In the first years of the 19th century a Scotch-Irishman named John Hyde settled on the Oconalufty River very near where the Oconaluftee Visitors Center to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands today. He’d bought the property from a speculator, Felix Walker, who was locked in an epic lawsuit with Elizabeth’s 4xggrandfather Waightstill Avery over who had better title to the land. By the time the case wound its way to the North Carolina State Supreme Court in 1820, John Hyde had already packed off for Missouri with its prospect of cheaper, better land for his large family.
On the night of October 13, 1818, just two years after he had arrived in Missouri, Hyde was killed by one of his enslaved people, a 17-year-old known as “Negro Frank.” We know nothing of the circumstances, except that they were camped out on the Gasconade River working on Hyde’s property. Frank lit out but was eventually found the next year and delivered to the jail in St Louis, the largest city by far in the region. With nearly 10,000 people, as well as a thriving slave market, St. Louis presumably had a very strong jail, especially for offenders who were enslaved. But then word came in the Missouri Gazette, a full year after the killing, that somehow Frank had broken out of jail and was again at large. The news came in a reward posted for his capture. This “runaway” notice included an amazing description of him, noting that he “speaks without embarrassment” and “has a remarkable habit of closing his eyelids in rapid succession when in conversation” (reminding me of some of the language in contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s brilliant series of runaway prints, based on his own friends’ descriptions of himself.)
From this point on, the case seems to have disappeared from the papers. We can only hope that this young man Frank, who spoke without embarrassment, eyelids fluttering, made his final escape from slavery.
Word of John Hyde’s fate no doubt filtered back to his relatives in North Carolina, particularly his brother Benjamin, who had lived just upriver from him. Ben’s daughter Catherine had a liaison with Will Thomas in the early 1840s, resulting in the birth of son who would be named William Pendleton Hyde. Pen Hyde, as he came to be known, maintained a life-long relationship with his father and got some land from him on the very same river where Ben and John Hyde had once lived. In the last surviving letter we have from Will, written from the insane asylum in 1892, a year before his death, he told another son to “let W P Hyde retain possession of the little farm on Oconaluftee if he wants it.”
This is a listing of poeple enslaved* by the Avery-family. I’ve divided them into family groupings. I hope it will help their descendants in their searches for their family history. I’ve also added a brief history of the Avery family to help put these enslaved Africans and Americans in a wider historical context and timeline.
*A note on the terms I’m using. Race and racial slavery are such painful and difficult issues in our collective history that I am trying to do my small part by reexamining even the terms used to discuss it. The words we use reflect our beliefs; using different words can undermine those beliefs. So, for instance, rather than calling the people on this list “slaves,” they are “the enslaved” – which describes what was done to them but does not define them by it. And it places culpability squarely where it belongs – on those people like my ancestors who engaged in the enslavement of other human beings.
I also use the term “racial slavery” for slavery as it was practiced in the U.S. Slavery, of course, has been practiced, and practiced in different ways, throughout human history. The Cherokee took those defeated in battle as slaves, but then often eventually adopted them into the family with full familial rights. Slavery as practiced by whites in the U.S. was an institutionalized system of degrading, devaluing, and using people of African descent. Our economy was built on it and an entire field of pseudo-science was created to justify it (e.g. different races were believed to be different species).
The Avery family of Swan Ponds, Burke County, NC
Waightstill Avery, who founded and built the Swan Ponds plantation, was born in 1741 in Groton, Connecticut. He was educated at Princeton University. In 1778, in New Bern, NC (on the east coast) he married a young wealthy widow, Leah Probart Franks. After a few years in eastern N.C., Waightstill and Leah moved to Burke County, N.C. in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in western N.C. Swan Ponds plantation, just outside Morganton, was established. They had four children – Polly Mira Avery, Elizabeth Avery, Isaac Thomas Avery, and Selina Louise Avery. Leah and Waightstill lived at Swan Ponds until their respective deaths. Waightstill Avery died in 1821 and Leah died in 1832.
Their son, Isaac Thomas Avery (1785-1864), inherited the plantation and some portion of the enslaved population. In 1815 he married Harriet Eloise Erwin (1795-1858). The Erwins were a wealthy local family. They owned a plantation called Belvidere and, presumably, some of those enslaved by the Erwins went with Harriet to Swan Ponds. They had ten children (that survived into adulthood): William Waightstill Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery, Mary Martha Avery, Justina Harriet Avery, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, Laura Myra Avery, Willoughby Francis Avery. Three of their sons – William Waightstill Avery, Clark Moulton Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery – died in the Civil War, fighting on the wrong side of history. Their father died in 1864 after hearing of the deaths of William and Clark.
