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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Genealogy–Do We Really Want To Know Where We Came From?

Bob Hooker was proud of his family history.  His ancestors had settled America in the earliest days of colonial exploration, and both sides of his family had exclusive pedigrees.  His mother’s family was related to King Carter, one of the wealthiest men in America in the 18th century who, thanks to his patron, Lord Fairfax, acquired  22,000 acres of prime agricultural land on the Northern Neck of Virginia.  His father’s family was descended from Thomas Hooker, the prominent Puritan colonial leader who founded the colony of Connecticut.

King Carter
Bob was very proud of both sides of his family, and felt privileged that his legacy included both strict moral probity and entrepreneurialism. A son of both the North and the South, he felt himself quintessentially American.  Born and bred in New England and educated at Harvard, Bob naturally identified more with the Hooker side of the family, and during his years at Harvard became a close student supporter of the Reverend Paisley Livingston, one of the first and most active supporters of the Peace, Nuclear Disarmament, and Civil Rights Movements.

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Rev. Livingston’s family, like Bob’s, had a distinguished history.  Jeremiah Livingston had lobbied the Massachusetts Commonwealth to cease and desist from its participation in the Three-Cornered Trade; and Paisley Livingston II  had been prominent in the Protestant Fellowship of Massachusetts, an influential abolitionist group which has been credited with Lincoln’s turn of mind when it came to slavery. 

It was the Southern wing of the family which gave Bob pause.  King Carter, like all big tobacco planters in Virginia, had owned slaves; and if so, his legacy was a tarnished one.  Bob’s mother, however,  proudly displayed her certificate of registry as one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and never looked beyond the fact that the Lancasters had played an important, instrumental role in the building of America.   She was uninterested in any slave-owning members of her family, dismissed the allegation as revisionist history (“Everyone owned slaves in those days”), and believed that once you began to airbrush history, there was no stopping the erasure.

For years Bob let the matter rest, and was satisfied that Lancaster County was the seat of his mother’s family’s power and influence; and that the Lancasters and their descendants had been exemplary models of noblesse oblige.  They had become political and religious leaders, philanthropists, and industrialists; and all gave back to their state, their region, and their country.

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Yet the more Bob became involved in the civil rights movement, the more he wondered about his Southern past.  What if his ancestors had been slaveholders?  What if they had – like Thomas Jefferson – had taken advantage of their slaves and had  illegitimate children with them?  The names Carter and Lancaster were common throughout the Tidewater.   Most importantly, what would this mean to Bob?  Would he have to make a public disclosure concerning his disreputable past or make amends and restitution?  As much as he supported reparations, the thought of spending his own money was troubling.  Certainly if he made a public disclosure, every black Tom, Dick, and Harry on the Northern Neck with the name of Lancaster would come running, hands out.

“Leave well enough alone”, said his mother when she told him that he was about to begin a thorough genealogical search of her family. “You already know what you are going to find.”

That of course was not the point.  If he found out that he did have a slave-owning past, he could, thanks to his vigorous rejection of his family, gain street creds with The Movement.  He was reminded of Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm and how Rebekka West recruited Rosmer – the latest in a long line of patrician, aristocratic families -  to be a spokesman for her radical progressivism.  If such a man could espouse causes that condemned the rich, the privileged, and concentrations of power and money, then the cause would be strengthened.

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At the same time, if Bob could discover proof of his plantation past, he could do the penance that was long overdue.  He, as a religious man, could beg God to forgive his ancestors for what they did, thereby relieving his own sense of shame and guilt.

Bob got more than he had bargained for.  His exhaustive archival and DNA search discovered that not only were there  slaveholders in his family, but they were among the most prominent in Virginia.  Worse, when the lands of the Northern Neck became infertile (because of the increasing worldwide demand for rich, smooth, fragrant Virginia tobacco, planters never gave the land a rest), Bob’s relatives sold their slaves down the river.  Jefferson and others had raised the issue of freed slaves and were worried about an un-assimilated, un-Westernized flood of Africans into the Commonwealth, made manumission difficult, and indirectly facilitated the slave trade.  The Lower South’s demand for slaves to work the cotton plantations on the Mississippi Delta was insatiable and money was to be made.  Bob’s relatives shared in the wealth.

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Most people would have dismissed the evidence as irrelevant to the present.  History is, after all, nothing more than a cyclical movement where events are repeated over and over again, driven by the same engine of human nature.  Once one sheds tears over slavery, then there is no stopping the ex post facto lamentations. The Crusades were barbaric, savage assaults on a world religion, and Catholicism should never be let off the hook.  European colonialism was exploitive, venal, and shameful regardless of the civilization it spread; and Spain have not done enough penance to atone for the depredations of the conquistadors, Franciscans, and their lackeys during the colonization of the Americas.


