Dubious Legacy

How much do we share in what our family ancestors did?

The TV commercials for Ancestry.com extoll the virtues of finding out interesting quirks in family members long past. One amateur genealogist, for example, is delighted that his grandparents lived next to Wilbur and Orville Wright. This is fascinating stuff, to be sure, but I wonder if some of the fascination has less to do with having a grandfather who knew somebody famous than with seeing your own family in history, no matter how unconscious this realization may be. The Mormons’ genealogical database, Ancestry.com, and similar sites deserve praise for discovering that genealogy is tailor-made for the internet. Knowing that your family doesn’t stop at your grandparents is a wonderful feeling, helping you feel  literal kinship with people who lived decades, or centuries, ago.

There’s a side to genealogical discovery that holds a funny and idiosyncratic appeal: The hackneyed example is of finding that your great-grandfather was a horse thief. People are not-so-secretly pleased when they find out their relatives didn’t all walk the straight and narrow. “See, our family has some nefariously noted and eccentric members of our own.” Discovering your ancestral horse thief can happen two ways. The first is family legend (“Uncle Lem rustled cattle”). The second—without the aid of legends— entails  painstaking research. The ancestry sites perform an admirable duty in illuminating our “pedigrees,” as the genealogists say, our literal family trees. But their usefulness can only go so far. If you didn’t have family lore that Uncle Lem was a rustler, you would have had to run across this fact in official records or newspaper accounts. In some ways, the problem with genealogical research isn’t a paucity of documents, but too many, which seem often to contradict one another. In an era like ours when horse-thievery is uncommon and quaint, we take a perverse pride in Lem’s raciness.But what happens if the genealogist finds something in his or her family that isn’t cute or titillating? What of the rude discovery that your family engaged in something truly immoral?

When I started doing genealogical research, my chief aim was to discover how my ancestors had reflected the times in which they lived, and not to find out if they sailed over on the Mayflower. I wasn’t much interested in the fact that Thomas Jefferson is my great, etc, uncle. To this end, I began tracing all four family branches that make up me and my sister–parents of my Childs grandparents (Childs and Cochrane) and of my mom’s grandparents (Graves and Doolittle). I was going to write a book showing how my own family reflected the American experience of their respective times. It’s a good idea, and I’m may still write that book, but in doing the kind of drilling-down which I mention above, I found out something unsettling.

I have to back up to explain this. It’s easiest to find out things about people who lived in the 19th century. Records were beginning to be well-organized and well-archived, and all levels of government started getting interested in keeping statistics about their citizens. The salient example, of course, are the Census records. The 17th century poses a problem. On the one hand, there were fewer Americans around and so there’s a chance that individuals are more likely to be mentioned in any kind of record; but on the other, records weren’t generally well-organized and well-archived. And they were spotty: We might have complete town records for Watertown, Massachusetts, but we don’t have state records, which might tell us about real estate sales or enlistment in the Continental Militia during the Revolutionary War. So I concentrated my first efforts on the 1800s, which conveniently was one of the most exciting times in our history. I discovered, for instance, that three of my family branches moved west from New England or Virginia literally within a few years of one another in the 1820s and 1830s in the Movement Westward, as our grade school textbooks called it. The West then was for them Michigan, Missouri, and Iowa. Later in the century, the Doolittles moved to Idaho, the true West. My great-grandfather was an itinerant newspaper man. When he and my great-grandmother (who was originally a Norwegian) had my grandmother and her brother, he apparently settled down a bit and started a paper in Hailey. I have a photo of the newspaper office cum printing plant. It looks exactly like the newspapers owned by cranky but brave editors who defied cattle barons in the Westerns. And it turns out he did some defying of his own: He supported the IWW, the Wobblies, then an important political force in the Western states. He was a Theosophist, defying the overwhelmingly protestant culture of the Victorian age. Actually, the other branches of my family also comprised a number of people who were disdainful of or actually antagonistic toward formal religion. So I find myself in the odd position of being someone who is a believer, while my ancestors were anti-religion rebels.