After emancipation, many of those who had been enslaved (having few options) stayed in the area. There are still many Avery descendants, both black and white, in the area around Morganton.
The people the Avery family enslaved (and who died before emancipation) are buried in unmarked graves near the small Avery family cemetery. I hope to raise enough money to put a permanent marker of some kind near or on the place where these enslave people lie, and on it all their names.
Avery slave family groups
Tina [from Franck family, with Leah]
Son Lenoir, b. 1766
Daughter Ester, b. 1766
Son Jon b. 1769
child Benna, b. 14 May 1772
Balaam, b. 11 April 1774
Jim, b. 10 April 1776
Pete born 3rd Nov. 1778
Diana born 13th Dec. 1780
Adam born 25 Dec. 1783
Sarah born Dec. 1785
Children Lilph & Rose b. 15 April 1770
Son Ben, b. march 1788
Mary (purchased Sept 6, 1814)
son Jim, b. April 1816
Daughter Chassey, b. August 1816
Romeo & Big Luie have 9 children at home Dec. 1815
Mara 7. Eliza or Liz
Pat 8. Dashee
Jacob 9. Mimee
Jos. (or Joseph, and possibly given to Harriet Avery Chambers in Isaac Thomas Avery’s will)
Eliza [possibly daughter of Romeo & Big Louie becayse she named a son Romeo?]
Twins, Jacob & Mary, b. 12 Sept. 1829, d. Sept. 1840 from fever
Daughter Luann, b. 18 Aug. 1841
[same as Eliza?]
Twins, Romeo & Sully
July hath 8 children 1815
Monday hath 7 children living at home 1815
Diana hath 6 children living at home 1815
Ab (Abraham, Abner, or Absalom?)
[Same Diana? Son Cyrus, b. 10 Jan. 1838 “bought by Forney and paid.”]?
Bet hath two children (could be Betty or Elizabeth)
Felix hath 3 children
And one grandchild
Twins, Two smart healthy daughters, b. Sept. 1818
Son Billy “being a Mulatto” b. 2 Jan. 1805
15 August 1837
Boy child b. 28 March 1838
Child (no name) b. 8 April 1838, d. 4 weeks old
Boy child died soon after birth
Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day
16 April 1829
Child Robert Ad___ b. 14 May 1829
Son b. August 1829, d. 4 days after birth
Daughter Polly, b. 19 Nov. 1841
Linda and Abnus
Daughter Hulda, b. 20 Sept. 1854
Caty & Alfred
Daughter Milly, b. Swan Ponds in January
Son Anthony, b. 22 Oct. 1854
Son Balaam, b. 22 Oct. 1852, d. 1852
Jenny (& Cathe?)
Son Willoughby Francis, b. 18 March 1855 (the fact that her son is named Willoughby Francis could indicate that the child was fathered by Willoughby Francis Avery)
(mentioned in Willoughby Francis Avery’s will in 1876)
Daughter Lovina, b. Nov. 17 1856
Son Ephraim, b. January 26, 1861, d. Dec. 4, 1862
March 25th 1855
Daughter, Mineva (Minerva?)
two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth
Son John Carson, b. June 24, 1855? (The Carsons were also a well-to-do local family who had many enslaved Africans/Americans. This boy could have been fathered by one of them.)
Daughter Mary, b. March 10th 1862
Margaret (owner Isaac Erwin Avery)
Son Clingman August 2, 1855?
daughter Lititia, b. Dec. 6, 1862
[same Margaret as Isaac T. Avery’s Margaret?)
Cinthy (Abbi’s daughter) [same Abb as Abb Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day?]
Son Elisha, b. August 26 , 1855?
Daughter Matilda, b. December 20 1850
19th February 1857
Son Samuel, b. 10th March 1857 at Swan Ponds
[same as below?]
Son Capt. James Wilson, b. August 4th 1861, d. 26 April 1862
[same as above]?
Cecelia (in Yancey, NC)
Daughter Ann, b. December 1856
Twin sons b. 16th May 1857, William & The other died in October 1857
Daughter Missy, b. August 14
Margaret (owner Isaac Thomas Avery)
child named ___ , b. Nov. 23 (1855?) died at 5 months old
Daughter Elvira, b. October 12, 1860
Cindy was delivered of two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth
Julia & Homer’s
Son Romeo, b. January 6, 1861
Thine had at the Crab Orchard (in Plumtree, NC) in Mitchel
Daughter Louisa, b. About the 20th of August
Mary (Thines’ daughter)
Son Logan, b. 30 September 1861
bore three children on Jan 19, 1862 – two sons and one girl Rachel. Of the boys, one died in May & one in August
Daughter Sally, b. February 20, 1862
Son Will Phifer, b. Sept. 11th 1862
(The Phifers were also a local white family. The use of the Phifer name could indicate that one of the Phifer men had fathered the child.)
