

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An Aged Lovers Triangle

The Boston Herald – Monday August 1, 1892

HUSBAND ALMOST KILLED

Had a Bloody Fight with His Wife’s Aged Lover

[Special Dispatch to the Boston Herald]

Fall River, July 31, 1892. Alexander Pittsley and Charles Hersom and his wife,  Jane Elizabeth, each more than 70 years of age, who live at Slab bridge, Freetown, were yesterday locked up in the central police station.

Pittsley has, up to within six months, lived a sort of hermit’s life. He resided in small hut and earned his living by doing odd jobs.

About six months ago, Hersom and his wife came here from Norton , and established themselves at Slab bridge.

The wife pitied Pittsley so much that she urged her husband to let the old hermit become a member of the family circle. This was done and all went swimmingly for a while, until it became apparent to Hersom that his wife and Pittsley had fallen in love.

A row ensued and Hersom was fined for assault and battery on his wife. This was about a month ago.

Just after the trial, Pittsley, who still remained at the house and Mrs. Hersom eloped, taking the husband’s horse and wagon and a load of his household goods. They established themselves in Norton.

Hersom was evidently content to get rid of his erring spouse, for he made no attempt to follow them.

Friday night, however, Pittsley and Mrs. Hersom came back to the Slab Bridge home for another load of furniture. The wagon was piled high with goods and the rig hidden away  in the woods. Then Pittsley and Mrs. Hersom paid a visit to the Pittsley hut. They found Hersom there.

The two old men began a bloody fight and Hersom was badly battered about the face and had an arm injured. He was almost killed. Pittsley and his companion became alarmed at the condition of the deserted husband, and started off on the road to Taunton, while Hersom sought Officer Marble.

The officer captured the couple after a lively chase of three miles.They had become weary and were resting at the roadside when they were placed under arrest.

The quartet came to this city yesterday, Pittsley and Mrs. Hersom being handcuffed.

Hersom’s arm was in a sling and his face was decorated with cuts and sticking plaster.

Pittsley is well known to the police here having been arrested for minor offences. The exact nature of the charge to be preferred against him is unknown.

While the 1892 press hyped this incident and played it for laughs, I was moved that a man and woman in their seventh decade of life, were alive to love, and new possibilities. (I will concede that taking off with the horse, wagon, and household goods was not the most honorable exit strategy.) I wanted to know what happened to Charles H. Hersom, Jane Elizabeth Hersom, and Alexander Pittsley.

That Pittsley “almost killed” Hersom is hyperbolic. The article portrays him as ambulatory, with an arm in a sling and minor facial wounds. And Hersom was a soldier in the Union Army, with the Massachusetts 4th Regiment of Infantry; he must have gotten a few licks in on Alexander. Furthermore, we are told the month before, Charles Hersom was fined for beating up his wife. And yet, the Second District court sentenced the abused wife, Jane Elizabeth Hersom, to two months, while Alexander Pittsley was sent away for four months to the House of Correction for assault.

After that, Jane Elizabeth Hersom disappears from record.

Charles H. Hersom, stays around for a long time.

About four years after the incident, in 1897, Charles H. Hersom married wife number three, Margaret (Cunningham) Lester. He was 75 and she was 37.  Margaret bore him four daughters, in addition to three children he had with wife number one, an Irish lass named Mary. He married her in 1864 and the family were living in Canton, Massachusetts for the 1870 census. Charles liked lived in Freetown with his new young wife and kids until 1913, when after a six-day bout with bronchitis, he died, at 93 years of age.

Pension Index card for Charles H. Hersom.

Index card shows Charles H. Hersom got an Invalid pension in 1877; his minor daughter got a benefit in 1915 and wife Margaret collected a widow’s pension in 1917.

For Alexander Pittsley, who served the harsher sentence, life was rarely kind. That he lived in a hut “like a hermit” and had been “arrested for minor offences” are clues that he suffered some form mental illness that kept him on the margins of society. On November 4, 1898, at 74 years and 10 months, Alexander starved to death “off Summer Street” in the town of Foxboro.

I want to think that Alexander and Jane Elizabeth, who discovered love in winter, were able, at least for a moment, to find joy in each other.