All of this is by way of illustration. My great-grandfather Doolittle is an instance of the first kind of genealogical fact: The humorous and surprising ancestor. However, there were others of the second kind.
One of these was my great-great-grandfather Graves. As I thought about my family in the 19th century, I naturally zeroed in on the most conspicuous event, at least for Americans: The Civil War. I wanted to see if any of my great-grandfathers participated, and a couple did (Addison Childs had the odd duty of protecting Michigan from surprise Confederate attacks from Canada. Before we chuckle at this, we should recall some of our own less-than-sane responses to 9.11). Great-grandfather Cochrane served in combat, throughout the war, from which he miraculously emerged alive. My great-grandfather Doolittle (the newspaper editor) was a young teenager when the war ended. Then I came to my great-grandfather James F. Graves.

We always had known that the Graveses were Virginia transplants to Missouri. To the extent we thought about it at all, this Confederate strain was pretty laughable. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool radical republican Michigander, thought these sentiments particularly funny. Here was Dr. James Graves, a known Confederate, in a state that saw some of the most horrifying and the nastiest of intra-state guerilla warfare. What was he doing at that time? He would have been pretty young, but definitely of recruitment age. Although there are “James F. Graves” in the Confederate rolls, none seems to be him, unless he simultaneously served in the Arkansas cavalry and the MIssissippi infantry, while at the same time getting himself traded in a prisoner exchange in Illinois. I looked up Medical Corps records, although he would only earn his MD later. Maybe he served as a corpsman?

I had a lot of family legend about the Graveses of Montgomery County, Missouri, and the records from that time were good. Yet like many historical archives, these were also invalid, sketchy or nonexistent government records. There are a lot of records of Civil War participants, and of CW participants in Missouri, but as I hope I’ve explained, that doesn’t necessarily cast light on the  question. Among the Graves-family “legends of the South” was that they were slaveholders. Of course they were: they came from Virginia. But I think generally we thought of these people too far back in time to have any meaning to us.  Even slave-holding had become quaint.

In researching great-grandfather James, I naturally researched his father and his father’s father. Both of whom obviously were grown men before the Civil War. As I noted, there are plenty of records in Missouri’s archives (Missourians seem to have done a good job saving these documents). There were deeds and land-ownership records, and occasionally marriage notices. There were also census records.

The Missouri census, like all censuses at the time, per the Constitution, recorded slaves in so-and-so’s “family.” I had acquired a land record for my great–great-grandfather Peyton Graves. Evidently he and his Berger father-in-law  owned a big tract of land. All indications were that this was a large and prosperous agricutural operation (I use that long-winded phrase because I don’t know, yet, what they grew. I doubt it was cotton—too far north for cotton). Then I came across two documents that forever altered my perspective on ancestors. They were the respective Missouri censuses for father-in-law (a Berger) and son-in-law, Peyton Graves . Between them, they owned close to thirty slaves. The slaves were to some extent divided up according to whether they were ‘house” or “field.” Women in both families had their own “personal” slaves, usually an older woman and possibly a young daughter. This added to the number of people enslaved by my great-great-grandparents, and very probably every other Graves back to the 17th century.

There were little notes about individuals, especially ages. Maybe these were written by an over-zealous or simply humane census-taker who saw these people as people. Maybe he was from Michigan. One old man was retired but still kept on the farm “staff.” My great-grandmother Jefferson’s sole maid was 13 during slave times, much older when my grandfather and his brothers and sisters knew her. I think it would be natural for anyone with a sense of history and a sense of family to begin pondering people who had suddenly become individuals. My family owned slaves, and not just a few slaves (as if that mattered), but a sizable number. In fact between them, the Graveses and the Bergers owned more slaves than anyone else in Montgomery County.

This is the risk of getting serious about family genealogy: that you will suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a real person, and not all of these will be people who are quaint horse-thieves or folks who lived next to the Wright brothers. Another, and equal, risk is coming to understand that four or five generations back is really not that far  back at all. These are your family. You own them for better or worse.

Learning that my ancestors really did keep people in slavery, that this fact wasn’t some wisp of Southern myth, was a profound shock. I know enough now to know a little what Great-Grandfather Graves was like. He was no longer somebody that everyone in the family knew existed, but only as a vague place-holder in our pedigree.

