Genealogy & White Privilege

Rembrandt’s “Jacob wrestling with the Angel”

This past Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament was the story from Genesis 32: 22-31 of Jacob “wrestling with an angel.” My parish had a guest preacher, the Rev. Dr. Don Hamer, who is part of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut’s Racial Justice, Healing, and Reconciliation Network. Don pondered Jacob’s anxiety and stress as he prepared to meet Esau, the brother whose birthright he had stolen twenty years earlier. Then Don delved into the meaning of “birthright” from a biblical standpoint followed by how we, as Americans, have a birthright as stated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. That is – those of us who are white have received the benefits of this birthright – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our siblings of color were never intended to be part of this inheritance. I don’t do his sermon justice with this summary, so listen to it here before reading further.

As I contemplated Don’s words, I “wrestled” with one of the projects that have been occupying my time over these past months: my ancestors. Many of them fought (and died) in King Philip’s War, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War (for the North) as well as all the wars that have followed. They fought for freedom as good Christian men (yes, it was a patriarchy). They purchased property, built new towns that are now cities, and farmed the land. The American dream. My heritage.

I have a passion for solving puzzles. Recently that entails filling in the blanks of my genealogy as well as my husband John’s family roots. (You can see all my trees if you’re on ancestry.com.) The past one hundred years isn’t too much of a mystery, and a lot of research had already been done by several of our ancestors who kept great records – up to a point. We both “inherited” boxes of photos and slides of individuals and groups, so the challenge has been to figure out who they are and where they fit into the family tree. Sorting and scanning while noting hairstyles, clothing, jewelry, and backgrounds such as furniture, houses, and locations is fun as I try to figure out who they were and where they fit within the two trees’ branches. Having numerous oil portraits and silhouettes from the 1800’s makes it exciting. But combing through documentation on ancestry.com and other sites is tedious to make sure all the data matches up and there are at least two reliable sources to confirm a hunch.

William A. Hess, Sr. & Emily Janz Selz with four of their five children. My grandmother Edna Katherine (1898-1988) is on the left. Photo taken in Portchester, New York, 1906. William’s father Jacob was a German immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island in 1864.

With the Internet today, research is much easier than twenty years ago when I began to compile all our various family lineages: Pearson, Titcomb, Davenport, Greenleaf, Coombs, Johnson, Dodge, Scanlan (John’s paternal), Stone, Goodwin, Scott, Hobart (John’s maternal), and Ely, Mead, Clark, MacKenzie, Sinclair, McCord (Sharon’s paternal) and Haase, Hess, Kuhn, Stein, and Selz (Sharon’s maternal). Most were of Anglo-Saxon origins – with the exception of my German ancestors who I believe to have Jewish roots that were never discussed. In the 1600s they came for religious purposes (Protestants and Hugenots); the next wave was in the late 1800s – the height of European immigration to the U.S. due to the land clearances in Scotland and the political atmosphere in Eastern Europe.

One thing that has been particularly helpful is U.S. census data available online (including who lived at what address) going back to the 1800s, plus many counties and towns have posted birth, marriage, and death certificates. Findagrave.com is also invaluable for confirming data. It’s been rewarding to begin to be able to “tell their story” for future generations. But what’s behind the photos, the land deeds, and the family Bible lists of births and deaths recorded with finely inked letters?

Massachusetts State Census 1855 – Issac Pearson household noted

These data bases and scanned files tell a lot about an individual and family. They list head of household along with all its occupants by name. You can tell if several generations were living in the same home by reviewing their ages and status: head-of-household, at-home, widow, retired, infant, at-school, boarder. You can also see their “race” – white or slave. I always check the numbers to see if they add up. You see, the last number given is total household (white and slave). The slaves are not named nor individually counted by age; there is a total of while people and then underneath that it will say the whole total, including slaves. So far I have not seen that last number increase in our ancestors. So far, it doesn’t appear anyone owned any slaves. But that may not tell the whole story.

Issac Green Pearson
Captain Isaac Green Pearson 1793-1856

But. There should always be a “but” when looking deeper. Both our families on our dads’ sides were priests and deacons, constables and freemen, and representatives in local government. Many of John’s were also shipbuilders and captains – hence the proliferation of oil portraits that hang in our home alongside the silhouettes, embroidered samplers, and grandfather clock dating to the 1700s from the Newbury, Massachusetts area. As captains of ships I wonder, ” What was their cargo? Where did they sail?” So I dig deeper. My research has gone beyond connecting the dots on the family tree – it’s been seeking whatever complicity there may have been in the slave trade, specifically the trans-Atlantic slave trade triangle.

John’s family (the Pearson line in particular) arrived in British America in 1643 to what is now Essex County, Massachusetts. On my paternal side, the Elys came in 1660 to Old Lyme, Connecticut. Both lines came from England to seek a new life in the new world. Both of my maternal grandparents were second generation Americans whose parents immigrated from Germany. (Note: According to our DNA research, John’s lineage is almost entirely Anglo-Saxon/Norse while mine is 50% Anglo-Saxon/Norse and 50% German/Prussian/Polish). As a child I was taught to respect my heritage, to be proud that my ancestors “founded” America. I claimed my WASP-ness (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) with pride which may be one of the reasons I enjoy digging into my genealogy so much.

Being able to search my ancestors is just one piece of my white privilege. I recall watching Roots mini-series on television in 1977. It spurred a lot of people to seek their roots. But there are no records of individual Black or original Native families that can be traced back to 1600 for my Black and Native siblings to chart. The simple fact that I am able to do this shows my privilege and the value that was placed upon it by past generations.

“It does not appear that the inhabitants of Rowley were ever much annoyed in the settlement by the Indians; they were, however, frequently called upon to march away, and to fight for the defence of other places. On the 1st of September, 1642, several men were ordered from the place to disarm Passaconaway, on the Merrimac River, who was then supposed to be inimical to the English. They were out three days, and received three shillings each for their services. In August, 1653, twenty-seven men from Rowley and Ipswich were ordered out on a scouting expedition, to discover the intentions of the savages assembled at Piscataqua. They were absent four days.”

“Rowley” from Standard History of Essex County, Massachusetts (Boston: C.F. Jewett & Co., 1878). Deacon John Pearson (1610-1693) was an original settler of Rowley, Massachusetts, John’s eighth great-grandfather.

I continue to own being a WASP, but today I know it came at the price of others’ lives, figuratively and literally – Native peoples for sure, Black Americans also. In seeking to know more of my roots, I continue to wrestle with the whiteness and heritage that I was born with. It would (and is) easy for me to simply continue on with life, but I need to constantly be cognizant of ALL the shoulders that have gone before me of which I have benefitted. Whether we are descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower or those who arrived on the Desire, the name of the first African slave ship out of the United States, which sailed out of Massachusetts in 1737.

Stay tuned. I’m going to start searching Genealogy Bank, which has a section for searching names associated with slave ships and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website, which houses information about slave ships from 1514 to 1866. I’ll post what I find.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy & White Privilege

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I taught American History years ago and I never considered (nor did the textbooks my school had me use) any of this. I’m not sure what I will do with what I uncover, but hope reparations of some kind and certainly public reconciliation will need to be reckoned with. I’ve shared some with my extended family – mostly cousins – and I’ve only heard crickets. Sad. But hopefully those of us who are willing to do the hard work will make a difference for fire generations. Peace and be well, Sharon

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  2. These words “we, as Americans, have a birthright as stated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. That is – those of us who are white have received the benefits of this birthright – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our siblings of color were never intended to be part of this inheritance.” ~
    Wow … reading this history jars my spirit. Thankfully, American citizens of many different colors do now also receive the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Like

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