Here is Our Green-Merritt Family Statement on the Byram African-American Cemetery.
We will continue to give voice to our ancestors as well as to all the other African-Americans who are buried there. May they continue to rest in peace.
As descendants of African-Americans buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery and as descendants of the Lyon family, our family applauds the efforts of the Town of Greenwich in wanting to preserve the Byram Cemetery, Lyon Cemetery and Byram African-American Cemetery. These three cemeteries are testaments to the presence of these early settlers and to the presence of African-Americans in Greenwich from the beginning. Certainly, the value of the historic preservation of these cemeteries is without question.
Regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery, our 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, are no doubt buried there along with other ancestors. Our 4th great-grandmother Peg was a slave of Daniel Lyon and of Benjamin Woosley Lyon. Peg’s son Jack was a slave of Simeon Lyon. Our genetic ties to the Lyon family start with Daniel, and go back to James, John, John and finally back to Thomas Lyon. Throughout Peg’s life, she maintained a long lasting relationship with her former slave owners, even after her emancipation in 1800, that was no doubt due to the family ties that they shared —- ties that were born out of slavery personified in Greenwich. The original intent of our Lyon ancestors was to build a sacred burial place for their slaves and ex-slaves— for people like Anthony and Peg. It was to give these people a final resting place where they could rest in peace for eternity undisturbed. If any one deserved to rest in peace, it was these people who spent part or all of their lives literally slaving away. This was hallowed and consecrated land from the beginning.
Our family is relatively late to this whole cemetery issue. It was only a year ago that we were able to locate our 3rd and 4th great-grandparents and less than a month since we first heard about the infringement to the Byram African-American Cemetery that occurred 2 years ago and our feelings are still raw. Who would have ever thought that our ancestors’ burial ground would now be someone’s front lawn? We certainly didn’t expect that. That being said, we are overjoyed that our Lyon cousins – cousins whose ancestors stood up for our ancestors when the same thing happened in 1890— and other members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, sounded the alarm about what was happening to our ancestors’ burial place in our absence. I can’t state enough how much that meant to our family. Our shared history matters. That the Town of Greenwich and the Conservation Commission produced a documentary study that details their plans to preserve, redevelop, and further interpret the Byram African-American Cemetery is also commendable. That we are now here discussing the Town’s acquisition of all three cemeteries is laudable indeed.
As someone who is both a family historian and genealogist and who has a degree in anthropology, I am looking forward to sharing any historical information I have with the Conservation Commission, Cemetery Committee, Greenwich Historical Society and with the Greenwich Preservation Trust. I want people to know that there is a long history of African-Americans in this town. Our family has a long 250+ year history in Greenwich and Greenwich has always been our hometown. Our ancestors were emancipated in 1800 and 1816 and went on to become successful farmers and laborers. They were members of the Second Congregational Church, the Stanwich Congregational Church and the First United Methodist Church in the early 1800s. When the Second Congregational Church opened up Lot 23 in Union Cemetery in 1851, for the burial of the poor and people of color, our Green, Merritt, and Husted ancestors were among the first to buy burial plots. Half of the African-Americans, who are buried in Lot 23 of Union Cemetery, are our ancestors and their in-laws. When this country needed volunteers to fight on the right side of history during the Civil War, 18 African-American men from Greenwich proudly served in the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops. Out of the 18, 2 were my 3rd great-uncles, 3 were my 1st cousins 4XR, and 4 were their Peterson, Banks, Watson, and Mills in-laws. In 1882, 23 African-American residents of Greenwich came together and formed the Little Bethel AME Church, the first black church in Greenwich, and our Greens and Merritt ancestors were among the founding members. While we represent only one African-American family with deep roots in Greenwich and maybe the only family here to speak on behalf of the people who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, please be aware that there are many more stories that remain to be told about the African-American presence in Greenwich. I, for one, will telling those stories in the near future.
Going forward, our family sees only positive outcomes. Once the Town acquires the Byram African-American Cemetery, we hope that we can all work together to restore the cemetery, discuss its historical significance as the burial place of the town’s earliest African-American residents, to forever link it to the Lyon family whose original intention was to create this part of the Old Cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves, and to add some sort of monument to the cemetery so that further infringement never occurs again. We also support any future excavation of the cemetery to yield any scientific information about the individuals buried there as well as have a proper re-burial ceremony afterwards. The African-Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan and the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground in Albany, NY provide excellent examples of positive community involvement and education regarding found and excavated African-American burial grounds. Again, our family is looking forward to a brighter future for the Byram African-American Cemetery and likewise for the Byram Cemetery and Lyon Cemetery.
This is Part II of a blog series about how my Malagasy ancestors arrived in NYC in the late 17th century and ended up in NJ . In Part I, I showed how one can still see the ethnic admixture that our Malagasy ancestors left our family with that show up in our DNA even today.
I dedicate this blog to all my relatives who descend from our 4th great-grandmother, Tun Snyder, and our 3rd great-grandmother, Susan Pickett, as well as to our newly-found Full Sequence mtDNA M23 cousins whose ties to our family go way back to a shared Malagasy ancestor. I thank each of you for being part of our family history.
The Global Trade in Malagasy Slaves
Before we can even discuss the DNA trail from Madagascar to Manhattan, a brief look at the global trade in Malagasy slaves is needed. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Madagascar, there was an internal slave trade within Madagascar as well as an external slave trade up the East African Coast. In addition, starting as early as the 9th century, Malagasy slaves became commodities in the Islamic Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean. Arab and East African slave traders routinely purchased slaves in Madagascar and then sold them to slave owners in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and across Southeast Asia (see the Schomburg Center’s online exhibit The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean). The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, and American slave traders, who arrived in Madagascar between 1500-1800, thus became part of this global trade in Malagasy slaves that brought these enslaved people westward to South Africa, St. Helena’s Island, South America (e.g., Brazil and Argentina), the Caribbean (e.g., Barbados, Jamaica, and Cuba), and North America (e.g., Quebec, Canada, Boston, New York/NJ, South Carolina, and Virginia).
