This blog, for the most part, is about the Girl in Charge (obv). And I love writing about her. But as much as I love it, I do have other interests. And so this is going to be my first “and other stuff too” post where I talk about something else besides the world that revolves around Little Miss Princess.
Something I love almost more than anything else is Family History Research. I’m not a great researcher, but I love the stories that I am able to find about my ancestors. Every little detail fascinates me and whenever I have a few minutes, I go online and browse. I often hit brick walls because my research ability (and my time) is so limited, but thankfully my dad is big into genealogy, so he is my go-to source when I have questions. And I also have a good friend who is a professional genealogist and she has been endlessly generous with her time.
Well, recently, our family made a discovery that I have literally lost sleep over. Two nights ago was one of those nights. I just couldn’t fall asleep because my mind was racing with this new information. Our discoveries are both exciting and heartbreaking at the same time.
It all started several years ago when my dad took a DNA test. Now, keep in mind, that we are a family with European heritage. Exclusively European heritage. We are as white as white can be. Boring, I know. No cultural diversity in our family at all.
Or so we thought…
But when my dad’s DNA test results came back in, we were shocked to discover a thread of DNA that made absolutely no sense to us. It said that he was 4% West African. You read that right. West African. My dad, Mr. Caucasian, had African blood…
Now, before you go thinking that we all originate from Africa (as some geneticists believe… so what’s the big deal?), I’m not talking about that. That was so long ago that that heritage no longer shows up in a modern-day person’s DNA. No… 4% is a lot for someone who thought he was exclusively European. That 4% had to come from a much more recent ancestor than several millennia ago.
And it specifically said West African- not Northern African. There was a lot of mixing between the Northern Africans and the Southern Europeans, especially when the Moors invaded Spain in the 700’s. But even that was too long ago for 4% of my dad’s DNA to be African. Besides, his test didn’t say Northern African, it said West African. The DNA pointed to deep Africa. And we couldn’t help but think that it had to be connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
It was fascinating, to say the least, but was it true? Could it be true? (Please tell me it’s true! That would be so amazing!) But how could it possibly be true? Our family was as white as white could be. And we had researched generation upon generation of our family history and had never found even a whisper of information that would make us suspect we had African heritage.
And so, despite our eagerness, nothing came of it. We had zero leads. We literally sat on this information for several years just scratching our heads, questioning its legitimacy.
But still, I browsed. I couldn’t help myself. This piece of information fascinated me beyond any other we had discovered, so I moseyed on over to my dad’s family tree on occasion and just looked. I knew we had ancestors who came out of the South and I knew of several families who owned slaves. And so I wondered if that was where we would find the connection.
But it still didn’t make any sense to me. If one of our white slave-owning ancestors had had a child with one of his female slaves (insert expletive to describe the man here…), that would most likely account for European DNA being found in a modern-day black family, but it most likely wouldn’t account for African DNA being found in a modern-day white family (in theory, of course… there are so many variables that there’s no way to list them all). But somewhere a black person had to have had a child with a white person, and that child had to have grown up to have a child with another white person, and so on and so on in order for our family to be under the misconception that we were exclusively European and yet still carry African DNA in our blood.
But who was that person? And what was the explanation? We didn’t know. And my browsing got me nowhere. We were stumped.
Then one day, I had a breakthrough. I was watching Finding Your Roots (thank goodness for Henry Louis Gates – that man is a genius) and on this particular episode, he was interviewing Richard Branson. About halfway through the episode, Dr. Gates revealed to Mr. Branson the results from his DNA test. Amongst all of his very European heritage, Mr. Branson learned that he was also 4% Indian. And then the show went on to reveal a fascinating story about one of his ancestors who had worked for the East India Company, and while he was in India, he had a child with an Indian woman. After both parents died, the young child was brought back to England by British relatives to be educated, and then ended up marrying an English spouse and every generation afterward also married an English spouse. So by the time Richard Branson came around, that family story had been lost and no one knew about this Indian heritage. When Mr. Branson asked how far back that ancestor would have lived, Dr. Gates told him that 4% Indian DNA indicated that either Mr. Branson’s 2nd or 3rd great grandparent was full-blooded Indian.
