Unlike many people, I know the names of every one of my 32 Gr-Great grandparents. Nearly all of them were in this country by the time of the American Civil War, and those who served in that conflict fought for the North - though here the exception proves the rule, as there was one Gracie ancestor with a brother who became a Confederate Brigadier, though the family was from New Jersey.
Many lines in the pedigree can be traced far deeper into the past. A significant number have been in North America for 12 generations. I know about only a fraction of the 2,048 individuals in that generation of my family tree, but what I do know presents a particular challenge when looking to the ancestral past to understand something so volatile and deeply rooted as matters of race. Proud as I am of their many accomplishments, it isn't stretching the point to say there is hardly a frontier atrocity or witch hunt in 17th or 18th century New England where I cannot place at least one of my forebears. As for race relations, there wasn't one of them in that period who existed outside of the transatlantic mercantile system that sustained our colonial economy on the lives and labor of slaves.
I take pains to confront these ancestors on their own terms, to try to understand them in the context of the times in which they lived. Even a family archive with as rich a trove of primary source material as ours only preserves what was deemed worthy of passing down. A Society of Colonial Wars claim in our files tells me much about the service record of an ancestor from Connecticut:a chaplain with two different regiments during the French and Indian War. It does not mention that he owned slaves, yet there are records for that as well. To understand that part of his past means coming to grips with slavery in the northern states, but he is not the only northern slaveholder in this family tree, and we have southern kin as well.
Reverend Jonathan Ingersoll (abt. 1713-1778), the French and Indian War veteran, was my 6th-Great Grandfather and a congregationalist minister in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Ridgefield Historical Society reveals:
Several prominent Ridgefield families of the period were slave owners, including Congregational Church Minister Jonathan Ingersoll. Inhuman as it seems, slave transactions such as Ingersoll's 1777 freeing of twenty-year old "Cyphax" were considered property transfers and duly recorded in town land records.
In this, Reverend Ingersoll was not unique, for half the ministers in Connecticut owned slaves on the eve of the Revolution. Furthermore, Cyphax was freed the year before Ingersoll died and it is quite possible that the minister was settling his affairs. Even as a free man, Cyphax faced Connecticut's "Black Code" that made for a very precarious existence:
Discrimination against free blacks was more severe in Connecticut than in other New England colonies. Their lives were strongly proscribed even before they became numerous. In 1690, the colony forbade blacks and Indians to be on the streets after 9 p.m. It also forbid black "servants" to wander beyond the limits of the towns or places where they belonged without a ticket or pass from their masters or the authorities. A law of 1708, citing frequent fights between slaves and whites, imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black who disturbed the peace or who attempted to strike a white person. Even speech was subject to control. By a 1730 law, any black, Indian, or mulatto slave "who uttered or published, about any white person, words which would be actionable if uttered by a free white was, upon conviction before any one assistant or justice of the peace, to be whipped with forty lashes."
The Hartford Courant maintains an on-line collection of superb resources and articles called: Complicity. How Connecticut Chained Itself To Slavery. There were more than 6,000 slaves in Connecticut by the time that my ancestor Jonathan Ingersoll manumitted Cyphax. Slavery in Connecticut lasted for over 200 years. It died a long death after the Revolution and was not fully abolished until 1848.
The Ogden branch of our family is justly proud of its prominent members who were considered among the "first families" of New Jersey at a time when that got you into the Social Register. Signers and Senators, friends of Lafayette and companions of Arnold and Burr, they lead fascinating and active lives. They also owned slaves, as did most of the principle families in Elizabethtown. In the previous generation, my ancestor Robert Ogden was presiding Justice in 1741 when 2 or 3 blacks fleeing the panic in New York which followed the Great Negro Plot were apprehended in Elizabethtown. His court formally sanctioned their execution by burning at the stake before the courthouse and local citizens were reimbursed for the cost of firewood and iron manacles they provided for the victims.
Hannah (Dayton) Ogden, widow of my collateral relation General Matthias Ogden of Revolutionary fame, and daughter of my direct ancestor General Elias Dayton, freed her mulatto slave, Michael Hardman, in 1797. He was 26 years old. I discovered this bit of family history in Theodore Thayer's As We Were -The Story of Old Elizabethtown, published in 1964 by the New Jersey Historical Society. Thayer also records that my ancestor Aaron Ogden, Governor of the State in 1812 and former US Senator and Presidential Elector, maintained a couple of slaves until he went bankrupt in the 1820s. Like Connecticut, Slavery in New Jersey was practically as old as the first English settlement and persisted until 1846.