Daughter called —— , b. & died October 24, 1862
Roxanna & Lige (Elijah)
(There are many stories about an enslaved man named Elijah or Lige, which I’ll post soon. He was – through the Avery family’s telling of the stories – the prototypical “faithful slave” of Southern myth. Obviously his own version of events would be different and fascinating! If anyone descended from Lige reads this, I’d love to hear from you.)
Cecilia & Alfred’s
Daughter Delphy, b. in Mitchell [Crab Orchard in Plumtree?] in 1862
(Alfred possibly given to Clark Moulton Avery in I.T. Avery’s will, though Clark was dead by then.)
Kirk and I live in Western Pennsylvania which is, coincidentally, where both our respective ancestors lived when they first emigrated to the North American colonies. This was in the early 1700s, when America was a fragmented European proto-colony being fought over by England, France, and Spain, like dogs over a dropped steak. Maryland, under the Catholic Calverts, was trying to annex William Penn’s Quaker colony, especially the valuable port of Philadelphia. Kirk’s ancestors, the German Protestant refugees called Palatines, having exhausted their funds buying passage to Pennsylvania, were called “beggardly,” though the governor defended them as “clean and orderly” if “strange.”
Nevertheless, those nice Quakers (some them Scotch-Irish themselves) worried that the swarms of German and “Irish” immigrants would imperil the colony. “[We are] invaded by those shoals of foreigners, the Palatines and the strangers from the North of Ireland that crowd in upon us.” The Scotch-Irish had, at best, “little honesty and less sense.” At their worst they were “capable of the highest villainies,” and “the very scum of mankind.”
In 1729, even the usually admirable Benjamin Franklin joined in and wondered why the Scotch-Irish migrants continued “to come to these Parts of the World” whose inhabitants held a “Disrespect and aversion to their Nation.” Franklin warned his fellow Pennsylvanians of the noted “impenitency” of the newcomers, implying they were like an infectious disease when he said, “The smallpox spreads here.”
The immigrants were also routinely criticized for keeping to themselves, not assimilating (does that sound familiar?). But they had neither incentive nor ability to stay in the settled areas where, in any case, they faced a great deal of prejudice. And financially they had little choice. My ancestors, like most Scotch Irish, moved fairly quickly west, to less settled parts of the colonies where colonists were needed as a bulkhead against the Indians and for the English – simply because that was all they could afford. In the far western edges of the colony, there was land they could squat on or buy at low cost, so that was where they went. The landowners hoped that, eventually, “more industrious and able Persons will [move here], such idle trash being generally the frontiers of an Improving colony.”
The isolation probably suited them in part because everyone around them hated them so much. Though they also simply wanted land where they could live without the rents being constantly raised, which was their experience in Ulster. “We having been, before we came here, so much oppressed under Landlords, [we] came with the principal view of being freed from such oppression.” (Meanwhile, of course, oppression through racial slavery, of both Africans and Native Americans, was growing. Those Native Americans who weren’t being captured and enslaved were desperately trying to push back against a slow inexorable wave of Eurotrash pushing them off their ancestral land.)
One of the great ironies of our current wave of Trumpian hatred of immigrants is that a significant percentage of Trump supporters railing against Mexicans are descendants of the Scotch-Irish who were once themselves viewed as “the scum of mankind.” Our ancestors – poor, unwanted, desperate, and sometimes resentful – settled in the hard lean lands of the Appalachian range stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama, and many of them stayed. Apparently many still feel unwanted and resentful. Though they think they own the place now and don’t want any other poor and desperate people crowding in. These Appalachian descendants of the original Scotch-Irish migrants are now Trump’s deepest red vein of support, as this map shows:
But I would remind my fellow Scotch-Irish Americans of the words of the Bible many claim guides them. In Exodus we’re told, “thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in the New Testament Matthew says, “For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in.” We were once the nation’s “trash,” the poor hungry strangers we now fear.
And, speaking of hungry, I could really go for some tacos right now.
I arrived in Cherokee a week ago hoping to hear some good gossip/oral history about my great-great grandfather Will Thomas or his adopted father, Yonaguska. As happens so often in life, I didn’t get what I was looking for. I got other things entirely, things whose value and meaning I’m only just coming to understand.
