I’m broken

(January 12, 2019)  — I had planned that my next entry would be how my ancestors lived and made a living in the early 18th Century in Massachusetts. But, for a couple of reasons I am not going there just yet. First, finding documentation of the early 18th Century, as with the 17th Century, is hard and takes time. I am not a trained historian, so my skills with historical research are clumsy and often ineffectual. Depending on digitized records and published historical studies is the best I can do for now, so I am being very careful with Ancestry.com and with familysearch.org because often those platforms can inject errors without the user realizing it. For example, in my initial experiences with Ancestry, I had a mistake in my paternal line that was going in a funky direction – it included a will from someone I believed was my several times great grandfather who bequeathed “my Negro girl Phillis” to his “beloved wife” – but once I excavated more carefully into the documentation, I realized that line was wrong and I scrapped it.  I have been more deliberate since that lesson to read the original source documents closely. But the documents can sometimes contain errors too (birthdates, wedding locations, etc, can sometimes be “best guesses” rather than proved through vital records). So, my methodology has become more cautious. Which means slower. 😊

Second, and this is the hard part… I am grieved by these revelations. I was living a pretty lie and I did not realize how much I depended on that pretty lie to frame my identity, sense of purpose, and connection to this society. As I have written previously, I knew my whole life that we descended from Robert Carver, born in 1594, and first documented in Massachusetts in 1638 – most people believe he was somehow related to Capt. John Carver of the Mayflower, but no one (to my knowledge) has documented exactly how they are related. On ancestry, some people connect Robert Carver as John Carver’s nephew through John’s brother Isaac Carver. I believe this is the most plausible connection, but the documentation is not conclusive. The Carver identity is one of pride and has been a source of pride to me for my whole life. Robert was a planter, he married Christian Turner and they settled in Marshfield, MA and had a small family that grew through many generations. I hope to visit their graves next time I am in New England. As far as I can tell, Robert and Christian themselves did not enslave people. It’s fascinating to cull through the genealogy that was prepared by my distant cousins nearly 40 years ago and I marvel at their determination to get the details right through every generation – they documented 12 generations of descendants.  It’s humbling. The early generations lived hard lives of farming, subsistence, and efforts to improve their lives for themselves and their children. They lived in community with other settlers/colonizers and attended the New England Town Hall meetings where many things were discussed and decided.  Within the Carver genealogy is the documentation of our relationship to the Conant family as well. The Carvers married other settlers: the Fords, the Conants, the Mayflower Cookes (not the same line of Cooks from whom I am directly descended), the Edsons, etc.  So, by the time we get to the fourth and fifth generations from the original immigrants, it’s a genetic slurry of old lines mixed with newer arrivals. The bottom line, I suppose, is that given this extensive genealogy, I can excavate multiple lines and find ancestors who participated in the destruction and enslavement of Indigenous people and African people. They were complicit. Their complicity aided their survival. Their survival continued the emergence and spread of the family throughout New England and beyond. So my identity and connection to this society has long rested on the fact of this lineage – though we were not wealthy in material terms, I could go the local cemetery in my home town and see the graves of my ancestors because I know their names. This, in itself, is an indicator of being the child of colonizers – many of those descended from the enslaved and destroyed do not have access to the full set of genealogical records where they can discover their roots. The fact that I can is an example of how history is written by the victors.

But, now that I know some of the more painful aspects of just exactly how my ancestors survived, and that it included enslaving and destroying Indigenous people and African people, my purpose is different. I do not want to continue that legacy, I want to change it. My purpose is not to shame my family, but to tell the truth about us. When I wrote last time that my 5x Great Grandfather, Stephen Cook, and his brother Robert Cook murdered an American Indian man, I did so with the understanding that my existence is reflected by the absence of the seventh generation of descendants not born to the man who was murdered. The attempted genocide of American Indians is part of how my ancestors survived. That is simply the truth of it. I am here, in part, because generations of indigenous people are not.  In no way do I believe that the Indigenous people were “helpless victims” – they fought hard for their land and their survival. I know that I have other ancestors who were killed during these times and thus stopped those family lines from developing, too. There is so much death and destruction on all sides of this history, but it’s not equivalent on all sides. The colonizers, my ancestors, had the audacity to claim land that wasn’t theirs – the hubris of this is astonishing – to dole out land grants on behalf of the English King to other colonizers at a pace that was impossible for the indigenous people to prevent. My purpose now is to acknowledge the truth of it – my ancestors did benefit from this governing system of land grants, trade practices, legal permissions to enslave and lethal controls of the enslaved, wars against those who lived here first, and expanding settlements (including the Cooks who lived in “The Hundredth Town,” of Westborough, Massachusetts).  The rose-colored historical glasses of my initial understanding of our lineage have been removed.

And, it breaks me. I have shared the information of these details with my immediate family. They are saddened to learn about this. I have been too cowardly to share with them that I have this blog. Some in my family will be ok with it, some will be angry, and others won’t care. I do not want to face the anger of my relatives who I predict will be outraged by this work. I wrestle with being so cowardly. Plus, I am angry at some of my ancestors – not that it does me much good – but I wonder often, if I had the chance to sit down with and talk to Stephen and Elizabeth Cook what would I say to them? What were they like? How did they live? I know Stephen was a cordwainer (shoe maker), but was Stephen a good husband to Elizabeth? Was he kind to her, despite being so violent that he murdered a man? Was his father as awful as seems to be the case given what was reported by the Parkman diary (reference in my last post)? Stephen’s son, Eli, left Massachusetts for Maine (probably with a land grant program after serving in the Revolutionary Army); was Eli a good man? I know that my great grandfather was a mean and brutal man, so I wonder if the direct line was so awful in each earlier generation? I am fascinated and scared of this question. I am glad, however, to report that my own grandfather broke this pattern in that he was a kind man who was happy to have good relations with his sons and in the community. And his sons, my dad and uncle, are truly good people whom I admire and love.

And, I have a huge family; the work I have been sharing here is from one small segment of my whole family: one grandfather’s line. I have not started to document the French ancestry from northern New England and Quebec province, which reflects 3 of my four grandparents.  And, on the French side, we have families with 18-20 children in multiple generations. So, goodness knows what that will produce.

I’ll get back to regular postings next time. For now, thanks for reading this. Feel free to comment if you are so inclined.

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