[While the discussion below is centered on the enslaved Malagasy people who arrived in NY/NJ in the late 1600s and early 1700s, I would like to mention here that my friend Wendy Wilson-Fall has recently published her book Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. Her book discusses the arrival of enslaved Malagasy in Virginia. I highly recommend this book to those people who do descend from these Virginia enslaved Malagasy.]
Shady NY Merchants and Pirates: A Perfect Collaboration
Slaves from Madagascar were directly imported into New York City and surrounding areas, Boston, and Virginia during two time periods–primarily between 1678-1698 and 1715-1721. In the early 1670s, New York and Boston merchants first dabbled in the trade in Malagasy slaves in the Caribbean, especially in Barbados and Jamaica. To give you an idea of how large the Madagascar to Caribbean slave trade was at that time, between 1682-1687, 11 slave ships carrying 1,741 Malagasy slaves arrived in Barbados and 345 Malagasy slaves arrived in Jamaica. The 1700 Barbados census showed 32,473 slaves and half were from Madagascar. While these NY merchants first started off buying and selling Malagasy slaves in the Caribbean, they would later periodically sell the slaves who were not purchased there, in slave markets in the United States, including Boston and New York.
I should add here that Malagasy slave also arrived in Charleston, SC during this same time period as planters from Barbados were among the original settlers of Charleston. They certainly would have brought their Malagasy slaves with them. We know that a form of rice called “Carolina Gold” originated in Madagascar and was brought to Charleston in the 1680s. These enslaved Malagasy would have arrived here with rice production skills that would have been valued in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Given the ports of call that NY Merchants would make on their return trip from the Caribbean, it is possible that Malagasy slaves also ended up in all those places.
Why Did NY Merchants Go to Madagascar in the First Place?
New York merchants went to Madagascar for three reasons primarily. First, it was all about making an even larger profit off the trafficking of black bodies. A slave in Madagascar could be purchased for 10 shillings while a slave from West Africa cost £3 or £4. There are 20 shillings per £, so it was extremely profitable when you consider that, on the New York slave market, a Malagasy slave was worth between £30-£40. To put it in further perspective, 10 shillings would be the equivalent of $500 today.
Second, NY merchants took advantage of a legal loophole in buying slaves from East Africa. Although the Royal Africa Company had a monopoly on the West African slave trade, the East India Company controlled trade in the Indian Ocean, but they had no policy regarding buying Malagasy slaves and selling them elsewhere in the world. Thus, NY merchants were able to procure cheaper slaves from Madagascar and make a huge profit. This loophole, however, only lasted for so long.
Third, NY merchants were able to expand the trade in Malagasy slaves with the complicity of unscrupulous government officials and pirates. With the aid of Governor Benjamin Fletcher, these merchants worked in tandem with pirates to trade their goods at exorbitant prices for slaves in Madagascar and for goods purchased in the East Indies, India, China, and the Middle East. To give you an example of the price inflation of these goods, a gallon of rum in Manhattan would sell for 2 shillings, but in Madagascar, that same gallon of rum would be worth £30. Needless to say, both NY merchants and government officials would invest in the NY to Madagascar voyages. This trade was illicit at best as it meant that these merchants and pirates were smuggling in goods in flagrant violation of the British Navigation Acts.
While there are some records of the ships that entered NY waters with Malagasy slaves during this time, including 8 ships that arrived in the 1690s with approximately 1,700 enslaved Malagasy, the exact number of these slaves imported into NY will never be known due to the illicit nature of this trade. We do know that Malagasy slaves first arrived in New Amsterdam on the Wapen van Amsterdam as early as 1663 with 265 individuals, out of 345 purchased, still alive which was one year before the British takeover of New Amsterdam.
The NY merchants involved in the Madagascar to NY slave trade were among the wealthiest, politically connected NY residents at the time. They included Frederick Philipse, Stephen Delancey, Nicholas Bayard, Jacobus and Stephanus van Cortland, Abraham Van Horne, Robert Livingston, Caleb Heathcote, Peter Schuyler, Rip Van Dam, Ann Lynch, and others. These merchants built their vast estates, like Philipsburg Manor in Westchester, NY and Schuyler Flatts in Albany, NY, with a slave labor force that included Malagasy slaves. These families also intermarried with each other as a way of maintaining their concentrated wealth. In addition, they took advantage of the political turmoil that was happening in the American colonies during King William’s War (1688-97) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-13). Because of a weak British government, American colonial governments came to rely on privateers to take on the French. The privateers were commissioned to capture French ships on the high seas and then split the ship’s goods with NY merchants and government officials when they arrived back in New York City harbor. What started off as privateering turned into pirating as soon as the privateers realized that they could cut out the middlemen—the government officials. Thus, the pirates and NY merchants started to work together for their mutual benefit. By the way, the pirates were just as notable as the NY merchants and included, Captain William Kidd, Thomas Tew, Adam Baldridge, Samuel Burgess, Robert Culliford, and others.
