Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cousin Shep Miller

After writing the previous blog post, about my Black cousins, I remembered a book sent to me by a seventh cousin in my Foster line of descent. This Foster cousin and I met years ago when involved in a DNA genealogy project to link her Foster clan to mine. She sent the book to me as a thank-you gift for convincing a male Foster cousin on my side to offer up his spit to Family Tree DNA for analysis. The book is an edited compilation of interviews conducted during the Great Depression, 1937 to 1939, by the Federal Writers’ Project to capture the testimonies of formerly enslaved people. She told me the tiny volume, We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard, included a story about a shared relative, Shepard Gabriel Miller (1808-1868), a several times great uncle of hers. The DNA confirmed paper genealogies, making Shep my second cousin, five times removed. Isn’t genealogy fun? 

I recalled that the story suggested cousin Shep had sexually abused his slaves. Although it was disturbing at the time, I didn’t know what to do or how to feel about it. Now, in these times of awakening White people like me getting in touch with Black cousins, the family story takes on new significance. 

So, last week I re-read the story and spent some time digesting it. While it painfully came to life in my mind, I set about making the characters in the story jibe with the limited research I’d done on this distant branch of my family tree. I had two Shepard Millers, so which one? Beyond that, I considered what the story said, about where and how they lived. What would census and slave schedule records tell me? 

I had questions about details in the edited interview, and I found the original transcript of it in the Library of Congress’s digital collections. While I discovered that the editor had rearranged the text she hadn't altered the details. She had also, thankfully, replaced the interviewer’s attempt to write in dialect. In neither version does Elizabeth Sparks, the interviewee, talk about Shep Miller right away, so I had trouble figuring out how her mistress was connected to him. In my quotations below, I’ve used the original transcript while, like the interviewer, replacing words captured as dialect. 

After a few introductory greetings and statements of reluctance – “You want me to tell you about slavery days . . . It’s all past now, so I say let her rest. It’s too awful to tell anyway. You’re too young to know all that talk.” – Elizabeth begins her story. 

“My mistress’s name was Miss Jennie Brown . . . she died about four years ago. Bless her. She was a good woman. Of course, I mean she’d slap and beat you once in a while, but she wasn’t a woman for fighting, fussing, and beating you all day like some I know. She was too young when the war ended for that. Of course, no white folks are perfect. Her parents were a little rough. What’s that? Can I tell you about her parents? . . . No sense for you to know about all those mean white folks. They’re all dead now. They meant good, I reckon.” 

They meant good? Elizabeth Sparks was a brave woman, talking to a white man who wanted to write down her stories. She swings back and forth – “good woman” to “mean white folks” – and the reader can sense her conflict. She has strong feelings, but does she dare to speak the truth? 

“Shep Miller was my master. His old father, he was a tough one. Lord! I’ve seen him kill them. He’d get the meanest overseers to put over them . . . he was a clerk and was he tough. Sometimes he beat them until they couldn’t work . . . Beat women just like men. Beat women naked and wash them down in brine.” Elizabeth lets the accounts roll out for a few more anguishing paragraphs. Oh, how the memories must have hurt her. But thank goodness for this record, one of a few that tells us the painful truth about our “gallant” White ancestors. We need to know these stories, to feel the pain, too, for thus began systemic racism. 

She continues, “They worked six days from sun to sun . . . Usual work day began when the horn blew and stopped when the horn blew. The got off just long enough to eat at noon. Didn’t have much. They got some suet and a slice of bread for breakfast . . . For dinner they’d eat ash cake baked on the blade of a hoe.” 

And who were these people, her mistress Miss Jennie Brown, her master Shep Miller, and his old father. Who was the clerk? I puzzled through the documents to see if one of my Shep Millers might have been married to Jennie Brown, when I noticed that the eldest daughter of Shepard G. Miller, Sr. was Virginia Cary Miller (1834-1931), who married Andrew C. Brown (1821-Bef. 1900) on 18 October 1860. Jennie must have been Virginia’s nickname and this was seconded by the 1900 census, where she is listed as Jennie C. Brown. 

Shepard G. Miller, Sr., was Mathews Clerk of Court and a farmer. His parents were Gabriel Miller (1766-1845) and Elizabeth “Betsy” Foster (1773-1846), my Foster connection. 

“I lived at Seaford then . . . Shep Miller lived at Springdale.” 

There is a Seaford Lane a little south of the village of Hudgins in Mathews. By looking at the census records, which list Andrew and Jennie Brown living in the Piankatank District, which includes the village of Hudgins, it may be concluded that Seaford Lane was the location of their home. I've asked a genealogist friend to confirm this. A view on Google Maps shows a short, straight Seaford Lane ending in a circle in front of a large house on Stutts Creek. 

