This blogpost is dedicated to my 2nd great-grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo, who was assassinated in 1890 by the Spanish Civil Guard for being a member of the Puerto Rican Autonomous Party. Juan Eusebio pre-deceased his comrades, who in 1897, took part in La Intentona de Yauco, the last uprising against Spanish colonial rule. It is likewise dedicated to my 3rd great-uncle, Pedro Lajara Guerra-Mondragon, a captain in the Spanish Militia, who took part in El Grito de Lares — the first uprising against The Spanish in 1868. These men spoke truth to power about the conditions of the Boricua people. I am humbled to know that I descend from Puerto Rican revolutionaries who were truth-tellers. Me siento honrado de saber que su espíritu de resistencia está en mis genes. Que descansen en paz eterna.
Finally, this blogpost is dedicated to each and every one of my Boricua Branches. Like branches of a tree, we will continue to grow together. I have been blessed to have made all of your acquaintances. There are way too many names to list, but you know who you are. Besitos y un abrazo fuerte.
On Becoming Comfortable with My Rice & Beans & Collard Greens Self
On December 27th, 2013, I wrote one of my first blogposts about what it meant to find my Boricua Branches — my father’s side of my family. I will always say, without an ounce of hesitation, that the best part of taking my DNA tests was finding my Puerto Rican cousins. My father’s absence for 20 years of my life — from the age of 3-years old until 23-years old — resulted in a critical disjuncture in how I saw myself. While I always knew I was half-Puerto Rican, my pre-23 year old self did not know what that meant having been born and raised in Brockton, MA, a suburb of Boston. Brockton was not the diverse community it is today when I was growing up. It was a predominately white community with a small African-American and Cape Verdean population. We were often seen as Black and sometimes as Cape Verdean. Pre-23-year old Teresa was definitely Black culturally-identified. Though I always knew I had a diverse maternal extended family and equally diverse ancestors, having been raised by my maternal grandparents, I grew up within the confines of an African-American community.
I arrived in New York City in the Fall of 1990 to attend graduate school in a city that had one of the largest populations of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico. With a name like Teresa A. Vega, I had a hard time convincing anyone that I was anything other than a Latina. People assumed that I was either in denial about being a Latina or had some sort of hangup about speaking Spanish. It never occured to most people that maybe I didn’t grow up with my Puerto Rican father, that maybe Spanish wasn’t my first language, or maybe I was raised in a place that didn’t have a Latino community.
Two months after my mother passed away in December 1990, my father walked back into our lives. Boom! There he was. It was nothing short of an earthquake that shook up our lives. My siblings and I had different reactions to his re-emergence. None were more valid than the others. Our reactions were what they were. As I stated in another post, I left graduate school in the Fall of 1991 and moved to Cordoba, Spain, where my father retired, to get to know him. That is a decsion I will never regret. For all his faults — he had many — I learned what I inherited from him and, more importantly, what I didn’t.
Though I had 10 years (1991-2001) with my father before he passed away, he was always a step away from Puerto Rico for me. There was only so much I could learn from him about Puerto Rico as he left the island when he was a child and was raised in New York City. Even though I had been to Puerto Rico before, I felt disconnected to the island because I didn’t know anyone who was related to me and he didn’t remember any relatives there either. When I thought of Puerto Rico, there was always a sadness present due to the loss of family. Sometimes we mourn for that which we know we should have received automatically, but we didn’t. We are just left with a bottomless void…. so I thought.
Receiving my first DNA test results in December 2013 was certainly a life-changing event. I went from having 1200 DNA cousins on 23andme in December 2013 to having 1933 in 2017. On AncestryDNA, I went from having 1800 DNA cousins to over 35,000 today and, on FTDNA Family Finder, I went from having 145 DNA cousins to having 1489. On all three of my DNA tests, the great majority of my matches are Puerto Rican. So, now I know that voids can be filled and hope should ALWAYS be kept alive.
When I look back over the last 4 years, I realize just how blessed I’ve been in the company of my Boricua Branches. Just knowing and being among them gave me my birthright — my ancestral heritage — back. My cousins have always maintained ties to Puerto Rico. They were never one step away from the island, but always kept one foot there. Over the past couple of years, in addition to meeting my cousins here in New York from all over the country, I’ve also traveled to Puerto Rico and met my cousins there. Like I’ve said before, we are all branches on the same tree that is firmly rooted on the island. It has been my Boricua Branches who taught me what being Puerto Rican truly meant and there is nothing like two back-to-back hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that have brought that message home to me in stark terms.
Happy 100th Anniversary: American Citizens and Colonial Subjects
When Hurricane Irma and Maria hit, my Boricua Branches and I were frantic. Phones were ringing off the hook and FaceBook IMs and text messages were flying back and forth. All of us trying to locate our family and friends. Some of our kin were readily located and others went missing for weeks. For the first time in my life, I feared for my family and friends in Puerto Rico. My cousin Maddy and I called each other trying to find out about our relatives in Yauco and San Juan. So many calls were made to my cousins to find out if they heard from their relatives that I lost count. Every day we checked in with each other to see who had been located and who was still missing. Sometimes all we could do was pray as we waited. Tears flowed as the devastation became known bit by bit.
Four years earlier, I didn’t know one relative in Puerto Rico and now I had so many to track down. One of the longest waits I had was for Theresa and Ralph to show up. It took a month. The two of them have the honor of being designated as my “First LIVE Puerto Rican cousins that I met in Puerto Rico.” The NYC honor goes to my cousin, Raul Cruz Delgado, who earned that title back in 2013. Though Theresa, Ralph and I are forever linked in the AncestryDNA commercial we filmed together, we are also spiritually-bonded through the libation ceremony — overseen by our primo Luis Sanakori Ramos — that we gave my 2nd great-grandfather that honored both his Taino ancestry and his Puerto Rican revolutinary spirit. Both were with me when I met my Bonilla cousins for the first time, an experience that is forever seared in my mind that is too precious to adequately put into words even today.
My Boricua Branches and I watched as the President of the United States sat by as both hurricanes devastated our beloved island and offered minimal help. As American citizens, we expected more. We did not ask to become United States citizens, it was a condition imposed on us by the United States in the form of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917which granted Puerto Ricans full American citizenship. A couple of months later, in May 1917, Puerto Ricans began to be drafted to fight in World War I. Over 20,000 Puerto Ricans served in the military then and continue to do so today.
Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States ever since it was won as a result of The Spanish-American War of 1898. At no point ever have Puerto Ricans been able to control their island. Though Puerto Rico is self-governed through a local constitution whereby Puerto Ricans can elect their own Governor, Assembly and Senate, the United States government still oversees and controls the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. There is no President of Puerto Rico other than the President of the United States. We are not citizens of some other country. We are citizens of the United States of America. It’s a damn shame that I even have to say that in 2017, but I do.
When the current President of the United States, in a heinous, blatantly ignorant act of utter disrespect, threw paper towels at us and joked about about how Hurricane Maria was not that bad compared to Hurricane Katrina, my Boricua Branches — even those cousins who voted for him — and I cringed. It was as clear as day that we did not matter to HIM. We were seen as “The Other” because of the color of our skin and the language that rolled off of our tongues. It did not matter that we were American, that a lot of us were bilingual or only spoke English, or that we only had to move to the mainland for our votes to count.
We also sat by and watched as the Governor of Puerto Rico became politically impotent and agreed with the President’s shenanigans in early October. We were all shocked as both the President and Governor undercounted the death toll by the hundreds, if not thousands, and made light of our very real pain and denied what our own eyes were witnessing. The gaslighting of Puerto Rico’s hurricane victims was in full effect on every television network worldwide. Though the Governor now realizes his mistake, the damage was done. History will remember that it was the Mayor of San Juan who stood up with cojones and spoke truth to power in real time. She represented all Boricuas wherever we are found in the world. Her name is Carmen Yulin Cruz. Say HER name, Say HER name, Say HER name…
It was Carmen, along with many other Puerto Rican activists, who sounded the alarm about the compounded impact that the Jones Act of 1920 would have on Puerto Rican hurricane victims. Under the Jones Act, any foreign vessel must pay expensive tariffs, fees, and taxes to deliver goods to Puerto Rico. These taxes are then passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. As a result, consumer goods are much more expensive. Of course, humanitarian aid was and has been hindered by this Act which was waived for a month after Hurricane Maria. The United States has since let that waiver expire.
There are many government officials and other Americans who look to blame Puerto Ricans for their current situation. It is far too easy to render blame to people who don’t look like you and who speak a different language than you. It’s so easy to also assign blame to others when you yourself are ignorant of United States history as well as the definition of what a colony is. Puerto Ricans are not responsible for their current situation when the US government calls all the shots, especially as they relate to the Puerto Rican economy. For example, when we look back to 1976, we see that Congress decreed that American companies could relocate to Puerto Rico and operate tax-free and many pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies did just that. However twenty years later, Congress then decided this was too costly and ended these tax breaks. Companies fled the island and took their jobs with them. This pullback ultimately led to the current debt crisis that existed before the hurricanes hit — a crisis that has meant that the Boricua people are at the whim of the United States government (e.g., PROMESA). As far as I am concerned, every president who has been in office has been complicit in the underdevelopment of Puerto Rico. Over the past decade, thousands upon thousands of Puerto Ricans have fled the island for the mainland and poverty has become deeply entrenched. Again, the Boricua people are victims of policies that are regulated by Washington by people who have no ties to the island. We are at the mercy of a President and government that believes that Puerto Ricans don’t matter.
How can you explain the fact that Puerto Ricans have been left to die by the hundreds, if not thousands, and the real body count will never be known? How do you explain that, 100+ days after Hurricane Maria, only half the island has power and may have to wait until Spring to get it —-in the “greatest” country in the world? How can you even look the world in the eye and claim that you want to “Make America Great Again” when the policies that you espouse have resulted in the PREVENTABLE death of innocent people? How can you sleep at night when you just passed a tax-reform bill that treats Puerto Rico like a foreign country and will further devastate and economically ruin American citizens of Puerto Rican descent? It is so clear that the United States is are being led by people who follow a false prophet and adhere to a false religion. Do not talk to me about a Christianity that is 1000% un-Christian. Talk to my hand because the God I KNOW would never let his flock suffer like we are now. NEVER! The devil is real, folks!
Anyone with a heart and soul knows that Puerto Ricans matter. We matter because we are human. How do you not recognize another person’s basic humanity? Throughout history, I know there have been those who walked among us and denied others the right to exist just because they were different from them. I will never understand that.
Some of us are brave though and we follow the ways and knowledge that our ancestors passed down to us. We will stay, resist and fight back against our intended demise, and aid our brothers and sisters by any means necessary in their time of need. We are here for the long-term. Puerto Ricans MATTER! We don’t need anyone’s pity and we are not asking for unjust handouts. We ask for that for which we are due for all 119 years of colonial subjugation. People and companies profited off of Puerto Rico and it is time that the Boricua people receive payment back. We want hurricane relief with no strings attached. We don’t want to be saddled with outrageous debt that we did not create. We want the Jones Act repealed as it has placed an unfair burden on the Boricua people. We want something that goes beyond the current FEMA programs whereby people are able to stay in their homes or are able to be resettled nearby. We want to live in a clean environment with toxin-free water…..among other things.
We are, without a doubt, the canaries in the coal mine. Just a thought, if the current US government does this to us, as American citizens, who else is next given all the forthcoming cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the ACA, health organizations, etc.?
We Are RESILIENT!!!
“We Puerto Ricans are also a heroic people, because we resisted Spain for five hundred years, and now we have resisted the United States for a hundred and nineteen years. We are like trees that not even a hurricane has been able to uproot, because our roots grow so deeply. Our leaves may be torn off, but they will grow again. These are the fruits of what we have sown
-Heriberto Marin, one of the last survivors of the Jajuya Uprising in 1950
(The New Yorker Magazine, 12/27/2017)
I am proud of the Boricua Branches that I have because they prove time and time again just how resilient we are as a people. I can’t stop bragging about them. Here are just some of the cousins I have who have stepped up, before and after the hurricanes, and set an example to be followed.
In the days after they resurfaced, Theresa and Ralph started to immediately organize to not only help others in need, but also to coordinate hurricane relief donations from the mainland to their home. They then began distributing these donations to places that were not being reached by anyone and they have continued to do so ever since. They even created a Closed FB group, along with Dee Smalling, Rose Turner and others, where they keep track of donations sent, when they are received, and then they post where those donations ended up. This is the only Puerto Rican relief group that I am working with that I can 100% confirm are legitimate and do what they say they are going to do so. They have been delivering food donations, sanitary supplies, solar lights, water filters, tarps, and other items. They have also been working with our other cousins on the island and conscripting them into their great cause. Of course, our mainland Boricua Branches have also been sending supplies in earnest. Together, we are handling it BIG TIME.
Adopt Arecibo started out as a small relief organization, but is turning out to be a lot more. Adopt Arecibo now partners with the following organizations:
American Black Cross
Boondocks K-9 Search & Rescue Unit Inc. – CERT
Caras Con Causa
Coalition of Hope
Commit 2 PR
Cuerpo De Emergencias Medicas Estatal Base De Arecibo
Disaster Relief Alliance – DRA
Empowered by Light
Familiares en Puerto Rico,Comunicate aqui,con tus fami
Fundación Stefano Steenbakkers Betancourt
Fundacion Surfrider Rincon
Fundadacion Oye Aguadilla
Generate Some Love
H3 Tech Conference
Habitat for Humanity, PR
Heath Pro Med
Institute for Socio-Ecological Research
Levantando el Valle Relief
Mano A Mano Aydando Puerto Rico
Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción
New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS)
Operation Puerto Rico
Para La Natureleza
Power 4 Puerto Rico
Programa de Asistencia Tecnológica de Puerto Rico
Project Coqui_Puerto Rico Relief
proyecto esparciendo amor inc.
Puerto Rican Family Institute, Inc
Puerto Rican National Chamber of Commerce
Puerto Ricans in Action
Puerto Rico Diseña
Puerto Rico Distribución de Filtros de agua/ Water Filter distribution
Puerto Rico Love—Disaster Online Support Team
Puerto Rico Mercy Corps
Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico PRxPR
Puerto Rico Recovery Fund
Raices Cultural Center, A NJ Nonprofit Corporation
Raise Your Hands For PR, Inc.
RBC Maria Relief
Reconstruccion de Puerto Rico
Remote Area Medical
Rescate Playas Borinquen
Ricky Martin Foundation
Texas United for Puerto Rico
Together Puerto Rico / Juntos Puerto Rico
Tree of Life Counseling Center & Foundation
U Mass Amherst
Unity Warriors Group
Veterans At Sea
Veterans For Puerto Rico
Warrior Angels Rescue
Water Filters for Puerto Rico
Water For Puerto Rico Foundation
Waves 4 Water
World Water Solar
If anyone one has a charity organization that would like to deliver hurricane relief items to Adopt Arecibo, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org directly for further info.
Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo-Pabon
What can I say about a cousin who truly lives according to the word of God and could teach those in Washington a thing or two (make that many things) about how to live a Christian life? What can I say about a man, who could leave Puerto Rico in a minute, but has chosen to remain in horrible conditions to minister to his flock despite his own medical problems? What can I say about a man who is keeping a Hurricane Maria Diary to bear witness to all he has seen and who is intent on telling the truth until the very end? This cousin of mine has my utmost respect. He is a true man of God and I KNOW God knows his name. I pray for him every day because the work he has to do is more than noble. I ask people to also send prayers, love and light his way to lift Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo-Pabon up because the work he is doing is not easy. May the blessing of the Lord be with him always. Amen.
A big thank you goes to my cousin Jesse, the founder and CEO of Comelco, Inc., who stepped up and donated a 1-million watt generator to The Mennonite General Hospital in Aibonito, PR, an area that was heavily hit by Hurricane Maria. That act of generosity, not only saved 209 jobs, but will also save countless future lives. The generator left Jacksonville, FL last Thursday and will be received shortly. Jesse is one of the most generous people I know and I love that he has never forgotten where he came from. He is still that kid who grew up in the projects on the Lower East Side. Respect in the highest of the high!
Luis Sanakori Ramos
My cousin Luis is a treasure, not only to me, but to many of our cousins. We met almost 4 yeara ago. He is our cultural ambassador and educator who connects us to our Indigenous ancestors in very tangible ways. He guided Maddy, Theresa, Ralph and me as we sought to honor Maddy and my 2nd great-grandfather in the way that celebrated his Indigenous Tano roots. Luis has also aided many cousins on their own quests to connect with their Indigenous ancestors and has given them their Indigenous names in a beautiful naming ceremony. He is the founder of the Mobile Indigenous Library, a Fancy Dancer who connects with various Indigenous cross-cultural groups nationwide. Moreover, he also performs healing ceremonies and acts as an Indigenous educator throughout NYC. Luis is a member of theNaguake Indigenous Community in Puerto Rico/Boriken and is working on fostering greater ties with this community in the future.
Our Leaves May Be Torn off, But They Will Grow Again….And Again
It’s the very end of 2017 and around 300,000 Puerto Ricans have already left the island for the mainland and more are packing up ready to go. 2018 is now here. Because we are resilient and love our island, we will never forget those who left us to suffer and die in prime time. We will vote, as American citizens, this coming year, and in 2020, and our votes and voices will be heard nationwide. Make no mistake. Our votes will be our greatest form of resistance.
We WILL remember EVERY name on the lists below.
Here is the full list of Representatives that voted against disaster relief for Puerto Rico:
Justin Amash (R-Michigan)
Jim Banks (R-Indiana)
Andy Burr (R-Kentucky)
Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Jack Bergman (R-Michigan)
Andy Biggs (R-Arizona)
Mike Bishop (R-Michigan)
Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee)
Rod Blum (R-Iowa)
Dave Brat (R-Virginia)
Mo Brooks (R-Alabama)
Ken Buck (R-Colorado)
Ted Budd (R-North Carolina)
Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)
James Comer (R-Kentucky)
Warren Davidson (R-Ohio)
Scott DesJarlais (R-Tennessee)
Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin)
Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina)
John Duncan (R-Tennessee)
Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota)
Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina)
Trent Franks (R-Arizona)
Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)
Thomas Garret (R-Virginia)
Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio)
Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia)
Paul Gosar (R-Arizona)
Morgan Griffith (R-Virginia)
Andy Harris (R-Maryland)
Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
Jody Hice (R-Georgia)
French Hill (R-Arkansas)
George Holding (R-North Carolina)
Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina)
Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana)
Walter Jones (R-North Carolina)
Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi)
David Kustoff (R-Texas)
Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado)
Jason Lewis (R-Minnesota)
Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia)
Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky)
Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina)
Luke Messer (R-Indiana)
Alex Mooney (R-West Virginia)
Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma)
Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota)
Ralph Norman (R-South Carolina)
Gary Palmer (R-Alabama)
Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico)
Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania)
Robert Pittenger (R-North Carolina)
John Ratcliffe (R-Texas)
Todd Rokita (R-Indiana)
Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania)
David Rouzer (R-North Carolina)
Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina)
David Schweikert (R-Arizona)
Jamex Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
Jason Smith (R-Missouri)
Chris Stewart (R-Utah)
Mark Walker (R-North Carolina)
Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana)
Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio)
Roger Williams (R-Texas)
Here is the full list of Senators that voted against disaster relief for Puerto Rico:
This is Part III of a blog series about my Malagasy ancestry. This time, I will be discussing my Malagasy ancestors who arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia in the early 18th century. 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. Part II discussed how my NY Malagasy ancestors, now admixed with West African, Dutch, and Native American DNA, left New Amsterdam/New York in the late 1600s and ended up in the Tappen Patent in Bergen County, NJ.
This blogpost is dedicated to my VA Malagasy, West African, Native American and European ancestors whose lives were dictated and circumscribed by the institution of slavery in VA. I especially dedicate it to all those ancestors who were sold South as slaves out of Richmond, VA and whom will remain unknown to me forever. That being said, their DNA still lurks in my veins leaving a tie that still binds us together after all these years. I may not know my unknown ancestors’ names, but, thanks to DNA, I now know cousins who link me to them. May these ancestors all rest in eternal peace knowing that they are still remembered. We are because they were. I am a proud descendant of slaves indeed.
I would like to thank the following people for inspiring me to write this blog:
Wendy Wilson-Fall for writing her book, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic, which detailed my 8th great-grandfather, Robert “King” Carter’s participation in the Madagascar to Virginia slave trade. More importantly, it detailed what my Virginia Malagasy ancestors faced once they arrived in Virginia and how their memories of Madagascar were passed down to their descendants in an oral form. From one Malagasy descendant to another, I want to say thank you for telling our ancestors’ stories.
Reber Dunkel, retired professor and sociologist at Randolph-Macon College, for his endless assistance in helping me find out more information about my 3rd great-grandmother Crittie Anna Lee, who was born on Shirley Plantation, in Charles City, VA, as well as her mother, Ann Perkins. They are my earliest known Virginia Malagasy-descended ancestors.
Fonte Felipe for his amazing blog, Tracing African Roots, in general as well as for him sharing DNA information that he has collected from Malagasy AncestryDNA tested individuals with me for this blog. Please click here to read his post on Southeast African DNA in the Americas. Fonte has been on the vanguard of analyzing African DNA throughout the African Diaspora.
Phillip Troutman, Assistant Professor of Writing and History at George Washington University, for his research on the domestic slave trade out of Richmond. His blog on the Virginia Slave Trade visually shows the numbers of enslaved people from Virginia who were sold South between 1790-1860. His current work on “crowdsourcing genealogy” is also very commendable as he has been re-creating family trees based on Information Wanted ads that were placed in newspapers after the Civil War by recently freed enslaved people seeking to locate their relatives.
Ana Edwards, Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, for being a kindred spirit who has been speaking truth to power on behalf of all the enslaved people who were sold South out of Shockoe Bottom and their descendants wherever they may be. In words matched with deeds and alongside of Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, Ana has been on the frontlines in Richmond,VA advocating for the preservation of Shockoe Bottom as an historic site.
Joseph McGill, Founder, The Slave Dwelling Project, for continuously and unflinchingly telling the stories of enslaved people and being the current voice for all those who lived and labored in houses/homes that weren’t built for them. The public outreach and education he has and is providing is a noble act indeed. I am thankful for his friendship.
On Truth Telling….
Within the past few months, two white supremacists marches have taken place in Charlottesville, VA — one where a true truth teller was killed — over the removal of Confederate statues. While the Confederate statue issue and the NFL #TakeAKnee protests have dominated national headlines, the issue of how this country has represented itself comes into view ever more clearly. How can we, as Americans, have a fruitful, productive conversation about race when we can’t even acknowledge the stain that slavery left us with centuries after the fact? Slavery is not a black issue. It is an American issue. At it’s root, the colonization of this country was built on Native American genocide and African chattel slavery. It was a long thought out process that led to the death, rape, and enslavement of people, including my ancestors. It was, by no means, a pretty process as portrayed by those in power then and now. On the contrary, it was a very ugly venture undertaken by those who laid claim to a land already inhabited by millions and who brought in enslaved people of African descent to meet their labor demands. The history of how this nation came into existence is now being contested by those of us who are intent on making sure historical truth matters. And it matters now more than ever.
The obligation that I have to my all my ancestors is to tell the truth. As their descendant, I have the benefit of historical hindsight which provides me with a lens whereby I can tell their true stories — the good, bad, and ugly. If this country is to be made GREAT(ER), then all of our diverse histories need to be told and not just the history of the majority. My Native American ancestors were here from the beginning of time and some of my Atlantic Creole African ancestors arrived at the same time as my European ancestors in the early 1600s. Make no mistake though, most of my ancestors were here before the mass migration of European immigrants arrived in this country starting in the mid-1800s. I am not alone as there are many, many African-Americans with deep colonial roots in this country. We, too, sing America and our ancestors built America — for FREE.
I want to point out that while this blogpost is focused solely on the enslaved Malagasy, who arrived in Virginia in the early 1700s, it details how the institution of slavery made them “African-American” over time and led to their dispersal all over the Deep South.
[For a discussion of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived via the illegal slave trade or came as indentured servants, please consult Wendy Wilson-Fall’s book]. Because of the oral histories passed down by our Malagasy ancestors and now because of the availability of mtDNA/Y-DNA tests, many African- and Euro-Americans have been able to discover their Malagasy roots. I hope this blogpost helps people with Malagasy ancestry to understand how their ancestors arrived in Virginia and then ended up elsewhere. The migration of enslaved Malagasy people can be traced —even without a known Malagasy ancestor — because of the genetic map they left behind in our DNA.
Pre-1700 Tidewater Virginia: We Were Here From the Beginning
The invented history of Europeans being solely responsible for making this country what it was, or came to be, is based on lies. The success of European colonization was built on the subjugation of Native Americans and Africans. Native Americans provided their colonizers with the skills they needed to survive in a land that was “new” to them as they were original occupiers of this country. When Europeans did arrive in the Tidewater region of Virginia in the early 1600s, there were around 14,000 Native Americans — the Powhatan, the Pamunkey, the Chickahominy, the Patawomeck, and the Rappahannock — residing there. Their interactions with these Native Americans resulted in a vicious land grab that ultimately led to Native American genocide within the first 100 years of contact. By 1700, the Native population declined to 1,900 individuals, an 85% decline in population, due to slavery, disease, and non-stop warfare which ended in their deaths, according to Anthony Parent.
The first Africans to arrive in the Tidewater region of Virginia in 1619 were Atlantic Creoles. They were part of the transatlantic exchange of cultures that resulted from the initial contact between Europeans and Africans on the West Coast of Africa, starting in the 15th century , which was transported to the Caribbean and the Americas. Atlantic Creoles had already mastered the languages and cultures of diverse European colonizers, were familiar with their trading ventures, and utilized this knowledge to better their circumstances when they were able. They arrived in VA as both indentured servants and as enslaved persons. Some were freed after their indentured service ended and became property owners. Others were enslaved for life. With the English discovery that this “new” land supported tobacco growing, the rush to settle the colony and profit from it became greater. Between 1619-1697, 13,000-20,000 Africans were brought to VA to begin a lifetime of perpetual servitude. The number of Africans dramatically increased with “blackness” alone becoming associated with slavery. From 1698-1774, 96,000 Africans were imported into the Virginia colony as slaves.
The Europeans — primarily the English, Scots, and Irish — who arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, were a hodgepodge mix of characters, including sons of elite English gentry, merchants, adventurers, ex-convicts, etc. The Virginia Companydeveloped a “headright” system to encourage immigrants to settle there. Starting in 1617, elite planters who sponsored an indentured servant received 50 acres of land for paying their fare to VA. Indentured servants then had to labor for a period of 7 years under strict terms. These indentured servants saw their service as a means to an end — one in which they became landowners as well. It should also be noted that these indentured servants routinely worked along side of, intermarried and had children with, and ran away with enslaved people and Native Americans.
From the beginning, the elite class of planters controlled the governing branch of the Virginia Company and later the House of Burgesses. This enabled them to exploit the headright system to their advantage which led to the ownership of large tracts of land for themselves and their families. Land speculation soon surfaced and had devastating consequences for those indentured servants who completed their service terms. Faced with not being able to purchase land, they were forced to become tenant farmers or move to frontier areas that were considered dangerous due to Native American incursions. In 1676,Bacon’s Rebellion became the first uprising in VA. It was a rebellion that saw white indentured servants uniting with enslaved Africans against the ruling class in power. In response to the Rebellion and, in recognition that the supply of white indentured servants was drying up, numerous laws were enacted to codify the institution of slavery in Virginia and forever separate the poor from aligning together in the future.
A timeline of laws codifying slavery in Virginia can be found here.
The Importation of Enslaved Malagasy (1719-1721)
Between 1719-1721, there were seven slave ships that arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia with enslaved Malagasy in their cargo holds. These vessels were the Prince Eugene and the Henrietta, which both sailed twice, the Mercury, the Gascoigne Galley, the and the Rebecca Snow. As I previously noted in my Part II blogpost, the voyage from Madagascar to the East Coast of the US was 4-6 months long and most likely included a stopover on the island of St. Helenato replenish supplies. I can only imagine the horrors that enslaved people went through during this Middle Passage. That they even survived is a miracle in itself as well as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. It’s no wonder that the average mortality rate was as high as 31% on these voyages. 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 contracted a disease that caused their eyes to come out of their sockets. There were roughly 1,300 enslaved Malagasy who ended up in Virginia during the 1719-1721 time period.
Please note that there was also an unknown slave ship that arrived in Virginia from Madagascar in 1686 that had 210 Malagasy onboard. This would mean around approximately 1,500 enslaved Malagasy survived the Middle Passage and took up residence in Virginia.
It should also be noted that the Carolinas received an unknown number of enslaved Malagasy as Charleston was settled by planters from Barbados. Enslaved Malagasy were imported into the Carolinas for their rice production skills. By 1700, half of the slaves — roughly 16,500 individuals — in Barbados were of Malagasy descent. Between 1679-1718, there were 27 voyages from Madagascar to Barbados. Likewise, Jamaica also received 2,000 slaves between 1685-1719.
Robert King Carter: My Slave Owner 8th Great-Grandfather and Major Importer and Purchaser of The Enslaved Malagasy in VA (1719-1721)
As Wendy Wilson-Fall discusses in her book Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic,Robert “King” Carter was the major investor in the Madagascar to Virginia Slave Trade as well as the major purchaser of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia. He also was my slave owner 8th great-grandfather. No one chooses their ancestors and I, in no way, shape, or form, will ever condone his abhorrent behavior as it relates to slavery. I just can’t as long as the blood of people he enslaved still runs through my veins. However, I will tell the truth about his life.
When Robert “King”Carter (1663-1732) died, the inventory of his 40 page will was a testament to his status as “King” of colonial Virginia. His will stated that he owned 300,000 acres of land, 57 plantations and quarters, around 800 slaves (click here for a list of names of the enslaved) and £10,000 of cash. He added a codicil in his will that forever linked the enslaved and their descendants to a particular plantation or quarter. An enslaved person could be relocated to a different plantation if a Carter daughter inherited those slaves as part of her dowry and they would become part of husband’s property. Of course, enslaved people could be sold at any time.
Over the course of his lifetime, Robert “King” Carter amassed great wealth from the tobacco trade and other businesses which led him to become one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He also was very much a part of the elite ruling class and served in the House of Burgesses for years. His sons followed in their father’s footsteps and later maintained the family’s wealth and political dynasty for generations. One of the ways he increased his family’s wealth was to form alliances, via the marriages of his sons and daughters, to other“First Families of Virginia.” The Byrd, Burwell, Randolph, Armistead, Page, Fitzhugh, Harrison, Braxton, Wormeley, Mann, and Berkeley families, among others, were all affiliate families to the Carters. His extended family and businesses were completely intertwined. Wealth begat wealth.
While Robert “King” Carter was certainly a man of great wealth, that wealth came at the expense of my enslaved ancestors and others. In order to harness this free labor force, Carter employed several methods to exert his control. One of the ways was for him to strip these saltwater Africans of their ethnic/tribal identity by giving them English first names only. He also separated members of the same ethnic group into different quarters where they could not communicate with each other. Within a generation or two, we can easily see how enslaved Africans became “African-American” as they began to lose knowledge of their own African cultures though not entirely.
Robert “King” Carter also used violence to manage his enslaved population. Whippings, beatings, and the killing of the enslaved were routine during slavery. The Carter Papers provide us with a goldmine of information in HIS words. In these papers, we learn about a runaway slave named Madagascar Jack — whose name clearly reflected his Malagasy roots — who on August 22,1722 was returned to Robert “King” Carter as a runaway slave. Carter then sought permission to have him mutilated in order to cure him of his runaway habits. Despite having his toes amputated, Madagascar Jack apparently continued to runaway. Five years later, on October 10, 1727, Carter wrote about how he didn’t want Madagascar Jack to go to his new Corotoman Plantationthoughmany other enslaved people ended up at there. In one letter, Carter also mentioned mutilating another slave named Ballazore. Back in1710, he mutilated Bambara Harry and Dinah. These mutilations were a form of torture that my 8th slave owner great-grandfather boasted of “having cured many a negro of running away by this means.” I can’t help to wonder if any of my Malagasy-descended ancestors were the subjects and victims his abuse.
Most of the enslaved Malagasy that Robert “King” Carter purchased in the early 1700s were women and children. These women would have been coerced into mating with men of West African or European descent when they first arrived —most likely not of their own choosing considering they had no control over their fates or bodies. The formation of somewhat more stable families would only come later. Such was the nature of slavery. The children born from these enslaved Malagasy women would have been first generation ”African-Americans.” As you will see from the admixture charts later, African-Americans are truly a diaspora population. But, some of these children would have also “passed” as Euro-American with their African-American and Malagasy roots being totally obscured.
I want to add here that Robert “King” Carter did have a grandson, Robert Carter III (my 1st cousin 8XR), who became known as “The Great Emancipator.” In 1791, Robert III signed a Deed of Giftthat led to the emancipation of 500-600 enslaved people over the course of 30 years. This was one of the largest number of enslaved people being emancipated prior to the Civil War. Nomini Hallis the plantation that he inherited from his grandfather and where his enslaved people labored. Robert III was clearly influenced by his Baptist religion. He was one of many slave owners who began to question slavery and start to embrace abolitionism. John Pleasants III, a Quaker, also emancipated his slaves in his will. When his son, Robert Pleasants started to execute his wishes after his death, other family members sued him to prevent these emancipations from going forward. He was successful in court and went on to free hundreds of enslaved people. He then hired his formerly enslaved back as paid laborers and provided schooling for them. Robert went on to become an ardent abolitionist. Curles Neck Plantation, which was owned by the Pleasants, was only 8 miles from Shirley Plantation and the Pleasants no doubt owned enslaved Malagasy and their descendants.
My Family’s DNA Trail From Madagascar to VA
I have five colonial lines that can be traced to Virginia on my maternal African-American side. One line is from my 3rd great-grandmother Mary Johnson, on my maternal grandfather’s side, from Greenwich, CT who was born in VA in the early 1800s. She somehow ended up in CT, but we have no idea where in VA she was born. My maternal 2nd great-grandparents on my grandfather’s maternal side, William H. Jackson and Katherine Davis Jackson, were born in VA, but they moved to Newark, NJ sometime by 1880. My Jackson/Davis/Thomas/Brookins line was from Charlottesville, Fork Union (Fluvanna County) Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Waynesboro, and Farmville, VA. On my maternal grandmother’s side, my great-grandmother’s Lee/Carter/Mitchell line was from Charles City, Petersburg, Richmond, and Dinwiddie County, VA. My 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell, moved to Boston, MA after the Civil War and married a first generation Irish-American woman named Julia Lennihan. It is his maternal line that was of Malagasy descent. I have every reason to suspect that some of my grandfather’s VA ancestors also included people who had Malagasy roots as we shall see.
On my Lee/Carter/Mitchell line, we have oral history that was passed down indicating that my 3rd great-grandmother, Crittie Anna Lee, was born on Shirley Plantation and that she was the daughter of Charles Carter Lee, an older brother of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and an enslaved woman named Ann Perkins. She was married to Mortimer Mitchell, another mulatto. We had a male Mitchell tested amd hie has a Euro Y-DNA.We don’t know much about how she met Mortimer or where he came from. His background may have been similar to hers. Our Mitchell ancestors found their way to Union troops where Crittie and Mortimer worked as a nurse and cook until the end of the war. After the Civil War, they resided in Namozine, Dinwiddie County, VA until their deaths. They were farmers who owned their property. Five of their children ended up moving to MA, PA, and NY by the late 1800s.