The New York to Madagascar voyage took on average 4-6 months. The NY merchants would load up their ships with small arms, ammunition, food provisions, beer, wine, clothes, shoes, seeds, books, slave trading-items (e.g., shackles, beads, iron-bars, gunpowder), etc. They would first stop at Madeira, then head to either the Cape Verde Islands or the Canary Islands. Their last stop would be St. Helena’s Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean before heading onward to Madagascar and St. Helena was the first stop on the return trip. St. Helena was colonized by the British in 1659 and was considered an essential part of the East India Company’s real estate. Any ship trading in Madagascar had a tax levied against them in the form of payment of one Malagasy slave. Over the centuries, Malagasy people formed the great majority of the island’s slave population.
Now, just imagine being in the cargo hold of a slave ship sailing for 4-6 months on the return trip to NY. It’s no wonder that the average mortality rate on these ships averaged 19% with some voyages having mortality rates as high as 31%. Part of the mortality rate was due to the fact that the enslaved were already slaves in Madagascar having been captured by other ethnic groups before being sold. The rest had to do with the despicable, inhumane conditions inherent on any Transatlantic slave ship voyage. One of the most harrowing accounts is that of the Gascoigne Galley slave ship that arrived in VA in 1721 from Madagascar with 133 slaves, out of 192 individuals purchased. The slaves on this ship had “distemper in their Eyes,” of which a great many became blind and some of their Eye Balls come out (Platt, p. 568).” These slaves were practically unsalable. Who knows what became of them. It breaks my heart knowing what my Malagasy ancestors went through during this time. Yet, they somehow managed to survive. What a strong people they were. TEARS. There, but for the grace of God go I.
I should add here that the voyages from Boston to Madagascar also included Native Americans who would eventually be sold as slaves in the Caribbean and in Madagascar. The journey from Boston would have also been in the same 4-6 month range. Hence, the enslaved Malagasy would have taken the place of Native Americans who had been in the same cargo hold on the return trip to Boston. In 1678, 40-50 Malagasy slaves were brought to Boston and sold for £15-£20 each. Such was the vicious nature and horror of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To know that two groups of my ancestors were taken from their original homelands and exported halfway around the world is heartbreaking. Sometimes words fail me.
From Pirates of the Caribbean to Pirates of Madagascar
Madagascar became a pirate’s haven after the Port Royal, Jamaica earthquake and tsunami in 1692. With the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the subsequent British crackdown on piracy in the Caribbean, these pirates set their eyes on Madagascar, especially St. Marie’s Island and St. Augustine’s Bay. Madagascar was an ideal place to set up shop as the Indian Ocean was a major international trading region. Ships were regularly traveling between the East Indies to India and then to the Arabian Peninsula. This meant that these ships would be easy targets for the pirates in Madagascar who became known as the “Red Sea Pirates.” It is estimated that 1,500 pirates were sailing in the Indian Ocean between 1695-1700 such was the call of pirate booty.
Madagascar, in the 16th and 17th century, had no central government. There existed mini-kingdoms based on different ethnic groups. The pirates exacerbated ethnic divisions within Madagascar with their trading. They also created a Malagasy elite class as they fathered children, known as zana mulata, who became powerfully locally with Malagasy women. Its interesting to note that, at the beginning of the Indo-Atlantic Madagascar slave trade, the items exchanged for slaves were things like beads, copper wire, novelties, textiles, and silver coins. However, by the end of the 17th century, firearms, muskets, and gun powder were the preferred items to be exchanged for slaves. James C. Anderson, noted that, among the Sakalava in 1699, an able young adult slave man was worth 2 muskets, 5 small boxes of powder, 5 balls, and 5 flints whereas an able young adult slave woman was worth 1 musket, 10 boxes of powder, 10 balls and 10 flints. Malagasy women, of course, were valued more for their reproductive capacity. The local demand for firearms undoubtedly fueled political instability and further slave trading.
Why did the Madagascar to NY Slave Trade End?
Let’s be clear, the Madagascar to NY slave trade ended solely for economic reasons that had NOTHING to do with slavery. The pirates of Madagascar ended up raiding enough ships from India in the late 1690s that the Mughal rulers in India began to openly complain to the East India Company. They even went as far as to penalize East India Company officials by imprisoning them and threaten to remove the British from their trading network. That was enough for the British to crackdown on piracy in the Indian Ocean. The measure they took included installing anti-pirate colonial governors, like Lord Bellomont in New England and NY, to combat piracy and illegal trading, establishing military courts to try pirates, as well as undertaking military operations against pirates on the high seas. The East India Company also cracked down on NY merchants who were carrying supplies to the pirates in Madagascar as well as violating the Navigation Acts by selling NY goods for profit. The East India Act of 1698 effectively ended the Madagascar to NY trade, including the trade in Malagasy slaves. Whereas the number of African slaves in 1664 New Amsterdam was only 300, after the British takeover, that number more than doubled to 700 slaves no doubt due to the great number of enslaved Malagasy imported into the colony.
This ban only lasted until 1715 when the East India Company allowed trading with Madagascar to resume under certain conditions. The East India Company went ahead and granted licenses for trading, including slave trading. Only those ships with licenses would be allowed to trade with Madagascar. Each licensed ship, with £500 worth of goods exported from England, was also required to dock at St. Helena’s island and had to pay a tax levy of nine “merchanteable” Malagasy slaves. Slaves were expected to be between the ages of 16-30, two-thirds male and one-third female. The resumption of the Madagascar slave trade was different in some ways from the earlier period in that most of the slaves ended up in Virginia as opposed to NY. Some ships did enter NYC and surrounding areas though. NY merchants, given their earlier history, were still wary of the East India Company and often masked their Madagascar cargo as being from “Africa.” From 1715-21, over 500 Malagasy people were sold as slaves in NY. That being said, Virginia received over 1,400 Malagasy slaves during this same period.
