This blogpost is dedicated to all my Lyon, Green and Merritt ancestors and their descendants who are our cousins. I would also like to thank Jo Conboy and her family as well as the Greenwich Preservation Trust for all of their support.
On The Lyon Moral Compass That Was Inherited
For the past six months, my family and I have had to deal with our ancestors’ burial ground being desecrated and our ancestors’ peace, above and below the boulder, being disturbed in Byram Cemetery. Though I am not an overtly religious person, I am a spiritual one. My mother, Joyce Green Vega, instilled in me a faith that anything was possible with God on our side. I was raised in Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton, MA and I have never forgotten the seeds of faith that were sowed in me there. If there is anything I’ve learned in the past six months, it is that my faith and connection to my ancestors have never been stronger. I know without a doubt that my family’s quest for justice for our ancestors is on the right side of history and that we can’t lose with God and all our ancestors are on our side.
Last August, my cousins and I visited our ancestral burial ground in Byram Cemetery in Greenwich, CT. We were all set to settle for a plaque on a tree commemorating what used to be called “The Colored Cemetery.” I’ve written about that visit in another post so I won’t rehash it here. I am now certain that God and our ancestors, above and below the boulder, were sending us a message on that day. That message was a simple one and it was that they gave us the same moral compass that they gave all their Lyon descendants. That moral compass was what led our Lyon ancestors to reserve a space in Byram Cemetery for their slaves, slave descendants and free blacks in the first place. It’s the same moral compass that they also gave Henry S. Lyon and all the other Lyons in Byram back in 1890 when the was first desecration of the Byram Cemetery occurred. Back then, the Lyons stood up for the people who were buried in “The Colored Cemetery” — some of whom they no doubt knew and remembered —-when they said that the land was consecrated and not meant for personal use. It’s the same moral compass that our Lyon cousins had almost three years ago when they, too, decided to take a stand against the current desecration of Byram Cemetery along with members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust and other concerned citizens. They, too, stood up for our ancestors in our family’s absence over these past three years. On September 22, 2016, I spoke on behalf of our ancestors buried in what is now known as the Byram African-American Cemetery as well as our Lyon ancestors who created that sacred space for them to rest in peace. In less than a month, I discovered that my cousins and I had also inherited that same moral compass. I considered it a gift that I hope will never stop ticking.
We Still Are United: Now More Than Ever
On March 26, 2017, I spoke, as part of the Greenwich Preservation Trust Heritage Speaker Series, at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich in the Cos Cob, NY. It was the first time I had ever spoken in Greenwich, our ancestral hometown with roots going back to 1600s. That my family, the descendants of Lyon slaves, was joined by our Lyon cousins, the descendants of our family slave owners was epic. I would never have predicted this day to happen six months earlier. It wasn’t even a thought. But, our ancestors willed it and so it came to be.
We Will Be Coming to the Table Again and Again
In my blogpost on my 4th great-uncle Jack Husted, I wrote about how my Lyon cousin Julie Pollock helped me discover what happened to Jack who was sold as a slave in 1796 at the age of 3. Julie later told me that her 3rd great-uncle, Seth Lyon, who along with his first cousin Gilbert Lyon, harbored a fugitive slave, Peter John Lee, for 6 years until he was recaptured and taken back to VA in 1836 and re-enslaved. It was Julie who led me to investigate what else our Lyon cousins were doing besides harboring a fugitive slave. This led to the discovery that they were members of the Northeast Whig Party which held anti-slavery views, socialized with a Greenwich Underground Railroad stationmaster, Deacon Jonas Mead, and may routinely interacted with people who attended one of the three known abolitionist churches in Greenwich. I am currently investigating the social networks of our Lyon ancestors as well as other Greenwich abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates. Likewise, I am also researching our Green family and their ties to other free black communities in Westchester County, NY and our family link to Hawley and Harriet Green of Peekskill, NY, both stationmasters on the Underground Railroad. That our Greens have ties to these people is very significant. I believe it is critical that we look at the unsung role of free blacks in Greenwich and in Westchester County, NY and how these free blacks may have aided their enslaved brothers and sisters in their quest for freedom via a route that cuts across Westchester County, NY and potentially ends up at our ancestors’ UGRR House in Peekskill, NY.
I am looking forward to telling the story of my Lyon, Green, and Merritt ancestors and how they came to the table in the early 1800s. I rejoice in knowing that I will be aided in some of my research by my Lyon cousins as well. Our joint history came out of the darkness of slavery personified in Greenwich, CT that was born and bred in Byram. It is my ultimate goal to render visible and bring to light all those good Greenwich people who worked together to make this country far greater than it was before. They may have been considered ordinary then, but history should remember them as anything but.
Hangroot Was Our Hood: Reclaiming Black Greenwich History will be my next blogpost. Stay Tuned……
Please note at the end of this blogpost I included a primer for those people who have DNA cousins of color. This blog is dedicated to all my Euro DNA cousins who have embraced me as a distant cousin and who are consistently working on finding our common ancestor. I consider all of you, and there are many, to be my distant cousins without hesitation.
There Sure Was Some Pepper Up in All That Salt: An Ode to Those Who Would Say Otherwise”
Oh DNA, the truth you revealed was received like a 75% off sale,
That which was hidden has been brought to light,
The darkness now gone with pure delight,
Oh DNA, the pepper you have exposed has led to salty souls,
That which is being denied has wounded someone’s white pride,
Our family will always proudly represent all our black, brown, red and white ancestors’ sides,
Oh DNA, the real history you discovered has led to a complicated situation,
That our family, from the start, was baked-up in a US mixed-race oven,
Our genes playing the historical dozens on all those who felt the need to racially govern,
Oh DNA, the overall message you represent will always be one of diversity and genetic unity,
That which is factually-based can never be destroyed,
By those who seem to be pumped up on family falsehoods and antagonistic racial steroids.
Oh DNA, the pepper in all that salt has been passed down to the present,
That which was inherited still remains,
A beautiful testament to all our ancestors in our veins.
DNA Doesn’t Lie: The Denial of the Pepper in Salted Histories
As a descendant of slaves and slave owners, I am always amazed at how my family history is often denied by some Euro DNA cousins or by descendants of my family’s slave owners despite DNA proof. Over the past 3-4 months, I’ve had a couple of individuals take issue with some of my blogposts that mentioned their ancestors or family surnames. The problems they have are rooted in the fact that I have shined a light into the dark closets of their own family histories. You know, the places where all the skeletons hang out and history is miraculously erased or revised.
Slavery was a very nasty, dehumanizing, ugly, and messy institution that lasted for centuries and impacted everyone. I’ve spent over a decade trying to break through all of my family’s genealogical brick walls that slavery left in its wake. My cousin Andrea and I turned to DNA testing to see if DNA would break down some of these walls. I’m happy to say that it has helped break down some walls as well as lead us to a better understanding of our family’s origins. We now know that we have a rich colonial family history in this country and that we descend from the original inhabitants of this land as well as the West African, Malagasy and European immigrants who arrived in the 1600s.
While I am proud of my family history, some people apparently take issue with a person of color, like me, being related to them or sharing ancestors with them. Of course, the first thing they think is that their ancestors couldn’t possibility have had children with a slave. Well, it seems that in my family that scenario was very common as it is in most African-American families. Black folks did not get their beautiful, varied hues — ranging from white to black— on their own. In my family, we also see some instances of consensual interracial relationships that happened centuries ago. For example, I have a Dutch 4th great-grandmother who married my mulatto 4th great-grandfather in the late 1700s. Going back further, some of my free Afro-Dutch ancestors also married Dutch women in the 1600s. Moreover, I am also a descendant of Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston, MA after the Civil War ended and Emancipation Proclamation was signed. My matrilineal haplogroup is H1ag1—European—by the way. It would be a failure on my part if I didn’t mention that my family also had ancestors who passed as white and whose descendants then became “white.” I am acutely aware of how different my family is from other African-American families. While being a slave descendant of a slave owner may be the primary way that I may be related to my Euro DNA cousins, there are other ways that I may be related to them other than via a slavery connection. In a nutshell, if I, or any of my relatives, show up on someone’s DNA Relative list, it is because we have an ancestor in common who shares a genetic tie to both of us. We are genetically related to each other regardless if that person considers us kin, related, or not. A DNA test is a great harbinger of truth and someone’s rejection of a genetic tie to me, or my family, doesn’t change that fact. It just doesn’t. You can’t wish away DNA.
A few months ago I wrote my 2nd blogpost on my Malagasy ancestors who arrived in Manhattan in the late 1600s and ended up in the Tappan Patent with my other West African, Lenapi, and Dutch ancestors. In my blogpost, I wrote the following:
DNA doesn’t lie. What I stated was and is the truth. My ancestors were related to the founding families of Bergen County, NJ and Rockland County, NY because they were either Tappan Patent land grantees, via the Manuel and De Vries Afro-Dutch families, or slaves of other Tappan Patent land grantees. The historical documentation on the formation of the Tappan Patent backs my claims up and our Euro DNA cousins further testify to our genealogical ties to the founding families of this area. Those founding families were the Blauvelts, Ackerman/Ackerson/Emerson, Demarest, Banta, VanBuskirk, Haring, Hopper, Zabriskie, Wortendyke, Van Winkle, Bogardus/Bogart, and others. They also intermarried among each other repeatedly. For example, Bantas married Blauvelts, Demarests, Ackermans, DeGroots and others. There are published Banta and Blauvelt genealogies onAncestry.com that serious researchers can access that documents these marriages.
Recently, I was contacted by a woman who initially portrayed herself to be a distant cousin of my 4th great-grandmother of Malagasy descent, Tun Snyder. This person was not a descendant of Tun at all. In fact, she was a descendant of people who had two surnames, Demarest and Banta, which were among the surnames I mentioned in my blogpost as well as just now. I spoke to her on 2 occasions and then received the email below from her.
It became apparent that she was phishing for information on my genetic ties to people who have the same surnames to the people on her family tree. She was looking for “proof” that I shared the same exact ancestors as her. She told me that she tested at FTDNA and if I wasn’t on her FTDNA Family Finder list, or matched her on Gedmatch, that I needed to follow her instructions above. I never responded to this person’s email as her claims are ridiculous. I never slandered or defamed her ancestors as I don’t even know who they are. Just because two individuals share the same surnames, does not mean they are even related to each other or share DNA with each other. The fact that I do have DNA cousins who have ALL the above surnames on their trees that go back to the same ancestors indicates that we have a genetic tie to someone in their family probably as a result of a Blauvelt marrying into their families. I may not be a DNA match to the above Banta/Demarest descendant, but several people in my family, myself included, have DNA Demarest and Banta cousin matches. In addition, her claims about me and CeCe Moore are totally unwarranted and baseless. And, no, she doesn’t have the right or privilege to take away my First Amendment right to free speech especially when I am discussing my own family history. Not today nor tomorrow.
On Demanding “Proof” from Slave Owner Descendants and Historical Amnesia: An Inconvenient Truth
The email reminded me of another Euro descendant and distant cousin related to my Lyon line from Greenwich, CT. That particular person not only demanded DNA proof of my DNA ties to the Lyon family, but also contacted a CT state archaeologist asking if it was even possible that I could be related to her ancestors via DNA and was asking around if I could make any claims in Probate Court to any thing related to the Lyon Family. Really? Do these folks even consider how offensive they are being? On both occasions, it became very clear that these two individuals hadn’t even read my blogpost or even considered how well-documented I intentionally make my blogposts, with included references, for people like them. They also have shown that they have no clue as to how DNA is inherited.
