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Enslaved People in my Family History | Our Prairie Nest
Enslaved People in my Family History

Some of my ancestors fall under the definition of enslavers. Not all of them and not only the southern ones, either. Many people think slavery was endemic only to the southern United States, as far as U.S. history, but that’s not correct. There were enslaved people in the northern states, and I found at least one in my family in the federal census in Rhode Island. At the time, I didn’t pay as much attention as I do now, but I never forgot the surprise of seeing a tick mark in the box indicating my family had an enslaved person.

When I discovered my southern ancestors and found documents naming the people they kept enslaved, I decided to explore further and look into the names and histories of these people. Some people don’t understand why I would do that, let alone care. Maybe some people find it distasteful to address these aspects of our country’s history. Others, I know, say they would never admit to having ancestors who were enslavers. However, I think it’s important to address this, because it’s a fact of my family history. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, we need to say this was wrong and amoral, and learn from history.

However, the main reason I choose to talk or write about this is also because the enslaved people were people. They had their own personalities, thoughts, feelings, and hopes. Being enslaved is not and should not be all that defines them. So I would like to talk about the enslaved people in my family history. Furthermore, I would like to learn more about each and every one of them, if at all possible. Did they go on to have descendants? What were their experiences? What were their descendants’ experiences? Do they have living descendants today who are aware of their ancestors’ past as enslaved people? What are their thoughts and feelings about their ancestors’ experiences?

The Enslaved People

My nearest ancestor I can pinpoint as keeping enslaved people in his home is my 5th great-grandfather, Richard Howett, born about 1755 and died between 13 May 1805 (date of his Will) and 8 Feb 1806 (date his Will was probated) in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. His Will was the first document I ever found that named people who had been enslaved and also a sobering reality check. These people truly were treated as things, bequeathed in a Will with all other belongings, as if they were nothing more than livestock or furniture. Here are excerpts from Richard’s Will referring specifically to enslaved people:

I give unto my well beloved wife Lydia Howett one negro woman called Genea… I also lend the use of the following negroes one negro woman called Chloe one negro by called Washington on conditions that my wife raises the increase of these two negro women lent during her life, also I lend to my wife one negro man called Squire during her natural life… I leave to my son Richad Howett one still it is my will and desire that negro woman Tamer and negro woman Silve be sold by my executors at six months credit to the highest bidder at public auction the purchaser giving bond with good security and the money arising from said sail shall be equally divided between Charlotte Windsor and Patsey Windsor as their full share of my estate, I give my son Silvenus Howett a negro boy called Washington that I have lent to my wife at her death…

In addition to Richard’s Will, the fourth document in his probate file shows that Joshua Skinner filed a petition in 1822 for the sale and division of negroes, stating Lydia, Richard’s wife, did not adhere to the terms of the Will, to “raise the increase” of the negro women Chloe (Cloe) and Moll. Chloe had 4 children: Nancy, Mary, Samuel and Patience, and the petition asked that they be sold and the funds divided among the Howett heirs entitled to them.

Another document from 1821 shows the following enslaved people sold as part of the estate (their ages were listed in the document, and I added estimated dates of birth): Jim (23 – b. 1798), Aggy (20 – b. 1801), Jimmy (5 – b. 1816), Cooper (3 – b. 1818) (Jimmy and Cooper were Aggy’s sons), and Mariah (15 – b. 1806). Others named in the estate were a boy, Spinner/Spencer, and an old woman, Doll (or possibly Moll).

Seeing the actual document with your own eyes is very different than seeing it typed out, but no matter how we come across such records, acknowledging our history is important. Even more important is not letting the history of these people end up buried and forgotten. My ancestors enslaved them, but I promise to honor their lives.

Mid Year Goal Revisit | Our Prairie Nest
Mid-Year Goal Revisit

I generally prefer structure, and set goals and expectations. Of course, last year messed that up for many of us, so it feels good to return to structure. The 3 adults in our household are fully vaccinated, as are the majority of our friends. For us, there was never any question about our willingness to get the Covid vaccines. Now, our social calendar has started to fill out more. We’re still cautious, but more relaxed as far as interacting with certain people.

At the start of the year, I set some loose genealogical goals and, with summer coming, it’s time to revisit them.