I should add here, in deference to my Boricua roots, that Malagasy slaves entered the Spanish and French speaking Caribbean during the entire Transatlantic Slave Trade. France was complicit thoughout the slave trade which actually saw the first Malagasy slaves sent to Quebec, Canada as early as 1623. France also colonized Madagascar and enslaved Malagasy were also sent to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Spanish slave traders bought and sent enslaved Malagasy throughout the Spanish empire. Under Spanish colonial rule, Malagasy slaves were sent to Mexico, Central America, Southwest and Central United States, Spanish Florida, the Philippines and other Pacific Islands in addition to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Catalan slave traders were also sailing to Madagascar in the early-1800s and directly shipping slaves to Cuba. Those slaves may have also ended up in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
By 1721, the East India Company again stopped trade with Madagascar. Like the earlier period, unlicensed vessels also headed to Madagascar and pirate activity continued as did the burgeoning trade in goods from the East Indies. In 1720-1721, there were reports that several unlicensed ships were again carrying supplies to pirates and buying slaves from Madagascar and selling them in Brazil, the West Indies, and Virginia. The East India Company effectively ordered any ships carrying slaves from Madagascar or goods from the East Indies to be seized. After 1721, there was no direct importation of enslaved Malagasy people to the US and by the 1730s, the age of Indian Ocean piracy ended. Pirates either returned to their countries of origin, died, or were absorbed into the dominant Malagasy culture.
Malagasy people continued to enter the United States in other ways after the importation of slaves from Madagascar ended in 1721. Some were brought in by the French in New Orleans and Quebec, some arrived as slaves from the English-, Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean and Brazil, some arrived as free Black immigrants, and some of these slaves arrived on slave ships from West Africa after slave traders left Madagascar, headed to West Africa, and then smuggled them disguised as West African slaves into the States. Fonte Felipe, in his Tracing African Roots blog, discusses how “recaptive” slaves from Southeast Africa ended up in West Africa.
Malagasy Slave Resistance: The Struggle to be Free
Though Malagasy people were enslaved, they did resist oppression in a number of ways in the colonial era. Despite having different levels of success or plain failures, the enslaved Malagasy engaged in acts of resistance and played an active role in changing the circumstances of their involuntary servitude. From the founding of Malagasy maroon communities in Cape Hangklip, False Bay, South Africa and Jamaica, to Malagasy slave insurrections on the island of St. Helena, to the Malagasy taking over of the Meermin slave ship, to slaves of Malagasy descent taking part in the NY Slave Revolts of 1712 and 1741, to the runaway slaves of Malagasy origin in NY and NJ who sought freedom on foot, these enslaved Malagasy were exercising their right to self-determination. I would like to think that some of my Malagasy ancestors stood up for themselves. Certainly, Black lives mattered to them then as they do to us now. I can only respect the decisions they made which no doubt did, or could have, resulted in their deaths. I praise their names. RESPECT!
Africans in New Amsterdam in the 1600s and Our Malagasy Ancestors’ Melting Pot Origins
People of African descent arrived with the Dutch at the beginning of their colonization of Manhattan. Juan Rodriguezwas the first person of African descent to arrive in 1613 after the Dutch claimed the territory in 1609. By 1626, the Dutch began to settle Manhattan and were actively involved in the slave trade. They imported 11 slaves into New Amsterdam that year. Geni.com has a page devoted to Africans in New Amsterdam and they have listed the following number of Africans, arriving in small numbers, up until the British takeover in 1664.
Not only does our family descend from the first Malagasy slaves to arrive in colonial NY, our extended family line also goes back to some of the first West Africans in New Amsterdam —to Emmanuel D’Angola, one of the 20 men who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1630, as well as Hilary “Swartinne” Criolyo, a free black woman from Brazil, who arrived in 1644 with her husband the Dutch Captain Jan De Vries I. Some of the first slaves in the early 1600s came from Angola, Guinea, and the Congo and their surnames reflect their countries of origin. The Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) captured a Portuguese slave ship and brought these slaves to work for for WIC in New Amsterdam. These slaves, and others, were the ones who built the infrastructure of New Amsterdam, including the buildings, bridges, fences, and roads as well as maintained the fort. In addition, they cleared land, planted crops, loaded and unloaded ships, and were trained to be stonemasons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, etc. They were also instrumental in protecting New Amsterdam from Native American onslaughts. I should also add that Native Americans in New Amsterdam were also among the first slaves as well.
These first Africans were later joined by other West Africans, like the Akan-Asante, Popo, Moko, Ibo, Yoruba, Adra, Jon, Ibibio, Coromantines, and others, as well as seasoned slaves from Brazil, which the Dutch controlled at that time, and the West Indies (i.e., Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and Curacao). The WIC also brought in “Spanish Negroes” and “Spanish Indians.” These were free blacks and Native Americans, from the Caribbean and South America, who were captured on Spanish or Portuguese ships by the Dutch and then sold as slaves in New Amsterdam. With their darker skin, the Dutch assumed that they must have been slaves.
The diversity of slaves in New Amsterdam meant that the descendants of these original Africans would have interacted with all of the above populations, including the Malagasy who would arrive decades later, as well as the white indenture servant population. This is the melting pot world our Malagasy ancestor entered when she arrived in colonial New York in the late 1600s – early 1700s. She and her descendants would have had children with slaves or free blacks who came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They may have also had children fathered by a slave owner as female slaves were very often at risk for sexual abuse by their slave owners and/or their male family members.
