Here is a reminder, if anyone really needed it, of what whites in the South thought the Civil War was about. It comes in a letter from Bob Love, the brother-in-law of Will Thomas, written to his father in December 1860, on the eve of South Carolina’s vote to secede from the Union:
“Before tomorrow’s sun goes down, this great union of ours will be dissolved….In less than thirty days from now there will be war in this happy land of ours. When will it stop. The abolitionists say that the southern people are all fools and rascals in saying that they are better than a negro. They say that they will put the negro on an equality with the white man, if they have to do it at the cannon’s mouth. The south says they will die before they will be put on an equality with negroes. And so the fight commences…. Let it come. We will be ready for it.”
And so began the deadliest war fought in the continental U.S., on the grand principle of… absolute and unalterable white supremacy.
Today I came across yet another narrative recounting how my extended family “settled” the frontiers of western Virginia and North Carolina. In this, as in every one of these stories, my ancestors were described as brave, doughty settlers taming the wilderness and bravely fighting off “warlike” Indians. We’ve written before in this blog, about reevaluating the language that we use, not in an effort to be “politically correct,” but to be historically correct. If you want a serious thoughtful examination of those words, revisit the entry, “The words we use, the stories they tell.” http://tangledhistories.org/cherokee/the-words-we-use-the-stories-they-tell/
But if you want a frivolous but fun little exercise, read on. Today, in a fit of annoyance, I decided to replace all the “brave settler” language with historically accurate terms and descriptions. The result was both silly and yet deeply satisfying.
So here’s a recap of some of the most common “brave settler” vocabulary with my replacement term.
Settlers and pioneers = “invaders”
To call a people “settlers” implies that they are moving into a land that is not already settled. I’m replacing those terms with “invaders.”
Hardy or restless pioneers = “desperate”
My Scotch-Irish forebears are frequently referred to using words like hardy, restless, and independent. What those terms really mean is that they were so desperate for land that they were willing to live in areas where they might be killed by justifiably angry Natives. I’m replacing those terms with “desperate.”
Frontier = “Native homeland”
Implies the edge of OUR territory rather than the place where YOU fight to maintain your territory. Instead I describe what the land was being used for by the Natives or call is simply “Native homeland.”
Here’s the original:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was on the western frontier in an area then known as Augusta County. The Dennis families were hardy adventurers, brave enough to move where few white men ever lived before. These pioneers were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the fierce warlike Indians who continuously stalked the white invaders of their land.”
Here’s the translation:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was to an area then called by the English “Augusta County,” but was situated along the Great Indian War Path and within a well-used tribal hunting ground. The Dennis families were desperate for land, desperate enough to move to Native territory. These white invaders were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the justifiably angry Indians who tried to push the white invaders from their homeland.”
Handy Glossary of replacement words: (Try it with your own family myths! It’s kind of fun!)
Terms describing slavery:
Plantation – forced-labor camp
Master/mistress – wardens
Slave – enslaved person, prisoner, forced laborer
Overseer – prison guard or labor-camp guard
Sex between owners and enslaved – rape
Terms describing colonial expansion:
Colony – usurped land
Settler – invader
Pioneer – invader
Hardy – desperate
Restless – forced to move
Indian fighter – Indian murderer
Frontier – native land
(military) expedition – violent invasion
Civilization – lifeways the colonizer values
Savages, barbarians, etc. –
Those who live on land colonizers want
Those who live in ways different from the colonizers
HOO BOY! There’s a lot going on today and every day lately- and mostly I’m trying to hunker down and get as much writing done as possible. But this Laura Ingalls Wilder controversy (her name is being stripped from a prestigeous literary prize because of racial language and stereotypes) goes straight to the heart of what I’m writing about now – colonialism, its offshoot Manifest Destiny, their hierarchical view of both people and land use, and the linkage of all those things to white supremacy.
Ingalls wrote that the character “Pa” wanted to go where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Ouch. But that bald, painful sentence goes right to the heart of the resettlement of North America by white Anglo-Europeans. “There were no people. Only Indians.” That’s a myth that is still active. I have been told, within the last six months, that America was “empty” when the settlers got here or that our ancestors took land that no one was using.
The truth is that the land was very much in use, but in ways that colonizing whites could not “see” – by which I mean they did not see it as of any value. Land was hunted and farmed communally; fields were left intentionally fallow to regain fertility, complex ecosystems were stewarded to the benefit of the group. The colonizers, on the other hand, were part of centralized states that needed bounded, taxable land in order to generate revenue through taxes. Communal land can’t be enumerated and taxed, just as hunted or foraged food can’t be easily counted and taxed.
By the way, this isn’t directly about whiteness. This was the pattern when the English colonized Scotland and Ireland and it continued in North America. It’s not about “whiteness,” but it is about hierarchies of who and what is valued. Land use customs originally defined it, but skin color became inextricably bound up with it, and through that colonization became a tool of white supremacy.
So what about Laura Ingalls Wilder? What do we do with these parts of our culture – books that use racial epithets to describe groups of people; monuments that lament the South’s loss of the Civil War; or even words like “boy,” “cotton-picking,” “pickaninny” that were once used without thought by whites and are now understood to be racist?
Many people say that we “shouldn’t erase our history.” But that’s the problem; it’s OUR version of American history, but it’s not necessarily theirs – whoever “they” might be. And, all too often, “our” history erases “their” history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t, by the way, being banned or erased. She’s just not going to have a prestigious literary award named after her any longer. Her books, thought problems and all, will still be on the shelves of your local library. Children will still read them and dream. But we, as a nation, do need to reckon with what we did: we did not “settle” an empty land, we took land from people who were actively using it. What we saw as pristine forests with no troublesome undergrowth, were actually territorial hunting grounds the Native population had carefully stewarded with controlled burns so they could hunt more easily.