It took me a while to puzzle over Springdale, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by William Shultice from about 1832 to 1868. The property is located on the East River, just south of Mathews Court House. The 1860 census shows the Shultice family living next door to the Shep Miller family. I looked at an architectural survey for names of nearby historic properties listed in the Virginia Department of Historic Resources database and found Spring Hill located right next door. A few Google searches on alternate combinations and spellings of Spring Hill and Shepard Miller landed me on a 29 July 2020 reprint in the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal that solved any remaining questions. Elizabeth Sparks had remembered the grand Springdale name, but not the less well-known Spring Hill. 

“100 Years Ago, Thursday, July 28, 1910 from the Mathews Journal: A fine bungalow is being erected at ‘Spring Hill,’ the farm of Mr. S.G. Miller, which when completed will be the headquarters of the Riverside Yacht and Tennis Club . . . “ 

This S.G. Miller, Jr. (1848-1932) was the son of Shep Miller, Sr. and his wife, Emory James (1816-1891). Shep Jr.’s sister was Virginia “Jennie” Cary Miller Brown. 

Shep Miller’s Spring Hill real estate was valued at $30,000 and he owned $44,000 in personal property. He owned 43 people, including several young females. Elizabeth was certainly one of them. Jennie and Andrew Brown were married in 1860, and Shepard Miller, Sr. gave the then-enslaved Elizabeth to his daughter Jennie to take with her to Seaford, located about 5 miles away. 

Before his October marriage, Andrew Brown is captured by the census as owning 21 slaves and living on real estate valued at $20,000 with personal property also valued at $20,000. Of Jennie, Elizabeth said, “She didn’t beat. She was just a young thing. Course she took a whack at me sometimes, but that was nothing. Her mother was a mean old thing.” 

Jennie’s mother, Shep’s wife, was Emory James Miller. “She used to make my aunt Caroline knit all day and when she got so tired after dark that she’d get sleepy, she’d make her stand up and knit. She worked her so hard that she’d go to sleep standing up and every time her head nodded and her knees sag, the lady would come down across her head with a switch. That was Miss Jennie’s mother. She’d give the cook just so much meal to make bread . . . Beat the devil out of her if she burned that bread.” 

Elizabeth was glad to leave the Miller home. “I went with Miss Jennie and worked at house. I didn’t have to cook.” She said she slept on the floor in Jennie’s room, on and old rug in front of the fireplace. “I got permission to get married.” Her husband-to-be was lived on the plantation next to the Browns. In 1860, the family of Lewis M. Hudgins, also a maternal ancestor of mine, lived next door, so Hudgins may have been John Sparks’s master. 

“You always had to get permission. White folks would give you away. You jump across a broom stick together and you were married.” 

After the Civil War, in 1870, the Brown household was made up of Andrew, Jennie, and two children as well as a cook, Ellen Smith, noted as Black. The period census records often include Black individuals in White-owned households. They are listed as cooks, domestic servants, laborers, and the like. 

Elizabeth isn’t listed in the Brown household. She and John moved into a home of their own. By 1870, the census shows them having real estate valued at $300 and personal property valued at $100. They had six children, aged eight and under. John Sparks was identified as a Black oysterman. 

Elizabeth was described as “keeping house” and her race, as well as that of the six children, was entered as "M" for Mulatto. They lived in the Westville District of Mathews, the county’s municipal center. 

Mulatto. Was Elizabeth a child of old Shep Miller? Elizabeth’s mother “lived in a big one room log house with an upstairs.” Was she a favorite? Elizabeth knew about others and suggested why they were known as such. “Old Massa done so much wrongness I couldn’t tell you all of it. Slave girl Betty Lilly always had good clothes and all the privileges. She was a favorite of his.” 

Elizabeth remembered the war. “Shep went to war but not for long. We didn’t see none of it, but the slaves knew what the war was about. After the war they tried to fool the slaves about freedom and wanted to keep them working, but the Yankees told them they were free.” She recounted that some slave owners tried to send their slave to South Carolina to keep the Yankees from getting to them. The Yankees “were taking all the livestock and all the men slaves back to Norfolk with them to break up the system . . . the Yankees were giving everything to the slaves.” 

Soldiers were taking the Brown’s possessions and Jennie’s clothes, giving them to the slaves. They offered some to Elizabeth. “I didn’t take them though because she’d been pretty nice to me.” They tried to take her John, but he pretended to be too lame to walk. “I can hear Miss Jennie now yelling at them Yankees. No! Who are you to judge? I’ll be the judge. If John Sparks wants to stay here, he’ll stay.” The Sparks’s baby started to cry. “So, one of them said that as long as he had a wife and a baby that young, he guessed he could stay. They took all the horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and anything they could use and left . . . I was married in 1861, my oldest boy was born in 1862, and the falling of Richmond came in 1865.” 

The Civil War was financially hard on the Browns. In the 1870 census, their real estate, ten years earlier valued at $20,000, was now valued at $2,500 and personal estate, once valued at $20,000, was now worth only $500. 

