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Posts Tagged ‘ancestors’

So, it was bound to happen, and it finally did.

Summer is a prime time for Marty and me to spend hours and days scouring ancestry.com in order to add to our family trees. We don’t indulge much during the school year, as it just gets to be too busy, with the exception of a few breaks. We’ve found loads of really cool stuff (a grandmother tried, and acquitted, for being a witch twice!), some properly documented, some that needs further research with documentation, and some things that are just ridiculous. I wish this tidbit I’d found was ridiculous, but it’s not.

I have slaveholders in the family.

Now, for years, I (foolishly) felt really good about not finding any direct ancestors who had owned slaves. While I did have ancestors that fought for the Confederacy, they were not slaveholders, at least not in any records I’ve found. When I’ve found new ones from the early years of the United States, I would always cringe a little when a census record would come up, hoping that there wouldn’t be a number listed in the “Slaves” column.

Friday night, I was researching a line that hadn’t seen much action before. There had been some muddling of it at some point and I determined to straighten it out. That being done, I suddenly got a leaf on one of my documented ancestors. For those who are not familiar with Ancestry, a leaf indicates a possible new piece of information about a certain ancestor. This particular leaf said that there was a will for this a grandfather I stumbled across, one of my 9th great-grandfathers who came to settle in Maryland sometime in the 1650s, the grandfather of this person I already had in my tree.

In his will, dated 1734, he gave “unto my dearly beloved wife Leaticia Dodson one Negro Man named Henry to remain hers during her life and then to return to my Dearly & well beloved son John Dodson to remain his life & then to my son Walter Dodson. I likewise give unto my dearly beloved Wife Leaticia Dodson the bed and furniture as I and my Wife lies on and also I give Two Thousand Pounds of good Tobacco to buy her a Woman Servant with and one Horse to her liking to remain hers forever.”

Also, “I give and bequeath unto my Dearly and well beloved Son Walter Dodson one Negro Man named Peter to remain his & his heirs lawfully begotton of his body forever.”

I felt slightly sick, and really sad. I found what information I could on Ancestry and then went to online Maryland colonial records to find out more information. Sure enough, he and his family popped up right away. There are family group sheets on the lot of them that corresponded exactly with what I had found elsewhere. To top it all off, there’s a court record of him reporting another slave, not his, for having an illegitimate mulatto child! As if she had needed any more grief in her life; God only knows what happened to her because of it. I can’t find the outcome of the accusation.

There was nothing for it then. While it doesn’t seem that he had a huge plantation, an ancestor of mine did own human beings in Charles County, Maryland. I’m not okay with this, I haven’t reconciled it in my head just yet.

Logically, I know that it was always a possibility, but I had a false sense of surety that no one in my family had ever owned slaves. When I found this new information out, it really took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t want to believe that anyone I was related to could ever do such a thing, but there it was in black and white. While he did pass at least one slave onto his oldest son, I haven’t found any evidence so far that his daughter, my next direct ancestor, owned any as an adult, so perhaps the chain, literally and figuratively, was broken with her generation.

All of this has made me think a lot more about the slaves mentioned: Henry and Peter, and the woman that his wife was to buy with tobacco. Who were they? What happened to them? This was 1734, the Civil War was more than one hundred years away so the chances that they were willingly freed are basically zero. Did they escape? Were they sold elsewhere? How were they treated? Did they have families? There is literally no other information to go on at this point, unless there are records from his farm. I can add that to my list of family research trips. I hope they were able to find peace, but I know it’s not likely.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this post. There’s no good way to end it. Like I said before, I’m still kind of dealing with this whole thing; it feels really personal even though I had nothing to do with it. I feel guilty, responsible for my family’s actions, helpless to do anything about it, and, of course, powerless to change it.

It makes me sad.

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During our summer off, Marty and I were able to indulge in one of our favorite hobbies: ancestry.com. We splurged on a membership a couple of years ago and when we have the time, we go searching for long-lost ancestors. In July, I splurged again and got the European membership as well. The basic membership only covers US records and while we haven’t exhausted our US ancestors, we wanted to follow the lines that we had traced back to Europe. It was a whole new world! England, in particular, has some fabulous records online: census documents, wills, birth records, probate, death records. It’s a virtual candy land for history/genealogy nerds such as ourselves. Although I’m now stuck in Italy and Prussia on a couple of family lines, I did find some very cool first names: Adelbertus, Feidhlimidh, Gormfhlaith, I love it! And it’s the gift that keeps on giving. While I’ve gotten back to the Middle Ages on some family lines, I’m never going to be able to completely map out the entire thing, so there will always be work to do on it. Yes, my geek flag is flying high and proud and I’m okay with that. Besides, it brings me to my next point, something that really sank in for me this summer.