As you can imagine I was thunderstruck. Second or third great grandparents could equal 4% DNA! That was how much West African DNA my dad had! But could it be? We knew who all of my dad’s 2nd and 3rd great grandparents were and none of them was African!
I was so confused. But I pulled up his family tree anyway and I started hunting. I combed over every single detail of every single one of my dad’s 2nd and 3rd great grandparents. And then I looked at all the photographs that we had of them and tried to view them through different lenses. Could this person I’m looking at, born back in the early 1800s, possibly be black?
But I got nothing. Ancestor after ancestor was just as European as I had previously suspected them to be. Until I got to Caroline… the very last person in that generation on his family tree… his mother’s mother’s mother’s mother.
I couldn’t breathe. Could the answer have been staring me in the face all of this time? I had seen this photograph before, many times. But it never occurred to me to wonder if she was anything other than a white woman. I just thought (if I thought about it at all) that either she was an olive-skinned white woman or the photograph was poor quality and everything in it – her skin, hair, clothes, etc – looked darker than it actually was. But the truth is, I never even thought about it! It never occurred to me that someone so closely linked to my father generationally could be anything other than white. All of my browsings had taken me back into the 1600s and 1700s in Tennessee and Virginia because that’s how far back I had to go to find ancestors that owned slaves. But this line of my family had come out of Montana in the mid-1800s. It never occurred to me to look in this direction.
But was I seeing what I wanted to see? Was this woman really of African heritage? Was I crazy? I had no idea. All I knew was that through my new lenses, my 3rd great grandmother Caroline looked black.
So I started combing through her information. And I was gobsmacked. She was born in Kentucky in 1836 (a slave state!) and she married a white man named Hezekiah in Montana in 1865 (the year the Civil War ended! Prior to this year, if she had been a slave, she legally couldn’t have gotten married!), but was it just a coincidence? Was I seeing evidence simply because I wanted to? Was she simply an olive-skinned white woman born in Kentucky in 1836 and happened to get married when she was 29 in Montana the year after the Civil War ended? Possibly…
But my heart was racing. I felt like I had stumbled upon something that, deep within my soul, I knew to be true. I could feel it in my bones. My 3rd great grandmother Caroline had been born enslaved.
For months I mulled over the idea in my mind. Because of the Girl in Charge and just the general busyness of motherhood, I had very little time to do real research- five-minute increments on my phone whenever I had the chance. But I just couldn’t get Caroline out of my mind. I had to know, but I had absolutely no idea how to find out. I mentioned it to my dad and to my pro genealogist friend, but neither one of them got very far because there simply wasn’t enough information about where Caroline had come from. We hoped her death certificate would list the county in Kentucky where she was born so perhaps we could browse through their slave schedules. But it didn’t. It just said “Kentucky”. (And there are 120 counties in Kentucky! I couldn’t possibly go through them all.) On top of that, in the 1870 census, she was listed as white! So that contradicted everything I suspected.
The one thread of hope I had was that on Family Search, it said she had a brother named Moses, and in the 1870 census, Moses was listed as mulatto (an olden day term for being partially black and partially white) which would have strongly supported my suspicions. But in a later census, Moses was listed as white. So… did the 1870 census taker have really messy handwriting, and was that ‘M’ really a messy ‘W’? I didn’t know… And we had no actual evidence that Caroline and Moses were even brother and sister. We were relying on information that somebody else had put on Family Search, and it was unsourced. I was grasping at straws to support my theory and nothing was panning out. It was very possible that I was barking up the wrong tree… or the wrong branch if you will.
So we just sat on it. We didn’t have enough information to dig any further. I couldn’t support my theory with hard evidence. So we did nothing. For a long time.
But I still couldn’t help myself, occasionally, during those five-minute searches on my phone at the doctor’s office or waiting at piano lessons, I would go back to Caroline’s profile page on Family Search and just look at her. I would go over her information again and again just to see if I could find a clue that I hadn’t noticed before. I knew it was a long shot, but again, it was that feeling in my bones. I just felt sure that she was our connection to Africa.