We were told that Crittie was Black and Native American on her mother’s side. This was quite plausible since African-Americans with colonial roots in Virginia were known to have intermarried with Native Americans in the area. Her son James was also referred to as “The Old Indian” in the Stoughton, MA where he owned a farm and a store in the early 1900s. My aunt Helen also told me of how many people thought that James’s son, my Uncle Bill, was of Asian descent as well (see photo below).
In her book, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic, Wendy Wilson-Fall points out that the oral history of Malagasy descendants often includes mention of their phenotype. The physical descriptions of enslaved Malagasy includes references to their yellow skin, hair, and eyes. Because Madagascar was settled by people from East Africa and Southeast Asia, their phenotype was probably similar to those enslaved people who were of African and Native American descent. Again, Native Americans and Africans were slaves who labored together in the early years of colonization. Generations after the first Malagasy arrived in VA, some of their descendants may have forgotten their family origins and chose to remember what their ancestors looked like. Hence, many people may have oral history of ancestors being Black and Native American when they were in fact of Malagasy descent or, more likely, were of West African, Malagasy and Native American descent like my family.
Returning to Crittie’s death certificate, her age at the time of her death was 69 years old. However, on US Census records from 1870-1910, her birth year ranges from 1825 to 1846 so it is hard to confirm her exact age. Reber Dunkel, retired professor of Randolph-Macon College, has been helping me locate Crittie and her mother at Shirley Plantation. He believes her first name is unique and uncommon for the time so it may have been a first name that was passed down. In his research, he has found 2 Critties listed as slaves at Shirley Plantation’s sister plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County. Ann Butler Carter (my 1st cousin 6XR), daughter of Robert Hill Carter, received 1717 acres of land and 70 slaves from Shirley Plantation from her father, a brother of my 5th great-grandmother Anne Hill Carter, as a dowry when she married William Fanning Wickham. Her sister, Lucy Carter (also my 1st cousin 6XR), received a similar dowry when she married William’s brother, Edmund Fanning Wickham. It has been documented that the first enslaved people employed at Hickory Hill came from Shirely Plantation. It is quite possible that my Crittie may have descended from one of these two Critties. Likewise, Reber is also exploring the possibility of an ancestral link with the Hickory Hill Critties and Critta —Crittie is the diminutive form of the name —Hemings, sister of Sally Hemings. John Wayles, their father, owned The Forest plantation which was located in Charles City County where Shirley Plantation is located. I’m still searching for more info on Crittie, Ann Perkins, and her Perkins slave owners. I expect to take more trips to Virginia to do more family research.
What we do know about Crittie is that her line connects to known Malagasy descendants like the Raglands, Dickersons, Parhams, Carters, Lees, etc. via our DNA cousins. Given the fact that Robert “King” Carter tied his enslaved people to the properties where they were born, coupled with him being the major purchaser/importer of enslaved Malagsy, and our oral history as well, we can assume that her matrilineal line may be a Malagasy one. Crittie has an elderly great-granddaughter in NYC, who also has a daughter, that we can administer a Full Sequence mtDNA test to confirm definitively. We are tracking them down now to test as I write this blog post.
The major goal of FTDNA’s Malagasy Roots Project is to identify people who have Full Sequence mtDNA or Y-DNA haplogroups that are found in Madagascar and connect them to their cousins who are of Malagasy descent. These particular DNA tests offer the most conclusive evidence of Malagasy ancestry. That being said, there are indicatorsof Malagasy ancestry that can be found by looking at autosomal DNA test results in combination with local history, Malagasy entry points into the US, oral history, etc. I want to be very clear that admixture tests alone are NOT an indicator of Malagasy ancestry. There needs to be more corroborative proof. My fellow blogger Melvin Collierdocuments his discovery of his Malagasy roots in his blogpostdoing exactly what I have always recommended. Through his analysis of his family’s autosomal results, he has been able to confirm his Malagasy roots and connect with a Malagasy DNA cousin.
Detecting Indicators of Malagasy Ancestry Using AncestryDNA
Fonte Felipe, a fellow blogger, has graciously shared some of the data he has been analyzing related to Malagasy people who have DNA-tested at AncestryDNA. He has documented the country backgrounds of Malagasy descended individuals. It is striking to note that most Malagasy-descended people who have tested at AncestryDNA are African-American and/or of West Indian descent followed by people of Euopean descent from the United States and Europe and the Spanish Caribbean. This is a testament to just how large the Madagascar Slave Trade to the Caribbean and the Americas was in the late 1600s to early 1700s.
For the past few years, I have been analyzing how Malagasy ancestry manifests itself across all DNA testing companies. Using my family’s M23 haplogroup — which is only found in Madagascar — as a control group, I have been documenting the geographical regions that may be indicative of Malagsy roots. On AncestryDNA, we definitely see a combination of East/South/Central Africa geographical areas along with an Asian component which isn’t surprising since Madagascar was settled by people from SE Asia and East Africa. Regarding the African geographical areas, one of the things Fonte noted is that, in addition to SE Bantu as a region, one also sees that the Cameroon/Congo region is also somewhat high. The Cameroon/Congo admixture may be coming from Mozambique. This no doubt reflects how the Bantu Expansion spread from West to East Africa. Please note that the West African trace regions found in today’s Malagasy would not be the same trace regions as our Malagasy ancestors who arrived in the United States centuries ago though.
Fonte also shared three Malagasy AncestryDNA ethnic admixture profiles with me. In the first chart, this Malagasy individual is probably Merina from the Highlands because of the higher percentage of Asian admixture. Fonte didn’t have much info on the 2nd Malagasy profile other than that person was from Southwest Madagascar from the Atsimo-Andrefana region, but you can see how this person has more East African admixture than Asian admixture.
Fonte has had the most contact with the 3rd Malagasy profile. This Malagasy person had a Makua ancestor from Mozambique. He is from Northeast Madagascar and is also part Antankarana and Antaimoro.
In general, looking at these three profiles, we can gather that the African components include SE African Bantu and Cameroon/Congo. I did notice that in Malagasy-descended African Americans, we also see South-Central Hunters and Gatherers. This designation may have to do with where enslaved Malagasy originated from centuries ago which is why we don’t see it in these present day Malagasy profiles. The Asian component could be any combination of Asia East, Asia South, Asia Central, and/or Pacific Islander (Polynesia and Melanesia).
Here are three profiles representing my family. My cousin Mildred is a direct matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson who had the M23 haplogroup. Helen is my maternal aunt and reflects our two Malagasy lines from NY (Thompson/Pickett/Snyder) and VA (Lee/Carter/Mitchell line). Our cousin Barbara is on our Jackson/Davis/Thomas/Brookins line. As a point of clarification, any of the geographical regions included as main regions may reflect recent ancestry coming from other ancestors from those regions as well. Most of the Malagasy indicators would be found in “Low Confidence Regions” as this would reflect ancestry from those areas centuries ago. For a more detailed discussion of Malagasy admixture, please refer to my Part I blog post which can be found here.
My cousin Mildred has a DNA match whose family is from Edgecombe County, NC and has an ancestor from Madagascar.
Here are 2 of my Mitchell 2nd cousins 1XR. We share the same 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell. They would be my aunt Helen’s 2nd cousins. Their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s brother, James W. Mitchell.
Please note that the profile below is of my 3rd cousin 1XR. Cyntania is a descendant of my 2nd great-grandfather’s brother George Mitchell. Notice how Cyntania admixture profile doesn’t show any Asian component. DNA is randomly inherited so this should not be a surprise. She is a perfect example of why it is best to test multiple people within a family. She is a direct descendant of our Crittie, but apparently she didn’t inherit her Asian DNA, according to AncestryDNA, and neither did I as a matter of fact though it does show up on my other DNA admixture tests.
Though I have five colonial lines that begin and end in Virginia, my family never had any oral or written history that documented our ancestors in the Deep South. After taking several DNA tests, I now am acutely aware of the fact that I have VA ancestors who were sold South out of Richmond, VA. With their permission given, here are a few DNA cousins I match whose AncestryDNA admixture charts, surnames, and locations match my Virginia Malagasy-descended ancestors and other VA DNA cousins.
Here are some of the DNA Malagasy-descended cousin matches that my aunt Helen and I have that reflect surnames on our family tree either via VA slave owners or their slaves of Malagasy descent who were sold South out of Richmond, VA.
Surnames of Malagasy Descendants
Here is a list of surnames that are found among both my VA and NY Malagasy-descended ancestors AND NY and VA slave owner ancestors who purchased the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in NY and VA in between 1664-1698 and 1719-1721. Some of these surnames are found in both states. I have also added the surnames that Wendy-Wilson Fall compiled on her Ancestry.com Rootsweb page back in 2003. Click here to see her original list.
Please note that Wendy Wilson-Fall has started a Mapping Memories of Madagascar site where she seeks to document both enslaved and free Malagasy-descended individuals. Please click on the red hyperlink above to add your ancestor’s name to her interactive map.
Ragland and Dickerson Connections: It’s a Small Colonial World After All
I want to mention the Ragland family in colonial VA as this family routinely purchased slaves of Malagasy descent. On our Carter and Lee side, my family is related to Evan Ragland, the “immigrant,” who arrived in VA from Somerset, England in the mid-1600s. The Raglands were of English and Welsh descent. Evan was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, along with John Davis, from Somerset and shipped out of Bristol, England to labor as an indentured servant for Stephen Pettus in colonial Virginia. He then married Stephen’s daughter Susana after his term expired and went on to inherit land. He also owned an unknown number of enslaved people. Evan’s personal history was indeed the stuff that indentured servants dreamed of when they arrived in this country.
Charles Ragland, a descendant of Evan, wrote a book where he estimated that between “1640 and 1680 up to 100,000 children may have been kidnapped in Britain and sold to the highest bidders in America.” As indenture servitude began to decline after the 1660s, abduction became a common practice. Ragland states, that “such protests (and increased interest in voluntary emigration) had brought the practice to an end around 1679, in which year a captain was hung for kidnapping an eleven year old boy.”
All Euro-descended Raglands in the US are related to Evan Ragland. Their extended family spread out from VA and ended up in West Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Pennsylvania throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They took their enslaved people with them as they moved out of VA and purchased more enslaved people as they built their wealth off of the backs of the enslaved. The dispersal of these white planters and their slaves went hand in hand with Native Americans being subjected to both physical relocation to other parts of the country as well as policies that can be considered genocidal.
African-American Raglands are descendants of children fathered by Ragland men and Malagasy/West African/Native American women and those unrelated enslaved people who took their surname before and after they were emancipated. The Raglands lived in the same locations as my Carter ancestors — Charles City, Richmond, Spotslyvania, New Kent County, Dinwiddie County, Prince George County and other VA locations. The two families also intermarried. It should come as no surprise that my family shares a genetic tie with both Euro- and African-American Raglands who descend from the early Malagasy people, who were bought and sold, in Tidewater region of Virginia.
Although Jill Ragland has the Ragland surname, her mother Janine is the one we are related to via a distant Malagasy ancestor though her dad may also be a Malagasy descedant. They are part of the Malagasy Roots Project and her mtDNA haplogroup is F3b1 which is one of the Malagasy haplogroups that is found in Asia and Madagascar. Though for some reason they didn’t show up on her main AncestryDNA page, Janine also has Asia South and Asia Central admixture on the AncestryDNA phone app. Janine’s maternal Malagasy F3b1 ancestors probably arrived in Georgia from Virginia. It looks like her connection to my family is because of ancestor who was sold South.
It should be pointed out that the Ragland Plantation in Petersburg is now a Bed & Breakfast. The website is geared towards promoting the aesthetics of the place. However, there is a history of the Ragland Plantation on the site that mentions both Reuben and John Davis Raglands’ active involvement in the domestic slave trade out of Richmond as slave traders, bankers, and as part of the insurance industry that oiled the engines of slavery. It also appears that John Davis dropped his Ragland surname when he was a slave trader which was a great way to disguise his hideous complicity in the slave trade for future generations.
There was another Ragland descendant who owned Sylvie, a woman of Malagasy-descent, whom he later freed in his will along with their children and his other enslaved people. His name was William Ragland, Jr. (1780-1849) from Louisa County, VA who was a descendant of Evan Ragland via William, Sr. > Samuel> John > Evan. He died at the age of 69 of typhoid fever in 1849. Sylvia/Sylvie was 40 years younger than William. This type of situation was common among some slave owners and their relationship reminds us of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. From the newspaper below, we learn that in addition to emancipating his enslaved people, William had set aside $20,000 (which would be $617,000 in 2017) when he died and instructed his executers to buy land in Pike and Jackson Counties in Ohio. The executers related how they bought land and settled almost 100 formerly enslaved people between 1855-1860.
In the book Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia, it’s worth noting that William Ragland, not only emancipated Slyvia/Sylvie and their children (Lousia, Martha, Lucy, Ellen, Betsy, Sylvia/Sylvie, Jr., William, Jr, and Samuel), but may have also emancipated her sisters, Mary (mother of Thomas, Margaret, Henry, David, William, Nathan, and Franklin) and Esther (mother of Nathaniel, John, Catherine, George, Polly, and Sally) and their children. Sylvia/Sylvie, Mary, and Esther were 34, 37, and 42 years old when they were granted their freedom. There was a 70-year old woman named Judith Ragland who may have been their mother or aunt. It seems like William Ragland was another slave owner, like Thomas Jefferson, who kept his very enslaved family close to him. I am certain that these African-American of Malagasy descent women exercised their own agency as they recognized the privilege they had relative to other enslaved people.
Another William James Ragland (1810-1876) who was a cousin of the William above and also a descendant of Evan Ragland via Fendall> Pettus> John > Evan, listed Mary Agnes Meriwearther (1829-1892) as a “friend” in his will and left his entire estate to her and his “natural” and “confirmed heirs” — Nannie James Meriweather, Mary Adeline Meriweather, James Edward Meriwearher and John Meirweather. In the 1880 census, Mary Agnes is listed as a widow and is living with her son Harry who is 14 years old. It’s uncertain if John’s middle name was Harry or if this is a son by a different father. We know very little about Mary Agnes and nothing about how she felt about her life other than what she wanted recorded on her tombstone for all to see. She simply stated “I fought the good fight.” Only she knew what that meant and the rest of us are left to wonder what she meant. Mary Agnes is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, VA alongside of many well-known African-Americans.
Another colonial family that had ties with both the Carters and the Raglands was the Dickerson family whose ancestors resided all over colonial Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. They then moved to other states as the United States expanded South and West as they cleared the land of Native Americans. Griffin Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson, the “immigrant,” arrived in Virginia in the early-1600s. The spelling of their surname changed over time and is found in the historical records spelled as Dickerson, Dickinson, and Dickenson. Like the Carters and Raglands, the Dickersons accumulated their wealth initially due to the tobacco industry that was predicated on slave labor. They also lived in the same exact areas as the Carters and Raglands and no doubt procured their slaves from the same sources as those two families. [As an aside, one of Robert Carter III’s 300-acre property in Richmond County was named Dickersons Mill].The Dickersons certainly received a share of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in the early 1700s as well as their descendants over time.
My family is related to both Euro- and African-American Dickersons. I have several Malagasy-descended DNA Dickerson cousins. One of whom is Eugene Dickerson. His Dickerson ancestors were from Spotsylvania County, VA, a location that matches one of Robert “King” Carter’s plantations. It appears that there was a Hugh Mercer Dickinson. (1811-1888) in Spotsylvania who was a slave owner with 26 enslaved people documented in the 1850 and 1860 census records. There was also an Elisha Dickinson who was a slave owner in 1783 in Spotsylvania with 11 slaves. More research needs to be done to see if this family was the slave owners of Eugene’s ancestors. Eugene and my family also have other DNA cousins in common like Shirese Louie and her siblings. By the way, in following Hugh Mercer Dickinson’s tree, I noticed his grandmother was a Quarles— a surname that Shirese also has in her tree.
Eugene also has a grandfather, Thomas Frazier Dickerson (1872-1992), who married Hallie Sandidge (1892-1934). Hallie’s side has 2 other Malagasy-descendant surnames, Scott and Jones. The white Sandidge family, another early colonial family, are found in New Kent, Lousia, Spotslyvania, and Amherst counties which again are where the Carters, Raglands, and Dickersons lived. There are records in the book Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia which contains the names of several Sandidge enslaved people who were emanicpated in Richard Sandidge’s will.
Eugene and his family were unaware of their Malagasy ancestry. I truly hope that I have provided them with some clues to further investigate their Dickerson-Sandidge line. With the help of other DNA cousins, they may be able to find even more info. The next step for them should definitely be Full Sequence mtDNA and Y-DNA tests.
Another interesting Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson tidbit is Richard Henry Dickinson whose ancestors are probably related to Griffin Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson as well. R.H. Dickinson was one of the major slave traders in Richmond from 1840 up until the Civil War. He operated under the slave trading firms of Dickinson and Brothers and as Dickinson, Hill & Co. Between 1846-1849, he sold 2000 enslaved Virginians South annually. In 1857, his firm earned $2 Million in slave sales. Click here for a timeline of R.H. Dickinson’s slave trading years. I also found an ad that was placed in a Richmond newspaper where Dickerson was selling the slaves owned by John Wickham (my 2nd cousin 5XR), the son of Anne Butler (Carter) Wickham and William Fanning Wickham of Hickory Hill Plantation. That William Fanning Wickam used R.H. Dickerson’s slave trading firm attests to family ties that spanned generations. In the auction, 130 enslaved people were sold — some of whom may have been my ancestors as his mother was a Carter from Shirley Plantation. John was only 25 years old when he passed away and already was a man of wealth.
Richmond: The Epicenter of the Domestic Slave Trade (1790-1860)
A discussion of Richmond being an epicenter of the domestic slave trade, behind New Orleans, is essential if we are to understand the migration of African- and Euro-Americans with Malagasy roots to parts of the Deep South. After the African slave trade ended in 1808 in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, we see that the growth of the domestic slave trade coincided with the genocide and displacement of Native Americans from their lands and the rise of cotton and sugar plantations in the South and Southwest. Virginia was a tobacco growing state and, as the land became overworked and degraded over the years, the planter class looked for ways to harness and unload their surplus enslaved labor. They did this by first migrating to, and settling in areas, that had been cleared of Native Americans in the South and Southwest and they took their enslaved people with them. These VA planters also unloaded their surplus enslaved labor by selling these people South out of Richmond. As the cotton and sugar trade grew, the planter class were joined by others seeking to enrich their station in life by buying and trading enslaved people. The accumulative wealth of European-Americans in this country was built on the enslavement of millions of people of African descent.
From 1790-1860, as Phillip Troutman in his Virginia Slave Trade blog makes abundantly clear, 45% of enslaved people sold South came from Virginia. According to Michael Tadman, an estimated 350,000 enslaved Virginians were sold South out of Richmond from 1820-1860. That number is probably a lot higher as we will never know how many enslaved people were sold between 1790-1820 or how many free Blacks were kidnapped and sold South as well. I should also add here that, in 1850s, there were a quarter of a million mixed race slave children in Virginia. This means that slave owners were making and selling their own children for profit, according to David W. Blight.
Slavery was never designed to promote Black family reunification. On the contrary, it was an institution that was hellbent on destroying the ties that bind. When considering the impact of the domestic slave trade on African-Americans, whose ancestors were from Virginia, we need to be aware that most of the enslaved who were sold were between the ages of 15-25 years of age. However, according to the historian Steven Deyle, two-fifths of antebellum slaves were younger than 15 and one-third were younger than 10 years old. The youngest of enslaved victims may not have known who their parents were having been taken from them at a very young age, housed in slave pens, sold a couple of times before ending up at auction houses before being transported South. Even with DNA testing, while we may locate some of our DNA cousins who are the descendants of our VA ancestors, there will be many more ancestors who will remain lost to us forever. Slavery caused a major disruption in our family trees and family history. Tears.
I Like My History Black…Hold The Sugar: Historical Trauma and The Sanitization of Slavery
I was blessed to have the opportunity to speak at a symposium on “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & The Built Environment” at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville this past October 18th-20th and I sat on a panel on “Cemeteries, Slavery, and History.” Over the course of 3 days, panel after panel was devoted to serving up history that was the blackest EVER. The true history of how this country was founded; how slavery was experienced by people of African descent, how certain individuals and institutions profited off of Black bodies before and after death; the role that universities played in propagating slavery and the corrections being made now to rectify the mistakes of the past; the current state of Black cemeteries and the need to preserve them; the current excavations of slave sites at plantations today; and the on-going incorporation of the voices of the descendants of slaves at plantations, among other topics, were discussed at length. The history at this conference was100% SUGAR-FREE! The “sugar” that was left out can be compared to all the myth-making, lies, and omissions that have been left out of the historical record in order to make slavery more palatable to the masses. At the conference, I was among kindred spirits who are promoting a corrected, more inclusive view of history. One that, I strongly believe, can heal this country in time. A history built on lies is just that as it obscures truth; whereas a history that is based on truth — one that embraces our diverse histories — allows us to have an honest discussion about how we can learn from this country’s past. It was only appropriate that I wore Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project fundraising t-shirt “I like my history black…hold the sugar” because it spoke to me. I like my history, in its truest state, with NO added sugar.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve debated for months now on how to handle this section of my blog because it is all bitterness that is based on truth. I have decided not to go into great detail as it may trigger people, but have included articles and books in my reference section for people to read more info on their own, if they choose to do so.
When we consider the legacy that slavery left that is still with us today, it should come as no surprise then that African-Americans suffer from historic trauma. Historic trauma is a term that refers to the collective emotional and psychological wounding of an individual or group of people caused by traumatic past experiences or events. As descendants of enslaved people, African-Americans suffered repeated personal traumas due to slavery for centuries. Some of those personal traumas included physical abuse, torture, slave killings via dismemberments, burnings, lynchings, mutilation, male and female rape, incest (slaveowner/sons and daughter), male and female forced slave breeding, family separations, etc. This country has done a very good job at minimizing and whitewashing it’s history when it comes to people of color. Why? Because the ugly truth hurts and the coffee is bitter beyond belief. Acknowledging and reconciling our shared historical truths is a necessary act that has the potential to heal this diabetic nation. Too much historical sugar is very bad for you.
This historical trauma is still with us and can be seen in Malagasy-descended African-Americans today. I think about my friend Michael Twitty, who just came out with his book, The Cooking Gene. In the book, he recounts how his 3rd great-grandparents, Jack and Arrye Todd, and their children were separated and sold South out of Shockoe Bottom via Lumpkin’s Jail, the Devil’s Half Acre, one of the worst slave jails in Richmond. Arrye was of Malagasy descent and the Todd family — whom I descend from on my Carter side — mostly likely acquired Malagasy enslaved people as the Todds owned plantations in Gloucester County, which is near the York River, and were in-laws to my Carter ancestors. That Michael carries intimate knowledge of his ancestor’s forced separation because he is a family historian with VA roots, shows exactly how some of us still carry the burden of our ancestor’s lived experiences with us every day. That Michael’s middle name “William” is a tribute to his 3rd great-grandfather’s younger brother who was sold South is another testament to the ties that bind us to our ancestors. I attended one of Michael’s talks where he was asked if he ever considered changing his name to an African one since he now knew one of his West African lineage names. His response was that, although he didn’t really like his first or last name, his middle name “William” was handed down for generations to family members as a way of remembering one who was lost to slavery. This is a perfect example of how our oral history reflects a proven historical truth. In case you are wondering, I proudly claim Michael as a distant Todd cousin.
Another person I claim as a cousin on my Lee/Carter/Mitchell side is my friend Sam Lemon. He wrote a book, Go Stand Upon This Rock, a novel about his 2nd great-grandparents who escaped from Virginia, at different times, as runaway slaves. His book is based on the oral history that was handed down to him. Sam’s family history is one of victorius survival. I call it that because it is filled with enough bitter coffee that you can drown in it. Yet, his 2nd great-grandparents were able to survive slavery — if you can even call it that— and go on to produce descendants who excelled beyond anything they could have imagined. We must remember that, as descendants of enslaved people, we ARE our ancestors’ hopes and dreams….or at least we should be.
Sam’s Malagasy ancestors were from the Tidewater region of Virginia, including Hanover, Sussex, Surry, and Southampton counties. Some of these counties are close to Dinwiddie County where my Lee/Carter/Mitchell ancestors were located. Among his many surnames, two are definitely associated with Malagasy ancestry. They are Byrd (in-laws to my Carter ancestors) and Parham (who married into my Mitchell line). He is also genetically related to Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings descendants as I am, but via a Bowles ancestor. Critta Hemings married Zachariah Bowles. Sam’s paternal grandmother was Annie Byrd Mickens, whose mother was Ella Bowles (1854-1936) from Hanover County, VA and she lived in the same location as Zaxhariah in 1820. In addition, Sam also has admixture indicators of Malagasy ancestry. I feel pretty confident that one or both of his 2nd great-grandparents had Malagasy ancestry.
Below is a Facebook correspondence I had with Sam about his 2nd great-grandmother, Martha Jane Parham. Tears, tears….
Martha Jane Parham was ”a slave breeding” woman. That description of her is way too sugary sweet for me. She was an enslaved, repeated rape/gang rape victim for a decade between the ages of 14-24 years old. Her lived experience was a crime against humanity. It is no wonder she never spoke about it for speaking about it would have certainly caused her to relive such horrific experiences over and over again. I completely understand that. Her experience was a traumatic one that occurred in her formative years. Her silence was an act of self-preservation — a necessary act of erasure in itself. For her, it was better to concentrate on the future. Martha Jane was probably like other formerly enslaved people whose experiences during slavery were so hellish beyond belief that they made a conscious decision to try to forget the past. As slave descendants this means that we have two levels of historic erasure to deal,with when researching our ancestors. On a macro-level, we have to deal with the historical erasure that this country has in general about slavery as well as, on a micro-level, the historical erasure that formerly enslaved ancestors employed to save and preserve their very souls. We can call this survival skill simply “soul preservation” which is similar to Daina Ramey Berry’s emphasis on the “soul value” that enslaved people placed on their own lives.
Martha Jane Parham married Cornelius Ridley in Virginia. Cornelius was the mulatto son of his slave owner, Col. Thomas Ridley, III (1809-1875) and an unknown enslaved woman. Thomas Ridley, III was one of the wealthiest men in Southampton, VA and owned Bonnie Doon Plantation (also known as “Jerusalem”). The Ridleys also owned the Buckhorn Quarters. [As an aside, I was able to recently tell Sam that, on Thomas Ridley, III ‘s maternal Wright side, he is related to George Washington.] Cornelius and his sister Rosa were raised in Thomas’s household and were house slaves as so many children of slave owners were.
According to Sam, Cornelius met Martha Jane, who was enslaved at the neighboring Fortsville Plantation and was owned by John Y. Mason. Cornelius married her knowing that her primary job was to be forced mated with other enslaved men to produce children that would add to her slave master’s cumulative wealth and those children could be sold away at anytime. I can only imagine how much pain that brought him just knowing what Martha Jane had to endure. In the early 1860s, because he could pass for white with his very fair skin, red hair and green eyes, he walked away and ended up with Quakers who shepherded to freedom in Media, PA. Martha Jane, with the help of the United States Colored Troops and Quakers as well, was reunited with him after she escaped from Virginia during the Civil War. However, Rosa’s fate was very different. More tears..
In looking into Cornelius’s family history, we learn that he had an older sister who was approximately 11-13 years older than him. He called her Rosa, but census records document her name as Mary Ridley. It is quite possible that her name was Mary Rose/Rosa Ridley. The oral history that was passed down to Sam and his family was that she was sold South never to be heard from again. A slave manifest lists her age as being 18 years old, born around 1826, and her skin was the color of “copper.” When she was sold, Cornelius would have been around the age of 12-13 years old. Surely, the loss of his older sister was seared in his memory at that age. Rosa may have been the closest person he had to a mother. Just looking at Mary Rose/Rosa’s full name among a list of other enslaved Virginians should break your heart. These were people who were separared from their own flesh and blood probably forever. They would now be known by their first name only —their prior identities submerged.
Cornelius’s Rosa was sold to George Apperson, a Richmond slave trader who also owned a slave jail across the street from Lumpkin’s jail. Apperson sent 308 people South to New Orleans between 1844-1847. His New Orleans slave trading partner was none other than Solomon Northrop’s slave trader/owner, Theophilus Freeman, who was considered one of the most violent slave traders. Starting in the 1840s, Apperson and Freedman sent VA enslaved people South by ship rather than overland chained together in coffles. Apperson advertised his trips in VA newspapers thus guaranteeing a scheduled time whereby those interested in buying enslaved people could plan their trips. These ships would sometimes make port calls in Charleston, the Lower Mississippi (Natchez), and finally New Orleans. Enslaved people would have been destined for the cotton fields of the Deep South or Lousiana sugar plantations.
Sam’s family never knew what happened to their Rosa after she was sold. Again, part of the generational historic trauma we suffer as descendants of enslaved people is not knowing what happened to the people we loved and lost due to slavery. If Rosa looked like Cornelius, she may have been sold South as “a fancy girl” which is to say sold to become a perpetual sex slave/rape victim. Fancy girls commanded very high prices. They were sold to the highest bidder to become sex slaves shared among slave traders themselves, forced into concubine arragements by sexual intimidation, or to become prostitutes in brothels. Many of these women appeared white in color which afforded those who bought them the right to live out sexual fantasies in ways that white women couldn’t because of cultural norms. There were cases when such “fancy girls” litigated their “whiteness” in court as a way to earn their freedom which I consider a form of resistance. It is a bit ironic that slave traders, who found people of African descent sub-human, would routinely engage in long-term relationships with “fancy girls,” have children with them, educate their children in the North, and emancipate them. A lot of those children later passed as white. Sam doesn’t know what happened to Rosa and it is this intergenerational grief that has kept him and his family in a state of mourning until today.
As a descendent of Crittie and her mother Ann, I pray for the day when I can learn more about them and the lives they lived. I only know what our oral history tells us. It’s only a very brief overview that was handed down in our family. I still want basic questions answered about them like did Crittie have siblings, did she have maternal grandparents, and where did Ann get her surname from, for example. Like many African-Americans, I live wiith the full knowledge that I have ancestors who will be forever unknown to me. Tears…But, I will always keep hope alive that someday, if I keep looking, I might just find something new about them. Hope is one thing I KNOW my ancestors had. You see, they hoped their descendants would do better than they did and we did.
As a descendant of slave owners whose lives were documented in prime time and whose words can be found in Carter Papers at various libraries and archives, I know more about them than I do about my own African-American Malagasy-descended VA ancestors. I struggle with acknowledging my slave owner roots simply because of the traumatic baggage this knowledge brings. I am the descendant of slave owners who became quite accomplished by benefiting from that evil institution called slavery. As part of the ruling planter class throughout the 17th-19th centuries, they were the architects of what the Virginia slave system came to be. It has taken me years to even put them on my family tree. Crittie knew who both her parents were. The oral history she passed down told us the story of how she came into being. She was a product of a slave rape. Because of that, I can’t drop the qualifier “slave owner” before naming my Carter-Lee ancestors. I’ve cried tears knowing that my 8th slave owner great-grandfather, Robert “King” Carter, took pleasure in mutilating, punishing his slaves, and stripping them of their original names; I was rendered silent when reading the words of my slave owner 8th great-uncle, Landon Carter, who portrayed himself as a “benevolent slave owner” while deeming his enslaved people —runaways — as ungrateful though he whipped, brutally punished, and sold their family members; and I was rendered utterly speechless when reading about how my slave owner 2nd cousin 7XR cousin, George Carter, who routinely purchased 13-15 year old virgins at slave auctions, wrote back to his sister Sophia that his business was between him and his God after she chastised him for his behavior.
Being the descendant of slave owners, like the Carters and the Lees, is mentally and emotionally burdensome. I have to remind myself often that they were products of their time and that slavery was just a fact of life for them. I have chosen to tell the truth though about how they accumulated their wealth off the backs of the enslaved, including my ancestors, and how they treated these people over time. I will continue to recognize those Carters and Lees who were on the right side of history. By the way, I have a distant cousin named Rev. Robert Lee whom I hear has been making waves down in Virginia. I hope to meet him one day. I am also more than willing to “Come to The Table” with any Carter/Lee descendant to have meaningful, productive conversations about our shared history. That is all that is required of me, as a descendant of Crittie and Ann, and that is all I am willing to do.
African-American Malagasy-Descended Slave Resistance: The Struggle to be Free
Though African-Americans of Malagasy-descent were enslaved, they did resist oppression in a number of ways in colonial Virginia. Despite having different levels of success or plain failures, these enslaved people engaged in acts of resistance and played an active role in trying to change the circumstances of their involuntary servitude. From escaping and ending up in maroon communities in The Great Dismal Swamp(much to the chagrin of my Carter and Byrd ancestors who were investors in the Swamp), to engaging in acts of abortion, infanticide and suicide, to seeking freedom on foot by running away, to performing every day acts of resistance to their very real oppression, the descendants of these first Malagasy enslaved exercised their right to self-determination. I don’t know if any of my ancestors were part of Gabriel’s Rebellion or Nat Turner’s Rebellion. What I do know is that my cousin Sam Lemon’s 3rd great-grandfather, Col. Thomas Ridley, III was in the Southampton Militia and took part in the capture and prosecution of Nat Turner and his followers. Four of his slaves at his Buckhorn Quarters took part in the insurrection. Curtis and Stephen Ridley were executed. Matt Ridley provided the evidence that was used against them all and his life was spared though he was banished from VA. The fourth unidentified Ridley slave was killed in the course of being captured. Curtis Ridley was worth $400 and Stephen was worth $450 at the time of their execution by hanging. However, their collective “soul value” was incalcuable. Did these four individuals have Malagasy roots? We can’t say for sure, but they were in the same places as others who did have Malagasy roots so I will proudly claim them as our own. As I said in my Part II blog, I would like to think that some of my Malagasy-descended 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 for slavery was a hellish enough condition to be in that they chose to take a stand knowing full well the price they would pay if discovered. Respect!
Erased No More: The Historical Truth About Shockoe Bottom
When I first started doing the research for this blogpost, I had no knowledge of Shockoe Bottom. For years, I shied away from researching my Virginia ancestors because the research seemed so daunting and it is. I had no idea that Richmond was second to New Orleans as an epicenter of the domestic slave trade. Shockoe Bottom was the largest slave trading district on the East Coast. It was a concentrated area that was home to 40-50 auction houses, slaves jails and pens, banking and insurance industries, law firms, hotels, shipping and railroad lines offices, apparel stores for slave clothing, a cemetery, etc. An estimated 350,000 enslaved Virginians were sold out of Richmond forever separated from their loved ones via coffles, ships, and railroads. Many died there as well. Click here for a visual map of the district produced by the University of Richmond. This site was built over in 1816 and it’s past erased.
In 2008, during an archaeological excavation, Lumpkin’s Jail was found and just like that darkness came to light. Those of us who believe that there are places that are sacred understood immediately what a gift we had received and knew that we had to preserve this site for the future. However, the mayor of Richmond at the time, along with a public-private Richmond revitalization group, started to develop a plan that would turn Shockoe Bottom into a baseball field with a hotel and stores around it. The plan to re-bury such a sacred, historical, and culturally significant site for millions of people of African descent is as wrong as it is unconscionable. Moreover, it is an attempt to deny us a space to honor our ancestors in a respectful way at a time when the city of Richmond continues to embrace it’s Confederate history. This historical erasure and denial must stop. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed Shockoe Bottom as an endangered sitebecause of this.
