The incomprehensible events of 2017 are clarified just a bit by the American history I’ve absorbed while creating my family tree on Ancestry.com. Imagining the lives of my forebears requires research to understand the times in which they lived.
Most of my mother’s and father’s ancestors were farmers, although some of them preached, taught, or practiced law on the side. A lot of them served in the military, beginning, on this continent, with the colonial militia.
Also visible in census records are ancestors who were slaveholding plantation owners. They would not have concerned themselves about my opinion of them three centuries later, but I disagree with anyone who argues that enslaving people was normal and acceptable at the time. It wasn’t.
Timeline of abolition of slavery and serfdom (worldwide)
The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage was founded in Philadelphia in 1775. The kings of France and Spain had banned slavery in their countries in Europe centuries earlier, though it continued in their colonies. The British Empire was much slower to eliminate its highly profitable slave trade. The American colonies were free to take advantage of the business that shifted in their direction. Advertisements soliciting colonial settlers emphasized offers of land, the right to own enslaved people, and religious freedom—a bizarre entanglement of incentives that some people still seem unable to separate. Variations of this offshoring scheme will be repeated in every century ad infinitum.
The Civil War gutted many of my ancestors’ families. Nothing makes its consequences more apparent than United States federal census records showing a widow raising twelve children in the latter half of the 19th century. Now, just when it seems the South is poised to begin recovering from its sordid past, we’re faced with one last filthy wallow that could last for four years.
The current decade’s nagging question, for me, is how to recognize and reconcile the fact that my existence is due in part to some of my slaveholding ancestors, whose survival instinct devolved into ruthlessness and greed. My maternal line made their homes north of the Mason-Dixon line, and my paternal line south of it, but there were slaveholders among both. They obtained their farmland with government grants licensing them to displace indigenous Americans and with the assistance of government officials who deployed military personnel as enforcers.
The ancestors where white, according to my DNA, except for one Sub-Saharan person born around 1790, or maybe two born a generation earlier, and I can say the same for one or two Amerindian ancestors. I was an impressionable age when the United Colors of Benetton ad campaign made ethnic combinations sexy. My ethnicity estimates were a big disappointment.
If you are digging into genealogy and would like to understand a little better how your DNA is inherited and ethnicity is estimated, then Roberta Estes’ Concepts – Percentage of Ancestors’ DNA will be helpful.
Algorithms that predict family relationships based on DNA analysis are improving dramatically this decade, as the various online databases grow exponentially. In the few months I’ve subscribed to Ancestry.com, a previously mysterious great-great grandfather was identified via what Ancestry calls DNA Circles. I find the process amazing.
If I’m receptive to learning, each time I add someone new to the early American branches of my family tree, I can visualize the escapades of the few Quakers who dared to oppose the status quo, were run out of town as a consequence, and then were scalped by Native Americans who didn’t like them either. I can trace the rise and fall of a few family fortunes that were derived from the unforgivable exploitation of other human beings. I can also comfortably predict that we will see today’s wealthiest and most influential white nationalist/supremacist officeholders meet their inglorious downfall. It’s just a matter of time.