Genealogy has always been very important to my family. I grew up hearing stories from my parents about the people that we come from. They engrained it in us how important it was to honor those who have gone before by remembering them and their stories. Patrick and Mary came over from Meath County, Ireland to escape the Potato Famine. Joseph, a skilled silversmith, and his wife Penelope came to America from Birmingham, England. Thomas, an impoverished shoemaker, emigrated to the United States from Newbury, England (which is right next to Highclere Castle! You know! Downton Abbey! I fantasize that one of my ancestors was a scullery maid or a footman for the Carnarvon Family (the real Crawleys…)). Then there was David and his daughter Margaret who emigrated from Paisley, Scotland where David was a skilled paisley weaver. There was Samuel who’s family became religious refugees after they were driven out of the state of Missouri at gunpoint, along with countless other ancestors who became Mormon Pioneers and crossed the plains to evade religious persecution. There was James who was a frontiersman in Tennessee and who lost his life after a battle with the Native Americans. Pierre sailed to Canada from France as part of Louis XIV’s army and his descendants moved south to America. Gregory was an indentured servant in Jamestown, Virginia. Mary was a 13-year-old girl who sailed over on the Mayflower. And there are more Revolutionary War veterans in my family tree than I can count!
My family roots in America are deep, and they are deeply European. The stories I have heard my whole life are stories of courage and resilience and optimism and hope. They are stories about people who have overcome tremendously difficult circumstances – stories that I never tire of hearing and which inspire me to this very day.
But none of those stories included the tales of men and women ripped from their husbands and wives and children and homes and cultures by force and sold into bondage, and were locked away in the bottom of a ship for months on end, where they were crammed together in tight, filthy spaces and suffered in a manner no words can possibly describe, and then forced into slavery on tobacco or sugar plantations, in mines or rice fields, and in domestic servitude in an unfamiliar land for the rest of their lives where they were considered to be merchandise with no rights, their relationships unrecognized by law, their religion and culture denied, forbidden to be educated, their lovers and brothers and sisters and children were torn from their arms and sold away from them never to be seen again, they were beaten, tortured, bound in chains, starved, whipped, raped, used as pack mules, hunted with bloodhounds, branded with hot irons, worked to the bone, denied medical treatment and then died young only to be replaced by another slave, and then another, and then another, many of whom were bred by the slave masters and overseers themselves through violent assault.
Those stories also didn’t include the tales of their beautiful native African culture, their religious beliefs, traditional medicinal practices, the stunning artistry and craftsmanship, and the transcendent power of their music and dance. They didn’t include the stories of their courage and fearlessness, their ability to maintain hope where all hope seemed lost, their determination to educate themselves in secret, the ingenuity it took for many of them to attain their freedom, and the personal sacrifice they were willing to undertake to risk it all and go back and help rescue their loved ones.
None of the stories I heard growing up included even a hint that that heritage ran in my veins as deeply as did my European roots. But according to my dad’s DNA, those stories belonged to me too. And it was heartbreaking to me to think that because of the culture of the country that I love, somebody along the way had decided not to pass those stories along, but instead decided to hide them in shame. He or she considered it to be a family secret that must be buried so far in the ground that nobody would ever find it. What that person didn’t recognize was that it wasn’t dross they were burying, it was treasure. And because of that person’s choice, that treasure – the names, the dates, the places, the stories, the songs, the traditions, the culture – was lost to our family. Maybe for forever.
But I was determined to reclaim it. I had to know. Whoever this ancestor was, he or she and their ancestors deserved to be honored for their courage and their optimism and their resilience and their hope with just as much enthusiasm and respect and open-mindedness and acceptance as those whose stories had been passed down openly. I was determined to find out who this person was, and embrace them proudly and boldly and with open arms.
But with no new leads, all I could do was occasionally stare at Caroline’s Family Search profile and wonder.
And then four days ago, while I was sitting in my children’s school cafeteria waiting to pick them up at the end of the day, I pulled up Caroline‘s profile again and almost screamed out loud right in front of all the other parents. Down at the bottom of the page, a note section had been added and it said this: “Former slave owner emancipated Caroline” and then it listed the name of the slave owner.
I was stunned. After all this time, somebody out in the big wide genealogical universe had found this piece of information- that had been so unreachable to us- in a county history where Caroline had once lived in the state of Iowa and uploaded it to Caroline‘s Family Search profile. And it was academically sourced!!!!!! Hallelujah!!! Not only did we have confirmation that Caroline had been born enslaved, but we also had the name of her slave owner!!!!!! Shouting for joy (internally) I started texting my dad and my pro genealogist friend and with excitement, they both went to work.
