Henry S. Lyon is a distant cousin of mine via an unknown Lyon slave owner ancestor. It appears that in 1890, he stood up for the people buried in The Byram African-American Cemetery. That he stood up is indicative of the fact that the Lyon family —the family who created the cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves— has always sought to protect the land that they saw as part of their Old Cemetery. In my discussions with a few of my Lyon cousins, it is clear that The Byram African-American Cemetery has always been seen as hallowed and consecrated land by the Lyon family and it has always been considered a part of the Old (Lyon) Cemetery.
It is also highly likely that there are other African-Americans buried there who, like my ancestors, are genetically related to the Lyon family. My family are descendants of Peg who was originally owned by Daniel Lyon and who was emancipated in 1800 by his brother Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Peg, her husband Anthony, her other ancestors, and maybe 1-2 of her sons may be buried there. Through DNA, we are linked to the Lyon family line which includes Benjamin Woolsey and his brother Daniel > James > John >John > all the way back to Thomas Lyon, one of the original Lyons who settled in Greenwich in the mid-1600s. All of my relatives who tested at AncestryDNA have DNA cousins who trace back to multiple Lyon lines, including to Daniel. DNA has the power to uncover hidden truths and it has done so in this case.
As the article points out:
“But the people in the neighborhood did not like to have the consecrated ground developed for personal use, and Mr. Lyon circulated a petition to the Selectman to have the barn removed though he himself did not sign the petition. There was a large number of signers, however, Mr. Waterman knowing the part Mr. Lyon had taken in the matter, naturally looked upon him as the enemy.”
It must be noted (see 1890 map below) that the neighborhood was filled with my Lyon ancestors. Facts matter….. History matters… All my ancestors matter…The restoration of the Byram African-American Cemetery matters… Its historical designation as an African-American cemetery matters… Above all, the people who are buried there matter… And I stand humbled in knowing that my extended Lyon family understands that our shared family histories, born out of slavery in Greenwich, CT, still matter, too. We stand united even today.
The photos below are from the Historical Perspectives Documentary Study that the Town of Greenwich Conservation Commission put together and which can be found here.
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 Descecrated 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 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 African-American with some Native American and 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 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 black 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 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.