I have known for a long time that most of my family (on both sides) came from the south. Most of them fought for the Confederate Army. And I sort of took a perverse pleasure in that I came from a stock of rebels. And, I’ve always been proud, in some sort of way, that those relatives never actually owned slaves – at least so far as I’ve found.
Back in the Summer of 2015 Ben Affleck caused a bit of a crisis in the TV show “Finding Your Roots” when they found an ancestor of his was a slave owner. He tried to get the show (or at least the information about the slave owning ancestors) suppressed. At the time I thought that this was a bit silly. I mean, why worry about what your ancestor did? What they did doesn’t describe who you are, does it?
Mr. Affleck isn’t the only one with this problem. I watched another documentary that discussed some of the issues of the relatives of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler not too long ago and felt bad for those relatives! Their entire lives seemingly defined by what their infamous relations did.
Recently, while working on my direct ancestors, I found some slave owners in my history in the 1850 Federal Census – Slave Schedules. On my dad’s side of the family, my 4th great grandfather (my father’s mother’s father’s mother’s mother’s father) Samuel S. Porter owned nine slaves. My 5th great grandfather on my mom’s side (my mother’s father’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s father) William Black Jr. owned six slaves. I also found William Black’s son-in-law and my 4th great grandfather Isaac Shannon also owned eight slaves in 1860.
When I found this information, I didn’t know how to feel. Elated that I found new information as a genealogist and let down that I couldn’t be “proud” I had no slave owner ancestors. And then these conflicting emotions hit me while I was talking about genealogy with someone at work. This someone, oh by the way, is of mixed race (half white & half African-American). It wasn’t until after the discussion (where, yes, I did mention these slave owners) I started wondering if I put my foot into my mouth somehow. To me, this was a historical and research discussion. But that was not likely how these things are thought about by others!
I wonder what happened to these slaves. I know that William Black died before the Civil War. So, I can hope that his will freed them. I’ll need to travel to the county where he died and find the probate records. I couldn’t find Samuel Porter in the Slave Schedules for Porter in 1860, so I can hope he set them free. And Isaac Shannon moved from his home in Arkansas to Texas during the middle of the Civil War (to get away from it); not sure how convenient it would have been to travel with slaves at the time – so I can hope that he set them free first. But that’s unlikely.
So… the fact that these three families were slave owners is important; but it isn’t all there is to these peoples’ lives.
William Black, for example, was a Captain of 1st Company in Major H. Rennick’s Mounted Battalion of Kentucky Volunteers under Gen. Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1812 as can be seen by these sources:
- Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society
- U.S. War of 1812 Service Record
- Roster of the Volunteer Officers and Soldiers from Kentucky in the War of 1812
Samuel Porter seemed to be a contrarian politically speaking and ended up owning about 600 acres of land. He was a devoted Baptist and an “old-line Whig” in politics.
Isaac Shannon is currently lost to me. I can’t find where or when he died. I do know that his wife and family moved back to Arkansas after the war.
Anyway… our family has the spectre of being descended from Confederates and slave owners. Does that have a bearing on who we are? Or how we act? I don’t think so; but then I don’t come from ancestors who were the slaves!