Both my Pickett-Snyder and Green-Merritt lines are slave owner descended lines. It is well documented that my ancestors were owned by their slave owners, lived in the same households, and no doubt had mixed-race children with their slave owners or male relatives of their slave owners. All of my family’s DNA tests point, not only to our tri-racial ethnic admixture, but also to our genetic ties to the slave owners and their descendants that were inherited because of consensual or nonconsensual relations. My family has colonial roots in NY, NJ, and CT that go back to New Amsterdam under the Dutch so it is not surprising that Dutch surnames appear on my family tree. To the above names, you can also add DeGroat/DeGroot, Vanderzee, Van Riper, Van Ness, Tenbroeck, and others. I strongly believe that my Dutch great-grandmother was a DeGroat/DeGroot based on DNA evidence.
The historical amnesia that some people have regarding slavery is immense. For the record, slavery did occur in the North and the rape of slave women is well documented in every society that was based on slavery—worldwide. These are historical facts that can’t be disputed. If someone is touchy that I mention slave rape aka nonconsensual relations, that’s their problem and not mine. I’m not going to sanitize what my ancestors went through in this country. Sorry, someone doesn’t get to claim that their ancestors, distinguished or not, would never have a child with a slave. How do they know that they didn’t? They weren’t around when their ancestors lived. When I can find my ancestors passed down in Blauvelt wills as property and listed as “slave servant” living with Ackermans, one can forever forfeit the right to ever claim their ancestors never owned slaves. Furthermore, it would really behoove people to research their own family history before trying to erase, or revise history, or critique my blogposts. When I provide references (i.e., books mentioning the NY-Madagascar Slave Trade) on, for example, Cornelius Van Horne, and can google a runaway slave ad that he himself placed in a colonial newspaper, clearly I did my research. They did not. The Van Horne family were well-known for owning slaves, as did most wealthy people of the time in NY and NJ, and they have been routinely written about in books on colonial New York history. No whitewashing will be done on my family history watch when I am trying to learn as much as I can about my family—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Regarding my family’s matches to these Dutch founders of the Tappan Patent, though we do have some 4th cousin matches, a majority of these DNA cousins are in the 5th-8th cousin range. To ask a slave descendant — when most people don’t have family trees going back to the 1600s and 1700s — for “proof” of the exact slave owner ancestor who raped her female ancestor, is insensitive and mindboggling given the very nature of slavery. The institution of slavery can be seen as an example of a rape culture where establishing paternity and parental legitimacy wasn’t even thought of— only the act of reproduction was seen as important. Trust me, though a few slave owners had long-standing ties to their slave children, like my ancestor Daniel Lyon, a majority did not. A majority of slave owner baby daddies weren’t rushing out to register the births of their slave children or leaving them inheritances though they were selling their slave children and willing them to others upon their deaths. The fact that someone can even ask for proof, despite a preponderance of other evidence along with DNA, smacks of privilege and entitlement. They do not own any historical narrative which includes my ancestors. My ancestors lives were valid and they lived during the same historical period as their ancestors. However, that doesn’t mean that my ancestors’ own history should be erased or denied because a slave owner descendant wants to close her eyes, twinkle her nose, nod her head, and shout, “History be gone.” Nah!
A Primer on How to Approach your DNA Cousins of Color
I came up with this primer because I think it is a topic that should be discussed. Many African-Americans have Euro DNA cousins which should come as a surprise to no one. There have been studies done that show African-Americans on average have 24% Euro DNA ( see http://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(14)00476-5 ). Southern white Americans have on average 1% African DNA. Once people accept the fact that slavery happened and DNA was shared between slaves and slave owners, we can have a real honest conversation, without judgement, about how we are related. African-Americans and other people of color, who have DNA tested, want to know what anyone else wants to know when they finally get their DNA cousin list. How are we related to these people? Given the nature of slavery, the separation of family members, the geographical dislocation of our ancestors, we are hungry for more info on our roots.
Here’s my advice:
1) Acknowledge that you DO have a genetic link with a person of color. DNA doesn’t lie. That link may be due primarily to slavery or it could be due to consensual interracial relationships, racial passing, white immigration not related to slavery, immigration of one Euro descendant to the US and their siblings/other relatives to other parts of the world like the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, etc. Keep an open mind as to all possibilities.
2) Don’t assume any guilt, or fear judgement, for actions that happened in the past. You are not responsible for the actions of your ancestors. That being said, don’t repeat the mistakes of the past by denying your DNA cousins in this day and age. While you can’t change the past, you can change the present. You are 100% responsible for educating yourself about all of your family history given the results of your DNA test and DNA cousin matches.
3) Don’t assume that your DNA cousins are looking for 40 acres and a mule, an inheritance, or any material gain from you. Your DNA cousins are looking for any info you can provide on your ancestors in relation to theirs. You may not be able to provide this info and that’s OK, too.
4) Share any info that you may have (e.g., names/surnames, family locations, names of slaves documented in family wills, cemetery locations, etc.). You never know what info may be valuable to someone. When you have nothing to go on, any info should be welcomed. Please be mindful that you may or may not share the same surnames. During slavery and after, African-Americans took on different surnames — either a slave owner surname or one of their own choosing. If you don’t match via a surname, then look for family records, like wills, that list slaves’ first names.
5) Don’t deny the other person’s family history. Don’t assume that because they provide you with new info on your family that what they are saying is a lie because it does not match up with what you’ve been told. Take seriously what has been relayed to you. Ask questions of your DNA cousins. Ask them where they got their info and then do your own research. You may just learn from a different perspective. It’s fine to be proud of your ancestors without denying historic reality. You may also find out more info on your family that expands your own view of your ancestors and the time period they occupied.
6) Take the time to learn about your local history so you can inform your DNA cousins about their potential ancestral geographic places of orgin(s). In addition, if you are related to an African-American from a different geographical location, remember that there was a Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as well as a domestic slave trade. Your ancestors may have lived in the Northeast, for example, and were slave owners who sold slaves South. If you share cMs with someone, you share a genetic tie. Don’t discount differences in geographical locations. You may have to dig deep into your family history.
7) If your family history included hearing “whispers” of your ancestors having black children or other children of color, share that info with your DNA cousins as it just may be true. Not everything was recorded and oral history still counts as history. With DNA testing, that oral history may have been documented in someone’s genes.
8) Recognize that racial passing occurred whereby some African-American, especially mulattos, passed as “white.” If you match an African-American or other people of color, it may be because one of your ancestors racially passed. Their descendants were later recorded as white and their racial/ethnic origins were forever disguised. Also, recognize that slavery was not a monolithic experience and varied over place and time. In the 1600s, in Virginia, for example, white female indentured servants did in fact marry African slaves and freemen. Their children took the status of their mother before the Black Codes came into being.
9) Recognize that you have an opportunity to celebrate your family’s diversity and that is a good thing. Consider that the results of your DNA test provide you with a chance to let go of the notion of racial purity. It’s highly overrated. The concept of race is a social construct and our DNA link to each other proves that.
10) At a time when our country is at odds with itself over issues of race, embrace the opportunity to be part of the solution to bring about racial healing. If everyone would stop and think about how DNA testing offers us the PROOF of how we are all inextricably linked to each other, then maybe we can start a new chapter in race relations.
This blogpost is dedicated to Chris, Julie, and Charles. They are three of my Lyon cousins who have welcomed our family with open arms into the extended Lyon family. Today, we are unlocking the doors of our hidden shared family history together. This blogpost is an example of how “Coming to the Table” can benefit everyone. I would also like to thank Anne Young, a Greenwich historian, who has aided my research immensely.
Who Is Jack Husted?
Jack Husted is my 4th great-uncle, the 2nd son of my 4th great-grandmother Peg Green. Peg was a Lyon before she became a Merritt and later a Green. Peg was born around 1770 in Greenwich, CT and was raised in the household of Daniel Lyon (son of James, John, John and Thomas). Through our AncestryDNA Lyon cousin matches, we are connected to the Daniel Lyon line as well as other Lyon family lines. Peg was mulatto and it is highly likely that she was Daniel’s daughter by a slave. During slavery, it was quite common for slave owners to keep the children they had fathered with slaves around as house servants. Her actual relationship with her father may not have been publicly spoken about or acknowledged due to the nature of slavery. But, DNA doesn’t lie and there is an undisputed genetic link between our family and the family of Daniel Lyon. Peg was 5-10 years older than his other 4 daughters (Hannah, Lavinia, Elizabeth, and Loretta) and worked as a servant slave in his household. In 1790, Daniel sold Peg to Nathan Merritt, Jr. While she was in Nathan Merritt, Jr.’s household, she gave birth to Charles in 1791 and Jack in 1793. We know via our DNA cousins that Charles was fathered by a Merritt and we can assume the same now for Jack.
On Peg’s Return to the Lyon Family
Peg returned to the Lyon family around 1794 and was living with Benjamin Woolsey Lyon in the James Lyon House near the Lyon Cemetery. Benjamin Woolsey Lyon was Daniel Lyon’s brother. In his household, she gave birth to Anthony Jr. in 1795 and Platt in 1798. These two sons were fathered by my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green. Peg definitely met Anthony while she was in the Merritt household as Nathan Merritt, Jr.’s first cousin was John Green, Anthony’s slave owner. Peg and Anthony went on to have 3 additional sons together after she was emancipated in 1800 by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Their 5th son Allen, who was born in 1804, is my 3rd great-grandfather and he named one of his sons Benjamin Woolsey Green after him.
Regarding Anthony, Jr., we know that he was mentioned in Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s 1810 will. He was to stay in the care of Phebe Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey’s wife, until she died. If she died before his term was completed, then Anthony was to be set free. We know that Phebe lived until 1855 so Anthony was freed automatically under the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act in 1820. We don’t know what happened to Platt as he is not listed in his will. We can only assume that he may have been sold and completed his gradual emancipation term with someone else.
In an 1894 Port Chester Journal article, John Brooks, the grandson of Daniel Lyon and son of Lavinia Lyon Brooks, who married Henry S. Brooks one of the founders of Brooks Brothers, mentioned Peg. He stated that Peg had grown a “little fresh” and so his grandfather gave her her freedom. This is factually incorrect as we know that Daniel’s brother Benjamin Woolsey Lyon is the one who emancipated her.
That being said, John Brooks may have given a reason though as to why she was sold. Was it to teach her a lesson? Had she forgotten her “place” in the family? Did the fact that she had given birth twice, probably as a result of a sexual assault by a Merritt male, make her Lyon family reclaim her? Did they regret selling her? Did they assume that she would have been well-taken care of in the Merritt household as they had taken good care of her? Who knows, but anything is plausible. Both Charles and Jack would have remained with Nathan Merritt, Jr., when she returned to her Lyon family, as they were considered his property until they were 25 years old. Under the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act, they would be automatically freed after their terms were completed.
What I find interesting is that, in a Port Chester Journal article two years earlier, John remembered that his mother left him with Peg at his grandfather’s house when he was 3 years old. John was born in 1813 so that would mean that Peg was back with Daniel Lyon, in 1816, and was again working as his servant. We do know that in 1812, when the War of 1812 was going on, Peg and Anthony’s son Henry became a ward of the Town of Greenwich as his parents couldn’t take care of him. I often wonder what was going on that had such an impact on Peg and Anthony’s ability to take care of Henry. Did the War of 1812 have anything to do with it? Was it a bad year for farming? So many questions. In both articles, we see that Peg’s relationship with her Lyon relatives was long lasting and endured after she was emancipated. John mentions that when Peg visited NYC, she always stopped to visit his mother Lavinia and his family. The impact that Peg and Anthony clearly had on John is evident, as decades after their deaths, he still had fond memories of them and their family. I am also honored to be able to read about my Green-Merritt ancestors through the eyes of someone who actually knew them.
