Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Daniel Sharfstein on the Invisible Color Line in American Families

Another book recommendation today: I've just finished Daniel J. Sharfstein's new book The Invisible Line, and found it fascinating.  The book studies three American families who, over the course of their long histories in the United States, crossed the color line and began to "pass" as white families, though they have both Caucasian and African ancestry.  And though both longstanding prejudice and stringent (and often draconian) legal codes sought to make such "passing" impossible.

Sharfstein thinks--and I agree--that many more American families have such racially mixed heritages than is commonly known.  As he notes, knowledge of these families and of the phenomenon of "passing" is becoming far more widespread as more and more people track their family histories, and as online tools and online information make genealogical research more accessible.  And one of the significant lessons we ought to learn as we become aware of how frequently the transition from black to white took place within family lines is that racial lines are and always have been fluid.

They're artificial, in fact, given that all sound genetic research shows that every human being in the world springs from the same genetic stock far back in time.  It represents an arbitrary, deadly decision for some of us to begin deciding, at some point in history, that human beings who share a common characteristic ought to be classified and separated arbitrarily on the basis of that single characteristic.  Like skin color.  What judgment would we make about this arbitrary choice if, for instance, a decision were suddenly made to lump large-footed and small-footed people into separate categories, and to suggest that the larger the feet, the more evolved one group is?

As I've noted in a posting or two in the past on this blog, I'm interested in this research about the phenomenon of "passing" because I've found a case of it in my own family tree.  A brother of one my 3-great grandfathers, a man named James Russell Winn, married a white wife in Alabama in 1831, lived for some years with her in Mississippi and had a child by her, and then divorced her in 1839.

By this point, he had formed a family arrangement with a free woman of color named Margaret Shackelford, by whom he had six children from 1834 to 1845.  In 1842, the family moved to Arkansas.  James and Margaret could not ever legally marry, though James's letters to his children over the years indicate that he regarded Margaret as his wife.  And, in contrast to many white Southern planters who fathered children by slave women or free women of color, James acknowledged his children by Margaret, and at considerable expense, he and Margaret sent the three children still living by the time of the Civil War north to Ohio as the war approached, to buy farm land and to obtain educations denied to people of color in the South.

The three Winn children ended up at Oberlin University in Ohio, a center of abolitionist activity and the Underground Railroad, and each married a white spouse there, descendants of New England abolitionist families connected to churches (as the Winns were, too: their family tree was full of Methodist ministers) who had come to Ohio to work in the anti-slavery movement.

Sharfstein's book mentions one of these families, in fact--the Lymans, who were cousins of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.  James and Margaret's daughter Emily Harrison Winn married Edmund Strong Lyman.  In 1858, Edmund's brother Ansel W. Lyman helped organize a rescue of a slave in Oberlin, which resulted in an historic trial testing the right of Southern slaveholders to send slave-catchers north to re-enslave escaped slaves.  Sharstein's book mentions Ansel Lyman and his group's rescue of a slave that a slave-catcher had seized.  The group took the slave and set him free in Canada.

One of the interesting points Sharfstein's book makes is that DNA research is throwing fascinating sticks into the spokes of many taken-for-granted accounts of the history of various American families.  DNA findings provide incontrovertible empirical evidence of the actual bloodlines of a family, evidence that is now overturning what many families have thought about their history for many years up to now, and what has been written and published about these families.

This has happened, in fact, in the case of my own family in the past several years.  For quite a while now, I have known that my Lindsey family roots can be tracked back to a colonial Virginia ancestor whose name I share, because that given name, Dennis, has passed down from father to son since the early 1700s until it reached me.  It's my middle name, as it was my father's, his father's, and so on back to 1700.

The earliest ancestor any of us researching these Lindseys has been able to find is a Dennis Lindsey who seems to appear out of nowhere in Spotsylvania Co., Virginia, in 1728.  Various indicators in Virginia records suggest he was born around 1700.

After having found Dennis and proven to my satisfaction that he's my ancestor, I've spent years--over 30 years, in fact--trying to close the gap between him and the several other colonial Virginia Lindsay or Lindsey families, each of which has Scottish roots, and one of which descends from a well-researched line of Scottish Lindsays whose history is known back to the early Middle Ages.  Since my Dennis Lindsey pops up in the same time and place as these other Lindsay/Lindsey families in Virginia, I reasoned after I found him that he has to be an offshoot of one of them.  Somehow.

