Sows, Wives, Brood Mares, and Other Expendable Properties


When I asked my sister for help with constructing our family tree, she demurred, saying that the study of genealogy gives ancestors ...a kind of aura simply because they’re dead.” I would substitute stench for aura.

When my grandfathers wanted to raise hogs, they paid for sows; when they wanted foals, they paid for mares; when they wanted children, other men paid them to take away their daughters. When those daughters died in childbirth—as they often did—other fathers paid my ancestors still more money to take away their daughters. By the time Peggy and I were married, dowries had been eliminated, but the parents of the bride still got stuck with the cost of the wedding, the implication being that girl children were so worthless that their parents should have to pay to be rid of them.

The only aura that I paint around my dead relatives is around old maids for having the guts to buck a system that held women in lower esteem than hogs, and portrayed independent women as desperate, ugly, unloved, and unhinged because, clearly, all normal women wanted nothing more than to accede to God’s curse on their gender by spending their short lives pregnant and under the domination of a man. While so-called confirmed bachelors” never sank below old maids in societys estimation, unmarried people of both genders were regarded as pathetic creatures that nobody wanted, and this remained true during my boyhood. Upon being told that a woman was an old maid, I would immediately wonder what was wrong with her.

It was only when I began studying genealogy that I learned enough to grieve over the ill-treatment endured by my unmarried aunts and uncles. I was even reduced to tears by the life of my great great aunt Sarah Jane Newby (1831-1882), an Alabamian who openly criticized the Southern Cause” (a euphemism for rich mens right to own black people). Sarah Janes bravery would have been lost to posterity had the Union Calvary not come along one day and taken “a valuable sorrel mare sixteen hands high” out from under her. In her post-war petition for reimbursement, Sarah Jane swore that she shed tears of disapproval when the South seceded; did her utmost to dissuade her three brothers from joining the Rebel army (all fought and one died); gave the Union army material assistance; and denied help to the Confederacy except when compelled to cook for its troops. One of her witnesses described her as a quiet woman who made no secret of her loyalty to the Union, and added that only her gender saved her from being assaulted.  

If anyone deserves an aura—if not a haloit’s not my male grandfathers who quoted racist and misogynistic Scriptures to justify their abuse of women and black people; it’s my unmarried aunts who said Hell no! to the prospect of staying pregnant for nine months out of every year until such time as pregnancy killed them, following which a second—and oftentimes a third—two-legged brood mare would take their place in bed in order to bring to fruition the manly desire to father as many boy children as possible in as short a time as possible.

Ah, but I haven’t mentioned my early 19th century West African grandmother who was raped by one of my grandfathers, nor have I made reference to the slave men who fathered their young in the knowledge that they would be the property of my grandfathers from the moment they drew breath. When asked about this in the 1930s by a Federal Writers Project” interviewer, one of my ancestors slaves said:

No, not any weddin’s. It was kinder dis way. When dere was a good nigger man an’ a good nigger woman, the Marster would say, I know you is both good niggers, an’ I wants you to be man and wife dis year an’ raise little niggers because then I won’t have to buy em. 

Paint auras around my ancestors? The more I learn, the more I distrust the men and pity the women. While men like William Lloyd Garrison were struggling valiantly for gender and racial equality, my male ancestors exhibited no more compassion, morality, and respect for the rule of law than a Trump supporter. But would I not concede that, just maybe, some women—and even some slaveswere happy with their lot? Would you be? 

That question aside, I will concede that if the oppressed were so beaten down as to believe that God ordained their oppression and would reward them in heaven, perhaps they were happy. I will even concede that most of my male ancestors honestly believed that God willed it that they rule over women and black people. I came to this conclusion upon finding deathbed wills that contained such provisions as, I give and bequeath to my daughter, Elizabeth, one bay horse and one slave named Polly, to belong to her and to her heirs forever.” 

But is it worse to do evil while thinking it is good, or while knowing it is bad? I suspect the former because where there is no awareness of wrong, cruelty becomes unrestrained and repentance impossible, which is why members of the Islamic State can douse caged prisoners with gasoline and burn them alive.

I have found little obvious heroism among my kin aside from the fact that they somehow found the strength to repeatedly survive the deaths of their children. While it is indeed possible to cry over old census records (I have done so), such sources tend more toward cold factuality than emotional revelation, and so it is that one can only probe the heart of most ancestors by reading between the lines. The fact that her courage and sense of fair play was right out there for everyone to see is why I so respect my aunt, Sarah Jane. Sadly, I can’t even find her grave.