Benson

This remains an easily solvable problem. I just need to visit a Family History Library for access to a particular database. Since the Omaha Public Library is an FHL affiliate library, I’m going to try them first. Our closest FHLs have odd hours, so the Omaha Public Library seems like the best place to start. Unfortunately, I’ve tried contacting them to ask if their FHL affiliate status means we can access databases that are otherwise locked from access at home. The reference librarian doesn’t seem to understand my question, so it’s a matter of visiting and giving it a try.

Hawksley

I set this goal aside for now, but I do have promising DNA matches in England. What I’d really like is to see someone with the Hawksley surname from the UK take a Y-DNA test with Family Tree DNA. That would be optimal, since I manage the Hawksley DNA project there.

mtDNA

I’ve made slow, but steady progress on researching my mtDNA line. First, I extended the maternal line of my closest match. His ancestors are in Sicily from the 1700s through the 1900s, and probably even further back in time. Then, I was able to finally find my 4th great-grandmother’s mother. It looks like Angela Giusto’s mother was Maria Bruzzone. There are far fewer records available online for the region I’m researching than there are for Sicily, and no church records. I’d like to find Angela Giusto and Tomasso Pedemonte’s marriage, so I can confirm her parents, and perhaps learn where they were born.

Wood/Gray

This is an unexpected goal I added to my genealogical research this year. My Wood and Gray families are from Manchester, Lancashire, England, and various places in England and Ireland before that. The GRO (General Register Office) makes it easy to order birth, marriage, and death records online as PDFs for a mere £7. That’s not quite $10 USD. So I’ve been getting any records from 1837 to present that are relevant to my direct ancestors.

Southern Ancestors

I think one of the goals I haven’t set, but would like to, is learning more about my southern ancestors and how they fared during and after the Civil War. I have many DNA cousins on this branch, and I think I would love to learn more about this family.

As for personal goals, those have pretty much been:

  1. Read more often, usually a half hour every night.
  2. Finish a cross-stitch. There’s no excuse not to, since I’m at the backstitching stage!
  3. Level up my genealogy skills.

I think I’m doing pretty well at all of these goals, and the year itself has mostly been a good one. We did have a bumpy May, though, with our water heater and grinder pump both going bad within less than a week of each other. We were fortunate enough to be able to replace both, and the silver lining is we can count them as part of our renovation, since they’re on the side of the house we have yet to start working on. Well, I guess now we’ve officially started that half!

Southern Italian Ancestors | Our Prairie Nest
Southern Italian Ancestors

Once upon a time, my father joked, “Why do you talk with your hands so much? What are you – Italian?” Being about 16 and not know any better, I shot back, “Maybe I am!”

Two years later, when I delved into genealogy in earnest, I learned the truth. Or half of it.

My mother’s mother’s family is Italian, from the Piedmont and Liguria regions of Italy. I’ve researched them for the past thirty years and learned a great deal about them recently thanks to Family Search and the Antenati website.

What no one knew thirty (and more) years ago was that my mother’s father was also Italian. Looking at him now, it’s pretty obvious that he looks nothing like the redheaded Irish man we were always told was his father. Grandpa’s mother had seven children, and we knew there were three different fathers among them. And then came DNA testing and the surprise that there was a fourth father!

At first, we thought DNA testing would confirm that either the man we’d always been told was grandpa’s father or the man who was my great-grandmother’s first husband was my grandpa’s father. The network of Italian matches connected to me, my mother, and my uncle, but not my nana, proved otherwise.

It was a close family member match that sealed the deal as far as determining my grandfather’s lineage. While close Y-DNA matches haven’t yet popped up yet, we had enough half first cousin matches to confirm my grandfather’s paternity.

The Feola Family

Where my nana’s mother was from northern Italy, my grandpa’s father was from southern Italy. His surname was Feola and his family came from Campora, Salerno, Campania, Italy. I have an enormous number of matches from this family. In fact, I think they are my largest genetic network. Campora suffered a genetic bottleneck in the 1700s, and the centuries of intermarriage are quite apparent as I work on a separate quick and dirty family tree to connect these matches, and then verify the lineages to add them to my tree.

