Monday, April 20, 2015


The recent news stories about Ben Affleck asking that his slave owning ancestors  not be a
part of his Finding Your Roots episode has stirred up a bit of controversy in the genealogy
community. I'm not going to speculate on why he asked for the edit or on how he feels about
the discovery. What I can do is write how I feel about my own family members who owned
slaves or "Negro servants" in colonial America.

I was a bit uncomfortable when I discovered the first instance, that my ancestor John Upton
had left "his negro", thirteen year old Thomas, to his sons William and Francis Upton as
part of his estate. But it was part of my family's history, as were fact that at least three other
colonial relatives (so far) also had "negro" servants or slaves. It was something I had to
accept and acknowledge. Part of that was to share the information with others in my blog.
I felt that doing so might help an African-American genealogist with their own research.

If you are tracing your Massachusetts ancestors, there is a good possibility they may have
owned slaves, too. It was more common in 17th century New England than many people
know or care to admit. How can you find out if your ancestors had "negroe servants"?  One
way is to check the "Tan Books" for Massachusetts towns. You can even do it online at
the Early Vital Records of Massachusetts From 1600 to 1850 website.  Click on the name of
the county your ancestors lived in, and then on the town.  Look at the bottom of the columns
of names for births, marriages, and deaths, and you might find the words Indians and Negroes. 
For example, here is the page for the town of Beverly in Essex County. I clicked on
the bottom of the Births column and saw this:

One of the names is "Cloe,  d. of Jethro and Juno, "Servant of Eben Ellingwood and David
Larcum" bp. Nov. 13, 1763."

My branch of the Ellingwood family had moved to New Hampshire by 1763, so this Eben
was a member of the branch that were successful merchants in Beverly and Salem. Also,
looking at the page, it seems Jethro and Juno moved around several households and also
had other children. Checking the Marriage records. I found that Jethro and Juno
filed marriage intentions on Feb 1st 1756.Further up on the same page I found a record of
Chloe's marriage on April1 1800.

Since slavery was abolished in 1783, if she had been a slave, she was now a free woman.   

Finally, there was this entry in Deaths, under Indians, which told me of Juno's origins:

I saw other of my family names listed among the owners or employers:Woodbury,
Herrick, Kimball, Ellinwood. As Beverly and Salem were bustling trade ports  in this
period of their history, it doesn't surprise me to see those names.  

The Probate Files for your ancestors is another way to determine if there were African-
American servants or slaves in your ancestors' households. That is how I found out about
Thomas and my Upton ancestors.

If and when you discover that your ancestors were slaveholders or had "negro servants",
don't be embarrassed to admit it. Share the information on your blog if you have one, or
share it at websites like Afrigeneas' and their Slave Data Collection page.

As good genealogists, we cannot ignore the darker parts of our family history. And maybe by
sharing what we find, something good can come out of it

1 comment:

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

You can also list links to slave names at the project at the blog "Tangled Roots and Trees" by Schalene Dagutis