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
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).
As the family story keeper – the one who receives and passes on family tales – I have always been fascinated with the moments when the story doesn’t quite add up – the jump in the film, the glitch in the Matrix. I remember, as a kid, annoying my mother repeatedly by interrupting her and saying, “But Mama, that doesn’t make any sense!” I’m still at it. And what I’ve learned from researching this book is that the moment where the story jumps is also where that treasure called the truth lies. Because that is what your people are afraid of facing and that is often who they really are.
In my family history, we seem to emerge, like Athena from Zeus’s head, full grown in the 18th century as well-to-do frontier gentry using the term “Scotch-Irish” to cover over a multitude of things – some of them sins, but and some of them just the hard-scrabble white-trash history of who we were before we became the cultured educated people we are now.
In our family history, my fourth great grandfather, Robert Love, is remembered as a well-to-do member of the elite. He was the “founder” of the town of Waynesville, NC and donated the land for the Haywood County courthouse. Within the family we remember proudly that the Loves brought the first piano into western NC. We are founders, we are cultured, and how we got to be those things is not examined.
But Robert Love did not start out as either of those things. He was the grandson of a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant and he was born in a border settlement in the Shenandoah mountains, known as “the drunken tract,” where the Scotch-Irish had been shunted off by the English coastal elites. At the age of sixteen he set off, like so many poor sons, to make his fortune in the world by joining the army. The year was 1776 and Robert was a wagoner in an armed campaign to “chastise” the Cherokee. It was an ugly, vindictive campaign, purposely attacking innocent noncombatants. Its purpose was not reprisal or retribution, but instead a warning to all the Cherokee not to ally with the British in the American Revolution. It was essentially a bloody message saying, “See what we can do to your most distant and protected of your people? We can do worse to you.” This warning, timed just before harvest to ensure maximum suffering, entailed the mass burning of Cherokee towns and fields of unpicked crops as well as the murder of any Cherokee – regardless of age or gender – they encountered. The whites had far superior firepower, so most of the population hid in the mountains surrounding their towns. Among them was another sixteen-year-old boy. His name was Yonaguska. This was the second time his town – the sacred mother town of Kituwah – had been destroyed by white armies. The first time was when he was one year old. He wouldn’t remember that attack, but he would have been told of it by his mother, in whose arms he had then been carried to their hiding place in the hills. But he might remember the widespread hunger afterwards, and the work of rebuilding their home and town in the following years. What he felt watching his home burn, watching the council house on the mound at the center of town be desecrated, isn’t known. What young Robert Love did is not known either, but one of his fellows left this account:
“[Some men] found an Indian squaw and took her prisoner, she being lame, was unable to go with her friends; she was so sullen, that she would – as an old horse is – neither lead nor drive, and, by their account, she died in their hands; but I suppose they helped her to her end.”
I think often of those two sixteen-year-old boys: one watching the cruel and unprovoked destruction of his home, the sacred mother town of Kituwah, from the hillside above it; the other somewhere below, lighting a match, holding a gun, destroying a world. That is the moment where my family history became inextricably tangled with the history of the mountain Cherokee. Yonaguska, the helpless witness of white destruction, would go on to become a “peace chief” – one who eschewed violence and pursued negotiation. He would also lead the only successful resistance to the Trail of Tears. The tactics he used were those he used on that day – withdrawing deeper into the mountains, camouflage, evasion. Some of it done with the help of a young white boy named Will Thomas that he later adopted as a son.
Robert Love would move to “pacified” territory in Western North Carolina, become a merchant, slave owner, and a wealthy man. He would mentor a young man named Will Thomas, just starting out his life as a merchant. They were deeply involved in each other’s lives. Robert Love chose Will, who was exceptionally personable and capable, above his own sons, to be executor of his estate. Will, taking the tactics he’d learned from his adopted father, used charm and evasion to persuade Robert to write letters attesting to the harmlessness of the local Cherokee to legislators who were trying to oust them. I like to imagine this too: Will saying, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll leave eventually. They’re just not quite ready to do it now.” And Robert, wanting to please the young man, writing to his friends in the legislature that the Cherokee were very civilized now, model citizens, and would no doubt join their people in Oklahoma … eventually. And so, Yonaguska, who watched his world burn and learned from it, and exacted justice from the young wagoner who helped burn it.
Later Yonaguska’s devoted white son would marry Robert Love’s young granddaughter. The mingled descendants of these men would choose to erase this part of the story. They’d focus on Robert Love’s wealth, Will Thomas’s heroism helping “those poor Cherokee.” But there would be a jump in the record, a glitch in the story, discernible to anyone, willing to look hard. And as one who always chooses to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, unravel the comfortable lie and see how far the uncomfortable story goes, I want to urge any of you who are willing and interested to do the same. You might not love what you find, but I guarantee you that you’ll know yourself, your family, and your nation better. And the ride is wilder than any rollercoaster and incredibly fun! Go ahead, take the red pill.
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.)
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
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.
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.