It should be acknowledged that slavery under the Dutch colonial government was dramatically different from the system of slavery that the British instituted after 1664. Perhaps the biggest difference was that, under the Dutch, slaves could become free either by being granted “half-free” status or by being granted their full freedom. Under the “half-free” status, slaves were given land which they farmed for themselves, but had to pay tribute to the WIC as well as be available to protect the colony. Their children would still be considered slaves though. If they were granted full freedom, they were free and their children inherited that status. The first slaves in New Amsterdam received their freedom in the 1640s after having worked as slaves for almost 20 years.
Likewise, under the Dutch colonial slave system, the Dutch Reformed Church recognized slave and free Black marriages and baptisms, they could take care of their children which was their responsibility, when not working for the WIC, they could hire themselves out for paid wages, they were also allowed to raise crops and animals on WIC land, and black people could bring cases to court and serve as witnesses against others. We see that the Dutch believed in maintaining the slave family unit for the most part.
With the arrival of the British in 1664, everything changed. The British immediately instituted the first laws regulating slavery the way they had done in Virginia and other southern colonies. Between 1665 and 1683, New York City’s Common Council passed a series of restrictions on the activities of slaves and free blacks alike. Some of the changes included children of slaves now could only inherit the status of their mothers, children could be separated from their family, slave masters were now able to hire slaves out for their own profit, slaves, free blacks and whites were not allowed to associate with each other, slaves couldn’t leave their master’s home without permission, etc. The list goes on and on. The codification of slavery was now complete. Within this historical context, it is not surprising that the New York Slave Revolt of 1712 happened at all.
The response of our D’Angola, De Vries, and Van Dunk ancestors was to leave New Amsterdam behind. Who could blame them? By the mid-1650s, these free blacks had been given land in an area on the outskirts of the town near the Fresh Water Pond and had been accustomed to their freedom and knew what that meant. We know that by 1670, Claes Manuel, Jan De Vries II, and Augustine Van Dunk lived near this area which was considered part of the Stuyvesant Farm which was owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam. As people in New Amsterdam chafed under the British and as land became scarce, many Dutch families started to cross the Hudson River and settle in the area known as Hackensack River Valley.
Tracing My Family’s Colonial Roots From NY to NJ: All Roads Lead to the Tappan Patent
In 1683, a group of 16 individuals, primarily from the Bowery Village, purchased land from the Tappen Indians in the Upper Hackensack River Valley. This tract of land was called the Tappan Patent and was located 12 miles north of Manhattan on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Because of a land dispute between New York and New Jersey, the land title wasn’t granted officially until 1687. As you can see below, Claes Manuel and Jan De Vries II were two of the 16 original land grantees. By 1712, they were also joined by Augustine Van Dunk. These families were considered mixed-race and would have been Dutch culturally, Their land was then inherited by their descendants upon their deaths.
By the mid- to late 1700s, as New Jersey adopted their own set of laws that restricted the movement of free blacks and slaves, the descendants of the Manuel, De Vries, and Van Dunk families moved into the Ramapough Mountains. Many were then absorbed into the Ramapough Lenapi Indiannation and consider themselves to be Native American today. Our extended family has direct ties with members of the Ramapough Lenapi that indicate our ancestors’ shared family history and culture with them. We proudly embrace our indigenous Lenapi roots.
Our 4th great-grandmother was born between 1790 and 1800 in Tappan, NY which was part of the original Tappan Patent. Her name was Tun Snyder and her maternal line was of Malagasy descent. We are descendants of her daughter Susan Pickett and her granddaughter Laura Thompson. Her female ancestor most likely came over in the late 1600s- early 1700 time period. Through an analysis of our DNA and DNA cousins, we know that our Pickett-Snyder line was a mix of Malagasy, West African, Lenapi, and European, primarily Dutch, people. We also have Euro DNA cousins who are related to well-known founding families of Bergen County, NJ and Rockland County, NY like the Blauvelt, Banta, Ackerman/Ackerson/Eckerson, VanBuskirk, and Demarest families. There is only one way our family can share genetic ties to these families and that would be via consensual or nonconsensual relations between our ancestors.
The Blauvelts were the slave owners of Tun and her ancestors and they were also Tappan Patent land grantees. The Blauvelts of the Tappan Patent can be directly traced to Gerritt Henricksen Blauvelt who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1646 and received a grant of 50 acres of land. The Blauvelt farm was right next door to the Stuyvesant Farm. The Blauvelts and their slaves would have known the D’Angola, De Vries, and Van Dunk families as they owned land that was also next to the Stuyvesant Farm in New Amsterdam. Could male members of the Blauvelt and free black/mixed race families have fathered children with Malagasy female Blauvelt slaves in New Amsterdam? We may never know, but it could be a possibility. However, it is certain that, after these families moved to the Tappan Patent, some of their descendants, in fact, did. All roads lead to the Tappan Patent indeed.
The sons of Gerritt included Johannes Gerritsen Blauvelt and Huybert Gerritsen Blauvelt—two of the original Tappan Patent land grantees. They moved to the Tappan Patent with their brothers Hendrick Gerritsen Blauvelt, Isaac Gerritsen Blauvelt, and Abraham Gerritsen Blauvelt, their sister, Margrietje Gerritsen Blauvelt, who married Lambert Ariaensen Smidt, and their sister, Marritie Gerritsen Blauvelt, who married Cozyn Haring. As you can see, the Smidts and Harings were also Tappan Patent land grantees as well as in-laws to the Blauvelts. In fact, it was Huybert Gerritsen Blauvelt who sailed up the Hudson River, with his brother-in-laws Peter Haring and Adriaen Lambertsen Smidt, to negotiate the purchase of this land in 1682 with the Tappan Indians. What we see here then is that the Tappan Patent land grantees were relatives, in-laws, and neighbors, who included two free black families among them, which in itself was unheard of at the time. They were not an unknown group of disparate individuals who randomly met one day and decided to purchase land. Nope. They were a carefully chosen, trusted group of people who wanted to found their own community away from the British which they did. They all brought their slaves with them when they relocated to New Jersey, too.