One thing I didn’t grasp at all before this week was the pull of the mountains. I remember an aunt once remarking, “I hate going to the mountains. I mean, what do you DO once you get there?” And that’s pretty much how I felt. But this week, the doing was taken care of for me. All I had to do was show up in a classroom from 9 – 5, Monday through Friday. The rest of the time was just being here. So every day I’d come back to our rented house in this mountain valley – very much like the valley my great-great grandfather lived in one hundred and fifty years ago. And as in most country towns, there’s not a lot to do here in the evenings (unless you like casinos and gambling, which I don’t), so after supper, we’d sit on the porch and watch the day end. Probably much as Will Thomas once did. At first I didn’t even notice that I was noticing the slow changes of the sky beyond the mountain ridge. But a couple of days in, I began to look forward to seeing how the sky changed slowly from pale blue to turquoise to indigo; how the clouds, so much closer here, shifted shape and meaning so quickly – now a curling dragon, now bright streaks of calligraphy in a language as old as the world. And then, unexpectedly, I realized I’d fallen in love.
When my great-great grandfather was in the lunatic asylum in Morganton – which is in the foothills of the mountains, so hardly a desolate plain – he’d write yearning letters home saying how much better he was doing and how he was sure he’d be able to go home to the mountains soon. He never did. He died in Morganton far from these nestled mountain valleys and the ever-changing drama of the mountains beyond. I understand now what a loss and sadness that was for him – like being kept away from someone you’ve loved your whole life. I wish I could go back in time and, before the end, magically transport him home so he could see the mountains before him, feel their embrace all around him, as he died.
It’s not fun trashy gossip, but it’s something very deep and real I’ve learned about my great-great grandfather, and, because of it, I know him better now than I did a week ago.
One of our goals for this blog is to provide documents we have come across in our own researches that might help others, especially those looking to find family who have been lost by enslavement or by other kinds of social disruption. Here is the first installment in what we expect to be a regular feature. We have included it in a new category, “Lost Ancestors,” which you can click on to the right to see similar posts as they are added.
Today we focus on the people enslaved by Elizabeth’s fourth great grandfather, James Coman (1767-1842), an affluent merchant who had a store and house in Raleigh, N.C. and a farm outside the town. Coman was a Scotch-Irish emigrant from Ulster who got caught in a scheme to defraud Revolutionary War veterans of their bounty land, but managed to escape trial and go on to become a “respectable” citizen (admittedly, the bar was low). He died without a will in 1842 and his three children divided up his considerable estate of land and enslaved human beings.
The name Coman (pronounced, in my family at least, as “common”) has its origins was originally Comyn (derived possibly from either the cumin plant or the Breton word “Cam,” meaning bent or crooked). There are many variations of the name. Some are: Cummings, Cumming, Cumin, Cumins, Comin, Comins, Common, Camon, Kamon and many more.
Here is a transcription of the inventory of that “property”:
Inventory and Account of Sales of the Property of James Comans late of Raleigh North Carolina Deceased [dated May 20, 1842]
…Two negroes sold because they were unmanageable and it was thought best to sell them by all the Distributors under all the circumstances
Anika a woman Watten L Otay Cash 500
& Ingram a man Note at Int 550
…Negroes belonging to the Estate to be divided between the Distributed, viz:
1. Turner [JBL]
10. Caroline [SJL]
20. Louisa [MJC]
2. Sam [JBL]
11. James [?]
21. & child found dead
3. Henderson [MJC]
12. Sally [?]
22. Mary [MJC]
4. Lucinda [JBL]
13. Elizabeth [SML]
23. Martha [MJC]
5. Reddick [JRL]
14. Marian [MAL]
24. Jimm [MJC]
6. Dinah [JRL]
15. Mat [MJC]
25. William [MJC]
7. Emeline [JRL]
16. Fanny [MJC]
26. Rebecca [?]
8. Prince [JRL]
17. Child of Fanny [MJC]
27. John [JBL]
9. Marcus [JRL]
18. “ “ “ [MJC]
28. George [JRL]
19. Chloe [?]
29. Dick [?]
[Note: JBL= John Bell Love (spouse: Margaret Coman); MJC= Matthew James Coman; JRL= James Robert Love (spouse: Maria Coman), SJL=Sarah Jane Love, JRL’s daughter; SML=Sarah Malinda Love and MAL= Mary Ann Love, JBL’s daughters.]