12 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

I am very glad that Rhymes triggered you to post again.
And mourn for the reality you posted. I would agree with you that doing evil 'thinking' it is good is probably worse. Mind you, I think thinking is an overstatement. Assuming is closer to the mark, and never questioning anything.
Not even being able to find Sarah Jane's grave is symptomatic. Bury the woman, and everything she stood for - and hide them both.
Which is awful.

PhilipH said...

Nice to see you Snowy, dear chap.

This is a post that initially makes one sick and disgusted at the way America and the "well-off" Americans treated the poor Black people in those earlier days. And then I thought NO, it's not just an American historical fact: it was, and still is (in some places) happening today.

Britain has been guilty of slave trafficking and many "great houses" owe their wealth to importing Blacks and selling them on. It used to be fashionable in the 17th to 19th centuries to own a Blackamoor boy or servant. There is a painting of one such youngster in Mellerstain House, a really good portrait too! So, it was normal practice in many countries to own servants/slaves and it is such an abhorrent part of history worldwide.

Today it goes on, illegally, but prevalent. The difference is that slavery is not just of Black people. It's so sickening to read of current cases where a dozen people have been arrested and charged with making workers from the EU live in squalor and work for almost no reward, other than free shelter in some grotty crowded room and equally disgusting food.

Man's inhumanity to man lives on, in so many ways and places. Makes me despair of much of the human race.

Marion said...

I have a daughter named Sarah Jane. Just be thankful you didn’t have a family tree full of Mormons...talk about abuse of women! My favorite find in my ancestry is that my father’s (born in 1894) mother (or grandmother) was the sweetheart of President Lincoln before she married into the Lawless family:

Death: LEXINGTON, KY AUG 1. Mrs. Mary Love Lawless died at her home in this city
last week. She was once the belle of Rockcastle, CO, and the sweetheart of Lincoln
[1809-1865]. Her romance with the man who afterward became President was more than
half a century ago. She was just budding into girlhood. Lincoln had accompanied Alexander
McKee from Illinois to Mt. Vernon to attend McKee's wedding. Mrs. Lawless, then Miss
Mary Love Joplin was a bridesmaid, and although 17 years his junior. Lincoln fancied her,
loved her. Her husband was James Richard Lawless, the son of a wealthy Louisiana planter.
In after years Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln on different occasions visited the Lawless home. Lincoln
may have gone to Lancaster with Alexander McKee but never came to Mt Vernon.

Snowbrush said...

I've been surprised--astounded really--by how many of my ancestors owned slaves, and how many of those who didn't own slaves were willing to fight a war for an institution that kept everyone but the planter class in poverty--it being impossible for paid workers to compete with slave labor. Yet when the Civil War was over, and the South lay in ruin, who got blamed? The former slaves. Again and again, the white people of the South side with their oppressors because their oppressors appeal to their prejudices or their ultra-conservative religious values.

"Not even being able to find Sarah Jane's grave is symptomatic. Bury the woman, and everything she stood for - and hide them both."

My friend, I hadn't thought of that, but I doubt it for three reasons: (1) I really don't know if she was THAT notorious. (2) The only graves that it's possible to locate online are the ones that someone has put on Find A Grave (do you have an Australian version?), and while there are a lot of graves there, there are a lot that aren't. (3) After the war, Sarah Jane ran a farm with her unmarried sister and her widowed mother, and her sister, at least, outlived her by decades, so surely she would have seen that Sarah Jane got a tombstone, and while it might have been intentionally destroyed, I doubt it.

"This is a post that initially makes one sick and disgusted at the way America and the "well-off" Americans treated the poor Black people in those earlier days."

