(August 18, 2018). So, who were the people enslaved by my ancestors during and after King Philip’s War? Metacomet’s wife and nine year old son were held captive and sold into slavery by my ancestors.
“The war in the south largely ended with Metacomet’s death. Over 600 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans had died, including several hundred native captives who were tried and executed or enslaved and sold in Bermuda,” according to this website. The enslavement took different forms: some “surrendered” while others were held captive in servitude for a specific length of time, and others were captured and bound for Barbados and other Caribbean islands as slaves in perpetuity. (For a recently published scholarly study on this subject, I recommend Fisher 2018).
I have attempted to find documents about additional specific individuals enslaved and murdered by my ancestors, but have not succeeded (yet). In the process, I have learned a bit about the communities and the historical records. Therefore, I offer this word of acknowledgement and regret to the descendants.
First, there were many indigenous communities involved in the war: the Wampanoag, Pokanoket, Nipmuc, and Narraganset (Mohicans become involved after Metacomet established a winter camp in New York). Some indigenous groups sided with the English and some were known as “Praying Indians” – those who had converted to Christianity. Each group, it seemed, responded to the growing population of English colonizers in their own way and without the benefit of knowing what the future would hold. Your people were fierce combatants in the defense of your home and your right to exist – because it was your very existence that was threatened by the arrival of my ancestors. While some cooperated with the English, some also fought the expansion of English colonies in order to save your heritage, your customs, you livelihood, your families, and the sacred places of your ancestors. I believe these things are true across the board: I know you had families, and that you taught your children with joy, with discipline, with beliefs and values that serve your communities. I imagine a bucolic scene with a community of people going about your daily activities of preparing food, playing games, teaching important lessons and sharing stories that inspire and entertain. I imagine there might have been on-going and perhaps difficult conversations among you about how to respond to the increasing number of English people building homes and towns. The English used to come and hunt and then leave, so when they started arriving with their families, and stayed; that must have been strange to you. In sociology we call this a couple of different things: rapid social change, and culture clash. Both concepts represent disruptions that are difficult to manage.
My ancestors say that they were looking for “religious freedom” and that might been largely true from one individual to the next, but they were also financially obligated to turn a profit for their investors and to expand their land holdings. I have found many instances in my genealogical record where my ancestors received “land grants” to cultivate their new life and to grow their families. These “grants” actually mean something different to you, I imagine: theft, fraud, deception, destruction, and greed. The so-called “purchases” of your land (with the first documented sale at the place now called “Sachem’s Rock” in East Bridgewater, MA) indicates the culture clash of that time. The English thought of land as a commodity to be bought and sold, cultivated and developed; your ancestors did not share that concept, but agreed to allow the English to build on these lands. Modern people are trying to make it a tourist destination; and having been there recently, I see it as a solemn place for mourning the losses and destruction that followed. It is a place of reckoning.
Second, I know that after the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived you provided some assistance and yet Bradford and Standish called you savages and killed your people. They tried and sometimes succeeded in converting your people to the version of Christianity they favored. They also used whatever inter-tribal conflicts that may have existed at the time to further drive wedges between your communities because the colonizers stood to gain so much from that tactic. I know that Standish beheaded and impaled on stakes at Plymouth the head of one of your warriors, and Standish was not alone in this grisly practice. I know that the relations between your people and the English were even more complicated with the arrival of 20,000 more English settlers during the Great Migration. When I drive through those towns now and I see the names of places and buildings using your ancestors’ name, I can only imagine what that is like for you to see.
Third, I know you must be extremely strong, resilient, and determined people to survive and grow under such deadly circumstances. According to Professor Fisher’s research, some of your ancestors may have “surrendered” to the English as a strategy to survive, to continue living, and for their children to continue living. He writes:
“Being shipped out of the country as a slave was perhaps the worst possible fate, but even local slavery and servitude struck fear into the hearts of Indians and threatened to undermine the entire social fabric and kinship networks of regional communities. Hundreds, if not thousands, of natives turned themselves in to local English governments or English-allied native leaders, hoping to avoid slavery at all costs. But these “surrenderers” often found themselves subjected to similar treatment as enemy Indians, ranging from being sent out of the country, resettled to new, designated areas, forced to serve in English homes as slaves and servants, and having their children forcibly placed as servants in English households. The threat of enslavement weighed heavily on the psyche of New England’s natives, particularly during King Philip’s War. Far from being a minor consideration, the threat of enslavement was one of the key factors when it came to natives fighting and—later in the war—surrendering” (Fisher 2017, p. 2).
