Fighting off historical amnesia.
Can historical amnesia be affecting your genealogical research?
Forgetting the past is called “Historical Amnesia.” Historical Amnesia is a constant threat to our ability to decipher our research and put it in context. We must know history, or its lessons, truths, and records are not available to us as we seek out our ancestors.
Lost History Affects Genealogy Research
On October 17, 1853, Gideon Ross appeared in county court, along with his black slave servant Philip Henry Vandervere, and completed a deed and certificate of manumission, freeing Philip Henry Vandervere from slavery for the rest of his life. You might wonder what was important about this action; after all, American slave owners have been “known” to manumit their slaves for hundreds of years. The significance of this manumission is that it took place in New Jersey, a northern state, in 1853 just eight years before the beginning of the War Between the States.
Whenever events take place in history that are difficult, such as slavery in America, there are people who seek to sweep them under the rug, so to speak. And so it has been with the development of Historical Amnesia about African American slavery in the Antebellum North. However well-intentioned this may have seemed at the time, there are ramifications of lost and forgotten history that can impact people and society for generations, including affecting genealogy research.
Many people in America have grown up with the paradigm that black slavery prior to the Civil War was solely an institution of the Southern States. Indeed slavery was predominant in the South; but since the early years following the American Revolution when the abolition of slavery began to take place in the United States, a concerted effort has been undertaken to paint slavery right out of the northern states picture, and make that region appear to be the champion of freedom in America. This is historical amnesia; and genealogists and family historians desiring a record of all acceptation in a correct accounting of their roots must throw off this yoke of untruth. This is especially so for the descendants of African American slaves from the antebellum north.
The Facts of History
The facts of history are that slavery existed in all parts of the American colonies and states at some point or another before the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. In fact, the northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line (i.e. Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) had over 70,000 slaves within their borders at the beginning of the American Revolution. An estimated one out of every four families in New England prior to 1775 owned slaves. The Revolutionary Spirit that led America into War in 1776, excited the minds and inspired the hearts of people toward the concepts of “All men are created equal…”, and as a result, slavery in the North began to follow a different path than it did in the South.
This different road led to new laws and legislation for emancipation in each of the northern states (and later those in the Northwest Territory), that would bring about the Northern abolition of slavery on a gradual basis. The North was the financial, shipping and manufacturing center for the products of slavery; but by 1861 almost all visible slavery was gone from the Northern United States when the Civil War began. And so went the public perception of the historical truth and the associated records of slavery and emancipation that it ever existed in the North. Before the War of Secession, but most especially following the Union victory in 1865, this historical re-visioning of slavery as only being in the South, began to make its way into American writings and education, creating a sense of “historical amnesia” and the forgetting of the genealogical and historical records of these enslaved people.
Historical Amnesia in Modern Times Genealogy Research
In modern times, this amnesia about northern antebellum slavery has appeared in popular writing and media (such as the movie musical 1776), depicting the North with no slavery during colonial times; and political interest groups calling for Southern apologies and compensation, as if that region alone was responsible for the horrors of slavery and bondage in the American experience. Such historical amnesia now has led to wide-scale misconceptions about African American genealogy research. Not knowing about slavery in the Northern states means that people today, and especially descendants of Northern slavery, don’t know about emancipation and the records that resulted from that Northern states’ legislative route to African freedom in America.
This loss of historical memory on black slavery and emancipation in the antebellum northern states has created a tragic disconnect between African Americans and their genealogical history. Many millions of people today descend from such Northern bondage, and the lack of correct history inhibits genealogy researchers in their efforts to discover their true lineage back to their forefathers.
Overcoming Historical Amnesia
Historical amnesia is real, but can be overcome. Truth, whether in history, religious belief, or in the study of genealogy and family history, is vital to our well-being; without it, we waiver in uncertainty. Over time historical amnesia sets in, and generations can dwindle in unbelief or be entirely lost to future generations because of this lack of truth. In genealogy research and family history work, a single untruth can divert people from identifying their correct heritage.
We must fight historical amnesia by keeping a record worthy of all acceptation in our homes and rehearsing these truths with our family. To accomplish this we must be willing to truthfully research the historical setting of our ancestral puzzles and brickwalls. We must consider the possibility that the existing understanding may be incorrect or even false, and then endeavor to look at it with new eyes. By doing so, we are able to ask new questions, and seek for new answers which will lead us to the new archives of knowledge of the truth in our family history.
James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.
For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.