And here is the distribution agreed to by the heirs:
State of North Carolina, Haywood County
To wit for John B Love’s wife Margaret E Love one of the heirs of Jas Coman decd, the following negroes, wit 12th Dec 1842
Negro John 40 years old valued at 350.00
Negro Sam 25 years old valued at 600.00
Negro Turner 20 years old valued at 600.00
Negro Lucinda 16 years old valued at 500.00
The following negroes allotted to MJ Coman both by the consent of MJ Coman and Jas R Love his Guardian
Mat a yellow man 40 years old valued at 400.00
Fanny wife of Mat 35 years old two Girl children 550.00
Negro Girl Louisa 16 years old valued at 400.00
Negro Mary Mat Daughter 10 years old valued at 350.00
Negro Jim Mats Son 5 years old valued at 300.00
Martha Daughter of Mats 4 years old valued at 200.00
Wm Mats Son 2 years old valued at 150.00
Henderson Mats brother valued at 23 years old 600.00
The following negroes allotted to J.R. Love & wife Maria A Love one of the heirs of J Coman decd wit
Reddick Negro man 50 years old valued at 350.00
Negro Dinah & Child Reddicks wife aged 38 years 450.00
Prince Reddicks son 15 years old valued at 500.00
Marcus Reddicks son 5 years old valued at 300.00
Emeline Dinah’s daughter 25 years old valued at 350.00
George a boy 10 years old valued at 400.00
The heirs all being present we have allotted to the several heirs the Negroes set under their name and we by the heirs consent have had a particular regard to arrange each lot agreeable to families all of which we do certify 12th December 1842. Signed W. [William] Welch, B. [Bannister] Turner, A. J. Davidson
[Original documents available online at “North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970,” images, <i>FamilySearch</i> (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-194-234299-1-39?cc=1867501 : accessed 29 January 2016), Wake > Wills, Inventories, Settlements, 1841-1845, Vol. 25 > image 59, 95, 96 of 320; county courthouses, North Carolina.]
Recently we came across some further documents relating to Jim Coman, the boy who was five years old and distributed with his father Mat to Matthew Coman. These are from Will Thomas’s undated accounts and memoranda, undated but probably in 1866-1867, after the Civil War and emancipation. I’ve transcribed it with the original line breaks, to preserve its mundane poetry:
Jim Comman Dr [Dr=debit, i.e. owed to Thomas]
Negro Jim & wife Josephine
1 pair of half soles for Jim
1 pair for Josephine
1 home made pair of shoes for Jim
1 pair of store shoes for Josephine (very good)
Let Josephine have five and a half yards
of spun cotton (which would be about one
fourth a bunch) bunch sells at $3.50
dyed two yards of deep blue and 2
yards of pale blue Indigo for Josephine
For the weaving, warping, and spooling
of 15 yards of striped cloth $1.50
flax thread to make pants 10 cents
Let Jim have a sheep skin raw
Let Josephine have a half worn
Jim had a bed tuck cut up
and made into a pair of
Another sheet headed “Jim Comans colored” lists debits of $5.00 for 5 yards of [house?] jeans and 15 cents for thread “to make 4 yards and ¾ of blue jeans, one dollar and half per yard.” Below that he lists “cash paid you by WHT [Will Thomas] in the first month,” itemized as:
To [i.e. debit] cash used to purchase
To cash 4.00
Josephine was making clothing, that is certain, and Will was advancing her cash and materials, but how the profits were distributed we can’t tell from here.
In the 1870 census for Culowhee township in Jackson County (near present-day Western Carolina University), James Commans age 34 appears with his wife Josephine age 23, both listed as “mulatto,” and, in the same household, a Henry Thomas. The nearest neighbors were also Thomases, Dick and Susan, age 62 and 64, listed as “black.” And their neighbors were Amanda and William Casey: Amanda had grown up as an enslaved person belonging to Will Thomas. All of this shows a strong connection between Jim & Josephine Coman and the African Americans who lived and worked in Will Thomas’s household and farm.
After 1870, Jim and Josephine disappear from the census records.
For several years I’ve wanted to make faux-historical-style “engravings” that told the true stories of some of my ancestors. Here’s my first one! (If you click on the image you can see it larger.)
The standard histories will tell you that Robert Love (my gr. x 4 grandfather) tell you some version of this: “Colonel Robert Love (11 May 1760 – 17 July 1845) was an American Patriot, Frontiersman, Statesman, Benefactor and Founder of Waynesville. He would conduct the 1820 Robert Love Survey, establishing the North Carolina and Tennessee border.”