Philip, these are interesting comments. First all, here as there, slavery still exists. As for the olden days, as Thoreau put it: "Southern slavery is bad, but Northern slavery is worse." Being from Massachusetts and never having visited the South, maybe he was speaking rhetorically, but conditions for low-wage factory workers in the North were filthy and dangerous; child labor was the norm; and the people worked long hours without any worker protections whatsoever. Meanwhile, over in 19th century England, things were arguably worse because--as in the American North--while people were free on paper, they were, in reality, not free to do anything but work long hours just to feed themselves. BTW, you speak of it being fashionable in England to have A slave. On some of the the big Southern plantations, there were many hundreds of slaves, sometimes over a thousand. I really don't know which of my ancestors owned the most slaves, but I don't recall that any owned more than twenty. To know the number, I would have to actually count the ones that were listed in wills and in what was called the "slave census." A great many of my ancestors lived in the Southern Appalachians where large plantations were less common if they existed at all, hence there weren't as many slaves. Speaking of poverty in Victorian England, Jack London did a photo book on the subject, and my favorite author, Margaret Deland, also wrote on the subject (in the pre-WWI 20th century). She even held that nowhere in America were the poor as bad off as they were in England, but as she learned more, she eventually had to retract that statement.

Snowbrush said...

"Just be thankful you didn’t have a family tree full of Mormons..."

Marion, I am always pleased when you visit. So you have some Mormon ancestors? Yes, I am indeed thankful that I don't have "a family tree full with Mormons" because while modern Mormons, at least, tend to be educated people who (according to PEW Research) know a lot about religion, their own religion is about as nutty as it gets. An advantage of having even a semi-famous relative (like Lincoln's girlfriend)--or a rich relative--is that it's easier to find information. For a long time, I despaired of even trying to research people who died before America's very important 1850 census, but then I found that I had some long ago relatives who were rich enough that their mansions still exist and who were frequently mentioned in books. Suddenly, the pre-1850 world opened before me, at least where they were concerned. It was darned near an embarrassment of riches. What I've yet to do is to search overseas records. I can find where my relatives took ships from England, but I know nothing about their pre-immigration lives, although, according to my DNA, I'm roughly 59% English, Welsh, and northwestern European, and 36% Irish and Scottish. Then there's that puzzling bit of Nigerian, but I would be surprised if more than a handful of Southern white people have NO black ancestors. When I discovered that I did, I got to wondering how groups like the Klan and the neo-Nazis think about such things since it would mean that their members are likely to be part black. The old saw used to be, "A drop of nigger blood a nigger makes," but, as I learned, different racist groups have different criteria for who is and isn't black, although most of them focus on how a person looks and identifies rather than trying to ferret out anyone who has the least degree of black ancestry. But if a person wouldn't even exist without that one black ancestor from generations ago, how in the hell can he rail against black people? I mean, really, these guys are out there trashing their own grandmothers!

Emma Springfield said...

So ancestors are imperfect people. Who is perfect? Of course there are degrees of imperfection just as there are degrees of intelligence. I am proud of the imperfections in my family tree. It has been interesting to learn as much as I can about them. I'm sorry yours has been such a disappointment to you.

kylie said...

It takes an extraordinary person to question the status quo so I'm unsurprised about the actions and value systems if your ancestors.
I'm not saying they did the right thing but I feel like we are bound for disappointment if we judge the past by modern expectations.

There is much modern slavery but the majority don't care. In my mind modern people with better education and the resources of mass media and the internet have no excuses

Marion said...

Snow, there are no Mormons in my family, but my ex had a Mormon aunt. My father’s family came from Ireland, to the best of my knowledge. As he was born in the late 1800’s in Louisiana, the birth records were kept by the Catholic Church. The Diocese that held my father’s family records burned in the 1960’s before being computerized, so the paper records were lost. I got my info through relatives, graveyards and the Internet. We dug through dusty court records in St. Mary Parish where Daddy lived many years and found a wealth of information.

My Mom was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Grandma was half Choctaw, my Aunt always told me. All of my aunts & uncles looked Indian except Mama, who had auburn hair, green eyes and was six feet tall.

My uncle who raised us was a sharecropper in Mississippi before moving to Louisiana. We were raised the opposite of prejudiced. We were never allowed to say the “n” word. We had Black friends, living in the country. When the schools were desegregated, I was bullied for befriending the three Black girls in my grade. I never saw then as different from me because that’s the way I was raised. Not every person in the South was/is racist. That’s a disgusting stereotype. xo

Helen said...

I enjoy delving into the past, have discovered an uncle who fathered another family during the Korean War while stationed in Germany. My maternal grandparents harbored a black man on their farm in southern Illinois for close to a year. My father's closest friend was gay. My maternal grandfather had an affair. The aunt who I am named after was married seven times (had no idea), my paternal great-grandmother remarried at the age of 87 and relocated cross country to live in wedded bliss. I could go on, but will not bore you or your followers. Will say I thoroughly enjoyed reading your fascinating post.
Helen in Bend

Snowbrush said...