Nearly all the surnames I find – Feola, Tomeo, Carone, Calabria, Perriello, Trotta, Vitale, Veltri, and others – recur frequently. On the one hand, it makes it easier to build and then verify the tree. On the other hand, the pedigree collapse means I can only guess at which ancestral couples passed on the DNA my matches and I share. I list that potential couple in my spreadsheet and notes, but also add “and possibly others.”

As far as my grandfather, it all starts with one of the sons of Antonio Michele Feola (born 8 December 1864 in Campora, and died after 1910, probably in Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts) and Alessandrina Beatrice Tomeo (per their marriage record, 18 April 1887 in Campora; she was born May of 1864 in Campora and died 21 May 1909 in Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts). I won’t say which son, because he has living grandchildren from his marriage to his wife, and it was certainly a surprise for them to find out they had half first cousins (my mother and her siblings). However, he is named in my family tree.

Antonio, or Anthony, was the son of Giovanni Feola and Teresa Sofia. Alessandrina was the daughter of Nicola Tomeo and Francesca Maria Trotta. I’ve been able to confirm a few generations with vital records, something I’m doing slowly and steadily, since I’m not focused on researching this part of my family at this time.

It’s still taking time to get used to the fact that these are my ancestors. However, there’s no doubt about it. The DNA has spoken! While I’m devoting far more interest and attention to my northern Italian ancestors, I think if I ever visit Italy, a trip to Campora would certainly be part of that.

Spring 2021 | Our Prairie Nest
Spring 2021

As much as many of us may look back at 2020 and say, “What a dumpster fire,” it seems 2021 isn’t much of an improvement. Though I’d like to think we’re going to eventually get to an overall better, more positive place by the end of the year. Besides, I think I’ve let go of the idea of “good years” and “bad years” and, really, it is what it is – a little bit of both – and that’s just life.

Personally, I’ve experienced two losses so far this year and that has certainly shaped my attitude about 2021. My only paternal aunt passed away and it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it still fills me with sadness to know she’s gone. The other was our parrot of 10 years, Avery, whose loss is heartbreaking. We didn’t anticipate it and, sadly, that’s often the way it goes with birds.

Spring 2021 | Our Prairie Nest
Me and my baby, Avery.

People, of course, are asking or saying – if I’m being honest – dumb and insensitive things. “I didn’t realize he was that old”/”How old was he?” He was 10, thank you very much. “Was he sick?” No and, again, thank you so much for asking. Oh, and sending me pictures or videos of why parrots are so great. Um… pardon me, why? I’m grieving a sudden loss and these things are really twisting the knife. When someone loses someone precious to them, why do people feel the need to ask the how, what, and why? Especially when there is an understandable degree of guilt, since that life was your responsibility? Pet owners often feel guilt, even if they shouldn’t, and these kinds of questions push that idea that somehow it was our fault that our pet died. If that’s what you’re trying to do when people lose a beloved pet, congratulations. You succeeded. If that isn’t your intention, would you please simply say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Do you want to talk about it?” and leave it at that?

So that’s my mini-rant about that.

Anyway, we never plan on having another bird. Getting one was originally my husband’s idea, because he’s a bird lover. However, he soon realized the amount of work that goes into being a “bird parent” is disproportionate to the amount of energy and attention he was actually willing to put in. I became Avery’s bird mom and loved every moment of it, after never in my life considering having a parrot. We’re all feeling the loss, though, and we know that we don’t want to go through it again. Even our cats have noticed something has changed (namely, Avery not plucking their fur, pecking their paws, and sitting on their backs), and they seem a little gloomy about it.

There are, of course, good things to share. It’s not all sadness. My son went to prom for the third and, likely, last time. He’s a senior and partied his Saturday night away with his class. It was an exciting but sad moment for me. I remember going to the prom with his dad 28 years ago.

Clearly, I’m losing it.

My son took my weeping in stride, thankfully. My husband got a kick out of it and obliged me by taking tons of pictures. Graduation is only 3 weeks from now. I’ll be sure to bring copious amounts of tissues.

My daughter said she doesn’t want 2nd grade to end. I don’t blame her, and I also reminded her that she was the one saying she didn’t want school to start last August. She laughed about that, and we talked about beginnings, endings, and how everything has it’s time and place and cycle.