Elizabeth closed the interview. “Now you take that and go. Put that in the book.” 

Thank you, Elizabeth, for bringing the thorny times of our ancestors to life.

Monday, October 5, 2020

My Black Cousins

Ancestry estimated my ethnicity and told me I had more than
a thousand 4th cousins or closer relatives who had also
sent DNA samples for analysis by them. 

About two years ago, in preparation for a trip to the UK, I sent a sample of spit to Ancestry to confirm or deny my paper genealogical findings. Unsurprisingly, I had few documented leads on the exact origin of my British ancestors because most came to Virginia so early. Of the people who represented the dead ends of my dozens of lines of descent, 25 percent of them first appeared in 17th century Virginia, 50 percent were traced to 18th-century beginnings in Virginia or North Carolina, and the rest could be traced no farther back than the first half of the 19th century. All of my direct lines stayed in Tidewater, Virginia, mostly in Gloucester’s Kingston Parish, which became Mathews County in 1791. Some settled first in Mathews or New Kent, Virginia, then migrated to old Bute County (later Granville, Warren, Franklin Counties), North Carolina. Some siblings and cousins moved on from there, but for the most part, my ancestors have hung close to the Eastern Seaboard.

For more on early
English settlement,
I suggest reading
Adapting to the New
World: English
Society in the

Their demographic mix probably mimics the outline of colonial Virginia settlement, with about three-fourths arriving as indentured servants, simply hoping to find a better life, and the other fourth representing the lesser gentry, those with some education and means, but no land in the Mother Country. After digesting research from scholarly publication like Adapting to the New World, I felt pretty safe in the assumption that many of my paternal ancestors came from Wales and the English Border counties via the Severn River valley on ships leaving Bristol. 

Bamburgh Castle is like Mecca to genealogically-
inclined members of the Foster Family
A sign near the Castle entrance sets us
straight on the Foster/Forster
relation to the estate.

On my mother’s side, there is a long-standing legend that my maternal grandmother's  Foster family was descended from Northumberland, England, and that one particularly notorious ancestor was a 16th-century constable, Border Riever, and caretaker of Bamburgh Castle. Others who have an English origin story are said to have been born in Kirkby Lonsdale, Kirk Deighton, other Yorkshire locations, and Kent. Many of these ancestors probably left from London or port cities on England’s southern coast. 

For the most part, Ancestry’s DNA test suggested there was some truth to these folklores. Nevertheless, I am nearly 100 percent British.

Recently, I received an email from Ancestry telling me that their analysis of my DNA had been refined since the ever-increasing pool of people tested had provided more data. The updated ethnicity estimate, based on more than 44,000 reference samples, told me my ancestors were from Scotland (36%), England and Northwestern Europe (34%), Wales (16%), Germanic Europe (10%), and Ireland (4%). 

All this leads to the point of this posting: the discovery of new-to-me cousins. The Ancestry DNA test provides more than your ethnicity results. They also provide a list of DNA relatives who have also taken this test, sorted by their degree of relation to you, revealed in lengths of identically-patterned DNA. Some of these people you may know and some you don’t. Some have kindly added their photograph, but most have not. Some have identified themselves with their name, but most provide only an email address. Some have linked their extensive and well-documented Ancestry family trees, but they are truly few and far between.


Ancestry gives you a list of your DNA
matches as well as a number of ways to explore the
data. You can even contact your cousins who have
given their permission to be contacted.

My son has taken this test and Ancestry correctly identified our relationship as parent/child. Neither my sister, nephews, nor any of my first cousins have been tested, so the next relatives identified by Ancestry are my 2nd cousins. Apparently, eight of them have been tested and from details they provide I can identify all but two of them.

I discovered that the list of cousins grows from here, and I was curious to find others I knew. Besides, the Ancestry email caught me on a particularly slow COVID-defined day. Leisurely scrolling along, I found twenty of my 3rd cousins had been tested. Although there were several familiar family names, I didn’t know a single one.

Nevertheless, I scrolled on to 4th cousins. At last I saw a name I recognized. My cousin Grover Lewis had been tested. I was still counting cousins, although I was about to give up the extra effort of counting as the list seemed endless, when . . . 99, 100, 101, 102. Huh? Hmm. 103, 104, 105. What? I scrolled back to 102 and looked at her photo and then clicked through to her ethnicity estimate. I scrolled on to 105 and looked at his. Both were a bit Scottish and English. Other European locales showed up, but the majority of their DNA patterns, 60 to 80 percent of them, were related to Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Western Bantu, Benin, Togo, and Mali ethnicities.

Scroll, scroll, scroll. Faster now, I was just looking at the photos. After about a half hour, I scrolled past more than 1,000 of my DNA-defined 4th cousins and among them I found 25 African-Americans who had identified themselves as such by adding their photo. There may have been more, but as I said, not everyone submits a photo and clicking through on over 1,000 people to drill down to their ethnicity percentages required more time that I was willing to spend. 