So I spent years exhaustively researching those other Lindsay/Lindsey families, accumulating file drawers full of stuff about them.  I've made trips to Virginia and Scotland to track their roots, assuming I was likely tracking my own roots as I did so.  I was even invited several years ago to represent Virginia Lindsay descendants at the 400th anniversary of an historic Scottish church whose first pastor was the grandfather of one of the Virginia Lindsay immigrants, an Anglican parson in colonial Virginia.  Though I told the organizers of the anniversary celebration that I had not really proven my connection to that Lindsay family, they still wanted me to attend and represent American Lindsays/Lindseys, and I was happy to do that.

And then along came DNA research.  When a shared surname project developed for Lindsay/Lindsey families, I was delighted to participate, since I was certain I'd now find the empirical evidence I needed--which I hadn't yet found in historical or genealogical records--to link my Dennis Lindsey to one of those other Virginia Lindsay/Lindsey families.  And so imagine my surprise when my Lindsey line in no way matched that of those other families.

But matches, instead, a set of Lynch families with Irish ancestry.  All of whom, in fact, share a fairly rare genetic signature called the Irish Type III genetic profile, which places our roots in southwest Ireland, with a shared ancestor perhaps somewhere around 800 A.D.  My Lindsey DNA matches that of no Lindsays or Lindseys anywhere in the world.  But it perfectly matches that of a number of Lynch families, all with roots in southwest Ireland--most perfectly, in fact absolutely, a family living in the western end of Co. Waterford whose roots there can be traced at least to 1800, but who have lived there far longer.

DNA seems to establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my family's surname was not Lindsay/Lindsey at all at some point back in fairly recent history.  It was Lynch.  And we're not a Scottish but an Irish family.  

And in recent weeks, I feel pretty sure I have finally solved the puzzle created by these DNA findings.  In the records of Richmond Co., Virginia, I find a court order indenturing a set of Irish servants who had arrived in Virginia in the spring of 1718.  These servants include a young man named Dennis Linchey, whose date of birth appears to be around 1700.

These servants had arrived in the colonies on a ship owned by a group of merchants in Bristol, England, who traded between the Caribbean colonies and Virginia and the Carolinas, often with stops in Waterford to pick up Irish goods and Irish servants and to transport the latter to the colonies.  Having arrived in Virginia, the young men brought to serve indentures in 1718 were placed as servants by a Virginia merchant born in Bristol.

For all kinds of reasons--most of all, because every scrap of evidence fits, suddenly--I have now concluded that the Dennis Linchey who indentured himself in Waterford sometime early in 1718, and who was brought to Virginia as a servant after signing his indenture papers, is my ancestor, the same man who suddenly pops up from nowhere in 1728 in a county two counties west of Richmond Co. seeking to buy land.  Something most former servants did when their period of servitude ended--as Dennis' Linchey's would have ended by around 1725.

And the name of this man was almost certainly Dennis Lynch.  There is confusion in the colonial Virginia records about how to spell the given name Lynch, confusion that originates in Ireland itself, where the Irish name O'Loinsigh became anglicized as both Lynch and Lindsey.  And so some families with one of those names appear in colonial Virginia records with both spellings until the spelling of their name is finally standardized with one or the other English spelling.

And the point of that long ramble: without DNA research, I'd never have been able to follow the trail of records that was already there, in Virginia county records, but hidden to me, as long as I thought I was searching for a man named Dennis Lindsey or Lindsay prior to 1728--and not for a man named Dennis Lynch.  For some three hundred years now, my family has lived on this side of the Atlantic as a Lindsey family, and we had come to think of ourselves as very likely a branch of some Scottish family with that name.

DNA tells us otherwise: we're Lynches.  Who became Lindseys in 1718 when a young, unlettered Irish servant came to Virginia and found his name transformed by those who could read and write--by the clerks of the county courts--as Lindsey and not Lynch.

As Sharfstein notes, DNA research is, indeed, revolutionizing what many of us now know about our roots.

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