Four hundred years ago, in late November 1621, a ship called the “Fortune” sailed into the harbor at Plymouth, the struggling English settlement clinging to the eastern edge of North America. On this ship was a man named John Adams (no relation to the much later presidential family), who came less for religion than for land. His son, also named John, was born in Plymouth and grew up to be a persecutor of Quakers before becoming one himself. He was also, in his later years on Long Island, a slave owner.
These are my ancestors.
There is a slender thread of lineage connecting me to 17th century New England, and it’s one I didn’t know about until a year or so ago. This is the ancestry of my great-grandfather, a man who married my great-grandmother, had my father’s mother with her, and then left. Other family threads link me to different parts of the American story: immigrants from Ireland fleeing the famine, Swiss Mennonites escaping persecution to settle in rural Pennsylvania, and Welsh and Cornish miners seeking a better life. There are also Scots, Slovaks, Germans, and English, and their reasons for braving a dangerous crossing on the stormy Atlantic were as varied as they themselves were.
They did great things, they did humble things, and they did awful things. Some fought in the Revolution, or for the Union in the Civil War. One was hanged as a murderer in Easton, Pennsylvania, while another was jailed as a thief back in Cornwall. They were farmers and miners, professors and silversmiths, railroad engineers and steamboat pilots, and so much more.
I looked into my family history partly because I enjoy the research and the discovery, and partly because helping people with genealogy is part of what I do as a librarian. But what’s satisfying, and sometimes unsettling, is establishing a personal connection — no matter how tenuous — to the past. It helps me understand the history of this country, and it helps me understand myself.
So let’s circle back to John Adams, Jr.
He was born in Plymouth in 1627, and in 1660 became a constable of the town of Marshfield. According to an article published in the 1879 edition of the “New England Historical and Genealogical Register,” which is where most of my information on him comes from, this is where he persecuted the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. After his first wife died, Adams went to sea and then became a Friend himself. He sold his land in Plymouth and moved to Flushing, which was then a small Long Island farming settlement.
There, in 1684, the local Quaker meeting lent Adams money so he could “pay for a negro he had bought as a laborer on his farm.”
This is a searing and striking fact. I admit that I wasn’t surprised to find it, though I had hoped that I wouldn’t. But that’s a truth about white America: if your family has been here long enough, there’s a chance that one of your hundreds and hundreds of ancestors owned a slave.
Slavery was much more widespread in the northern colonies than we like to admit. In Plymouth, the first slaves were Wampanoag and other Native peoples, but it wasn’t long before Africans were brought north from the Caribbean. Flushing was home to many families that enslaved these Africans, including that of John Adams Jr. This wasn’t the large-scale plantation slavery of the antebellum South, but small farmers who were just wealthy enough to own one or two slaves.
It’s somewhat surprising to find a Quaker meeting willing to lend a member money to enslave someone. The Quakers, deservedly, have a reputation as abolitionists; they were the first major group of white Americans to take a stand against slavery. But that didn’t happen until later; in 1684 the Flushing Quakers clearly had no qualms.
It’s tricky to derive meaning from the facts of our ancestors’ existence. We are not them, after all, and their sins are not our sins. But the past is with us whether we like it or not, and it demands we face it and reckon with it. The labor my ancestor stole from the person he enslaved transmits down the generations to the present in manifold ways. Without it, John Adams Jr. would have been a poorer man, and it’s possible his youngest granddaughter, Margery, would not have survived infancy. That would erase all her descendants, including the Revolutionary War soldier, the silversmith, the cavalryman who fought against Lee at Gettysburg, and me.
But this is not just about me and whatever feelings I have, obviously. There is nothing else that I could find about the person who had been enslaved. Where had they come from? Did they marry, and have children? Are their descendants out there somewhere, still feeling the lasting repercussions of two and a half centuries of American slavery between 1619 and 1865?
We must not be afraid of our history, as uncomfortable and as damning as it can sometimes be. Nor can we allow fearful white people to ban any real teaching about racism and slavery from our classrooms, and whitewash the difficult, contradictory, tragic, and ultimately hopeful tapestry of American history into a single bland heroic narrative. We must fight slavery’s legacy, not just by being allies for racial justice, but by supporting real, monetary reparations for the descendants of those whose lives and labor were so cruelly stolen.
In 1621 the ship “Fortune” sailed into Plymouth harbor. Four hundred years and 13 generations have passed since then. We owe it to those who came before us to face them all, open and unflinching.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.