Genealogy and the Moral Dilemma

So I ran across an interesting article last week on Slate George W. Bush’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather was a Slave Trader.  The article traces the genealogical research establishing that this progenitor of the Bush family was, in fact, Thomas ‘Beau’ Walker, a notorious English slave trader during the last quarter of the 18th Century.  Notwithstanding the heinous trade in which he was engaged, one of the more compelling parts of the article, to me, was the way in which Beau Walker died:

Zachary Macaulay’s journal entry for Oct. 24, 1797, is as follows:

“You have heard of the noted Beau Walker, an English slave trader of these parts. He arrived at the Isles Du Los [off present-day Guinea] lately in an American Brig being bound to Cape Mount [in present-day northwest Liberia] for slaves. He had scarce arrived at the last place, when exercising his usual barbarities on his officers & crew, they were provoked to conspire against him.  As he lay on one of the hencoops a seaman came up & struck him on the breast with a handspike, but the blow being ill directed, did not produce its intended effect and Walker springing up wd soon have sacrificed the mutineer to his fury, had not a boy at the helm, pulling a pistol from his breast, shot him dead on the spot. His body was immediately thrown overboard. Thus ended Walker’s career, an end worthy of such a life. The vessel left Cape Mount, and it is supposed has gone for the Brazils or South Seas. There could not possibly have been a more inhuman monster than this Walker. Many a poor seaman has been brought by him to an untimely end.”

Anyroad, one of the other interesting aspects of the Slate article was the ‘declined to comment’ responses from several members of the Bush family when asked about this revelation.  This has been on my mind a lot since I started genealogy research in earnest several years ago.  What can one really say in the 21st Century when slave ownership is found in the family history?

I’m not happy to report that slave ownership in my family was not uncommon, particularly given that we were in Virginia beginning in the 1690s, moving south (the Carolinas) and westward (Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama) during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  I’ve discovered several wills and other probate documents which transferred possessions and people from one family member to others.  Through the probate records of Stewart County, Tennessee for example, I was able to discover a significant amount of information about my fifth-great grandfather, Mackey McNatt, and his children through the ‘division of Negroes’ belonging to his estate.  Indeed, I was finally able to identify who my fourth great grandmother actually was when I found a deed-of-gift record for Dinah McNatt to her “beloved son,” Enoch; that ‘gift’ being a slave.

The irony of this discovery is not lost on me considering that for many, many African-Americans, there is simply little-to-no documentary evidence to be had which traces lost ancestors before the 1850s, 60s, and 70s.  Slaves were chattel to be divided with the estate when the time came.  Generally just first names, this is typical of the scant records available to researchers today:

“In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.  In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.”

The excerpt above is from a 7 October 2009 article in the New York Times by Rachel L. Swarns and Jodi Kantor – In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery, a fascinating genealogy of Michelle Obamasugar in the bloodIn addition to this article about Mrs. Obama’s family history, I recommend Sugar in the Blood:  A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire, by Andrea Stuart.  A fantastic book which traces slavery and slave families on a sugar plantation in Barbados.  (Terry Gross did a great “Fresh Air” interview with Ms. Stuart earlier this year – it’s really worth a listen.)  Much like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, this story traces a family where one side owned the other as property.

Like so much we discover when we delve into our family roots, slave ownership is not something one relishes or wishes to acknowledge, but it is one of those unpleasant realities we risk uncovering.

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2 Responses to Genealogy and the Moral Dilemma

  1. chmjr2 says:

    Yes we all have a dark side in our family history. I have found many of the sin’s of mankind in my family also. However many of the things we find offensive (and rightfully so) today were the norm then. What we find normal today may be judged harshly in the future. I like to find the history of why something was like it is and the influence it has on today’s reality.

    • “I like to find the history of why something was like it is and the influence it has on today’s reality.”

      So very true. That’s why I think it’s so important to try and add as much context as possible to an otherwise fairly dry litany of the same thing: Born here on X date; married so-and-so on X date; had 5 children; died on X date and is buried in X cemetery. To me, it’s about trying to bring history alive.

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