Sins of the fathers and echoes from the past

I’ve been researching my family’s genealogy for over 20 years now. I began in 1992, long before the advent of such online resources as In those early days I traveled to the National Archives on many of my days off, checked into the research room and poured over images on microfilm looking for the threads of my family’s line, spread out across census documents and military rosters. As technology has improved and resources have become connected to the Internet, my reach has extended and the ability to search archives very distant from me increased. I have managed to track several of my family’s roots back into the 1600’s and a couple of them further than that. It’s been a wonderful hobby and a terrific enterprise for an amateur historian.

The one thing you have to get right with early on in a search of your family tree is that every family has its angels… and those who very clearly aren’t. My wife has a literal horse thief in her line. There’ve been a few men in my lineage who weren’t real kind to their wives and kids. Family trees are more than names and dates on a page. These are real people with real flaws. Still, there are moments when you come across something that gives you pause and, honestly, can give you an uncomfortably nauseous feeling. Even though my research has revealed that the documents I found in my searching today are actually referring to someone else, unrelated to me, it was a bit of an eye-opening experience, in more ways that one.

A breakthrough yesterday led me along a line I’d not had much documentation for previously and I located an ancestor who lived in Maryland just prior to the Revolutionary War. East coast states have some excellent records, New England best of all, so once you track an ancestor over this way the chances of find additional documents goes up. So it was with some excitement that I found a reference to a will written by this ancestor detailing the inheritances he was bequeathing to his children. (It was in reading the names of those children that I determined that this will was written by a different person of the same name.) What caught me unaware was in the 2nd line – a bestowal of a negro woman to this person’s eldest son, along with a horse, a cart, and some land. I literally blinked hard, thinking I’d misread that.

I hadn’t. As I read the rest of will, each child of the deceased was granted some list of property, the lead element of which was listed as a negro woman or man, boy or girl. They were listed by name, these people being bequeathed. I admit to recoiling, mentally, at the notion and the immediate thought flying through my head was wondering whether the slaves I was reading about were a family, whether I was reading someone casually separating a young boy from his parents or a man from his wife. Though I’ve determined, 100%, that the will does not belong to the ancestor I’m tracking I remain… angered.

Somehow I’ve managed to not have any slave owners in my family line, at least not yet. I’m not blinded, though. I know full well that the practice was widespread and that there will likely come a day when I find one in the tree. I know that when that day comes I’ll revisit this anger and, being human, it will likely color the prayers I say nightly for the repose of the souls of my ancestors. But in thinking this over and in writing this post, I’ve also come to recognize the ray of light coming from this gloom: the fact that I find even the words on some aged page repellent is a sign of better times. I’m glad for that.