In Which I Learn My Family is Not Unsullied by America’s Original Sin
We watched Gone with the Wind on TCM last night and into this morning. This is the fifth time I’ve seen the movie, I think. The first time was on its first network television broadcast over two nights in 1976. It was a very big deal at the time, and it remains one of the most-watched television events ever.
I’ve thought a lot about the film recently as I’ve been doing my ancestry research. At the time of the 1976 broadcast, I remember my dad (who was from Tennessee) saying, as he often did, that the world of this film was very different from that of our own ancestors, who were backwoodsmen, hill folk and subsistence farmers, none of whom owned slaves. And for most of my life this was the narrative I had in my head. A picture closer to the folks in our last post. But when you start looking into it you quickly realize that once you go back even a handful of generations you have hundreds of ancestors and relations. Some are poor…and some are rich. And so it was that several months ago I was confronted with the sickening but unmistakable fact that many of my ancestors owned human slaves. One can guess as much, or assume as much, if you’re a white American with southern roots. But it’s quite a different thing to learn their names and details about their lives, and find the chain the leads directly from them…to you.
We’ve already touched on some of those people, the earliest Tidewater settlers, in this post. I’m in the early stages of investigation now but it’s safe to assume that the wealthy tobacco planters mentioned in that post employed indentured servants and slave labor. But once you get to the 19th century, a lot more information is readily to hand. You can look at the census questionnaire and see the number of slaves they kept. And in some cases their houses are still standing.
One of the earliest bits I’ve found (1777) is a mention in this article (http://thehistoryteller.com/2011/reports/swan-point-farm/) of the Frisby family of Swan Point Farm, Maryland owning between 24 and 32 slaves. My (10th) great grandfather Peregrine Frisby was the grandfather of his namesake mentioned in the article. My (9th) great grandmother was his aunt.
My (4th) great uncle Jesse Ellison lived and worked on the plantation of Reuben Chapman, future governor of Alabama, in the 1820s and 30s. He married at the plantation; his older children were borne there. It has been speculated that he was either an overseer or in charge of Chapman’s livestock. The latter seems more likely because in 1836 he moved to Brazos Texas and became a rancher. His son Jesse Washington Ellison served in the Texas Cavalry during the Civil War. More on this interesting family here.
My (5th) great grandmother was the aunt of the George Mabry mentioned in this article about the Maybry Hood House in Knoxville, which was built with slave labor ca. 1830. The Mabrys were a slave owning family; someone has made this list detailing all their known slaves owned by the family across the generations. (George’s wife was pro-union however, and he himself refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy).
George’s brother Joseph Alexander Mabry was one of Knoxville’s wealthiest citizens and largest slaveholders. He and his son were killed in a shootout on the streets on Knoxville in 1882. Read about that incident and about Joseph here . This incident is also described by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Their home, the Mabry-Hazen House is a museum today.
My (4th) great grandfather Nathaniel Bilbrey (1751-1836), of Edgecombe, North Carolina averaged 9 slaves on his farm over the four censuses he’s recorded on. (Yes, I know….Frisby, Mabry, Bilbrey. What can I do? It’s true!) Bilbrey’s father-in-law Joseph Howell (1733-1835) my (5th) great grandfather, also had 9 slaves according to the 1830 census. Towards the end of his long life he relocated with part of the family to Georgia, not far from Atlanta, where much of the family remained three decades later — directly in the path of Sherman’s March to the Sea. (One of Joseph’s great grandsons Evan Howell (1839-1905) was an officer in the Confederate army, and later editor of the Atlanta Constitution and mayor of Atlanta. Evan’s son Clark Howell (1863-1935) also edited the Constitution and won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
In 1810, Nathaniel Bilbrey’s daughter Mary married my great-great-great grandfather Redding Bonner, who, like his father before him, kept 15-20 slaves. Today, while Googling things like “Bonner” and “Civil War”, I came across this Vanity Fair article about a Georgia gentleman named Peter Bonner who is restoring the actual Tara set from the movie Gone with the Wind. I would say the that chances that we’re not at least distantly related are pretty slim. Here is the article: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/gone-with-the-wind-tara-peter-bonner
My (6th) great grand father Anthony Colquitt was the grandfather of Walter Terry Colquitt (1799-1855). The latter Colquitt was a lawer, judge, Methodist preacher, and a U.S. Congressman and Senator. Colquitt County, Georgia is named after him. Colquitt was a Whig during his first term in congress, then switched parties to become a Democrat. He preached secession for the federal government’s perceived impingement on state’s rights, though he died several years before the start of the Civil War. His son, Alfred Holt Colquitt (1824-1894), however did not. See our next post, on the War Between the States for more on him.
Alfred lived on this Georgia plantation, called Pinebloom built by his father-in-law General Hartwell Hill Tarver in 1848. Over 250 slaves worked this plantation.
As we mentioned in our last post, my 5th great grandmother’s brother was William Rufus Devane King, 13th Vice President of the United States and the founder of Selma, Alabama. King was simultaneously pro-slavery and anti-secession, one of the majority of politicians who seemed to want to deal with the problem by banning discussion of it from the floor of the senate and hoping it would go away. The discussion, that is, not slavery. King and his relatives formed one of the largest slaveholding families in the state of Alabama, collectively owning as many as 500. I’m sure the institution of slavery suited him just fine. I’ll be writing a lot more about this relative in the future. At the very least, a blogpost, but I’m tempted to write a whole play. Learn about him here.
As you can imagine, uncovering these facts contains more than one element of morbid horror. When I came across the first indisputable reference to the fact that one of my ancestors owned slaves, it was like the floor dropped out from under me. I felt like I was going to faint. I’ll be writing much more about the meaning and the morality of this history in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, know that I have been frantically looking for redemptive stories as well. Just so I don’t feel the need to jump off a bridge. And they’re there, of course. First, consider all the relatives of these generations I didn’t name here. I looked at them all; only those families above owned slaves (thus far).
Sure, in many cases, it’s economic. Most people were too poor to own slaves. But there were a few cases where I saw definitive signs of a conscience at work. For example, Rachel King, sister of the aforementioned William, my (5th) great grandmother, married into the Melson family, which had no slaves. And THEIR daughter married into a QUAKER family, and Quakers were definitely against slavery as a matter of doctrine.
And on my mother’s side I am related to the abolitionists John Brown and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You have to take your moments of pride where you can get them.
More to come on this subject.