By now it was clear to me that I had found a truth that most of us White people know, on an intuitive level, but have never confronted as fact: great-great grandfather, or his brother, or someone else not too far removed from me, raped the people he enslaved.

At first, I was in some form of denial. I though the “White man in the woodpile” had to be my North Carolina great-great. After all, he was the largest slaveholder of the slaveholding bunch of great-great grandfathers and uncles. Could I somehow determine this?

In fits and starts over the last couple of weeks, I have gathered my 25 new-found cousins onto a spreadsheet and started comparing them. I grouped them by the number of centimorgans (cM), the length of a piece of matched DNA, that I shared with each. I graphed their ethnicity percentages from European and African geographical origins.

I discovered that not all 4th cousins are the same. Ancestry lets you click on a cousin to group them with others who share the same ancestor. These shared DNA groups are designated by a length of DNA exhibiting the same pattern. 

For example, my closest Black cousins, Mercedes and Jonathan, share the same 35-cM-long pattern of DNA with me, so we all descend from the same ancestor. So do six other people culled by Ancestry from the list of more than 1,000 4th cousins and sorted into this DNA pattern group. 

Pamela, Edwin, and I share a DNA pattern 23 cM in length with 19 other 4th cousins and one 3rd cousin. 

Alexis, Charlene and I share a different 23 cM long pattern with six other people. 

Jon, me, and 27 other people, including my son, share yet another identical 23 cM DNA pattern. 

Jamaal, Jean, four other cousins, and I share the same 20-cM long pattern. 

Many of my new-found Black cousins share a length of DNA with me, yet they share no patterns or ancestors with any other Black cousin in my group of 25. 

All of this suggests more than one of my White ancestors was an abusive master. There wasn’t just one “White man in the woodpile.”

So far, I have tried to triangulate to figure out who the shared ancestor is in the grouping of nine people that includes Mercedes, Jonathan, and I. By examining the genealogies linked by some White cousins in the group, I tried to see if I share a common ancestor with them. Examination of a Mathews County, Virginia, cousin's family tree shows we are related through the children of Henry Digges (1767-1823), but it’s complicated: my third uncle married his granddaughter. 

In another triangulation, I found a White cousin in the group with Pamela, Edwin, and I who has a number of Mathew’s ancestors with the Forrest surname. My paternal grandmother was a Forrest, and there are Forrests in other paternal and maternal branches of my family tree. But I can’t make a connection. Also, I learned while preparing for my UK trip that Forrests, Forsters, and Fosters, a surname spelled variously once people started writing and recording names, can be related. I've got Fosters on my maternal side. 

I've surfed through other groupings for relations. The same surnames pop out, but no direct line yet. My assumption that one North Carolinian was to “blame” seems to be misdirected. My Mathews, Virginia, ancestors are implicated by my work thus far. 

Importantly, what this shows me, and I am saddened and ashamed to realize, is that the sexual abuse of female enslaved people was all too common. This realization, that most American Blacks have White ancestors, has already resulted in my viewing every Black person I see in a different light. If he’s not my cousin, then he is very likely the cousin of my White next-door neighbor, business colleague, or friend from church.  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Spencer Hall: He Died in the Guinea Trade


A distant cousin of mine, Conrad Hall, recently published a book about the descendants of our fifth-great-grandparents, A Select History of Mathews County, Virginia: 17th, 18th & 19th Centuries and The Family of Robert and Ann Hall. It's a very well-compiled and well-written historical documentation, full of evidence surrounding the origin, environment, and events of their lives. I can hardly read a paragraph without adding a fact or two about one of our common ancestors to my Ancestry database.  

While reading my cousin's book, I have discovered another slaver to confess: my fourth great uncle Spencer Hall (1760-1793). His sister, Ann or "Nanny" (1756-1820), and her husband, Peter Foster (1757-1819), are my fourth great grandparents. Peter, Spencer, and another Hall brother, Robert, served together on the Henry during the Revolutionary War in defense of the Mobjack and Chesapeake Bay coasts of Mathews, where British ships were frighteningly visible to area residents. Shallow-draft galleys like the Henry were a force developed to defend the homeland from British sailors who might come ashore to forage for food and supplies. Peter was on board as a ship carpenter, but the Hall boys were seamen who would eventually be transferred to a larger Virginia Navy ship, the Tartar

In his book, Cousin Conrad posits that after the American Revolution, Spencer may have signed on with a merchant vessel or privateer with a home port of Salem or Beverly, Massachusetts, since he married Mary Ober in 1781, the daughter of a Salem, Massachusetts, mariner. The extended Ober family was prominent in Massachusetts-based maritime pursuits and Conrad mentions seven Obers who held important crew positions on ships between 1777 and 1781. 