Reber Dunkel, having read about my battle to preserve our extended family’s burial ground in Greenwich,CT, introduced me to Ana Edwards. She is indeed a kindred spirit who matches my passion for preserving sacred historical sites. I can’t add anything else to what she has already stated about the significance of Shockoe Bottom so I am going to end with her written words. Please click here to read her statement on the significance of Shockoe Bottomto African-Americans in particular, but to all Americans in general. I support her and the excellent work she is doing in Richmond.
I would also encourage others to start writing about their family histories so that we do not contribute to our own ancestors’ historical erasure. There is power in our pens which is why I chose to have blog pages devoted to my African-American, Latino, Caribbean and Cape Verdean fellow bloggers. I want to share and celebrate their ancestor discoveries with them. Remember that the act of writing itself was a form of resistance that some of our ancestors were punished for in their lifetimes. Let us elevate the memories of our ancestors as we write them back into historical record.
In conclusion, when I took my place at the podium at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville for my “Cemeteries, Slavery & History” talk, the first thing I said was that, after spending a year alone telling the story of the desecration of our extended family’s Byram Cemetery/Byram African-American Cemetery all over NY, NJ, and CT, I was happy to be among kindred spirits. I can’t thank Joseph McGill enough for inviting me to speak there in the first place. Although the topics that were discussed were not for people who want to consume vast amounts of historic sugar, it was the best place for me to be at this time. To be among so many black history truth tellers was a great experience. I especially want to salute all the people below for making my trip a memorable one.
McDonald, Kevin P. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. CA: University of California Press. 2015.
Platt, Virginia Bever. “The East India Company and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 26:4 (October 1969), pp. 548-577.
Wilson-Fall, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. OH: University of Ohio Press. 2015.
Colonial Virginia Slave Trade:
Berlin, Ira. “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 53:2 (April 1996), pp. 251-288.
Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1998.
Kulikoff, Allan. “The Origins of Afro-American Society in Tidewater Maryland and Virginia, 1700 to 1790.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol 35:2 (April 1978), pp. 226-259.
Lafoon, Florence. “Slave Life in Virginia Between 1736-1776 as Shown in the Advertisements of the Virginia Gazettes.” Honors Theses. University of Richmond: UR Scholarship Repository. 1940.
Morgan, Philip D. and Michael L. Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 46:2 (April 1989), pp. 211-251.
Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 2003.
Stanwood, Owen. “Captives and Slaves: Indian Labor, Cultural Conversion and the Plantation in Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 114: 5(2006), pp.434-463.
Tilson, Albert H. “Friendship and Commerce: The Conflict and Coexistence of Values on Virginia’s Northern Neck in the Revolutionary Era.” .” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 11:3 (2003), pp. 221-262.
Virginia Historical Society. “Slave Owners Spotsylvania County, 1783. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 4:3 (January 1897), pp. 292-299.
Walsh, Lorena S. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Colonial Chesapeake Slavery.” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 17:3 (April 2003), pp. 11-15.
Wax, Darold W. “Preferences for Slaves in Colonial America.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 58:4 (October 1973), pp. 371-401.
Carter/Lee Family Documentation:
“Carter Papers.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 5:4 (April 1898), pp. 408-428.
Epperson, Terrence W. “Race and Discipline of the Plantation.” Historical Archaeology, Vol. 24:4 , Historical Archaeology on Southern Plantations and Farms 91990), pp. 29-36.
Isaac, Rhys. Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion On a Virginia plantation. NY: Oxford University Press. 2004.
“Lee Family of York County,” Virginia. The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 24:1 (July1915), pp. 46-54.
Levy, Andrew: The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. NY: Random House. 2005.
Mapp, Alf, Jr. “ABright Thread of Virginia History: Notes on the Corotoman River.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 52:2 (April 1944), pp. 104-114.
Morton, Louis. “Robert Wormeley Carter of Sabine Hall: Notes on the Life of a Virginia planter.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 12:3 (August 1946), pp. 345-365.
Quisenberry, A. C. . “The First Pioneer Families of Virginia.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Vol.11:32 (May 19113), pp. 55-77.
Wyrick, Connie H. “Stratford and Lees.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 30:1 (March 1971), pp. 71-90.
Domestic Slave Trade:
Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Bee Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. PA: Perseus Books. 2014.
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South with New Introduction by Michael Tadman.SC: University of SC Press. 1996.
Deyle, Steven. Cary Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. NY: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Gudmestad, Robert H. “The Troubled Legacy of Isaac Franklin: The Enterprise of Salve Trading.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 62:3 (Fall 2003), pp. 193-217.
Johnson, Walter, Ed. The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trade in the Americas. CT: Yale University Press. 2004.
Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. MA: Harvard University Press. 1999.
Mann, AlisonT. “”Horrible Barbarity”: The 1837 Murder Trial of Dorcas Allen a Georgetown Slave.” Washington History , Vol 27:1 (Spring 2015), pp. 3-14.
Martin, Bonnie. “Slavery’s Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol 76:4 (November 2010), pp. 817-866.
McInnis, Maurie. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and The American Slave Trade. IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2011.
Schermerhorn, Calvin. The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860.CT: Yale University Press. 2015.
Sublette, Ned and Constance. The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. IL: Lawrence Hill Books. 2016
Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. WI: University of Wisconsin Press.1996.
Trammel, Jack. The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. SC: The History Press. 2012.
Abercrombie, Janice. Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia. GA: Iberian Publishing Company. 1994.
Araujo, Ana Lucia. Reparations For Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History. NY: Bloomsbury Academic. 2017.
Araujo, Ana, ed. et. al. Crossing Memories: Slavery nd African Diaspora. NJ Africa World Press. 2011.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. MA: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press. 1998.
DeWulf, Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves. MS: University of Mississippi, 2017.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery & Freedom, 1750-1925. NY: Pantheon Press. 1976.
Hunter, Tera A. Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in Nineteenth Century.MA: The Beknap Press of Harvard University press. 2017.
Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century in Chesapeake & Lowcountry. NC: The University of NOrth Carolina Press. 1998
Ramey Berry, Daina. The Price For Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. MA: Beacon Press. 2017.
Resendez, Andres. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.
Sandefur, Timothy. “Why the Rule Against Perpetuities Mattered in Pleasants V Pleasants.” Real Property and Trust Journal, Vol. 40:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 667-677.
Schwartz, Philip. “Emancipators, Protectors, and Anomalies: Free Black Slaveowners in Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 95:3 (July 1987), pp. 317-338.
Williams, Heather Andrea. Help Me to Find My people: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 2012.
Slave Narratives/Slave Sexual Abuse/Interracial Gender Dynamics:
Baptist, Edward E. “Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One -Eyed Men”: Rape , Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 106:5 (December 2001), pp. 1619-1650.
Bardaglio, Peter W. “Shameful Matches”: The Regulation of Interracial Sex and Marriage in the South Before 1900″. In Martha Hodes, ed. Sex, Love Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. NY: New York University Press. 1999.
Blight, David W. A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2007.
Block, Sharon. “Lines of Color, Sex, and Service: Comparative Sexual Coercion in Early America.” In Martha Hodes, ed. Sex, Love Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. NY: New York University Press. 1999.
Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1996.
Derbes, Brett Josef. “Secret Horrors: Enslaved Women and Children in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 1833-1862.” The Journal of African American History, Vol 98:2, Special Issue: “African Americans, Police Brutality, and the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Historical Perspectives” (Spring 2013), pp. 277-290.
Foster, Thomas A. “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery.” Intersections of Race and Sexuality, Vol. 20:3 (September 2011), pp. 445-464.
Gross, Ariela. “Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South.” The Yale Journal, Vol. 108:1 (October 1998), pp. 10-188.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Seduction and the Ruse of Power.” Callaloo, Vol 19:2 , Emerging Women Writers: Special Issue, (Spring 1996), pp. 537-530.
King, Wilma. “Prematurely Knowing of Evil Things”: The Sexual Abuse of African American Girls and Yong Women in Slavery and Freedom.” Journal of African American History, Vol. 99:3 (Summer 2014), pp. 173-196.
Perdue, Charles L., ed. et al. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. VA: University of Virginia. 1976.
Stevenson, Brenda E. “What’s Love Got To Do With It: Concubine and Enslaved Women and Girls in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 98:1 (Winter 2013), pp. 99-125.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 1999.
Allmendinger, David F. Nat Turner and The Rising in Southampton County. MD: John Hopkins University Press. 2014.
Camp, Stephanie M. “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the plantation South, 1830-1861.” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 68:3 (August 2002), pp. 533-572.
Diouf, Slyviane. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. NY: New York University Press. 2014.
Johnson, Walter. “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and The politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 87:1 (June 2000), pp. 13-38.
Lee, Deborah A and Warren Hofstra. “Race Memory, and the Death of Robert Berkeley: “A Murder…of…Horrible and Savage Barbarity.” The journal of Southern History, Vol. 65:1 (February 1999), pp. 41-76.
Perrin, Liese M. “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South.” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 35:2, Part 2: Warring America: Encounters of Gender and Race (August 2001), pp. 255-274.
Sayers, Daniel et.al. “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11:1 (March 2007), pp. 60-97.
Schiebinger, Londa. “Feminist History of Colonial Science.” Feminist Science Studies, Vol. 19:1 (Winter 2004), pp. 233-254.
Snyder, Terri L. “Suicide Slavery, and Memory in North America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 97: 1 (June 2010), pp. 39-62.
Black Cemeteries/Archaeological Artifacts:
Rainville, Lynn. Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia. VA: University of Virginia. 2014.
Valch, John Michael. “Afro-American Domestic Artifacts in Eighteenth Century Virginia. Material culture, Vol. 19:1 (Spring 1987), pp. 3-23.
I dedicate this blog to my grandmother, Mildred Fischer Greene, as she was always the proud older sister of my Uncle Jimmie. She never stopped wanting to tell his story. I want to thank my aunt, Helen Singh, for sending me the documents she inherited from my grandmother. James H. Fischer, was, and shall always be, our Golden Aviator.
“On freedom’s wings bound for glory these intrepid men roamed the skies in defense of liberty for all men. Before the Air Force shattered the sound barrier, the Tuskegee Airmen shattered the race barrier. Their deeds will be forever etched in the annals of those who sought freedom and justice.”
—-The Original Tuskegee Airmen (1941-1949)
I was going to blog about the history of The Tuskegee Airmen and tell you all about them, but I have chosen not to do so at this time. Their service to this country is legendary. There are books, movies, and anyone can google the name “Tuskegee Airmen” and learn about the battles they fought on two fronts — racism here at home and Nazism abroad. No, this blogpost is solely about my Uncle Jimmie, a scrappy kid from Stoughton, MA who wanted to fly planes as long as he could remember. It’s about a young man who became a most unlikely hero who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s about a man who had a dream deferred, that then exploded, and shattered to the ground. Finally, it’s about my Uncle Jimmie’s dream, once shartered into pieces, rose up like seeds that had been planted, and allowed others to become the pilot he always wanted to be. It is because of men like him that others were able to suceed. This is my Uncle Jimmie’s story and I am blessed to be able to tell it.
Prelude to Tuskegee: Hometown Roots in Stoughton, MA
My Uncle Jimmie was born on March 11, 1924 in Stoughton, MA. He was the son of Helen Mitchell Fischer and Robert H. Fischer. He was born on the farm that my 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell, owned. James had been born in Petersburg, VA to two mixed race parents and moved to Boston where he owned a fish store. His wife, Julia Lennihan Mitchellwas a first generation Irish-American born in Boston whom he married in the mid-1890s. After Julia died of tuberculosis in 1905, James moved his family to Stoughton which is about 25 minutes south of Boston. It was a better place for them with plenty of fresh air and they wouldn’t have to deal with the racism that was prevalent in Boston at the time.
My great-grandmother, Nana Fischer as she was known, met Robert H. Fischer in NYC while visting her aunt, Laura Mitchell Wilson, around 1921. She brought Robert back home to live with her side of the family. Robert was said to have been the son of Cuban woman, who lived in Ponce, PR, and a man named Fischer who owned several stores in the Spanish speaking Caribbean. All we know about Robert, is that his mother died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter, and his Eastern European Jewish father brought him to NYC and left him in the care of another family. We don’t know much about Robert because he would later suffer a traumatic brain injury, as a result of a Stanely steam car engine explosion. One day he walked away from home in Stoughton, MA and never came back. Rumors swirled that he made it back to NYC, but I can’t find anything to confirm that though. He is one of my genealogy brick walls that I cant get pass yet. Maybe one day I will.
My Nana Fischer had to have her husband declared legally dead. She was a widow with three children to support — my Nana Millie, Uncle Jimmie, and her youngest son, my Uncle Sonny. Life was certainly not easy for her. She had to leave her children in the care of others and commuted to Boston to work each day. She did what she had to do in order to provide for her family. She was not the most nurturing type of woman because of the hand that she had been dealt in life, but I have nothing but the fondest of memories of summers spent with her sewing, gardening, and cooking for us. I will always remember my Nana Fischer as being stoic in the most New England of ways, resourceful, and brutally honest. She was known to tell it like it was and my Uncle Jimmie was just like her in that regard.
At the age of 4 years old, my Uncle Jimmie contracted tuberculosis and spent 4-5 years of his life living in a sanatorium until he recovered from it. According to my aunt, he had been taken to Florida on a visit and had contracted it there. By the time, he returned home, he was coughing. Tubercuosis is what caused the death of his maternal grandmother Julia. In the pre-antibiotic days, it was a killer. No one was immune. Because Julia had TB, her husband and children had been exposed and had to undergo repeated chest X-rays to see if they had active TB. In those days, people were sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium if they had an active case. This was a public health policy as there was no known cure for this illness.
Uncle Jimmie was sent to the Rutland State Sanatorium. Rutland was in Central Massachusetts and was quite a drive from Stoughton, MA. My Nana Fischer didn’t drive so she didn’t get to see her son that often the 4 years he was there. She would visit him on his birthday and when her sister Anna could drive her there. Though a postcard image makes it seem to be a picturesque place, my Uncle Jimmie, of course, did not have pleasant memories of being there. He didn’t like to eat macaroni and cheese for the rest of his life because that was what he had to eat there. He also never got over how he had to share his birthday cake with the other children at the sanatorium. One slice of cake was all he got for his birthday. I can imagine how much that cake meant to him and the brief time he had to spend with his mother. Rutland State Sanatorium, by the way, was the first public tuberculosis sanatorium in the country and was opened in 1898.
Uncle Jimmie was about 8 years old and in 3rd grade when he returned home. He was a survivor to be sure having conquered a disease that killed so many people. He was just an average boy who went to school, did his chores, and got into trouble on occasion. Even as a child, it was said he was fiercely independent, had a short fuse, and loved playing with model airplanes.
Uncle Jimmie took a serious interest in planes around the age of 12 and 13 years old. By the time he was 16 years old, he was spending weekends at the Brockton Airport performing odd jobs so that he could secure a ride on plane and learn to fly. He would find a way to get to get to the airport by bumming rides or hitchiking. In one interview, Uncle Jimmie said that he would be at the Brockton Airport every chance he could get. Working all weekend earned him a 15-minute ride in a plane. Brockton was the next town over from Stoughton and is where I was born. I never knew there was an airport in Brockton located on the Southside of Brockton near the West Bridgewater line. The Brockton Airport was routinely advertised in all the Boson newspapers in the 1920s and 1940s. According to my Uncle Jimmie, the airport closed with the advent of World War II and later re-opened afterwards.
Answering Uncle Sam’s Call
Uncle Jimmie graduated Stoughton High School in June of 1942 and World War II had already begun the December before. He volunteered to join the Army Air Corp after he graduated. He took a physical and went through all the Army Air Corp tests. He was then told that there were only a few spots for Blacks in the Air Force and that they would pass his name on to Washington. He was told to go home, with a 6-month deferment, and wait to be called. He never got the call. One day he was strolling through the town and saw someone who was on the draft board. That person was surprised to see him still around so my Uncle Jimmie explained that he was waiting to hear back from Washington. Ten days later he was drafted into the Army. He sent the letter below to the Army Air Corp Headquarters in Washington, DC asking for further clarification.
His letter was to no avail. In an interview, Uncle Jimmie remembered that a colonel, a doctor, typed on his record “Qualified Aviation Cadet.” But, the other officers looked at it and stamped “Infantry” on it. Segregation was not going to make an exception for him. So, off he went to Biloxi, MS for basic training in the Army. Uncle Jimmie was lucky though, because 8 month later, he finally got into the Army Air Corp. He said that you had to have two years of college to get in, but, if you passed a test, they would send you to Tuskegee University in Alabama for a 6-month university and flight training program. Needless to say, he passed the test. It was always his dream to be a pilot.
Heading south to Alabama was not his first time being in the South though. Growing up in Stoughton, MA made him a little naive about segregation. He was only one of 4-5 black kids in his high school and was treated like all the rest. When he was 14 years old, he ran away for a couple of months and ended up in Georgia which was an eye-opener for him. He would tell the story of how he hopped on a train and rode to New Orleans and worked for a few weeks. He then hopped back on a train and ended up in Georgia. He found work at a salad pantry and was told to get some suet at the butcher’s shop nearby one day. The butcher, who was cleaning chickens, told him to cut the suet off of a side of beef which he did, but Uncle Jimmie ended up placing the suet too close to a pile of chicken intestines. This set the butcher off and he started to call my uncle names, including the N-word. Uncle Jimmie ended up whacking the butcher in the face with a bunch of chicken guts. In Stoughton, MA, calling someone the N-word led to fist fights, but, in the South, he said that the N-word was used way too often. Whacking a White man in the face could have also led to my Uncle’s death though. When he was told to run, he had sense enough to run and kept on running. He ended up having to call his mother and have her wire him the $15 for a bus ticket home.
On Becoming A Tuskegee Airman: The Making of a Legend
Uncle Jimmie ended up at Tuskegee in the Spring of 1943. He was in the second or third class (44-G) of Tuskegee Airmen trained there. The Tuskegee Airmen included, not only pilots like my Uncle Jimmie, but also bombardiers, navigators, ground crews, medical staff, cooks, ambulance staff, and administrative staff. Most of the other Tuskegee Airmen were like himself — 18 and 19 years old.
All the flight training Uncle Jimmie received was done at the Moton Field (Tuskegee Army Air Field) at Tuskegee. In addition, Uncle Jimmie and the others took college courses at Tuskegee University which was a couple of miles away. As a Certified Aviation Cadet, Uncle Jimmie had a leg up on some of the other pilots. He had been hustling around the Brockton Airport for a couple of years by then. He was able to pay $3.50 for 15 minutes of flight time when the going rate was $12 an hour for flight instruction. He also bought aviation books in his quest for knowledge. His whole Brockton Airport experience taught him how to fly. But, at Tuskegee, he learned how to be a fighter pilot. Make no mistake about it, the Tuskegee Airmen knew they were up against the twin evils of racism and Nazism and they knew that they had to prove their naysayers wrong. They were Black excellence at its best and became the stuff that legends are made of during World War II. Failure was not an option for them and neither was it for the scrappy kid from Stoughton.
I also remember my Nana Fischer telling me the story of how she could only afford to buy a third class train ticket in the Colored section of the train to visit Uncle Jimmie at Tuskegee. She would tell the story of how the White train conductors would automatically assume she was White and tell her that a mistake had been made on her ticket. They would upgrade her to a First Class ticket and make sure she was in the White section of the train. She would always laughed because she felt she she pulled a fast one on them which she did. While my Nana Fischer could have “passed” as White, she never did.
Uncle Jimmie was part of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first black military aviators in the history of the United States Armed Forces, and a member of the 301st Squadron. The 332nd Fighter Group was deployed to Italy in early 1944 and their job was to fly heavy bomber escort missions. Uncle Jimmie arrived in December of 1944 and remembered flying P-51 planes. By this time, the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew were named “Red Tails” as they painted the tails of their planes red and were easily identifiable because of that. I will never forget going to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and seeing one of those rinky dink planes. I called Uncle Jimmie from the exhibit and asked him if he really flew one of those planes. He just talked about how cutting edge they were at the time and I just stood there in disbelief. Just seeing a plane similar to the one he flew gave me a greater appreciation of just how important the Tuskegee Airmen were to this country during a time of need.
My Uncle Jimmie was awarded a Purple Heart, 3 Bronze Stars with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Distiguished Unit Badge for his service in World War II. He fought in the Battles of Rhineland (Germany), North Appennines (Italy) and Po Valley (Italy). He became well-known for having been shot down over Yugoslavia, an event that earned him a Purple Heart. In John B. Holway’s book, Red Tails Black Wings:The Men of America’s Black Air Force, Uncle Jimmie recounted his experience:
The son of a single mom, a tuberculosis survivor, and a teenage runaway, who managed to graduate from high school, my Uncle Jimmie had the deck stacked against him, but he was determined to live his dream of becoming a pilot—– fighting for a country that still saw him, and his people, as unequal before the law. Uncle Jimmie would tell stories of how Axis Sallywould taunt the Tuskegee Airmen. He said he would laugh at the things she would say because they were true in terms of the overt racism that existed back then. Even so, he acknowledged that this country was the only country known to Blacks who have fought for it from the beginning. With roots in Boston, Uncle Jimmie had no problem reminding people of the bravery of Crispus Attucks.
Uncle Jimmie was given a week off at a R &R camp in Naples after his plane went down over Yugoslavia in April of 1945. World War II ended a month later. He spent the Summer of 1945 attending the University of Florence. Uncle Jimmie returned home in October of that year thinking he would stay in Air Force. He went back to Tuskegee and then to Lockbourne Air Force in Columbus, OH working various military jobs. In the Fall of 1946, he left the Air Force for good hoping to get a job as a commercial airline pilot.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which led to the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were no doubt one of the reasons that this order was issued.
Becoming Bitter: What Happens To A Dream Deferred?
My Uncle Jimmie came home and started applying for jobs at the major airlines at the time. Everything would be fine until he showed up for an interview. Then, he would be politely told that there were no jobs. Uncle Jimmie always said that getting into civilian aviation was harder than getting into the military because of racism. It would be in the 1970s before there would be Black pilots flying for the major airlines. The only pilot jobs he was able to get was a job as an instructor at the Brockton Airport, a pilot who towed advertising banners for a chain of drive-in theaters in Brockton, and as a crop duster flying pesticides over New England from Maine to Massachusetts. He was employed as a pilot for 3-4 years. And then his dream died a slow festering death before exploding into a sea of bitterness.
Uncle Jimmie left Massachusetts in the mid-1960s and went to California where his younger brother Sonny and his aunt Belle lived. He took on a variety of jobs to eek out a living without any government help. There is nothing spectacular to tell here about his life. His bitterness at not being able to be an airline pilot lingered for almost as long as he lived. He tended to look upon his WW II experience as somethimg that he did. But, at the same time, he would say that The Tuskegee Airmen were “just niggers who flew planes.”Those were HIS words and I will not sanitize what he said or how he felt. Now, he didn’t actually believe that because he knew what they had done and how important they were to this country. This statement was his way of describing how The Tuskegee Airmen were treated when they came home to this country meaning that they were good at being pilots only when the United Stares needed them otherwise they were just “n*****s,” a derogatory term that was, and unfortunately still is, commonly used to refer to Black people. He would often tell a story about how some Tuskegee Airmen were denied entrace to an American restaurant, but White servicemen allowed some captured Nazis to accompany them to the restaurant. It was not lost on him that, if he had been a White man with the military record that he had, he would have definitely been able to get a job working for a commercial airline.
We always heard about Uncle Jimmie from both Nana Millie and Nana Fischer. I remember meeting him for the first time in in 1981 at a family reunion. When my great-grandmother died in 1986, he came back East for her funeral. We had grown up knowing her youngest brother, my Uncle Sonny, because he brought his family back home often enough that we knew his daughters— two who were around my age. It was months after Nana Fischer died that Uncle Jimmie came home for good to help my grandmother settle her estate. By that time, he realized that he needed to be around family especially after he had a stroke in 1983 that left him with seizures. I always felt that my Nana Fischer sent him to us to ease the pain of her passing. We were also happy to have him back home with us.
For my siblings and cousins, Uncle Jimmie was a stark contrast to our grandmother. Whereas my Nana Millie was cautious with everything she said and was very proper, he was the exact opposite. He was very cantakerous. I usually refer to him as being a Black Archie Bunker in terms of his character. He spoke his mind and didn’t care how you felt. He was also that loving uncle who would give us lottery tickets at Christmas time, would celebrate his shared birthday with my cousin Mandi each year, would tell us the stories of his youth, and would send me subscriptions to The Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. As a life-long bachelor with no kids, his nieces and great-nieces and nephews were surrogate children to him.
Once An Older Sister, Always An Older Sister
My Nana Millie was my Uncle Jimmie’s biggest and loudest cheerleader. She always looked after him. When he came back to Brockton in 1986, she made sure he got what was due to him from the Veteras Administration. She was also able to get him into a senior citizens apartment complex a few streets over from her house. She would take him shopping, take him to his,doctor appointmemts, and would cook for him on occasion. As the years went on, Uncle Jimmie came to rely on her memory of Word War II and her recounting all of his escapades because the stroke he had affected his memory. My Nana Millie loved telling his story and always added how she and others felt about the Tuskegee Airmen. She would also add her memories of the war as my Grandad also served in the Army in France. I am so lucky to have two transcripts of interviews they did together for a couple of books on the Tuskegee Airmen as well as for the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. When I read the transcripts, I can visually see them talking to each other the way they always did.
When HBO premiered The Tuskegee Airmen movie in 1995, Nana Millie, Uncle Jimmie, and other relatives watched it. Though a fictionalized account, the movie brought The Tuskegee Airmen story to a much larger audience. Uncle Jimmie had no idea just how inspiring the Tuskegee Airmen were to many people until the movie came out. Caught up in his own bitterness, he didn’t know, or certainly didn’t realize, that the seeds he and the other Tuskegee Airmen planted took root and grew into a field of new dreams for others. Even if Uncle Jimmie didn’t become the pilot he wanted to be because of racism, he and the other Tuskegee Airmen were heroes to the generations that came after them who had full knowledge of the battles they went up against and how they still suceeded despite the odds.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by my elders growing up. I was that fly on the wall who listened to their stories over and over again so that they became etched into my memory. I heard Uncle Jimmie’s story enough times from enough relatives that his story became OUR family story. We were proud that he was a famed Tuskegee Airmen. I also remember the pain, anger, sadness, and bitterness he felt at being denied the future he so wanted for himself. I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to have society dictate how far you could go in life and to have dreams that went unrealized because of the color of your skin and not because you didn’t dream big enough or bold enough. But, just because you were born Black in America. As a child born after the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, it was our generation that was the first generation that our elders placed their hope in for a better future that was unencumbered by the constraints of racism as they knew it. I’ve always been cognizant of the price my ancestors paid for me to live the life that I live today. They sacrificed so many dreams of their own hoping that their descendants would be able realize theirs. I have always felt that I couldn’t let them down because they were counting on me to do better than they had in life.
In March of 2007, I called my Nana Millie as I routinely did a few times a week. I was raised by my grandmother and had her around longer than I did my own mother who died at the age of 47. She was a second mother to me and we were very close. She didn’t sound like herself when she answered the phone that day so I asked her what was wrong. She said that Uncle Jimmie had received an invitation from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) inviting him to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony in Washington, DC because The Tuskegee Airmen were being awarded the Gold Medal. She had told him about it and he said he wasn’t going. His bitterness still festering even after all these years. I immediately told her not to worry and that I was going to call him. He was going to go no matter what because this honor wasn’t about just Uncle Jimmie now. It was about bringing honor to our family by celebrating Uncle Jimmie’s wartime record and the legacy of the each and every one of the Tuskegee Airmen. It was about correcting an historical wrong and making it right—- even if it did come sixty years after the fact. Uncle Jimmie NOT going to this event was never an option. My Nana Millie wished me good luck in trying to get him to go. I told her that I would call her back after I spoke to him.
So, I called Uncle Jimmie. The conversation went like this:
Me: Uncle Jimmie, what’s this about you not wanting to go to DC?
Him: We were just niggers who flew planes. That’s all we were before and after.
Me: Uncle Jimmie, I hate to tell you this, but this is not about you anymore. It’s about family honor. You’re going.
Him: I don’t have any money to go.
Me: Everything is being taken care of so you don’t have to worry. This is a family affair.
Him: I have epilepsy [He didnt actually have epilepsy, but had seuzures from the stroke he had.] and I can’t go alone.
Me: I am coming to get you so you don’t have to worry.
Him: I don’t have anything to wear.
Me: I think Nana and Auntie said they were going to buy a new suit.
Him: OK, I guess I can’t get out of this.
Me: No, you can’t. It’s about family honor and you finally getting your due! Now, I have to call Nana back and tell her your going.
Needless to say, when I called Nana Millie back, she made a joyful noise unto the Lord. That proud sister felt prouder than she ever had in the past. If anyone, other than Uncle Jimmie, had waited for this day, it was her and I am glad they both lived to see this blessed day come to fruition in their lifetimes.
Washington, DC Bound: On Our Way to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony
I flew up to Boston on March 28,2007 to pick up Uncle Jimmie and take him to Washington, DC. He hadn’t been on a plane in decades and the post-9/11 changes to airline procedures took him by surprise. When asked to remove his shoes, he had more than a few choice words for people to hear. I remember passing the restrooms and asking if he had to use them and he near cussed me out. Ten minutes later, he said, “Doll baby, where is that bathroom again?” I knew then and there that it was going to be an interesting trip. My grandmother had warned me in advance how he was and she was right.
When we arrived at the gate, I went up to a crew member and asked if the pilot would make a special announcement that my uncle was a famed Tuskegee Airman who was flying to DC to be part of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony. I wanted my uncle to feel anything other than a “N-word who flew a plane.” To my surprise, no sooner than I had said “Tuskegee,” she had upgraded our seats to First Class. When I told Uncle Jimmie that we were flying First Class, he was happy. The look on his face when we made our descent into DC and the pilot mentioned that there was a very distinguished passenger on board named James H. Fischer, who was a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and that he was heading to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony, was priceless. Believe me, he felt special when everyone on the plane broke out in applause just for him.
We arrived at the hotel that day and immediately were surrounded by other Tuskegee Airmen. Some instantly remembered my Uncle Jimmie. Lt. Col Harry Stewart made a beeline for Uncle Jimmie who remembered him. For the most part, Uncle Jimmie remembered some, but not all of the Tuskegee Airmen who came up to greet him because of his stroke. Another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered was Lt. Col. Leo Gray, the other Tuskegee Airman originally from Boston. When they both saw each other, they gave each other a big hug and stood there beaming. Robert Lawrence was another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered as well. Though Uncle Jimmie couldnt remember all of them, they certainly remembered him. I enjoyed watching him converse with his old friends. I could see it meant a lot to all of them that they were reunited one last time for this event. Uncle Jimmie for the most part was really enjoying himself just taking everything in minute by minute.
On the morning of March 29,2007, the day we had come to DC for had arrived. We started off going to a breakfast held in honor of The Tuskegee Airmen. At the breakfast, we watched a presentation about the history of The Tuskegee Airmen. It brought a lot of memories back to Uncle Jimmie and all the other Airmen. It was as if they were reliving their heyday. It was a great presentation with photos and interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, which featured Lt. Col Lee Archer and Captain Luther H. Smith. Captain Smith reminded me of Uncle Jimmie as he wanted to be a pilot in his teens.
We arrived at United Stares Capitol Rotunda for the 1 pm ceremony early. Uncle Jimmie and I were separated as they wanted all the Tuskegee Airmen to sit together. I tried to get a wheelchair for Uncle Jimmie, but he proudly refused one. I wasn’t going to argue with him, but I knew he probaby should have used one as he would be on his feet for a long time waiting to be seated. Sure enough, I saw him walk in holding onto the back of seats for balance. He later complained how his feet hurt. I could only sigh at that point.
The best part of the ceremony for me was when then President George W. Bush stood up and said, “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities of the past. The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you changed our nation for the better,” the president said. “On behalf of the office I hold, and the country that honors you, I salute you for your service to the United States of America.” Almost immediately, hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen jumped up and saluted him back. They had waited a long time for this day to come.
After the actual ceremony, we went to the Library of Congress for the reception. We were able to see more of Uncle Jimmie’s old friends again. We met Lt. Col. George Hardy and Dr. Roscoe Brown. The press was out in full force because this was definitely an historic event. I could tell, by that time, that Uncle Jimmie was completely overwhelmed by everything.
After a long day, we returned to our hotel and the next morning headed for the airport. Once again, we were upgraded to First Class. This time, however, the pilot of the plane let us board before everyone in First Class. He came to our seats and explained that he was the ex-squandron leader of one of formerly all-Black desegregated Tuskegee Fighter Groups and considered himself to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen history. He told Uncle Jimmie how proud he was of him and all the others. He also asked to take a photo with Uncle Jimmie holding his Bronze Medal. Uncle Jimmie obliged him, of course, and would only say,”Wow.” Like on the flight to DC, when we made our descent to Logan Airport, the pilot came on and gave Uncle Jimmie an awesome shoutout and told everyone about how special he felt about having Uncle Jimmie onboard his plane.
When we finally arrived home, I asked him what he thought of the ceremony. Never a man of many words, he said, “It was excellent,” as he held up his Bronze Medal of Honor. “It was one of those things, you know, it was about time. I’ll put it that way.”And I said to him, “You were always a hero and now everyone knows.”
I can definitely say that Uncle Jimmie never mentioned the N-word in reference to The Tuskegee Airmen after March 29,2007. Mission accomplished! I am so glad that I could accompany him to Washington, DC because it was an honor for me to witness history in the making.
While my great-uncle James Henry Fischer unltimately got his pension and due accolades at the end of his lifetime, I have to say that my heart still hurts for my 3rd great-uncle, James Henry Green, a 2nd Lieutenant who fought for the 29th Infantry from Connecticut during the Civil War. My other Uncle Jimmie applied for a government pension thirty years after his military service ended only to die in an unmarked grave somewhere in NYC before he received it. When I think of the Uncle Jimmie that I knew, I will always remember my other older Uncle Jimmie as well. God bless them both for their service to this country and may God bless each and every other veteran of color who fought and died for a country that did not honor them the way that it should have.
Arriving Home A Hero 60 Years Later
Four days after we arrived home from Washington, DC, Uncle Jimmie was featured on the front page of our hometown newspaper, The Enterprise. He had been interviewed the day before and held up his Bronze Medal of Honor proudly. In the last three years of his life, he would go on to reap more awards and acknowledgements for his WW II service this country. A salute long overdue indeed.
Our Last Goodbye: Honoring Our Golden Aviator
Uncle Jimmie passed away on May 26,2010 in Brockton, MA. He was buried with full Military Honors on June 4th, 2010 and is interned, with our other ancestors, in Maplewood Cemetery in Stoughton, MA. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral because of an illness, but I made sure my sister Lisa read a note for me at his funeral. I also sent a floral display to the funeral home for him. His funeral was a fitting end to a life lived.
In closing, to the man I refer to as my Golden Aviator, you earned your wings on earth and now you can fly forever in Heaven. Say hello to all my ancestor angels and let them know that I think of them often. Fly on, fly on, fly on.. .
This blogpost is dedicated to both my Lyon-Green-Merritt African-American ancestors who left the Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich to settle the neighborhood of Hangroot. It is also dedicated to all those African-Americans who made Hangroot their home for 100 years. I pray that this blogpost leads their descendants to discover their proud Black Greenwich roots. Lastly, I dedicate this blog to all my extended Lyon-Green-Merritt family who are following me on my journey to uncover the truth about all of our Greenwich family history.
I would like to thank the following people:
The following Greenwich historians and archivists who have helped me locate documents relevant to Hangroot. All of them have been more than generous with their time and no doubt share the same passion for Greenwich history as me: Anne Young, Christopher Shields, Nola Taylor, and Carl White.