As far as genealogy, I’m turning my attention to my husband’s family. He descends mostly from recent immigrants from so many different countries, that his ancestry presents a unique challenge to me. The majority of my ancestors have been in New England since the Mayflower and Great Migration. There is a branch from Virginia and North Carolina in the 1600s and 1700s that ultimately sort of folded into my New England ancestors, and then my few recent immigrant ancestors are from England, Ireland, and Italy. All very familiar territory for me. My ex-husband’s ancestors are also mostly Great Migration New Englanders, as well as settlers in New Brunswick and Quebec. I know my way around New England and Canada fairly well, genealogically-speaking.

My husband’s ancestors are from Ireland, Quebec, and there are two or three lines that were in the U.S. by at least the 1700s, that went west from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Other than that, I’m looking at countries I’ve never had to work with: Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, and Switzerland. Working on each line is challenging, because none of them are well-documented, except the ones from Quebec. DNA is a helpful tool here. Many of my husband’s matches still reside in Norway, Finland, and other European countries.

I’m also looking at both of our mtDNA lines. My ex-husband’s mtDNA line was super easy to trace. He’s an A2 and we were able to document him back to the daughter of Chief Madokawando, who’d married Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Castin. Many of my ex-husband’s mtDNA matches with a genetic distance of zero (15 matches) also descend from this couple.

My mtDNA haplogroup is H1aj1 and that’s the one I’m most interested in exploring right now. I have only 2 matches with a zero genetic distance, however. One is my maternal uncle, so clearly we know which ancestor we share – my nana/his mother. However, we have another match, born in Sicily. As this is the Italian side of my family, I’m hoping to pinpoint how the other match is related to us. Recently, I dedicated many nights to working on our match’s maternal family to see if it might give me clues about mine. The most recent maternal ancestor I can name is my 4th great-grandmother, Angela Giusto, probably born in Cogoleto, and definitely died between 1842 (when my 3rd great-grandmother was born) and 1865 (when Angela’s husband, my 4th great-grandfather, Tomaso Pedemonte, remarried in Cogoleto). Since records for Cogoleto during this time frame aren’t available online yet, I need to be patient.

Working on my match’s family was quite interesting, since he had documented 3 maternal generations, and I was able to add 5 more through vital records in the towns of Lascari and Gratteri, in Palermo, Sicily. The interesting thing is my maternal family is from northern Italy, while his entire family is from Sicily, two completely different regions. Will I find our shared maternal ancestor in Sicily? If so, when and why did my family go north? It’s a project I’ll be working on for the foreseeable future. One neat thing of note is that when you click my 23andMe ethnicity results to look at the breakdown for Italy, it does show Sicily as one of the regions. Sooo, who knows?

Finally, I ordered my husband’s full sequence mitochondrial DNA test and that result came last week. He is haplogroup V11. He has fewer matches at a genetic distance of zero than my ex-husband does, but many more than I do, with 8 matches. I think there’s a good chance that at least a couple of them will make a good basis for comparison as far as finding out more about my husband’s maternal lineage. I’m specifically focusing on the Scandinavian matches or those with most distant ancestors with Scandinavian names, since that’s where I’m sure we’ll find a connection.

The most distant maternal ancestor I have for my husband is his 3rd great-grandmother, Maria Ursula Taescher, born about 1853, maybe in Switzerland. She married Emil Anton Ospelt on 6 November 1876 in Liechtenstein, and they emigrated to the United States. They were in Dubuque, Iowa for some time before moving to Washington County, Oregon, where she died on May 9, 1930. I don’t have the names of Emil’s or Maria’s parents, and don’t know if their death certificates will yield that information, so I’m starting there (I placed my request this weekend), and will work my way back.

I might try to work on a more in-depth post about working with mtDNA in the future. For now, though, the rest of spring will probably be a flurry of activity. We have an awards night at the high school for fine arts students, so I’ll be attending that, followed the next night by my son’s last concert in guitar and choir. And then there will be graduation. Meanwhile, my daughter is supposed to start softball this year. We signed up last year, but it was a wash due to Covid. However, my husband, son, and I are all vaccinated, and my daughter is eager to play. We’re all hoping for a kid-safe vaccine soon!

Well, that’s the news from here. I wish it was happier, but I’m grateful for the years I had with my aunt and my Avery.