We Could Have Been Canadians and Other Thoughts about My New England Colonial Heritage by Carol P. Christ

carol mitzi sarahMy 2x great-grandparents Nathaniel Searing and Louisa Caroline Martin were pioneers who cleared the land and built a log cabin in Lyons, Michigan in 1840. They were descended from English Puritan Colonial settlers in New England. At least two of my ancestors are recognized by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolutions. Other members of my family who were Quakers proudly refused to take part in the Revolutionary War.

My great-grandfather James Augustus married a woman of German descent, his daughter Lena Marie married a Swede, and my mother married a man who was German, Irish, and Scottish. As the descendants of Nathaniel Searing and Louisa Caroline Martin moved around the United States and married into the families of newer immigrants, the succeeding generations also lost touch with their history. Our family’s connections to the New England Colonists were not even mentioned at Thanksgiving!

I would wager that few of the descendants of Nathaniel and Louisa Caroline were told they had ancestors in the Colonies. I read my great-uncle Emery’s history of the Searing branch of our family’s colonial ancestors as a child, but the import of his findings was not made clear to me. No one ever said, “This means you are related to the original New England Colonists.”

searing homestead in colorWhen I moved back East and studied at Yale in New Haven, I took an annual drive with a friend to Litchfield (where some of my ancestors had lived) when the fall leaves were in color, visited Hempstead, Long Island (where some of my ancestors settled the Hempstead Colony) to visit my father’s relatives who lived there, and lived in Oyster Bay, Long Island  (which other ancestors settled) for two summers as a research assistant; during all of those times, the idea that parts of my family’s history were to be found in those very places never even crossed my mind.

My journey into my Colonial past has helped me to understand that I have deep roots in the early history of America, in both the good and the evil that was done. I take strength from the courage and spirit of ancestors who came to the Colonies to escape religious persecution and to make better lives for themselves and their children. I admire their serious commitment to the ideas they held dear, as this is a character trait I have inherited from them. I am proud that some of my ancestors rejected the negative aspects of Puritanism, including rule by the clergy, intolerance, and the doctrine of predestination.

I am happy to claim my Quaker heritage (which I am only now learning about), as I too oppose war and slavery and affirm women’s rights. Like the Quakers, I believe that each of us has an “inner light.” I stand in awe of pioneers who cleared forests, built homes, and ploughed fields with their own hands—and in even more awe of the women who did all of that while bearing and raising large numbers of children.

When I began the journey to find my New England Colonial heritage, I naively hoped that my ancestors’ relationships with the Indians were positive. I took heart when I read that the founders of the Hempstead Colony “purchased” their land from the Indians. But as I dug further into the history of the Hempstead Colony, I found evidence of the violence that (to be truthful I already knew) accompanied the “claiming” and “seizing” of lands that were inhabited by other human beings. And then I discovered the even more violent history of the Indian Wars in Massachusetts and Connecticut—stories that made me wish this “history” was not mine.

I did not expect to discover that Quaker members of my family held slaves in New York. Though I acknowledge and fight against the racism that has structured American life, I had assumed that the beginning of this story was in “the South.” Nor would I ever have imagined that I might be related to some of the English Pershall/Pearsall shipowners who were “architects” of the “slave triangle” by means of which slaves from Africa were brought to America, while sugar, cotton, and tobacco were carried back to in England.

What does the knowledge that “my ancestors” traded and held slaves and killed Indians in order to take their land mean to me? It means that I can no longer view myself as innocent in relation to great struggles that are not over: the struggle of the Native Americans to reclaim their dignity and to find new ways to flourish in the land they now must share with others; and the struggle of former slaves to overcome the racism that has structured their lives and limited their opportunities in the country they helped to build.

I think both groups deserve an apologies and for past wrongs and ongoing harm, and reparations in the form of opportunities (for example, grants for for education, training, and home and small business ownership, as well as grants to groups) that will enable them to take their rightful places within the larger American community.

In the course of this journey I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and watched his lecture on Three Holy Wars on YouTube. Although I have opposed war all of my adult life, I had never asked whether or not the Revolutionary War had to be fought. Yet, as Zinn said, “We could have been Canadians.” Had we been Canadians, we might not feel we need to “fight” with soldiers, armies, and weapons in order to achieve “freedom” in our own country or and around the world.

After pondering Zinn’s argument deeply, I was pleased to find that most of the Quakers held firm to their principles and refused to take part in the Revolutionary War. I agree with them that the harm that is created by war is greater than any good that can ever come of it. I would be prouder to claim myself as a “Daughter of the Resistance to the American Revolution” if such a group existed, than to claim the membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution which is also my right.

