Lost Ancestors: people enslaved by the Coman family

JimComan_WHTaccount_1860s?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 &gt; Wills, Inventories, Settlements, 1841-1845, Vol. 25 &gt; 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

Linsey dress

Jim had a bed tuck cut up

and made into a pair of

drawers

 

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 2.00

 

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.

 

The first in a series of “True History” portraits of my ancestors

 

R Love in truth

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.

 

So this is my true portrait of Robert Love.

In which much of what I thought I knew about Scotland turns out to be completely wrong

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!

 

  1. 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….wild irishman

 

than like this.kilt

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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!

Rendering unto Caesar

view

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

Ramps

ramps
Ramps growing wild in the woods. Photo by Arly & Art/Flickr.

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.

The mysterious 6%

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.”

 

Sallie Thomas Avery with son Lenoir
Sallie Love Thomas as a girl

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.

Trying to see it whole

 

 A.C. Avery

As I’ve been researching this book, I’ve been thinking about fathers in the larger sense of the word – forefathers, the sins of the fathers, and the gifts as well. On my mother’s side, my family has been in North Carolina for hundreds of years. They dispossessed the Cherokee, established plantations on Cherokee land, and kept slaves. Leading up to the Civil War, every single one of my ancestors was a hard-line, fire-eating, secessionist. Lots of them died fighting for the morally bankrupt cause of the Confederacy. After the war, my great grandfather, A.C. Avery, helped start a chapter of the Klu Klux Klan and worked to set up the racist policies of Jim Crow. We, in the South and in my family, have revised and rewritten this past so that it’s bearable. You’ve heard, and maybe even believed, some of these revisions:

 

  • That the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states rights.
  • That some slave owners (usually the ancestors of the person telling you this) were good to their slaves, with examples to prove it – they bought them shoes, or the mistress herself taught the enslaved children Sunday School.
  • That the KKK, when it was first started, wasn’t a terrorist organization but a peace-keeping group.

 

These are all things people in my family have said to me. And these lies are also still part of the accepted and official version of North Carolina history. The NCpedia entry on A.C. Avery says:

 

“Avery joined an underground resistance movement instituted by the Conservative politicians of the state. A leader in the organization of the Klu Klux Klan in western North Carolina, he rode with the vigilantes. The Klan was a powerful resistance movement against the Republican party, its principles, and its policies. Confederate soldiers and respected citizens manned its ranks. It functioned actively and effectively during the late sixties and early seventies and promptly disbanded when it was no longer needed. There was no resemblance between it and subsequent organizations of the same name.”

 

The thing is, I understand the urge to rewrite our past; some days, researching this book, the weight of all that sick sad history is almost more than I can bear. Almost. But the lies are even worse because they deny the true stories and suffering of others, for our own fleeting comfort. Which is cowardice. And I’ve been many things in my life – naïve, stupid, and confused at times – but I’ve never been a coward.

 

So for me, it’s not hard to say that the beliefs and actions of my ancestors were bad. What’s hard is seeing them as not wholly bad. My great grandfather Avery may not himself have murdered, beaten, or lynched the blacks (and whites) who dared to organize and vote against white supremacy, but I’m certain that, at the very least, he incited others to do all those things. He believed and did monstrous things and it would be so much easier if I could just see him as a monster through and through.

 

But he was also the man who took his young daughter, my grandmother, to see a lecture on the importance of education for women and, afterwards, told her “You are going to go to college” at a time when few women did. And my grandmother not only went to college, but was one of the first women admitted to Chapel Hill, and went on to have a dazzling political career. Because of her father, that man I wish I could hate, who refused to see the humanity of African Americans, but somehow saw, when other men of his time didn’t, that girls could and should be educated and that women should have the right to vote.

 

I feel a screaming cognitive dissonance when I try to put the two halves of that man together into one comprehensible, human whole. I think, as hard as much of this project has been, the hardest thing of all for me will be to see and write my great grandfather as a human, flawed and failed in so many ways, but human nevertheless. And this is a struggle we all face, no matter which of the many Americas we come from – white, Native, or black. How do we, each of us and all of us, carry the sometimes unbearable weight of our shared history? How do we see it whole – not erase the good because there is bad, and not deny the bad because it is painful?