Tun was owned by Frederica (Frederick) Blauvelt in Tappan, NY. Frederica (1728-1809) was the son of Joseph Blauvelt and Elizabeth Van Delson. Frederica’s father was Joseph Blauvelt, the son of Henrick Gerritsen Blauvelt (1697-?), and was one of the first Blauvelts to be born in the Tappan Patent. When Frederica died in 1809, Tun was willed to his granddaughter Anna Marie Mabie.
It should also be noted that the status of slaves changed upon the death of their slave masters. Most were inherited by the family members of slave owners while others may have been freed upon their death. What we do know is that Federica Blaivelt’s wife Anna Maria inherited two slaves from her father as the will below shows. Were these slaves somehow related to Tun? We don’t know for sure. All we know is that John left instructions for “his negro boy Jack and negro wench Sublie” to live with his daughter and her husband after he died and for Anna Maria to look out for Sublie as she grew old. Tun would have known these individuals as she lived with them.
Tun was sold or loaned out out a couple of times as a slave and finally ended up with the family of Gerrit Ackerman whose family was also from the Tappan Patent. The Ackermans (also known as Ackersons/Eckersons) intermarried with the Blauvelts, Demarests, and others. Tun labored as a “servant slave” most of her life. In his 1846 will, Gerrit Ackerman instructed his sons to look after her and even willed her son Samuel property in the form of a house. She died in 1881 in Saddle River, Washington County, NY.
I will be writing a separate blogpost in the future on Tun and her ancestors as my cousin Andrea and I are now going through all the Blauvelt wills, Bergen County and Rockland County vital records, etc. searching for clues to her ancestry. So far, I have located the wills of 6 Blauvelts who passed their slaves down to their descendants or freed them. Tun’s story is yet to be told. Stay tuned.
The DNA Trail Continues: Our Full Sequence M23 mtDNA Cousins
Last year, my cousins Andrea and Helen took Family Tree’s Full Sequence mtDNA test to see what else we could find out about our maternal Malagasy line. A year later, we have 9 Full Sequence mtDNA cousin matches who share our M23 haplogroup. I have been in touch with 6 of our 9 FS mtDNA cousins and we have learned several things about their family histories. We haven’t found our common ancestor and may not be able to do so given the nature of slavery.
So what gave we learned? Four out of our 6 mtDNA cousins have ties to the NY/NJ area along with my family. Two mtDNA cousins, Brenda and “Donnie”, are actually 5th cousins who share the same set of 4th great-grandparents who were born in Nova Scotia. Their 5th great-grandmother Rose Fortune was born in VA and who, as a 10 year old girl, boarded a ship in NY to Nova Scotia at the end of the Revolutionary War. Her parents were Black Loyalists and their family is documented in The Book of Negroes. We have found some documentation that their 6th great-grandparents were from Philadelphia and were owned by the Devoe family.
The Devoe family were French Hugeunots who arrived in New Amsterdam in the late 1600s and who settled up and down the Hudson River before some of their descendants moved to NJ and PA, including Philadelphia. We have found documented evidence that in 1762, Captain Michael Devoe of Ulster County, NY, had taken out a runaway slave ad for his slave Prince who was of Malagasy descent. Prince was a valuable slave as he had nautical skills that were very much needed on the Hudson River and his loss would have been keenly felt. Clearly, the Devoes had acquired Malagasy slaves in NY and the children of those slaves would have been inherited by their descendants.
On the map above, one sees how close Ulster County is to NYC as well as to Albany, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland counties. NY merchants involved in the NY to Madagascar slave trade had vast estates in all these counties. Again, the Malagasy slaves who arrived in the late 1600s and early 1700s would have been sold up and down the Hudson River region and beyond.
We have identified the family line of the two other M23 mtDNA cousins, Lois and Dorothy, who match my family. That line is the Timbrook-Titus line and this line originates in the Greater New Brunswick, NJ area. In the 1870s, my family has a Rev. Isaac Timbrook living with our Thompson-King ancestors in Newark, NJ and a Violet Timbrook is living in a house owned by our 3rd great-grandfather Cato Thompson, who was married to our M23 3rd great-grandmother Susan Pickett, in the 1880s. The Timbrooks are related to our Malagasy descended Pickett-Snyder line. Lois has a 4th great-grandmother named Sarah Timbrook Titus who was also from New Brunswick. We believe Isaac is her nephew, the son of her brother Edward Timbrook. Dorothy is connected to a Fanny Titus who may be related to this family line as well. We are still sorting out the family relationships, but we do know that this is the one family line that may link to our common Malagasy ancestor.
Our 5th mtDNA cousin Rhoda is an outlier in that her roots are in the South. To date, all of the people in the Malagasy Roots Project who have the M23 haplogroup have been found with ties to the Northeast. Of course, more people need to be tested to see if other haplogroups found in Madagascar are also present in this geographical area. What is interesting about Rhoda is that she highly likely had an ancestor of Malagasy from the NY/NJ area who was sold South at some point.
My friend Richard Sears Walling has recently been publicizing an illegal slave trade that occured in NJ in 1818 whereby about 100 African-Americans, both free and enslaved, were sold South into slavery by Judge Jacob Van Wickle. This slave trade occured in the New Brunswick/Old Bridge, NJ area and it is quite possible that all of us may have had an ancestor who may have been sold South in this trade. It should be noted that in 1850, Isaac Timbrook is working as a farmhand on a farm owned by the great-nephew of the judge, Steven Van Wickle. The interconnections between people and places does serve as a backdrop to our potential shared history.