Jeffrey Bingham Mead, as always, has been a great resource for me. I am grateful for his pioneer research on African-Americans in Greenwich, CT. I hope that I am telling the true stories he wanted to finally read about over the years.
I am particulary indebted to my 5th 2XR cousin and fellow family historian, Dennis Richmond, Jr. He gifted me with a photograph that shows Hangroot through the eyes of our ancestors. The photo below, which features, John Sherman Merritt, Dennis’s 2nd great-grandfather and my 3rd cousin 2XR as a young boy, is the visual sum of all our combined family history research on Hangroot. Much love and respect to him. I am looking forward to writing a blogpost where we discuss our five year relationship that ultimately brought us together today. I know, without a doubt, that our ancestors are now finally smiling down on us knowing that there is power in numbers. I can’t wait to read the stories he will be writing soon.
Finally a message to Cheryl Henson, Heather Henson and John Nelson: Going forth, I hope the image below contributes to the joy that you’ve always felt in the house that Allen Green built. How awesome it would be if my research on Hangroot leads to state and federal recognition of 30 Round Hill Road as an Underground Railroad site. I pray this will be true one day.
Defining Hangroot: A Colored Settlement
Hangroot is a geographically defined area in Greenwich, CT where formerly enslaved African-Americans sought to build a community of their own in the early 1800s.
The above 1887 Driving Road Chart indicates a “Colored Settlement” that shows the area that came to be known as the Hangroot of our ancestors. Hangroot, as a neighborhood, can be traced back to 1730 when the Town of Greenwich approved a bridge to be built over Horseneck Brook near Round Hill Road and, in 1757, when the Town also approved a sawmill to be built there as well (Mead:1857:122). As an FYI, the name “Hangroot” has been attributed to the fact that the homes there had root cellars where fruit/vegetables where hung from the ceilings to prevent rodents from reaching them. Well-off farmers, like the Husteds, were also known to have stocked their root cellars so that poorer farmers in the area could help themselves to produce in times of need. That being said, Hangroot was always connected to the area we still associate with being Hangroot today (i.e., the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook) but this area expanded over time to include the area we see in the 1887 map. There have been accounts that there were several Black rural settlements. I believe this is incorrect and that there was only one which is represented as this larger “Colored Settlement” area. Our Hangroot ancestors lived within all areas of the “Colored Settlement.”
Since no one has defined the actual boundaries of Hangroot previously, for the purpose of this blogpost, I am defining the boundaries of Hangroot as follows: the Eastern boundary is defined as being near Lake Avenue, the Western boundary near Pecksland Rd., the Northern boundary near Clapboard Ridge Rd., and the Southern boundary just north of Glenville Rd. These boundaries changed over time with the ebb and flow of the African-American population. By the late 1870s, Hangroot becomes restricted to the area around Round Hill Road and Horseneck Brook once again. It is important to note that Hangroot was never an all-Black area, but an area that had a higher concentration of African-Americans than other sections of Greenwich, CT. As someone who is also of Native American ancestry, I note that Hangroot was home to Native-Americans as well. That is a clear reminder that Native Americans were Connecticut’s first slaves. That fact must never be forgotten.
19th Century Residents of Hangroot: A Free Black Community For The Formerly Enslaved (1800-1900)
As a 7th+ generation descedant of pioneer African-Americans who settled Hangroot and gave rise to this community, I feel an urgent need to write this forgotten community back into existence. Many people are unaware of the early presence of African-Americans in the Town of Greenwich. My blog posts on TheByram African-American Cemetery detail the history of African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 18th century. Though official records regarding African-Americans are not available for Greenwich because of slavery, it can be assumed that there were African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 17th century as the earliest African slaves in Connecticut arrived at the same time as colonial white settlers. Our Black Greenwich ancestors were from Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich and they left those neighborhoods to make Hangroot their home for a little over 100 years.
I often ask myself the following questions: If a community isn’t documented, did it actually exist? Who gets to define a community and from what/whose perspective? In doing genealogy research, does one have an obligation to correct historical ommissions and the historical record itself, on behalf of their ancestors, when given the benefit of historical hindsight? Such questions motivate me to continue to always dig deeper and to provide a different view of Greenwich history that is an unapolegetically African-American one. It is the view of people who lived on the margins of recorded history whose lives were not remembered as they should have been. The more I learn, the more I want to make visible this Black Greenwich history. This blogpost is my attempt at defining the Hangroot community and a start at reclaiming it’s past. It is by no means perfect, but it is the foundation on which I will write future blogposts and a book. It is nothing less than a work in progess that focuses on an intrinsic part of 19th century Greenwich history that is Black Greenwich history.
The methodolgy I used to compile this list is based on 100 years of census records indicating the presence of African-Americans in the area known as Hangroot within the geographical boundaries specified above. I also cross-checked some of these names with emancipation records found in Jeffrey Bingham Mead’s book, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipation in the Town of Greenwich, CT. Articles in various newspaper archives were also reviewed. Finally, I was able to secure documents regarding Hangroot from both the Greenwich Historical Society and the Greenwich Library.
Below are the names of African-Americans who owned homes in Hangroot from 1800-1900. I have also listed the approximate population of African-Americans who lived in Hangroot as this number also includes African-Americans who were living in white households at times as slaves and/or servants and farmhands/laborers.
NOTE: When I refer to “Black Greenwich,” I am specifically referring to only those African-American residents below who have the surnames listed and their descendants. They are people who either were born in Greenwich, CT or resided there before the Civil War. These African-Americans constitute the founding African-American population of Greenwich, CT.
Possible 1800-1809 Residents: Isaac Negro* (Carpenter), Ned Negro, Jeffrey Negro ** (Felmetta) York Negro (Mead), and Anthony Negro (Green)
*All African-Americans recorded in the first three census records for Greenwich, CT were given the surname “Negro.” I added the correct surnames of these individuals in parentheses when possible so that their descedants may one day be able to locate them. They are “Negro” no more.
** The surname Felmetta seems to be unique to Greenwich, CT. No connection to a white Felmetta has been uncovered yet. There is the possiblity that this surname was chosen by Jeffrey Felmetta himself. It was not unusual for former slaves to take on a surname of their own choosing as an act of self-determination. This name has many spelling variations and include Filmetta, Fellmote, Felmette, Felemetta, Fillmeter, Fillimetta, Felmestra, Felmetty, and others. I used the spelling Felmetta throughout this blogpost for consistency.
***Update: My cousin Dennis Richmond, Jr. on 8/19/17, found a 1947 obituary for Sarah Banks Green that indicated that the Felmettas were part Native American. Sarah’s father was William Banks, who is listed in the 1860 Greenwich census, and he was a Mohawk Indian. Her mother was Loretta Felmetta amd she was said to be part Native American (Mohawk)
In the 1800 census, 84 free African-Americans were recorded as living in Greenwich along with 39 enslaved people. The only free Black property owners listed were an Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Ned Negro and York (Mead). However, Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta) is not listed in the 1800 census, but we know via property records that he owned property as early as 1784 and he is listed in the 1790 census as being a free Black along with 8 other free Black heads of households. My 4th great-grandfather Anthony Negro (Green) and his wife Peg, who was freed in 1800, moved to Hangroot sometime before 1810.
Population: Approx 80 individuals
1810 Residents: Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Henry Negro (Seymour), Horace Negro (Watson), Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta), George Negro (Moore), Ned Negro, Obid Negro (Davenport), Anthony Negro (Green), Cull Negro (Bush), and Frank Negro (Husted).
Population: Approx. 126 individuals
1820 Residents: Harry Brown, John Indian*, Anthony Green, Isaac Carpenter, Jeremiah Mitchell, Frank Husted, Charles Negro (Merritt), Cuff Brown, Jeffrey Felmetta, Henry Seymour, Henry Santes, Allah African**, York Mead, Aaron Felmetta, Sarah More, Catherine Felmetta, and John Ellis.
*A Hardy Indian, who may be a possible descendant of the John Indian, is recorded on the 1850 census as being “mulatto” and working as a farmhand. It is important to note that the category “mulatto” actually erases Native-Americans in the historical record by conflating them with other people of color. We also see the surname “Indian” being given to people of Native American descent. Hardy Indian is considered to be one of the last Native Americans in Greenwich and is buried west of Round Hill Road in an unmarked grave.
**Allah African is the only African-American whom I found whose place of birth is listed as “Africa.” Given his first name, it can be assumed that he was born a Muslim somewhere in Africa. He was also the wealthiest African-American in Greenwich during the 1800s.
Population: Approx. 147 individuals
1830 Residents:Anthony Green, Sr., Anthony Green, Jr., Henry Green, Charles Merritt, James Mills, Sarah More, Ichabod Purdy*, John Ellis, Jeffrey Felmetta, Sam Carpenter, Robert Treadwell, Morris Mead, Henry Seymour, John Indian, York Mead, Wdw. Rose Felmetta, Thomas Carpenter, George Barker, Harry Bounds, Allah African, and Edmund Thompson.
*When Ichabad Purdy died in 1878 in Hangroot, at the age of 96 years and 8 months, he was considered to be one of the oldest residents. In various census records, his surname is listed as being Lars, St. Lair, Lair, and Lan for reasons unknown. The variations in these spellings may be a result of a mistake on the part of the census taker.
Population: Approx. 174 individuals
1840 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Isaac Carpenter, Floyd Mills, Henry Merritt*, Robert Merritt*, George Watson, Horace Watson, Henry Felmetta, Allah African, Henry Belcher, Joseph Brown, Horace Mead, James Felmetta, Emmeline Brown, Ichabod Purdy, John Lyon, Edmund Thompson, Charles Porter, and Joseph Davenport.
*Please note that Robert and his son Henry Merritt are not related to our Merritt line. They are the descendants of Whitman Merritt who was born around 1720. Whitman’s son Robert Merritt was born in 1737. This is the oldest African-American Merritt line from Greenwich that we know of at this time.
Population: Approx.182 individuals
1850 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Anthony Green, Henry Belcher, Ichabod Purdy, Edmund Thompson, Floyd Mills, Charles Brown, Isaac Merritt, Henry Felmetta, Horace Watson, George Watson, William Peterson, Henry Merritt, Allah African, Robert Merritt, and George Peck.
Population: Aprox. 113 individuals
1860 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Henry Brown, William Purdy, Ichabod Purdy, James Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Brown, Abraham Merritt, Samuel H. Merritt, Allah African, Henry Merritt, Robert Merritt, Caleb Webb, Delilah Bush, Theodore Anderson, William Peterson, Grace Belcher, Polly Merritt, George Felmetta, Charles Meyers, Robert Felmetta, Susan Green, Henry Felmetta, William Banks (Native American), William Mead, and Amos Carpenter.
Population: Approx. 134 individuals
1870 Residents: Allen Green, Samuel H. Merritt, Tempy Green, Theodore Mills, William Carpenter, Charles Brown, William Belcher, William Purdy, William Brown, William Peterson, Solomon Green, Samuel Merritt, Henry Husted, Abraham Merritt, Samuel Green, Isaac Merritt, Henry Merritt, Horace Treadwell, Charles Meyer, George Peck, Allah African, Henry Felmetta, Robert Anderson, Charles Banks, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 125 individuals
1880 Residents:Solomon Green, Henry Felmetta, Joseph Purdy, Maria Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Theordore Mills, Charles Green, Isaac Merritt, Thomas Green, Harry Merritt, William Peterson, Joseph Purdy. Charles Merritt, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 53 indivduals
1900 Residents: Thomas Green, Joseph Merritt, James Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Edward Merritt, Willis Merritt, Victoria Peterson, Charles Merritt, Alonzo Merritt, Adeline Merritt, Cornelius Purdy, Aaron Felmetta, and Maria Merritt.
Population: Approx. 58 individuals
Our Lyon-Green-Merritt Hangroot Connection
My 4th great-grandfather, Anthony Green, Sr., only 4 years after he was legally emancipated by the widow of Captain John Green, was included in an 1820 $5,000 land deal that was signed on April 17,1820. He went in as an equal partner along with Thomas Green (the nephew/son-in-law of John Green, Anthony’s former slave owner), Samuel Lyon (a Lyon relative of Anthony’s wife Peg who was emancipated by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, her uncle), Zophar Mead, Isaac Mead, Jabez Mead, William Robbins, Carr Robbins, Samuel Pine, and Elisha Belcher. All of these men were neighbors either in Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) or in Rye, NY. This land deal included several pieces of land which included Anthony’s land in Hangroot near Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook as well as his land near the Green family which was at the westernmost border of Hangroot near today’s Pecksland Rd. As previously stated in another post, Anthony and Peg were both mulattos and were slave descedants of both the Green and Lyon families and their interactions and those of their children and grandchildren are indicative of close kin ties. As will be seen, at no point in the 1800s did our Lyon-Green-Merritt ancestors NOT live near or interact with their former slave owners and their descendants.
The 1858 Clark mapbelow indicates where my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, were living in 1810 which was right beside Anthony’s former Green slave owners. They owned their own property. Although Anthony wasn’t formerly emancipated until 1816, he was living with Peg and their three youngest sons (Allen, Solomon and Henry) probably earlier than 1810 as Peg was emancipated in 1800. It is a matter of pride to learn that, through their hard work, they were able to accumulate enough money to buy even more land of their own — land that they were able to then passed on to their descendants.
The 1820 census was enumerated on August 7th, 1820 which means that Anthony and Peg moved to their new home in Hangroot at the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook soon after he obtained his share of the land deal. In other woods, in true Jeffersonian fashion, they moved on up to “the East side (i.e., Round Hill)” and got a piece of the pie”—- initially speaking. Looking at the 1820 census, we see that they were living next to the Husted family which included Amos, Caleb, and Aaron as well as their father, Peter. As you will see, various members of the Husted family, who intermarried with our Lyon ancestors, lived alongside of Anthony and Peg and their descendants for decades.
According to the 1830 census record, Anthony, Jr. is living in the home that his father used to live in the 1810s. Our Green ancestors are still living next to their Green kin. Meanwhile, Anthony, Sr. is now living next to his sons Henry and Charles Merritt in a different section of Hangroot. His sons, Allan and Solomon, both moved to Hangroot’s Round Hill location in the late 1830s.
In 1837, one year after Anthony, Sr. died, his 5 sons (Charles, Allen, Henry, Solomon and Plato) sold part of his land to Henry Merritt, another African-American man. From the 1840s until the early 1900s, our African-American ancestors made Hangroot their home. They intermarried with the Watsons, Mills, Pecks, Petersons, Felmettas, Purdys, Banks, and other Hangroot families. They went to the same churches and socialized together. Throughout the 1800s, one can see how people in Hangroot took care of each other by taking in relatives and neighbors when required. Although our ancestors were farmers, stone masons, laborers, coachmen, and servants, they were part of old Greenwich from the beginning. As to not rehash what I have previously written, a more detailed account of our family history in Hangroot from 1850 onward can be found here.
The decline of our Hangroot community was the direct result of several factors. First, immigration starting in the early 1840s resulted in the Irish, Scottish, and other white immigrants moving to Greenwich and taking the jobs held previously by African-Americans — jobs like farmhands, laborers and servants. Second, industrialization brought the railroad and woolen mills (e.g., Hawthorne Woolen Mill and American Felt Company) to Greenwich in the mid-1800s. The jobs in those industries went to the English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, and other Eastern European immigrants. Perhaps the biggesr reason though had to do with the arrival of the Rockefellers to Hangroot which dramatically changed Greenwich by ushering in the NYC leisure class who then started to build massive country estates.
In regards to Hangroot, William Avery Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-founder of Standard Oil, started purchasing property in the area in 1870 and his descedants continued doing so up until the early 1900s. As indicated in the 1887 map above, one sees how the Rockefellers had a dramatic impact on Hangroot that had been a home to our ancestors for decades. When the Rockefellers moved next door to them, it was hard for our ancestors to continue to exist as they had in the decades prior. I am also certain that other low and middle-class white farmers were equally displaced by the Rockefellers. According to its very definition gentrification is a process of renewal that occurs when there is an influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. In the case of Hangroot, it resulted in a loss of of an historic African-American community and the erasure of its history.
The Green-Twachtman House: The House That Allen Green Built in 1845
My 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, lived in Rye, NY, in 1830. As you can see from the 1830 Rye, NY census record, he was living near Samuel Lyon and Samuel Pine, two of the people who went in on the 1820 land deal with his father Anthony in 1820.
Allen purchased property at 30 Round Hill Road from Walter Avery on April 8, 1839. It was Allen who built his house in 1845 — a house that is now affiliated more with John H. Twachtman. Walter Avery had lived in Hangroot as early as 1810 and resided in the same area as the Husteds. However, it was in the 1830s when he bought this particular property.
In 1990, Nils Kerschus, an architectural researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society, compiled the deed title search for the Green-Twachtman House. As Allen’s descedant, I quickly noticed what a genealogical goldmine this document was in terms of our own family history. Allen bought the property in 1839 and owned the property up until his death in 1878. A year later his estate sold his 3 acres of land with buildings to a Franz Stuba.
It was sold for $860. The Port Chester Journal on March 27, 1879 documented the sale as can be seen below.
Franz Stuba in turn sold the property to Lawrence Green who then sold it to David S. Husted. It is interesting to note that both men have kin ties to our Lyon-Green-Merritt line. Lawrence Green was a descendant of my 4th great-grandfather’s former slave owner, John Green. His grandfather, Benjamin Green, was the nephew of John Green, whom Anthony lived next to in 1810. David S. Husted was the great-grandson of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon who emancipated my 4th great-grandmother in 1800. David’s grandfather was William H. Husted whose wife, Mary Lyon, was the daughter of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Moreover, William’s brother Drake Husted, along with his wife, Nancy Marvin Lyon, were the couple, who raised my 4th great-uncle Jack Husted, Peg and Anthony’s son — the only son who never lived in Hangroot though it is clear he visited family there. The administrator of Allen’s estate, Joseph B. Husted was the son of Drake and Nancy Husted.
In this 1868 Town of Greenwich map, we observe that Mrs. Husted, David S. Husted’s mother, owned the property adjacent to Allen’s. In the 1887 Road map at the beginning of this blogpost, one sees that David S. Husted now owns Allen’s property having bought it in 1884. He sold Allen’s house to John H. Twachtman in 1890.
By 1890, the year John H. Twachtman arrived in the Hangroot that was our hood, it was already in decline. Twatchman was an artist looking to purchase land that he could afford. I don’t for one minute buy into the myth, propogated by Goodwin, that he just happened upon my 3rd great-grandfather’s property while following the bends of Horseneck Brook, was touched by the natural environment, and just had to live there. I simply see his arrival in Hangroot as part of the larger process of gentrification begun by the Rockefellers.
Twachtman was fully aware that, if he purchased property there, it would be cheaper because it was considered an area where poor Black farmers lived, an area that was filled with “Connecticut potatoes (i.e., stones),” and very difficult to farm. Moreover, Twachtman knew that the property would eventually increase in value given the nearby presence of the Rockefellers. In addition, since he wasn’t a farmer, he recognized that he could further increase the value of his property by using his creative and artistic skills to make improvements that would highlight the natural landscape. Twachtman did what every struggling artist-gentrifier has done throughout the ages when moving into an up and coming area. I don’t begrudge him for doing that and I am grateful to be able to look at his art and know that some of his inspiration came from Hangroot. But, let’s not deny the historical fact that he went to Hangroot because that’s where he could only afford to buy land at the time.
This gentrification of Hangroot continued. For example, in 1884, David S. Husted sold some of his land to William Rockefeller to satisfy a judgement against him as a result of a court case between him and Alexander Mead. Before he died, he sold the rest of his property to him as well. As noted below, he had to remove his family cemetery from the premises before he did. The Rockefellers would go on to buy more and more property so that, at one point, they owned about 400 acres of land. Later generations of Rockerfellers would go on to break up their large estates and sell off the smaller parcels of land. There was no way that our Hangroots ancestors could ever compete with this level of gentrification. No way at all.
Over one hundred years later, the Green-Twachtman House still stands for all to see. I was excited to learn about Sesame Street and The Muppets creator Jim Hensons’s ties to the Green-Twachtman House. As a child, who was born in the late 1960’s, and who grew up watching Sesame Street on PBS, I could not be happier. The affiliation with Sesame Street, I believe, was meant to be. Sesame Street always represented a world to me where everyone was accepted, diversity was celebrated, lessons were learned, and everyone was happy in the end. I have met members of the Henson family and I am looking forward to a guided tour of the house with the current owner, John Nelson, very soon. I look forward to having the Hensons and the Nelsons accompany our family on this journey of discovery that ultimately connects us all to the same house. I am blessed indeed.
Hangroot Heroes: Members of the 29th Infantry United States Colored Troops
Please note that information for this section comes from the National Archives (Fold3). Previous accounts of the Greenwich men who fought in the 29th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops included men who enlisted from neighboring communities in Westchester County, NY. The list below is accurate.
The following are the names of the 18 Hangroot African-American men who fought for the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops during the Civil War. These men volunteered to fight in a war that ultimately led to the freedom of their enslaved countrymen. They were John Banks, Amos T. Carpenter, Silas M. Carpenter, Charles E. Green (my 3rd great-uncle) George E. Green (my 1st cousin 4XR) James H. Green (my 3rd great-uncle), William Green (my 1st cousin 4XR), William H. Hicks, William Meade, Isaac Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), Whitman Merritt, Floyd T. Mills, William O. Mills, Charles Moore, Robert Peterson (brother of Emily Peterson, wife of my 3rd great-uncle Thomas Green), George Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson (father of Annice Watson who married William Green). Out of 18 men from Hangroot, 7 (a 39% death rate) paid the ultimate sacrifice. They were John Banks, William Mead, Floyd T. Mills, Charles Moore, George T. Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson. May God bless them, and all the other Greenwich men, for their service to this country. They were all on the right side of history.
Charles E. Green, George E. Green, William Green, Isaac Merritt, and Robert Peterson are buried in Union Cemetery in Greenwich. Silas M. Carpenter is buried in the Gethsamene (African-American) Cemetery, in Little Ferry, NJ. Floyd T. Mills died at Lovell General Hospital in Portsmouth Grove, RI and is buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. During the Civil War, Horace Watson, William Mead, and Charles E. Treadwell died in Beaufort, SC, John Banks and George Porter died in Fort Monroe, VA, and Charles Moore died in Brownsville, TX. The burial places of Amos T. Carpenter, Whitman Merritt, William H. Hicks, and William O. Mills are unknown. As for my 3rd great-uncle, James H. Green, the only Sergeant 1st Class from Greenwich in the 29th Infantry, it can be assumed that he died and is buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere in NYC. I look forward to the day when I will write a blogpost just on these 18 Hangroot heroes because they were our own.
The Problem With The Perspective Of Outsiders: A Hangroot Descendant’s View
Last week, I was directed to a photo taken behind the house that my 3rd great-grandfather built. I was made aware of three African-American people in the background looking down at the photographer taken this photo. According to Nils Kerschus, a former researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society who researched Hangroot between 1889-1902 before and after Twachtman arrived, the only ancestors we had left in Hangroot were: Samuel H. Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), his wife Catherine, sons Frank and Herbert (my 2nd cousins 3XR), and his granddaughter Sorelia (my 2nd cousin 4XR) in a house they owned; James Banks, his wife Josephine (Samuel’s daughter and my 2nd cousin 3XR), her brother Mandeville Merritt (my 2nd cousin 3XR) were in a 2nd house they owned, and Edward Merritt (Samuel’s son and my 2nd cousin 3XR), his wife Laura Green Merritt (my 2nd great-aunt) and their son Samuel (my 3rd cousin 2XR due to a cousin marriage) were in a 3rd house which they were renting. I should note that, in 1905, Samuel H. Merritt’s and James Banks’ properties were demolished by Frederic Maples, a real estate developer.
No one knows who the photographer was who took this 1890 photo. In any case, I can only imagine how our ancestors felt on that day. Our Hangroot community experienced an almost 50% decline in population from 1870 to 1900. When I saw the photo, I felt a sense of loss. I will never know who exactly those three individuals were just that they were our own. They are forever seared in my mind as three haunting spirits who were bearing witness to the loss of their land. However, I am glad to have this very poignant photo because it is a historic reminder of the displacement that our ancestors experienced. Between 1905 and 1910, our Hangroot community disappears as people have to relocate elsewhere as they become priced out of their neighborhood and work becomes hard to find. Hangroot then becomes the Hangroot of today and it’s history as an African-American commutity is erased. It is now a place more associated with the Rockefellers, Twachtman, and other individuals who came later. The “Allen Green” part of the “Green-Twachtman House” for all intensive purposes has been forgotten and is only mentioned in a footnote in the title deed history of the house and mentioned in a newspaper when it was sold in 1879.
In his often cited Country Life in America 1905 article, Alfred Henry Goodwin, seeks to detail all the improvements that Twachtman made to his property, but, in the process, makes elitest statements about the house before Twachtman bought it. He refers to the house that Allen built as being “ugly” and how this house “desecrated” the land. Of course, Twachtman is portrayed as the man who arrived to “beautify the property” and made it harmonize with the natural environment as only he could. Likewise, Susan G. Larkin in her article, On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape, not only quotes Goodwin, but even juxtoposes the 1890 photo of the back of 30 Round Hill Rd. featuring the Horseneck Falls above with a 1905 photo of the same Horseneck Falls that Goodwin presented in his article. While the 1890 photo was taken seemingly in the Winter and shows a barren landscape with my three ancestors present in the background, the 1905 photo was obviously taken the in the Summer and shows a much shadier, lush, and cultivated environment. They are meant to be Before and After photos clearly. Both Goodwin and Larkin see Twachtman as the “Great White Hope” who rescues the property from its poor Black farmer past. Clearly, they admire what Twachtman has done to the environment and his house. There is no need to elaborate on those who owned the property before or who still lived next to his property then. Unlike me, they are either unaware or not concerned with how their words negatively taint the community of Hangroot because they don’t see this community though they are right in the midst of it. All the focus on Twachtman’s “beautifying the property” obscures and renders invisible the community that was Hangroot. Defining Hangroot as “a Black settlement” or indicating that “poor Black farmers” lived there says nothing actually about this community itself. But, of course, people assume that they know everything when they hear such designations.
Standing Up For My Ancestors By Reclaiming Hangroot and Black Greenwich History: We Shall Be Erased No More
As a descendant of Hangroot ancestors, I am acutely aware of how our Black Greenwich family history has been lost, erased, and forgotten. In researching my own family history, I came across an article by Christine McKay titled African Americans in 19th Century Greenwich:Notes on New Research. It was published in 2001 in conjuction with a Greenwich Historical Society exhibit on African-Americans in Greenwich. Other than Jeffrey Bingham Mead, McKay is the only other historian that I know of who has sought to factually present a portrait of Black Greenwich. However, even she recognized that, although she had researched African Americans in Greenwich, the Abolitionist movement, and Underground Railroad for her article, there was much more research yet to be done.
Needless to say, my blogposts on Greenwich will eventually lead to a book on my family’s history as the descendants of both Lyon slaves and Lyon slave owners that traces back to the 17th century. I will be defining and reclaiming both the Hangroot and Byram sections of Greenwich as our home. I will be giving a “bottom up” perspective, rather than a “top down” perspective, that defines and accurately portrays my ancestors and their community. Our Lyon-Green-Merritts family history is nothing less than an African-American success story that was born of slavery personified in Greenwich, CT. I began this blogpost with the photo that was taken in Hangroot in 1897. This is the Hangroot that my family was part of for 100 years. It is a visual reminder of just how vibrant this community was even in the midst of being erased from history. This is the Hangroot that I will be researching for years to come. We shall be erased no more.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been kneep-deep in genealogical and family history research that I know has been guided by my Greenwich ancestors. I may not be a religious person, but I am a spiritual one. For almost a year, I have also been trying to get justice for my ancestors in the fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery where my ancestors reside in a peace that has been disturbed. When I first learned about my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg, I called their names and let them know that they were found and would never be lost to history or their descendants again. And I meant every word that I said when I said them. They have never left my side since then and they keep visiting me in my dreams — visitations that guide me and push me to continue telling their true stories.
What happened to my ancestors in Hangroot, when gentrification came, is just a continuation of gentrification that is still happening in Greenwich today, but on an even grander scale — a gentrification that originally included 19th and 20th century millionaires, now includes 21st century millionaires AND hedge fund billionaires. Historic homes and places are being demolished and replaced with larger homes and McMansions today. When this happens, local history is lost and family history is lost as well. If you are a person who has a long family history in Greenwich which was well documented, you may not feel the same impact as those of us, who also have long family histories in Greenwich as well, but our family histories were barely recorded in historical records because our ancestors were born slaves. When the places we occupied, in life and death, disappear, our family history disappears as well. The fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery is a fight, not only about whether or not the residents of 11 Byram Dock Rd. own and have a right to “beautify the property,” but, it is also a battle that I am engaged in to defend my ancestors’ burial place AND to prevent the loss of our larger family history in Greenwich itself. To be clear, when Twachtman arrived in Hangroot in 1890 and “beautified the property’, he made improvements on property that he owned. The couple at 11 Byram Dock Rd., however, don’t own — but are claiming to own — a burial ground that had always been a part of the Byram Cemetery of our Lyon ancestors. They acknowledge the two white cemeteries in our extended family, but want to deny the existence of our Black one so that my ancestors are now buried in what looks like someone’s front lawn. I remain resolute and steadfast in standing up for my ancestors and reclaiming and defending our family history. Why one may ask? Because of our Anthony and Peg, our esteemed slave ancestors. When the light of a freedom certain came, they crawled down that path to emancipation and stood up and took some steps so that their children and grandchildren could walk so that their descendants could run on and keep running so that their descedants today could fly. I know that they are counting on me to be the sum of their Byram and Hangroot hopes and dreams and to be their voice from beyond their Byram graves. I will be representing them for as long as I live with pride. I am a proud slave descendant who comes from good stock indeed.
On Documenting the Underground Railroad In Greenwich: Why These 5 Places Matter
While the role that Greenwich white abolitionists and anti-slavery activists has been researched in regards to the Underground Railroad, the role that the free Black population in Greenwich played in shepherding enslaved people to freedom has never been studied. Because of this, I have been complelled to first define the free Black community in Greenwich that existed in the 19th century. That community was Hangroot. At the end of my previous blogpost, I wrote about the direction of my current research which will also look at the history of the White anti-slavery activists/abolitionists in our extended Lyon family and their social networks as well. As I said then, it can’t just be a coincidence that our Hangroot Greens and Merritts have a cousin named Hawley Green, who along with his wife Harriet Peterson Green, were stationmasters on the Underground Railroad in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s. Its can’t be another coincidence that our Hangroot ancestors have ties to the free Black populations of Westchester County, NY that extend back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Below are the places that matter in Greenwich to our Lyon-Green-Merritt family.
This house is the oldest house in Greenwich built by my 9th great-uncle. It is an historic house that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is also on the CT Freedom Trail list. This is the house where a distant cousin, Seth Lyon, harbored a fugitive slave named Peter John Lee for six years. As I documented in my blogpost Coming to The Table in Honor of Jack Husted, Seth and his cousin Gilbert Lyon were anti-slavery activists and members of the Whig Party (Northeast), an anti-slavery party. Their social network included known Greenwich abolitionists like Deacon Jonas Mead, a neighbor of Gilbert Lyon, a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, and Vice-President of the Fairfield Anti-Slavery Society.
2) Our Byram Cemeteries : The Lyon, Byram and Byram African-American Cemeteries
These three cemeteries link our Lyon, Green and Merritt ancestors to both the Thomas Lyon House and to the Green-Twachtman House. Our family ancestors, on both sides of the color line, were born and bred in Byram and are buried there. The Lyon family is one of the 17th century founding families of Greenwich. It was our Lyon ancestors who created a section of their Byram Cemetery for their slaves and former slaves. The Byram African-American Cemetery is where our Anthony and Peg are buried. Lyon-Green-Merritt descendants trace their ancestry back to Peg, who was the mulatto daughter of Daniel Lyon, who is buried in the Byram Cemetery.
I am a proud member of the Greenwich Preservation Trust (GPT) an organization that stood up three years ago to defend the desecration of the Byram African-American Cemetery. Along with our Lyon cousins, we are now united in restoring The Thomas Lyon House and backing the Town of Greenwich’s acquisition of all three of our ancestral cemeteries and making all of them historic ones. I will continue to support this organization any way I can. I want to also take the time here to thank Jo Conboy, State Rep. Michael Bocchino, the GPT Board and members for advocating for the passage of a new law that will protect abandoned cemeteries in the State of Connecticut in lieu of our current battle to save the Byram African-American Cemetery. The new law passed the legislature last week and is now on to the Senate for final approval.
3) Union Cemetery (Lot 23)
Second Congregational Church opened Lot 23 for the poor and Colored people in 1851. Half the people buried in that lot are our Green, Merritt, Husted ancestors along with other Hangroot families like the Banks, Felmetta, Watsons, Petersons and others. Five members of the 29th Infantry are buried there as well. In addition, some of our white Lyon and Husted ancestors are buried in other sections of Union Cemetery.
4) Little Bethel AME Church
Little Bethel AME Church was founded in 1882 and was the first Black church founded in Greenwich, CT. It is also listed on the CT Freedom Trail. The founding members of this church included Charles E. Green, Allen Banks, George Treadwell, Augusta Felmetta, Ellen Banks, Caselia Merritt, Catherine Merritt, Mandeville Merritt, Ruben Belcher, Mr. and Mrs. Belcher, Cornelia Bush, and Esther Bush. All were originally from Hangroot. Later church members included the descendants of these families.
5) The Green-Twachtman House
This landmark house was built in 1845 by my 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, the 5th son of Anthony and Peg Green who settled in Hangroot in 1820. Allen arrived in 1839 when he bought property at 30 Round Hill Rd. His wife, Mary Johnson Green may have been born a fugitive slave from Virginia who made Hangroot her haven when she married the Allen. Allen and his extended family were cousins to Hawley Green and his wife Harriet Peterson Green, who owned an Underground Railroad House in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s.
If I can prove that Mary was in fact fugitive slave and/or I can prove a more definitve link between our Hangroot Greens and Merritts and Hawley and Harriet Peterson Green, then I will then make it my new mission to apply for state and federal recognition so the house that Allen built is recognized as an Underground Railroad House and the community that was Hangroot will be known as a confirmed depot stop on the Underground Railroad. One day soon I will proudly stand in front of 30 Round Hill Rd. and hold up a sign that says THIS PLACE MATTERED MORE THAN ANYONE KNEW. I already know in my heart of hearts that it does and always did.
May my ancestors continue to be my guide on my mission to seek their historical truths.
Goodwin, Alfred Henry. An Artist’s Unspoiled Country Home. Country Life In America. Vol. 8 (October 1905), pp. 625-630.
Larkin, Susan G. On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape. The American Art Journal, Vol. 29, No 1/2 (1998), pp. 52-85.
McKay, Christine. African Americans in Nineteenth Century Greenwich. Greenwich History. Vol 6 (2001), pp. 56-74.
Mead, Daniel. A History of the Town of Greenwich, Fairfield, CT. NY:Baker and Godwin Printers, 1857.
Peters, Lisa. John Twachtman (1853-1902) and The American Scene in the Late Nineteenth Century: Frontiers within the Terrain of the Familiar. 2 Vols. PhD Dissertation. City University of New York, 1995. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1996).
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-Americans, 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 Jr. 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 now researching if this William couod be a possible brother of my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green.