 

I don’t have an answer yet, but the one thing I am sure of is that, if we can’t see it whole, we can’t tell it true.

 

The words we use, the stories they tell

In her post on “southern bells,” Elizabeth wrote about replacing, withholding, and silencing words. But sometimes words themselves do their own work of historical silencing.

American_progress

As we write drafts of this book we find ourselves constantly inheriting the words of others who have created the historical narratives we know today. We have been thinking a lot about the power of these words to frame the accepted story and to marginalize or entirely erase unsettling truths that might challenge that story. The words we use color and shift the stories we tell, in ways that are often imperceptible to us. We’ve come to realize that, in order to tell a different and truer history of this time and place, we have to reexamine the building blocks we have inherited. We’ve come to believe that in order to change the story we must first change the words used to tell it.

 

Thus far we have been writing mostly about the interactions and conflicts between whites and Native Americans, so the words we’re considering here have to do with that history. As we move forward with the project, we will look more deeply at the language used to describe slavery in the United States.

 

Settler: Webster currently defines settler as “a person who goes to live in a new place where usually there are few or no people.” Here in a nutshell is the whole idea of the empty continent or “virgin land” encountered by white “settlers.” The word itself erases the Indian inhabitants who managed the land’s resources, farmed, hunted, and buried their ancestors in it.*

 

The etymology of “settler” goes back to setl, the old English word for seat or place of rest. If the ideal of “settling” a land meant to “sit” or “come to rest” on that land, then the mobile and collective occupancy native populations practiced could not even be recognized as settlement. Both the “wild Irish” and the American Indians had farmed collectively in shared fields and used less arable land, forests or hillsides, as free pasture on which their animals could roam and graze. These practices were devalued and eventually criminalized to make way for what was considered “civilized” practices – the private ownership of land with a fixed residence on it and the fencing in of animals. In fact, the Indians were sometimes compared to animals for the way they roamed the land. So the Scotch-Irish, themselves pushed off their land by economic crises, became the advance guard of British colonization, pushing others off their lands just as they had been pushed off theirs.

 

The term “re-settlers” would be a truer word to describe the activities of Elizabeth’s ancestors. She prefers “land pirate,” which is what Andrew Jackson once called her great-x4-grandfather Robert Love (it took one to know one). But that might be an insult to pirates!

 

* Academics have used the term “settler-colonialism” to describe the activities of whites who colonized areas like the U.S. and Australia. The problem with this phrase, for us, is that it doesn’t reexamine and critique the concepts of settler and white settlement.

 

Pioneer: Merriam-Webster defines this word as “One of the first to settle in a territory.” “Pioneer” carries all the same problems as “settler” but adds a new dimension, claiming the title of first or original settler in lands that were already held and valued deeply by others. The American-English connotation of pioneer adds to the first-settler meaning the subtext of Manifest Destiny. The word conjures up covered wagons moving westward across vast untended lands, sometimes being attacked by savage Indians. Which is very different from the actual story of these “pioneers” moving through and claiming a landscape that was the pasture, hunting, farming, and sacred land of long-settled peoples.

 

Interestingly, the word pioneer is derived from the older French, paonier or “foot soldier who prepares the way for the army.” (Peon and pawn are related words.)  American “pioneers” were often, in fact, the advance forces that made way for the larger Euro-American invasion. The old French shading suggests the military aspect of taking the land, while on the other hand the root word peon points to the lowly status of the squatters and land tenants who were the leading edge of colonization, preparing the way for more established interests to occupy the land. Sometimes these peons were even used as tools by land speculators to prove they had “settled” the land.

 

Frontier: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory,” simplified as “a distant area where few people live.”

 

Clearly the word has the same problems as “settler” and “pioneer.” In old French and 15th-century English, the word could mean the front line of an army or the boundary of a country facing another – two concepts that were closely allied in both theory and practice.

