A Daughter of the American Revolution and a Daughter of Quaker Slave Owners in Long Island, New York by Carol P. Christ


I did not ever think that genealogical research would reveal that I am descended from slave owners.

My family’s early American roots are in New York and the upper Midwest—not in the American South. While watching genealogy programs that reveal slave-holding ancestors in the lines of white and black Americans with roots in the South, I have breathed a sigh of relief accompanied by the thought–not me!

I have not expended a great deal of energy researching Searing ancestors who settled in Hempstead, Long Island in the 1640s, because my Uncle Emery had already traced the family line. Bored one afternoon and wondering if my ancestor Samuel Searing had left the Hempstead Quaker community because he fought in the Revolutionary War, I entered the Searing family surname into a general internet search.

I found that my 4x great-grandfather Nathaniel Pearsall–whose daughter Sarah and her husband Samuel Searing are my 3x great-grandparents–is indeed listed for “patriotic service” in the Daughters of the American Revolution database.  As an anti-war activist, I wish there had never been a revolutionary war–we could all have been Canadians!  I would have been pleased to learn that my ancestors were all Quaker pacifists. Still, I must admit that I felt a twinge of pride to be able to trace my ancestry back to our country’s beginnings.

Continuing to follow up links to Searing ancestors, I stumbled upon the wills John and Elizabeth Searing. John was a brother of my 5x great-grandfather, Jonathan Searing.

In the name of God, Amen, April 22, 1746. I, John Searing, of Hempstead, in Queens County, being very sick. My executors are to pay all my debts. I order all my negroes to be sold, except the oldest negro boy; Also my wheat, except enough for family use. I leave to my wife Elizabeth, one bed and furniture and a side saddle, and the use of 1/2 my farm, until my children are brought up…

In the name of God, Amen, November 27, 1760. I,Elizabeth Searing, of Hempstead, of Queens County, being sick. I leave to my son, John Searing, my negro man and a bed and three blankets, etc. To my daughter, Mary Searing, a negro girl, and she is to have clothing and linen of mine so much as my other two daughters have had. …  I leave my granddaughter, Mary Searing, daughter of my son Jacob, a negro girl, and to my daughter Anne long cloak, and the rest of my apparell to my daughters.

If I am a daughter of the American revolution, I am also a daughter of Quaker slave-holders. It is well-known that the Quakers were among the most vociferous abolitionist voices in America.  Who would have thought that Quakers had also owned “negroes.” How did this come about?

Hempstead, Long Island was originally settled in the 1640s by Puritans who found the wetlands suitable for cattle farming. By the 1660s many in the colony had become Quakers. They had also become so prosperous that they petitioned their Dutch rulers to let them import indentured servants to perform household and farm labor. The Dutch proposed that they import slaves instead. The Hempstead census of 1722 records nearly 2000 white people and over 300 slaves. In 1723 Queens County had over 6000 whites and more than 1100 slaves. My slave-owning Northern Quaker relatives had plenty of company.*

As early as 1716 and 1718 Long Island Quakers—to their credit–began to question the morality of owning other human beings.  By 1775, there was a strong movement among Quakers to free their slaves. In 1799, New York passed a law that would gradually abolish slavery and in 1827,New York abolished slavery.*

The thought of freeing their slaves apparently did not occur to Jonathan Searing in 1746 or to Elizabeth Searing in 1760. Indeed Jonathan directed that his slaves be sold, which may have resulted in the breakup of families and ill treatment for “negroes” he professed to care about. Elizabeth, in giving a “negro girl” to her granddaughter, passed the “values” of slave-holding down her family line.

What does it mean to learn that one has ancestors who were capable of treating other human beings as property? I would have expected to feel guilt and shame. And I am sure I will feel these feelings as the knowledge of my ancestors’ complicity in great evil sinks into my bones. However, what I am feeling today is clarity. I now know just how deeply I am rooted in the American land and its history.

I now know that my family line holds a mixture of good and evil. My earliest American ancestors left Europe in order to practice their own religious beliefs freely; I treasure their legacy as I too have refused to let others dictate my religion.  My Quaker ancestors were pacifists, and I too imagine a world without war. My ancestors resisted slavery; I like to think that I follow in their footsteps. But my Quaker ancestors also held slaves. This knowledge teaches me that I am human: I hold the capacity for great good and great evil within me.  I can and must choose what I will make of the history bequeathed to me.

*See “Slavery on Long Island” by Anne Hartell

Update: I did not have the will of direct ancestor Jonathan Searing d. 1785 (brother of John above) when I wrote this blog, but having found it in 2017, I discovered that he left a Negro girl named Rachel to his granddaughter Elizabeth Searing.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute

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8 replies

  1. I, like many others, had believed that slavery did not ever exist in Canada. In school we learned about the underground railroad and the emancipation of slaves, and so i think we tend to think of ourselves as the good guys. However, while researching my own family history I found the handwritten notes of an itnerant minister in the area where my ancestors lived in Upper Canada. There were several entries for the baptisms of slaves who were owned by a family with one of my family names. Fraser was a common name, and there were several unrelated branches, and I wasn’t able to confirm if the Frasers in question were my ancestors or not, but reading these entries led me to read about slavery in Canada and it was quite an eye opener. Researching our roots pretty much always reveals aspects of connection that surprise us.

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  2. Hi, Carol, My genealogical search revealed much the same information as yours. Early ancestors, traveling from England in the 1600s were given land in Rhode Island where they were planters with slaves. There is still an Almy family cemetery and it has a slave section.
    We too have revolutionary war and crown supporters as well! I want to visit Rhode Island’s historical society and read some of the diaries housed in the archives there. I wonder whether they will make any comments on slave holding practices? Susan

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  3. Am reminded of Alice Walker’s poem about making peace with her ancestors: “In me the meaning of your lives is still unfolding.”

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  4. Thanks for this reflection, Carol. How interesting (and distressing no doubt) to discover this bit of your past.

    I don’t know if I am descended from slaveholders — I don’t think so, given the fact that most of my family came from Europe in the mid to late 1800’s. But I did find out about five years ago that i am descended from polygamists. I had no idea. My mom never said a word about it. When I asked her why she never told me, she responded, “Well, I don’t like thinking about it!” I totally get that. As a feminist, it makes me cringe to think that I only exist because of this system — polygamy — that I find morally troubling and unfair to women.

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  5. I haven’t yet discovered if my southern ancestors owned slaves, but I am pretty certain that the 600 acre plot of land in northern Alabama that my great-grandfather farmed (and where my grandmother and mother were born) was Cherokee land that was allotted to him after the tribe was banished to the Trail of Tears. That area was a large, prosperous village and to this day the farmer who now owns the land finds arrowheads when he plows every spring. My mother still weeps about losing “the farm” to this man. I weep for how our family got it in the first place.

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  6. John Woolman, in his Journal, recounts his appeals to Quaker meetings, up and down the Eastern seaboard, seeking to convince Quakers that the slavery was evil. The result was that, a century before the Civil War, leading Quaker congregations were condemning the trade and freeing their slaves. Woolman’s comment upon leaving Long Island: “The Lord I believe hath a people…who are honestly concerned to serve him, but many I fear are too much clogged with the things of this life and do not come forward bearing the cross in such faithfulness as the Almighty calls for.”

    You might find my book on pacifism of interest:
    http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1

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  7. Sorry, I forgot that wordpress puts this huge button instead of just the link….it’s the only one that does this.

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  8. Very interesting article, Carol. We must be related, as I am related to those Searing’s as well.

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