The Sale of Jack at the Age of Three In 1796
I first saw Jack’s 1796 bill of sale last December at the Greenwich Historical Society. I had no words upon seeing his bill of sale. A slave at the age of three? My first thought was how much work could a toddler do? Tears. Who would be taking care of him in the absence of his mother? That he was born on Valentine’s Day only added another layer to my distress. It also made me wonder about Charles. Two brothers now separated from each other and their mother. No words. Right then and there, I was a silent witness to the bitter legacy of slavery that was all too real. My 4th great-uncle was sold for 15 pounds of New York money at the age of three.
After Anthony died in 1836, I came across an 1837 land sale record that listed all of his sons with the exception of Henry. Jack Husted and Charles Merritt were listed as his sons. It confirmed that Anthony had adopted Peg’s two oldest sons as his own. Jack married his wife Helen and was the father of 4 daughters — Jane Anne, Sarah, Nancy, and Lucinda. His wife Helen and daughter Jane Anne passed away in 1851 and are buried in Lot 23 in Union Cemetery in Greenwich. I was able to trace Jack up until the 1860 census when he is listed as being 67 years old and was still working as a gardener. He passed away sometime before 1870.
When Cousins Come to the Table From Both Sides of the Color Line, Historical Truth Reveals Itself
I met my distant cousin Julie Pollack a month ago upon first learning about the desecration of the Byram African-American Cemetery. Thanks to Jo Conboy of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, I was put in contact with several distant Lyon cousins who had been sent my blogpost about my Green-Merritt ancestors. Julie’s grandmother, Julia Lyon Saunders, was the last private owner of The Thomas Lyon House before the house was donated to the town as a museum in 1925. Julie was also one of my cousins who, along with other members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, stood up for The Byram African-American Cemetery in 2014. This was a year before I even discovered our ancestors’ names. In our family’s 2-year absence regarding the whole cemetery issue, we are grateful to Julie and all our Lyon cousins for taking up the cause on behalf of our family’s ancestors — some who were also their cousins.
Julie, like me, is a family historian and genealogist. We are indeed kindred spirits and true kinfolk. I should add here that my Lyon line (Daniel, James, John, John, Thomas) included slave owners. Julie’s Lyon line were not slave owners, but did include abolitionists whom I will mention later. After Julie read my blogpost mentioning Peg, Anthony, and their seven sons, she made the connection to Jack whose bill of sale she had inherited. Simeon Lyon was the older brother of her 3rd great-grandfather Abraham Lyon. Julie told me that Simeon and his wife Mary Mills Lyon were childless and may have purchased Jack as a “proxy child” to take care of them as they age. Simeon passed away in 1807 and Julie had lost track of what happened to Jack. After she read my blogpost, she was happy to see that Jack went on to be reunited with his family and that he had a lived a productive life.
Julie was able to provide additional tidbits about Jack that gave me some sort of indication of the time he spent as a youth. In addition to giving me a copy of his 1796 bill of sale, she sent me a ledger page from Simeon’s book that showed what was spent on Jack in 1807. Jack was 14 years old and had been hired out, probably as a farmhand, which was quite common. I know from looking at my other Green-Merritt ancestors that boys, between the ages of 12-18, were often hired out as farmhands. Girls, at the same ages, worked as domestic servants. From the ledger page, we know that he was well-clothed, received some cash payments, and tobacco.
Jack’s Gap Years (1807-1820) and the Surname Husted
Julie and I both wondered what happened to Jack after Simeon’s death in 1807. We couldn’t locate Simeon or Mary’s will. Unlike me, she didn’t know until recently that he had taken the surname Husted as his last name. I recently went back to census records and looked for a Husted who owned a slave in 1810. Jack had to serve his 25 year gradual emancipation term until 1818 so he would have still been a slave in 1810. I was so happy to see that there was only ONE Husted who owned a slave and had one free black living with him. That man was Drake Husted. Looking at the 1820 census, Drake had two free blacks living with him and we can assume that the slave in 1810 was now free. That slave was no doubt our Jack Husted.
Upon further analysis, I found that Drake was married to a Nancy Marvin Lyon who turns out to be the daughter of Daniel and Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s brother James. After Simeon passed away, Jack was given to Nancy and Drake to complete his term. Did they buy him? I haven’t found a bill of sale yet, but he did end up with them for sure. This meant that Jack ended growing up in the household of a cousin of his. Peg and Anthony would have certainly been able to see him often as well.
Julie and I have also been wondering where Simeon lived. In Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s 1810 will, his homestead, which was the James Lyon House near the Lyon Cemetery, was listed. In addition, there were 8 other properties mentioned. Mary Mills, Simeon’s widow, is listed as living in one of his properties. Where Simeon’s house was probably the house that Benjamin Woosley Lyon’s son James occupied in 1830 near the Byram Bridge which was close to the Thomas Lyon House. It also appears that the wooden house may have burnt down between 1880-1900.
Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s children were all underage when he died. In his will, he mentioned that they could not inherit the land until they became of age which would have been around the early 1820s. This meant that someone would have acted on their behalf until then. In his will, his wife Phebe was listed as his executrix, however, she declined and James Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey’s brother, and W.H. Husted were appointed as executers. Joshua Lyon, Benjamin’s cousin, was listed as being the person who appraised his estate inventory in his will. As stated before, James’s daughter Nancy took in my 4th great-uncle Jack when he was 14 years old.
Seth Lyon, Simeon’s nephew, bought Simeon’s home from Joshua Lyon, Jr., his first cousin, in 1823. This Joshua would be the son of Joshua Lyon, Sr. who appraised Benjamin Woolsey’s estate in 1810. Seth had a long, close relationship with both Simeon and Mary that lasted until her death. According to Anne Young, a Greenwich historian, Mary isn’t listed on the 1830 census at that location, but James Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s son is. This definitely points to a close relationship between all the Lyon cousins who lived in the Byram area. It must be also noted that there were multiple generations who lived at the Thomas Lyon House at one time.
Abolitionists in the Lyon Family: Seth and Gilbert Lyon
When Lyon cousins come to the table, so to speak, a wealth of collective family information is transferred. In the early 1800s, Seth and his brothers Fitch and Elias ran a family farm to market business. By the 1820s, they branched out to include owning the sloop William, named after Seth’s oldest son, that enabled them to sell their products (e.g., produce and apple cider) by taking advantage of new markets along the Hudson River as well as NYC. Later in the 1830s, they would transport Byram Blue Point granite stone from the quarries of Port Chester and Greenwich down to NYC. This stone ended up being used in the construction of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Julie refers to these three Lyon brothers as being “farmer-mariners.” Gilbert Lyon was Seth, Fitch and Elias’s first cousin and the son of was Joshua Lyon, Sr. Like his cousins, Gilbert was also a “farmer-mariner” who owned three sloops — the Caroline, Jackson and New York. He also owned a lime kiln and vinegar business. Gilbert lived in “Lyon’s Point” which was a little over a mile down river from the Thomas Lyon House and the Byram Bridge. All four Lyon cousins would have required extra sets of hands to help them out with their farms and businesses.
One of those hands was Peter John Lee also know as Henry. From 1830-1836, Seth Lyon employed Peter John to help him at home and with his family business. There is also some indication that he may have also been employed by Gilbert Lyon. Peter John Lee was a fugitive slave from Virginia who managed to escape to Connecticut as a young man between the ages of 16-24. In the six years he spent Lyon family, he married and had two sons. On November 26, 1836, he left the Thomas Lyon House, at the behest of a black acquaintance who was enticed by a $1.50 payment, and crossed over the Byram Bridge where he was apprehended by a group of slave catchers. His arrest was covered widely in the press at the time. Seth Lyon, who was also a Justice of the Peace, appealed to the Mayor of New York to no avail. But, it was Gilbert Lyon who first sounded the alarm about what happened to Peter John Lee just 2 days after his kidnapping when he walked into the office of The New York Sun, a conservative New York newspaper, and gave an account of what happened.
Peter John was then taken back to Virginia where he was re-enslaved. Seven years later, he escaped again and made his way back to NYC before he eventually ended up in Canada with the help of the New York Committee of Vigilance under the leadership of David Ruggles, a noted black Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Station master. We don’t know what became of Peter John Lee after he arrived in Canada or if his family were able to reunite with him. Given the fact that he was previously caught, he may have even changed his name when he arrived in there. In 2014, the Thomas Lyon Housewas placed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail due to the abolitionist activities of our ancestor Seth Lyon.
Julie was so kind to send me a photo of a table, called “The Slave Table,” that Peter John, his wife and two sons no doubt used during their time with Seth’s family. There is also the possibility that Jack used this table as well since he would have grown up with Seth. Julie and I both wonder if Jack had any influence on Seth’s future abolitionist ideals since they grew up together. Seth would have known Peg and Anthony who were well-regarded in the community as well.
I also wonder about how my free black Byram ancestors lived in such a precarious state. What did their closeness to the Byram Bridge mean to them? Was the Byram Bridge a place to be feared as a result of the Lee kidnapping? Did they themselves fear being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South? I am sure they knew Peter John Lee and his family. They were also literate so they would have been able to read the newspaper accounts of his capture. The fear of being kidnapped was REAL for both free and enslaved people and the Peter John Lee case only magnified that fear.
The Lyon Circumstantial Case For A More Active Involvement in Anti-Slavery Activities Than Previously Thought
I visited the Thomas Lyon House a week ago for the first time and had a tour. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my cousin Pat, Jo Conboy and Eric Brower, both of the Greenwich Preservation Trust. It was great being in a space that I knew my ancestors occupied. Both Jo and Eric were kind enough to explain the details of the house to us. The former location of the old James Lyon House, where Simeon, Mary and Jack lived, was pointed out to me. It was directly across the street from where the Byram Bridge still stands today.
As I stood outside the Thomas Lyon House, my mind kept going back to Seth and Gilbert Lyon. There had to be a lot more to their story other than harboring a fugitive slave. I have many black abolitionists in my family from Newark, NJ. One of them was an Underground Railroad station master named Jacob D. King, who built his UGRR houses in Newark in 1830, so my gut reaction was that there had to be more info out there about the Lyon cousins. Were they just “farmer-mariners” who were benevolent to employ someone like Peter John Lee or were they more involved in the anti-slavery movement than previously known? Did the Lyon family’s Quaker origins have an influence on them? My inquiring mind wanted to know. I asked both Jo and Julie if they knew anything else about Seth and Gilbert and they said they didn’t know anything else about them. I also began wondering if they were involved in the transportation of fugitive slaves. They did have sloops, didn’t they?
What else could I dig up on the Lyon cousins? In order to understand the Lyon cousins, we need to look at the larger socioeconomic and historic context in which they lived. What follows below is just the beginning of my research on my distant Lyon cousins. I immediately asked my cousins Julie and Chris about where their Lyon ancestors went to church. Julie said she had no idea, but Chris immediately told me that her Lyon and Husted ancestors went to Second Congregational Church. So, that is where I decided to start looking.
In Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, Jeffrey B. Mead mentioned that there were no anti-slavery societies in Greenwich and that the abolitionism was to be found in The Second Congregational Church, the Stanwich Congregational Church, and the North Greenwich Congregational Church. Abolitionists were actively involved in anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activities in and around Greenwich, CT in the early 1800s. One of these abolitionists was Deacon Silas H. Mead who was a deacon at the North Greenwich Congregational Church and who routinely spoke out against slavery. Another abolitionist was Shubral Brush of the Stanwich Congregational Church who likewise took up the abolitionist call. Then there was Deacon Jonas Mead of the Second Congregational Church. Deacon Mead was a well-known Greenwich abolitionist and Underground Railroad station master who routinely hosted prominent abolitionists in his home. He was also the Vice-President of the Fairfield Anti-Slavery Society and lived in Byram. [ I should add here that, in 1829, Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, an ardent abolitionist in his own right, preached at Second Congregational Church.] Clearly, this church believed in the anti-slavery cause. Regarding Second Congregational Church, this is the church of my Green-Merritt ancestors as well as many members of the Lyon family, including Drake and Nancy Lyon Husted.