 

The term has had a long and storied history in American studies. In the late 19th century, Frederick Jackson Turner forever reshaped the understanding of U.S. history with his “frontier thesis,” an origin story for “American” egalitarianism and democracy that traced these to the leveling experience of the frontier. Thus it was the frontier that could perform the magic trick of transforming a system of racist domination into a motor of equality and innovation. The term continues to carry enormous appeal in politics and popular culture, even though it has been eclipsed in academic circles by “borderlands,” which aims to deflect the lingering connotations of Turnerism and Hollywood westerns but which also removes the underlying military sense that once gave the word a more straightforward meaning.

 

Expedition: In the 18th-century the military invasions led by Britain and later the U.S. against the Cherokee were called “expeditions.” Expedition has its etymological root in the Latin word for foot; to expedite meant to free the feet from fetters. In a pretty literal sense these “expeditions” did free white militia men to enter and overrun Cherokee lands, and many of the men came back after the war to “settle” the lands they had earlier scorched and pillaged. Robert Love was one of them: at the age of 16, he drove a wagon for the revolutionaries on the “Christian Expedition” of 1776. The British were a bit more blunt about their expeditions: commander James Grant who swept through the area of North Carolina where Will Thomas was later born declared that his army was “chastising” the Cherokee.

 

Removal: What we now generally refer to as the Trail of Tears – the massive and devastating forced expulsion of the tribes east of the Mississippi that took place in 1838 – was, at the time it was occurring, called the “Indian removal.” It is one the central events of our story. (Our book focuses on the Cherokee and their expulsion from their ancestral homeland in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, but other tribes were forced on the Trail of Tears as well.)

 

In the nineteenth century, removal usually referred to voluntary migrations or changes of residence. Whites were often said to remove, from one “settlement” to another. To re-move, or move again, fit the pattern of many settlers’ lives, as they migrated further west or south in search of cheaper and more bountiful land, and less competition for resources. Will Thomas’s mother’s family, the Colvards, are a perfect example of this pattern, moving from central Virginia to southern Virginia across the border to upper North Carolina and then southwest to the Cherokee border. They had no ancestral ties to the land and little reason to stay in one place if they could get a better deal somewhere else. Ironically these migrants were less settled than the Indians themselves, who stayed in their ancestral towns as long as they could avoid the invasions of the expeditions and the pioneers.

 

By “removing,” the white migrants were exercising their own agency, which would be heroicized later by their descendants and by white artists and writers such as Frederick Turner as a noble design to clear the wilderness, “tame” the frontier, and pave the way for democratic civilization. With its connotations of voluntariness as well as tidiness, “removal” sanitizes the expulsion of the Indians, as if they would leave their ancestral land as readily as white settlers jumped from one place to another. “Emigration” was another term favored by the Jackson administration. Emigration is, of course, a voluntary action, while the Indians were literally rounded up, interned in camps, and sent packing. Although no single term does justice to the complexities of this story, “expulsion” captures the mostly involuntary character of the migration and helps us overcome the historical blinkers that have blocked us from recognizing the many varieties of Cherokee resistance.

 

Southern Bells

I grew up with the ringing of bells. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, SouthernBelland dinner, my family would sit at the dining table, my mother would pick up the bell placed discreetly near her placemat, and she would ring it once, just a single chime. After a few seconds, the kitchen door would open and a servant would bring us our food. My father was a diplomat and I grew up in Southeast Asia. Looking back on it now, it seems surreal, alien, but then it was all I knew.

 

I inherited a number of those bells and they sit unused on shelves or in boxes of stuff I haven’t gotten around to taking to Goodwill. I never thought much about them. They were just part of the strange furniture of a life I once lived and that has very little to do with my life now. But as I’ve been researching this project – a social-cultural biography of my great-great grandfather William Holland Thomas – this inanimate inheritance has begun to haunt me: the bells, the dining table they sat on that was once at my family’s slave plantation, the two-hundred-year-old writing desk with its black spills from ink pots and quill pens that signed names and sold peoples lives away. My ancestors, the Averys, were the largest slave-owners in western North Carolina, and my mother and I come from a long line of women who rang bells that called people with brown skin to serve them.

