Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Dark and Violent History

Longtime blog readers will know that I have periodically discussed the illustrious history of my mother's family. They were a truly remarkable group of people, self-sacrificing patriots who gave their all in the defense of liberty, in the Old World and the New. I have for many years enjoyed reading and learning about them, but have known exceptionally little about my father's line, about the story of my own last name.

In retrospect, it might have been better not to look. But look I did, and I found what I found.

More than anything else, this journey, undertaken during lunch breaks and the few hours between work and bed, was full of surprises. To begin with, I started looking in the wrong geographic direction: north. My brothers, sister, and I were all born in Native State, as was my father and his father before him, and I presumed that the family line would stretch back from Native City to some village in Germany. Not so.

In fact, the census records detailing my great-grandfather's life revealed an unexpected twist: place of birth--Southern State.

"No way," I whispered, delighted.

Southern State, you see, is my adopted homeland, the place where I've lived and where all of my life experiences have taken place since I was sixteen. For a twenty-five-year-old that's getting to be quite a span of time, and I've long since come to regard the locality where I attended college and came into my own as home. It was validating to learn that my roots evidently originated in the place I'd grown to love. But how far did those roots sink?

"Exactly," Powell said. "If they came to Native State from Southern State, then where did they come to Southern State from?"

I smiled.

"I'm going to find out."

And so I dug.

After a while I started to become concerned; the records just stretched back and back and back, and for a while I wondered that I'd never find the Our Family origin.

"Richard Our Family, born 1881 in Southern State. John Our Family, born 1851, Southern State. James Our Family, born 1823, Southern State...Peter Our Family, 1750...Salathiel--Salathiel?--Our Family, 1725...William Our Family, far back can these go?"

The answer, to my astonishment, was 1619, and the place was a touchstone of American history.

"King's City," I marveled, reading the name recited by countless generations of American schoolchildren. "King's City."

In the King's City population census of 1624, there he was: John William Our Family, age 24, arrived November 1619--from Wales.

"We're Welsh?" my father asked.

"And French," I clarified. "A French family married into Our Family in the 1700s."

"What does 'Welsh' even mean?"

What, indeed. The Our Family history in this small country adjoining England is evidently a long and impressive one, but it was what we did after arriving in America that interested me. And it was that, the devilish details, that dampened the happiness I'd felt at learning my family had been in Southern State for 400 years. Which was, obviously, a great thing to learn.

"It's like when we moved here, we were coming home," my brother Powell said. I thought that was such a lovely notion. But in this ancient home of ours, we did things that should not be done.

The land records for 1645 list John William Our Family as purchasing 1,200 acres of land near King's City, the area his descendants would occupy for the next 300 years. It also lists him as furnishing the labor needed to work that land. For two centuries, from this initial endeavor to the great Civil War that forever freed four million human beings from bondage, the economic mainstay of my family was slavery.

It is tempting to dismiss this legacy by saying, "Well, everyone in the South owned slaves."

And it's not true.

"Of the 6 million white inhabitants of the so-called slave states, less than 350,000 owned slaves, and only 40,000 controlled plantations requiring a working unit of more than 20 field hands. But the 3,000 or 4,000 principal slave-owners generally ruled the politics of the South." (Churchill, The Great Republic, 137).

They were an elite among an elite. Criminals among criminals.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Our Family's involvement in slavery is its consistency over two and a quarter centuries; the family ruled an empire of the lash, maintaining at least fifteen to twenty slaves per leading member throughout the entire Antebellum period. James Our Family, the last head of the family, before the destruction of the Civil War, is listed in the 1860 census as holding forty-seven men, women, and children in chains.

Individual instances of brutality were more shocking, more visceral, than the fact of the immense legacy could be.

In 1774 my sixth great-grandfather, Salathiel Our Family (tell me that doesn't just sound evil) posted an ad in a newspaper seeking a runaway named Sam.

"This Negro shall be easy to identify," assured Salathiel. "For I have branded him upon his face."

You can imagine that, as a progressive young gay man, the knowledge that I am in fact descended from a dynasty of vicious Southern slaveholders (which, you'll note, bothers my father's conscience not a bit) has not been welcome. Which is not to say there aren't things to celebrate in the Our Family history.

The family had a habit of educating its sons at Harvard, an oddity that I learned was actually common among Southern planters, and on the French side we are descended from Huguenots who came to Southern State seeking religious liberty in 1689. Since at least that time my ancestors had subscribed to, in another bizarre coincidence, the Episcopal Church, which is my denomination of choice.

So I am, by chance, an Episcopal Southern-Stater who learned he's descended from 400 years of Episcopal Southern-Staters. Perhaps your history defines you more than you know. But what rings across our story, louder than any other sound, is the crack of the whip, and it is that that haunts me.

Of course, the Our Family story changes dramatically after the Civil War. The plantations are burned, the slaves freed, the fortune lost, the masters at last served their richly deserved comeuppance. Within two generations of the war we'd left Southern State, my great-grandfather and his father seeking factory work in Native City. In 1923 my great-grandfather, at the age of only thirteen, landed in a local newspaper when he was injured in an industrial accident.

So now I know a little bit more about who I am and where I come from. The Our Family name stood for something, something repugnant, but something that I now understand. And as I marvel at some of the strange ways in which my own life has lined up with this history--my moving to Southern State, my becoming Episcopal--I wonder at how the defining aspect of that history, slavery, may still influence us.

If anything, I hope to take it as another reminder of how the powerful treat the powerless. I have suffered nothing like those whom my ancestors enslaved, but I, too, know powerlessness, and that powerlessness at the hands of vindictive men and women has taught me the value of mercy and compassion.

It is my aspiration that, one day, when centuries from now someone looks back upon my name, they will say, "He was good. He was kind. He left things better than he found them."

There are precious few peacemakers in Our Family's shared history. Maybe I can be one of them.


Anonymous said...

A very cool, if disturbingly illuminating post, BB. I think we all should examine our roots (and I have done some of that myself). Remember that when your ancestors were slave holders, as repugnant as that might seem now, it was the way it was back then.

Somehow, I feel you'd be a peacemaker with or without your family's background.

Peace <3

Angel The Alien said...

That is really interesting! So cool to be able to trace your roots back that far. Remember it was really common in those days to have slaves and it is an unfortunate part of our whole country's history (except for mine of course because my family was poor Italian immigrants) so it is not so much something personal about your family and bloodline, but about the times they lived in. Branding someone on the face was really sick though... but that was just one dude, a zillion generations removed from you. :)

naturgesetz said...

Interesting stuff, as is what you posted about your mother's family in that earlier post. I agree with the others that the slave owning is not your fault. But then it's commonplace for us to feel pride in illustrious ancestors, and it's just as natural to find misdeeds a matter of embarrassment. And however different we may be from our ancestors and relatives, family is a reality: there is a real connection — these are our people, no matter what we think of them.

If I understand you correctly, you were not raised in the Episcopal Church (despite the ancestral background). I'm curious about your decision to become Episcopal. What, if anything, was your prior affiliation, and when and how did you come to your decision?

slugmama said...

Hey, I'm a friend of Jay in VA and a comment you left on his blog led me over here to your blog.
If you are referring to Jamestown when you say "King's City" then you should email me, as the odds are we probably share some ancestry.
My mother's side of the family goes waaaay back on many lines to 1600's VA and I have a couple of Huguenot lines among them.
Seriously, email me and we can compare notes privately.