We are also looking into Harriet’s background. She wa smartied prior to Hawley so Petersen is not her maiden name. Her first husband though may be related to 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 Dinah/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. John Green and Charles Merritt also lived with Lazarus Heady, Jr., Solomon’s brother, in the 1850s and 1860s. There is no record of Peg ever having given birth to a daughter. 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 Native – 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 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 Native- 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 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 Penetrating 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 plaque 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 acknowledge 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 Euro, Native – African-American Lyon roots stretching back to the 1600s. Our Lyon- -Greens-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 Lyon-Green-Merritt line left a lot of information behind over their 400 year existence in this town. The memory of where our Peg, Anthony, our other ancestors as well as other early Native -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 Naive – 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.
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 Native- 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 Native – 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 Ramapough 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 Native American and 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 Native – 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.
Clarification: The Town of Greenwich is taking steps to acquire three abandoned cemeteries, including The Byram African-American Cemetery. My family and I have every reason to believe that the town will do right by the descendants of every single individual who is buried in this cemetery to make sure that this cemetery is maintained as a sacred historical site. Our issue is not with them. I should make that clear.
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.
What Do You Say to Your Ancestors When You Find Out That Their Burial Ground Was Desecrated by Greed?
It’s August 30th, 2016 at 3:20 am in the morning and I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because my heart is heavy, my mind is unsettled, and I can hear my ancestors calling out for justice. Almost a year ago, I was able to break through an over decade genealogical brick wall on my maternal Green/Merritt line. I finally located my third and fourth great-grandparents and learned their names. I called their names out loud and clear —Peg, Anthony, Allen and Mary. I was so loud that I brought them all back to life, figuratively speaking, so that now they could officially be remembered. I went even further and took the time to learn all about them. This led me to blog about my proud Green and Merritt ancestors from Greenwich, CT. They were among my first slave ancestors, both Native – and African-American, who walked the path towards emancipation and onward to freedom—- heads, no doubt, held high.
I am the daughter of Joyce Greene Vega, the granddaughter of Richard W. Greene, Jr., the great-granddaughter of Richard W. Green, Sr., the great-great granddaughter of George E. Green, the great-great-great granddaughter of Allen and Mary Green, and the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Anthony and Peg Green. Hear me now, the Greens ARE from Greenwich, CT and they were Native – African-American with some European thrown in the mix. Our family history in Greenwich spans over 250 years. Greenwich certainly can be called our hometown. My ancestors were a part of Greenwich before most of the people living there now ever called Greenwich their home. Historical facts matter and my ancestors’, and the other Native-Black lives buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, mattered …even in death.
Just because my earliest ancestors were born Lyon slaves does not mean their lives were not valid. Just because the cemetery that they were buried in had no tombstones or grave markers does not mean someone had the right to disturb their graves. That ground was hallowed ground. Did they even consider that there were people who were buried there? Did they not know that their descendants were still around waiting until God saw fit to reunite their family? Did they not know that all cemeteries are sacred spaces? Did they not know that to mess with the dead is to invite The Unwanted? Did they think we wouldn’t notice that our ancestor’s remains and other remains were disturbed? Did they think that a plaque on a tree honoring The Byram African-American Cemetery would make up for their wanton destruction of the cemetery? Or, was the value of prime waterfront real estate just too good to pass up that parts of the oldest Native- and African-American cemetery in Greenwich had to be destroyed and remains desecrated? My inquiring mind would like to know. My ancestors buried there would also like to know.
I can still hear my ancestors calling me at 4:30 am and I just answered them back. It was only appropriate that I did so as I was taught to respect my elders…even in death. I told them not to worry even though truthfully I don’t know how to comfort the restless dead. I can only pray for their spirits to find peace. But, I was able to tell them that, as long as their descendants are still living, we will have their backs. We will be their unified voice to articulate their pain, loud and clear, with our heads held high…just like they showed us when they walked towards freedom.
This blogpost is a cautionary tale of genealogy research done somewhat wrong. I am using it as an example about how not to do genealogy research as well as discussing the importance of adhering to Genealogical Proof Standards.
The Back Story
Five years ago, I was contacted by an individual who claimed to be a descendant of my 2nd cousin 3XR, Edward Mayo Merritt. He asked a lot of questions about my Edward and finally said he was Edward’s 3rd great-grandson. As proof, he told me that he had a photo of Edward’s father, Samuel Henry Merritt, from Greenwich, CT. He said that his 2nd great-grandfather was John Sherman Merritt who was Edward’s illegitimate son. At the time, I did not question him. My mistake. He was also very reluctant to share his family tree. He kept asking for photos and more info about Edward. I finally stopped communicating with him. He popped up two years later asking the same questions. I ignored him because he wasn’t sharing anything. Fast forward to Fall 2015, I reached out to him unknowingly because he was recommended to me by someone who knew we were both researching the same surnames. He had been going by aliases previously which is why I didn’t recognize his name. We exchanged emails and I confirmed my descent from Peg and Anthony. I corrected some of assumptions he had about Peg and Anthony. Again, he kept asking for more info and photos. I went ahead and shared photos that I had of Edward’s children. We were supposed to meet in Harlem when he was home on school vacation and then he disappeared.
This person was recently interviewed in a newspaper about our shared ancestor, Peg Merritt. I noticed that some of the information published in the article was wrong. It was also through the divine intervention of our ancestors that I happened to be in Greenwich meeting three other Green-Merritt cousins for the first time, as well as visiting the cemetery where our ancestors were buried, that I was lucky enough to even see this front page article. It made me curious about his tree to say the least especially since he located a critical family document and never wanted to share his family tree or DNA results with me. Something was telling me that something wasn’t right. That’s when I launched an investigation into his 2nd great-grandfather, John Sherman Merritt family tree to see if he was really related to my Edward. I am glad I did.
John Sherman Merritt: Genealogical Proof of Descent from Edward Mayo Merritt?
I began a thorough investigation of John Sherman Merritt’s genealogy using all resources available to me. This included vital records, census records, and any other documents I could find. Here is what I found:
His death record states that he was born on December 10, 1889 and died on July 3rd,1921 in Greenwich, CT. He is buried in Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, CT.
His Greenwich Town Hall birth record confirmed his birth date as being Dec. 10, 1889. The birth information given was from the physician. His mother was listed as being a Mary Wayland, born in VA, recorded as being black, and as being 18 years old. His father is listed as being Edward Merritt, born in Port Chester, NY, recorded as black, and as being 22 years old which would make his birth year around 1867. The physician gave this information so it may not be correct.
John Sherman’s July 3, 1921, death certificate records his mother as being Mary Whalen of VA and Edward Merritt of Port Chester, NY. The informant was a Mrs. James Glover. This is the same Mary Rosell Glover listed below as being John’s mother on his marriage certificate/documents.
At this point, I couldn’t determine who Mary Wayland was. Was Mary Rosell’s maiden name Wayland? I couldn’t find a Rosell marriage record. I did find a black Mary Rosell living in Staunton, VA listed with her parents, Isaac and Elizabeth, and her siblings in 1850. There are also some black Mary Waylands born in the Staunton-Augusta VA area around 1871. Or, was John Sherman’s biological mother a black Mary Wayland who was impregnated by Edward Merritt and her baby given to Mary Rosell to raise? This makes sense especially as it seems that James Glover migrated first to Greenwich, CT before moving his wife Mary, and possibly John Sherman, back to Greenwich after 1900. There is a high possibility as well that John Sherman may never have known that Mary Roswell Glover was not his birth mother and hence listed her as his mother on his marriage certificate. This would explain why Mrs. James Glover gave the correct parents on his death certificate.
John Sherman is in the 1910 and 1920 census residing in Greenwich with his wife and children. We haven’t found a record of him in 1900 when he would have been around 11 years old.
His marriage record to Leila Robinson states that his mother was Mary Rosell and his father was Edward Merritt from Port Chester, NY. This is significant as our Edward Mayo Merritt (1869-1905) was born in and lived his entire life in Greenwich, CT and never lived in Port Chester, NY. This is a MAJOR clue that he should have investigated more in detail. This is also the point where I strongly believe that he then, with photo of Samuel H. Merritt in hand, made the crucial mistake of thinking that John Sherman was Samuel’s grandson.
John Sherman has several marriage documents that indicate that he was 19 years old and Leila was only 16 years old when they were married on June 21, 1909 and they both required a Certificate of Consent as they were underage. Charles Taylor was a witness as was his mother Mary (Rosell) Glover. Leila may have already been pregnant with their son Joseph.
Mary Rosell was born around 1872 in Staunton, VA. She was the daughter of Isaac and Elizabeth Rosell. Her siblings were Laura, William, Joseph, and Charles.
Mary was married in VA to a James Glover around 1892 a year or so after John Sherman was born. In the 1900 census from Augusta, VA, she is living as a boarder and states that she has been married for 8 years. Her husband is recorded as living in Greenwich, CT in the 1900 census working as a servant for the Brush family. Again, we are unable to locate John Sherman at this time. At his age, he may have been hired out as a laborer in either VA or CT. Again, did Mary Wayland return to VA with John Sherman and give him to Mary Rosell Glover to raise as her own? Did James Glover migrate to Greenwich before his wife who then brought John Sherman back to Greenwich, CT?
Mary Glover returns to Greenwich, CT sometime before 1910 joining her husband James.
Mary Glover died on 4/27/1965 in Stamford CT at the age of 93.
Potential Points of Interest?
When I was investigating, I found two potential points of interest for me to further investigate.
1) In 1910, John Sherman Merritt is sharing the same address as a Henry Merritt (b. 1860 in Greenwich, CT) at 60 Northfield St, according to the Greenwich City Directory and the 1910 census. From 1910-1958, Mary Glover, John Sherman’s mother, also resided at this address with Henry Merritt. The 60 Northfield address was confirmed as a multi-family unit. This Henry is the grandson of Robert Merritt and Betsey Freeman. This 2nd Merritt line is African-American and can be traced back to Robert Merritt, who was born in Greenwich in 1732, and was the son of Whitman. Our Peg Merritt/Green line has always been mulatto. Is John Sherman related to this 2nd Merritt line? We can’t draw any conclusion at this point as we can’t find any relationship between him and this Henry Merritt. In addition, we also can’t trace this Henry Merritt back to our Edward Mayo Merritt as of this writing. Again, John Sherman Merritt and Henry Merritt living together may be just coincidental.
2) In 1900, my 3rd great -uncle, Charles E. Green, is living in Greenwich with his family. There are also two boarders living with him, William Rosell, a brother of John Sherman Merritt’s mother Mary, and his wife Minerva. We are investigating if Charles’s wife Frances/Fanny, who was from VA, is related to the Rosell family. That being said, there were many African-Americans who arrived in Greenwich, CT from VA in the 1800s. So, we can’t be sure if there is any relationship between Fanny Green and William Rosell. It may be just a coincidence. However, there is no known relationship between Charles E. Green and William or Minerva Rosell.
There was no relationship of descent between Edward Mayo Merritt and John Sherman Merritt. None whatsoever.
On My Genealogical Detective Trail: A Working Hypothesis Thats Ready To Be Proven
When I went over the emails that this individual sent me in 2011, he made mention that he found a photo of Samuel H. Merritt, our Edward Mayo Merritt’s father, in a family photo album. This bothered me as I was researching John Sherman Merritt’s genealogical trail and found no link whatsoever to our Edward Mayo Merritt. So, I dug a little deeper still giving him the benefit of the doubt. I found a potential nugget that may provide a clue as to who John Sherman’s father is. Of course, this is all a working hypothesis that must be proven. A DNA test administered to his uncle, another John Sherman Merritt, could clear this up for certain.
Charles Merritt and Sons:
My 4th great-grandmother Peg had 7 sons. Her first son, Charles Merritt (1791-?) who was fathered by a white Merritt, had 5 children with his wife Catherine. They were Samuel H., Abraham/Abram, Jarvis, and Isaac and their daughter Ann. All his children were born and raised in Greenwich, CT. When I looked at potential fathers of John Sherman, only one potential person came to mind.
Charles’s son Abraham (1821-1880) resided in Greenwich for the duration of his life. He passed away on June 11, 1880 after the 1880 census was recorded. He is listed on the 1880 census as being black and living with his wife Hulda (Peck) Merritt and their children — Emma, Norton and Edwin. Could Edwin be Edward?That was the question I had to investigate. There is no 1890 census so I had to look at where Hulda was in 1900. I found her listed, as Negro, residing in Rye Township, Port Chester Village, Ward 4, Westchester, NY. Hulda is with her children, Emma, Norton and EDWARD. Edward is listed as being 30 years old. Hulda is still there in 1910 with her daughter Emma. I couldn’t locate her 2 sons in 1910.
Was there another way that I could substantiate that this Edward was in Port Chester earlier than 1900? I dug further deeper and was able to locate the 1896-97 Turner’s Annual Directory Embracing the Residents of Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Rye and Port Chester, NY, and Greenwich and Rocky Neck, CT, along the Line of the New York, New Have & Hartford Railroad.This directory listed all the Merritts who were in Port Chester in 1896. I was able to find Hulda, living at 33 Oak Street, with her sons Edward and Norton— the only 3 black Merritts listed in the town. Edward is listed as a clerk. Clearly after Abraham died, Hulda packed up her family and left Greenwich and rented a home in Port Chester, NY. This probably occurred in the early to mid-1880s.
This Edward Merritt was born around the same time as our Edward Mayo Merritt.They would have been first cousins born within a year of each other. In 1890, Edward, son of Abraham, would have been close to the age of 22 which was the age of the father listed on John Sherman’s birth certificate. This hypothesis would also explain how a photo of Samuel H. Merritt popped up in this individual’s family’s photo albums. Someone in his family kept a photo of a great-uncle around since Samuel and Abraham were brothers. Mary Wayland may have assumed that Edward was born in Port Chester, NY, because he was living there when she was pregnant and told the physician this and that was what was written down. Hence, the fact that his birth, marriage, and death record all list Port Chester, NY as being Edward’s place of birth though his real place of birth was Greenwich, CT.
Is Abraham and Hulda Merritt’s son Edward the father of John Sherman???? This is the ONLY hypothesis that I can come up with at this time. If this individual is indeed related to the Port Chester, NY Edward Merritt, he would still be a descendant of our Peg Merritt and we would gladly welcome him to the family. If there is a link between John Sherman Merritt and Edward, son of Abraham and Hulda, then again let’s prove it based on a DNA test of his uncle, John Sherman Merritt. This person has nothing to lose if my hypothesis is correct. Of course, this confusion as to which Edward it was could have been cleared up 5 years ago if he had only shared information with us. I would hope that this person would welcome definitive proof of a relationship between his family line and our confirmed legitimate Green-Merritt line.
1) It helps to share information with others at the onset. This sets the tone for your future interactions. Witholding info while asking others to share is not copacetic. I am of the mind that sharing benefits everyone. I actually had sent this person photos of Edward Merritt’s children before I knew better. I used to have a public tree on Ancestry, but I have since made it private. I will continue to share my tree, but only very judiciously.
2) Do not assume a relationship based on a photo without documentation to back it up. Assumptions like that can ruin genealogical progress on your tree. In this case, this individual followed down the wrong family branch — though ultimately his family tree might be correct — for 5 years.
3) Always employ the 5 Genealogical Proof Standards in your genealogy research. The most important standard here was the one involving conflicting information. If all of John Sherman Merritt’s documents listed his father as being born in Port Chester, NY, but Edward Mayo Merritt was born, lived his entire life, and died in Greenwich, CT then this should have been investigated further. When I looked initially for Edward Merritts born in Port Chester, they were all listed as being white. John Sherman’s birth certificate indicated his father was black. Again, a conflict. I only kept looking to resolve these conflicts because this individual had a photo of Edward Mayo’s father. This is what kept me digging deeper. I am really a big fan of doing exhaustive research/fact checking and highly recommend that people pay attention to details that don’t jive together. Be meticulous in your research, in other words.
4) If your ancestor was born “illegitimate” and you have taken a DNA test, why not share the results with distant cousins, on the alleged family line, who have also DNA tested? Not sharing in this case boggles my mind as a DNA test is the ultimate paternity test. Better yet, why not test the direct male descendant, in this case, the person’s uncle? The information that a 23andme or FTDNA Y-DNA test could give would be very telling. His Y-DNA haplogroup could definitively prove that he was a descendant of a white Merritt and we could see if he matched all my other family members on our Green-Merritt line. A FTDNA Y-DNA would definitely give him DNA cousins on his Merritt paternal line. Again, more definitive proof regarding descent from a Merritt.
God bless my Greenwich ancestors, both enslaved and free, whose life stories I am honored to tell almost 250 years later. We call your names so you will be remembered by all.
I dedicate this blogpost to the following people: My cousin Andrea Hughes, who remains my main research partner and whose research skills were instrumental in my writing this blogpost; My grandfather, Richard W. Greene, Jr., who instilled in me a love of family history and pride; and to all my immediate and extended Green and Merritt family members who should feel proud that we descend from a group of people who survived slavery and went on to prosper. We are because they were. We come from strong New England stock indeed.
My Green and Merritt family history begins with my 4th great-grandparents, Peg Merritt and Anthony Green (also referred here as Tone). They were members of the pioneering slave class that began the walk to freedom so to speak. Their emancipation journey was long, arduous, difficult, and precarious at best. What follows below is an account of my ancestors slow crawl out of slavery and their slow jog to freedom. The fact that my enslaved ancestors persevered and eventually prospered is a very American story that needs to be told. I am honored to be able to tell their story.
Unlike most African-Americans who face a real struggle in locating their ancestors before 1870 —the year that African-Americans were first listed as people by their name—I was blessed to have been able to find a paper trail for my Greenwich ancestors that goes back to the late 1700s. As you will see below, this paper trail includes bills of sale, a letter of indenture, emancipation records, land records, wills, census records, etc. Because my ancestors were enslaved in the North, they were emancipated earlier and this led to an accumulation of records concerning them. However, before Peg and Anthony’s story can be told, a short overview of slavery in Connecticut is needed.
Overview of Slavery in Connecticut
The first African slaves to arrive in Connecticut came as the first colonial settlements were founded in the mid-1600s. These slaves were few in number. It must be mentioned that Connecticut slavery also included enslaved Native Americans. However, as the wars with Native Americans continued and Native Americans were being decimated in the process of colonization, the preference for black slaves increased so by the 1700s you see a marked increase in the number of black slaves being brought into Connecticut via the Caribbean. In 1680, there were about 30 slaves in Connecticut and, by 1774, that number increased to over 5,100 enslaved people.
As the number of enslaved people increased, Connecticut instituted their own Black Codes. These were laws, enacted between 1690 and 1730, that proscribed the relationship between master and slave. These laws also did not distinguish between slaves and Free blacks. This meant that black people had to carry a pass outside of town, could not be out after 9pm at night, could not sell items without proof of ownership and permission of their master, could not speak out against or strike their master or any white person, could not drink in public or create a disturbance, could not receive training in a militia, etc. Violation of any of these things would result in punishment, including whippings. However, black people in general had some avenues in court to address issues concerning them by entering petitions and pleas and by making complaints.
There are some who mistakenly argue that slavery in the North was a more “benevolent” form of slavery versus slavery in the South. I categorically reject this assumption. To be a slave is to be forever locked into the most dehumanizing and subjugating position one can be in without relief — one’s location does not matter. To be a slave was to be at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. Of course, there are critical differences in the way slavery was experienced in Connecticut than that which was experienced in the South—namely, in size and scope. For the most part, when we discuss slavery in Connecticut, we are talking about farmers having 1-2 slaves working either as farmhands or as domestic servants. They lived in close quarters with their slave owners. Unlike the Southern system of slavery with its large plantations and anywhere from tens to hundreds of slaves, slavery in Connecticut was very small-scale and “family-centered” in scope.
The shift in how slavery, as an institution, was viewed changed as the Revolutionary War approached in the mid-1770s. The Connecticut anti-slavery movement played an instrumental part in getting a law passed in 1774 that banned the importation of slaves into Connecticut. The hypocrisy of fighting for freedom from England while continuing to enslave Black people became apparent and so the calls to end slavery grew louder. Though emancipation bills were defeated in 1777, 1779, and 1780, anti-slavery activists did not give up. At this point in time, Connecticut had the most slaves in all of New England. Finally, in 1784, the Gradual Emancipation Act was passed.
The Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784 was the beginning of the end of slavery in Connecticut. This act freed children born to enslaved women who were born after March 1, 1784. However, these children had to serve a term until they were age 25 for men and 21 years for women. Prior to these ages, the children with in the care of their parents and/or owners and had to work for their masters. They could also be apprenticed out to others until they gained their freedom. Slave owners were required to register the births of all children born after March 1, 1784 and were penalized if they did not. Of course, there were slave owners who did not comply with the law. Unfortunately, those enslaved children, who were born prior to March 1st, 1784, were considered slaves for life or until their owners emancipated them. In 1797, the Gradual Emancipation Act was amended. The age requirement for all was reduced to a term of 21 years for all and it prevented those under gradual emancipation from being sold out of state. By 1800, 83% of the Black population was free. By 1848, the year that slavery was officially abolished in Connecticut, there were only 6 slaves left in the state.
Slavery in Greenwich, CT
Jeffrey B. Mead’s book Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, CT is the only compilation of transcribed emancipation records that exists for Greenwich’s formerly enslaved people. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking book and excellent resource for descendants, like me, of Greenwich’s early black population. According to Mead, slave labor was never widespread in Greenwich. He mentions that in 1762, Greenwich had a population of 2,021 whites and 52 blacks and in 1774, Greenwich had 2,654 whites and 122 blacks. By the time of the 1790 census, Greenwich had a total population of 3,175, of which only 49 individuals owned 80 slaves. The two largest slave owners owned 7 and 8 slaves respectively. Most Greenwich slave owners only had 1-2 slaves.
Greenwich slaves lived with their owners for the most part. The Bush-Holly House in Greenwich provides an example of the type of living quarters slaves occupied in the slave owners home during slavery. Joseph McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project spent the night at the Bush-Holly House, with members of the organization Coming To The Table, and they describe their experiences here.
The Slave Owners of Our Family
The slave owners of my family were six that we know of —Daniel Lyon, Jr., Nathan Merritt, Sr., Nathan Merritt, Jr., Simeon Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, and John Green. From my research into these families, I learned that they were all part of the same geographically close, extended family. For example, Nathan Merritt, Sr. and the mother of John Green, Mary Merritt Green, were siblings. This would make Nathan Merritt Jr. and John Green first cousins. Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s wife was Phebe Merritt Lyon. Daniel Lyon, Jr., Simeon Lyon, and Benjamin Woolsey Lyon were all cousins and all 3 were descendants of ThomasLyon of Greenwich, CT. John Green’s brother James’s children, Thomas Green, Nancy Green Husted, and Sarah Green Wilson, all maintained contact with the children and grandchildren of Peg and Anthony after their deaths. In fact, Sarah Green Wilson’s son, James Wilson, was the executor of 4 of my ancestors’ wills. From 1810-1870, the descendants of both slaves and slave owners are living with or near each other.
It is my belief, that because the extended white slave owner families lived in close proximity to each other, my ancestors were able to maintain a level of family cohesion that allowed them to survive slavery as a family in tact. When you look at census records from 1790-1820, you see that the Merritts, Husteds, Wilsons, Lyons, and Greens all living near each other. This meant that, in some cases, Peg and Anthony were able to see their children frequently. Since both slave owners and slaves attended the same churches, this also provided a venue for them to reconnect with their children. That being said, both Peg and Anthony had to wait 30 years, from the time of her emancipation, for all their family members to be free.
Nutmeg State Slaves: The Wait to be Free
On July 7th, 1790, my 4th great-grandmother Peg was sold to Nathan Merritt, Jr. by Daniel Lyon, Jr. She was 20 years old at the time. Because she was born around 1770, she was considered a slave for life until she was emancipated. She was sold for “the sum of fifty pounds of New York money” to Nathan Merritt, Jr. As a young slave, she was subject to the whims of her slave owner and this included being forced into non-consensual relations. While enslaved with Nathan Merritt, Jr., Peg gave birth to her first son, Charles Merritt, on May, 11, 1791 and gave him the Merritt surname. Through DNA testing of a Charles Merritt descended cousin, who has a 4th DNA cousin match that descends from the family of Nathan Merritt, we know that her son Charles was fathered by a Merritt male. Her second son Jack, whose birth record recorded him as Tack, was also born when she was in the Merritt household on February 14, 1793. He was most likely fathered by a Merritt as well. Sometime before 1795, Peg returned to the Lyon family and was living with Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, brother of Daniel. This would make him the 3rd slave owner she had by the time she was 25 years old. It would also meant that she was separated from her sons as they were still owned by her prior slave owner and were considered his property.
We know that Peg met Anthony sometime in the early 1790s. Because Nathan Merritt, Jr. and John Green, Anthony’s slave owner, were first cousins, there is the high probability that they met at a family gathering of the slave owners prior to her being sold to Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. While she was a slave of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, she gave birth to Anthony Green, Jr. on December 3rd, 1795 and to Plato Green on November 1st, 1798. From the mid 1790s onward, they were for all purposes a married couple.
As slaves, Peg and Anthony had no control over their own lives or those of their children. They could be separated at any time from each other. This was very evident on August 18, 1796 when her son Jack was sold at the age of three by Nathan Merritt, Jr. who still owned him. Jack was sold for “the sum of 15 pounds of New York money” to Simeon Lyon of Greenwich.
Going through Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s will in 1809, we see that Anthony, Jr. remained a slave in Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s household as he is mentioned as “his negro boy Tone”. His value in 1809 was $75 and it was stated that he had to serve 25 years. Plato isn’t mentioned in his will so he may have been sold to someone else after Peg was emancipated.
It should be noted that Peg’s older sons Charles, Jack, and Anthony, Jr. would have been gradually emancipated after serving a term of 25 years according to the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784. Her last 4 sons by Anthony—Plato, Allan (my 3rd great-grandfather), Henry and Solomon would have been required to only serve a 21 year term as the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1797 decreased the time that enslaved children had to serve by 4 years. This meant that Charles would be emancipated in 1816, Jack in 1818, Anthony, Jr. in 1820, Plato in 1819, Allen in 1825, Henry in 1829, and Solomon in 1831.
When Freedom Came: The Emancipation of Peg & Anthony Green
Peg was the first to be emancipated on April 12, 1800 by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. She was now 30 years old. As among the newly emancipated, she would have had to fend for herself. Given that she was in a solid relationship with Anthony and may have been living with him then, it’s easy to assume that he may have been able to provide for her and their three sons —Allen Henry, and Solomon—born after she was emancipated, but this was not the case. Though Peg and Anthony are first recorded in the 1810 census as living as Free blacks with a household of 5, they were still not able to provide adequately for their children. In 1812, their son Henry became a ward of the town and was bound out to Nathan Merritt, Sr. of New Castle, West Chester County, NY until the 2nd day of May 1829. This letter of indenture specifically states that“with the consent and advice of Jabaz Mead, Justice of the Peace in said county put place and bind out Henry, a Negro boy (son of Margaret) a poor child whose parents do not take care of nor provide for him and who has become chargeable to the town…” In return for Henry’s labor, Nathan Merritt, Sr. was to provide “meat, drink, washing, lodging, clothing, and physic (exercise) during said term.”This letter of indentured was signed on April 15, 1812. It should be noted that Nathan Merritt, Sr. was the father of Peg’s former slave owner as well as the uncle of John Green, Anthony’s slave owner at the time. Both Peg and Anthony may have appealed to him to take on their son Henry when they couldn’t provide for him. I would like to think that they leveraged personal ties to do so.
The life of the formerly enslaved person was not easy. It was a constant struggle to survive and provide adequately for oneself. We do know that Peg had to wait another 16 years for Anthony to be emancipated after she was. On April 15, 1816, three months after his slave owner John Green died, Anthony was emancipated by his widow Mary Green and her son-in-law/nephew Thomas Green. Its worth noting that at the time John Green died, Anthony was valued at $100.
First Generation Freedom: From Slaves to Landowners
After Peg and Anthony were emancipated, they slowly began to build a future for themselves and their children. It was through their sheer hardwork and determination that they were able to improve their lives. As Free blacks, they probably hired themselves out as domestic servants and/or farmhands and saved money in the process. It was quite common for Greenwich slave owners to have both slaves and Free blacks working for them. What we do know is that on April 17, 1820, Anthony bought into a $5,000 land deal with some prominent men from Greenwich, CT and Rye, NY. These men were Thomas Green, Zopher Mead, Isaac Mead, Jabez Mead, William Robbins, Carr Robbins of Greenwich, CT and Samuel Pine, Samuel Lyon, and Elisha Belcher of Rye, NY.
There are so many questions that need to be asked about this land deal. It should be mentioned that Thomas Green was the nephew/son-in-law of John Green, Anthony’s former slave owner. Is it possible that Anthony continued to work for the Green family after emancipation? Is it possible that Thomas Green let him in on the land deal? Jabez Mead was also the Justice of the Peace who signed off on Henry’s letter of indenture. Did Jabez Mead know Anthony and Peg before this land deal? Did Samuel Lyon know Anthony and Peg from Benjamin Woolsey Lyon? In his 1840 will, Benjamin Green, a nephew of John Green, states that he is leaving land to his wife. He just happens to mention that some of his land borders the land of Mary Green and Anthony Green. Was Anthony’s property, next to Mary’s, purchased as part of the land deal? Mary and Anthony were around the same age and definitely knew each other their entire lives. Did Thomas and Mary help Anthony out? Anything is quite possible since Greenwich is a small town and there were few blacks at the time. Anthony and Peg may have been well-known to the larger white Greenwich community.
As an aside, Jabez Mead, one of the men listed in the $5K land deal, is Jeffrey B. Mead’s 3rd great-grandfather. How wonderful it is to know that not only has Jeffrey been an asset to my research, but that his ancestor may have been instrumental in helping my 4th-great-grandfather accumulate wealth in the form of property.
By the mid-1820s, Peg and Anthony would see that most of their children were free. With Allen reaching the emancipation age of 21 in 1825, that meant that only Henry and Solomon were left to be freed. At some point before 1830, Peg must have passed away. We do not have an official death date for her. We don’t see her listed on the 1830 census. Peg and Anthony were around the same age in the 1820 census, but there is no woman in her age category with him in the 1830 census. When she died is anyone’s guess.
‘We do believe, however, that the most likely place for her and Anthony to be buried was in Byram Cemetry. This cemetery was built by the Lyon’s family for their descendants and included a Colored Cemetery for their slaves and Free blacks. It would make perfect sense for Peg and Anthony to have been buried there as they were both affiliated with the Lyon family. There is no way to verify this though as no records were kept of the black burials and no tombstones exist. Of course, this is just another way that our ancestors have been erased from the historical record.
Though Peg may have died before Anthony, both of them did get to see some of the next generation born free from the shackles of slavery. The Greens and Merritts were definitely fruitful and multiplied. Charles Merritt and his wife Catherine’s family included Abraham, Samuel, Jarvis, Ann, and Isaac. Jack Husted and his wife Helen had Nancy, Jane Ann, Sarah, and Lucinda. Anthony, Jr. and his wife Abigail expanded their family with Sylvia, Mary, Susan, Caroline, Anthony, III, and Henry. My third great-grandparents, Allen and Mary, went all out with Sarah, Thomas, Rebecca, Samuel, James, John, Charles, George, Darius, Anna, and Benjamin. Henry and his wife Tempy had Warren, William, George, Adelaide Louisa, Harriet, Frances, Susan, David, and Randolph. Solomon and his wife Lucinda only has a daughter, Ellen. We have no record for children for Plato.
It was Anthony who lived to see all his children emancipated. Without a doubt, he accepted both Charles and Jack — Peg’s oldest sons — as his own along with the five sons they had together. According to the 1830 census, his sons, Charles, Anthony, Henry, and Jack, all were living independently and working as laborers.
Anthony passed away sometime in 1836. We found a probate record mentioning that James Wilson was appointed the executor of his estate. His estate was only worth $198. Given that the value of his estate was low, it is safe to assume that he may have distributed his property to his sons before he died.
Second Generation Freedom: From Landowners to Freedom Fighters and More
After Anthony died, Plato, Allen, Jack, Charles, Solomon, and Anthony, Jr. were listed on a land sale record where they were selling $210 of land to a Henry Merritt of Greenwich.
This land record describes, “a certain tract of land with buildings in said Greenwich, being estate of our deceased father Anthony Green in quantity of one room, bounded North by land of Esbon Husted, East of land by Charles Merritt, South by land of Esbon Husted, and West by land of Esbon Husted.” The document was signed by Plato Green, Allen Green, Charles Merritt, Jack Husted, Solomon Green, and Anthony Green, Jr. The only son missing was Henry Green.
It should mentioned here that the man they sold land to, Henry Merritt, is NOT a descendant of Peg. Henry descends from a separate African-American Merritt line. This line can be traced back to Robert Merritt, son of Whitman, who was born in Greenwich in 1737. Whitman Merritt must have been born around 1720. This other Merritt line predates my family’s Merritt line. We know that our Charles Merritt was fathered by a white Merritt. We also know that my 4th cousin, William Merritt, is a direct descendant of this Robert Merritt AND via Joshua Green, Allen Green’s grandson. William has been DNA tested and has an African (Malagasy) haplogroup which reflects his Merritt line’s African ancestry. So, what this document tells us is that one black family was helping another black family purchase land in the 1830s.
In 1840, Charles, Jack, Anthony, Jr., Allen, Solomon and Henry are living in Greenwich with their families. Plato is the only one who we can’t find in any records for after the land deal above. He may have relocated out of state or passed away.
In 1850, we see three of the Green brothers living next to each other. Solomon and Jack Husted are living independently. It’s interesting to note that Charles Merritt is listed as Charles Green. This is the only census where he is listed as a Green and it may reflect more on the part of the census taker. That person may have asked one Green brother who lived next door and was told it was his brother Charles. Again, they continued to work as laborers and owned their property for the most part.
I should mention here that my Greenwich ancestors started attending Second Congregational Church in Greenwich in the 1840s. In 1851, Robert W. Mead deeded three acres of land to Second Congregational Church to be used as a cemetery for poor people and people of color. These three acres, that were to become known as Lot #23, were added to Union Cemetery which was owned by the church. As soon as Lot #23 was open, my ancestors were among the first to take advantage of this burial place and bought plots. I can only imagine how important it was for some of them to have tombstones erected. As you can see, my family has 17 Green, Merritt, and Husted ancestors buried in Union Cemetery in Greenwich.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, the children and grandchildren of Peg and Anthony can be seen living with, or next to, the descendants of their family’s former slave owners. For example, in 1850, Allen’s daughter Sarah is living with Nancy Green Husted and her husband Peter. Allen’s son Thomas is living with Mary Green, the daughter of John Green and wife of Thomas Green. Allen’s son James is living right next door with James Wilson, John Green’s great-nephew. In 1850, Allen’s son Samuel is living with John B. Wilson and Anthony, Jr.’s son Henry Green is living with Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s son, Daniel Lyon. In 1860, Allen’s son Darius is also living with James Wilson. In 1860, Anthony, Jr., his wife Abigail, and son are living with Nancy Green Husted. The close relationship between the descendants of former slaves and descendants of former slave owners can’t be denied. There is something that is to be said for the continuance of such a relationship for decades. It’s noteworthy if we consider as well the fact that James Wilson is the executor of Anthony, Sr., Anthony, Jr., Allen, and Charles’s wife Catherine’s wills. I should also add here that Mary Green left $250 each to both Anthony, Jr. and Allen when she died. There was definitely a level of trust and familiarity there for sure.
