Working at the Archives, I often help people researching the property records of their ancestors. Sometimes, they are surprised to find that their ancestors owned slaves. Slave deeds are listed right alongside other types of property transfers in our deed books, and that often baffles people. It surprised me too when I first started working—to see the transfer of humans as property treated just like any normal piece of business. Of course, two centuries ago, it was normal business. I think looking at our real estate indexes and seeing slave sales mixed in with sales of acreage drives that fact home.
A few days ago, a man approached me at the reference desk and asked, “These are real estate indexes, but the type of transaction listed next to (my ancestor’s) name says slave. Does that really mean slave?” When I answered yes, he looked down at the floor and walked away.
I guess finding the actual records that tie your family into the practice of owning slaves makes abstract history lessons clear. For then you see how you, your family, your place in this world had a stake in it. Or, to put it another way, you see how the events and circumstances that brought about your birth and the specific circumstances into which you were born relied on your ancestors owning slaves. Of course, everything exists the way it exists because of events in the past—whether those events are, at present, considered shameful, glorious, or just plain boring. But for many people, parsing out their personal ties to parts of our past that are charged with emotion—heroic wars for independence, pioneer days, slavery, Native American removal, building the first Model T—can affect a different, and in many cases greater, sense of history.
Of course, I haven’t as of yet been drawn very far into my own personal genealogy (I hear too much about other people’s at work, I guess), but I’m sure there are many ties to be discovered when I (or more likely, my distant descendants…) get around to it. My mother-in-law loves doing family history, so if someone from my side of the family doesn’t get busy soon, David’s and my future children will have a severely one-sided view of things. “Daddy came from Scottish kings, mommy. What about you?”