He did fight in the Revolutionary War. But in 1776, at the age of 16, he was a wagoner on the Christian Expedition that systematically destroyed Cherokee towns, burned all their crops, and killed any Cherokee who got in the way. After that he became a “frontiersman,” which means he moved into Cherokee territory, took their land, and killed the Indians who were defending that land. He was a “benefactor” because, after taking Indian lands, he became a slave owner and got rich on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Since my mother’s dna is largely Scottish – 37% Highland Scots (Irish and Scandinavian dna), 56% lowland Scots, aka Scotch-Irish (a mishmash of Picts, Gauls, Saxons, and Anglos), and that mystery 6% thrown in for fun – I’ve been studying my Scottish history and have learned that most of what we assume to be Scottish isn’t!
The kilt, as we know it, was invented in 1730 by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman from Lancashire. He had an iron-ore smelting business in Inverness, Scotland. The men who worked there wore the traditional “great kilt,” a long piece of cloth wrapped sort of like a sari and belted around the waist, with the extra length draped over the shoulder. It was a fire hazard, so he hired a tailor to design something safer for industrial work. So the short kilt (skirt separated from top wrap) was born and became ubiquitous. So highlanders would have dressed more like this….
than like this.
I also learned there were no distinct clan tartans. Early descriptions of Highland dress describe the men wearing wraps or cloaks of varying shades of brown, which blended in well with the heather so would be better for hunting or battle. The chieftain’s clothing was distinguished by being dyed bright with saffron. The “tartan” – which was simply a cloth woven in a geometric patterns including stripes – appeared later, and was associated with districts and weavers rather than with particular clans. Specific clan tartans did not exist until the 19th century and came about through a hoax. Two brothers from Surrey fabricated an “ancient” book they called the Vestiarium Scotium creating Tartans and assigning each to a clan. This hoax book was republished in various forms and then taken up by Scottish cloth manufacturers.
Finally, my lowland Scots ancestors, who lived on the border of Scotland and England, were generally considered to be thieving scum. Many were “reavers,” or cattle thieves. The reavers raided both sides of the border with impunity and made life there unstable and passage through it dangerous. James I, who first unified England and Scotland, moved these troublesome lowland Scots to Ireland thereby solving two political problems at once; he pacified the border and established a bulkhead for colonization in Ireland.
So my highland ancestors were really Irish who sailed to the Scottish coast, mixed with Vikings, and didn’t wear kilts of have specific tartans. While my lowland Scottish ancestors were cattle thieves. Thereby further proving my belief that if you want to admire your ancestors, it’s best not to research them too deeply!
As I write this I’m sitting on my front porch looking at a tidy row of houses on precisely surveyed plots marked by hedges and fences. It’s a scene I take for granted and a marking of the land that seems normal to me. If I close my eyes and think beyond this porch and this street, I can see this grid of habitation and ownership extending, with variations and some interruptions, in all directions across this country like graph paper blanketing the land.
Four-hundred years ago this was not the case. North America, at that time, was settled as much of the world was, by various peoples who moved around as they needed to and did not answer to centralized authority. John Winthrop wrote, “The Indians … have [no] settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.” And “They inclose noe Land.” Their non-ownership of individual pieces of land, more than anything else, marked the native population as “savage” in the eyes of the colonists.
Over two hundred years ago – when New England was already full of “settled places” and “townes” – tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish, including many of my ancestors, moved into western North Carolina, which was then the western frontier of white settlement. Land was cheap and the new nation needed white bodies to displace the natives, who were oddly inclined to do things like “challenge for their owne possession” people trying to take their land. My ancestors had originally been lowland Scots who lived near the border between Scotland and England and raided both sides with impunity. To pacify the border, James I moved many of them to Ulster in the 17th century, where they were to colonize the native population there on behalf of the English crown. Ireland was made up of multiple kingdoms or “tribes,” and like the Native Americans, the “wild Irish” were semi-nomadic. Many of them lived by “creaghting” – migrating seasonally with their cattle – and, as a result, they didn’t need permanent habitations. Cattle roamed rather than being fenced in, and the people roamed rather than being boxed in. Roaming, of course, was understood to be barbaric and wasteful, but it also made the population more difficult to control by a central authority. One of the first things the colonizers did in Northern Ireland was build stone houses and “bawns,” or stone walls, surrounding them, delineating their land and keeping the wild Irish out.