And, here’s another excerpt that is especially agonizing:
“According to some reports, there were native parents—even non-combatants—who were so distressed by the prospect of their own children being sent overseas as slaves or being forced into slavery and servitude in English households that, rather than allowing their children to be enslaved, they simply killed them, or gave them over to another native to be killed. Surely this was a radical course of action that the majority of native parents did not choose,” (Fisher 2017, p. 9).
(I can only imagine what you think about the “stand your ground” laws in places like Florida. It must strike you as the height of hypocrisy. Where was that idea when my ancestors were stealing your land, murdering and enslaving your people, and building towns on your sacred lands?)
Finally, I know this is lame and far too late, but I want you to know how sorry I am that my ancestors did this to you and your communities continue to struggle with the impact of these 400 years of contact. It did not have to be the way it was — finer ideals existed at the time, ideals of cooperation and interdependency, but those ideals gave way to a far more brutal pursuit of profit, greed, acquisition, domination, and expansion. The so-called “manifest destiny” was a manifest betrayal of your humanity and your communities, and your families, and your dignity. I am so sorry.
I want to learn more about what became of your people who were enslaved and sent to the islands. When I do, I will write about that too. I would also welcome the opportunity to meet you in person (if you are willing) and to learn more about your history from your perspective. Thank you for reading this.
This war did not spring up on our land, this war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land without a price, and who, in our land, do a great many evil things… This war has come from robbery – from the stealing of our land.
— Spotted Tail, Lakota Sioux Chief
July 21, 2018 — (This one is hard for me to write; I have been avoiding it for a while. Please bear with me. Reading historical research can be a real kick in the gut when the names of my ancestors are part of the history, it has taken me a while to get my bearings on this one.)
Born in 1638, he was the son of Massasoit who was sachem (or “chief”) to the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. Massasoit was initially helpful and friendly to my ancestors when they arrived and struggled to survive. Metacomet’s older brother, Wamsutta (the English called him King Alexander) inherited the title of sachem when their father died in 1661. Wamsutta died shortly thereafter, and then Metacomet became the sachem of his people. The English called him King Philip. As such, he considered himself the equal to the English King, Charles II.
During his time as sachem, Metacomet was allied with Weetamoo, who was sachem to the Pocasset and his sister-in-law (widow of Wamsutta). While inheriting complicated relations with the English colonists — it wasn’t all bad for the Wampanoag, the trade of beaver skins, the apparent cooperation on where the English could establish their colonies, etc, carried some benefits — Metacomet became convinced that his brother, Wamsutta, was deliberately poisoned by Governor Winslow, who is described by Philbrick as “one of Plymouth’s most aggressive and unethical purchasers of Indian real estate,” (p. 214, in his book, Mayflower, published in 2006). The belief that Winslow poisoned Wamsutta then chilled their relations.
Metacomet attempted to build an alliance of other tribes to combat the expanding encroachment of the English colonists on their land. Since the trade with the English included tools and weapons, the sachem was looking to expand their purchase of guns from the English. The English were happy to engage in the trade so long as it was profitable to them, the English passed a law in 1674 to repeal a ban the sale of weapons to the native tribes (see Philbrick’s book, Mayflower).
Without going into the entire history of King Philip’s War in this post (it’s very long and complicated), I will end this obituary with what Philbrick wrote about Metcomet’s death:
“ [Metacomet] was dressed only in his small breeches and stockings. They [Caleb Cook and Pocasset Alderman who sided with the English] waited until he came within range,  Cook pulled the trigger of his musket, but the weapon refused to fire” (p. 336). Alderman shot next and landed the fatal shot. Captain Benjamin Church was leading their expedition and then ordered Metacomet’s remains to be drawn and quartered. According to my family genealogy of allied families, Metacomet’s severed head was “deposited in the cellar” of the Leonard family home. Later, his severed head was displayed on a spike in Plymouth colony. Metacomet’s wife and nine year old son were captured and shipped to the Caribbean to be enslaved, along with thousands of other native people.