Lastly, our 6th mtDNA cousin Alan has a grandmother who was half-Malagasy/half British and who was born on the island of St. Helena. This island was the first stop on the return trip from Madagascar. An import tax was paid in the form of Malagasy slaves on ships that arrived in St. Helena’s port. For Alan to be related to all of us means that we either shared a common ancestor in Madagascar whose descendants ended up in two different locations or maybe two females ancestors became separated when a ship from Madagascar stopped in St. Helena on its way to New York. Alan’s connection to our M23 cohort is of particular interest as it shows the importance of St. Helena as a stopover point on the way from Madagascar to New York. Alan can trace his maternal ancestry back to his 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Bateman, who was born in 1815 on the island of St. Helena. Her maternal ancestors were Malagasy for certain.
Alan was so kind to share a family photo of his grandmother and mother taken in the early early 1900s as well as photos of Malagasy people in St. Helena. He is lucky to have such an important connection to Madagascar.
Historical Truth and The Schulyer Flatts Burial Ground Revealed
One of the hardest things we have to do in researching our slave ancestors is to dig DEEP for the truth that exist somewhere out there about their lives. Our ancestors were stripped of the normal genealogical paper trails that others can find with ease for often they were just counted as property in between all the other non-human goods in inventories and wills. Many times they were also buried in unmarked graves, in unmarked or lost cemeteries, that have long since returned to Mother Earth or were just built over. How then can we reclaim these ancestors who are our own? How can we reconstruct their lives when we seemingly have no clues as to who they were or where they came from?
My 3rd cousin Andrea and I took the 23andme DNA test three years ago in order to break through our genealogical brick walls. DNA tests were becoming popular then and we felt like we had nothing to lose. How can you lose anything when most genealogical records do not exist for your slave ancestors? We lucked out when Andrea’s mtDNA haplogroup came back M23. She is a matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother.
When we got Andrea’s results back, we were amazed at the haplogroup designation which originated in Madagascar. We went on to test our other M23 cousins, including our 100-year old Cousin Helen whose grandmother Mary was a sister of our 2nd great-grandmother Laura. An unknown window to our family history opened up to us. This was one African country, without question or hesitation, that we knew we could now call our own. It was then that we both started to embrace the opportunity that this M23 haplogroup had given us and we became obsessed with finding out how our Malagasy ancestors came to the NY/NJ region. This blog post is an attempt to answer that question. We may never know the name of our original Malagasy ancestor, but we now know how, where, and when she arrived in colonial NY and her descendants ended up in NJ. That is a whole lot more than we ever knew before our DNA test. It was this ancestor who gave us the gift of her M23 mtDNA that allowed us to follow the trail back to her and to discover the socio-historical events that circumscribed her life. We are so grateful to her for we have now reclaimed that which slavery took from us — one segment of our roots, our Malagasy roots.
We will never know where our earliest ancestors of Malagasy descent are buried. But, in 2005 in Colonie, NY, an unmarked slave burial ground was discovered there. The historical erasure of these fourteen nameless individuals, who were found in the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground, was to be no more. The remains found included one man, 6 women, 2 children, and 5 infants. By historic design, we know little about them. What we do know is that, after a mtDNA testwas performed, 4 were designated as being of West African/Central African descent, 1 descended from a Native American woman and was of mixed-race, and 2 sets of remains were from women of Malagasy descent with a M haplogroup designation. The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground should be viewed as a stand-in burial ground for all those forgotten slaves who toiled all over colonial New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The re-emergence of this burial ground is a testament to the fact that the some of the earliest slaves in colonial NY/NJ were Native American, West African, and Malagasy. It is also a testament to the indisputable fact that there are many African-Americans, my family included, who have historic ties to this land that predate most of the other non-Native American immigrants who became Americans much later on.
The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground was built on land owned by the Schuyler familly. Peter Schuyler, who occupied the estate between 1711-1723, was one of the NY merchants involved in the Madagascar to NY slave trade. He, along with his brother-in-law Robert Livingston, routinely invested in ships that made the trip to Madagascar to sell goods and then returned with enslaved Malagasy in their cargo hold along with other items for sale. He also owned sloops that trafficked on the Hudson River from Albany to Manhattan and owned property in Manhattan, Bergen County, NJ, Westchester, and Albany, NY. On those properties were no doubt slaves of Malagasy descent among others. Schuyler may be remembered for many things, but, make no mistake, he was one of the players in the NY slave trade. For those of us with Malagasy roots, he will be remembered for being actively involved and complicit in the NY to Madagascar slave trade along with all the other NY merchants families. — the Philipse, Livingston, Van Cortland, Delancey, Bayard, Lynch, Van Dam, Van Horne, Heathcote, and other families — who sold our ancestors into slavery.
I am not one to sanitize a historical truth when it involves my ancestors. History needs to be understood as it was experienced by everyone and not the chosen few. As far as I am concerned, the lives of my slave ancestors are just as valuable historically as any other person who ever lived. Their lives did not happen in a historical vacuum and their stories need to be told. Their lives were indeed valid. I can’t over-emphasize how important it is for us to seek out our ancestors’ stories. All of us, who are descendants of slaves, need to reclaim the lives of our ancestors so that others may learn of their existence and their contributions to American society. We owe it to them NOT to continue to aid in their historical erasure. If we do not do it, who will? The choice is ours. Let us all then shine a light on those who came before us. Our ancestors are always with us and their stories are encoded in our DNA.