Knowing that the Lyons and the Husteds went to this particular church made me wonder if sitting in the very pews of this church had a larger impact on the Lyon family. Did being exposed to abolitionist/anti-slavery sermons and lectures in church make them more likely to take up the cause of a fugitive slave? Did Gilbert march into the NY Sun office two days after the Lee kidnapping because he himself believed in the anti-slavery cause or was he just advocating on behalf of his cousin Seth to get his employee back? And what about our Jack and other black Byram ancestors who also sat in the very same church? Did they take up the abolitionist cause? Did they aid their Lyon cousins in their anti-slavery activities? Maybe. What we do know is that Second Congregational Church was indeed a beacon of light for those who stood against the evils of slavery. It was within the walls of this church that people found support for their anti-slavery positions.
One of the things that I was amazed to discover was just how close Gilbert Lyon lived to the abolitionist Deacon Jonas Mead. Gilbert lived directly across the Byram River from Deacon Mead. There is no doubt in my mind now that Gilbert would have been intimately acquainted with Deacon Mead and his beliefs both in and outside of church. Deacon Mead also hosted noted abolitionists like Dr. Erasmus Hudson, who was a member of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society and an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, at his home. For Jonas Mead to host him in his home meant that he had a ready anti-slavery audience waiting to receive updates on anti-slavery activities at both the state and national level. Gilbert and Seth may have known about and attended Deacon Mead’s anti-slavery meetings.
Another discovery I made was that Seth, Gilbert, Gilbert’s son Alvah, and Thomas Lyon were members of the Whig Party. This is important because Northeastern Whig Party members were known to be businessmen who opposed slavery unlike their Southern counterparts. That the Lyon cousins were actively involved in Whig politics definitely posits them on the right side of history. Without a doubt, I believe that this is additional evidence that they did hold anti-slavery views and that they sounded the alarm about what happened to Peter John Lee because they were fundamentally opposed to the institution of slavery.
I should note that the Whig Party also included men like Deacon Silas H. Mead of the Stanwich Congregational Church— a man who was also a Greenwich Board of Selectman serving with Julie’s great-grandfather, Underhill Lyon. We can assume that Deacon Silas H. Mead also knew the Lyon family well because of their ties to the Whig Party. In addition, Greenwich was still a small community and most people knew each other. That both Seth and Gilbert Lyon were prominent members in their community makes this especially likely.
The Whig Party fell apart in 1852 over the issue of the expansion of slavery in the newly acquired West Coast territories as well as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 — a law that did not have the support of Northeast Whigs. After the collapse of the Whig Party, Northeastern Whig Party members became Republicans —the Party of Lincoln.
Now What About Our Greens?
Another research trail I am pursuing, which may or may not link to our distant Lyon cousins, is of a second Underground Railroad House in our extended family. This house was owned by Hawley Green, a cousin of my 2nd great-grandfather George E. Green. Hawley and his wife Harriet owned an Underground Railroad House at 1112 Main Street in Peekskill, NY. He bought this house from John Brown, the abolitionist who conducted the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
Mary Butler presented an affadavit in support of my 2nd great-grandmother in her Civil War Widow’s Pension Application. Mary offered sworn testimony that she had known my 2nd great-grandparents for 39 years and that they met at a church function in Sing Sing (now Ossining, NY). My 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson Green, was accompanied by her family members at the time and that is how she met my 2nd great-grandfather. Mary and George Butler also ended up living in Newark, NJ in the late 1800s near Laura. The Peekskill Green connection is interesting. Hawley Green (1810-1880) was the same age as Anthony’s children. There is some disagreement as to where he was born which was either in New York or Virginia. A direct descendant of Hawley told me that his father’s name was William. We are searching for a link to a possible brother of my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green. There is a William Hallet Green that we are now investigating. By the way, Hawley’s son Hallet Green lived in Sherman, Fairfield County, CT and is buried in the East Fairfield Cemetery.
We are also looking into Harriet’s background as her maiden name was Petersen which we also have in our extended Green family. Thomas Green, son of Allen, married Emeline Peterson whose father was William Peterson. William could have been a sibling of Harriet Peterson Green. We believe their father may have been a Jacob Peterson.
In 1860, George E. Green was living in Yorktown, NY, one town over from Peekskill, NY with a Solomon and Diana Heady We have every reason to believe that there is a family relationship to the Headys because they were later buried in Union Cemetety as well. We believed that Diana may be a niece of our 4th great-grandmother Peg as she was born in Connecticut and was almost 20 years younger than Solomon. There is no record of Peg ever having given birth to a daughter. Solomon Heady was definitely a descendant of one of the first free African-American families in Westchester County, NY. The Headys were the mixed-race descendants of Thomas Hadden (1691-1761), a white slave owner from Scarsdale, NY who had a mulatto family whom he recognized in his will.
To reiterate, slave ancestor research is very difficult as documentation is hard to come by before 1800. In the 1790, 1800 and 1810 census records for Greenwich, CT, African-Americans all had the surname “Negro.” Most African-Americans were first listed as people starting with the 1870 US census. My free black ancestors were listed as people way before that and I am grateful for that. And yet, the lack of surnames is a still a brutal reminder of the property status my ancestors had and I am left with a constant craving to find those who came before my oldest ancestors. That longing will never go away.
Below are two maps of Westchester County, NY and one includes Greenwich. The circles around the towns indicate where our Green-Merritt ancestors resided in the 1800s. African-Americans in Greenwich routinely traveled across the NY state border and took up residence in these towns. During slavery, they moved with their slave owners and, when freedom came, they moved on their own and set up residence across Westchester County. In her book, Freedom Journey: Black Civil War Soldiers and The Hills Community, Westchester County, New York, Edythe Ann Quinn discusses The Hills, an area where Harrison, North Castle and White Plains meet. In doing so, she had to also discuss Greenwich, CT as African-Americans in Greenwich shared ties with the USCT soldiers from the Hills. John C. Curran’s book Peekskill’s African-American History: A Hudson Valley Community’s Untold Story likewise discusses the African-American presence, not only in Peekskill, but also in Ossining, Yorktown, Cortlandt, and other Westchester towns.
Returning to Hawley Green, we see that he interacted with both black and white abolitionists at the time, including Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a radical abolitionist in his own right, and Harriet Tubman. Fugitive slaves, who found their way to his house, were sent on to Canada in the 1830s. Hawley and Harriet Green sold their home to William Sands, another abolitionist and Quaker, in 1839 who no doubt continued their Underground Railroad activities.
I find my Greenwich Green link to their Peekskill Green cousins fascinating because there may just be more to this story that links back to Greenwich. I also ponder what other anti-slavery activities my distant Lyon cousins were doing at the time to help other fugitive slaves. What other abolitionists did my Lyon cousins know? After the Lee kidnapping, did Greenwich become a place to avoid on The Underground Railroad? Or, did Greenwich’s anti-slavery advocates and Underground Railroad station masters adapt other means of shepherding fugitive slaves northward? Is it at all possible that Lyon sloops were used to transport fugitive slaves up the Hudson River? Were there African-Americans in Greenwich who helped on The Underground Railroad? Were their free blacks in Greenwich who took part in anti-slavery societies? Were their black abolitionists in Greenwich who worked in tandem with their white abolitionist counterparts? These questions and others are definitely valid research questions to pursue. I have a strong feeling that there is so much more documentation out there just waiting to be found.
The Town of Greenwich has taken steps to acquire three abandoned cemeteries, including The Byram African-American Cemetery. Our family supports the Town of Greenwich, Conservation Commission, Cemetery Commission, Greenwich Historical Society, and Greenwich Preservation Trust as they move forward in acquiring and preserving these three historic cemeteries.
As descendants of Lyon slaves and slave owners, our position is that any change to The Byram African-American Cemetery was and is a desecration to the cemetery and to the memory of everyone buried there. The Lyon Family specifically created this cemetery as a finally resting place for their slaves as well as free blacks, who were most likely their former slaves, so it is also disrespectful to the memory and original intentions of the Lyon Family who are buried above the Byram African-American Cemetery. There should be no expectations of neutrality on this issue from the descendants of the Green/Merritt family. None whatsoever
How Does One Respond When the Memory of Your Ancestors’ Burial Ground Is Denied by Greed?”
It’s 6 am on the morning on September 23, 2016 and I am bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and I may be even just a tad bit strident, too. I had the opportunity yesterday to make our public statement about the Byram African-American Cemetery — the place where our family’s ancestors are buried along with some of the other earliest African-American residents of the Town of Greenwich. It was the first time our family has ever stood up for our ancestors and others in public. Imagine our surprise when we heard someone give voice to those who had desecrated our ancestral burial ground by greed DENY the existence of the actual Byram African-American Cemetery. I remind you that this is the same cemetery that these same people offered to put a plaque on a tree for us almost a month ago. Yes, they tried, and epically failed, to sway us with a plaque in memory of a cemetery they now believe never existed. You heard me right. I visited the cemetery with two of my cousins and we all heard the same thing. Our hearing was fine then and is fine now.
I was grateful that I had my cousins with me yesterday from both sides of the Lyon color line. They were there with me in person and via the statements they wrote in support of the Byram African-American Cemetery though all of them refer to the place as the “African-American portion of the Old Cemetery.” The reason they all refer to this cemetery this way is because that was how their own Lyon family oral history recorded it. Because none of my ancestors were able to tell us about this particular cemetery, I now take comfort in, as well as full ownership, of my Lyon cousins’ family oral history regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery. A big thank you to Chris, Charles, Julie and all my other Lyon cousins who shared this history with me. Yesterday, we sat at the hearing knowing that our ancestors were just as proud of us as they were when our other Lyon ancestors stood up for what was right in 1890. We gladly followed in their footsteps. History matters. Truth matters. Our shared family history matters and it is hidden no more. Out of the darkness of slavery born in Greenwich, we are bringing our shared family history to light together.
I sit here and now marvel at how convenient it is to claim that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed in the first place. The more they talk, the more questions we have. Does the denial of the very existence of the Byram African-American Cemetery, and also of the people buried there by extension, have anything to do with them increasing the value of their prime waterfront real estate by their front-lawn hijacking of our ancestors’ burial ground? Why make up unfounded claims that are easily disputed by the documented evidence about the Byram African-American Cemetery? Did not our Lyon ancestors, who originally owned the land, have the right to determine where the Byram African-American Cemetery was located? Why should it’s shape and location even matter? Why would our Lyon ancestors stand up for our African-American ancestors in 1890, which was recorded in The Port Chester Journal at the time, if the cemetery never existed? Where is the proof that a barn was ever located on the cemetery grounds for decades especially since the owner of the home conceded to protecting “The Colored Cemetery,” which was also noted in The Port Chester Journal, at the time? Why would all those Byram Lyons sign a petition in 1890 to protect the “The Colored Cemetery” if the cemetery wasn’t an actual place? Did they even consider that the Lyons, who lived all around Byram in 1890, may have actually known some of the African-American people buried there in their lifetime which is why they stood up for them in the first place? Why would the statements of two individuals in this century carry more weight than the documented, actual words and deeds of people who knew of “The Colored Cemetery” in the 19th Century? How did their Ground Penatrating Radar Survey — one that only detected metal — become a substitute for a professional archaeological excavation that searches for the presence of human remains? Is it now more politically expedient for them to blame a previous owner rather than admit that they did all the damage to the cemetery in the first place? Why did they admit to my cousins and me less than a month ago that they had in fact “beautified the property” if they are now claiming someone else did it? Does insinuating that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed make them sleep easier at night after they desecrated it? Does “cooperating” with the Town of Greenwich really necessitate the denial of the actual existence of the cemetery and the people buried there? Did they even consider that we can clearly see this for what it is –an illegal land grab of an abandoned cemetery — for greed? Why did they even offer to put a plaque on a tree for us when they knew what the Town of Greenwich was proposing instead? Did they really think we would want a placque on a tree that could be taken on and off as they pleased after hearing that the Town of Greenwich was considering making the cemetery an actual historic designated African-American one? Did they even consider how INSULTING it was for us to even listen to the nonsense they proposed yesterday? My inquiring mind would like to know. My ancestors buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, Byram Cemetery and the Lyon Cemetery would like to know. Certainly, my Lyon ancestors, who are buried above the boulder, have a very vested interest in especially knowing since they intended to create a sacred burial space so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and their slave descendants, like our family, could rest in peace undisturbed.