I am not trying to romanticize Metacomet; he had the normal strengths and flaws of any person — he was devoted to his people and sacrificed his life for their protection. He was also brutal in warfare to his adversaries and was, apparently, ineffectual at building the alliance he thought would aid their mutual protection. He lived in difficult times and faced adversaries whose need/greed for land and profit resulted in the destruction of his people.
According to Philbrick, “it has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s War, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone. By the end of the war, Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants. … the Pilgrim’s children … had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people” (p. 345).
My ancestors who fought in King Philip’s War include:
Caleb Cook, b. 1651, d. 1721
Joseph Benson, b. 1640, d. 1706
Gershon Dodson, b. 1653, d. March 26, 1676 (during one of the battles of the war)
Samuel Edson, b. 1645, d. 1717
Zachariah Gurney, b. 1660, d. 1732
John Holbrook, b. 1622, d. 1699
Increase Niles, b. 1646, d. 1693
And the Leonard home where Metacomet’s severed head was “deposited in the cellar” was in Taunton, MA. (a reliable source claims that the Leonard’s were “friendly” to Metacomet and “after many generations” returned the remains to Metacomet’s descendants).
Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2006. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York, NY: Penguin.
(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.
(May 29, 2018) Here’s the thing: If my calculations are correct by the time we get to our 10th great grandparents, there should be 4096 of them. My teachers taught me to show my work (how I derived an answer to my math problems — which, in all honesty, I hated math; but it does come in handy). So, here is my calculation based on the assumption that everyone has two (biological) parents, and the generations grow exponentially by a factor of two; so I am listing the number of people in each generation:
1 – me (born in 1961)
2 – my parents (born: 1930s)
4 – my grandparents (born: 1887-1901)
8 – my great grandparents (GGP) (born: 1870s – 1880s)
16 – my 2x GGP (born around 1840s)
32 – my 3x GGP (born around 1810s)
64 – my 4x GGP (born around 1780s)
128 – my 5x GGP (born around 1740s)
256 – my 6x GGP (born around 1710s)
512 – my 7x GGP (born around 1670s)
1024 – my 8x GGP (born around 1630s)
2048 – my 9x GGP (born around 1590s)
4096 – my 10 GGP (born around 1560s)
I have not documented all of these 6,144 people; so far I have focused on my paternal side and as far back as the 1560s in England. And this calculation does not factor in aunts/uncles, cousins, or step families. All of whom are part of my heritage. In my ancestry, there are families that had 10-20 siblings per family. It’s nearly incalculable to estimate how many people I am related to biologically, and who also come from the early migrants into Massachusetts.
Here is how the explosion of the continuous line of migrants into Massachusetts developed as best I can tell:
1620 – 102 people on the Mayflower arrive; but half of them die in the first winter.
1630 – 506 migrants (390 in Plymouth)
1640 – 8932 residents (1020 in Plymouth),
NOTE: the chart indicates that this includes “White and Negro” persons – but does not indicate Indigenous people who are already here.
1650 – 14,037 residents (1566 in Plymouth)
1660 – 20,082 residents (1980 in Plymouth)
1670 – 30,000 residents (5333 in Plymouth)
1680 – 39,752 residents (6400 in Plymouth)
1690 – 49,504 residents (7424 in Plymouth) – after this, Plymouth merged with Massachusetts colony.
1700 – 55,941
1710 – 62,390
1720 – 91,008
1730 – 114,116
1740 – 151,613
1750 – 188,000
1760 – 202,600
1770 – 235,308
1780 – 268,627
This is what sociologists refer to as “rapid social change” and it can generate a great deal of stress in the lives of those who are living in the midst of it. Consider these stressors: infrastructure for feeding and housing a growing population; setting up businesses and commerce for communities to emerge; establishing schools for children to become literate and capable; harvesting natural resources (timber, for example) to build economies; and the list continues.
My ancestors did that. If I were more statistically oriented, I could calculate the probability of each generation having been involved in the production of institutionalized chattel slavery given all of this information. But, that’s not really my thing. I can say that the probability is very high that my early colonial ancestors participated in, endorsed, and perpetuated in laying the foundations of the racial caste system we still see present in modern society. That makes me nauseous.