"I am proud of the imperfections in my family tree."

Since I can't imagine that you were referring to abusive behaviors, I assume that you meant idiosyncrasies.

"I'm sorry yours has been such a disappointment to you."

I'm not an up-with-people kind of guy even on my best days, but I did praise my unmarried aunts, plus I praised my ancestors in general for the fact that they were able to survive levels of grief that were common then but almost unthinkable today, that is the deaths of their children. Still, I see my women ancestors, not as villains, but as victims, my assumption being that very few women really wanted to spend nearly all of their reproductively fertile lives pregnant, but that they were beaten down by a male dominant society (which used the Bible as its rationale) to the point of accepting it as their fate. Thanks to "the pill," it has only been during our lifetimes that women have been able to take control over their bodies.

"I'm not saying they did the right thing but I feel like we are bound for disappointment if we judge the past by modern expectations."

I wonder how far you would go with that, and would you say the same for those parts of the modern world in which sexism and racism abound? In other words, is sexism any more excusable in Saudi Arabia than in your nation of Australia? To a greater extent than today, my ancestors were churchgoers who believed in a Savior who counseled: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I think the bottom-line is that where greed, bigotry, or lust come into the picture, better instincts go out. In the America of the 1960s, black entertainers had trouble with getting or holding a TV show because advertisers wouldn't endorse them. Now, advertisers are eager to not only show black people on TV and in their commercials, but interracial couples. No doubt they congratulate themselves on their acceptance of race, but if greed dictated that they not show interracial couples, would they? In August of 1949, in what is a now very liberal Eugene, Oregon, the local whites sent bulldozers into the one area where blacks were allowed to live and flattened their houses. Some of those houses were scheduled for flattening anyway in order to put in a new bridge, but the dozers flattened ALL of the black people's home, and it happened so fast that many people didn't have time to save any of their belongings. These same white people's children and grandchildren have almost completely forgotten their city's racist past, and they even pride themselves on being accepting of race, but does that mean that they're better people? My point is that if people can to any extent be excused for their bad behavior on the grounds that they were products of their culture, then by the same reasoning they deserve equally less credit for their good behavior.

Snowbrush said...

"We were raised the opposite of prejudiced."

Most adolescents are more influenced by the values of their peers than by the values of their parents, so I'm wondering how this played out in your own teen years. Another--possibly unrelated--thought that comes to mind is the common liberal belief that children are not racists, yet in tests, even toddlers show high levels of racism simply because it is human nature to favor those whom we perceive as being similar to ourselves. My parents said that I cried the first time I saw a black person, and I can't imagine that this was due to having notably racist parents (while my mother was racist, my father was openly accepting of black people) or living in a notably racist area, which leads me to say that you are right in claiming that not all white Southerners were racist, but this doesn't mean that there's no truth to generalities. I was six (in 1955) when my Mississippi hometown had its last lynching, and to mention Saudi Arabia again, while not all Saudi men are sexist, their country sure the hell is, just as the American South was during the era of Jim Crow. Yet in all fairness, racism wasn't just a Southern problem. For example see my comment to Kylie about how Eugene dealt with race. The whole state of Oregon once had Jim Crow laws, not because a lot of black people lived here, but because white Oregonians were hellbent on keeping them out, even passing laws against non-whites owning land here. But were all white Oregonians racist? Surely not, yet generalities do have value. Your state votes Republican, and mine Democratic, and these facts mean something about the people and their values. Whether that something is good or bad is open to debate, but this doesn't make it any less meaningful.

"Will say I thoroughly enjoyed reading your fascinating post."

I'm happy you did. Yes, genealogy is enjoyable. Because it involves the study of people, it's not equally enjoyable on all days and in all ways, but I'm still glad that I got into it.

kylie said...

Yes, I give no extra credit for good behaviour if it's the prevailing norm. I don't kick my dogs but I don't thinkI need credit for that, it would be abhorrent if I did.

Saudi Arabia is a very oppressive place for women and that's not ok but I think there's only a small percentage of any group who think broadly enough to challenge the status quo and it's to be expeced that everyone else will do what everyone around is doing. I suspect your ancestors were those people, the followers