Ancestor Slave Research and The Issue of Historical Erasure
For those of us who are descendants of people who were enslaved, it is a constant battle to find our ancestors without the normal genealogical paper trails that others use with ease. We are left sifting through wills and inventories, digging through slave owner family papers, searching tax records of slave owners, researching newspaper ads and articles, etc. just looking for our ancestors’ names. And even then, if we are lucky, we only have vague traces of our ancestors existence. The lack of “proof of ancestor existence” is always out there reminding us of how our ancestors lives were minimized even in death. Our ancestors were considered property and their lives were not seen as being valid — of being worthy — of remembrance. Tears. The ancestral battles we have to fight are many. So, if you wonder why I repeatedly say this in my blogposts, it’s because people need to be constantly reminded that the historical erasure of African-Americans in this country, on so many levels, is real and ever present. Once you acknowlege how hard it is to find out any concrete information on any African-American ancestor, then you can also truly appreciate the information found because it wasn’t easy finding it in the first place.
Sometimes, we search for our slave ancestors to no avail. Our family lines, by historic design, become lost to us for eternity. But when we do find our slave ancestors, after looking sometimes for years and years, their presence on our family trees become all that much sweeter and richer. We find a piece of our historical selves that that no one can ever take away from us again. Finding our slave ancestors means that we can claim victory over that aspect of slavery which was designed to prevent this sort of family reunion in the future. When I found our Peg and Anthony a year ago, I won’t lie, I danced, screamed, shouted and I will continue to do so. We got the victory for sure.
On the Byram African-American Cemetery
Our family is an old Greenwich family with white and black Lyon roots stretching back to the 1600s. Our Greens and Merritts were part of Greenwich when Greenwich was just a town filled with “gentleman farmers,” as our cousin Chris says. We represent that old Greenwich that can’t be denied by any newcomer. Nope. Our Green-Merritt line left a lot of information behind over their 250+ year existence in this town. The memory of where our Peg, Anthony, our other ancestors as well as other early African-Americans residents of Greenwich are buried, will not be conveniently erased now by those who have alternate agendas, seek to profit off prime waterfront real estate or by those who believe that historical homes and places don’t matter in the present. The Byram African-American Cemetery, also known by its previous name “The Colored Cemetery,” was a real physical location that existed when our Lyon family created their two other cemeteries. It existed so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and slave descendants would have a sacred burial ground of their own. Shame on those who now suggest that it didn’t exist at all. Shame on you indeed. Their wishful thinking is futile.
It’s 7 am now and I am, more now than ever, adamant about protecting the memory and cultural legacy of my ancestors, who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, as well as all of the other African-Americans buried there. There is no time to be wary when so much work is yet to be done and battles yet to be fought. I thank all my ancestors and extended family for keeping me strong and steadfast in this regard. We stand united still. Our ancestors are no doubt smiling down on us.
Here is the complete Board of Selectman Meeting at Greenwich Town Hall. The full discussion of the cemeteries begins at the 51:00 mark. Please click on the link here.
More information on the man representing the people on the other side can be found here.
Though the video below deals with the desecration of an Afro-Canadian cemetery, it certainly reflects the same sentiments we feel over the Byram African-American Cemetery and the denial that it never existed. Those people buried there are our ancestors. I will
Here is Our Green-Merritt Family Statement on the Byram African-American Cemetery.
We will continue to give voice to our ancestors as well as to all the other African-Americans who are buried there. May they continue to rest in peace.
As descendants of African-Americans buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery and as descendants of the Lyon family, our family applauds the efforts of the Town of Greenwich in wanting to preserve the Byram Cemetery, Lyon Cemetery and Byram African-American Cemetery. These three cemeteries are testaments to the presence of these early settlers and to the presence of African-Americans in Greenwich from the beginning. Certainly, the value of the historic preservation of these cemeteries is without question.
Regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery, our 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, are no doubt buried there along with other ancestors. Our 4th great-grandmother Peg was a slave of Daniel Lyon and of Benjamin Woosley Lyon. Peg’s son Jack was a slave of Simeon Lyon. Our genetic ties to the Lyon family start with Daniel, and go back to James, John, John and finally back to Thomas Lyon. Throughout Peg’s life, she maintained a long lasting relationship with her former slave owners, even after her emancipation in 1800, that was no doubt due to the family ties that they shared —- ties that were born out of slavery personified in Greenwich. The original intent of our Lyon ancestors was to build a sacred burial place for their slaves and ex-slaves— for people like Anthony and Peg. It was to give these people a final resting place where they could rest in peace for eternity undisturbed. If any one deserved to rest in peace, it was these people who spent part or all of their lives literally slaving away. This was hallowed and consecrated land from the beginning.
Our family is relatively late to this whole cemetery issue. It was only a year ago that we were able to locate our 3rd and 4th great-grandparents and less than a month since we first heard about the infringement to the Byram African-American Cemetery that occurred 2 years ago and our feelings are still raw. Who would have ever thought that our ancestors’ burial ground would now be someone’s front lawn? We certainly didn’t expect that. That being said, we are overjoyed that our Lyon cousins – cousins whose ancestors stood up for our ancestors when the same thing happened in 1890— and other members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, sounded the alarm about what was happening to our ancestors’ burial place in our absence. I can’t state enough how much that meant to our family. Our shared history matters. That the Town of Greenwich and the Conservation Commission produced a documentary study that details their plans to preserve, redevelop, and further interpret the Byram African-American Cemetery is also commendable. That we are now here discussing the Town’s acquisition of all three cemeteries is laudable indeed.
As someone who is both a family historian and genealogist and who has a degree in anthropology, I am looking forward to sharing any historical information I have with the Conservation Commission, Cemetery Committee, Greenwich Historical Society and with the Greenwich Preservation Trust. I want people to know that there is a long history of African-Americans in this town. Our family has a long 250+ year history in Greenwich and Greenwich has always been our hometown. Our ancestors were emancipated in 1800 and 1816 and went on to become successful farmers and laborers. They were members of the Second Congregational Church, the Stanwich Congregational Church and the First United Methodist Church in the early 1800s. When the Second Congregational Church opened up Lot 23 in Union Cemetery in 1851, for the burial of the poor and people of color, our Green, Merritt, and Husted ancestors were among the first to buy burial plots. Half of the African-Americans, who are buried in Lot 23 of Union Cemetery, are our ancestors and their in-laws. When this country needed volunteers to fight on the right side of history during the Civil War, 18 African-American men from Greenwich proudly served in the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops. Out of the 18, 2 were my 3rd great-uncles, 3 were my 1st cousins 4XR, and 4 were their Peterson, Banks, Watson, and Mills in-laws. In 1882, 23 African-American residents of Greenwich came together and formed the Little Bethel AME Church, the first black church in Greenwich, and our Greens and Merritt ancestors were among the founding members. While we represent only one African-American family with deep roots in Greenwich and maybe the only family here to speak on behalf of the people who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, please be aware that there are many more stories that remain to be told about the African-American presence in Greenwich. I, for one, will telling those stories in the near future.
Going forward, our family sees only positive outcomes. Once the Town acquires the Byram African-American Cemetery, we hope that we can all work together to restore the cemetery, discuss its historical significance as the burial place of the town’s earliest African-American residents, to forever link it to the Lyon family whose original intention was to create this part of the Old Cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves, and to add some sort of monument to the cemetery so that further infringement never occurs again. We also support any future excavation of the cemetery to yield any scientific information about the individuals buried there as well as have a proper re-burial ceremony afterwards. The African-Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan and the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground in Albany, NY provide excellent examples of positive community involvement and education regarding found and excavated African-American burial grounds. Again, our family is looking forward to a brighter future for the Byram African-American Cemetery and likewise for the Byram Cemetery and Lyon Cemetery.
This is Part II of a blog series about how my Malagasy ancestors arrived in NYC in the late 17th century and ended up in NJ . In Part I, I showed how one can still see the ethnic admixture that our Malagasy ancestors left our family with that show up in our DNA even today.
I dedicate this blog to all my relatives who descend from our 4th great-grandmother, Tun Snyder, and our 3rd great-grandmother, Susan Pickett, as well as to our newly-found Full Sequence mtDNA M23 cousins whose ties to our family go way back to a shared Malagasy ancestor. I thank each of you for being part of our family history.
The Global Trade in Malagasy Slaves
Before we can even discuss the DNA trail from Madagascar to Manhattan, a brief look at the global trade in Malagasy slaves is needed. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Madagascar, there was an internal slave trade within Madagascar as well as an external slave trade up the East African Coast. In addition, starting as early as the 9th century, Malagasy slaves became commodities in the Islamic Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean. Arab and East African slave traders routinely purchased slaves in Madagascar and then sold them to slave owners in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and across Southeast Asia (see the Schomburg Center’s online exhibit The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean). The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, and American slave traders, who arrived in Madagascar between 1500-1800, thus became part of this global trade in Malagasy slaves that brought these enslaved people westward to South Africa, St. Helena’s Island, South America (e.g., Brazil and Argentina), the Caribbean (e.g., Barbados, Jamaica, and Cuba), and North America (e.g., Quebec, Canada, Boston, New York/NJ, South Carolina, and Virginia).
[While the discussion below is centered on the enslaved Malagasy people who arrived in NY/NJ in the late 1600s and early 1700s, I would like to mention here that my friend Wendy Wilson-Fall has recently published her book Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. Her book discusses the arrival of enslaved Malagasy in Virginia. I highly recommend this book to those people who do descend from these Virginia enslaved Malagasy.]
Shady NY Merchants and Pirates: A Perfect Collaboration
Slaves from Madagascar were directly imported into New York City and surrounding areas, Boston, and Virginia during two time periods–primarily between 1678-1698 and 1715-1721. In the early 1670s, New York and Boston merchants first dabbled in the trade in Malagasy slaves in the Caribbean, especially in Barbados and Jamaica. To give you an idea of how large the Madagascar to Caribbean slave trade was at that time, between 1682-1687, 11 slave ships carrying 1,741 Malagasy slaves arrived in Barbados and 345 Malagasy slaves arrived in Jamaica. The 1700 Barbados census showed 32,473 slaves and half were from Madagascar. While these NY merchants first started off buying and selling Malagasy slaves in the Caribbean, they would later periodically sell the slaves who were not purchased there, in slave markets in the United States, including Boston and New York.
I should add here that Malagasy slave also arrived in Charleston, SC during this same time period as planters from Barbados were among the original settlers of Charleston. They certainly would have brought their Malagasy slaves with them. We know that a form of rice called “Carolina Gold” originated in Madagascar and was brought to Charleston in the 1680s. These enslaved Malagasy would have arrived here with rice production skills that would have been valued in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Given the ports of call that NY Merchants would make on their return trip from the Caribbean, it is possible that Malagasy slaves also ended up in all those places.