On Colonial New York:
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 1998.
Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before The Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1992.
Cohen, David Steven. The Ramapough Mountain People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1986.
Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2003.
Hodges, Graham Russell. Root & Branches: African Americans in New York & East Jersey, 1613-1863. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1999.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 2007.
Matson, Cathy. Merchants & Empire: Trading in Colonial New York. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press. 1998.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of The United Sates, Volume 1). New York, NY: Penguin Books. 2002.
Shaw Romney ,Susanah. New Netherland and Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in the Seventeenth-Century America. Chapel Hill, NC:University Prss of North Carolina. 2014.
Wills Foote, Thelma. Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Allen, Richard, Ed. European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850. Athens,OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
Armstrong, James C. “Madagascar and the Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century.” Omaly sy anio (Antananarivo University of Madagascar), no. 17 (1983): 211:34.
Elphick, Richard and Hermann Giliomee, Eds. The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1840. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 1979.
Hopper, Jane. “Pirates and Kings: Power on the Shores of Early Modern Madagascar and the Indian Ocean.” Journal of World History, Vol. 22, no. 2 (June 2011) : 215-242.
Judd, Jacob. “Frederick Philipse and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1971): 354-74.
Manning, Patrick. The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.
McDonald, Kevin P. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 2015.
Platt, Virginia Bever. “The East India Company and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 26, no. 4 (October 1969): 548-77.
Sheriff, Abdul. Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2010.
Vernet, Thomas. “Slave Trade and Slavery on the Swahili Coast, 1500-1750.” In Slavery, islam, and Diaspora, edited by Behnaz A. Mirzai, Ismael Musah Montana, and APul E. Lovejoy, 37-76. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. 2009.
Wilson-Fall, Wendy. Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 2015.
On Native American Slavery:
Newell, Margaret Ellen. Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2015.
Resendez, Andres. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.
On Spain’s Involvement in the Slave Trade:
Fradera, Josep and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Eds. Slavery and Anti-Slavery in Spain’s Atlantic Empire. New York, NY: Berghahn Books. 2013.
Henry S. Lyon is a distant cousin of mine via an unknown Lyon slave owner ancestor. It appears that in 1890, he stood up for the people buried in The Byram African-American Cemetery. That he stood up is indicative of the fact that the Lyon family —the family who created the cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves— has always sought to protect the land that they saw as part of their Old Cemetery. In my discussions with a few of my Lyon cousins, it is clear that The Byram African-American Cemetery has always been seen as hallowed and consecrated land by the Lyon family and it has always been considered a part of the Old (Lyon) Cemetery.
It is also highly likely that there are other African-Americans buried there who, like my ancestors, are genetically related to the Lyon family. My family are descendants of Peg who was originally owned by Daniel Lyon and who was emancipated in 1800 by his brother Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Peg, her husband Anthony, her other ancestors, and maybe 1-2 of her sons may be buried there. Through DNA, we are linked to the Lyon family line which includes Benjamin Woolsey and his brother Daniel > James > John >John > all the way back to Thomas Lyon, one of the original Lyons who settled in Greenwich in the mid-1600s. All of my relatives who tested at AncestryDNA have DNA cousins who trace back to multiple Lyon lines, including to Daniel. DNA has the power to uncover hidden truths and it has done so in this case.
As the article points out:
“But the people in the neighborhood did not like to have the consecrated ground developed for personal use, and Mr. Lyon circulated a petition to the Selectman to have the barn removed though he himself did not sign the petition. There was a large number of signers, however, Mr. Waterman knowing the part Mr. Lyon had taken in the matter, naturally looked upon him as the enemy.”
It must be noted (see 1890 map below) that the neighborhood was filled with my Lyon ancestors. Facts matter….. History matters… All my ancestors matter…The restoration of the Byram African-American Cemetery matters… Its historical designation as an African-American cemetery matters… Above all, the people who are buried there matter… And I stand humbled in knowing that my extended Lyon family understands that our shared family histories, born out of slavery in Greenwich, CT, still matter, too. We stand united even today.
The photos below are from the Historical Perspectives Documentary Study that the Town of Greenwich Conservation Commission put together and which can be found here.
Clarification: The Town of Greenwich is taking steps to acquire three abandoned cemeteries, including The Byram African-American Cemetery. My family and I have every reason to believe that the town will do right by the descendants of every single individual who is buried in this cemetery to make sure that this cemetery is maintained as a sacred historical site. Our issue is not with them. I should make that clear.
As descendants of Lyon slaves and slave owners, our position is that any change to The Byram African-American Cemetery was and is a desecration to the cemetery and to the memory of everyone buried there. The Lyon Family specifically created this cemetery as a finally resting place for their slaves as well as free blacks, who were most likely their former slaves, so it is also disrespectful to the memory and original intentions of the Lyon Family who are buried above the Byram African-American Cemetery. There should be no expectations of neutrality on this issue from the descendants of the Green/Merritt family. None whatsoever.
What Do You Say to Your Ancestors When You Find Out That Their Burial Ground Was Desecrated by Greed?
It’s August 30th, 2016 at 3:20 am in the morning and I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because my heart is heavy, my mind is unsettled, and I can hear my ancestors calling out for justice. Almost a year ago, I was able to break through an over decade genealogical brick wall on my maternal Green/Merritt line. I finally located my third and fourth great-grandparents and learned their names. I called their names out loud and clear —Peg, Anthony, Allen and Mary. I was so loud that I brought them all back to life, figuratively speaking, so that now they could officially be remembered. I went even further and took the time to learn all about them. This led me to blog about my proud Green pand 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.