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.
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