Why Did NY Merchants Go to Madagascar in the First Place?
New York merchants went to Madagascar for three reasons primarily. First, it was all about making an even larger profit off the trafficking of black bodies. A slave in Madagascar could be purchased for 10 shillings while a slave from West Africa cost £3 or £4. There are 20 shillings per £, so it was extremely profitable when you consider that, on the New York slave market, a Malagasy slave was worth between £30-£40. To put it in further perspective, 10 shillings would be the equivalent of $500 today.
Second, NY merchants took advantage of a legal loophole in buying slaves from East Africa. Although the Royal Africa Company had a monopoly on the West African slave trade, the East India Company controlled trade in the Indian Ocean, but they had no policy regarding buying Malagasy slaves and selling them elsewhere in the world. Thus, NY merchants were able to procure cheaper slaves from Madagascar and make a huge profit. This loophole, however, only lasted for so long.
Third, NY merchants were able to expand the trade in Malagasy slaves with the complicity of unscrupulous government officials and pirates. With the aid of Governor Benjamin Fletcher, these merchants worked in tandem with pirates to trade their goods at exorbitant prices for slaves in Madagascar and for goods purchased in the East Indies, India, China, and the Middle East. To give you an example of the price inflation of these goods, a gallon of rum in Manhattan would sell for 2 shillings, but in Madagascar, that same gallon of rum would be worth £30. Needless to say, both NY merchants and government officials would invest in the NY to Madagascar voyages. This trade was illicit at best as it meant that these merchants and pirates were smuggling in goods in flagrant violation of the British Navigation Acts.
While there are some records of the ships that entered NY waters with Malagasy slaves during this time, including 8 ships that arrived in the 1690s with approximately 1,700 enslaved Malagasy, the exact number of these slaves imported into NY will never be known due to the illicit nature of this trade. We do know that Malagasy slaves first arrived in New Amsterdam on the Wapen van Amsterdam as early as 1663 with 265 individuals, out of 345 purchased, still alive which was one year before the British takeover of New Amsterdam.
The NY merchants involved in the Madagascar to NY slave trade were among the wealthiest, politically connected NY residents at the time. They included Frederick Philipse, Stephen Delancey, Nicholas Bayard, Jacobus and Stephanus van Cortland, Abraham Van Horne, Robert Livingston, Caleb Heathcote, Peter Schuyler, Rip Van Dam, Ann Lynch, and others. These merchants built their vast estates, like Philipsburg Manor in Westchester, NY and Schuyler Flatts in Albany, NY, with a slave labor force that included Malagasy slaves. These families also intermarried with each other as a way of maintaining their concentrated wealth. In addition, they took advantage of the political turmoil that was happening in the American colonies during King William’s War (1688-97) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-13). Because of a weak British government, American colonial governments came to rely on privateers to take on the French. The privateers were commissioned to capture French ships on the high seas and then split the ship’s goods with NY merchants and government officials when they arrived back in New York City harbor. What started off as privateering turned into pirating as soon as the privateers realized that they could cut out the middlemen—the government officials. Thus, the pirates and NY merchants started to work together for their mutual benefit. By the way, the pirates were just as notable as the NY merchants and included, Captain William Kidd, Thomas Tew, Adam Baldridge, Samuel Burgess, Robert Culliford, and others.
The New York to Madagascar voyage took on average 4-6 months. The NY merchants would load up their ships with small arms, ammunition, food provisions, beer, wine, clothes, shoes, seeds, books, slave trading-items (e.g., shackles, beads, iron-bars, gunpowder), etc. They would first stop at Madeira, then head to either the Cape Verde Islands or the Canary Islands. Their last stop would be St. Helena’s Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean before heading onward to Madagascar and St. Helena was the first stop on the return trip. St. Helena was colonized by the British in 1659 and was considered an essential part of the East India Company’s real estate. Any ship trading in Madagascar had a tax levied against them in the form of payment of one Malagasy slave. Over the centuries, Malagasy people formed the great majority of the island’s slave population.
Now, just imagine being in the cargo hold of a slave ship sailing for 4-6 months on the return trip to NY. It’s no wonder that the average mortality rate on these ships averaged 19% with some voyages having mortality rates as high as 31%. Part of the mortality rate was due to the fact that the enslaved were already slaves in Madagascar having been captured by other ethnic groups before being sold. The rest had to do with the despicable, inhumane conditions inherent on any Transatlantic slave ship voyage. One of the most harrowing accounts is that of the Gascoigne Galley slave ship that arrived in VA in 1721 from Madagascar with 133 slaves, out of 192 individuals purchased. The slaves on this ship had “distemper in their Eyes,” of which a great many became blind and some of their Eye Balls come out (Platt, p. 568).” These slaves were practically unsalable. Who knows what became of them. It breaks my heart knowing what my Malagasy ancestors went through during this time. Yet, they somehow managed to survive. What a strong people they were. TEARS. There, but for the grace of God go I.
I should add here that the voyages from Boston to Madagascar also included Native Americans who would eventually be sold as slaves in the Caribbean and in Madagascar. The journey from Boston would have also been in the same 4-6 month range. Hence, the enslaved Malagasy would have taken the place of Native Americans who had been in the same cargo hold on the return trip to Boston. In 1678, 40-50 Malagasy slaves were brought to Boston and sold for £15-£20 each. Such was the vicious nature and horror of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To know that two groups of my ancestors were taken from their original homelands and exported halfway around the world is heartbreaking. Sometimes words fail me.
From Pirates of the Caribbean to Pirates of Madagascar
Madagascar became a pirate’s haven after the Port Royal, Jamaica earthquake and tsunami in 1692. With the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the subsequent British crackdown on piracy in the Caribbean, these pirates set their eyes on Madagascar, especially St. Marie’s Island and St. Augustine’s Bay. Madagascar was an ideal place to set up shop as the Indian Ocean was a major international trading region. Ships were regularly traveling between the East Indies to India and then to the Arabian Peninsula. This meant that these ships would be easy targets for the pirates in Madagascar who became known as the “Red Sea Pirates.” It is estimated that 1,500 pirates were sailing in the Indian Ocean between 1695-1700 such was the call of pirate booty.
Madagascar, in the 16th and 17th century, had no central government. There existed mini-kingdoms based on different ethnic groups. The pirates exacerbated ethnic divisions within Madagascar with their trading. They also created a Malagasy elite class as they fathered children, known as zana mulata, who became powerfully locally with Malagasy women. Its interesting to note that, at the beginning of the Indo-Atlantic Madagascar slave trade, the items exchanged for slaves were things like beads, copper wire, novelties, textiles, and silver coins. However, by the end of the 17th century, firearms, muskets, and gun powder were the preferred items to be exchanged for slaves. James C. Anderson, noted that, among the Sakalava in 1699, an able young adult slave man was worth 2 muskets, 5 small boxes of powder, 5 balls, and 5 flints whereas an able young adult slave woman was worth 1 musket, 10 boxes of powder, 10 balls and 10 flints. Malagasy women, of course, were valued more for their reproductive capacity. The local demand for firearms undoubtedly fueled political instability and further slave trading.
Why did the Madagascar to NY Slave Trade End?
Let’s be clear, the Madagascar to NY slave trade ended solely for economic reasons that had NOTHING to do with slavery. The pirates of Madagascar ended up raiding enough ships from India in the late 1690s that the Mughal rulers in India began to openly complain to the East India Company. They even went as far as to penalize East India Company officials by imprisoning them and threaten to remove the British from their trading network. That was enough for the British to crackdown on piracy in the Indian Ocean. The measure they took included installing anti-pirate colonial governors, like Lord Bellomont in New England and NY, to combat piracy and illegal trading, establishing military courts to try pirates, as well as undertaking military operations against pirates on the high seas. The East India Company also cracked down on NY merchants who were carrying supplies to the pirates in Madagascar as well as violating the Navigation Acts by selling NY goods for profit. The East India Act of 1698 effectively ended the Madagascar to NY trade, including the trade in Malagasy slaves. Whereas the number of African slaves in 1664 New Amsterdam was only 300, after the British takeover, that number more than doubled to 700 slaves no doubt due to the great number of enslaved Malagasy imported into the colony.
This ban only lasted until 1715 when the East India Company allowed trading with Madagascar to resume under certain conditions. The East India Company went ahead and granted licenses for trading, including slave trading. Only those ships with licenses would be allowed to trade with Madagascar. Each licensed ship, with £500 worth of goods exported from England, was also required to dock at St. Helena’s island and had to pay a tax levy of nine “merchanteable” Malagasy slaves. Slaves were expected to be between the ages of 16-30, two-thirds male and one-third female. The resumption of the Madagascar slave trade was different in some ways from the earlier period in that most of the slaves ended up in Virginia as opposed to NY. Some ships did enter NYC and surrounding areas though. NY merchants, given their earlier history, were still wary of the East India Company and often masked their Madagascar cargo as being from “Africa.” From 1715-21, over 500 Malagasy people were sold as slaves in NY. That being said, Virginia received over 1,400 Malagasy slaves during this same period.
I should add here, in deference to my Boricua roots, that Malagasy slaves entered the Spanish and French speaking Caribbean during the entire Transatlantic Slave Trade. France was complicit thoughout the slave trade which actually saw the first Malagasy slaves sent to Quebec, Canada as early as 1623. France also colonized Madagascar and enslaved Malagasy were also sent to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Spanish slave traders bought and sent enslaved Malagasy throughout the Spanish empire. Under Spanish colonial rule, Malagasy slaves were sent to Mexico, Central America, Southwest and Central United States, Spanish Florida, the Philippines and other Pacific Islands in addition to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Catalan slave traders were also sailing to Madagascar in the early-1800s and directly shipping slaves to Cuba. Those slaves may have also ended up in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
By 1721, the East India Company again stopped trade with Madagascar. Like the earlier period, unlicensed vessels also headed to Madagascar and pirate activity continued as did the burgeoning trade in goods from the East Indies. In 1720-1721, there were reports that several unlicensed ships were again carrying supplies to pirates and buying slaves from Madagascar and selling them in Brazil, the West Indies, and Virginia. The East India Company effectively ordered any ships carrying slaves from Madagascar or goods from the East Indies to be seized. After 1721, there was no direct importation of enslaved Malagasy people to the US and by the 1730s, the age of Indian Ocean piracy ended. Pirates either returned to their countries of origin, died, or were absorbed into the dominant Malagasy culture.
Malagasy people continued to enter the United States in other ways after the importation of slaves from Madagascar ended in 1721. Some were brought in by the French in New Orleans and Quebec, some arrived as slaves from the English-, Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean and Brazil, some arrived as free Black immigrants, and some of these slaves arrived on slave ships from West Africa after slave traders left Madagascar, headed to West Africa, and then smuggled them disguised as West African slaves into the States. Fonte Felipe, in his Tracing African Roots blog, discusses how “recaptive” slaves from Southeast Africa ended up in West Africa.
Malagasy Slave Resistance: The Struggle to be Free
Though Malagasy people were enslaved, they did resist oppression in a number of ways in the colonial era. Despite having different levels of success or plain failures, the enslaved Malagasy engaged in acts of resistance and played an active role in changing the circumstances of their involuntary servitude. From the founding of Malagasy maroon communities in Cape Hangklip, False Bay, South Africa and Jamaica, to Malagasy slave insurrections on the island of St. Helena, to the Malagasy taking over of the Meermin slave ship, to slaves of Malagasy descent taking part in the NY Slave Revolts of 1712 and 1741, to the runaway slaves of Malagasy origin in NY and NJ who sought freedom on foot, these enslaved Malagasy were exercising their right to self-determination. I would like to think that some of my Malagasy ancestors stood up for themselves. Certainly, Black lives mattered to them then as they do to us now. I can only respect the decisions they made which no doubt did, or could have, resulted in their deaths. I praise their names. RESPECT!