 

In our lives, as in the lives of my ancestors, the bell took away the need for words: you didn’t have to yell crassly for your food; you didn’t have to poke your head in the kitchen, look in someone’s eyes, feel how hot it was for them cooking your dinner on a summer day; you didn’t have to speak to them, use their name. The bell did it all, and its chime made the unvoiced command seem sweet and sound pretty.

 

The women I descend from, the Southern belles, based their elegant, gracious lives on myths, on stories they told over and over again, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that they, the slaves, were inferior and needed white guidance. Those stories could only be maintained by inhibiting the words of the people they enslaved. Which is why slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write. The written word would have given them a permanent physical manifestation of their experience: the word made flesh or the experience of their flesh made into words. And that would have threatened the fragile stability of the system they all lived within. Because a system based on lies is easily threatened.

 

The bell was a mellifluous stand-in for an order the enslaved person had no choice but to obey. It allowed the white mistress to act out a masquerade of plantation life as genteel and hospitable. It was a world built on controlling words. It prevented black people from telling the true story of their lives, and whites from hearing the whip in their own voices. Words are dangerous things, because words make stories and the stories we tell create our reality.

 

I know all too well the stories we white people tell. I remember once, going through family papers with my mother, and coming across one of the plantation’s slave ledgers. She leafed through it and finally said, “Well, they bought them shoes once a year, so they must have been good slave owners.”  But, as I told my mother that day, the words “good” and “slave owner” are mutually exclusive. The simple act of “owning” another human being taints every other part of your life – in part because it is an absolute wrong, and in part because you must lie to yourself to make it acceptable. This “Gone With the Wind” version of life in the old South – relying on the silencing of some words and the assertion of others – is the story we whites have told ourselves and the world over and over again until we believe, against all common sense and human decency, that it’s true.

 

But, of course, the dissenting voices were not entirely silenced. Those who cannot speak subversion can, for instance, sing it. Using the codes of white culture as camouflage, the slaves sang of resistance and escape: “Tell ol’ Pharoah To let my people go!” or “Mary and Martha’s just gone along/Way over Jordan, Lord/ To ring those chiming bells.”

 

This project began as a fairly simple wish to tell the true story of my great great grandfather Will Thomas, the adopted son of a brilliant Cherokee chief – not just the heroism but the sex (and sex diaries!), the illegitimate children, the insanity, and all the other uncomfortable parts my family tried to suppress. But projects take on a life of their own, and this book will be not only about my great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, and his astonishingly complicated life. It will also be about the constructs we white people have made – about blackness, Indian-ness, whiteness, about manifest destiny and American exceptionalism – to justify the doing of whatever we wanted to do.

 

It’s important to remember that the myths we whites have spun cover up not only the truth about black lives and Indian lives, but also the truth about our own lives. Growing up, when one of us kids would mention some unsavory fact about a family member – their alcoholism or suicide – my grandmother would say, “We don’t talk about that.”  So we didn’t. And as in my family, in every shadowed corner of every “gracious” Southern plantation’s history, there are suppressed stories.  In my own family there is the baby daughter – of a slave woman raped and impregnated by the son of the house – given as a gift to her own white cousin, or the husband’s white mistress on the other side of town, to name only a few. These are all things those Southern belles, my great grandmothers, knew about, hid away, and never spoke of.  There is a cost to those lies too –  to the one who lives that lie, and to the ones lied to and lied about.

 

Looking at my mother’s bell now – its gold mouth resting silent against the polished wood of the table that once stood in the plantation house – I think about all the different bells: this small table bell that holds within it generations of stopped voices, black and white; the Southern belles, my grandmothers, who once held and used it; and the church bells that called people to gather, to sing out dissent, that rang out Judgment Day and a world where slavery would be undone.

 

With this book project and this blog, we hope to add our voices to the rising chorus of dissenting voices, to help ring not the bells of command and fear, but those better bells, the “chiming bells” that invite us to come together and sing out loud and clear.