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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Treason!

With the current events focus on the US government charging whistleblowers, journalists and other leakers of embarrassing information with “aiding the enemy,” and threatening dire consequences, I thought it timely to mention my family tie to a man who was executed for treason.

I had a cousin in colonial New York named Elsje Tymens. She was a wealthy widow in 1663 when she married a German bachelor and son of a clergyman, Jacob Leisler. Over the next thirteen years, Jacob and Elsje built connections in business and government, accrued wealth, and added seven little Leislers to the household.  Jacob was a merchant, captain of the militia, and appointed by the courts to administer estates and other property matters.  A devout follower of John Calvin’s brand of religious reform, he identified with the (French Protestant) Huguenot community.

Image 

Statue of Jacob Leisler in New Rochelle, New York,

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1685, England’s Charles II passed into history and his brother, James II (also James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland), a Roman Catholic, succeeded him to the throne. To govern the Dominion of New England, James appointed Edmund Andros to sit in Boston, and Francis Nicholson,  lieutenant governor, was assigned to administer the province of New York. Their authoritarian style of rule made both men intensely disliked by the colonists.  Nicholson proclaimed the inhabitants of the former New Netherland (taken by England in 1664),  “a conquered people” who could not “claim rights and privileges as Englishmen.

Across the Atlantic, political factions were so alarmed by King  James’s policy of religious tolerance and his ties to France, that they invited William III, the Dutch Prince of Orange, to invade with his fleet (and his English wife, Mary). James was deposed in a coup known as the Glorious Revolution.

When the news reached American shores, it sparked  a popular uprising against Governor Andros in Massachusetts, and New York’s militia rebelled and forced Nicholson to yield Fort James, which controlled New York Harbor.  The next day,  a council of militia officers asked Jacob Leisler to take command. A few weeks later, a delegation from Lower New York and East Jersey chose Leisler as the province’s commander-in-chief, to act on behalf of England’s new monarchs, William and Mary, until a new governor was legitimately appointed.

Not all New Yorkers were pleased. In his rise to prominence, Jacob Leisler had made enemies that included his in-laws, the powerful Bayards and Van Cortlandts.  Diplomacy was not his strong suit. An anti-Leisler faction coalesced in Albany, and grew dangerously.

In late 1690, William III commissioned Colonel Henry Sloughter as his new governor, but Sloughter’s ship was delayed and his lieutenant governor, Ingoldesby, arrived first.  Ingoldesby demanded Leisler turn over the fort and governmental reins  to him, but, because he lacked the proper papers, Leisler refused.  Even when Sloughter made it to New York, Leisler remained suspicious, and took his sweet time before he surrendered and to his cost. Leisler’s reward for accepting the management and  defense of New York in the name of King William III, – was his arrest on charges of treason.

Jacob Leisler, his right hand man and son-in-law, Jacob Milbourne, and eight other men were tortured, tried, convicted, and condemned to be “hanged, drawn and quartered, and their estates confiscated.[1]” The panel of judges was stacked with a significant number of anti-Leislerians.

Governor Sloughter seems to have had some misgivings about the result, as he wrote a letter to King William about the matter. However, in it, he trashed Leisler, did not include trial transcripts, and failed to mention the death sentence. Also, the court refused the request to send the condemned to England for an appeal.

It’s been written that Governor Sloughter was bribed, that he was drunk, – perhaps, he was both when, at the instigation of Leisler’s enemies, he signed the death warrants. Leisler’s only ‘luck’ is that he avoided being drawn and quartered, was “merely hanged til ‘halfe dead’ then beheaded[2]” as was his son-in-law, Jacob Milbourne, on May 16, 1691.  None of the others convicted were executed.

Petitioners to London who included  the younger Jacob Leisler, won a hearing before the king. Within a year of their execution,  Leisler, Milbourne, and the remaining  prisoners were pardoned.  Parliament later passed a bill that would return the property stripped from Leisler’s heirs, and which was approved by the king in 1695. But it was 1698 before the family estate was restored, and the bodies of Leisler and Milbourne were moved from the dirt beneath the gallows and laid to rest in the yard of the Dutch Reform Church.

Scholars today recognize  Leisler’s Rebellion as a precursor to the American Revolution. It was a power struggle of middling folks against an entrenched elite, – not treason. That’s something to think about as we Americans celebrate the 237 anniversary of  our national ‘treason,’ – independence from England.

Wishing all my readers a wonderful Fourth of July!


[1] McCormick, Charles H (1989). Leisler’s Rebellion. Outstanding Studies in Early American History. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-6190-X.p.357.

[2]  Voorhees,  David William, Remembering Jacob Leisler, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Newsletter, (New York: The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, Spring/Summer 2002), p. 29.