Speaking of wills, the fact that Peg and Anthony’s children even had wills is a testament to them wanting to leave their children a little better off than they were. Looking at my 3rd great-grandfather Allen’s will, we are able to get an idea of what he had accumulated during his life that was then passed down to his children. Allen left everything to his wife Mary, but, after she died, he wanted everything split between their children, Thomas, Sarah, Samuel, John, George, Charles, Darius, and Benjamin. Only James was left out of his will though he was mentioned as a son. Both Rebecca and Anna were already deceased.
Allen left behind $1,985.07 worth of property. $1,600 was in real estate and the rest was in personal property. He clearly left valuable items behind that would be of use to his children. Cows, fowl, vegetable gardens, apples, hay, rye etc. could all be used for sustenance. Items like a horse, a wagon, farming tools, lots of furniture, a stove, grinding stones, looking glasses (mirrors), etc. would have been extremely valuable as well. When Anthony, Sr. died in 1836, his estate was valued at $198. 42 years later when Allen died, his estate was worth 10 times as much as his father’s. This should be considered progress by any manner, especially one generation out of slavery. They were making a way seemingly out of no way.
In the mid-1860s, the Greens and Merritts were witnesses to the events that were engulfing this nation as it veered towards the Civil War. The 29th Infantry Regiment, an all volunteer unit, was organized in Fair Haven, CT and mustered our in March 8, 1864 after beginning training at the end of 1863. It should be noted that the 29th Infantry Regiment was the first infantry to enter Richmond, VA at the close of the war. Of the 18 black men who fought in the 29th Infantry Connecticut Colored Troops from Greenwich, 7 are connected to my family. Direct ancestors include James H. Green, Charles E. Green, William Green, George E. Green, and Isaac Merritt. James and Charles are my 3rd great-uncles and William, George, and Isaac are my first cousins 4XR. In addition, Robert Peterson was the brother-in-law of my 3rd great uncle Thomas Green, who was married to Robert’s sister Emeline. Horace Watson’s daughter Annice was married to William Green. That my ancestors volunteered to fight in the war that gave way to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, only a generation removed from slavery themselves, is a source of great family pride. Charles, William, George, Isaac, and Robert are buried together in Union Cemetery until this day. May God bless them for their service to this country.
Starting in the early 1860s, we see that our Green and Merritt ancestors started to leave Greenwich for other parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Westchester County, NY, New York City, and New Jersey. They left to pursue work elsewhere as farming opportunities dried up in Greenwich. For example, my 2nd great-grandfather George E. Green originally moved to Yorktown Heights, Westchester County before moving to New York City to work in the hotel industry. After serving in the US Navy during the Civil War, he ended up in Newark, NJ. Henry’s daughter Adelaida Louisa moved to New York City’s Harlem and married Charles Glasby, who fought for the 20th Infantry from New York, Company K, United States Colored Troops. Allen’s daughter Sarah moved to New Canaan, CT after marrying Marcus Smith whose paternal line goes back to Ned Smith who was born in 1774 in New Canaan. Charles Merritt’s grandson Norton L. Merritt ended up in Port Chester, NY in the 1880s and finally resided in Waterbury, CT by 1900.
That being said, we did have many ancestors who did stay behind in Greenwich. Some even left a mark there. We clearly see this in 1882 when 28 members of the Greenwich black community banded together and founded Little Bethel AME Church. Of the 28 original members, there were Charles Green, Catherine Merritt, Casella Merritt, Frank Merritt, and Mandeville Merritt — all ancestors of ours. Let the church say amen!
The Untold Story: What Our DNA Tells Us about Peg and Anthony
1) Growing up, we had always heard that the Green-Merritt line was mulatto and that this line also had Native American roots. After having over 10 relatives tested on this line, we can say for certain that our oral history is correct. All of us have tri-racial ancestry with anywhere from 0.6% – 4% Native American admixture. This should not come as any surprise since we have colonial roots in Northeast and the first slaves in the Northeast, including Connecticut, were people of African and Native American descent. This is certainly seen in our ethnic composition. As seen below, our cousin LC has Native American admixture of 4%, African admixture of 52%, European admixture of 39%, 4% West Asia admixture, and 1% South Asia/East Asia admixture. As an FYI, Native Americans were not identified as such in the 1790-1840 census records. This could be seen as one way to erase Native Americans from the historical records.
2) Looking at all of our DNA cousins matches, it becomes quite clear that we all have Euro DNA cousins who descend from the founding families of Greenwich, CT and Rye, NY. These families include the Lyon, Merritt, Mead, Green, Purdy, Sherwood, Lockwood, Husted, Knapp, and Peck families among others. Why do we share a connection to Euro DNA cousins with these surnames? Well, because we must have have some ancestors in common. This would also make sense since all my family’s white slave owners were all interrelated themselves. We all know that consensual and nonconsensual relations occured during slavery and after. This is something that some people don’t want to acknowledge. However, history can’t be denied as DNA has the power to uncover hidden truths.
Below shows a Lyon DNA cousin who is sharing 7.8 cMs with my cousin Andrea. He is a direct descendant of John Lyon who was born in Greenwich in 1706. John Lyon’s father was Thomas Lyon, a descendant of Thomas Lyon of Rye.
3) There is a high possibility that both Peg and Anthony were mulatto. The case for Peg being mulatto stems from the fact that quite a few of us have Euro DNA cousins who are directly related to a number of Lyons who descend from Thomas Lyon, including her first slave owner Daniel Lyon. I should add here that my 3rd great-grandfather Allen did name his son Benjamin Woolsey Green after Peg’s last slaveowner. The question begs to be asked why? Did he name him after a possible relative?
With Anthony, the evidence seems to be more circumstantial. It is very clear that Anthony had a special relationship with the extended Green family that seems highly preferential. That he was given the freedom to live with Peg before his emancipation, was included in a substantial land deal, owned property directly near a number of members of the Green family, had children and grandchildren living with the descendants of his former slave owners for up to almost 60 years later, and had children who received money when these slaveowners died, makes me wonder as to why? Was this just a simple case of rewarding a man who used to be their slave and may have worked for them after he was emancipated? Or, was there also a genetic component involved in this special relationship where Anthony, Sr. and his family were being looked after by their former slave owners and their descendants on some level? Was Anthony fathered by a white Green? Of course, this would not be the first time that a white slave owner took care of their black biological children. With DNA becoming more common and being used to break down genealogy brick walls, I hope we one day have more definitive answers to these questions.
And Now You Know….
Last Fall, I went to Greenwich Town Hall and to the Greenwich Historical Society to do some research with my sister Elisa. We stopped at a 7-11 to buy some drinks. The man behind the counter immediately blurted out that “we must be from the City.” In true Gemini quick-witted fashion, I responded, “Actually, we have deep roots here going back to the 1700s.” He didn’t say anything after that, but we got a good chuckle out of it. I recount this story because there are many people today who don’t know the history of Greenwich. Though my ancestors may have left due to economic reasons and some may have been priced out because of the rising property values as Greenwich because wealthier in the 1900s, some of Peg and Anthony’s descendants still live nearby. My cousin Pat lives close to the Thomas Lyon House. My cousin Ana lives in Stratford, CT. My cousin Eddie lives in Yonkers, NY. And, yes, I do live in New York City…a short train ride away.
Many people do not know that, once upon a time, there were enslaved people who lived in Greenwich, CT BEFORE the Revolutionary War. They know even less about the lives of these individuals and how they made the transition from slavery to freedom. Out of the darkness born of slavery in Greenwich, my family took the steps necessary to walk in the light of a freedom certain when emancipation came calling. I hope that in telling the stories of my ancestors that I, in some small way, rendered them visible and made their stories known. We will continue to claim Greenwich as our home because it always was.
Chains Unbound:Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut:
Black and Free:The Free Negro in America, 1830, A Commentary on Carter Woodson’s “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, Ed. By Alan Abrams, Sylvania, OH: Doubting Thomas Oublishing, LLC, 2001.
Reflections On When Yauco Came Calling: May the Circle Be Unbroken
Over a year ago, I wrote a blogpost about Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo, my 2nd great grandfather. I dedicated that post to my father, Antonio Vega Noboa, and my cousin Madeline Castanon Quiles and her family, the extended Bonilla Quiles family. Little did I know, that almost 15 months later, I would have the unexpected opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico to film an AncestryDNA commercial to be shown only on TNT. Thanks to Nicka Smith, who gave me the name of a TNT contact of hers, I was able to travel to Yauco, Puerto Rico, on my dad’s birthday, meet my Bonilla Quiles cousins, and join with them in a circle, with all his descendants gathered in spirit, to pay homage to our ancestor, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo. On the evening of March 18th, we honored our bisabuelo/tatarabuelo, Juan Eusebio, the way he deserved to be. May the circle we made be unbroken, may HIS story be known and may we forever be connected to him ….
Bringing Darkness Into Light: Recovering Our Family History
Almost two years ago, I met my 3rd cousin Madeline Castanon Quiles. She was the AncestryDNA hint that led me to discovering our great great grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo. When I first spoke with Maddy over the phone, she told me about his assassination and, when I googled his name, there were only two references to him. One was an urban legend and one was a book reference. Maddy had grown up hearing family oral history about his death, but lacked any concrete account of his death. The day after speaking with Maddy, I went to the New York Public Library to read the book, Asesinato Politico. It was only a 50 page book that was written by the son of Juan Eusebio’s best friend, Venancio Gutierrez. Between the pages of this short book, I learned the reason why Juan Eusebio was beaten, shot in the head, lynched from a Guasima tree, gutted, his penis put in his mouth, his testicles in his pant pockets. He was then cut down from the tree, placed on the stairs leading to the cemetery behind the church, and set on fire. That is where the people of Yauco found his body smoking and wreaking of gas. Tears, tears, tears…. How many times can you kill a man?
As the great great granddaughter of Juan Eusebio that was a lot to process to say the least. I grew up with my maternal great-grandmother so a great great grandfather seemed very close to me. I went from doing a happy dance because I found his maternal surname to utter despair. To learn that he was assassinated in such an “overkill” way just because he was a member of the Puerto Rican Autonomous Party, was of Taino descent, had chosen to speak out against the abuses of the Spanish Civil Guard, and had spoken up for the rights of the Boricua people, was an eye-opener for me. It was between the pages of this short book that I found out that I descended from a true Boricua hero. However, he had been left to languish in historical oblivion. That is when I decided that I had to pay homage to him by telling his story in a blogpost. I felt a real need to bring what happened to him back to life—even if it was after 125 years. There is no time limit on bearing witness to the atrocities that were committed against him. I just couldn’t have my great great grandfather be a backdrop to an urban legend or hidden behind the covers of a book. I truly believe that, as descendants of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things, we owe it to our ancestors to remember them as they were. If we don’t, who will? We are because they were. I am because he was.
The story of what happened to Juan Eusebio was never meant to be told. I know because Asesinato Politicotells us that the Spanish Civil Guard threatened the people of Yauco if they said anything about how he died and if they mentioned that the Civil Guard was involved. But, the book also tells us that the people of Yauco, at great personal costs, still testified as to what happened to Juan Eusebio nonetheless. They did this because they knew what a good man he was and that the spectacular way in which he was found was a message directed at them. Throughout this book, Juan Eusebio is described as un hijo del pueblo, valiant, humble, dignified, religious, honorable, had a character above reproach, was a true gentleman, etc. After his death, he was remembered in songs and in poems. We were lucky to have found the book Asesinato Politicoas it is the closest thing my family has to a first person account for it was told by the son of his best friend. It told me everything we needed to know about what happened to Juan Eusebio. My family is blessed to even have such a resource despite the subject matter. And thus darkness was thus brought to light.
God’s Amazing Grace
As I was on the plane traveling to Puerto Rico, I realized that, although I am Antonio Vega Noboa’s daughter, I am just as equally Joyce Green’s daughter. I may not have been raised Catholic, but I was raised Christian—Baptist actually. I am still that girl who grew up going to Messiah Baptist Church, 80 Legion Parkway, Brockton, MA— the church of my mother, maternal grandparents, and maternal great grandfather. I never knew if my father had religion, but, rest assured, I know my mama and her family did. I grew up learning about what faith is. I grew up singing the old gospel songs “We’ve Come This Far By Faith, Leaning on the Lord”, “Going Up, Yonder,”and “Never Alone.” I will forever be Rice & Beans & Collard Greens.
One of the things that I learned from the book was just how religious Juan Eusebio was and what great faith he had. The God in him definitely spoke to me. The book tells us that Juan Eusebio was imprisoned for three years during the El Componte Era, an era when the Spanish colonial government rounded up members of the Puerto Rican Automomous Party, jailed, and tortured them. He was jailed from 1887-1890. Once he got out, he wrote to the man who tortured him and challenged him to a duel now that he was free— because he believed in an honor code among gentlemen. I am sure he relied on his faith to get him through those horrible three years and after.
The night before his assassination he was at church attending a baptism for one of the neighborhood children. That same night, his friends gathered and warned him not to go to the duel he had set up because they knew he might not return. Juan Eusebio had such an unshakable amount of faith that he left his best friend Venancio Guitierrez with an account of all the torture he had withstood in jail as well as the info about how his duel was set up. There is no doubt in my mind, and never will be, that my great great grandfather KNEW what may happen to him and was prepared to die. He clearly wanted his friend to bear witness so he left him with evidence just in case—evidence that was “lost” after being turned over to the powers that be when the investigation into his death was launched. He was prepared to die and was not afraid. Psalms 23 states, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me.” Juan Eusebio had no fear for he walked with God EVERY step of the way.
The devil’s minions wanted the people of Yauco to have the image of Juan Eusebio’s body lying down, smoking and wreaking of gas on the steps leading to the cemetery forever seared in their memories. It’s an alarming image to have indeed. But, I know that the only image that I will have is the image that wasn’t seen. It’s the image that God’s amazing grace provided. The image of the doors of Heaven opening up and the angels coming down to carry Juan Eusebio’s spirit home to meet the God he served so well. Amen! Amen! Amen!
The Making of a Libation Ceremony
I knew when I was going to Yauco that I wanted to remember Juan Eusebio with his other descendants, my Bonilla Quiles cousins, and that I wanted to have a libation ceremony in his honor. A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid in memory of a person. Prior to this, I had never done a libation ceremony. I reached out to my cousin Luis Sanakori Ramos, whom I lovingly refer to as my “cousin preacher Taino teacher.” Luis is a Taino shaman and educator. I thank God for his presence in my life because he is the resource I go for all things Taino. When I told him that I wanted to do a libation ceremony, part of which was to celebrate Juan Eusebio’s Taino ancestry, he told me what I needed to have with me. My cousin Theresa Delgado-Tossas, when she heard that I was going to do a libation ceremony, she said she wanted to take part in the ceremony. Unbeknownst to me, she had also contacted Luis, her cousin as well, and learned the Taino welcoming song, got the items that were to be used in the ceremony, and took it upon herself to make sure things were done correctly.
Theresa and her husband Ralph, will forever be known to me as the first Puerto Rican cousins that I met in Puerto Rico and who were also instrumental in making Juan Eusebio’s honoring ceremony happen. I will never forget the songs that Theresa sang during the ceremony. She has a voice of an angel for sure. My cousin Ralph also stepped up and translated when I was speaking and I am equally grateful to him as well.
When I was off shooting scenes for the AncestryDNA commercial in Guanica, Theresa and Ralph went down to the ocean and gathered up the sacred water that was used in the ceremony. Guanica is a beautiful place. Since Luis has roots in Yauco and Guanica, we brought him gifts back from the ocean as well as the mountains of Yauco. He was with us in spirit guiding us along.
On the second day of filming we went up to Susua Alta, Yauco, the place where my paternal grandfather’s family resided for centuries. My Vega, Bonilla, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Toro/Del Toro Del Rosario/Rosario, and Bracero lines are all from Susua Alta and Yauco. I truly felt their spirit and I am proud to have roots that are jíbaro puro.
What a great feeling it was to walk where my Boricua ancestors lived for thousands of years. Yauco is the birthplace of the great Taino cacique, Agueybana. In between filming, I looked around and found some stones to bring back with me.
On Friday afternoon on March 18th, 2016, the descendants of Juan Eusebio, in person and in spirit, gathered together. I will forever remember the day I first met my Bonilla Quiles cousins. The TNT film crew had been filming me walking up to Tia Lucy’s home over and over again to get the perfect shot. With each take, the tears flowed. Here I was getting ready to meet my cousins FINALLY!
I will NEVER forget the moment when I walked into her home. My cousins — Tia Lucy and her husband Tio Pedro, Tio Becco and his wife Tia Nilsa, and my cousins Ivonne and her son Javier—were clapping and singing in Spanish, “Welcome to the family, Teresa” over and over again. We then gathered in a circle and got to know each other. Over lunch, I shared photos of my parents, my siblings, nieces and nephews. An extended family was reunited. And as God and the ancestors willed it, so it was.
Acknowledging Family Facts and Truths
At sunset, after filming was finished at La Guardarrayarestaurant, we gathered in a circle again, on the grass off to the side of a parking lot, to begin the ceremony. This was the highlight of my trip. I began by stating that we, as descendants of Juan Eusebio, needed to acknowledge certain facts as truths. Speaking from the center of the circle, I acknowledged the following and the others nodded in agreement:
That the blood Juan Eusebio shed in 1890 is the blood that we still have and it was this blood (via a DNA test) that reunited us here today.
That, while we stand here in person, we also represent all the descendants of Juan Eusebio who couldn’t be here today in spirit.
That the book Asesinato Politico must be included in our family history because this book is the closest thing we have to the truth for it was written by Juan Eusebio’s best friend’s son. It is between the pages of this book that we learn about who our bisabuelo/tatarabuelo was. That he was a humble man, valiant, dignified, religious, above reproach, etc.
That Juan Eusebio was a good Christian. That he had a remarkable faith in God. That it was his faith in God that caused him to fear no evil. Blessed be the name of the Lord. How great thou art!
That our Bonilla line is our Taino line.
That we are here in Yauco today honoring Juan Eusebio, un hijo del pueblo.
That Yauco is, and will always be, the birthplace of the great Taino cacique, Aguebana, and our ancestral homeland.
After I acknowledged all of the above, I returned to my spot in the circle of descendants. Ralph then played a song using a Peruvian pan flute and Tunisian tarbuka drum. After which, Theresa sang the Taino welcoming song for the Cemi, the Taino ancestral spirits. While she sang, I returned to the center of the circle and greeted the Cemi in all directions and offered up tobacco to them. This is the way Luis instructed us.
The video clip below is the full Taino welcoming song as sung by our cousin Luis Sanakori Ramos.
After Theresa finished welcoming our Taino ancestral spirits, I again stood in the center of the circle and gave thanks to Juan Eusebio in this manner.
Thank you, Juan Eusebio, for the blood you spilled in 1890 for it is the blood that still flows through our veins and the blood that was instrumental in reuniting your descendants today.
Thank you for showing us how to be a good Christian. By your example, you showed us how to walk with God and fear no evil. Your faith in God was remarkable and we know that you earned your wings to fly. Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God. May you always enjoy being in the presence of God.
Thank you for speaking up for the social, political, and economic rights of the Boricua people despite paying the ultimate cost. We are forever indebted to you and other Puerto Rican freedom fighters for having the courage to speak truth to power.
Thank you, Juan Eusebio, for being our Puerto Rican patriot.
Thank you for leaving us with the blood of the Taino …blood that will never be exterminated as long as we are here. It was because of you that we are, that our children will be also.
Thank you for having been born in Yauco, the birthplace of the Taino and our ancestral homeland.
With that, I returned to the outer circle and we had a moment of silence in his honor.
We then began the libation ceremony. We only recorded part of it. I began by pouring water inside the circle we made. I also decided to pour water outside our circle to signify that, as we honor the memory of Juan Eusebio, that we also recognize how we, his descendants, have been reunited and are now bound to each other. We may not have grown up with each other, but we can now grow old with each other knowing who brought us together. Theresa then sang Amazing Grace as a tribute to his Catholic faith.
After Theresa sang Amazing Grace, she started the Taino ceremony in honor of Juan Eusebio. We first called out and acknowledged the Cemi Makatarie Guayaba, the Lord of the Underworld, to pay our respects. She then dug three holes in the ground and buried guava. Guava (guayaba) is the food fed to the departed. In this case, we buried guava in honor of Juan Eusebio. Theresa then placed tobacco over the holes and lit the tobacco on fire. The smoke from the tobacco is the vehicle that allows the message to be sent to the ancestors. As the tobacco was lit, we called his name. Juan Eusebio, Juan Eusebio, Juan Eusebio….
We then hug each other and said goodbye for now…..
But There Are No More True Goodbyes, Only Hellos….
When I got back to Ponce later that night, I couldn’t stop crying tears of joy . Gratitude was all I felt. What was seemingly lost was found.
I took my first DNA test three years ago. I will always tell people that the greatest thing ever was finding my Puerto Rican side of the family. To go from knowing only my dad to having cousins in the thousands was beyond anything I ever imagined. To have lived in NYC for over 20 years thinking the I had no relatives here to now being able to hang out with my NYC cousin crew all the time is awesome. That some of my NYC cousins live only blocks from me makes it sweeter. Now, I have connected with my PR cousins in Puerto Rico— cousins who will welcome me back with open arms. My Boricua branches continue to expand each day.
When I left Puerto Rico, my cousins Pedro and Kelly sent me off. Meeting Pedro and Kelly completed my visit. We shared a quick visit and I showed them part of the libation ceremony as well as family photos. I also learned that Kelly may also be related to me twice— such is Puerto Rican endogamy. There will never be any goodbyes, only hellos until we meet next time. Because of all my cousins, I was able to come home….finally.
May the circle be unbroken!
PS: Before I left, my cousin Emma told me that the Guasima tree was a healing tree, a medicinal plant. She said my visit would be a healing visit. Emma, you were right. My soul has been healed.
This blog post is dedicated to my M23 Malagasy ancestors who survived the Middle Passage and made it to New York and New Jersey. This is Part I of a two part series and is focused on my family’s Malagasy ancestry. My next blog post will discuss how my ancestors arrived in New York based on the actions of unscrupulous NY merchants and pirates.
About Madagascar and DNA
Over the past decade, there have been numerous studies done that describe the origins of the Malagasy, the people of Madagascar. For example, in 2005, Hurles et al.discussed the dual origins of the Malasy people as being Southeast Asian and East African. His study was followed by one done in 2009 by Sergio Tofanelli et al. In this article, they wrote:
“Our results confirm that admixture of Malagasy was due to the encounter of people surfing the extreme edges of two of the broadest historical waves of language expansion: the Austronesian and Bantu expansions. In fact, all Madagascan living groups show amixture of uni-parental lineages typical present in African and Southeast Asian populations with only a minor contribution of Y lineages with different origins. Two observations suggest that the the Y lineages with “another origin” entered the island in recent times: 1) they are particularly frequent in the Tanosy area (Fort Dauphin), and around Antananarivo, where commercial networks and the slave trade had a focus; 2) they matched with haplogroups typical of present Indo-European (Europeans) and Arabic speaking (Somali) people.”
In addition, a 2012 study by Cox, et al.noted that most Malagasy people can trace their mtDNA back to 30 Indonesian women who made up the founding population of Madagascar. Given the fact that Southeast Asian Y-DNA was also found among the Malagasy, it is assumed that there were also some Indonesian men among this group of women. These women went on to have children with the Indonesian men present as well as men from Africa. Later migrations from Africa also included Southeast African Bantu mtDNA haplogroups from north of the Zambezi River. In 2013, Melanie Capredon et al.also discussed the Arab-Islamic contribution to the Malagasy gene pool as a result of Indian Ocean slave trade.
In addition to the Indonesian and African genetic links found among the Malagasy, there are also linguistic and cultural links to these regions as well. 90% of Malagasy vocabulary come from Maanyan, a language spoken in the Baritone River region of southern Borneo. The other 10% comes from the vocabulary of the Bantu, Malay, South Sulawesian, Javanese, and Sanskrit. Tofanelli et al. also raised the possibility that Indonesians may have reached East Africa and were admixed before their arrival in Madagascar probably around 2,300 years ago This initial mainland contact could explain the occurrence of banana cultivation (Asian Musa spp. phytolits) in southern Cameroon and Uganda before 500 BCE; the introduction of Bos indicus, a cattle of Southeast Asian origin, into East Africa from Asia; and the excavation of chicken bones, originating in Southeast Asia, from Neolithic limestone cave site at Zanzibar. They write, “This Malagasy admixture could have had a history in East Africa before it crossed the Mozambique Channel, even though genetic signatures of these first mainland contacts are still missing (2009:21).”
Madagascar and the Slave Trade and After
Madagascar was part of both the global trade in slaves in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The Indian Ocean slave trade existed before European colonization and even before the emergence of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. It saw Malagasy slaves taken to the Mascarene Islands, the Seychelles, Comoros Islands, East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and India. The European-driven Indo-Atlantic slave trade began in the 16th century. The Portuguese, Dutch , French, British and Americans brought Malagasy slaves to the shores of South Africa, St. Helena’s Island, Brazil and other South American countries, the Caribbean, especially Jamaica and Barbados, and North America. It should be noted that both slave trades were facilitated in part by different Malagasy ethnic groups who engaged in the selling of slaves to outsiders in exchange for arms and material goods. As a result of both slave trades— and later as free immigrants— Malagasy DNA spread around the globe.
On Finding Our Malagasy mtDNA
Over two years ago, my cousin Andrea and I decided to take the 23andme DNA test. We were desperate to find more information about our Thompson family history and felt that a DNA test would provide us with more clues. I knew beforehand that my mtDNA was European as my maternal 2nd great-grandmother was a first generation Irish-American. However, Andrea and I were excited to see what her mtDNA would be because she was a matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson Green, while I was not. Well, imagine our surprise when her mtDNA came back M23, a haplogroup that is only found in Madagascar. We were shocked as this was totally unexpected. It seems that our Malagasy ancestors came to the New York City/New Jersey area between 1678-98 or 1716-21. The knowledge that our 2nd great-grandmother had matrilineal ancestry that traced back to Madagascar necessitated that we do further research. Several questions came to mind. Did our Malagasy ancestry still show up in our genes? When did our Malagasy ancestors arrive in the States, specifically NY/NJ? Why did slave traders go to Madagascar to procure slaves?
Our Malagasy Roots and DNA Admixture
We can trace our Malagasy ancestry back to our 5th great-grandmother, Jane Pickett, who was born a slave in NJ or NY around 1775. Her daughter was Tun, also a slave born around 1790 in Tappan, NY, according to a 1860 census record, though she may have also been born in NJ. Both Jane and Tun were born slaves and eventually worked as house servants in their later years. Tun had a daughter named Susan Pickett, our third great-grandmother, who was born in Morris County, NJ in 1809. Susan was born under The Gradual Emancipation Actand thus had to serve her master for 21 years. We don’t know who her father was, but Susan is listed as being “mulatto.” Once freed, Susan married our third great-grandfather, Cato Thompson. Susan and Cato had six children.
Their children were Richard, Thomas, Jacob, Laura, Mary, and Catherine. My three maternal siblings, my aunt Helen, my first cousin, and I are the descendants of Laura’s son Richard. Andrea, her mother Mildred, uncle Robert, brother, and daughter are the descendants of Laura’s daughter Goldie. My cousin Yvonne and her grandson are the descendants of Laura’s son Stewart. My cousin Helen is a descendant of Laura’s sister Mary and my cousin Lillian is a descendant of Laura’s sister Catherine.
As of today, we have had 15 descendants of Susan Pickett DNA tested, of whom six have mtDNA M23. Having so many relatives DNA tested allows us to see how Malagasy ancestry is passed down generationally. According to 23andme, all of us have ethnic admixture, in varying amounts, from Southeast Asia, Central and South Africa, and/or East Africa, South Asia and Oceania. Those cousins who are matrilineal descendants of our shared M23 ancestors do show higher amounts in these admixture areas. While I don’t think any DNA test can tell you with 100% certainty what your admixture is, I do believe that they can provide clues about your ethnicity especially when combined with knowledge of local and family history.
Please note that I have previously blogged about my own admixture tests. In this blog post I will be mainly discussing my relatives’ admixture results.
Here are the 23andme Ancestry Composition results of my cousins Helen, Mildred, and Robert. You can clearly see the indicators of Malagasy ancestry.
As a comparison, here are the Ancestry Compositions for my aunt Helen and cousin Lillian. As you can see, their admixture is from the same areas, but in lesser amounts.
A look at the X chromosomes of Mildred, Robert, Lillian and Helen also show how our Southeast Asian ancestry (in yellow) has been passed down from our Malagasy ancestors. All four are the descendants of all three of Susan Pickett’s daughters—Laura (Mildred and Robert), Mary (Helen), and Catherine (Lillian).
In addition to testing at 23andme, my cousins Mildred and Andrea, aunt Helen, and sister Elisa also had a DNA Tribes SNP Analysis done in 2013. Again, the Malagasy indicators tend to be Southeast Asia, Central and South Africa, and/or East Africa, South Asia and Oceania. Please note that Bantu, Pedi, and Nguni are all Bantu-speaking groups that were part of the Bantu expansion.
Here are their Native Populations Admixture Analysis from DNA Tribes:
In 2014, I had my DNA Tribes SNP Analysis done again after they instituted their regional clusters. Here are my results as a Malagasy non-matrilineal descendant:
On chromosome 20, you can see how our Malagasy DNA, represented by our Southeast Asian admixture in yellow, has been inherited by the same ancestor.
A Word About Our Malagasy vs. Native American Ancestry
My family’s Malagasy (M23) ancestry is separate from our Native American ancestry. I make note of this because there have been claims made that haplogroup M was found in North America, and thus was Native American, based on a 2007 articlethat has since been debunked. I have written two prior blog posts on M23 and other M subclade haplogroups that mention how I disagree with this assessment and provide comments from well-known genetic genealogists and mtDNA experts about the M haplogroup. In the chromosomal view below, you can see how the Southeast Asian admixture (in yellow) is separate from our Native American admixture (in orange).
As it relates to my discussion of my family’s Malagasy ancestry in my next blog post, Esther J. Lee et al. note in their article “MtDNA Origins of an Enslaved Labor Force From the 18th century Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground in Colonial Albany, NY: Africans, Native Americans, and Malagasy?,” “individuals identified as haplogroup M7 and M resemble lineages found in Madagascar. Historical documents suggest several hundred people were imported from Madagascar through illegal trading to New York by the end of the 17th century. ” Though Lee had access to the now debunked 2007 article, she rightly acknowledges that the M7 haplogroup is found in East Asia, Southeast Asia and Madagascar. It is so important, as the Lee article shows, to look at local historical events to see how individuals with M haplogroups may have arrived in the Americas via the slave trade and who are NOT Native American.
I should also note that African-Americans, with the help of DNA tests, are now discovering their Malagasy ancestry. For example, my 98-year old cousin Helen has 5 DNA cousin matches with Malagasy ancestry from Madagascar, South Africa, and France on her 23andme DNA Relatives List and many of my family members have DNA cousins with known Malagasy haplogroups. Likewise, my friend Melvin Collier has written an excellent blog postonfinding and confirming his Malagasy ancestry via a Malagasy DNA cousin. As a result of these Malagasy ancestral discoveries, there is a now a Malagasy Roots Project at FTDNAthat seeks to connect African-Americans with their Malagasy DNA cousins.
Using Gedmatch Admixture Calculators to Detect Malagasy Ancestry
I have been asked repeatedly how one can tell if they have Malagasy ancestry in the absence of a known Malagasy mtDNA or Y-DNA. One of the ways is to take an autosomal DNA test from any of the three major testing companies — 23andme (highly recommended as you also get your haplogroups), AncestryDNA, or FTDNA Autosomal Family Finder— and then upload the results to Gedmatch, a free site, where you can run additional admixture calculators.
Based on my family’s known Malagasy ancestry, I feel confident enough to state that Malagasy indicators are Southeast Asia, Central and South Africa, and/or East Africa, South Asia and Oceania. It is crucial to realize that it is a combination of all these admixtures that may indicate Malagasy ancestry. Just having Southeast Asian, South African, East African ancestry or any one individual admixture is not enough to indicate Malagasy ancestry. I would also mention that one should research the local history/area where your ancestors resided. Slaves from Madagascar were known to have been imported into Boston, New York/NJ, and Virginia. However, there were many Malagasy slaves who may have arrived in the States via the Caribbean, Brazil, Europe, India, as well as a host of other countries. Many Malagasy also came to this country as free immigrants. In essence, you need to really do your research.
Some additional things to do would be to also have other relatives tested to confirm your Malagasy ancestry as well as to check your Gedmatch One-To-Many list to see if your DNA cousins have a Malagasy haplogroup.
Below are some of Gedmatch admixture calculators that I use to detect indicators of Malagasy ancestry. I am going to use my mother Joyce as an example because you can easily see her Malagasy admixture indicators. Plus, I think it is really cool to use a Gedmatch Lazarus recreated genome based on her four children, sister, niece and a host of 2nd and 3rd cousins. For the record, I use the following Gedmatch admixture calculators: MDLP-World 22, MDLP-K23b, Dodecad v3, Dodecad World9, Dodecad Africa9 (to detect South African and East African ancestry), Eurogenes K13, Eurogenes K36, and HarappaWorld. Most of these calculators detect Southeast, Oceanian, Austronesian, South Asian, Melanesian/Polynesian, Papuan, Malayan, South African, and East African admixture.
Malagasy MtDNA and Y-DNA Haplogroups
Disclaimer: Please note that the list below has some of the haplogroups found in Madagascar that come from several scientific studies (see references below). The nomenclature of these haplogroups may have changed since the articles were written. Also, if you have taken a 23andme test, their v4 chip may not give a definitive haplogroup assignment. For example, I am H1 on 23andme since I tested with their v3 chip, however, my siblings are just H since they tested with the v4 chip. Likewise, some folks who are B4a1a1b may show up as only B4a1a1 on 23andme. Note these haplogroups can be found in other places as well. There are only two haplogroups that I know for sure that are found only in Madagascar and they are M23 and B4a1a1a haplogroup subclades. I am by no means an expert on mtDNA or Y-DNA, but I think this list is valuable to those seeking more answers on their Malagasy ancestry.
I dedicate this blog post to my Bonilla ancestors, especially my father, Antonio Vega Noboa, who would have been proud to learn that his great-grandfather was a true Puerto Rican patriot. I also dedicate this blog post to my dear cousin, Madeline Castañon Quiles, and her family, who grew up hearing about the brutal death of our 2nd great-grandfather. I hope I tell his story the way he would have wanted it to be told. May Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo continue to rest in peace. Que Dios le bendiga.
Finding Maddy via AncestryDNA
Two years ago, I had a very off-balanced family tree. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my father was an only child and his parents divorced when he was a child. My paternal grandmother then moved from Carolina, Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, NY in the early 1940s. My dad and his parents were the only three names I had on my tree. After I took my first DNA test, I met a cousin, Luis Rivera, who helped me expand my tree immensely. He took me back to all my paternal great-grandparents, 2nd great-grandparents, as well as some third and fourth great-grandparents.
My Bonilla line can be traced to my paternal great-grandmother, Juana Florentina Bonilla Bonilla, the mother of my grandfather, Antonio Vega Bonilla. Based on Juana’s marriage record to my great-grandfather, Segundo Vega Rodriguez, I knew her parents were Juan E. Bonilla and Josefa Bonilla. Other than the fact that both were “mestizo” and were born in Susua Alta, Yauco, I was at a dead end. I had hit my Bonilla brick wall. Without their maternal surnames, it would be difficult to trace Juana’s parents further back.
