African Captors and White Captives: Flipping the Story on Slavery

When Americans discuss slavery, we usually think of the white people who enslaved Africans and African-Americans. The more knowledgeable include Native Americans and other people of color who were also enslaved by whites. But slavery also worked in other directions. For example, whites who were captured and enslaved by Africans.

Those travelling on ships near and around Africa often fell victim to pirates, or even to natural causes crippling their ships and leaving them at the mercy of African captors. They were often enslaved by their captors, or sold into slavery with others. Conditions were usually at least as harsh as those that enslaved people in America suffered at the hands of whites.

Among the most notorious of locations was Tripoli, held by the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. They kept slaves under the most dreadful of conditions. Tensions between the U.S. and Tripoli escal
ated during the early nineteenth century when the Barbary Wars erupted with the Americans fighting the forces from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In fact, the part of the first line in the Marine fight song that says “to the shores of Tripoli” refers to the Battle of Derne in 1805, the first time that the American flag was raised in the old world.

Many were taken captive and held in slavery for months or years before being repatriated. Many never made it home. Some who did wrote narratives of their experiences as captives, which were published for the public to read.

Paul Baepler published a good collection of these stories in his 1999 work White Slaves, African Masters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). He provides a good introductory discussion of Barbary captives, then selects nine authors from Cotton Mather to ordinary individuals, discussing various experiences as captives. He finishes with a bibliography of mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications of captives’ stories. An excerpt from Dr. Jonathan Cowdery’s account of his captivity with the crew of the U.S. Frigate Philadelphia in 1803:



Nov. 24. — The Bashaw refused to furnish necessary clothing for the sick, or any thing for them to eat, but sour filthy bread. — Captain Bainbridge contracted with the Danish consult o supply the sick with beef and vegetables for soup every day.

Nov. 27. — Our men complained of their hard usage, in being compelled to lie on the cold damp ground, to eat bad bread, to work hard, and to be bastinadoed [caned] by their drivers.

Nov. 30. — One of our men in a fit of despair attempted to kill himself; but was prevented by the Turks, when in the act of cutting his throat. The wound did not prove mortal.

If your ancestors lived on the coast and were seafaring people, some of them may have been white slaves. Start looking for them. More importantly, start thinking about how you would feel if your ancestors were suddenly on the other side of slavery. Do you take a more conciliatory tone towards your own ancestors who owned slaves? Do you explain it away as being part of the time and culture, but reverse the discussion when the situation is reversed and the slavers become masters and the masters become slaves? Why is that? It certainly makes for an interesting discussion, both internal and with other family members, and will make an interesting addition to your family history.

Ten Things Marching Band Taught Me About Genealogy

Six years ago today, we lost a man who touched the lives of thousands of young men and women. George N. Parks had the innate ability to see the good in everyone, and to inspire them to do their best; to learn from their mistakes and do even better next time. I first met him in 1982 when I joined the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band, and my life was changed forever.

Those of you have heard me speak may have heard me reference him in my presentations. His “starred thought” lessons were brief and to the point. Not only were these thoughts incredibly important to band and to life in general, I have been able to apply those lessons to genealogical research in many ways. I first wrote about this six years ago when he passed, but it is time for an updated look.

  1. If you fail to plan, plan to fail.
    Creating a research plan is an important part of the research process. Without a plan, y
    our research can end up scattering you all over the place, going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. A good research plan can keep you out of trouble, focused, and more productive in your research.
  1. There are no problems; there are merely opportunities for creative thinking.
    Conflicting information is going to happen. Brick walls will happen. These challenges are there to be overcome, not to stop you in your tracks. When it comes to genealogy, thinking outside the box is critical. Try looking at your problem from a different angle. That may open up new avenues you didn’t see before.
  1. The more difficult the conditions; the more you have to seem to like what you’re doing
    It is easy to get frustrated. When you can’t find information, when the evidence conflicts with your theories, when there are multiple possible solutions to your research question, it is easy to get stressed, making it difficult to focus. Sometimes you just have to clear your throat, clear your head, and plow full-steam forward. Even if you’re pretending to know what you’re doing while stabbing away in the dark, the very movement will help you to focus and make progress.
  1. Anytime you have a group of over 20 people, people stop thinking. You have got to make sure there’s thought!
    Undocumented or unexplained online family trees and database. Enough said.
  1. Anyone can make a mistake
    When you are using information published by others, be it an article, book, blog post, online database or family tree, or written on the back of the napkin, you must be wary of errors. Everyone makes them. Genealogy journals are filled with articles correcting previously published information. This is not always the fault of the original author (although sometimes it is due to research problems). Often it is because new evidence has come to light that throws previous conclusions into doubt or disproves them entirely.
  1. Adopt, adapt, and improve.
    It is important to look at work made by others and incorporate it into our research. But, it is equally important to review previous conclusions (whether our own or those of others)
    in light of new sources, information, and evidence. Conclusions may have to be modified or changed completely, but it is easy for us to improve on that earlier work and create more sound conclusions based on currently available evidence. 
  1. Make sure your traditions are sound.
    Good research habits are the most important contributor to proving that the people in your pedigree chart are actually related to you. A good strong foundation in the basics will minimize errors in your conclusions.
  1. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.
    We will make mistakes in our research. We are human. Every genealogist at one time or another has had to break out the chainsaw and remove massive limbs from the family tree. As we are faced with evidence that contradicts our conclusions, it is important to not freak out, but to review all of the evidence again to come up with the most sound conclusions possible. 
  1. The key in life is participation!
    It is easy to use databases put together by volunteers, government agencies, non-profits, or private companies. It is easy to use books and articles written by others. But getting into the original records and sources to verify everything that has come before can help prevent you from perpetuating errors. It is also one of the most fun parts of genealogy.
  1. Take music and your studies seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
    Genealogy is fun, an important contribution to history, and to remembering our individual as well as our shared pasts. But unless you are working on genetics and medical history to save the lives of family members, there is no such thing as a genealogical life-or-death emergency. Relax and enjoy. Remember to take a break once in a while and read a fiction book or take a walk. Then you will be more prepared to deal with the person who still believes the myth that any individual ever changed their name at Ellis Island.

