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.”

***
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.

Advertisements

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.