Assembling my family tree has schooled me about America’s history

American flags

The incomprehensible events of 2017 are clarified just a bit by the American history I’ve absorbed while creating my family tree on 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, 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.


Bonny Hall Cemetery

Complete independence is unattainable, but all of us cherish the amount we want and can get—freedom to live the lives we choose.

I drove out to Bonny Hall Cemetery, 1440 River Road, in Big Estate, South Carolina, to photograph headstones for the Find A Grave database. The cemetery is a short distance from a former rice plantation of the same name, dating back to 1732, on the Combahee River in the ACE Basin. A few miles farther inland toward Yemassee on River Road are Hobonny and Auldbrass, and all of these estates have been carefully restored and maintained by private owners.

The ACE Basin has stories to tell. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a scout for a Union military operation, known as the Combahee River Raid, in which 750 slaves were rescued. Several secessionists’ plantations were destroyed in the process. The original Bonny Hall was demolished by Union troops.

Today, tourists and freight haulers rush up and down the Charleston Highway across the Combahee on the Harriet Tubman Bridge. At that spot, in every season, the marshland is breathtakingly beautiful. If I encounter someone who has taken notice of it, then I feel I know the person’s heart.

In the ACE Basin, a coalition of property owners has put land into conservation easements, which offer tax relief, in order to prevent overdevelopment and environmental degradation. The downside, if you happen to live in Big Estate, is scant-to-no local job opportunities.

I explored Bonny Hall Cemetery and photographed about 200 headstones in the company of swarms of mosquitos and a bright red velvet ant. The earth underfoot was soft and gave way occasionally. The graveyard isn’t far from the river. Some of the graves were sunken. One tombstone was decorated with a lovely rose carving. Several had been bestowed with tributes.

The process of uploading the graveyard photographs can yield stories, too. When my snapshots were hasty because it was 97 degrees in the shade, sometimes the tombstone inscriptions weren’t visible or legible, so I needed to find a supplemental death certificate or other record online.

palm frond engraving on headstone

Carolina Fields’ grave marker bore a graceful and unusual palm frond decoration befitting someone with such a pretty name. Carolina Fields, to my surprise, was a man. Born in 1865, he died of heart failure 65 years later, having worked as a day laborer on the plantations.

Another marker, the oldest I found, provided little information but enough to disturb me for a good while:

In Memory of
An honest Man
And faithful Servant
Died 5th Feby 1858

In 2017 in the United States of America, all of us are supposed to be free to live our lives and pursue our various versions of happiness, but also buried at Bonny Hall is Jacqueline Young, “Aged 37 years of New York and formerly of the Big Estate Community of Beaufort County, died September 11 in the World Trade Center Tragedy.”

Cherish your freedom.