George taught me a lot of things about life and living. He changed the world, one person at a time. The hundreds of thousands of people who worked with him through DCI, the UMMB, Drum Major Academy, and the countless clinics he held and competitions he judged will remember him to the end of days. I leave you with one of his “starred thoughts” that I think sums up genealogists quite well:

“The essential condition of everything you do must be choice, love, and passion.”
~ George N. Parks (1953–2010)

Reviewing Your Sources and Conclusions

Researching your ancestors has never been easier. We have tremendous amounts of information available to us. Database after database of indexes, transcriptions, and original records have facilitated our access to information. More and more individuals are sharing their research through online family trees. Websites now even provide suggestions to users to add people to their online family trees. All of this technology helps us in many ways to move the research process along more quickly. But it also increases our burden, because errors are more easily missed and absorbed into our personal pedigrees, wreaking havoc with our true ancestry.

Let me start this conversation by saying that I in no way blame the technologies companies that are providing the information. Computers are very stupid things. They do what humans tell them to do. They will provide us with search results and suggestions very quickly. But it is up to us to determine whether or not these results and suggestions are accurate. All too often, this is a step in the process that we skip. And that missing step is what causes problems in our pedigrees.

I was doing some research once for an article I was writing on my grandfather’s family. I was trying to locate the death information for several of his many siblings. During the course of my search I discovered an online family tree created by a second cousin. Although identities are hidden on living individuals for privacy, I easily determined who created the tree. Her grandmother was my grandfather’s sister.  In looking at it, I quickly saw that she had traced our great-grandfather’s line back for 13 generations. The problem is that every bit of it, starting with our great-grandfather’s birth information and identification of his parents, was wrong. it was clear that research had been limited to online resources. Since his parents also immigrated to the same village in Connecticut, any search in records there would have quickly revealed the disconnect. They are even buried in the same plot as our great-grandparents!

As a rule, French-Canadian names can be quite common, with many different individuals carrying the same, or highly similar, names. Our great-grandfather is an exception to that rule. There are only a handful of individuals who had the same name. And my cousin connected to the wrong individual. Examining my great-grandfathers’ marriage record, death record, or burial record would have corrected the problem in a moment.

Online family trees only exacerbate this problem. They can make it easier to more quickly add many branches to your family tree. But they also allow errors to creep in more quickly. Nowhere are the errors more egregious than when trying to link to famous families.

This example comes from an online family tree with an error I have often come across. Individuals trying to be related to Benjamin Franklin name James Franklin of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, as a son of Thomas and Jane (White) Franklin.

Online tree incorrectly linking James Franklin of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to the family of Dr. Benjamin Franklin.

Looking at the tree, one can see several documents attached as evidence. But carefully looking at the documents shows that none of them provides any information about the parents of James. That’s because his origins are unknown. But since Thomas Franklin had no son named James, and since Thomas was an only son, there is no way to tie someone of his generation to the more famous Franklin family.

This did not stop someone at some point from linking James. And others picked up that information in their trees, and now it is all over online trees in many different places. Many of these people have no intention of including misinformation. They just didn’t take the time to look at the records, which easily show that there is no connection to the Dartmouth family. It is not the responsibility of the companies hosting the trees to verify the accuracy. That would be prohibitively expensive, as there is no way to automate the process. It is up to us to connect our sources and information to the proper people.

As technology continues to improve, it is only more incumbent upon us to review the records and information we have on our ancestors to ensure the accuracy of the linkages we have made.