Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Odd Wisconsin Archive

Sins of the Fathers

The media has been buzzing over the last week with stories about the slave-owning ancestors of prominent politicians.

First, former presidential candidate Al Sharpton revealed that genealogists had discovered that some of his ancestors had been owned by ancestors of notorious segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Then the Baltimore Sun reported that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s white mother had ancestors who owned slaves. So, too, the Sun went on, did ancestors of two other presidential candidates -- Democratic Sen. John Edwards and Republican Sen. John McCain.

Where will it all end?

Nowhere, presumably, since slave-owning was a central part of mainstream American life for centuries.

We like to think that slavery was a uniquely Southern institution, perhaps because images from Uncle Tom's Cabin or Huckleberry Finn have thoroughly permeated the American consciousness. Many of us who live in the North were also taught as children that the Civil War was fought mainly in order to end the evil of Southern slavery. But, as usual, the truth is more complicated than our childhood myths.

For the 200 years that Europeans colonized North America, owning slaves was perfectly legal almost everywhere. For example, the ancestors of one Historical Society staff member arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 and their offspring never moved any further south than Providence, Rhode Island. But two generations of them owned slaves -- in 18th-century Massachusetts.

African slaves were sold on American soil before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and from that time onward they lived all over eastern North America. Not only Africans but also Native Americans were enslaved by white settlers, and not just by the Spanish in the far west but all across the continent. Moreover, many Indians themselves owned slaves, most often prisoners taken from their enemies in war. But sometimes, as with the Cherokee in the South, Indians owned African American slaves just like their white neighbors did. And as we learned this weekend, the history of slavery is a sensitive issue in Native American communities just like it is in white and black ones. The simple fact is that slavery touched nearly everyone in early America.

Here in Wisconsin, the first slave mentioned in historical records belonged to a French officer stationed at Green Bay in 1725. When the English drove the French out of Canada in 1760, Wisconsin settlers were told that "they may keep their Negro and Pawnee slaves, but must surrender all those taken from the English." Some of these Wisconsin slaves were as brutally treated as those on any Southern plantation. In 1807, the Indian agent at Prairie du Chien rescued a black child from torture by his Green Bay owner, and in 1845 a slave woman was whipped to death by an officer at Fort Crawford, who went unpunished.

By then, many slaves had been brought north into Wisconsin by southern miners and Army officers, even though slavery was outlawed here by the Northwest Ordinance. Even our first chief executive, Henry Dodge, ignored this law and brought his slaves to Wisconsin. More stories about Wisconsin slaves are available through the links on our Black History page. Stories about slaves who resisted and escaped are accessible through our Underground Railroad page.

So we shouldn't be surprised that Barack Obama's or John McCain's or anyone else's ancestors owned slaves. Many millions of people alive today -- almost anyone with forebears in North America before 1860 -- has a good chance of discovering a slave-owning ancestor somewhere in the family tree. And if we dig deeply enough, more strange connections like the Sharpton-Thurmond bond will surely be discovered. Whether these revelations should affect our votes or other political activities is something each of us must decide for ourselves. But we all have to accept that we share a common legacy that includes slavery.

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 3, 2007

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text