"New Jersey's slave population, unlike that of other colonies, actually increased during the Revolution, mainly through migration from other states. But the white population increased at a much faster rate, and wages for laborers became affordable to employers, while the cost of feeding and maintaining and guarding slaves remained high. By 1786, when a ban on slave importation into New Jersey took effect, the institution was dying an economic death. The 1800 census counted 12,422 New Jersey slaves, but the white population had boomed from 1786 to 1800, increasing at a rate six times that of blacks. This is not surprising, in part because in the same year New Jersey banned importing of slaves it also forbid free blacks from entering the state with intent to settle there."
My Gr-great Grandfather Dayton Ogden (1833-1914) married Esther Gracie, the sister of the aforementioned Confederate Brigadier, Archibald Gracie (1832-1864). The Gracies were a New York mercantile family of great renown who resided in Elizabeth. Her Grandfather, the first Archibald Gracie (1755-1829), was truly a merchant prince in the late 18th and early 19th centuries:
"As cotton was becoming a staple in the transatlantic trade, Scotsman Archibald Gracie immigrated to New York after training in Liverpool, Great Britain’s great cotton port. Gracie became an international shipping magnate, a merchant prince, building a summer home on the East River before losing much of his wealth. His son and grandson left the city to become cotton brokers in Mobile, Alabama, but their family’s summer home, today called Gracie Mansion, is the official residence of the mayor of New York."
All the same, in 1819 this same shipping magnate served on a committee of prominent New York Merchants to "devise some plan for checking the spread of African slavery."
His son Archibald Gracie Jr. (1795 - 1865) married Elizabeth Davidson Bethune of Charleston, South Carolina, shown in a teenage portrait at left. Her mother Margaret Willeman (b. 1782) was a second generation German immigrant. The Willeman family came to South Carolina from Baden-Württemberg in the 1760s. Her father, Christoph Willemann (b. 1748), appears in the 1790 Census as the head of a household with 2 free white males, 3 free white females, and 57 slaves. Her Uncle, Jacob Willemann, allowed his slave Leander to buy his freedom for 900 pounds current money, or about 130 pounds sterling:
"I...do hereby declare that the said sum...was delivered to me by...Leander from time to time as Monies which he had by his great care, diligence and industry in his business Trade or occupation of a Butcher for several years passed got together and earned."
According to Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas, a manumission deed from Jacob Willemann also shows that several years latter, he sold a slave Diana her freedom and that of her daughter for "the earnings and gains arising from her Labour and Industry [which she was] from time to time allowed to carry on and transact during the term of her servitude."
Elizabeth, New Jersey was also a popular summer retreat for southerners in the age before air conditioning and a number of them, including General Winfield Scott of Virginia, made their residence there. General Archibald Gracie (1832-1864) married Josephine Mayo, whose Virginia grandfather John Mayo married Abigail deHart of Elizabethtown. Another southerner who arrived in New Jersey and married more directly into the family was Frederick Beasely D.D. (1777-1845) of Chowan County, North Carolina. He was my 4th-Great Grandfather and wed the daughter of Constitution Signer Jonathan Dayton. Beasely's mother, Elizabeth (Blount) Beasely, is listed in the 1790 census as the female head of a household that possessed 20 slaves.
I am not satisfied with simply outing my slave-owning ancestors. It is too convenient to simply discredit and dismiss them as a way of distancing myself from the values and attitudes that allowed them to participate in and to profit by a racist system that countenanced slavery. It is too simple to project the expectations of the present on the past. Social change is neither quick nor self-evident...
...I remember a ride I got once from an Afrikaner farmer in Namibia. I confess I expected him to be what I had come to think of as a typical Boer, and he certainly fit the profile in his rolled knee socks and his black farm workers riding in the dust in the back of his open truck. I climbed inside and we began the customary exchange of pleasantries, but when he learned that I was living with and teaching black people his response completely put my prejudice to shame. He told me that it was very hard for an Afrikaner to go against his parents and his church, but that was what was required in a post-apartheid country with majority rule.
"Some day" he told me, "I will come home to my wife and I won't say I've invited my coloured friend and my black friend over for dinner. I'll just say it is Johannes and Erasmus. I don't want to always think about the colour. I am not there yet, but I want to be." I looked at him, there on the cusp of a strange new world, and told him I thought he was well ahead of the rest of us.