On the other hand, a point of pride is that my ancestors were instrumental in setting up the first “public school” in 1645. According to the genealogy compiled by my distant cousins in 1972, “The minutes of the town meeting at Marshfield, held August 1645, report, “on motion being made for one to teach school, we, whose names are underwritten, are willing to pay yearly besides paying for our children we shall send, viz. Robert Carver, — 10s.”” There is also evidence that my 9xG grandfather, Robert Carver, was granted 40 acres of land to cultivate. He and his wife had one son, John Carver.
What I do not know yet is what they cultivated and how many people they had working for them and under what conditions. I will try to find that out as the journey continues.
I also do not yet know how many of my early (1620s-1700) ancestors participated in the slave economy, or how many enslaved people were living in Massachusetts in the Colonial period, were enslaved by my family members. But, I did find this information: “From fewer than 200 slaves in 1676, and 550 in 1708, the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. It reached its largest percentage of the total population between 1755 and 1764, when it stood at around 2.2 percent. The slaves concentrated in the industrial and seaside towns, however, and Boston was about 10 percent black in 1752.”
Thanks for reading this.
(May 27, 2018) — The thing about discovering that my ancestors participated in the economic institution of slavery is that it changes everything I thought i knew about my heritage. Growing up in New England, going to public schools meant that I learned about the Pilgrims, wore their funny hats, and how they had a lot of help from “the Indians” when they settled — sort of like it was one big happy family. I made handprint turkeys cut out of construction paper and headbands with construction paper feathers when it was my turn to play the part of the happy and welcoming Indian. One of my all time favorite field trips as a kid was going to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. I remember very clearly that people were there dressed in Colonial clothing, women were making meals on the hearth and men were hammering nails in the blacksmith shop. Children were playing games that were popular during the Colonial times and best of all, I had rock candy for the first time in my life. I loved it. I loved the re-enactment of colonial life. I loved “going back in time” and talking to people who talked like the colonial people did. It was idyllic. I felt at home. I still love going on these tours. I do not remember if they had cranberry bogs or talked about the cranberry harvest at Sturbridge Village. They did not have reenactments of people held in “perpetual servitude” as the Massachusetts law allowed for in those days. Nothing that I recall was mentioned about people who were enslaved.
As I advanced to junior high, I learned that people were held in captivity and forced to work in deplorable conditions, often suffering illness and injury without much concern or care for their well-being. If I remember correctly, the textbooks in my junior high history classes did not go into much detail about the conditions of slave labor, but I learned that it happened in American South. I do not recall learning about people being enslaved in Massachusetts colony. In my high school classes, the lessons were a bit more detailed — but the history of enslavement was mainly taught as a factor associated with Civil War, and not much else was said about it: we did not learn when slavery as an economic institution was started, or where, or why, other than southern plantation owners held hundreds of people in chattel bondage for the benefit of their agricultural production, and perhaps other labor needs.
So, while I found myself really grossed out about the lives that enslaved people were forced to live, and I was disgusted by the old Southerners who enslaved them, treated them miserably, and then profited from their labor; it was distant from me and my heritage. My people did not do it. My people fought for the Union in the civil war… my people were on the good side of this terrible history. I did not have to relate personally to slavery as an institution, because I did not see myself or my ancestors in that history.
I grew up knowing that my ancestors were from England, and arrived in Massachusetts in 1638 — the earliest known and documented relative that I had in North America, that is. I knew that my 9th Great Grandfather arrived in Massachusetts early on and may have been related to Captain John Carver from Mayflower fame (I will write more on that in the future).
Now that I know my ancestors authorized slavery in Massachusetts in 1641, and that I have documented at least two relatives (so far) who held people in bondage as slaves, it’s personal. In the colony, so it seems, the earliest attempt to enslave people was targeted towards the Indigenous people of Massachusetts. “These savage barbarians” proclaimed William Bradford who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, “were readier to fill their [the Pilgrims] sides full of arrows than otherwise!” And did not take well to “the yoke”.
In 1638, the same year my long-known ancestor arrived, a ship named Desire brought enslaved African people to Massachusetts from the West Indies. It seems they were the “cast offs” from the vigorous and lucrative sugar industry, so they were a “bargain” for the slave owners.