History is history.  Human nature is human nature.  No one should ever be surprised at what the combination produces.  Whatever disreputable has happened in the past, one can only be sure that even worse events will happen.

Not so Bob Lancaster.  There was not a nihilist bone in his body.  He dismissed Tolstoy’s two Epilogues to War and Peace as uninformed poppycock.  History was not deterministic, but the product of men; and with conscience and resolve social and moral progress was indeed possible.
In other words, assessing his family history, accepting responsibility and atoning for past sins was absolutely necessary.

Many slaveholders in the antebellum South kept careful journals of the operations of their plantations – how much was spent on each slave and what was the return on his labor.  A review of this primary source material has enabled scholars like Fogel and Engerman (Time on the Cross) to study the economics of slavery and determine whether or not it was a going concern thus justifying the Civil War; or whether it would collapse on itself.

Bob’s research, however, pointed to the worst kind of white tyranny, abuse, and terror that had ever been reported.  His ancestors were so unconcerned about their slaves and so absolutely decisive in their views of Africans as savages, that they did not even try to sugarcoat their records.   Compared to other plantation owners of the era and the locale, Bob’s relatives had been the worst  Simon Legrees of  the Upper South.  How was he to deal with this revelation?

Either he could admit it and increase his penitential suffering; or he could keep it quiet and make only more generalized statements about his Southern past.  What he could not do was to accept the bumper sticker truism, “Shit Happens”.  Even the most limited scratching away at family history will turn up ne’er-do-wells, miscreants, and murderers; so imagine what a more comprehensive and intensive retrospective search would uncover.

“I told you so”, said Bob’s mother, who adamantly refused to remove the family portrait Thomas Oglethorpe Lancaster, scion of both the Virginia and Georgia plantation families, and the very Lancaster implicated by Bob.  “Without the wealth of Thomas, there would never have been a James, a Luke, or an Elijah; or you for that matter.  Wealth begets privilege, and you are Thomas’ beneficiary.”

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Most DNA research turns up little of any such historical interest.  Even before Henry Louis Gates, Jr. took mouth swabs of famous black athletes and entertainers, anyone who paid attention to American history knew that African Americans  had to be of mixed blood.  The only surprise was how much; and many celebrities whose black image had been carefully cultivated and promoted had some backpedaling to do.  

There was no surprise when a family search of Naples court records showed that Guido Ponti, a prominent politician in Southern Connecticut who had emigrated to the United States in the hold of the Santangelo de Napoli in 1881 - had been accused of no fewer than 10 murders.  Southern Italy had always been a lawless place; and family lore had it that Guido had given all of his ill-gotten gains to the poor.  In other words an Italian samurai and folk hero.

Fearghal O’Reilly, a prominent politician in Northern New England had absconded from County Cork well before the potato famine because he had been an Irish terrorist, rum-runner, and slaver.  Given the rap sheet on all  the O’Reillys in America since Fearghal’s day, no one was surprised.

As history would have it, Padraig O’Reilly, one of the most successful financiers of Wall Street, a philanthropist of the first order, and a family hero who had put to rest their undeserved reputation of Irish Americans as drinkers, brawlers, and corrupt politicians, was himself recently indicted on charges of insider trading, money laundering and conspiracy.   He too could not avoid the ‘curse’ of  his ancestor Fearghal. 

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Relatives of Padraig O'Reilly who had none of the wealth of their famous cousin grew up in one of the toughest Irish American neighborhoods of Boston were nonplussed.  Even the most charmed Irishman gets caught once in a while, they said.  They were quite proud of Padraig O’Reilly, native son.

Genealogy is big business; but one wonders why.  Some families have illustrious ancestors, others notorious criminals.  Americans are so intermarried, intermixed, and scrambled, that there is bound to be someone of note somewhere, if only in the distant past.  In fact, however, most Americans turn up absolutely nothing unusual – peasant farmers in Italy who left for a better life, factory work in New Haven, family squabbles and jealousies, and slow progression up America’s ladder; peasant farmers in Scandinavia who emigrated to Minnesota, farmed the land, believed in God, had their own, more quiet  family feuds, and made their way up and out of the frozen Midwest.
Genealogy is like the lottery.  We all hope to win but do not expect to; but maybe, just maybe, we have some famous blood in our veins.

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