I wanted to understand these Scotch-Irish, my ancestors, who had colonized first the Irish and then the Cherokee. I dug deeper and found a description of lowland Scotland and its inhabitants, on the eve of the great migration to Ulster, from one of the standard sources, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1962), by James Leyburn, himself a North Carolinian. “Agricultural methods were of an unbelievable primitiveness. The people were utterly ignorant of any improvement elsewhere … since the Dark Ages.” Leyburn goes on to say disapprovingly, “There were no enclosures, no dykes or hedges between the fields, or even between farms….The cattle had to be … put into the care of a cow-herd or shepherd, who took them out every morning … and who chased them out of the unfenced fields of grain.” He adds, “The dirtiness of the hovels in which people lived was accepted … as one of the inevitabilities of life,” and, “some of the people had to be content to wear skins of animals for clothing.” So the lowland Scots, like the “wild Irish” and the Native Americans, had once been semi-nomadic “savages” who did not own or fence the land they lived on. They had their traditional life and land taken from them by the English. And then the colonized became the colonizers.
Who brought “civilization,” central government, and colonization to the English? The Romans, of course, who invaded what we now know as England but which was then a land controlled by multiple tribes. So I looked into the Romans and found Tacitus’s fascinating account, not of England, but “Germania,” as the Romans “discovered” it when they invaded. He writes, “It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them. Their villages are laid out, not like ours in rows of adjoining buildings; but every one surrounds his house with a vacant space, either by way of security against fire, or through ignorance of the art of building. For, indeed, they are unacquainted with the use of mortar and tiles; and for every purpose employ rude unshapen timber, fashioned with no regard to pleasing the eye.”
He goes on to say, “Nor do they attempt to make the most of the fertility and plenty of the soil … in planting orchards, inclosing meadows, and watering gardens.” And they “live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty…. Their food is herbs; their clothing skins.” Once again we see a native population, living in a system of decentralized power and communal land use, characterized as ignorant and barbaric and in need of correction and control by those who are “civilized” (and who want land, resources, and the power civilization grants). So the English, like the Scots, were a colonized people who became a colonizing people. How does that happen? How do a people forget what was taken from them by force and then use force to take those same things from others? Is it a kind of Stockholm syndrome where we identify with our captors. Or perhaps it’s simply people doing what they must to survive.
Coming back to the present, to my front porch, and feel the touch of Caesar’s hand. Because in it I see Tacitus’s Roman village, “laid out … in rows of adjoining buildings” and “inclosed meadows.” I see that my street, my world, is the result of the centralization of authority on the land, an authority that needs to commodify, count, and control the land and its people. And like my Scotch-Irish ancestors, we in America are both colonized and colonizers
On my way out of Sylva last week, I passed a ramshackle farm stand with a hand-lettered sign that read “ramps.” They are native to the Appalachians and grow plentifully in the wooded hills. I pulled over and bought several big bunches – at $2 per bunch – for my husband who’s part French and so a natural-born foodie. Ramps grow wild, are foraged rather than cultivated, and are only available in the early spring. Their flavor is a mix between scallions and garlic, with an undertone of sweetness softening the pungency. These days ramp season is an EVENT in the culinary world where, as food writer Josh Ozersky said, “The Church of the Ramp is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the religion of seasonality.” Hip farm-to-table restaurants advertise special spring menus around this humble member of the lily family.
In the 19th century, my ancestors and their neighbors, white, black, and Cherokee, would have been excited about the appearance of ramps as well, but for entirely different reasons. In a world where spring crops like spinach, lettuce and asparagus are available all year round because it’s always spring somewhere, it’s hard to imagine how desperately eager our ancestors must have been for spring. By the dog-end of winter, the last jars of beans and peaches canned the summer before would have been brought up from the basement storage shelves, and meal after meal would have been just grits and cured salty meat. So imagine the thrilled relief of seeing those hardy green leaves carpeting the woods; the joy of seeing something fresh and green on your dinner plate, of biting into the bright tangy taste of spring, at last.
All over the country right now, the first wild greens are growing in scrubby woods, drainage ditches by the side of roads, even in back yards. And in parts of the country, heavily tattooed hipsters are roaming the suburban wilds foraging. My grandmother, who wasn’t above harvesting dandelions for their greens, might laugh herself silly at the fuss being made over these edible weeds. But it’s also touching and beautiful, this return to our roots – mythic, cultural, culinary, and literal. It’s a ritual, whether it’s Persephone or ramps we are bringing out of the ground, marking and celebrating the turning of the earth, once again, to warmer days.