Take a moment, if you will, and consider the degree to which one must be dehumanized in order to see them as a “bargain” for purchase?
What has changed in me from learning about this history? Slavery, as an economic institution, started in the place where my ancestors thrived, partly because black ancestors were enslaved. And so now it is personal to me. I am not removed from it because I’m from “the North.” I do not know if slave labor was used in the harvesting of cranberries, but I aim to find out and also to dig into the old records to see if my ancestors were involved in that. But, I can’t drink cranberry juice, or have cranberries on my salad without wondering about it. Thanksgiving, of course, is mythical in many ways and if we want to be true to the Pilgrim’s experiences, we ought to be eating venison that Indigenous people hunted. But turkeys are a bit easier to make using a hand print and construction paper, I suppose.
I have long hated the injustices of slavery, I am a sociologist and so my training is to examine closely how power is exercised and how it is used to maintain large scale social inequalities. But now it is not just an abstraction, a theoretical concept I teach my students. Now it is a personal conundrum that I have to resolve. Slavery is not a problem from the distant past of American history. Slavery is alive. It’s a shape shifter in some ways, and it benefits from the “cloak of invisibility” (to borrow from Harry Potter) … More on that later.
So, what has changed? I have. I own this. I will keep digging and as I find new information, I will share and own it. Claiming it and acknowledging that I have inherited advantages that I never wanted, but I have to look at it, long and close up, and I have to work on making amends.
(May 24, 2018) — I am Kim Cook. I have a Ph.D. in Sociology and have always been interested in social history. I was born and raised in New England and have heard stories about our colonial ancestors for all of my life. As a child in school my favorite field trips included going to historical locations such as Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It was the first time I ever had rock candy. When I started college I decided to major in sociology, and then went on for a master’s and Ph.D. in sociology. To be a sociologist one should also appreciate and understand the historical factors that created the social context that we currently confront. While in graduate school I was fortunate to have a summer job as the director of a small historical museum in Maine; I loved it. I also took a doctoral level history seminar with Professor Laurel Ulrich in 1990 while she was writing her Pulitzer prize winning study of a midwife in colonial Maine: A Midwife’s Tale. (Professor Ulrich coined the phrase that has become a popular slogan and bumper sticker: “Well behaved women rarely make history.”) For that class I collected and analyzed over 500 gravestone inscriptions from Portsmouth, NH and Newburyport, MA. It fascinated me then and I regret I did not keep a copy of that paper. So, going deeper into my genealogy makes sense to me and I want to know more about my ancestors — the whole truth: the good things and the bits that challenge me, and especially about the devastation of slavery and colonization.
My training as a scholar makes me very careful about the information I use and share. My experience as someone who occasionally reads blogs informs me that using too many scholarly conventions (footnotes, citations, data tables, etc) can get in the way, so I aim to keep these things to a minimum. When necessary I will share the names/titles of publications or reports that I use here.
I am a feminist and will incorporate intersectional feminist leanings along the way. It’s just who I am, and while I realize it may not be everyone’s preference, I am not doing this for anyone else. I want to share it with others who want to read it, but I will not deny what motivates me or the lens I use to examine the materials I find.
I am new to blogging, so this will inevitably produce some clumsy posts and awkward mistakes along the way. I hope you will be patient with me as I learn how to use this platform. I have no idea how many people might end up reading this, or what the responses might be. I am not doing this for attention. I am doing this as a personal reckoning with my ancestors; and as an online “scrapbook” if you will. I am inviting readers to take the journey with me. I have not yet told my family about this and some relatives will be unhappy with me, others won’t care, and some might find it interesting. I have a huge family, so we have some of everything: every political leaning, many many ethnic groups and social class statuses. From the outset, I will also inform the readers that I am an anti-sexist/anti-racist activist in my community, a restorative justice practitioner, and supporter of LGBTQIA people. So, that’s a little about me and I will share more as the blog develops. Thanks for reading.