Recently a series of platitudes about the American Revolution spoken by Chris Matthews have been appearing on my screen when I watch MSNBC news programs. Matthews assumes that the notion that “all men are created equal” is worth “fighting for.” But is it? One of the legacies of the American Revolution is the so-called “right to bear arms” enshrined in the second amendment to the Constitution that is troubling America today. Another is the notion that as the inheritors of the Revolution, Americans are authorized and required to “fight for freedom” around the world. But are we? And should we? Or were the Quakers right that war can never have a “good” outcome?

We must acknowledge all of our history—the parts we like and the parts we don’t. To do anything else is to tell a false story. But then we can decide which strands of our history we wish to affirm, which we wish to reject, and which we can still try to heal or repair.

We remember some parts of our ancestors’ stories for the strength and grounding the knowledge of their stories can give us. But with knowledge, there is also responsibility. We cannot change history, but we try to change the world we have inherited.

Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–$150 discount for the next two women to sign up for the fall 2014 tour–www.goddessariadne.org.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

6 thoughts on “We Could Have Been Canadians and Other Thoughts about My New England Colonial Heritage by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Great article. My only caveat is about the American Indian. Having been closely involved with Idle No More, I really believe that instead of bringing them into our culture we all might be better served if we followed their traditional ways. I firmly believe that indigenous people of the world may have the best solutions to our “civilization”. I do see patriarchy in many tribes. Still, they have an innate understanding of being in the world not just a part of it. One I wholly support. Thank You.


    1. Of course I agree with you that the world would be better off if white Americans learned from Native Americans that we are part of nature and all beings are our relatives. And of course it is up to the Native Americans to decide how and whether they want to become part of larger American society. I was thinking of the hopelessness, drug use, and violence on reservations when I spoke of reparations in the form of education, small business opportunities, and home ownership. I will be teaching Make a Beautiful Way ed Barbara Mann which discusses Native American matriarchal traditions again this fall.


  2. My mother’s father was descended from the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians. I did a search this morning for the Choctaws in Mississippi and found that they have elected their first female Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson. Hooray!!! Without your post, Carol, I wouldn’t have looked that up, so many thanks = Yakoke !!


  3. Loved reading this post Carol – and your conclusions. I do agree with “wemarriage” about trying to change indiginous people into “good white folks”, but see a big difference between education and assimilation. The First Nations people I know who have University degrees, etc., have returned to their land and helped restore human rights and their culture. Women like Judith Sayers have helped bridge the gap between us “Settlers” and the Original People who lived here. Understanding and cooperation works so much better than fighting and killing.


  4. Carol, This was a wonderful post. Many people never discover their family heritage and I think it makes history, the good and bad parts of it, far less real or connected to them.

    As for fighting for freedom, I think it’s time we stopped doing that. It is time we stopped listening to those who tell us this is the only way. It will take a while, but if we started now surely my grandchildren would see a more peaceful world. I think that the possibility that war is always an option makes it the only alternative far to often in a patriarchal society.

    We only have to look at Ferguson, Missouri to see how close we are to a violent solution to the century and a half of oppression we have allowed to happen while we built the American dream.

    My own family tree is full of stories similar to yours. One ancestor argued with Cotton Mather over the Salem witches. I have a copy of his paper on the subject. I am proud of him, and as a witch, very grateful. And in my youth I was interested in Anne Boleyn and the other seven wives of the Horrible Henry. Imagine my shock and grief to learn I am descended from Cardinal Richelieu’ s Secretary. The man who attended the trials and compiled the papers for the death of those women.

    Discovering our heritage instills in us, hopefully, a determination to do better. Which is what brings people to distant shores in the first place.


  5. As a kid, I was never interested in our family’s genealogy (which also goes way back in American history), because it was just names and dates as practiced by my aunt. But my brother-in-law has begun to dig up very interesting stories about OUR ancestors (plus his) to pass on to his kids and to his sisters-in-law as well. What I find interesting are the stories, and what they tell about these people who gave birth to me.

    The larger issue here is the one of history. When I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I was astounded time and again at how ignorant my students were about history. “Don’t know much about history” could be the national theme song. As a country I think we generally believe that history is irrelevant. Our founding myths are profoundly ahistorical: that as a nation, we’re somehow self-fashioning and free of history (as opposed to Europe, from which we wanted to distinguish ourselves) and that we’re somehow God’s chosen nation and, therefore, outside of history. If genealogy helps us get over this ahistoricism, I think it’s a great thing. And the way you’re practicing, Carol, appears to do just that.


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