Tag Archives: geneaology

Our roots and their keepers

Another box to look through as we declutter. This one sat in the basement, out of sight and definitely out of mind, since we moved in 14 years ago. The weight tells me it’s either very important or something once important, now useless.

Inside is a magnificent old family history book, 1,315 pages long, published in 1883 by an ancestor of my father and given to him, according to the inscription in the flyleaf, at Christmas in 1937. I’ve seen this before, but also in the box is an envelope containing two sheets of paper that I never read or even knew existed: “Will of Adin Swan of Rome, N.Y.”

It’s a transcription of the original document, probably typed up by my Aunt Rowena, the family historian. It reads like a typical will: Considering the uncertainty of this mortal life and being of sound mind and memory, Blessed be Almighty God for the same, do make and publish this my last will and testament. But when I saw the name Adin Swan, my heart beat faster as I sat there staring at the papers, trying to fully absorb what I was holding in my hands. For these are the last known words of a man who fought in the Revolution.

According to Ro’s research, Adin joined the Continental Army at the age of 14 and spent most of his service in Rhode Island. Like many people in those times, he had a large family: I give to my oldest son George Swan and Philander Swan and William Swan and Alonzo Swan and Edwin A. Swan and to their heirs forever all my real and personal estate…and the furniture that my wife Martha leaves at her decease is to be equally divided between my daughters Polly Brainard and Ann Mosely and Palmire Rudd.

Twenty years after Adin’s death in 1842, his grandsons, George Swan’s sons, would join the Union Army and one would die in Louisiana. My own grandfather, Hoyt Swan, was born in 1879, just fourteen years after the Civil War ended. Now I sit here in 2016, reading First I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Martha Swan during her widowhood…

Thanks to Ro, who took the time to find, copy and file away the will, Adin and the early life of our still young country are no longer remote or abstract, but close and very real. Blessed are the genealogists, the librarians like my amazing wife, the archivists, and all of those who preserve our collective heart and soul, from inaugural addresses to postcards, cassette tapes, and floppy discs. (If you don’t know what cassettes and floppies are, ask your parents. They’re really not as clueless as you think.)

In this hyperactive, here-one-second-and-gone-the-next digital age, the tasks of preservation and organization must be harder than ever. I’m certainly not vain enough to think anyone will be reading this blog in 174 years, the age of Adin’s will. But I hope we leave something tangible, so if humankind is still around in 2190, someone whose world we can only dream about will still have the thrill of opening the envelope.

Will of Adin Swan.

 

Their past, our present

When a movie star lies about his past to protect his image, it’s usually a non-story. In fact, in Hollywood, it’s probably considered PR 101. But Ben Affleck went way over the line when he persuaded the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” not to mention an ancestor who owned slaves. As a result, PBS has suspended the next season of the show.

Affleck says he was looking for “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.” As anyone who’s ever spent five minutes on Ancestry.com could have told him, digging into your past can bring both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, especially on this issue.

I learned a lot about my own roots from my wonderful aunt Rowena Swan, who spent years researching and writing a family history book. (She did it the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way too, walking around cemeteries and poring over files in courthouses.) As far as I know, none of the Swans in my line were slaveholders. Those who were alive during the Civil War were Union, including my great-great uncle, who died in Grant’s army.

However, another branch of the family, my great-grandmother’s forebears in Worcester, Massachusetts, had slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s, including an elderly woman named Silvia. Yet another limb of the tree produced Julia Gardiner Tyler, who married President John Tyler in 1844 and joined him in fervently supporting the South after he left office.  According to Wikipedia, she got accustomed to owning slaves and enraged Union war veterans by flying a Confederate flag at her home on Staten Island.

I can’t run from, disown, or deny any of this. These are hard facts, just as it’s a fact that Washington and Jefferson had slaves. That doesn’t change their standing as founders of our country — but neither do their achievements make their slaveholding any less reprehensible.

Even in Silvia’s time, there were people who were affluent and powerful like her owners, but made different moral choices. My mother’s father, Thomas Walter Simpson, made that kind of choice when he hid his black workers from the mobs in the terrible Springfield, Illinois race riot in 1908. Ben Affleck had some noble ancestors too. But how many white families that came here before the Emancipation are completely pure?

We’re not our ancestors. But trying to hide their actions and our common history will only make things worse.