(June 5, 2018) — The first of my ancestors whom I discovered owned people in chattel slavery is Rhoda Barton, born in Bridgewater, MA in the middle of the 18th Century, and did not venture more than 30 miles away from her birthplace. Apparently, she had a privileged life, married well, and had nine children.
“Much like other families in this time, the Barton’s were slave owners. The slaves typically were in the house for help with chores and taking care of the children.” Evidently, her husband, Colonel William Barton, was quite a guy. There was a long period of time (14 years) when Mr. Barton was incarcerated (after the American Revolution) because he refused to pay a fine for a charge he deemed unfair/unjust. With friends in high places (in this instance the Marquis de Lafayette) his debt was paid for him and he was sent home to his family.
War is hell, as the old saying goes. Col. Barton fought in the American Revolutionary War and gained some praise from General Washington as a result of a raid that resulted in the capture of British General Richard Prescott. On his famous raid, there was an African American man:
“Jack Sisson—In December 1776, Sisson was among forty American soldiers selected by Colonel William Barton to capture a British general in Newport, Rhode Island. The nighttime raiders crept past British warships and guards. Sisson forced his way into the house, and then the bedroom, in which the general slept. One account says he used his head to open the door! In 1778, Sisson enlisted in the First Rhode Island Regiment.”
The Barton’s were not the people who held Mr. Sisson in slavery; that was Mr. Thomas Sisson; I have not been able to find the names of the people who were enslaved by the Barton’s. Mr. Jack Sisson, however, was granted his freedom a year after the successful raid. Reading about this raid is fascinating in itself. Reading that Mr. Jack Sisson was a key player in this event is all the more thrilling to me. And knowing that he later was released from chattel slavery is a relief.
Still, that does not provide me with information about who the enslaved people were in my ancestor’s home. I will keep looking and report on it when I find something new; but in the meantime, I am left with many more questions than answers as to Mrs. Barton’s role in it. With 9 children to raise, during which time her husband was frequently away for extended periods, I can imagine the household was a busy place. I am tempted here to speculate, but doing so runs the risk of simply imposing my own biases and fears, or hopes, into the historical record that would certainly not be accurate. So I will not speculate. So, when I first read about the Barton’s and their life together, and the fact that they participated directly in chattel slavery, I felt sick to my stomach. I really did not want this to be part of my family history. But it is.
Am I applying a contemporary lens to an historical period when the moral compass was so different from where we are now? Probably. Is that fair? Yes, I think it is. Here’s how I see it: First, one of the reasons why hindsight is 20/20, as the old saying goes, is because we are reflecting on the past with a newer perspective. It’s important to do that. We ache and stretch and yell for injustices to be addressed, to be acknowledged, and to be remedied. Every generation sees past generations through its own lenses; ours is no exception. We can now say that we oppose racism, not many people say that they are openly racist; that’s a consequence of social activism that confronts racism in the current and previous generations with an agenda to end the injustices. A similar claim could be made about the modern #MeToo movement. So, by taking a modern look at historical events, we can still learn about how we got to where are in modern social life.
Second, slavery was not an accident; it was a deliberate and lucrative business that profited the slave holders and cost the enslaved in unimaginable ways. We like to talk about slavery using passive voice construction (i.e., chattel slavery occurred in the United States from 1620-1865). It didn’t just “occur” – it was built; it was deliberate. It was instituted on the basis of ideas that some groups of people are inferior to other groups of people, that there was ‘manifest destiny’ to establish colonies here that resulted in the nearly complete destruction of Indigenous people, that capturing, buying, and selling other people from other lands would help to build the colonies, the economies, and generate huge profits for the owners. It was deliberate; calculated, encouraged, profitable, and deadly to those who were enslaved. I think it’s time to stop talking about slavery using passive voice construction. To promote that goal, I am looking at the role my own ancestors played in the institution of American Chattel Slavery.
Third, as an advocate for reconciliation, a necessary step towards reconciliation is to acknowledge and account for the harm. Upon learning that the Barton’s held people in slavery, I want to learn who those people are; where are their descendants, how have their children fared in life? I may never know the answers to those questions. Acknowledging that these people existed then, and probably still exist now, is paramount to moving closer to reconciliation. I would like to know more about them. They are not an historical abstraction any more than I am. We have a shared history.
Thank you for reading this.