Early last year I decided to take the AncestryDNA test. When I first received my results, I looked up the Bonilla surname to see if I could locate any of my Bonilla cousins from Susua Alta, Yauco. I did find Bonilla DNA cousins, but their trees started and ended in Coamo, Puerto Rico which didn’t seem to help me at all. That was until September 6, 2014 when I realized that I had a new cousin hint. I was so excited when I saw Madeline Castañon Quiles on my list. She was one of the cousins I had been waiting for for some time. Maddy turned out to be the cousin who helped me break down my Bonilla brick wall with a big KABOOM!
The Walls Came Tumbling Down…And So Did The Tears
As soon as I saw her name on my list with the exact 3rd cousin relationship, I wrote immediately to her and let her know that we were related via our shared 2nd great-grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla. I was excited to finally learn his maternal surname…Salcedo.
Juan Eusebio was one of four children born to Marcos Bonilla Bonilla and Rita Salcedo in 1852. In addition to his siblings Rosario and Antonio, he had a twin brother named Jose. Juan Eusebio was apparently married three times and had six children from all three marriages. My 2nd great-grandmother, Josefa, was his first wife and with whom he had Juana and Domingo. Maddy’s 2nd great-grandmother, Carmen Avallanet, was his second wife with whom he had Juan. Maria Dominga Camacho Torres was his third wife with whom he had Angel, Agueda, and Eusebio.
From Maddy, I also learned about “La Leyenda de la Guásima,” an urban legend which was indeed based on fact. She told me that our 2nd great-grandfather had been assassinated in a very public, horrific way by a Spanish Civil Guard, Jose Ferreria Tello, on June 30th, 1890. Maddy had grown up hearing about Juan Eusebio’s death from the oral history passed down from her mother Hilda, who had heard it from her elders. I went from feeling happiness at finally locating him to despair. So many questions popped into my head. The two major ones being (1) WHY was he assassinated? (2) WHAT did he do to deserve a death that involved being beaten, tied to a guásima tree, shot in the head, gutted, his mutilated genitals stuffed in his mouth and pant pockets, and finally set on fire???? Tears, tears, tears and more tears…..
I am not too sure about others, but having done genealogy/family history research for quite some time now, I’ve gotten to the point where I sometimes feel my ancestors pushing me in the direction of where they want me to go, as if they are leaving me breadcrumbs to follow. After speaking to Maddy, who I also found out lived in NYC, I googled Juan Eusebio’s name and found my first breadcrumb—a short 50-page book titled Asesinato Politico by E. Gutierrez Velez.
It is a book about the events of the “El Componte Era” in Puerto Rico, which led up to Juan Eusebio’s’s death in 1890, followed by “La Intentona” in 1897, the last uprising in Puerto Rico against Spanish colonial rule. The author was none other than the son of one of Juan Eusebio’s good friends, Venancio Gutierrez.
With the spirit of the ancestors leading the way, I indeed felt Juan Eusebio nudging me to discover the truth about his life and death almost 125 years after the fact. It is my intention to rescue him from obscurity. As his descendants, both Maddy and I owe that to him at the very least. He is our Puerto Rican patriot de verdad. If we don’t remember our ancestors, who will? Moreover, who will speak for those whose voices have been silenced? No matter how hard it was to read this book, I am grateful to have such an account, despite the horror of it all.
About His Death Record
We were able to locate Juan Eusebio’s death certificate which proved to be informative all around. His death record indicated that he was only shot in the head, that there was a criminal case made against the Civil Guard Jose Ferreria, his assassin, and that he was married, but had no living children. His parents were recorded as being Marcos Bonilla and Rita Salcedo.
Given the amount of birth , marriage and death records for him and his children, his death record smacks of a coverup and, at the very least, a great minimization of his death. Why was the truth about his death not mentioned? My inquiring mind wanted to know.
My Bonilla Ancestors: We Got Boricua Roots NOT Just Branches
Finding the names of Juan Eusebio’s parents, especially his father Marcos, led us to discover a treasure trove of family history that had remained buried until now. We were able to locate his death record which listed his birthplace as Aibonito and his death location asCoamo. It was just a matter of minutes, upon seeing Coamo listed, that I was able to link all my Bonilla DNA cousins family trees to my own and reclaim my family’s almost 500 year history in Puerto Rico. At the time of his assassination, Juan Eusebio’s family had already been in Puerto Rico for 340 years.
From Marcos’ family tree, I learned that his mother’s line descended not only from a Spanish conquistador sent to Puerto Rico in the 1500s, but also from the governing Spanish conquistadors of the Canary Islands. I was actually able to trace some of her family lines back to Spain to the late 1200s. I will address my Canary Island Spanish conquistador ancestors in a separate future blog post.
Regarding Puerto Rico, my 11th great-grandfather was Juan Lopez de Aliceda, one of the first Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the mid-1500’s with Juan Ponce de Leon. Juan Lopez de Aliceda was the Lieuteant Govenor in San German under Francisco de Solis Osorio (1568-1574) . Juan had a son, also named Juan Lopez de Aliceda, who went on to become the mayor of Coamo in the early 1600s. My Bonilla line descends from some of the founding families of Coamo which include the Colon/Colon de Luyando, Adorno, Aponte, Espinosa, Santiago, and Rivera families. All of these families were heavily involved with the Spanish militia and in the colonization of the island.
That being said, at what point did my Bonilla line become Puerto Rican? At what point did they cease to see themselves as being Spanish? Was this a process that occurred over decades or centuries??? I will never know the answers to these questions, but in 1890, clearly Juan Eusebio considered himself to be 100% Puerto Rican, an identity that was clearly different from that of the Spanish who still controlled all aspects of the political economy of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican mtDNA and Y-DNA
We know from a 2001 study done by Dr. Juan Martinez Cruzado that 61% of all Purto Ricans have Native American mtDNA, 27% have African mtDNA and 12% have European mtDNA. MtDNA is inherited only from one’s mother from her matrilineal ancestors and does not change over time. This, of course, means that a majority of Puerto Ricans are descended from a Taino woman. The flip side to this is that a majority of Y-DNA in Puerto Ricans, the DNA that males inherit from their’s father’s patrilineal line, is European. About 74.8% of Puerto Rican Y-DNA is European, 23.8% is African, and 1.5% is Native American.
Looking at Juan Eusebio’s grandsons, Enrique Vega Bonilla, who was my great-uncle, and Maddy’s grandfather, Juan Bonilla Quiles, clearly you see their mestizo ancestry. On her marriage certificate, my great-grandmother Juana Bonilla Bonilla listed her “race” as “mestizo.”
I can only assume that her father, Juan Eusebio, was also mixed-race, most likely mestizo, just like the majority of Puerto Ricans who have Native American mtDNA and a European Y-DNA.
NOTE: In order to really understand Juan Eusebio’s brutal assassination, we have to examine the historical period in which he lived. It is only in this way that we can fully understand how patriotic and brave he was to keep speaking truth to power.
The Puerto Rican Autonomist Party
In February of 1887, the Autonomist Party (Partido Autonomista) was formed in Ponce. Autonomist Party members advocated for the rights of Puerto Ricans who were born on the island. Their liberal beliefs included self-government, political economic development, education, and social justice for Puerto Ricans. The party was clear in that they were not asking for independence from Spain. Instead, they were looking to work within the confines of the Spanish colonial system. As a result, the Autonomist Party garnered the support of the Puerto Rican-born population, especially the educated middle class, as opposed to the Spanish-born Spaniard peninsular population who tended to support the more conservative Unconditional Spanish Party.
It should be noted that members of the Autonomist Party came from all racial backgrounds and represented all Puerto Ricans. That the majority of members were of mixed-race infuriated those in power. This new political party and it’s leaders were also closely aligned with the abolitionist movement in Puerto Rico. At a time when Spanish-born Spaniards still controlled all aspects of the politico-economic life on the island, the Autonomist Party was considered radical by the conservative parties on the island. Within months of the founding of the Autonomist Pary, their liberal ideas made them a target of government repression and conservative scorn.
In her classic book, The History of Puerto Rico, Loida Figueroa writes about how some members of the Autonomist Party decided to organize a boycott against Spanish owned businesses in favor of patronizing Puerto Rican businesses. The boycotters had formed secret societies to promote their boycott. This boycott was seen as evidence by both the Spanish colonial government and conservatives that the Autonomist Party was engaging in acts of separatism. [She also hinted at how Spanish businessmen burned down their own buildings and then blamed the arson on the boycotters.] Figueroa writes:
“The Spaniards and Puerto Ricans of the Unconditional sector knew something was going on, just noting the shift of people towards the Puerto Rica businesses and the lack of it towards their own businesses. Since refusing to buy in an establishment could not be declared illegal they had to use other means, such as saying that another Separatist conspiracy had been generated, aimed at ruining the businesses and lives of the Penisulares and those loyal to Spain. Since Puerto Ricans were Autonomists, the Unconditionals, upon attacking the Society, indirectly attacked the Party. In order to make others believe that national integrity was in danger, since the province was “on the verge of a revolution” the only thing they needed was to succeed in making the Captain Genral play their game. This Captain was General don Romualdo Palacios.” (Figueroa, p. 375)
It was in this way that the Autonomist Party and their supporters were targeted by the Spanish colonial government which, in turn, gave rise to the El Componte Era.
General Romualdo Palacios Gonzelez and the El Componte Era
Governor Romualdo Palaciosarrived in Puerto Rico in March of 1887. By April, he had aligned himself with the Unconditional Spanish Party and initiated the start of the El Componte Era. Palacios ordered the Spanish Civil Guard to identify, pursue, punish, torture and jail Autonomist Party members and supporters. “Componte” is a term that meant “rectify” or “pacify” by means of torture. Doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, musicians, writers, journalists, farmers, workers, and many others were rounded up and tortured. Figueroa goes on to write:
“…the Civil Guard kept on making arrests, with the anomaly that although it was announced that their object was to make investigations respective to the secret societies, the assumed informers were immediately qualified as wrongdoers or revolutionaries. To justify this qualification they proceeded to torture the “witnesses” and pry confessions out of them that would give a conspiratorial air to the boycotting societies. The tortures used were palillos, cordeles, chains or lash, apart from the current slaps, kicks, blows with butt ends of guns, and all kinds of other blows.” (Figueroa, p. 380)
There were many Autonomist Party members and supporters who were held and tortured both in “Houses of Componte” as well as the Castillo del Morro. Many were killed and some committed suicide as a result of this torture.
In August, Palacios had 16 leaders of the Autonomist Party arrested and, on November 6th, he ordered all 16 to be taken to the Castillo del Morro where they were sentenced to death. Those 16 were Cristino Aponte, Roman Baldorioty de Castro, Salvador Carbonell Toro, Francisco Cepeda Taborcias, Ulises Dalmau Proventud, Pedro Maria Descartes, Rodulfo Figueroa Gonzalez, Jose Vicente Gonzalez, Ramon Marin Sola, Antonio Molina Vergara, Bruno Negron, Andres Santos Negroni, Santiago R. Palmer, Epifanio Presas, Tomas Vazquez Rivera and Manuel Antonio Zavala Rodriguez. There was such an international outcry over these arrests that on November 9th, General Palacios was recalled to Spain. On December 19th, all 16 prisoners were freed. As we shall see, the El Componte Era did not end with Palacios leaving the island. It continued on for years.
Freemasonry in Puerto Rico
I have to add here that one of the groups that was heavily affected by El Componte were the Freemasonsin Puerto Rico. The government ordered all Masonic lodges to be closed and banned participation in Masonic activities. Because Masonic lodges operate in secrecy, the government found them to be a threat to their existence.
Freemasonry had taken hold in Puerto Rico after the Haitian Revolution with the immigration of French nationals to Puerto Rico. After 1850, Freemasonry attracted a following among the educated middle class population. With the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity inherent in their beliefs, Freemasons became members and natural supporters of the Autonomous Party. Out of the 16 Autonomous Party leaders imprisoned in El Morro, five were Freemasons. Those five were Salvador Carbonell Toro, Ramon Baldorioty de Castro, Santiago R. Palmer, Tomas Vazquez Rivera and Jose Vicente Gonzalez. Other prominent Masonic Autonomous Party members also included Ramon Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis, Jose Julian Acosta, Luis Munoz Rivera, Jose Celso Barbosa among others.
Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo: Proud Yauco Autonomist Party Member
Asesinato Politico proved to be a goldmine of information about Juan Eusebio. It is an almost play by play telling of events that led up to my 2nd great-grandfather’s vicious murder at the hands of the Spanish Civil Guard. E. Gutierrez Velez recorded events that his father Venancio relayed to him about the El Componte Era and its aftermath.
It turns out that Juan Eusebio was one of the first people in Susua Alta, Yauco to become affiliated with the Autonomous Party. He was outspoken in promoting their liberal ideas as well as advocating for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans. He was also a well-known businessman who owned a commercial store and coffee business. In addition, he was part of a group of Yaucanos, who were known to be Autonomous Party members and leaders, and who may have taken part in the boycott of Spanish owned businesses. As such, he came to the attention of the Spanish Civil Guard.
Gutierrez Velez lists the names of all the well-known Yaucanos who were arrested, imprisoned and/or tortured during El Componte. These men make up El Cuadro de Honor of Yauco, along with Juan Eusebio. I honor their names here as well:
In his book, Historia De Yauco, Hector Andres Negroni mentions the occupations of several of the men above. Antonio Mattei Lluberas and Domingo Mariani both owned sugar and coffee plantations. Francisco Castañer Castañer also owned a coffee plantation. Antonio Abrini owned a shoe store. Jose Maria Gatell was a pharmacy owner. Eustaquio Medina was a clothing manufacturer. Although he is not listed above, I should also mention that Venancio Gutierrez owned a tobacco factory. Clearly, all of these men represented the educated Puerto Rican middle-class that found the Autonomous Party attractive.
Francisco Mejia Rodriguez and Vicente Soltero Pagan were both Freemasons. I don’t know if Juan Eusebio was a Freemason, but he undoubtedly associated with them. As someone whose father and maternal grandfather were Masons, I am proud of the Masonic participation in the Autonomous Party.
So Why Was He Assassinated?
Gutierrez Velez writes that Juan Eusebio was arrested in 1887 during the Componte Era because, in addition to being an Autonomist Party member, he was accused of insulting the memory of a Civil Guard who had died. He returned to Susua Alta in the first months of 1890 after almost three years in prison in Ponce. While in prison, he was tortured by none other than Jose Ferreria! When he returned to the village, Jose Ferreria was not there. Gutierrez Velez, referring to Juan Eusebio, states:
“Creía tal vez, que la inquina dejada por su improprio proceder durante el “componte” se había extinguido con su repentina ausencia del teatro de las nefastas representaciones, en las cuales fue uno de los más destacados y también odiosos personajes.” (Gutierrez Velez, p.16)
“Perhaps, he believed that the gripe left by his improper conduct during “el componte” had been extinguished with the sudden absence of the theater of nefarious representations, in which he was one of the most prominent and also most hated characters.”
Once freed, Juan Eusebio wasted no time in writing to Jose Ferreria reminding him of all the abuse he suffered at his hands while in prison. He also challenged Ferreria to a duel as he considered this to be the best way to even the field with Ferreria—en el terreno de los caballeros. Wow! In effect, he was telling Jose Ferreria to be a real man—-as if to say, abuse me when my hands are not tied, when I don’t have a blindfold on, and when I am standing unfettered on my own two feet and see what happens. That took cojones to do that.
Juan Eusebio’s friends warned him not to go forward with the duel. Even Venancio Gutierrez gave him a prophetic warning when he said:
“Amigo Bonilla, deme la mano, porque si usted va al sitio con sus enemigos, que son menguados, no volveré a verlo vivo” (Gutierrez Velez, p. 19).
“My friend Bonilla, give me your hand, if you go to this place with your enemies, some of whom are devils, you will not be seen alive again.”
Despite the dire warnings of his close friends, Juan Eusebio was adamant that he would still go through with the duel. Obviously, he was not afraid. I often wonder why he showed no fear. I do find comfort in knowing that he was a religious man as Gutierrez Velez often points out in his book. I now know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was his FAITHthat allowed him to go forward. He walked with God and feared no evil—not even in the presence of his enemies.
Venancio’s prophecy had been proven true for Juan Eusebio was found early in the morning on June 30, 1890. His assassins had placed his body on the steps of the entrance to the cemetery—-a clear message that would be understood by all. His remains were found wreaking of gas and and still smoldering. He had been gutted and his genitals removed. His assassins had also placed his body in a supine position and put a revolver in his hand. Of course, this gave them the opportunity to later claim that he committed suicide.
Gutierrez Velez vividly tells of the moment the people of Susua Alta heard of his death. In a nutshell, he writes that “in an instant, the people came running, like a landslide, toward the churchyard. The Civil Guard had tried to close off the area, but they couldn’t because the people came running from all directions screaming, “They killed Eusebio Bonilla.”
La Leyenda de La Guásima is based on the facts about my 2nd great-grandfather’s assassination. There were no human witnesses to the brutality that he was subjected to on that night. However, Gutierrez Velez writes that, “the wires, the tree, and all the thicket damaged revealed with astonishing eloquence, the how and why of their dilapidated state, with their fresh bloodstains. The red showed definite signs and demonstrated, how much out of the ordinary, what happened there in the middle of the night in question.” It is no wonder that this urban legend states that when you hear the trees making noises at night, it is because they are crying out for justice for Juan Eusebio.
The Aftermath of His Assassination…
After his death, the Spanish Civil Guard tried to make it look like Juan Eusebio had committed suicide. In addition to placing a gun in his right hand, they also issued restrictive orders to the people of Susua Alta not to say anything about Jose Ferreria being in Yauco before or after Juan Eusebio’s death or to say, “Let me bring you to the guásima tree ” which was code language for “let me show you where Juan Eusebio was murdered.” The Spanish Civil Guard made clear that they would arrest anyone who violated their orders.
I am happy to say that Juan Eusebio had some good friends who were willing to speak out about his murder, at great personal costs, as well as pursue an investigation into his brutal death. One of those friends was Jose Simidei Rodriguez, who was a dry goods store owner in Susua Alta. Gutierrez Velez writes that one of the most vocal voices of protests over Juan Eusebio’s death came from Simidei who was arrested as a result. After being released, he thought about what he had said and decided, in hindsight, to liquidate his store and to flee to Santo Domingo out of fear for his life. Such was the fear of persecution that the Spanish Civil Guard created.
His other friends went on to launch a court investigation into his death at the hands of the Spanish Civil Guard in both Susua Baja and in San German. Many townspeople were called to testify against Jose Ferreria and many just showed up hoping to testify in memory of Juan Eusebio. Gutierrez Velez writes that the people were captivated by a man who distinguished himself with his correct conduct and who inspired respect from all because he respected everyone. And so they came to testify in his honor.
However, because the Spanish Civil Guard were agents of the state, the investigation was akin to being a kangaroo court where evidence was lost and the state always maintaining that Juan Eusebio had committed suicide. One of the “lost” documents was one that Juan Eusebio gave Venancio Gutierrez the night before he was killed which documented everything that Jose Ferreria had done to him during his imprisonment as well as the information concerning the duel. Juan Eusebio’s assassins literally got away with murder for Ferreria was found not guilty of anything since he was technically “not working” —he was off the clock so to speak—at the time of the murder and so the Spanish Civil Guard could not be blamed. Unbelievable.
Public Vindication for Juan Eusebio
Public vindication would finally came for Juan Eusebio on November 6, 1890. On that day, the La Razón newspaper, published in Mayaguez, reprinted an article from the Spanish newspaper La Justicia under the heading “Or Between Savages.” The La Justicia correspondent wrote about the horrible details of Juan Eusebio’s murder. The article mentioned that my 2nd great-grandfather had been tortured in 1887 and later violently killed in Yauco. It went on to state that Juan Eusebio had challenged his “componteador” after completing his prison term and that the Civil Guard had set up an appointment for the evening of June 30th, 1890 to meet him. Juan Eusebio was surrounded by a group of Jose Ferreria’s friends who took advantage of their greater numbers and tied him to a guásima tree leaving him at the mercy of his enemy, Ferreria. It went on to say that Juan Eusebio’s corpse was found by the wall of the cemetery with it’s belly cut open and had been partially burned. Around his neck was evidence that his body had been hung from the tree where it was found. At the foot of this tree, there was blood found as well as evidence of a struggle while Juan Eusebio was still alive. The blood came from Juan Eusebio’s castration and his genitals were found in the pockets of his pants. I should add here that my cousin Maddy’s family’s oral history also records that Juan Eusebio’s penis was found in his mouth.
Juan Eusebio’s assassination was now being reported, not only in Spain, but also in Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish colonial government did not hold the Spanish Civil Guard liable for the death of Juan Eusebio, everyone reading that article would. Moreover, they would also know how preposterous it was to say that he had committed suicide. And just like that, darkness gave way to light.
The Taino Factor: Was There More to Juan Eusebio’s Assassination?
In his book, The Myth of the Indigenous Caribbean Extinction,Tony Castanha interviewed the descendants of Puerto Ricans of majority Taino descent whose ancestors survived the El Componte Era in the mountains of Northwest Puerto Rico in 1890. It is very telling that he likewise mentions that the El Componte Era continued lasted until the Spanish were expelled from Puerto Rico in 1898. Castanha mentions that the atrocities committed during the El Componte Era were comparable to those committed at the beginning of the Spanish colonization of the island. He writes:
“Elder Lipio’s mother, who had lived during el componte , used to tell him about what happened. When the Spaniards and the government came, they would follow “los indios” around and kill the men and rape the women. They would also throw the babies in the air and have them fall on their swords. When the people would run away and hide in the woods, the Spaniards would then burn down the forest (Casthanha, p. 100).”
“He said the Spaniards would “throw the babies up” and stick them with their knives. They did this to make the “Boricuas” “respect them,” he added. Again, this happened at the moment, two years before he was born. The elder uttered that the Boricua were fed up with the uprisings and upheaval. Thus, the Spaniards brought el componte to them (Castanha, p.100).”
Castanha’s interviews really resonated with me. I wonder how much of the “overkill factor” surrounding Juan Eusebio’s assassination had to do with the fact that he was of Taino descent and challenged the existing power structure? Was the spectacular way his burned and mutilated body was left on display a warning to others that they better “respect” the Spanish Civil Guard or else they could end up like him? I really think so. As Castanha reiterates, indigenous resistance to Spanish colonialism lasted until the Spanish were expelled in 1898. Had he lived, I have no doubt that Juan Eusebio Bonilla would have continued his own form of resistance against Spanish colonialism, too.
La Intentona de Yauco (1897)
La Intentona was the second —the first being El Grito de Lares–and last uprising against Spanish colonial rule. Gutierrez Velez sees the formation of the Autonomous Party in 1887, the death of Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo in 1890, and La Intentona de Yauco in 1897 as one continuous event.
He is also easily able to link these three events together because some of the the major players were the same. Antonio Mattei Lluberas, Dario Franceschi, Manuel Catala and other friends of Juan Eusebio were active participants in La Intentona. That it occurred in Susua Alta is also notable as is that fact that it was the first time the Puerto Rican flag was unfurled as the flag of Puerto Rico.
In Memory of Juan Eusebio
The people of Yauco continued to remember the Juan Eusebio years after his death. They remembered him in both décimas and in poems because he was “un verdadero hombre, a un puertorriqueño neto y completo.” Below are some décimas about the death of Juan Eusebio that Gutierrez Velez recorded in his book as well as the poem “Hymn For Yauco” by the famous Yaucano poet Rafael Hernández Ramos that was published in Negroni’s Historia de Yauco. I am particularly honored and humbled that Hernandez Ramos juxtaposed Juan Eusebio with Agüeybana, the Taino caciquewho was in power when the Spanish arrived. Both Gutierrez Velez and Hernandez Ramos provide testaments to the memory of my 2nd great-grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo.
Décimas about the death of Juan Eusebio:
To My Tatarabuelo-
It has been an honor to have discovered you almost 125 years after your vicious death. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you earned your wings to fly a long time ago. While it has been hard to learn the circumstances of your death, I take comfort in knowing that you continued to keep speaking truth to power — despite the cost. It is clear as day that you loved your people and your isla bonita.
As your descendant, your memory will now live on in me and your DNA still flows through me. I call you name out loud and clear, not only because you give me strength, but also so that others will know who you are and what you stood for. Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo, you will never be forgotten. Espero honora su memoria.
Update on 1/12/2015: I am again responding to a new blog post written by Robert Estes on 1/5/2015. Her post Anzick Matching Update is her admission that she used an old Gedmatch kit number for her Clovis Anzick research protocol. In this post, she again reiterates her methodology as well as her justification for including the M haplogroup on her list all the while ignoring the facts. The facts are below. She has also failed to answer any of my questions so I have also listed them below.
1) It is unwise to compare mtDNA haplogroup assignments to autosomal DNA. The main reason is that we are talking about two different types of DNA. Extrapolating mtDNA info from living people who have multiple ethnic admixtures and then comparing to an ancient Native American sample is seriously flawed. One can, in fact, match an ancient Native American, like Clovis, and have a non-Native American DNA. Roberta somehow conveniently misses the fact that on the F999919 Clovis Gedmatch One-To-Many list, there were a lot of people who matched Clovis who did not have a Native American haplogroup. Why did she not include these matches on herNew Native American Haplogrouplist?Was it because they are well-known non-Native American haplogroups? Is her continued inclusion of the some of M haplogroup subclades her attempt to discover something new? Why does she assume that just because someone matches a Native American autosomally that this means that they automatically have a Native American mtDNA?
2) The 2007 article she references has been brought into question by several known genetic genealogists, who are also experts in mtDNA analysis, like Ann Turner, Ugo Pereto, James Lick, Claudio Bravi and others. The M sample was not fully sequenced and was more likely to be an X haplogroup upon further analysis. I may not be an expert in genetic genealogy, but I certainly reached out to some of the best before I even wrote my posts. How come Roberta has not commented on their responses which I have reported in my blog posts?
3) Her continued inclusion of M subclade haplogroups on her Native American Haplogroup list, all the while maintaining that M has not been proven to be Native American, is very misleading and disingenuous because it gives people the false impression that they are Native American haplogroups. Lay readers will just look at the headline and make that assumption without reading the small print. Why is Roberta ignoring the fact that her posts are misleading? Is it really enough to justify the inclusion of M haplogroup, without a shred of evidence, just because she can? Should one even publish “research notes” that are not based on current data/facts?
These are questions my inquiring mind would like to know. However, Roberta has failed to answer any of my legitimate questions for months so I don’t see her changing her modus operandi today. This is what has led me to write my posts in the first place.
Update on 12/24/2014: I felt the need to share this with my readers. I was just made aware of the fact that Roberta Estes admitted today that she ran her initial results using one of the older Clovis Anzick Gedmatch kits numbers. As a result, the methodology she used calls into question her whole research protocol. I am taking her admission below that what I wrote in this blog post is correct.
A continuation of my previous blog post…
I did not address the other M subclades that were mentioned in Roberta Estes “New Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup” list in my last blog post because it focused specifically on M23. This blog post, however, seeks to do just that because I really don’t want the public to be misled into thinking that these other M subclades are, in fact, Native American as well. Given the stature that Roberta Estes has in the genetic genealogy community, I would really like to see her to remove these M subclades from her working hypothesis. The facts just don’t add up to them being Native American at all.
I tried to replicate how Roberta Estes did her research to come up with her inclusion of the M haplogroup subclades in her hypothesis. I went back and looked at all the Clovis matches to see what M haplogroup subclades showed up and if they matched the ones Roberta mentioned on her blog (M1a, M1a1e, M1b1, M23, M3, M30c, M51, M5b3e, M7b1’2, M9a3a/M9a1ac1a). In order to accomplish this, I repeated the steps Roberta used to make her hypothesis. This meant bringing up the One-to-Many matches of the last known Gedmatch kit number we have for Clovis Anzick (F999919)and looking at the mtDNAs of the Clovis matches. When I reduced the cM level to 1 cM, I was able to pull up 1500 matches. However, only one had a M subclade of M7b1’2. I did not find any indication of any of the others she mentioned.
I can only assume that Roberta used a previous version of the Clovis DNA profile. I know there were several as I matched the first Clovis DNA profile on Gedmatch, sharing 20 cMs with 7 cM as the largest segment, but did not match later Clovis DNA profiles. If this is in fact the case, than I believe Roberta should have taken this new Clovis match info into account when she updated her list on 12/7/2014.
I looked up the geographical locations of each M subclade Roberta mentioned and found that they were not Native American or were out of the timeframe to be relevant for any comparison to Clovis Anzick. For example, M9a1a1c1a (formerly M9a3a), though geographical close– if you consider Siberia– to being Native American is dated by Behar to be 4221.4 years +/- 3456 old and therefore is nowhere near the 13,000-15,000 age range of Clovis.
The M subclades Roberta mentioned on her blog cover the following geographical areas:
M1a, M1a1e, M1b1 -North Africa, East African, and the Middle East
M23 – Only Madagascar
M3- Southeast Asia
M30c- South Asia
M51- Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Laos
M5b3e- I could not locate this subclade so it may be an error
M7b1’2- East Asia
M9a3a ( now known as M9a1a1c1a)- Japan, Siberia, Tibet, China, and Mongolia.
The M Haplgroup and Native Americans
I received some great feedback on my last blog post. One was from Ian Logan, another mtDNA expert, who likewise confirmed the Malagasy origins of the M23 haplogroup. Perhaps, one of the most telling comments that I received came from Dr. Ann Turner, a well-known genetic genealogy pioneer and mtDNA expert herself. I had included, in my blog post, the 2007 article titled “Mitochondrial Haplogroup M Discovered in Prehistoric Native Americans” by Ripan Malhi, et. al. This article is the one that Roberta cites in order to include M subclades as Native American in her hypothesis. Dr. Turner made the following comments:
Dr. Ann Turner also consulted with Dr. Ugo Perego, another expert on Native American mtDNA, about the results of the 2007 M sample. Dr. Perego stated:
“Unfortunately, we might never know the true answer [because the remains have been reburied], but I am with you in thinking that it was probably a false positive for M and most likely an X, which would have been still quite interesting as ancient X’s are not that common.”
Both Dr. Turner and Dr. Perego believe that the M sample the article was based on most likely tested false positive for M when it was probably an X sample. Again, the M sample was never fully sequenced as Roberta herself acknowledges.
In conclusion, I have no idea how Roberta came up with her “New Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups” list. Several people have asked her for an explanation of her methodology to no avail. I could not duplicate Roberta’s methodology as much as I tried. Because of this and the fact that the M sample she refers to was probably an X, I would like to see her remove the M subclades from her list of “New Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups.” The evidence is simply not there to make that claim that they are “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups.”
We need to remember that individuals today have complex, multiple ancestries that may not be reflected in their mtDNA. I am one such person. I consider myself culturally African-American and Puerto Rican and my ethnic admixture is tri-racial (46% Sub-Saharan African, 46% European, and 8% Native American). But, when you look at my H1ag1 mtDNA, it is European. I am a perfect example of why it is so difficult to make vast, overarching conclusions about my mtDNA without knowing all the colors of my autosomal rainbow…The same holds true for all the other Clovis Anzick matches—who also had non-Native American haplgroups like E, L, H, T, U, J and K,—who did not make her list either.
[Update: On March 2, 2017, Roberts Estes updated her Native American Haplogroup blogpost and eliminated all references to M haplogroups—years after I informed of her mistake. I was glad to see that finally.]
This was not the first post that I wanted to write on Madagascar, the land of my ancestors, but I felt it necessary to do so. In the future, I will be writing about my Malagasy ancestors and how they ended up in colonial NY and NJ.
(Just a reminder, there are hyperlinks wherever you see RED highlighted text.)
In early October, I attended The Genealogy Event in NYC that featured a lot of well-known genetic genealogists, including CeCe Moore. In her talk about what goes on behind the scenes of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, she discussed Ben Jealous’s Malagasy mtDNAand how slave ships directly imported Malagasy slaves into VA. I immediately, and proudly, told her that I, too, was a descendant of Malagasy slaves directly imported into NYC/NJ in the late 1600s-early 1700s. Ever since my cousin Andrea, a direct matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother, found out her mtDNA was M23, the two of us have researched everything Madagascar. Surely, we both felt the call of our ancestors. Basically, in finding our mtDNA M23 ancestors, we felt our ancestors calling out to us—-telling us to speak for them, urging us to tell the world about how they arrived in NYC as slaves, under what conditions they lived and labored in NY/NJ, etc. In all of my blog posts, I have tried to do my best to appease our ancestors. How can we not listen to them? So, when CeCe asked me to be the Co-Administrator of FTDNA’s new Malagasy Roots Project, I happily accepted. My mama didn’t raise no fool. Besides, I firmly believe that my ancestors would be a little annoyed with me if I hadn’t accepted the position. And we can’t let that happen. No, we can’t.
As a descendant of Madagascar slaves brought to this country, I am particularly disturbed to see M23, a haplogroup found only in Madagascar, be placed under the rubric of“New Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups”by Roberta Estes, a person who is well-known in the field of genetic genealogy. In no way, shape, or form, do I want people to be misled into thinking that this haplogroup has anything to do with it being a Native American one. Her hypothesis goes against current literature on M23. As a result of several of her recent blog posts, I have included references to the Malagasy origins of M23 at the end of this blog post.
On September 18, 2014, Roberta posted “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups”on her blog, DNAeXplained-Genetic Genealogy. These known Native American founder haplogroups were A,B,C,D, and X. I had no problem with her designation of these haplogroups as being Native American ones, as there is enough literature to back up her claim and I was already aware of those Native American haplogroups. To be honest, I only read the beginning of her blog post back on Sept. 18th which didn’t mention haplogroup M.
Even the haplogroup diagram, at the beginning of her blog post, made no mention of haplogroup M.
It was only further down her blog post, when she listed all the Native American haplgroups alphabetically, that I now see mention of the M haplogroup.
“Given that, and given the autosomal ethnicity analysis of several individuals, and given that mitochondrial haplogroups A, B, C, and D are not known to be routinely found in the European population, I decided to extract all of the associated mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. Furthermore, parts of haplogroup X are known to be Native, and haplogroup M, which is quite rare, has long been suspected, but unproven.
In some cases, looking at the Anzick matches, we know that because of the very high level of Native heritage, the individual is either not admixed or only very slightly admixed. In other words, it makes perfect sense that their mitochondrial DNA is indeed Native as well as their Y haplogroup. At nearly 100% Native, both of those lines would have to be Native.”
In the same blog post, she continues:
We found repeated instances of many mitochondrial haplogroups not previously identified as Native. In fact, with the exception of a couple subgroups of the M and X haplogroups, all of the Native haplogroups were found repeatedly in these samples.
“The discovery of haplogroup M in the Americas is consistent with the hypothesis of a single colonization for the Americas since this haplogroup is found in Southern Siberia, the presumed homeland of the ancestors of North Americans (Bonatto and Salzano, 1997; Meriwether et. Al., 1995a). However, it also demonstrates the limitations of using genetic data solely from contemporary populations to infer the events and early population history of the Americas. Using genetic data from contemporary populations to infer early prehistoric demographic events is even less accurate when the population history has been variable over time….Therefore data based on living Northwestern North America might bias interpretations of population prehistory in the Americas (p. 646-647).”
Second, it doesn’t necessarily follow that because someone matches Clovis Anzick autosomally that their mtDNA is a Native American given. For example, I have mtDNA H1ag1 which is a European mtDNA, however, when the first Clovis Anzick matches came in, I matched Clovis Anzick at just over 7 cMs. Likewise, someone with mtDNA M23, like anyone of my 5 DNA tested M23 cousins, could have Native American ancestry from a completely different source other than their mtDNA. Her hypothesis just doesn’t add up. Besides, Roberta herself mentions over and over again that haplogroup M has not been proven to be Native American. In fact, there is also a great body of research about the East Asian to East African geographical distribution of haplogroup M.
