The story of Debby and Tom: a white man’s will, two enslaved people, two terrible choices

Marble panel from the Charles Avery tomb, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, 1860, showing a black family on the left, and a ship departing for Liberia on the right. Avery was a prominent funder of the American Colonization Society which sent thousands of newly freed people to the African colony in the decades before the Civil War.

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 LibertyAfrican Americans and the Making of Liberia (UNC Press, 2009).

 

The glitch in the Matrix

 

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.

John Hyde and “Negro Frank”

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 killingthat 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.”

Refugees, immigrants, and intolerance: as American as apple pie

Immigrants

 

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:

 

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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.

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

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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