And this is the story they uncovered…
(Keep in mind that all African American research contains conjecture because most people who were enslaved were not named in the records. And we have been at this less than a week, so some of our initial impressions may end up being completely wrong.)
In Kentucky in the early 1800s, there was a man named John who was married to Milly and they had a large family of 15 children, including their oldest son Thomas and a much younger son named Harvey. John must have believed in the law of primogeniture because when he died, he left everything to Thomas- all of his property, including one enslaved male named Webb and two unnamed enslaved females of childbearing age. No other enslaved people were listed. Within 10 years, on the 1840 census, the enslaved male named Webb was gone from the record, but the two unnamed enslaved females of childbearing age were still listed. In addition, there was an unnamed enslaved male child and an unnamed enslaved female child, both under the age of ten. Caroline was born in 1836, and Moses was born a few years before her. We are confident these two children listed are Caroline and Moses and that one of those enslaved adult females is their mother (it’s possible each one of the women had a child, its also possible these children were acquired elsewhere, but its a safe conjecture that these children were born to one of these two females. Sadly, no name has been found for either woman, so we may never know the name of Caroline’s mother.)
Now, the question is paternity. It’s possible that Webb was the father. But those three slaves lived together in John’s household previous to them being passed on to Thomas, and no children were conceived during that time (that we know of) so it’s unlikely that that kind of relationship would have developed between them later. It’s also possible that another man from the area was the father. But it’s also a real possibility that Thomas himself, the slave owner, fathered those children. No other man is listed on the census in that household. It’s not a sure thing (the only way to know for sure is if we found a descendant of Thomas and compared his DNA to ours to see if there was a match), but its a solid conjecture. It’s also possible that another male member of John’s family became the father while visiting Thomas’ household. We may never know.
A year later in 1841, Thomas sold his land in Kentucky and moved the entire family (his family and slaves, his brother Harvey’s family, their widowed mother Milly, and surely others) to the state of Missouri. They settled on land in the north of the state close to the Iowa border. At some point in the future (we’re not sure when), the family was informed that they did not actually reside in the state of Missouri. They had settled too far north and they were living in Iowa. This was a problem for them because Iowa was a free state. If they remained, their slaves would automatically become free. So, Thomas picked up and relocated his family several miles south in Missouri so he could keep his slaves. Harvey, however (and this is fascinating), didn’t move south! He and his family remained in Iowa! We know he didn’t inherit slaves from his father, but he was a grown man of his own and one would think that if by this time he was going to own slaves, that he would have. But thus far we haven’t found evidence that he did (we may end up being wrong, but this is what we know so far.) And the fact that he had no problem remaining in a free state tells me that, quite possibly, he felt differently about slavery than his brother.
We haven’t found a ton more information about the family over the next twenty years. But the 1860 census was very enlightening. On this record, Moses is listed by name as an enslaved mulatto in his twenties living in Thomas’ household in Missouri. Caroline is also listed by name as a mulatto in the 1860 census but she is living in Harvey’s household in Iowa. And get this! She is listed as a family member!
We can only speculate how national events were effecting the family in 1860. The Civil War had broken out and I’m sure there was plenty of uneasiness to go around. But Caroline’s world became even more unstable the next year because, in 1861, both Harvey and his wife passed away. Of course, we don’t know specific details and can only do our best to guess, but it appears that Caroline had a tough choice to make. She was a black woman on her own in a free state in the middle of the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act would have allowed anyone to capture her and sell her back into slavery on a whim. The white people who had considered her a family member, and therefore were protecting her, had died (we don’t have details about where Harvey’s adult children were as of yet), and her closest living relative was her enslaved brother who lived a few miles down the road in a slave state!
The initial note I saw in Family Search said that Caroline had been emancipated by her slave owner… but here’s the clincher. It said the slaveowner was Harvey, not Thomas. We discovered after the fact on our own that this is a mistake. There’s no evidence that Harvey ever owned slaves. But perhaps assumptions were made by other people in the community who thought that because Caroline lived with Harvey and his wife in a free state, that he had previously owned her but had then emancipated her and then those people recorded it in the official county history. (A side piece of evidence that makes me think that Caroline had good feelings toward Harvey and his wife is that Caroline, later in her life, named one of her children Elizabeth- which was Harvey’s wife’s name. Again… conjecture… but you’d think if she hated the woman and was being held in de facto slavery illegally in their household that she never would have given one of her children that name.)