Soon after they were married, Spencer and Mary Hall had two children, although both died young. Later they had three more sons, Spencer, Jr. (1787), Israel (1790), and James Levette (1793). Spencer was often at sea, enjoying good commercial success in his ventures. By 1786, he was partial owner of the schooner Polly, but in December of that year it was badly damaged when driven onto a Barnstable, Massachusetts, beach by an Atlantic gale. The vessel and cargo were put up at auction, as advertised in the Essex Register on March 26, 1787. In 1790, he and a partner registered the Mary Ann. Likewise, it was lost with its cargo, this time in the "graveyard of the Atlantic," off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. On August 30, 1790, the Essex Register shipping news lists him as captain of the Mary, returning from Spain. 

Later that year he bought the 82-ton schooner, Union. "The record is silent on the Unon's activities in the first two years of his ownership, but in 1792 Spencer became involved in the slave trade," states Conrad Hall. "Perhaps he succumbed to it out of desperation. He did have significant debts . . . and a successful voyage involving the slave trade was typically highly profitable. It would have been an option since his home port, Salem, was deeply involved in the slave trade, as were other New England ports." 

Spencer Hall may have been involved at first in the South Carolina aspect of the trade, where slaves from the Rice Coast of Africa, were preferred for their particular agricultural experience, since he wrote his will in Charleston in September 1792. Before embarking on his first African voyage, he may have realized the risk of the slave trade over his previous maritime ventures. By November, he left the West Coast of Africa with 94 enslaved people and arrived back with a cargo of 77. He quickly headed back to Africa on the Union, but died sometime before the ship arrived. Hall quotes the Governor of Sierra Leone, as taken from Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America:  

"The schooner Union of Salem in New England. When she arrived on the Coast she was commanded by one Hall who dying at Bance [Bunce] Island, was succeeded in the Command by his Mate. She took on board a Cargo of Slaves from Rio Nunez [in Guinea] with which she left the Coast bound to the West Indies, or Surinam [on the northeast coast of South America] about the latter end of October last . . ."

 Among the risks he faced on an African voyage were the deadly diseases yellow fever, malaria, and small pox. He, like many others, probably succumbed to one of these. There are supposed to be large numbers of slavers' graves on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, where trading ships stopped, due to the depth of the channel, and took on their cargo of humans, as had been the case from the 17th century. 

Unitarian minister and pastor of the East Church in Salem, William Bentley, noted in his diary that "Capt. Spence Hall died in the Guinea Trade," as the slave trade was known. "He has left a wife and six children, belonging to the English church in this town. He has been an unfortunate man, & thus sought 'base means for his redress.'" Bentley's comments suggest he had to take on the high-risk venture to meet his family obligations and "unfortunate" financial situation. Although he lost his life, Spencer must have benefited from the profits of his slave trading ventures, for his wife and children appear to have lived comfortably thereafter. 

Back in Mathews, little is known about brother Robert. He may have continued in a maritime career, was probably unmarried, and died by 1847. His bounty land, awarded for service in the Revolutionary War, was claimed for the benefit of the family by brother Thomas Hall. 

Thomas married his neighbor, Mary Gayle, and lived a long life as a shipbuilder on the East River. Mary's brother Mathias or Matthew Gayle was also a noteworthy Mathews shipbuilder. The 1820 US Census reveals that Thomas and Mary Hall counted 19 enslaved people as part of their household. 

Spencer's shipmate and my fourth great grandfather Peter Foster lived on Mathews' North River, west of the Halls. He also lived a long life and died in 1819. According to the 1810 US Census, he also counted 19 enslaved people in his and Nanny's household.  

Detail of the Mobjack Bay and Mathews from Fry, J., Jefferson, P. & Jefferys, T. (1755) A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. [London, Thos. Jefferys] Library of Congress,

Friday, July 31, 2020

Her Real Name was Martha

My grandmother, Laura Belle Foster (1890-1976), thought the world of her little brother, my Uncle Howitt (Howitt Hodge Foster, M.D., 1893-1980). He was the last child of great grandfather Henry Howitt Foster (1851-1930), who had eight children with his first wife, Madeline Debnam (1850-1885), and three with his second wife and my great grandmother, Belle Catherine Hodge (1863-1893). You may have noticed that Great Grandmother Belle died in the year Uncle Howitt was born. Since his father, Henry, was 42 years old with ten other children to feed and a business to run in Mathews, Virginia, baby Howitt was sent to live with Belle’s parents in Wake County, North Carolina. There Howitt grew up with his grandparents and then his Aunt Fannie. He became a doctor like Fannie’s husband John Smith, and practiced family medicine in Norlina, North Carolina, for the rest of his life.

Like my grandmother, my mother, Mary Belle Jones Lewis (1923-2016) loved Uncle Howitt. His daughters, Priscilla and Laura Belle, were her favorite cousins and treasured life-long friends. Like me, Mom loved family history and collected many items that are now part of my genealogy collection. Mixed in with papers sent to her by Priscilla, I found a photocopy of a picture of Martha.