My mother lived with us for the last four years of her life because she had dementia. We had a rotation of agency in-home care givers to help us with the hard job of caring for an adult who could no longer care for herself. Much of the time caring for her – moving her, cleaning up messes – was more than one woman could easily do alone, so the care givers and I spent a fair amount of time together and became quite friendly. One evening, in the quiet, relieved minutes after we had at last wrangled my mother into bed, the aide – I’ll call her Mary – and I were standing there just looking at my mother asleep now on the bed. Mary, who was black, turned to me and said hesitantly, “She looks like my grandmother.”
“Hold on, “ I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled out a photo album, leafed through it, and pulled out a picture of my mother’s grandmother when she was a girl. When I showed it to Mary, she gasped. “You know what she looks like….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. My great grandmother had wild frizzy hair, black eyes, and non-Aryan features. Anyone looking objectively at the photo, not knowing who it was, would say that she wasn’t white – in the American one-drop definition of whiteness. She looks “high yellow.”
My mother had always said we were part Cherokee. She never said how that might have happened, or which ancestor slipped out of our well-documented history of white-to-white marriages to mix up our gene pool. Of course, many Americans claim to be part Cherokee. The Cherokee, now that they’re no longer inhabiting lots of land that we want, have the dubious honor of being the most popular native tribe for whites to claim relationship to. Now, given that my great-great grandfather was an adopted member of the North Carolina Cherokees, and given that no one knew precisely who his father, “Richard Thomas,” was, we had more basis for that belief than most. But still, was my mother implying that her great grandfather, Will Thomas, was actually illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother had with a Cherokee? Not at all; she liked, I think, the romance of the relationship without wanting to know the particulars. Me, I always want to know the fascinating, gossipy particulars.
So when we started this project, I had my mother’s dna tested. She is 94% Scottish/English/Irish descent and 6% mystery. Now, for my mother to be 6% something-or-other, she had to have inherited it from a great-great grandparent, someone whose name and history we know. Genetic tests determine ethnicity by comparing your genes to the genes of populations around the globe. 94% of my mother’s genes are similar to the genes of people who live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. But that remaining 6% is uncertain and interpreted differently depending on the testing service. My mother has been tested three times and had three different explanations for it. The first test said she was 6% Native American. The second test said Western European and Middle Eastern. The third interpreted it as Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.
Interestingly, some dna analysis of the Cherokee themselves, show them to be (by current limited testing definitions) part Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Does this mean, as some people have speculated, that the Cherokee mixed with early European invaders and that what we’re seeing is the traces of that? It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that my 3rd great grandmother, Temperance Thomas, had an affair with a Cherokee before or during her marriage to Richard Thomas. (My fondest hope was that we would discover she’d had an affair with the Cherokee chief Yonaguska and that was why he’d adopted Will Thomas.) Again, not impossible but, given the social mores of the time for women anyway, unlikely. And having almost certainly identified Richard Thomas (an Anglo-American) I have no idea where that 6% came from.
Which leaves me thinking about race in America. We European-Americans invented the Frankenstein monster of race to justify the taking of land and the taking of humans, and so race is encoded into our national dna. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are constructs created when we left the tribal/clan boundaries – whether Celt, Gael, Viking, Mayan, Iroquois, or Yoruban – that had defined “us” and “them.” In North America, we had to find a new us and a new them. The Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery created the lumped ethnicities we now have of white, black, and Native American, and left us, in America, with an obsession with something we call “race,” which doesn’t really exist. What exists are shared geographic and genetic origins. My mother’s genes tell us she is a mix of peoples who came from Scandinavia (the Vikings), Scotland (which the Vikings invaded), and England. Not long ago these groups, that we see now as simply “whites,” would have forcefully denied any similarities; they all hated each other, warred with each other, and considered each other barbarians. So now, in the U.S., each of us – whether the majority of our genes are Native, Caucasian, or African – is a mix of once-warring tribes that saw only their differences and yet, are now mixed and unified in our American bodies.
It would be a beautiful thing if this newly widespread tool of genetics could bring us to the realization that race doesn’t exist. If Mary, standing with me looking at the worn out, sleeping body of my mother, could have said, “She looks like my grandmother,” and meant only that, without the ellipsis of unspoken racial identity hanging in the air. If she didn’t have to cautiously state it so that I could ignore or misunderstand it if I chose, or worry that I would take umbrage if I did understand. Someday I hope my children – who have varying geographic/genetic origins and various amounts of pigment in their skin – might begin to see a world where marking difference by skin pigmentation will seem as bizarre and arbitrary as the Scottish hating the Swedes who once, long ago, invaded them.
But, honestly, even in that imagined post-racial world, I’d still want to know who slept with whom and where that 6% came from. I’m just nosey that way.