We don’t know exactly what happened during the months and years after Harvey and Elizabeth died. Did Thomas see the writing on the wall and simply let Moses go? Was there any familial concern in that regard? Or did Caroline return to Thomas’ household and then she and Moses conspired together to escape north into a territory that was not yet part of the United States rather than wait and risk the South winning the war? We don’t know. I hope we can track down more details someday, but it’s possible we may never know.
What we do know is that sometime during that next year, Caroline and Moses show up in an obscure mining town in Montana. And in 1865, Caroline entered a mixed-race marriage with a white man named Hezekiah. It was recorded in the town records that Hezekiah and Caroline’s first child was considered to be the first “white” child born in that town (considered “white” because he was not a Native American), and on the 1870 census, both Hezekiah and Caroline claimed to be white. Moses, however, who is recorded as being a farm laborer, was listed as mulatto. But by 1890, he was also claiming to be white on the census.
From there we know that Hezekiah and Caroline had 7 children together. Their daughter Margaret married a white man named Elijah who was estranged from his family in Utah and who had come to Montana to work in the mines. At some point after their marriage, they moved to Idaho, where, in 1906, Margaret died at the age of 36, leaving her 5 children motherless. At some point over the next several years, Elijah’s family got wind of his circumstances and reached out to him. Rather than stay in Idaho, or return to Montana, Elijah decided to take his light-skinned mixed-race children and move them down to live in his extended family’s very white community in Utah. And I strongly suspect that that was the day the beautiful African heritage of Elijah and Margaret’s children was lost forever.
But the thing that I can’t stop wondering about is how that information was suppressed. Did Elijah instruct his children to never speak of their African heritage again? If he did, that is soul-crushing. That level of shame, the kind that develops when a person has to bury who they are, permeates to the core of a person’s identity. Its tentacles wrap around every part of a person’s emotional development and it doesn’t go away on its own. It gets passed down generationally, and is especially damaging to future children and grandchildren because they don’t know where this feeling comes from of being ‘other’ or ‘different’ or ‘less than’ or ‘inherently worthless’. And to be honest, that’s the most enlightening part of this entire journey for me. It explains a lot about why my family is the way it is.
But as sad as it makes me, I can’t bring myself to judge Elijah harshly for that choice. It was probably a decision made out of love for his children. Those were tough times in America to be anything but white. But it still makes me deeply deeply deeply sad that that was a choice he felt he had to make.
And so, their family history was never spoken of again. One of his children, Caroline (named after her grandmother), was my great-grandmother. And by the time her daughter Amy (my grandmother, whom I knew very well growing up) was born, there wasn’t even a whisper that her maternal line led directly to Africa. That piece of information was long gone, buried deep underneath the racial tension that existed in America at that time.
Words cannot express how grateful I am for modern technology and for the wonders of the DNA test. AND for that mystery researcher out there that posted the new information on Caroline’s profile. Because of it, our family has been able to shine a light on a part of our family identity that never should have been considered shameful.
There is still so much more research to be done. So many more nooks and crannies that can be opened up and dusted off- archives in Montana and Iowa and Missouri and Kentucky that haven’t even been touched yet. And I am hoping that at some point we will be able to find out what Caroline‘s mother’s name was, and if Thomas was actually her father.
But even if we are unsuccessful, I am glad that at least now I don’t have to look at my father’s family tree with bewilderment, wondering where that elusive African DNA came from. And as I strive to pass on family stories to my children, I can be the first generation to include Caroline’s in the mix. I can tell my children that here’s a woman who endured the horrors of slavery for the first 25 years of her life, but who, when presented with the chance, embraced freedom on her own terms and set her own course in life, and didn’t let the world she lived in tell her she had less of a right to that pursuit of happiness that all Americans are promised. I am inexpressibly proud to be Caroline’s 3rd great-granddaughter. And my hope is that now that her story has been redeemed, that my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will celebrate this remarkable woman for many generations to come.