On the back of the photo of Martha, Uncle Howitt wrote, “I called her my ‘colored mamy’ as did rest of family and she was treated as one of us as long as she lived. She had her own room and own things which were furnished by my grandpa and grandma.”

The thought of this makes me feel uncomfortable. The way my family swept formerly enslaved people into their households as servants who worked without agency was not unusual for the time. Yet I still feel uneasy and awkward about how to reconcile this past, let alone do something about it. Although I wasn’t raised by a Black woman, I have friends and relatives my age (ahem, 65) who were. And there were plenty of people descended from those who were formerly enslaved who did the cleaning, cooking, and yard and farm work at our house in Gloucester and my grandparents’ home in Mathews. I have a history of white privilege that I have known for a long time, but like so many others, current events are calling me to look and think about racism anew.

An article in the New York Times, Overlooked No More: Nancy Green, the ‘Real Aunt Jemima,’ says that the Aunt Jemima logo is an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance. This may have rung true at the time of the Columbia Exhibition, but thank goodness most people today aren’t nostalgic for a “Gone with the Wind” past. As my mother would say by way of explanation, “it was just the way things were.” Accept it and get over it. But what white people are waking up to now is that such things as a syrup brand and a statue of Robert E. Lee are legacy items from that “just the way things were” time. We cannot just get over it. They are hurtful to some and harmful to us all as we move our diverse society forward. Aunt Jemima was a brand. Nancy Green was a real person. She had a job, was a church missionary, had a family, and died in a car crash in 1923. The United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to erect a monument to “faithful colored mammies” on her grave, but the measure was not approved. Thank goodness. One less monument to tear down today.

The New York Times article which gives agency to Nancy Green references an earlier article by Riche Richardson, an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at CornellUniversity. She writes that the Aunt Jemima logo is “grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own. Visually, the plantation myth portrayed her as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf.”

Yes, just like Uncle Howitt’s Martha. In his inscription, he said that Martha was “a woman born into slavery” and who was owned by his 1st and my 3rd great grandparents, Thomas Richard Debnam (1806-1883) and Pricilla Macon (1812-1878). The 1860 US Federal Census Slave Schedule lists them as the enslavers of 52 people in Wake County, North Carolina. They gave Martha to their daughter, my 2nd great grandmother, Arabella Catherine Debnam (1837-1900), who married Alonzo Ross Hodge (1835-1910), in 1858 and lived at Marks Creek, Wake County, about ten miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina. Uncle Howitt wrote that Martha helped raise Alonzo and Arabella’s children: Alonzo Richard Hodge, Priscilla, Fannie, Aurelia, and Belle. “Martha outlived grandpa and grandma, although she had attacks of asthma when I was a small boy and then went to live with my uncle Alonzo Richard Hodge until she died in her late eighties.” In the 1870 US Federal Census, Martha is listed as a 35-year-old black domestic servant in the household of AR and Arabella Hodge.

Martha died between 1920 and 1925. I don’t know if she had a husband or children. The only documentation credits her with no life of her own. I have walked around graveyards in Wake, Franklin, Granville, and Warren counties looking for ancestors. I never thought to look for Martha and I wonder if she’s buried with her white family.  

Probably not.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Update on Alexander Hudgins

I mentioned the Slave Wrecks Project in my last post, Reshaping the Narrative: Alexander R. Hudgins. After posting, I decided to take a stab at contacting someone with the Project to see if they might have heard of the Brig Ann. I was delighted to hear back from Steve Lubkemann the very next morning! He and an associate filled out the story.

"Quelimane was the largest source of slaves from Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa) because it was at the mouth of the Zambezi river," said Steve, "in essence a highway into the deep interior where most of the enslaving took place." He explained that maritime archaeology is not done in the waters off of Quelimane itself because the Zambezi delta is a very challenging dive location with treacherous water, bull sharks, and 20 foot long crocs! They dive in other locations on the coast such as Mozambique Island, Inhambane,and Maputo (Delagoa Bay), and have folks involved in various levels of archival work on the whole coast. 

Steve put me in touch with Kate McMahon, an archivist at NMAAHC who has insight into a variety of lines of the project research. And yes indeed, the Brig Ann is in her database of American slave ships operating in Brazil. According to Kate, during the 1840s, a man named George William Gordon of Massachusetts was the consul at Rio de Janeiro. Gordon was an abolitionist whig who called out Americans participating in the illegal foreign slave trade. He watched and created lists of these American ships, slave traders, and the merchant firms that consigned them in Rio, as well as information about the captains and crews. 

