Some years ago, womanist theologian Karen Baker–Fletcher asked about ancestors following a lecture I gave on the body and nature. I have since come to realize that ancestors are a missing link between the two: we cannot speak adequately of embodiment and interdependence in the web of life without recognizing the ancestors whose lives made ours possible. Our mothers quite literally gave us our bodies. All of our ancestors gave us their genes. Care and callousness with origins going back longer than conscious memory was imprinted on the psyches of our parents and grandparents and transmitted to us. All of our ancestors give us connections to place. While many black people in America can recite oral histories that begin with slavery in the United States, I come from a family where stories of origin for the most part were not valued or told. Both of my father’s parents lost their fathers when they were very young, and my father, who was raised Catholic at a time when Catholics were discriminated against, preferred to think of our family as “American now.” Like the hero of the film Lost in America, most members of my family dreamed of “melting right into that pot.” In the process we lost stories we need to help us to understand ourselves and the complex realities that “becoming American” involved.
My grandmother’s brother Emery Searing traced the Searings back to the exodus of Huguenot Protestants from France to the Netherlands to England and the marriage of Jan Seroen to Jane Badger at St. Savior’s church in London in 1610. Their son Simon’s name is found on the deed of purchase of land from the Indians in 1647 in Hempstead, Long Island, to a group of people who were or became Quakers, at a time when New York was under Dutch rule. I did not remember this connection when I arrived at the Hempstead train station to visit relatives (not part of the Searing lineage) who lived in Hicksville (named after a famous Quaker family) in the 1960s and 1970s.
Samuel and Mary Pearsall Searing moved to Saratoga Springs, New York in 1778, probably because Samuel’s having fought in the Revolutionary War was controversial in the Quaker community in Hempstead. My great-great-great grandfather Nathaniel was born in Saratoga Springs in 1814. After his parents died, he hired out as a farm laborer and married Louisa C. Martin who was born in Vermont. They “came to Michigan in 1840, the journey occupying thirteen days and being made with a team, settling in the woods … and buil[ding] a log cabin” near Lyons, where they raised short-horn cattle. Nathaniel’s son James Augustus married Dora Sofia Bahlke, daughter of Anton Bahlke and Mary Hand who [my research shows] emigrated together from Mecklenburg, Germany to Michigan where they also established a farm. Popular culture provides images of the hardships these ancestors must have endured.
Dora and James Augustus were the parents of Emery born in 1880 and my grandmother Lena Marie born in 1891 and a number of other children. None of the children stayed on the Searing farm, still known by that name when my mother’s sister Mary Helen visited it in the 1970s. The farm featured in stories told by the family’s only raconteurs–Emery who described how he lost parts of his fingers in a threshing machine, and Lena whose tales of the pony that held its breath when they tried to saddle it, lulled us to sleep.
As I delve into my family history and ancestry, I uncover threads that have been woven into my life and come to understand something about who “my people” were. Some of these insights are affirming, others troubling.
Uncle Emery traced his fatherline but not his many motherlines. I have first-hand experience of the widespread patriarchal attitudes that led to this choice. However, he included most of the family names of the women who married the Searing men. These included: Badger, Pine, “Elizabeth (family name missing),” Embree, Pearsall, Wright, Martin, and Bahlke. Though the patrilineal name can be traced to France, the family had most likely–the motherlines are incomplete–become primarily English by the time Dora Bahlke married into it. In other branches of my family tree as well “ethnicity” is not easily specified, due to movements and changing boundaries within Europe and to intermarriages among groups.
As marriages to Indians were often covered up and the last names of all of the other Searing brides are known, I wonder if “Elizabeth (family name missing)” who married Simon’s grandson Jonathan in the late 1600s or early 1700s was Native American. Given that the fathers and grandfathers of the women who married into the Searing family had also settled on Indian land, it is unlikely that there are no marriages to Indian woman in our family story. Could this be a source of my affinity to Native American spirituality?
Records I found confirm that “Indian Wars” were on-going when Simon ‘s group settled in Hempstead, raising questions about how “free” the Indians were when they “sold” the land. Simon was fined in 1659 for selling wine to Indians, showing that he had some degree of “friendly” contact with them. Settlements in Saratoga Springs were also on formerly Indian land. The Michigan territory the Bahlkes and Searings claimed was “opened up” following polices of “pushing” the Indians westward. No doubt there were some Indians still living in both places, but I have not uncovered what kind of friendly or hostile contact my ancestors may have had with them. The knowledge that some of my ancestors were the first settlers of Indian lands is unsettling. Could this be why strong feelings are aroused in me by stories of the many trails of tears walked by the Indians? Because we live on land taken from the Indians, all Americans have a responsibility to repair the damage that is still being suffered as a result of conquest by living Indians. I also have a specific history to repair.
The Searing story reveals that I come from a family with longstanding and recent histories of conversion and strongly held religious beliefs. 30,000 Huguenot followers of John Calvin were killed on a single day and 200,000 others were driven out of France in the 1570’s. I did not realize that I had a connection to this history when I studied it. My family’s Quaker heritage was lost when Dora Bahlke Searing converted to Christian Science. Like the Huguenots, the Quakers were often persecuted for their beliefs. At the time of Samuel Searing’s emigration there were 4000 Quakers in English jails; Quakers were banished and even hanged in the colonies. I also did not remember that some of my ancestors were Quakers when I read of Quaker involvement in the abolitionist and suffrage movements and of Quaker pacifism. Though my own anti-racist, anti-war, and feminist commitments have made me something of a “black” sheep in my immediate family, I am carrying on commitments held by some of my more distant ancestors. My mother happily gave up Christian Science when she married because it made her “different,” but I am proud that my great-grandmother converted to and my grandmother followed a religion founded by a woman; I affirm the power of mind or faith healing, and I too am suspicious of the medical profession.
My deeply held beliefs created a rift in my family. My rejection of Christianity isolated me among feminists in the study of religion and limited my employment opportunities. Christian feminists sometimes ask how I can “abandon” women who remain Christian. When I feel alone, it is comforting to know that I come from a line of women and men who resisted authority, rejected the religions of their ancestors, and put their own lives and liberties on the line for their beliefs and for the rights of others.