Africans in New Amsterdam in the 1600s and Our Malagasy Ancestors’ Melting Pot Origins
People of African descent arrived with the Dutch at the beginning of their colonization of Manhattan. Juan Rodriguezwas the first person of African descent to arrive in 1613 after the Dutch claimed the territory in 1609. By 1626, the Dutch began to settle Manhattan and were actively involved in the slave trade. They imported 11 slaves into New Amsterdam that year. Geni.com has a page devoted to Africans in New Amsterdam and they have listed the following number of Africans, arriving in small numbers, up until the British takeover in 1664.
Not only does our family descend from the first Malagasy slaves to arrive in colonial NY, our extended family line also goes back to some of the first West Africans in New Amsterdam —to Emmanuel D’Angola, one of the 20 men who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1630, as well as Hilary “Swartinne” Criolyo, a free black woman from Brazil, who arrived in 1644 with her husband the Dutch Captain Jan De Vries I. Some of the first slaves in the early 1600s came from Angola, Guinea, and the Congo and their surnames reflect their countries of origin. The Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) captured a Portuguese slave ship and brought these slaves to work for for WIC in New Amsterdam. These slaves, and others, were the ones who built the infrastructure of New Amsterdam, including the buildings, bridges, fences, and roads as well as maintained the fort. In addition, they cleared land, planted crops, loaded and unloaded ships, and were trained to be stonemasons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, etc. They were also instrumental in protecting New Amsterdam from Native American onslaughts. I should also add that Native Americans in New Amsterdam were also among the first slaves as well.
These first Africans were later joined by other West Africans, like the Akan-Asante, Popo, Moko, Ibo, Yoruba, Adra, Jon, Ibibio, Coromantines, and others, as well as seasoned slaves from Brazil, which the Dutch controlled at that time, and the West Indies (i.e., Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and Curacao). The WIC also brought in “Spanish Negroes” and “Spanish Indians.” These were free blacks and Native Americans, from the Caribbean and South America, who were captured on Spanish or Portuguese ships by the Dutch and then sold as slaves in New Amsterdam. With their darker skin, the Dutch assumed that they must have been slaves.
The diversity of slaves in New Amsterdam meant that the descendants of these original Africans would have interacted with all of the above populations, including the Malagasy who would arrive decades later, as well as the white indenture servant population. This is the melting pot world our Malagasy ancestor entered when she arrived in colonial New York in the late 1600s – early 1700s. She and her descendants would have had children with slaves or free blacks who came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They may have also had children fathered by a slave owner as female slaves were very often at risk for sexual abuse by their slave owners and/or their male family members.
It should be acknowledged that slavery under the Dutch colonial government was dramatically different from the system of slavery that the British instituted after 1664. Perhaps the biggest difference was that, under the Dutch, slaves could become free either by being granted “half-free” status or by being granted their full freedom. Under the “half-free” status, slaves were given land which they farmed for themselves, but had to pay tribute to the WIC as well as be available to protect the colony. Their children would still be considered slaves though. If they were granted full freedom, they were free and their children inherited that status. The first slaves in New Amsterdam received their freedom in the 1640s after having worked as slaves for almost 20 years.
Likewise, under the Dutch colonial slave system, the Dutch Reformed Church recognized slave and free Black marriages and baptisms, they could take care of their children which was their responsibility, when not working for the WIC, they could hire themselves out for paid wages, they were also allowed to raise crops and animals on WIC land, and black people could bring cases to court and serve as witnesses against others. We see that the Dutch believed in maintaining the slave family unit for the most part.
With the arrival of the British in 1664, everything changed. The British immediately instituted the first laws regulating slavery the way they had done in Virginia and other southern colonies. Between 1665 and 1683, New York City’s Common Council passed a series of restrictions on the activities of slaves and free blacks alike. Some of the changes included children of slaves now could only inherit the status of their mothers, children could be separated from their family, slave masters were now able to hire slaves out for their own profit, slaves, free blacks and whites were not allowed to associate with each other, slaves couldn’t leave their master’s home without permission, etc. The list goes on and on. The codification of slavery was now complete. Within this historical context, it is not surprising that the New York Slave Revolt of 1712 happened at all.
The response of our D’Angola, De Vries, and Van Dunk ancestors was to leave New Amsterdam behind. Who could blame them? By the mid-1650s, these free blacks had been given land in an area on the outskirts of the town near the Fresh Water Pond and had been accustomed to their freedom and knew what that meant. We know that by 1670, Claes Manuel, Jan De Vries II, and Augustine Van Dunk lived near this area which was considered part of the Stuyvesant Farm which was owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam. As people in New Amsterdam chafed under the British and as land became scarce, many Dutch families started to cross the Hudson River and settle in the area known as Hackensack River Valley.
Tracing My Family’s Colonial Roots From NY to NJ: All Roads Lead to the Tappan Patent
In 1683, a group of 16 individuals, primarily from the Bowery Village, purchased land from the Tappen Indians in the Upper Hackensack River Valley. This tract of land was called the Tappan Patent and was located 12 miles north of Manhattan on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Because of a land dispute between New York and New Jersey, the land title wasn’t granted officially until 1687. As you can see below, Claes Manuel and Jan De Vries II were two of the 16 original land grantees. By 1712, they were also joined by Augustine Van Dunk. These families were considered mixed-race and would have been Dutch culturally, Their land was then inherited by their descendants upon their deaths.
By the mid- to late 1700s, as New Jersey adopted their own set of laws that restricted the movement of free blacks and slaves, the descendants of the Manuel, De Vries, and Van Dunk families moved into the Ramapough Mountains. Many were then absorbed into the Ramapough Lenapi Indiannation and consider themselves to be Native American today. Our extended family has direct ties with members of the Ramapough Lenapi that indicate our ancestors’ shared family history and culture with them. We proudly embrace our indigenous Lenapi roots.
Our 4th great-grandmother was born between 1790 and 1800 in Tappan, NY which was part of the original Tappan Patent. Her name was Tun Snyder and her maternal line was of Malagasy descent. We are descendants of her daughter Susan Pickett and her granddaughter Laura Thompson. Her female ancestor most likely came over in the late 1600s- early 1700 time period. Through an analysis of our DNA and DNA cousins, we know that our Pickett-Snyder line was a mix of Malagasy, West African, Lenapi, and European, primarily Dutch, people. We also have Euro DNA cousins who are related to well-known founding families of Bergen County, NJ and Rockland County, NY like the Blauvelt, Banta, Ackerman/Ackerson/Eckerson, VanBuskirk, and Demarest families. There is only one way our family can share genetic ties to these families and that would be via consensual or nonconsensual relations between our ancestors.
The Blauvelts were the slave owners of Tun and her ancestors and they were also Tappan Patent land grantees. The Blauvelts of the Tappan Patent can be directly traced to Gerritt Henricksen Blauvelt who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1646 and received a grant of 50 acres of land. The Blauvelt farm was right next door to the Stuyvesant Farm. The Blauvelts and their slaves would have known the D’Angola, De Vries, and Van Dunk families as they owned land that was also next to the Stuyvesant Farm in New Amsterdam. Could male members of the Blauvelt and free black/mixed race families have fathered children with Malagasy female Blauvelt slaves in New Amsterdam? We may never know, but it could be a possibility. However, it is certain that, after these families moved to the Tappan Patent, some of their descendants, in fact, did. All roads lead to the Tappan Patent indeed.
The sons of Gerritt included Johannes Gerritsen Blauvelt and Huybert Gerritsen Blauvelt—two of the original Tappan Patent land grantees. They moved to the Tappan Patent with their brothers Hendrick Gerritsen Blauvelt, Isaac Gerritsen Blauvelt, and Abraham Gerritsen Blauvelt, their sister, Margrietje Gerritsen Blauvelt, who married Lambert Ariaensen Smidt, and their sister, Marritie Gerritsen Blauvelt, who married Cozyn Haring. As you can see, the Smidts and Harings were also Tappan Patent land grantees as well as in-laws to the Blauvelts. In fact, it was Huybert Gerritsen Blauvelt who sailed up the Hudson River, with his brother-in-laws Peter Haring and Adriaen Lambertsen Smidt, to negotiate the purchase of this land in 1682 with the Tappan Indians. What we see here then is that the Tappan Patent land grantees were relatives, in-laws, and neighbors, who included two free black families among them, which in itself was unheard of at the time. They were not an unknown group of disparate individuals who randomly met one day and decided to purchase land. Nope. They were a carefully chosen, trusted group of people who wanted to found their own community away from the British which they did. They all brought their slaves with them when they relocated to New Jersey, too.
Tun was owned by Frederica (Frederick) Blauvelt in Tappan, NY. Frederica (1728-1809) was the son of Joseph Blauvelt and Elizabeth Van Delson. Frederica’s father was Joseph Blauvelt, the son of Henrick Gerritsen Blauvelt (1697-?), and was one of the first Blauvelts to be born in the Tappan Patent. When Frederica died in 1809, Tun was willed to his granddaughter Anna Marie Mabie.
It should also be noted that the status of slaves changed upon the death of their slave masters. Most were inherited by the family members of slave owners while others may have been freed upon their death. What we do know is that Federica Blaivelt’s wife Anna Maria inherited two slaves from her father as the will below shows. Were these slaves somehow related to Tun? We don’t know for sure. All we know is that John left instructions for “his negro boy Jack and negro wench Sublie” to live with his daughter and her husband after he died and for Anna Maria to look out for Sublie as she grew old. Tun would have known these individuals as she lived with them.
Tun was sold or loaned out out a couple of times as a slave and finally ended up with the family of Gerrit Ackerman whose family was also from the Tappan Patent. The Ackermans (also known as Ackersons/Eckersons) intermarried with the Blauvelts, Demarests, and others. Tun labored as a “servant slave” most of her life. In his 1846 will, Gerrit Ackerman instructed his sons to look after her and even willed her son Samuel property in the form of a house. She died in 1881 in Saddle River, Washington County, NY.
I will be writing a separate blogpost in the future on Tun and her ancestors as my cousin Andrea and I are now going through all the Blauvelt wills, Bergen County and Rockland County vital records, etc. searching for clues to her ancestry. So far, I have located the wills of 6 Blauvelts who passed their slaves down to their descendants or freed them. Tun’s story is yet to be told. Stay tuned.
The DNA Trail Continues: Our Full Sequence M23 mtDNA Cousins
Last year, my cousins Andrea and Helen took Family Tree’s Full Sequence mtDNA test to see what else we could find out about our maternal Malagasy line. A year later, we have 9 Full Sequence mtDNA cousin matches who share our M23 haplogroup. I have been in touch with 6 of our 9 FS mtDNA cousins and we have learned several things about their family histories. We haven’t found our common ancestor and may not be able to do so given the nature of slavery.
So what gave we learned? Four out of our 6 mtDNA cousins have ties to the NY/NJ area along with my family. Two mtDNA cousins, Brenda and “Donnie”, are actually 5th cousins who share the same set of 4th great-grandparents who were born in Nova Scotia. Their 5th great-grandmother Rose Fortune was born in VA and who, as a 10 year old girl, boarded a ship in NY to Nova Scotia at the end of the Revolutionary War. Her parents were Black Loyalists and their family is documented in The Book of Negroes. We have found some documentation that their 6th great-grandparents were from Philadelphia and were owned by the Devoe family.
The Devoe family were French Hugeunots who arrived in New Amsterdam in the late 1600s and who settled up and down the Hudson River before some of their descendants moved to NJ and PA, including Philadelphia. We have found documented evidence that in 1762, Captain Michael Devoe of Ulster County, NY, had taken out a runaway slave ad for his slave Prince who was of Malagasy descent. Prince was a valuable slave as he had nautical skills that were very much needed on the Hudson River and his loss would have been keenly felt. Clearly, the Devoes had acquired Malagasy slaves in NY and the children of those slaves would have been inherited by their descendants.