Kate found the Brig Ann in Gordon's list: “To Africa yr ending 12/31/1842” and “arrivals at Rio year ending 12/31/1843”. The Ann actually departed Rio on November 24, 1842 under the consignment of the American merchant firm Maxwell, Wright & Co., for the merchant Manoel Pinto da Fonseca. He was the most active and wealthiest slave trader in Rio and, in fact, all of Brazil. This fact alone means that the Brig Ann was almost certainly a slave ship. "He essentially had almost a monopoly on the illegal slave trade to Mozambique during the 1840s, and was hiring dozens of American vessels per year to transport tens of thousands of enslaved people to his plantation and auction facility in Ponta do Caju, southwest of Rio," said Kate. "Fonseca’s only businesses were slave trading and sugar production using enslaved labor."

But did the ship wreck? Looking at the dates, probably not. "It appears the Ann did not wreck during this trip to Mozambique and successfully landed a cargo of enslaved people in Brazil in July 1843, if this is the same vessel, which given the timing seems very likely." Kate thinks that Uncle Alexander was a crew member and a regular sailor, not an officer, given his age. He must have died "At Quilliman" in Mozambique, like the death announcement says. I was wrong to assume a ship wreck. "During this time, there were massive outbreaks of yellow fever ravaging different parts of Africa and Brazil, directly tied to the transmission of diseases by slave ships," said Kate. So this may have been the cause of death.

Kate adds another important, albeit sad, note. "If your ancestor was a regular sailor, he may not have even known that the journey was a slave journey." She said crews were not often told they were going to Africa after Rio. A 6-month contract journey they thought they had signed on for would last a year or more. Kate concluded, "There are a lot of records of complaints by crews because of this and they actually make one of the richest sources for information about the operation of this trade."

As my research continues, I'll be looking for other links between Mathews men and this scheme.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Reshaping the Narrative: Alexander R Hudgins

Mathews, Virginia, is off the beaten path today, but during the age of sail, its Chesapeake Bay location was ideal. The Virginia Gazette, 18th-century Virginia’s local newspaper, included advertisements for ships built in Kingston Parish (then a part of Gloucester County; became Mathews in 1791). In ads and shipping reports, cargoes reflect the triangular trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa: incoming rum and slaves, outgoing barrel staves, iron ore, tobacco, and food crops.

A broader understanding of Mathews’ role in shipbuilding and trade is not well known beyond a few historians. Perhaps this is due to the uncomfortable conclusion to which it leads: our ancestors were involved in people trafficking. I intend to do more research in this area as part of my work in family history. The little I have done so far reminds me how much more there is to know about Africa and the slave trade that was left out of my lily-white education.

Although I’m sure more than one of my Mathews ancestors was involved in the slave trade, my 2nd great uncle Alexander R. Hudgins’ (1824-1843) story is perhaps the most telling. He died at the age of 19 in a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa, according to this death announcement from the Baltimore Sun, on 8 Sept 1843:

So, what exactly was he doing at Quilliman on the coast of East Africa? We’ll probably never know the details, but it seems obvious, really. Young Alexander was involved in illegal slave trade. 

According to Smithsonian's Slave Wrecks Project, more than 12 million Africans were enslaved during the trans-Atlantic slave trade era (1525-1867) and an estimated 1,000 ships are believed to have wrecked with slaves on board when headed for the Americas, the portion of the triangle known as the Middle Passage. The Project is an international collaboration exploring the slave trade through research and maritime archaeology in order to produce new histories and narratives that reshape the way we understand the past. 

In 2014, Project researchers found a shipwreck off South Africa’s, Cape of Good Hope which was the first archaeological documentation of a ship carrying a cargo of enslaved people. Its story is told at the National Museum of African American History & Culture along with the story of the last slave ship headed to America, the Clotilda. As far as I know, the brig Ann has not been found. If it has, my inquiry into Uncle Alexander may result in a small reordering of the way we think about Mathews’ pre-Civil War shipbuilding and seafaring history.

At Quelimane (spelled Quilliman in the 19th century). traders sold gold and slaves to the Portuguese, who had settled in the seaport by the 16th century, and its slave market grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Beginning in 1808, the United Kingdom outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves. The Royal Navy established a presence off the west African coast to enforce the ban and soon negotiated treaties with other countries to intercept and search ships for slaves. From 1819, the US Navy made an effort to prevent slave trade and in 1842 it was agreed they would work with the United Kingdom to abolish the trade, which was considered piracy (robbery or criminal violence by ship). By this time the trade had expanded from the west coast to the east coast of Africa.

Many enslaved people from the east coast would be sold in Brazil, still one of the largest slave trading nations, where the British call to cease trading was defied. During the Atlantic slave trade era, Brazil received more African slaves than any other country. An estimated 4.9 million slaves from Africa were brought to Brazil during the period from 1501 to 1866.

