A wheat field in Virginia, taken by photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
Recently I went on an impromptu genealogy adventure.
You can read all about it here. The outcome of this journey around Richmond, Va. was a copy of the inventory of my maternal 6th great-grandfather’s estate. His name was James Drake.
From my research I have pieced together bits of his life. He was born about 1740 in New Kent, Va. to William and Sarah Drake. James married Mary Taylor and had 12 children (that I know of). Their children were: Sir Francis (yes, named after that Sir Francis), Levina, James, William, Tarlton (through whom I am descended), Philadelphia, Joseph, Nancy, Martha, Thomas, Samuel and Sally. They lived on their farm in what is now Powhatan County, Virginia and grew several crops on their 800 acres. James died in the winter of 1797.
Needless to say, when I went on this adventure I was excited to maybe, possibly, just perhaps see and touch a piece of my history. Well, the inventory I came home with was even more than I thought I would get when I left that morning. Having documentation in hand is always a good way to end a day. However, after I started reading it I also had some oooh’s, aaaah’s, and oh my’s.
They inventoried everything, and I mean everything. From the two sets of broken wagon wheels he had on the property to the old swords he kept in the house. There was a listing for each and every farm animal, how much planting grain (corn, cotton and wheat), the tools used to farm, all the furniture, and even what kind of pitchers they had (earthen ware, pewter and silver). Then, at the end of the inventory, the part I knew was coming: the slave listing.
If you have roots in Colonial Virginia, and your ancestor had a large farm or plantation, there is a good chance they owned slaves. I knew this going in. It was something I knew I was going to run across the more I dug into my family history, and something I’d have to reconcile with. To try and hide from this fact and not talk about it—let alone not make it a part of my family story—would be like telling a half-truth. I think you need to embrace your history: the good, the bad and the ugly.
So how do I feel about discovering a list of 12 men, women and children on my ancestor’s inventory? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, as a researcher, I understand that this is history. To know your past you also have to understand the historical climate of the day. Sadly, slavery was a fact of life in this time period of Virginia. In your research you will find slaves, and your ancestors may have owned them, or may have been them. But as a woman in the 21st century, seeing the names, ages and prices evoked a strong visceral reaction. I felt sick. Even though most of my family left the South before the Civil War because of their abolitionist ways, some had still owned people.
Yet still, I don’t know to feel. Do I have any right to judge my ancestors for what they did? With the social and political histories of the time, owning slaves was not illegal. While they may have been morally challenged, they were doing nothing wrong in the eyes of the law.
Recently I reached out to a Drake family researcher and am excited to learn more about this family. She told me of another potential cousin she is in contact with, whose great-grandmother was a biracial slave on his son Samuel’s plantation. Moving forward, I don’t think I’ll ever again be so jarred by my research findings.
Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.
Delve into your own past with the The Genealogist’s US History Pocket Reference, on sale for $10.19.