Up till this time, I’d found the history gods to be generally benign and often intriguing. Here, though, they seemed to be saying, “Well, you wanted to know how your ancestors reflected American history. How about this?”
The first stage of shock was entirely taken up with this thought: I own these people, these Graveses. They are my people. I can no longer disregard who they were or what they did. The second stage added: So how am I supposed to react? These were visceral, spiritual and emotional questions, not rational sides in a debate. Was I somehow complicit in slave-holding, as some African Americans might argue?

I’m going to go off on another tangent to make a comment on Americans and history. While Europeans are all too aware of their collective history (in any case it’s all around them), Americans as a people have historical amnesia. They are understandably uninterested in ancestors four or five generations back. This is in one sense good. Americans believe in fresh starts, leaving the past behind. But the past, an ancient and cunning witness, doesn’t stay behind. The bad sense is that we never learn and we only seek causes for effects that have taken place in the near-term.

Thus have we done with slavery in this country. Many Americans claim with justice that their families didn’t even get to our shores until fifty years later. Others who know their ancestors from that period, simply argue that their families were too dirt-poor to own a good plow, to say nothing of expensive slaves. These are both true. But my problem is with the present (i.e., my lifetime). We talk about the progress made by Latinos in every realm, and the Asians, well, you know about them—they could be Americans to begin with. Other shining examples of ethnic progress are the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, and so on.

None of these people were enslaved. (I’m not going to concede the cauistical point that many of these were “wage-slaves” or “peasants” or “may as well have been slaves”.) In my view, if you pick any group of Americans, any gender, any ethnic background—except African Americans—they were simply never slaves defined in any serious way.

Back to American historical amnesia. The problems with blacks, both racists and well-wishers say, is that we have forced them into bad neighborhoods, with very few prospects, lousy education, and rampant prejudice. That’s the reason African-Americans find themselves in this woeful predicament. We never stop to think that the people who live on this dangerous and despondent block in Northeast Washington are there because their grandparents or great-grandparents weren’t horse thieves or people who knew other famous people. They are there because their ancestors were slaves. And not that far back. My mother as a child knew people who had been in slavery. My grandparents certainly knew plenty of people born into slavery.

This did not happen all that long ago. We don’t have some sort of historical germ-free zone, abetted by amnesia,  that somehow protects us from our ancestors.

Contemporary genetics is akin to genealogical research on the web. Now we really can go back to our biological forebears, and it’s a snap to go back over the recent past, ten or twelve generations. I doubt many modern Americans can imagine anything like what it was to be a slave, for your ancestors to have been slaves. I certainly can’t, although since my discovery I’ve tried to the best of my ability. Black Americans and white Americans have a patriotic duty to keep reminding people of the still-vital role slavery plays in our history. I think many of us who are so disposed are put off by the common, “Oh, not slavery again! Every bad thing that happens to African-Americans is because of slavery.” The retort should be, “That’s because it is.” I’m sure it would take little historical digging to find that post-bellum people were already saying, “Oh, you blame everything on slavery.” Have other large and egregious factors oppressed black people in our culture? Of course. Economic oppression, still rampant racism, blighted communities—all have their starring roles in the one true American tragedy.

Hard and unpaid work and poor living conditions will make any human being despondent. Many will lose hope. Yet in my feeble attempt to imagine myself into the slave’s “existential condiition,” I think what strikes me the most is that your life is taken away from you just as surely as  execution by injection in a prison. Clint Eastwood has a good line in “The Unforgiven.” The “kid” has just had to kill someone, and wants no more of that, ever. In essence, Eastwood says, “When you kill someone, you steal everything from him, including his future, everything he would have done,” anyone he might have loved. This fits slavery to a T. Although historians still argue over the degree to which slave families were split up, no one denies this happened.

This is for me the really heart-breaking piece of being a slave, although there are plenty of others. Sending your wife or your children somewhere you will never see them again is stealing a life. It isn’t “simply” abuse, torture, rape. You may live through these things. But you can’t live through something you never had, your own life.

Am I complicit in my great-great-grandfather’s enslavement of other human beings? I don’t think I am, any more than I would be complicit in the crimes of murdering Great-Granddad. Yet I carry that person in my genes; had he not lived, I would not have lived. This fills me with nausea, with emptiness without hope. In a very tiny way, I don’t feel the way slaves must have felt, but what I feel is a bitter reflection of that  monstrosity. That’s just one, tiny result of slavery.