The story of an American slave ship named Kentucky which was involved in the Quelimane-Brazil trade in 1844 is told on a University of Kentucky website. This slave trade operation also ignored treaties banning trade but the ship was eventually found by a British armed vessel. Trapped in the Angozha River in Mozambique, the crew set the ship on fire and escaped by land. This took place just a year after Alexander’s brig was lost at Quelimane and makes me want to know more. So does another fact I read about the last slave ship, the Clotllda: her captain was William Foster. Could he be related to me too?

Uncle Alexander’s sister was my second great grandmother, Anne Macon Hudgins (1830-1859), also of Mathews, who was the first wife of Joseph Finch Foster (1819-1896). Foster held 11 enslaved people on his Rose Hill Plantation in 1860. Uncle Alexander and Grandmother Anne’s father was Mathews’ legendary shipbuilder Lewis Hudgins (1797-1866). He lived with his wife, my third great grandmother, Elizabeth L. Williams (1804-1850) at Fitchett’s Wharf. According to the Virginia Highway Marker there:

“Fitchett's Wharf was a center of commercial activity for this area of Mathews County from 1845 until the early 20th century. It also served as a major port of call for vessels plying the Chesapeake Bay until 1932. An important shipyard, owned and operated by Lewis Hudgins, stood here until it was burned by Union forces in 1864. Several well-known brig and schooner class commercial ships were built here, including the Victory and the Conquest. The shipbuilder's house still stands nearby, and the wharf store has been restored as a residence.” 

The marker does not include the fact that in 1860 Lewis Hudgins enslaved 22 people. It also did not include information from Civil War Officer Reports that refer to Lewis Hudgins as “a noted rebel” who was the leader of a Confederate smuggling and resistance party “calling themselves the Arabs.”

Some twenty years before the Civil War, when Lewis and Elizabeth’s first son was 19 years old, they had four boys and three girls at home. Alexander may have left a crowded home for the seafaring life several years earlier.  After his son's death, Lewis would have two more children with Elizabeth. In 1846, they named a son Alexander R. Hudgins in memory of their first born. Lewis would have three more with his second wife by the time of his Civil War exploits, and afterwards a few more children as well as a third wife before his death in 1866.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

On this 4th of July, A revolutionary conflict of words and deeds

During this summer of Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, what better way for a genealogy enthusiast to spend a muggy 4th of July than chasing down the Revolutionary War service records and slave holdings of her veteran ancestors? Liberty and slavery. Celebrated and reviled. While searching, I let myself think about what we celebrate and how we hold celebration apart from the statement that “all men are created equal.”

War and slavery. Two practices that I’m not drawn to as a writer and I am challenged to put my thoughts down on paper about either one. I haven’t found the words. It’s been easy for me to look the other way. I hope that by writing this blog I will be able to confront the legacy of my Southern slave-holding ancestors.

So, to get started, without celebration or blame, I speak their names:

4th Great Grandfather Thomas Healy (1746-1813), Middlesex County, Virginia

Healy was recommended as ensign in the county militia in 1778. Later, he was made captain and qualified as major after the war, in 1794. He furnished the Continental Army with 900 pounds of grass beef, a cart and driver for 2 days, and one gun, for which he sought reimbursement after the war. According to the US Census of 1810, his household included 8 white and 32 enslaved black people.

4th Great Grandfather Peter Foster (1757-1819), Mathews County, Virginia

Virginia’s navy of the revolution lists Peter Foster as a ships carpenter. He served on the Henry under Captain Robert Tompkins, and received a bounty as a Revolutionary War veteran. According to the 1810 US Census, his household included 7 white and 19 enslaved black people. Peter Foster was married in 1776 to Ann "Nanny" Hall and his father-in-law was Robert Hall, whose sons Robert Jr. and Spence served with Peter on the Henry.

5th Great Grandfather Burwell Bell (c. 1754-1824), Wake County, North Carolina

When he was called up, Bell paid for a substitute, Jacob Newsom, to take his place. During the American Revolution, Newsom served 4 tours of duty for a total of 30 weeks of service in 1780: 3 tours for others and 1 for himself as a draftee. In 1832 at the age of 70, he petitioned to receive a bounty for his service. According to the 1798 US Census, Burwell Bell’s household included 6 white and 8 enslaved black people, and by the 1800 US Census there were 10 white and 15 enslaved black people in his household.

5th Great Grandfather Henry Harrison Macon (1745-1790), Louisburg, North Carolina

Macon served as a captain in the North Carolina militia. He was wounded at the Battle of Camden, 10 August 1780, and imprisoned by the British in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1781, he was granted leave to ship his tobacco crop in order to defray debts contracted while he was imprisoned. He died at the age of 45 in 1790, before the first US Census was taken. During the 1810 Census, his son and my 4th great grandfather, Nathaniel Macon (1778-1843), reported 6 white and 7 enslaved black people in his household.

Cousin Shep Miller

After writing the previous blog post, about my Black cousins , I remembered a book sent to me by a seventh cousin in my Foster line of desce...