Some of my family say we need to give up “white guilt,” and you know what? I agree. But I mean it differently. I mean we have to stop passing on the stories we’ve used to make ourselves feel better. Many of these are stories my beloved mother told me, and that her mother told her – that our ancestors were the “good masters,” that “a lot of slaves were happy,” that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or that the land was empty when we got here. We need to accept the truth of what we as a nation have done, good and bad. It’s the only way we can move on to the future.
Some myths – those that have been turned into literal monuments, do need to be reevaluated honestly by the communities they exist within. Some of them will be removed, some will remain. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her myth of a land that was empty – because the Indians who lived there weren’t “people” – can and should stay on the shelf. But the myth she romanticized so compellingly – the myth of an empty America waiting for white settlers to take it – does need to be questioned. Literature is complex and imperfect, just like the people who create it. We should allow it to be so – by critiquing what is untrue or wrongheaded while valuing skill and artistry, and the joy they give us.
Laura Ingalls Wilder will not be hurt by the stripping away of her name from a prize. And her readers, those dreamy little boys and girls, wandering along the shelves of their public libraries, looking for worlds to escape into, certainly don’t care.
As we’ve delved into the complex racial and social history of whites, Cherokees, and blacks in western North Carolina, we’ve come across many amazing individual stories that we can’t include in the book (unless we want it to be seven volumes!). But these stories have a lot to tell us about the complexities of race in America. A trope that will be familiar to anyone who’s confronted a personal history of being descended from either the enslavers or the enslaved, is the myth of the “good slave owner.” Many white people – many in our own families – cling desperately to any evidence that their ancestors were “good,” or at least better than those other enslavers. Some use wills freeing the enslaved on certain conditions as evidence of the goodness of their ancestors. But in addition to the indefensible fact that these wills continue to enslave people until the owner’s death, they show us ways in which racism hides in such seemingly magnanimous gestures. One such will was left by one of Will Thomas’s distant cousins, a man by the name of John Berry of Lincoln County. Berry was a farmer and blacksmith who owned several valuable tracts of land and two black people, named Tom and Debby.
In his January 1833 will, Berry gave Tom and Debby a choice: after his death they could either remain in North Carolina enslaved, but to a master of their choice, or they could choose to be free, but only if they were willing to emigrate to Liberia – which meant giving up everything and everyone they knew, and taking a dangerous sea voyage to an entirely unfamiliar land.
“As to my two slaves, Tom & Debby, if they should choose to go to the land of Liberia or to the country provided by the colonization society for black people, in such case I appropriate 50 dollars toward bearing their expenses to said land & if that should not be sufficient to pay their passage there the said negroes to be hired out until they procured enough & then to be sent by my executors to said country[,] that if said slaves should not be willing to go to said land then in that case they together with the fifty dollars to fall back into my estate & the said negroes to choose their masters & be sold.”
It’s true that there were draconian manumission laws in effect at the time, making it difficult to simply free a person. Manumission became much more difficult in North Carolina after 1830, when the state legislature required owners to provide support for newly freed people and required the new freedmen to leave the state within 90 days. But it must be also understood that the group encouraging black emigration to Liberia – the American Colonization Society – was founded on ideas of racial purity and against race mixing. Berry’s will was an early example of this manumission-and-deportation scheme. Eventually over 2,000 brave North Carolinians of African descent would choose to make the transatlantic voyage to Liberia, assisted by the Colonization Society.
Tom chose to remain in North Carolina, probably to remain with people he loved. We don’t know who he chose to be his master or what his fate was. John Berry’s will bequeathed him a set of cooper’s tools (for barrel-making), suggesting that he was a skilled tradesman. One can only hope he was able to hire himself out and earn the money to purchase his and his family’s freedom.
Remarkably, Debby chose Liberia. Berry gave her a “good suit of clothes” and ship fare. A document in his estate file indicates that not too long after his death the executors paid expenses amounting to $71.38 in all, for his headstone, coffin, funeral and other costs, and at the bottom of the list, these two items:
For suit of clothes for Debby: 5.00
For sending Debby to Liberia: 25.00
It was an extraordinary act of courage, for a single woman to embark on such a perilous journey into an unknown future — a testament to her determination to do whatever it took to be rid of slavery. This document is the last trace we have been able to find of her. We don’t know whether she completed the journey, much less how she may have fared in her new home.
A white descendant of Berry’s, reading the will, might be tempted to ascribe goodness to Berry. But in circumstances like enslavement, “good” is an absolute term. To believe you can “own” another person is the negation of all that is good. We can say there were better or worse enslavers, but there could never be a truly good one; the only way to be a good enslaver would be to free the slaves immediately and without conditions. Berry was among the “better” masters, but one must recognize that even in making that better choice, he chose not to inconvenience himself in life, either in the loss of their service to him, or in giving them better, more bearable choices. Any goodness in this situation can only be attached to the people he enslaved contending with the heart-rending choice they were given. One chose the pain of remaining enslaved, but with people he loved in a world he knew. One chose freedom at the cost of everything and everything she knew. Both were heroically brave.
Berry’s will can be seen in the original on FamilySearch. His full estate file with the expense sheet (and an 1829 bill for a “cupping” treatment that he and Debby both received) is also on FamilySearch. We also recommend a book on black emigration from North Carolina to Liberia by Claude Andrew Clegg III, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (UNC Press, 2009).
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 the Swan Ponds plantation (I don’t say he “built” it because, of course, it was built by enslaved people), 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.
Enslaved family groups on the Avery plantation
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.