Coming to Terms with Slave-Owning Ancestors

Virginia wheat field

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.


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10 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Slave-Owning Ancestors

  1. I wrote an article for the Meriwether Society newsletter about our family history of slaveholding. It was sobering to add up the numbers of slaves owned by our family, especially in the deep south before the Civil War. The U.S. Slave Census for 1850 and 1860 are good sources of information about the ages, sex and color of each slave – but not their names. it also told how many slave houses were on each property so you can get an idea of how crowded their conditions were. There are more black Meriwethers than white in the US today, my slaveholding ancestors legacy.

  2. I’ve come across many last wills and testaments where my ancestors leave slaves to their wives and children. It was a part of the life my ancestors led. Am I proud of that fact? No. But, as you pointed out, it was a way of life back in the day. It doesn’t make that way of life right in today’s society, but, back then it was perfectly legal.

    I think we have to distance ourselves from the past when we come across slave holding ancestors . . . or draft dodging great-great grandfathers. We figured out that my great-great grandfather lied about his age do avoid having to go to war during the Civil War since he was too poor to hire a substitute. I’m not proud of that fact, but I can understand that I didn’t live in those times, nor did I live his life, so therefore . . . who I am to pass judgement.

    I think, as sick as the slave-holding makes you, makes me, we must understand that it was part and parcel of the lives our ancestors led. As we do on a daily basis, they made the best choices they could in the times they lived.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post. Dorothy Spruill Redford, who like me, communicated with the descendants of her ancestors’ enslaver, wrote the following in her book, Somerset Homecoming. I included this passage in my book, 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended, because she expressed shared thoughts: “You inherit your ancestor’s genes and their blood, but not their sins or their glories. If they did something wrong, if they lived a life that was stained, you carry forward a sense of guilt only if you’re carrying the same attitudes. If the attitudes are gone, there is no need for the shame. That was yesterday, and this is today. Those were their lives, and these are ours . . . That we can live with the past without being dragged down by it. That we cannot deny what happened here – that we must not deny it – and that we must restore this place to reflect all our histories.”

  4. Thank you for the comments. I didn’t know if I should post this topic, but it is my history and I wanted to tell you what I found and how I felt. Honesty about history and research is always the best, and I don’t think I ever want to fall into a trap of editing my family story. Hiding from what has shaped my family and their decisions is just not my style. I am proud, on the other hand, that James was a Lt. in the Virginia Militia, a minister, and from what I can tell a hard working farmer.

  5. Thank you for this post. I have lived in the South virtually all of my life and felt sure that some of my ancestors had slaves, but nothing prepared me for the gut check I had the first time I saw names, tally marks, and ages of family slave holdings. Eventually I came to the same conclusion expressed in Melvin Collier’s post.

    We do not exist in a vacuum, nor did our ancestors. Genealogy research helps us examine and analyze the impact of historical context on our family’s history. I find myself wondering what current practices, laws, etc. will seem as offensive as slavery to future generations.

  6. I’m glad you posted this article. As someone who has 46 ancestors (that I know of) from the North who enslaved Africans and Native peoples between 1638 and 1803, you are not alone. There are many of us who carry this inheritance. It took me awhile to sort out the shock, shame and embarrassment I felt being connected to these folks because all of this had been ‘forgotten’ in my family history. I only happened to discover a pre-Revolutionary War ancestor in Newport, RI who held slaves by accident when I upgraded my ancestry.com subscription and got access to some census records I don’t know existed. It was even more gruesome to later learn this man’s father-in-law sailed from Rhode Island to West Africa five times in the transatlantic slave trade.

    I have since sorted out in my own head and heart that I am not responsible for the actions of people who lived generations ago, but I am accountable to the choices I make and the unearned privilege as a white person that I have gained because of their choices. If I am going to celebrate any number of my forebears who stood tall, I feel an equal obligation to speak up and claim these other folks, while being people of their times, behaved in ways that were immoral and monstrous.

    I used the genealogical tools that allowed me to unearth my family history to track forward the descendants of an African man who was enslaved by my family and reached out to my new cousins to take this accountability very serious. This work matters deeply.

  7. I have not found any slave holders in my direct line. However, I have found them in collateral lines and “it is what it is.” I am neither proud nor shamed by it. It was the lifestyle of the times, immoral perhaps by today’s standards, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about that. Therefore, it has zero impact on me and who I am.

  8. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. There are so many directions from which to ask questions. About how to feel.

    I have ancestors who owned slaves, in South Carolina, on all four sides, paternal (2 sides) and maternal (2 more sides). It took me seven years to write and publish a book, a family memoir that addresses my thoughts about slaveholding ancestors. I try not to praise or to blame, but to understand what was going on in my ancestors’ minds.

    In my opinion, the experience of slaveholding deeply affected the minds & hearts of slaveholders, over and above the devastation it wrought upon the minds & hearts of the slaves themselves. Our country still suffers greatly under these scars. My book blog is one website, and another is http://www.mariannregan.com/memoir_desc.html. Email me from the memoir site if you’d like to talk more!! It’s a compelling subject.

  9. You and your readers may be interested in Coming to the Table (www.comingtothetable.org), a national community of people interested in reckoning with this legacy. Most of our members are descendants of enslaved people or slaveholders, or both. Some of our members have warm ongoing relationships with what we call “linked descendants” (people connected by slavery – the ancestors of one were enslaved by the other’s ancestors). We are on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/comingtothetable/), and one of our members posted a link to this article.

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