Think of your ancestors, the people that came before you. Without them you would not be here. You would simply not be you. Just think of the odds of you happening. For you to be born, every single one of your ancestors had to, well, be feeling romantic, or at least have a sense of duty, on a particular day or night. At that particular time, they conceived a child. Not such an unusual thing, but then, that child had to be carried to term, be born, and then make it through the gauntlet of childhood before the age of medical school and vaccines, so small feat before our modern times, as many children died before the age of five. That child had to grow up and meet someone with whom they would have children, and so on, and so on. Let that sink in for a moment. If every single one of your direct ancestors had not felt the urge to procreate (Or at least to have sex. There, I said it, as creepy as it is to think about.) on that crucial night, you would eventually not have happened. Your particular combination of DNA, genes, dominant and recessive traits, nothing would have been the same combination and concentration as you have right now. Would our souls be the same? I don’t think so and here’s why.

Out of the many millions of reproductive cells that are produced by a single person, you are the end result of only one from each parent. The odds of winning the lottery seem to be much better in comparison. Even identical twins, which occur when one egg/sperm combo split and have identical DNA, are different. In some ways they are virtually impossible to tell apart. There was a set of twins in my high school that were remarkably identical in looks and participated in all the same activities, but they did have many differences, especially once you got to know them. They each had their own distinct personality, despite being genetically identical and being raised in the same family. If there had been a different combination of cells that united at the time of your conception, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Think of what a miracle that is! You probably share many of the same family characteristics that your siblings and cousins do, but you are unique to yourself. There is no one in this world exactly like you, nor has there ever been and never will be. Similar? Yes, but not exactly the same. You and your full siblings are different people even though you came from the same parents.

If that doesn’t seem remarkable, think of it this way. For every generation that you go back from yourself, your number of ancestors doubles. Every person on this earth, whether they know them or not, has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen 2x great-grandparents, 32 3x great-grandparents, 64 4x great-grandparents, 128 5x great grandparents, 256 6x great-grandparents, and so on. It’s biological fact, even for test-tube babies. That mean that twelve generations ago, all 4096 of your 10x great-grandparents had to conceive a child that would live and go on to create more children. Fifteen generations ago, it would be all 32,768 of your grandparents. (Do you see how this will be a never-ending project?) You are a result of many thousands of generations of perfect timing, perfect biological circumstances, perfect combinations of moxie, events, and circumstances. You are a miracle.

Now there are some who will agree with my scanty-but-true science, but they will say that it is all a matter of chance, that there is nothing remarkable about it. That is their perspective and I’m not going to debate them. Every time I think about it, though, it amazes me, completely blows my mind. We plan out our lives to the smallest detail, yet we can’t control who our children will be. I can color my hair, gain or lose weight, get plastic surgery, and even change the color of my eyes with contact lenses, yet I can never change my DNA. Although science is moving in the direction of being able to choose our genes for us (a creepy thought: designer children), the fact remains that in most cases, parents get what they get. This is one of the many things in which I see the hand of God, proof of His existence. I don’t believe that we are here by accident, I believe that we are meant to be. We have a purpose, a reason to exist. Some of us, myself included, may not know what that purpose is, exactly, but there is a beauty to it. Some of us may not have been conceived in or born into ideal circumstances, but perhaps those circumstances teach us important skills or put us in a position to help others.

I can’t explain it all, I certainly don’t have the wisdom to see any kind of plan, but I do know that I am not an accident, no matter how many times I joke about it. You are no accident, either. You have a purpose, a destiny in life. It may not be a grand destiny. We can’t all be Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr., but we can make this world a better place than it was when we got here. We may go through life content, but not being aware of a distinct purpose. Maybe you’re meant to be a good parent to a child who will need the security of that good upbringing later in life. Maybe you will do something that you will be famous for, but more likely, it will be something that the world would consider small. Think of a person who has been influential in your life. They’re probably not famous. In their own way, they gave you a clue as to how your life was supposed to be. A grandmother, a teacher in college, a mentor at work, a best friend. These are people who make the most difference, yet whose names will never be in the history books, and that’s okay. Fame doesn’t always make a good person. There are many examples of that!

The point of this is that each one of us is unique. We have a reason to be here, to be born when we were, to the family that we were born into. We sometimes treat life as if it was disposable, but each person, each baby, each unborn child is so full of potential that it is a shame to think that way. I would only hope that my life will be useful to someone even if I don’t know it. Wouldn’t you want your descendants, whether they’re directly from you or other family members, hundreds of years from now, to know that you did your best? You may come from humble beginnings, but you are one in a billion.

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