May 24, 2018
Slavery. American style chattel slavery. The ugly truth of American history was that millions of people, mostly with African heritage, and some who were Indigenous people, were held in bondage with no hope of gaining freedom, and subject to the brutality of the institution of captivity and the goals of a profit-driven economy. Millions of people lived without the right to become educated, though some defied the laws and learned voraciously; without the right to make their own living, though some successfully gained their independence and did very well for themselves; without the freedom to choose whom to marry, when and how many children to have, and how to raise them.
We seem to be at a cross roads in coming to grips with this ugly history. There are some common narratives around the issues. One narrative says something to the effect of “let it go, it’s in the past and we can’t change it.” Another narrative says we need to know the history or else we are doomed to repeat it — and perhaps perpetuate it since slavery hasn’t ended, but rather it has evolved. Another narrative says, the concern about it is overblown and, besides now that we no longer have slavery, everyone is equal and it no longer matters. We do not yet have a developed cultural narrative that goes something like this “for Truth and Reconciliation to be real, we need to own our part and our forebears’ part in giving birth to the institutionalized racism and sexism that is still impacting modern society.” Until we honestly own our responsibilities for creating and perpetuating the institution of American chattel slavery, and its many descendants (Jim Crow, Red Lining, Voter Suppression, Lynching, Death Penalty, Mass Incarceration, etc), reconciliation is not going to happen. This is my goal for “Owning Slavery: A Personal Reckoning.”
My forebears created this and I need to own up to that. My ancestors held people in bondage as property in colonial Massachusetts, they also contributed to the colonization of Indigenous people. Furthermore, my forebears also owned businesses that profited from slavery in the American South after slavery was abolished in New England. (I’ll be more specific about that in future posts.) We seem to have amnesia about how and when slavery started on this continent. Massachusetts was among the first legal jurisdictions to sanction chattel slavery (in 1641) in this land that we now call the United States of America.
For now, I want to say a few things about what I aim to do here and why. I am calling this blog “Owning Slavery: A Personal Reckoning” and I will share updates as I write them and as I continue to excavate my family history as it relates to these human rights abuses that has continued for hundreds of years and that cost millions of lives. I only discovered this information in my genealogical research two months ago and it made me sick to my stomach. The blog’s name is meant to convey MY individual quest to know and acknowledge the harms of slavery that my forebears created. I am doing this on my own time, with my own resources, and for my own reasons. Anything I write now and in the future will be on my own terms — I am not doing this on behalf of my family members or anyone else.
Second, I am doing this to move the cultural narrative closer to an authentic reckoning with genuine accountability. When I was a kid my parents taught me to own up to it when I did something wrong. In that tradition, I offer this journey publicly to help own up to it because I can. My ancestors continue to speak through their wills, their businesses, their deeds, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, etc. And, in the spirit of wholeness, I will also write about my ancestors who were abolitionists and who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Third, I am not trying to usurp the issue of institutionalized slavery as “mine” and take it away from people whose lives have been impacted by it in ways different from, and more painfully than how my life has been impacted. As a European-American woman, I have inherited from my ancestors’ advantages and entitlements that I did not request, and that I do not condone. Many scholars and activists also draw the roots of their social justice agendas back to American chattel slavery and I am not trying to step on those toes. This beast of institutionalized slavery is big enough for all of us to fight and confront in our own ways. I do not see my offerings here to be competition for those important movements. I hope for it to be complementary to those preceding and concurrent movements.
This summer I am going on a journey — excavating my genealogical roots. As I discover new bits of information, I plan to offer reflections on this information. The first few posts will offer some of what I have already discovered. I am not the first to look into my genealogy for this reason… in fact, my reason for doing this now is because I am affiliated with a non-profit organization called Coming To The Table (though anything I write cannot be attributed to that organization). I have long loved historical research, and I have also been keenly aware that our modern world is the product of deliberate choices made by our predecessors. And our future can only be the product of the deliberate choices we make now that our progeny will inherit.
The Iroquois believe in the Principle of the Seventh Generation — that we should make choices today that will improve the world for our children seven generations from now. Looking back, my 5th Great Grandparents choices impact my life today. My 5th great grandchildren’s lives will be impacted by my choices today. I hope they are better off for it.
So, welcome to my blog. Thank you for reading this far. I hope you will come back. Respectful comments are welcome. Rude and offensive comments will be ignored. Threatening comments will be kept on file and reported as needed.