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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Coming to Terms

Many of my ancestors can be found in the six-volume set of books titled "Notable Southern Families."

That's great news for anyone doing genealogy research because the books include the begats as well as American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War information about hundreds upon hundreds of people.

The reason so many of my ancestors are listed in the books is that indeed they settled in what are now North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s.

If you haven't figured out where I'm going with this, here's the thing:

Many of my ancestors were slave owners.

I've seen the wills of so many of my direct-line ancestors who bequeathed African-born human beings to their wives and offspring.

For example, here's an excerpt from the last will and testament of my sixth great-grandfather, General Joseph Dickson, who was born in Chester County, Pensylvania, in 1745, settled in Lincoln County, North Carolina, in 1773 and in later life moved to Rutherford County, Tennessee, where he died in 1825:

. . .I do also bequeath and give unto my son, James Dickson, a negro woman named Nanny, and that she remain on the place where we now live, during her life time. 

I give to the children of my daughter, Elizabeth Dickson Greaves, one negro girl called Milly, which shall remain with her until the youngest heir becomes of age, for the benefit of said heirs, then they shall be equally divided amongst said heirs, or sold, and the money arising from said sale be equally divided amongst them.

I give unto my son, John Dickson, one negro girl named Phillis.

I give to my son, Ezekiel Dickson, one negro boy name Jerry.

I give to the children of my daughter, Isabella Dickson Adams, one negro girl named Harriet, making Ben Adams, her husband, their guardian until the youngest becomes of age. Then she, the said Harriet, and her offspring shall be equally divided amongst them, or sold and the money arising from said sale to be so divided.

I give unto my daughter, Peggy Dickson Henderson, one negro girl called Martha. I also will that the wagon, farming utensils, household and kitchen furniture, be left and remain in the family for their use.

Then he goes on to bequeath lands and money.

There are many other wills like this one in my family history.

One of General Dickson's sons, Ezekiel Dickson (1782-1858), filed the first deed ever recorded in Benton County, Arkansas, on Feb. 27, 1827.

But it wasn't for real estate -- it was for title ownership of humans:

Know all men by these presents, that for and in consideration of the sum of $400 to me in hand paid by James M. Dickson, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I, Ezekiel Dickson, of the County of Benton, in the State of Arkansas, do hereby bargain and sell unto the said James M. Dickson, a negro woman named Till, about forty-five years of age, also a negro boy child named Jack, about five or six years of age, which said negroes I hereby sell and convey as slaves for life. And I do hereby warrant and defend the title of said negroes to the said James M. Dickson, his heirs and assigns forever.

None of my ancestors were the owners of vast plantations so closely associated with slavery, especially in popular culture; they owned farms and businesses, were bankers and lawyers and such. So the various wills bequeath between one and a dozen slaves. By today's standards, even one was too many.

But that was then and this is now. As a nation we have become much more enlightened and humane than our forefathers.

But how do I come to terms with the fact that my ancestors bought, sold and bequeathed human beings?

General Joseph Dickson was not an evil man. He fought for this nation's freedom during the American Revolution, leading a group of men from Lincoln County, North Carolina, in the Battle of King's Mountain; he served in the North Carolina State Senate from 1788 to 1795; served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1807 to 1811 and was the speaker of the house his last two years of service; and was one of the founders of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And Ezekiel Dickson stood side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

There's much to be proud of in the many branches of my family tree.

But to try and hide from the fact that Joseph, Ezekiel and so many others in my ancestral line owned slaves would be like telling a half-truth. I cannot simply edit out this part of my family history.

Yes, I understand that I have to take into account the historical climate of the day, and slavery was a fact of life during this time period.

As a woman, knowing that five of General Dickson's six slaves were young females evokes a strong visceral reaction.

And yet he and others, while being morally challenged by today's standards, did nothing wrong in the eyes of the law.

The Civil War ended all that. Many of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy and some for the Union.

And yet 150 years later our nation still suffers from the scars of slavery.

Not long ago I came across the website, which provides a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal genealogical wounds rooted in the history of slavery in the U.S.

I joined this network of descendents of slaves and slave owners.

And so my own historical and personal journey continues. 


  1. Wow, this is definitely a notable article!
    I look 4ward to the next chapter in your genealogical journey.

  2. "Coming to terms" is a term in and of itself, isn't it?

    I had ancestors in the south, too--none with much money, but it's possible they owned one or two slaves. I haven't delved as deeply as you have.

    When they were a young couple, my grandparents had Black servants as late as 1929. The servants were also a couple, who lived in a cabin at the back of the property. My mother was a little girl; she remembered only that the man's name was Sam. She thought her parents paid them but she didn't know how much. My grandparents had to let them go when they lost everything in the stock market crash and headed west to find work.

    Coming to terms. Is it possible? There's so much in world history that requires it. Think of the slaughter the Romans perpetrated. Think of the Holocaust. Think of the Japanese interment. Think of slavery, which existed in American history and exists today all over the world. How will we come to terms with all of that? I think we'll come to terms with it when we learn never to do it again. Honestly, my hopes aren't so high.

  3. Ann, I found you at Altadenahiker, and I applaud your honesty and endurance in this project. My parents were self-made pillars of a very small community; they gave me nothing to be ashamed of except teenage embarrassment about parents, which bothered most of us, I think. But I've wondered how it would affect me if I learned that my father--a proud conservative, which I am not--had been even further to the right, in the KKK or some such. As is, I can smile at my memories of the countrified airs he put on, and I can (almost) dismiss his narrow-minded conservatism as being typical for white males of that ("Greatest") generation. But what if I discovered info that raised the stakes a lot? What if he weren't merely colorful, but also dangerous? How much would it bother me, and what would I do about being bothered? This is a juicy topic, and I hope I remember to return to your site now and then.

  4. I have my geat grandfather''s diary. He was a doctor staying with his brother while his family was away. A slave girl took care of his room. He never gives her a name, just the little varmint. My own grandmother told me of playing with slave girls.

  5. The sins of the father...It is fascinating to know what happened along our family line, although I don't think we should shoulder their blame any more than, if they did something wonderful, we should feel some sort of reflected glory. I know my grandfather was part of the Norwegian underground during WW2, but that I'm his grand daughter is an accident of birth. I've never put my life on the line for a stranger, not thus far, anyway.

  6. You've given me the best insight yet into the slave-owning past of much of the USA, Ann. It's so much more vivid coming from a person like you that I know and admire. As Karin says, we can't be responsible for the sins of our fathers. We should just be grateful that we've moved on, and become more enlightened and humane. When slavery ended, the poor blacks were actually in a worse situation financially with no work, no income, and no support system. Locally, the Gabrielino Indians were set adrift when the Missions were disbanded. Faced with poverty, many of the men turned to drinking and lawlessness.

    The diary in Sid's possession must date back a long way. What a wonderful inheritance.

  7. Thanks to everyone for sharing your comments and experiences. This is indeed a profound journey.