On the map above, one sees how close Ulster County is to NYC as well as to Albany, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland counties. NY merchants involved in the NY to Madagascar slave trade had vast estates in all these counties. Again, the Malagasy slaves who arrived in the late 1600s and early 1700s would have been sold up and down the Hudson River region and beyond.
We have identified the family line of the two other M23 mtDNA cousins, Lois and Dorothy, who match my family. That line is the Timbrook-Titus line and this line originates in the Greater New Brunswick, NJ area. In the 1870s, my family has a Rev. Isaac Timbrook living with our Thompson-King ancestors in Newark, NJ and a Violet Timbrook is living in a house owned by our 3rd great-grandfather Cato Thompson, who was married to our M23 3rd great-grandmother Susan Pickett, in the 1880s. The Timbrooks are related to our Malagasy descended Pickett-Snyder line. Lois has a 4th great-grandmother named Sarah Timbrook Titus who was also from New Brunswick. We believe Isaac is her nephew, the son of her brother Edward Timbrook. Dorothy is connected to a Fanny Titus who may be related to this family line as well. We are still sorting out the family relationships, but we do know that this is the one family line that may link to our common Malagasy ancestor.
Our 5th mtDNA cousin Rhoda is an outlier in that her roots are in the South. To date, all of the people in the Malagasy Roots Project who have the M23 haplogroup have been found with ties to the Northeast. Of course, more people need to be tested to see if other haplogroups found in Madagascar are also present in this geographical area. What is interesting about Rhoda is that she highly likely had an ancestor of Malagasy from the NY/NJ area who was sold South at some point.
My friend Richard Sears Walling has recently been publicizing an illegal slave trade that occured in NJ in 1818 whereby about 100 African-Americans, both free and enslaved, were sold South into slavery by Judge Jacob Van Wickle. This slave trade occured in the New Brunswick/Old Bridge, NJ area and it is quite possible that all of us may have had an ancestor who may have been sold South in this trade. It should be noted that in 1850, Isaac Timbrook is working as a farmhand on a farm owned by the great-nephew of the judge, Steven Van Wickle. The interconnections between people and places does serve as a backdrop to our potential shared history.
Lastly, our 6th mtDNA cousin Alan has a grandmother who was half-Malagasy/half British and who was born on the island of St. Helena. This island was the first stop on the return trip from Madagascar. An import tax was paid in the form of Malagasy slaves on ships that arrived in St. Helena’s port. For Alan to be related to all of us means that we either shared a common ancestor in Madagascar whose descendants ended up in two different locations or maybe two females ancestors became separated when a ship from Madagascar stopped in St. Helena on its way to New York. Alan’s connection to our M23 cohort is of particular interest as it shows the importance of St. Helena as a stopover point on the way from Madagascar to New York. Alan can trace his maternal ancestry back to his 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Bateman, who was born in 1815 on the island of St. Helena. Her maternal ancestors were Malagasy for certain.
Alan was so kind to share a family photo of his grandmother and mother taken in the early early 1900s as well as photos of Malagasy people in St. Helena. He is lucky to have such an important connection to Madagascar.
Historical Truth and The Schulyer Flatts Burial Ground Revealed
One of the hardest things we have to do in researching our slave ancestors is to dig DEEP for the truth that exist somewhere out there about their lives. Our ancestors were stripped of the normal genealogical paper trails that others can find with ease for often they were just counted as property in between all the other non-human goods in inventories and wills. Many times they were also buried in unmarked graves, in unmarked or lost cemeteries, that have long since returned to Mother Earth or were just built over. How then can we reclaim these ancestors who are our own? How can we reconstruct their lives when we seemingly have no clues as to who they were or where they came from?
My 3rd cousin Andrea and I took the 23andme DNA test three years ago in order to break through our genealogical brick walls. DNA tests were becoming popular then and we felt like we had nothing to lose. How can you lose anything when most genealogical records do not exist for your slave ancestors? We lucked out when Andrea’s mtDNA haplogroup came back M23. She is a matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother.
When we got Andrea’s results back, we were amazed at the haplogroup designation which originated in Madagascar. We went on to test our other M23 cousins, including our 100-year old Cousin Helen whose grandmother Mary was a sister of our 2nd great-grandmother Laura. An unknown window to our family history opened up to us. This was one African country, without question or hesitation, that we knew we could now call our own. It was then that we both started to embrace the opportunity that this M23 haplogroup had given us and we became obsessed with finding out how our Malagasy ancestors came to the NY/NJ region. This blog post is an attempt to answer that question. We may never know the name of our original Malagasy ancestor, but we now know how, where, and when she arrived in colonial NY and her descendants ended up in NJ. That is a whole lot more than we ever knew before our DNA test. It was this ancestor who gave us the gift of her M23 mtDNA that allowed us to follow the trail back to her and to discover the socio-historical events that circumscribed her life. We are so grateful to her for we have now reclaimed that which slavery took from us — one segment of our roots, our Malagasy roots.
We will never know where our earliest ancestors of Malagasy descent are buried. But, in 2005 in Colonie, NY, an unmarked slave burial ground was discovered there. The historical erasure of these fourteen nameless individuals, who were found in the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground, was to be no more. The remains found included one man, 6 women, 2 children, and 5 infants. By historic design, we know little about them. What we do know is that, after a mtDNA testwas performed, 4 were designated as being of West African/Central African descent, 1 descended from a Native American woman and was of mixed-race, and 2 sets of remains were from women of Malagasy descent with a M haplogroup designation. The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground should be viewed as a stand-in burial ground for all those forgotten slaves who toiled all over colonial New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The re-emergence of this burial ground is a testament to the fact that the some of the earliest slaves in colonial NY/NJ were Native American, West African, and Malagasy. It is also a testament to the indisputable fact that there are many African-Americans, my family included, who have historic ties to this land that predate most of the other non-Native American immigrants who became Americans much later on.
The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground was built on land owned by the Schuyler familly. Peter Schuyler, who occupied the estate between 1711-1723, was one of the NY merchants involved in the Madagascar to NY slave trade. He, along with his brother-in-law Robert Livingston, routinely invested in ships that made the trip to Madagascar to sell goods and then returned with enslaved Malagasy in their cargo hold along with other items for sale. He also owned sloops that trafficked on the Hudson River from Albany to Manhattan and owned property in Manhattan, Bergen County, NJ, Westchester, and Albany, NY. On those properties were no doubt slaves of Malagasy descent among others. Schuyler may be remembered for many things, but, make no mistake, he was one of the players in the NY slave trade. For those of us with Malagasy roots, he will be remembered for being actively involved and complicit in the NY to Madagascar slave trade along with all the other NY merchants families. — the Philipse, Livingston, Van Cortland, Delancey, Bayard, Lynch, Van Dam, Van Horne, Heathcote, and other families — who sold our ancestors into slavery.
I am not one to sanitize a historical truth when it involves my ancestors. History needs to be understood as it was experienced by everyone and not the chosen few. As far as I am concerned, the lives of my slave ancestors are just as valuable historically as any other person who ever lived. Their lives did not happen in a historical vacuum and their stories need to be told. Their lives were indeed valid. I can’t over-emphasize how important it is for us to seek out our ancestors’ stories. All of us, who are descendants of slaves, need to reclaim the lives of our ancestors so that others may learn of their existence and their contributions to American society. We owe it to them NOT to continue to aid in their historical erasure. If we do not do it, who will? The choice is ours. Let us all then shine a light on those who came before us. Our ancestors are always with us and their stories are encoded in our DNA.
On Colonial New York:
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 1998.
Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before The Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1992.
Cohen, David Steven. The Ramapough Mountain People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1986.
Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2003.
Hodges, Graham Russell. Root & Branches: African Americans in New York & East Jersey, 1613-1863. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1999.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 2007.
Matson, Cathy. Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press. 1998.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of The United Sates, Volume 1). New York, NY: Penguin Books. 2002.
Shaw Romney ,Susanah. New Netherland and Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in the Seventeenth-Century America. Chapel Hill, NC:University Prss of North Carolina. 2014.
Wills Foote, Thelma. Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Allen, Richard, Ed. European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850. Athens,OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
Armstrong, James C. “Madagascar and the Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century.” Omaly sy anio (Antananarivo University of Madagascar), no. 17 (1983): 211:34.
Elphick, Richard and Hermann Giliomee, Eds. The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1840. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 1979.
Hopper, Jane. “Pirates and Kings: Power on the Shores of Early Modern Madagascar and the Indian Ocean.” Journal of World History, Vol. 22, no. 2 (June 2011) : 215-242.
Judd, Jacob. “Frederick Philipse and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1971): 354-74.
Manning, Patrick. The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.
McDonald, Kevin P. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 2015.
Platt, Virginia Bever. “The East India Company and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 26, no. 4 (October 1969): 548-77.
Sheriff, Abdul. Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2010.
Vernet, Thomas. “Slave Trade and Slavery on the Swahili Coast, 1500-1750.” In Slavery, islam, and Diaspora, edited by Behnaz A. Mirzai, Ismael Musah Montana, and APul E. Lovejoy, 37-76. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. 2009.
Wilson-Fall, Wendy. Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 2015.
On Native American Slavery:
Newell, Margaret Ellen. Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2015.
Resendez, Andres. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.
On Spain’s Involvement in the Slave Trade:
Fradera, Josep and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Eds. Slavery and Anti-Slavery in Spain’s Atlantic Empire. New York, NY: Berghahn Books. 2013.
Henry S. Lyon is a distant cousin of mine via an unknown Lyon slave owner ancestor. It appears that in 1890, he stood up for the people buried in The Byram African-American Cemetery. That he stood up is indicative of the fact that the Lyon family —the family who created the cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves— has always sought to protect the land that they saw as part of their Old Cemetery. In my discussions with a few of my Lyon cousins, it is clear that The Byram African-American Cemetery has always been seen as hallowed and consecrated land by the Lyon family and it has always been considered a part of the Old (Lyon) Cemetery.
It is also highly likely that there are other African-Americans buried there who, like my ancestors, are genetically related to the Lyon family. My family are descendants of Peg who was originally owned by Daniel Lyon and who was emancipated in 1800 by his brother Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Peg, her husband Anthony, her other ancestors, and maybe 1-2 of her sons may be buried there. Through DNA, we are linked to the Lyon family line which includes Benjamin Woolsey and his brother Daniel > James > John >John > all the way back to Thomas Lyon, one of the original Lyons who settled in Greenwich in the mid-1600s. All of my relatives who tested at AncestryDNA have DNA cousins who trace back to multiple Lyon lines, including to Daniel. DNA has the power to uncover hidden truths and it has done so in this case.
As the article points out:
“But the people in the neighborhood did not like to have the consecrated ground developed for personal use, and Mr. Lyon circulated a petition to the Selectman to have the barn removed though he himself did not sign the petition. There was a large number of signers, however, Mr. Waterman knowing the part Mr. Lyon had taken in the matter, naturally looked upon him as the enemy.”
It must be noted (see 1890 map below) that the neighborhood was filled with my Lyon ancestors. Facts matter….. History matters… All my ancestors matter…The restoration of the Byram African-American Cemetery matters… Its historical designation as an African-American cemetery matters… Above all, the people who are buried there matter… And I stand humbled in knowing that my extended Lyon family understands that our shared family histories, born out of slavery in Greenwich, CT, still matter, too. We stand united even today.
The photos below are from the Historical Perspectives Documentary Study that the Town of Greenwich Conservation Commission put together and which can be found here.