The same day that Roberta published her blog post on “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups,” she also crossed posted it in the Facebook Group, Native American Ancestry Explorer:DNA, Genetics, Genealogy, and Anthropology. I immediately posted a comment indicated that I thought M23 was only found in Madagascar and I asked her if M23 was now associated with being Native American. I must admit I was a little taken back because her inclusion of M23 as a Native American haplogroup went against everything I have read about M23—-that M23 is only found in Madagascar.
Her response back to me was:
What I gleaned from her response was that she included haplogroup M on her list because M was found in a Native burial BEFORE Full Sequencing of that mtDNA. I still am not sure if she was referring to haplogroup M in general, or M23 in particular, but anyone who has taken a Full Sequence mtDNA test knows that this test is the most definitive test regarding a person’s mtDNA. Again, how can you include haplogroup M on a Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup list if the one sample referred to has not been fully sequenced? What if the sample was a mistake or was related to a different subgroup? Roberta herself states that she spoke to a scientist who would have loved to have more full-sequencing and more advanced haplogroup designations. At the same time, she also states that haplogroup M is “waiting in the wings” for more confirmation that it is a Native American haplogroup????
Roberta then asked me if my mtDNA ancestors had Native American ancestry. As you can see, I clearly pointed out that my M23 ancestors were “mulatto”, a classification that also included Native Americans. However, I thought I was clear in differentiating between my M23 Madagascar ancestry and the fact that my family also has Native American ancestry that comes from a different source. As you can see, her response back to me was just a ” You know, it can never be easy, can it 🙂 Thanks.” I decided to let the matter rest a few months ago. I just discussed her position among friends and let it go. In retrospect, I should have been more adamant in questioning her. I just didn’t hear my ancestors calling out to me then. Not hearing them was a big mistake on my part!
Early this past Sunday, December 7th, when I logged onto FB and checked the Native American Ancestry group posts, I then noticed Roberta had updated her “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup”list and I immediately felt déjàvu. But, this time, I heard my ancestors calling out to me LOUD and CLEAR to set the record straight. So, I immediately responded back to her.
As you can see, I was more to the point and asked her directly if she was saying that M23 was not a Malagasy haplogroup, but was a Native American one. I even attached a well-known, accepted, and peer reviewed article indicating the Madagascar origins of M23. Up until that day, she only listed her own blog post as a reference for M23. My response was followed by TL Dixon asking her more pointed questions, as he had also done last September, not only about M23, but also about other haplogroup subclades also found in Madagascar, like B41a1a.
In addition, later on Sunday, I started reaching out to genetic genealogists like CeCe Moore and Claudio Bravi, who has been analyzing Native American haplogroups since 1993, as well as James Lick, asking them about the origins of M23. They all agreed that M23 was only found in Madagascar, a fact I already knew. Somehow, I wanted a confirmation from others before I wrote this blog post.
On Tuesday, December 9th, I again responded to Roberta’s post in the Native American Ancestry FB Group. This time I also cut and pasted my response to her blog. Roberta did respond to my post on her blog:
After reading her response, I went back to her blog and re-read it. I also started reading the responses to her “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup” posting. I was happy to see that on Monday, December 8th, Angie Bush, a well-known molecular genealogist,also stated that M23 had a Madagascar origin and she also posted the link to the same article I had made reference to a day earlier in the Native American Ancestry Explorer FB Group.
Her response to Angie was more detailed:
Roberta finally linked the article on M23 having Madagascar origins after Angie referenced it to her. She now indicated M23 as being a “Madagascar Motif” when it is in fact the Madagascar haplogroup unquestionably. Angie also let Roberta know about the FTDNA Malagasy Roots Project as well. That being said, I still find it highly problematic that Roberta still links her “Anzick Provisional Extract”, along with the peer reviewed article that Angie and I both referenced to her, to the M23 haplogroup on her “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup” list.
In conclusion, I am left with the following unanswered questions:
1) How does one arbitrarily decide to designate mtDNA haplogroups as Native American based on autosomal DNA comparisons to an ancient DNA sample—with some comparisons at very small segments?
2) How does one initially ignore a body of literature about the Madagascar origins of M23 and, after finally acknowledging its origins, still decide to link it to being a “potential” Native American haplogroup?
3) Why insist on repeatedly stating that haplgroup M isn’t proven to be a Native American haplogroup, but still link certain subclade M haplogroups to them being “possible” Native American haplogroups?
4) How does one attempt to publish a hypothesis on “New Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroups” without the hypothesis being analytically challenged and peer reviewed?
As a genealogy/DNA blogger and speaker and, as someone who is also tri-racial, my obligation is to correct the misinformation out there, pinpoint inaccurate statements automatically assumed to be facts, and elucidate the flawed analyses/methodologies that I come across as they relate to my own genealogy/family research. I want information out in the public realm that is reliable as it is true. I don’t know the answers to these questions. But, what I do know is that the M23 haplogroup is not a “Native American Mitochondrial Haplogroup.” My M23 mtDNA ancestors called me out and told me so. So, I am now telling the world.
If you have any of the Malagasy mtDNA or Y-DNA haplgroups below, please consider taking a FTDNA Full Sequence mtDNA test or a Y-37 DNA test and then join the Malagasy Roots Project. Please click on the title link below for more details.
I dedicate this post to all my Blanchard cousins..To those whom I have already met and to those whom I will hopefully meet in the future. I want to especially single out my 98 year old 2nd cousin 2XR, Helen Blanchard Hamilton, who is still shining brightly for all to see.
My third great grandparents, Cato Thompson and Susan Pickett Thompson had three daughters (Laura, my 2nd great-grandmother, Catherine and Mary) and three sons (Richard, Thomas and Jacob). My family affiliation with the Blanchards is via their daughters, Catherine (1842-1891) and Mary (1849-?), who married two Blanchard brothers, George (1844-?) and William (1845-?). Catherine and George were the parents of 5 sons: Edward , George, William, James and Frederic. Mary and William were the parents of 11 children: William, Thomas George, Katie, Sarah Elizabeth, Susan, Daisy, Walter, Christina, Eugene, Carrie, and John Franklin. Some of the surnames linked to the Blanchards include Hamilton, Hammond, Remson, Baldwin, Hicks, Dorsey, Van Duyne, Roberts, Mickson, Smith, Lynn, DeGroat, Thompson, Green/e, among others
Over a year ago, I started to research the Blanchard line in earnest. I wanted to know where they came from and how two sisters ended up marrying two brothers. We know from census records that the Blanchard brothers were from Orange, NJ and worked as teamsters. What more could I find out? A lot more it turned out….a whole lot more.
George and William were two of 5 children— in addition to Charles, Jr., Elizabeth, and Louisa– born to Charles Blanchard, Sr. (about 1792-1872) and Sarah Berry (1794-1879). Charles was born a slave in NJ sometime around 1792 and it can be assumed that Sarah was born a slave as well.
Charles was born before NJ’s 1804 Gradual Emancipationlaw which meant he was a slave for life. If he had been born after 7/4/1804, he would have had to serve his master for a term of only 25 years as stipulated in this new law. I didn’t know how long he was a slave until I came across his manumission record at the Newark Public Library. He was manumitted on April 1, 1824. He spent 32 years a slave which qualifies as a lifetime for many. His last slave owner was a John Harrison, of Orange, NJ who was a descendant of the Harrison Family who founded the Oranges in New Jersey.
Three years after Charles was manumitted, he married Sarah Berry in the First Presbyterian Church in Orange, NJ and they went on to have five children and live their lives as free Blacks.
Charles became a paid laborer and worked in various stables in and around Orange, NJ. He was also a property owner. On Ancestry.com, Charles’s NJ Death Record occupation states that “He was Born a Slave”. But, we all know that he was so much more than the circumstances of his birth. Regarding Sarah, we have no idea when she became free or who her parents were.
Going further back, we find out that Charles’s father was Robert Blanchard (1765-1865?). In the 1860 census , we see Robert, age 95, living with his son Charles, age 68, and his family. None of the prior census records indicate who Charles’ mother was.
Regarding lost names due to slavery, if I find out the names of our unknown ancestors, I will call their names out loud and clear. You can bet they will be nameless no more. We owe it to our ancestors to remember there names whenever possible.
I was able to find a lot of information about our Robert Blanchard. For the most part, what I learned about Robert and his wife Dinah was due to the fact that their slave owners were from quite prominent families in both NJ and in NYC. At the NY Historical Society Library, I was able to find five critical documents that mentioned Robert and Dinah. These documents provide us with a view of slavery as it affected The Blanchard family.
The first document is a bill of sale for Dinah when she was 13 years old. She was sold for 20 pounds and 10 shillings. Her slave owner was Robert Whiting whose family was one of the founding families of Hartford, CT. Whiting sold her to John Ramage (1748-1802), an Irish Loyalist, who become the first artist to paint a portrait of President George Washington in 1786.
In 1793, Dinah was sold again at the age of 15 years old for 30 pounds. Ramage sold her to Catherine Bradford (1742-1822).
Catherine was the widow of Cornelius Bradford (1729-1787). The Bradfords were the proprietors of the Merchant Coffee House, a very interesting, intriguing place to say the least. In addition to serving coffee, the Merchant Coffee House was the meeting place for merchants, shipbuilders, captains of vessels as well as various organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Bank of New York, Free and Accepted Masons, Knights of Corsica, Whig Society, Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, Society of New York Hospital , etc. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, it was a gathering place for Patriot sympathizers in NYC and during the British occupation of the city, the British auctioned off captured American vessels. The coffee house was the place to be until 1804 when it was destroyed by a fire.
In 1794, Catherine Bradford retired from the Merchant Coffee House and moved to Cortland, NY. We are not certain what happened exactly, but Dinah ended up back with Catherine Ramage as her slave. Was Dinah’s sale to Catherine Bradford a conditional one with a set term? We have no idea.
In 1801, there is a document that mentions Robert Blanchard being the slave of John Blanchard of Morris County, NJ. John Blanchard was writing to Catherine Ramage giving permission for his “boy” Robert to marry Dinah. By the way, his “boy” Robert was 36 years old and Dinah was 22 years old.
This would be the first “legal” marriage for Robert. However, we do know he had other children, like Charles, prior to his marriage to Dinah. In addition, we now know that Robert and Dinah re-wed in 1819 as their marriage was officially recorded in the Essex County, NJ Marriage Records.
The years between 1801-1814 are somewhat of a mystery regarding Robert. At some point, he became free. His slave owner, John Blanchard died in 1811 in Chatham, NJ, however, Robert is not listed as being freed in John Blanchard’s will.
All we know is that, by 1814, Robert is already paying taxes in Orange, NJ as a free Black. We don’t know how he became free, but he he did and he made enough money to be able to pay taxes.
Sometime during this period, Robert also became a stagecoach man. He was a contemporary of my own 4th great-grandfather, Thomas Thompson, another Black stagecoach man. It is more than likely this is how The Blanchards met The Thompsons and ultimately how their grandchildren ended up marrying each other. The world of free Blacks in NJ was a very small one indeed.
The 4th document that was found pertained to the conditional sale of Dinah and Robert’s son, Robert, Jr. In 1813, Robert, Jr. was sold to an Ephraim Sayre by Catherine Ramage for a term of up to 18 years. In the bill of sale, she indicates that one quarter of Robert, Jr.’s day be spent on his education as well as him learning a trade.
This document doesn’t mention how old Robert, Jr. was, but if he was born after 7/4/1804, he had to serve 25 years as a slave before being granted his freedom. While Robert was free, it is clear that Dinah was still a slave, as were their children. We don’t know what ever happened to Robert, Jr.
Reading these four documents made my heart heavy. Sometimes when I do family research, I can’t help but to put myself in the shoes of my ancestors so to speak. What was it like being sold as a human being, to see your children taken from you, to have no control of your body, to have no control over your personal freedom, etc. Sometimes I wonder how they got over… Just when my heart was at it’s heaviest, I read the 5th document.
SAY AMEN SOMEBODY!!!
The 5th document was another bill of sale dated 1815 written by Catherine Ramage to ROBERT BLANCHARD! Robert ended up purchasing his wife Dinah’s freedom along with their three youngest children Cyrus, Jep and Hannah for $125 dollars (i.e., $31.25/person)!
You cannot imagine the sheer joy I felt when I read this document. I can’t lie. I was doing my happy dance all over the NY Historical Society Library. Many tears of JOY were released just knowing that, in spite of the degradation of slavery, Robert Blanchard found a way to buy his family out of slavery. Not only that, but years later he was able to reunite with his other children who had either been gradually emancipated or manumitted at some point. Robert did what he had to do to keep his family together to survive slavery, freedom and beyond.
About the Blanchard Surname
Robert Blanchard’s last slave owner was Captain John Blanchard (1730-1811) who was born in Elizabethtown, NJ in 1730 and died in Chatham, NJ in 1811. Captain John Blanchard was an American Patriot during the Revolutionary War. He was married to Joanna Hatfield (1735-1786). His father was Jean “John” Blanchard, a lawyer, who was born in New York in 1699 and died in Elizabethtown, NJ in 1747. The first John Blanchard was Jean “John” Blanchart/Blanchard who was born 1655 in St. Michel, Rouen, Normandy, France and died in Elizabethtown, NJ in 1730. It is this French immigrant from which the Blanchard surname originates.
UPDATE: On May 22,2017, I found out that I had a 100% West African DNA cousin match on AncestryDNA. My new DNA cousin’s name is George Graves-Sampson and we are related on my paternal Puerto Rican side. His family is from the Sekondi region in south-western Ghana. They are part of the Fante tribe of the Akan ethnic group, which also includes the Ashanti. His father was from Elmina, home of the infamous Emlmina Castle, and his mother was from Otuam. Now, I know part of where my Afro-Boricua ancestors originated for certain. Little by little, DNA testing is leading us back to our ancestral homelands. Feeling blessed to finally connect to a place, a people, and a cousin. Thank you, cousin George, for being the vehicle that made this blessing possible.
For more info on Afro-Boricua admixture, please read my friend Fonte Felipe’s blogpost:
This post is in memory of my cousin, Serafin Rios Santiago, who recently joined the pantheon of ancestors. It is also dedicated to his daughter, my cousin Carmen, who will carry on his legacy with love. He is our newly-appointed ancestor angel watching over us. Amen!
I have always wanted to know more about my Afro-Boricua roots. I knew I had African ancestry on my PR side. But where did my African ancestors come from? Would I ever be able to find out what country/countries they came from or would I be at a loss as to their origins as I am with my African ancestors on my maternal side? Hmmm. Well, thanks to my PR cousins and the wonderful world of genetic genealogy, I have begun to put some pieces together. My family history is slowly unveiling itself to me —not completely, but just enough to put a smile on my face and let me know I am on the right track.
Carmen & Me
I met Carmen last year when she reached out to me after receiving her FTDNA results. We immediately connected with each other and began the task of trying to find out our common ancestor. We exchanged photos of our relatives as well as the locations of our ancestors. Carmen and I are predicted 3rd cousins so we share a set of 2nd great-grandparents in common.
I found out that Carmen’s mother was born in the same town, Anasco, Puerto Rico, as my paternal grandmother. Her maternal family was from Greater Aguada in Northwest Puerto Rico which was where my paternal grandmother’s ancestors resided. As an FYI, Carmen lost her mom, Rosa Peres Ponce, when she was very young so she was excited to meet a relative on her mom’s side. I have to say that I was taken back when I saw her mom’s photo as she very strongly resembled my youngest sister Joanna. Even Joanna had to admit that Carmen’s mom looked more like her than her own mother. Clearly, our genes had a story to tell.
Whenever someone with the surname Rios popped up on my 23andme DNA Relative list, I would call Carmen to see if that person was also on her list. Imagine my surprise when I asked her if a Serafin Rios Santiago was on her list. “Oh, that’s my dad”, she said. I was shocked that I was related to her dad. I thought I was related to her via her mom. Well, it turns out that I am related to BOTH her mom and her dad.
Looking at our shared segments in Family Inheritance Advanced, I am sharing a lot more DNA with Carmen than with her father. I am also sharing DNA on completely different chromosomes which indicate that I have a different ancestor in common with each of them. Carmen and I share a Spanish ancestor on her mom’s side.
Once I knew that Serafin was related to me, I knew I had to meet him. Carmen explained that, although he was not in the best of health, I was more than welcome to come over and see him.
On the morning that I was heading to Brooklyn to see my cousins, I received my AncestryDNA results. I had taken this DNA test to see if I shared DNA with Lee and Carter descendants as my 3rd great-grandmother, Crittie Anna Lee, was said to be the daughter of Charles Carter Lee, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s older brother, and a Black/Native American slave. As my Carter and Lee DNA matches popped up, I couldn’t help to be envious at how easy it was for my Euro DNA cousins to trace their ancestry. Those of us with African ancestry have a much more difficult time doing just that. Well, I certainly hopped on the train to Brooklyn hoping to forget my envy.
My first impression of Serafin was that he had such a sweet soul and a gentle spirit. Because of his ill health, we didn’t chat for long. However, he did mention his upbringing and then he dropped a bomb— a beautiful bomb. LOL He told me that his grandfather, Federico Cabrera, was a slave until 1873, when slavery in Puerti Ricowas abolished, and that he had been born in SENEGAL. Just like that, my earlier envy flew out the door. Envy who? Envy what? I think the ancestors were sending me a sign that day that all was not lost. Their stories were determined to be told even if it took time.
From what Carmen and Serafin told me, Federico was purchased in Senegal by a Portuguese man and then sold to a Spaniard, Lorenzo Cayol, and shipped to Puerto Rico. Cayol, an immigrant from Spain, was one of the original inhabitants of Barceloneta (Little Barcelona), a town in Northern Puerto Rico. He was also the owner of Hacienda Plazuela, a sugarcane plantation. Federico was one of the many slaves who labored on this plantation.
Not only did Cayol purchase slaves directly from Africa, but he also purchased them from other countries in Latin American and the Caribbean. Below, you can see that he purchased slaves from Venezuela and St. Thomas. I have other cousins whose ancestors came from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Puerto Rico was definitely part of the active Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Both Carmen and I have another cousin in common, Dr. Ana Oquendo Pabon, who is my predicted 3rd cousin and possible 2nd cousin to Carmen. Ana was so kind as to provide more info about Federico to us. In an email, she wrote:
“According to that death record we all have for Federico, he died on the 05 of April 1905 which would have made him born about 1795 not 1820. María Salgado Nieves [Federico’s wife] died at 100 years of age on the 26 of June 1907 and her birth as 1807. At the same time, María’s sister Dorotea Salgado Nieves married Zoilo Cabrera who was also born África. I have always suspected he was Federico’s brother. Dorotea died at the age of 65 of yellow fever on the 15 April 1907 (two months before María) and it mentions their parents (Sabás Salgado Cruz and María de la Cruz Nieves).”
So, it is quite possible that Federico had a brother named Zoilo who was also bought in Africa and sold into slavery in Puerto Rico.
When I look at my DNA matches on 23andme, FTDNA, and AncestryDNA, I see the surnames Cabrera, Salgado, Nieves, Cruz and others that may link me to Serafin via his African ancestor. When I see that 1% of my DNA admixture is from Senegal, I now know that this is real. I also remind Carmen that she is only 2 generations from slavery. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t that long ago. Serafin has now passed the torch to her as keeper of their family history.
[I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great contribution of Ana and her brother, Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo Pabon. They were the founders of the geographical Proyecto ADN de Apellidos Puertorriqueños (Puerto Rican DNA Project at FTDNA). Ana has been the sole Administrator for the project for over 11 years, recruiting, educating and promoting genetic genealogy. Thanks to their pioneer work, FTDNA finally conceded to adding the Taíno to their Native American ancestral groups for matching and reporting. Their website is Muertito Heaven. ]
The Rodriguez Family of Yauco
I have another distant cousin, Alex, whom I am related to on his paternal Rodriguez line. My sister Elisa and I match him, his father, his paternal aunt as well as a couple of his cousins who share the same 2nd great-grandmother, Domitila Rodriguez (1843-1914). Alex’s paternal family was from Yauco which is where my paternal grandfather’s family resided. Yauco encompassed a much larger area in the 18th and 19th centuries. Guayanilla, where Alex’s family was from, was part of Yauco back then. I can trace my Rodriguez line back to the late 1700s-early 1800s to my 4th great-grandfather, Isidoro Rodriguez who was born in Yauco. All of my Rodriguez ancestors are from Susua Alta and Susua Baja, Yauco.
Alex told me that we are definitely related on his Rodriguez line though we haven’t found our common ancestor. What he did tell me was that his 2nd great-grandmother Domitila was born a slave. She had twin boys, Marcial and Marcelino, with Alexandre Sallaberry, a Frenchman, who were also born into slavery.
Alex mentioned that all his Rodriguez ancestors were owned by a Spanish Catholic priest, Padre Andres Avelino Rodriguez y Pacheco, a member of one of the founding Spanish families of Yauco. They labored on his plantation. Domitila’s mother, Rita Pacheco, was a slave of Andre’s mother, Maria Monserrate Pacheco y Rodriguez. Rita’s mother, Eusebia Rodriguez, and grandmother Maria were also slaves. We don’t know where in Africa the Rodriguez ancestors came from, however, it is this Rodriguez line that is related to my ancestors.
I should also mention that Yauco County was the capital of Boriken, the Taino name for Puerto Rico, when the Spanish arrived on the island. Yauco was governed by Agüeybana, the most powerful Taíno “cacique” (chief) and he controlled all the other caciques on the island. On my Rodriguez side, I also have Taino ancestry. When I look at photos of my great-uncle, Enrique Vega Bonilla, whose grandmother was a Rodriguez, I also see my Taino ancestors looking back at me. One day, I hope I will be able to trace my Taino ancestry as well.
My Pellot Primos
On AncestryDNA, I have 3 4th cousin Pellot matches and another 7 5th to distant cousin Pellot matches. I also have 2 5th to distant Pellot cousins on FTDNA. All of these DNA cousins can trace their ancestors back to Moca and many have the same ancestors. This tells me that somewhere on my paternal grandmother’s line there is an ancestor that I have in common who was a Pellot.
My 4th cousins, Ernie and Frances, have told me that the Pellots were slaves on the Hacienda Irurena plantation near Aceitunas, Moca in Northwest Puerto Rico. This plantation was built by three Pellot (Peugeot in a French) brothers in the early to mid-1800s after the Spanish Crown signed the Royal Decree of Graces. They were from the Basque region of Spain and, in fact, Irurena means “three siblings” in the Basque language. The Pellots purchased roughly 1,300 acres and built a coffee plantation though they raised other crops. Of course, slaves were imported to work on the plantation.
The Pellots sold the hacienda to another Frenchman, Juan Labadie, who had been the caretaker of the plantation under them. Labadie was married to the daughter of Juan Pellot and a freed slave, Cornelia Pellot y Pellot.
After Labadie passed away in 1893, Cornelia began making plans to build a mansion which was actually built in 1905. By that time, it had become a sugar plantation. After decades of disrepair, the municipality of Moca bought the plantation in 1993. Today it is known as Palacete Los Moreau and was named after Enrique LaGuerre’s novel, La Llamarada. LaGuerre had spent time at Hacienda Irurena and based his characters on a family that lived at the fictionalized Hacienda Irurena.
All of the African ancestors of my Pellot DNA cousins came from the Guinea Coast. In fact, prior to the emancipation of Puerto Rican slaves, there was an area on the grounds of Hacienda Irurena that was called “Petit Guinee.” Below are the Ancestry.com records for my cousin Frances’s ancestors Julian and Ana Pellot that indicate that they were from Guinea, Africa.
When I look at the surnames on my Pellot DNA cousins family trees, I do see surnames found on my grandmother’s side like, Roman, Soto, Mercado, and Nieves. It is just a matter of time before I find my link to the Pellots.
So, my search for my Afro-Boricua roots will continue….
“Black founders” is a fancy term to describe the charter generation of free blacks in early national America. Born in the eighteenth century, some free (like James Forten of Philadelphia)) but many enslaved (like Richard Allen, Prince Hall, and Venture Smith, all of whom struggled mightily for their freedom), black founders came of age just as the American nation took shape….For they were of a generation that first battled bondage in an organized fashion, the generation that created vibrant free black institutions throughout the nation, and that innovated protest tactics—from establishing print as a key form of black activism to aiding fugitive slaves and distressed free blacks to forming the first national conventions dedicated to racial justice and independence—which still held sway on the eve of the Civil War.”
Given Newman’s definition of “Black Founders”, I maintain that the King Family was one of Newark’s Black founding families. I have chosen to focus on Rev. John A. King simply because there is more in the public record on him than his brothers. But, make no mistake about it, the lives of the other King brothers, especially Jacob and Abraham, are also noteworthy.
Over the past few years, my cousin Andreaand I have pieced together the King brothers’ early lives. Based on the 1830 census, John was born about 1790 in Morris County, NJ making him the oldest of Lucy King’s sons. Abraham was born around 1795. Their mother was a slave on Abraham Ogden’s estate in Morristown, NJ. We do know that they were mulatto and, based on his mother giving her 2nd son the name Abraham Ogden King, we assume that their father was Abraham Ogden or someone close to him. Both John and Abraham were also tradesmen which tells us that they occupied a more privileged status among other slaves. We don’t know when they became free or how they learned their trade, but Abraham Ogden’s estate was settled in 1802 and we assume John and Abraham were freed thereafter. Their mother remained a slave while some of their younger siblings were freed under the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804 after completing their service terms.
Sometime prior to 1820, the King brothers met Rev. Christopher Rush, another Black founder. Together with Rev. Rush, they founded the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (now known as the Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church) in Newark in 1822. This church was the first black church founded in Newark and was also considered to be a sister church to the Mother Zion Church in Lower Manhattan that was founded in 1796. Rev. Rush would go on to become the Bishop of the A.M.E. Zion Church in 1828. As stated in a previous post, before he left to become a bishop, he sold his land to Jacob D. Kingwho built an Underground Railroad House in 1830.
I should add that around 1820, John married Phebe Beard who was from Delaware. They ended up having 6 children: John Jr., Mary Rebecca, Cornelia, Robert, Edward, and Christopher Rush King. That John named one of his children after Rev. Rush indicates how close a colleague and friend he considered Rev. Rush to be. Abraham married Mary McIntosh in Morristown, NJ in 1824 and they had 2 sons, Abraham Ogden King, Jr. and William.
The A.M.E. Zion Church in Newark was active in both the Underground Railroad and in the education of all Blacks. By 1826, the Church was teaching Blacks, both young and old, how to read and write. According to the Township of Newark records, On April 14, 1828, Abraham and John walked into the town meeting with a petition asking for funding for a colored school. Please note that this school had already been in existence for years. They were only asking for formal funding from the town. They received limited funding initially and were able to have a formal budget for the school from 1836 onward.
In the early years, the Colored School, as it came to be known, was located first in the A.M.E. Zion Church and then in the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t until 1864, when James Baxter became the principal, that the Colored School had their own building. The Colored School lasted until 1909. I should also mention that two of Jacob’s daughters, Marcia and Harriet King, were teachers in the Colored School.
At the same time that the King brothers were educating Blacks, building churches, and harboring fugitive slaves, between the mid-1820’s and early-1830’s, they were also holding down full-time jobs in the carpentry trade. Abraham was a carpenter and Jacob was a cooper. However, John was one of the four Black planemakers in the United States prior to the Civil War. The others were Cesar Chelor of Wrentham, MA, John Teasman, Jr., a fellow Newarker whose father became the principal of the New York African Free School in Manhattan in 1797, and George Ball of New York City.
You may ask yourself what exactly was a planemaker. Well, in the 18th and 19th centuries, woodworking was a specialized activity. Carpenters, cabinetmakers, and joiners used a variety of tools in their trade. A “plane” was one such tool that shaved down a piece of wood to a particular thickness. The plane held an iron chisel in a fixed position so the wood could evenly be removed from the surface. There were different types of wooden planes used to create different surfaces. For example, you had utilitarian planes and planes that created moldings and edges. Hence, planemakers made planes and they were considered to be toolmakers. Wooden planes were used up until the Industrial Revolution.
After researching John’s career as a planemaker, I have come across a couple of inaccuracies in the public record on him. There have been several websites and articles that list John’s years as a planemaker as only being between 1835-1837. One of the most notable is a website on African-American woodworkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the Newark City directory has him clearly listed as being a planemaker from 1836-1846. Since the directory was only published in 1836, he may have even worked earlier than that. In addition, there was an article written by Ronald Pearson called “Hand Tools: A Significant Find” in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries (Vol.37:49-50) . In the article, Pearson writes about how he acquired an old tool box that had 38 wooden planes, 13 of which were made by John A. King. He hypothesizes that John was only a “jobber” working for two white planemakers, the Andruss brothers. There is no basis in fact for his hypothesis as John was an independent planemaker with his own business. In his later years, he was known to have only worked with James Searing, another Newark planemaker. By not doing the primary research that would have indicated John’s long career as a planemaker and insinuating that John couldn’t possibly work for himself, these researchers have done a disservice to his memory. Today, they stand corrected.
In the early 1830’s, John become very active in the abolitionist movement and he also became an ordained minister in the A.M.E. Zion Church in Newark at this time. He participated in local, state, and national anti-slavery societies as well as national Negro conventions. Through these activities, he met some of the most well-known white abolitionists of the day like the Tappan brothers and William Lloyd Garrison. In addition, healso started writing for The Liberator.
In his newspaper articles, John addressed the concerns of the day. These included the issue of colonization. In 1816, the American Colonization Society was founded. The Presbyterian Church was a main proponent of the colonization of free Blacks to Africa and later to the Caribbean after 1834. Many free Blacks in Newark, including John, were vocal anti-colonizationists. Having grown up in the shadow of the Revolutionary War, these people believed that they, too, sang America. It was the US that they called home and they saw all attempts to remove them from the US as nothing more than an extension of slavery’s hand.
The colonization movement hit close to home. In 1839, One of the first ministers of the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church, Rev. T. P. Hunt emigrated to Trinidad with his family and some members of the congregation. In 1841, Rev. Hunt returned to Newark and met with his old congregation and told them what he encountered. Very little was positive for they had been deceived into emigrating in the first place. John then wrote the article below in the Colored American. Please note the resolutions made.
Another topic John was concerned about was the restoration of Black citizen’s voting rights. From 1790-1807, free Blacks and women had the right to vote in New Jersey. In 1807, the state of NJ, disenfranchised over 3,000 free Blacks and untold number of women. John took note of this Black disenfranchisement in an article for the Colored American.
From the mid-1830’s to the mid-1840’s, John, in addition to continuing to preach at the Newark A.M.E. Zion Church, was also a minister at the Mother Zion Church in NYC as well as the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Eatontown, NJ which was part of Shewsbury Township back then. In Carter G. Woodson’s book, The History of the Negro Church, he mentions John A. King as being one of the leaders in A.M.E. Zion Church between 1830 and 1840.
John is also listed in all history books pertaining to the founding of the A.M.E. Zion Church. Moreover, John, Abraham, and Jacob are also listed in the Black Abolitionist Papers which is a testament itself to their abolitionist activities during their lifetimes. I consider this to be an honor.
In 1848, the Newark Daily Advertiser reported a fire at John’s house on 20 Academy Street in Newark.
Most of the inside of the house was destroyed. We don’t really know if he was ever able to rebuild his house.
Over a year ago, I also found two articles written in 1849 in the Newark Daily Advertiser that broke my heart. The tears flowed uncontrollably. In January 1849, John’s wife Phebe died which, together with the fire, quite possible made him depressed. It was on April 6th and 7th, 1849, that the Newark Daily Advertiser announced his suicide below.
After his death on 04/05/1849, John’s brother William was left to settle his affairs. It wasn’t until 1852 that his estate was settled.
In the 1850 census, John’s 2 youngest children, Edward and Christopher, are living with William.
After reading that article, I wondered how often do we consider the needs of those who lead our flock. Do we really know how well are shepards are doing? John was a preacher who comforted and led others. Was he being comforted? I shed tears for a man who did so much for others, but couldn’t do enough for himself. Tears, tears, and more tears.
I would be remiss if I ended my blog post on this note. Those who know me also know I just won’t do that. I truly believe it is up to those of us alive to give voice to our ancestors, to allow them to speak in a voice that is their own, and to correct the inaccuracies about them. Likewise, I believe it is up to us descendants to remember our role model ancestor, our radiant roots, in a positive light. If we don’t, then who will? So, 165 years after the death of my ancestor, Rev. John A. King, I offer a prayer of remembrance to him.
Dear Uncle John,
I want to THANK YOU for the wonderful life you left behind. It has truly been an honor to retrace your footsteps. You have made us proud to call you an esteemed ancestor. We claim all aspects of your life and the lives of your brothers, as our own now. We exalt you for making Newark, NJ a better place for all African-Americans at a time when we were not considered to be full citizens. That you never gave up the call for equal rights is laudable. Your quest for equality showed us just how much a true American you were and how much you believed in the ideals of the American Revolution—freedom, liberty, and equal rights for all.
I want you to know that you were loved, not only by your immediate family and by us, your descendants, but also, by God. God never failed you–not even in your greatest moment of despair. I pray that you have continued to find comfort in His arms. You served an awesome God — a God that we continue to serve.
God bless you, John, and the legacy you left behind. Continue to rest in peace as we continue to spread your good name and the good deeds you did during your lifetime. You are still loved and remembered.
We call your name, John, we… call… your… name…
If I could speak to John, I would tell him that his extended family is still hanging strong in Newark—-right across from where he used to live at 20 Academy St. Our family has never left Newark.
One of the most prominent features of DNA testing is the ethnic admixture results you get with each test. Now, there has been some debate about the reliability of admixture tests. It is true that no one test will tell you every ethnic group that left it’s mark on your genome. For starters, ethnic groups have changed over time and so have the geo-political boundaries that encompassed these groups. Furthermore, each DNA testing company has it’s own ethnic reference samples with which they compare your genome with and this also influences their results.
That being said, I do find admixture results to be somewhat informative if one’s family history includes the ancestries and geographical locations indicated. As a child of the African Diaspora, I also believe that admixture tests do point to geographical areas where my ancestors may have come from during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For African-Americans, this is a key reason as to why we take DNA test in the first place. We want to find that missing piece of our ancestral self that was denied to us.
So, Who Did I Think I Was?
Whoever I thought I was pre-DNA test was only a partial portrait of me. I already knew all my usual suspect ancestries by name (i.e., West African, British, Irish, Dutch, German, Eastern European/Jewish, Spanish,and Native American) prior to taking the test so I expected them to show up in my results. And they did. However, it was the UNUSUAL SUSPECT ancestries that caught my attention big time. My post-DNA test results now included Central-South Africa, East Africa, South/Southeast Asia, North Africa, Italy, France, and Scandinavia. Hmmm… Now, I wondered where and when did these ancestries enter my genome. I mean I thought I knew where my African and European ancestors came from.Well, I guess NOT! LOL Now, I needed to further investigate mynew roots.
Unusual Suspect #1: Central-South Africa, East Africa, and South/Southeast Asia
One of the biggest surprises that my family encountered with DNA testing was my cousin Andrea’s family’s mtDNA results. Though my own mtDNA is H1 because my maternal matrilineal line traces back to Ireland, Andrea’s mtDNA, which comes from our shared 2nd great-grandmother, is M23. This haplogroup is found only in MADASGASCAR!