It was a perfect day to spend outside. Tree leaves were riding the gentle currents of a fall breeze like giant snowflakes, reflecting the orange, red and gold of a warm autumn sun. Being of African, Native American and European descent, I was attending a Civil War Re-enactment, the only place where I can enthusiastically share the history of my ancestors with people who show a genuine interest in hearing a history that goes beyond the scopes of victimization.
Not too long after my arrival, I came upon another re-enactor that was of mixed heritage. I am so sorry that I have forgotten his name. He was dressed as a 19th century fiddler, playing period music of the time. He also had a display of books that he had written. Upon introducing myself, I found out that he was also of Indigenous American heritage and I commented that we could possibly be relatives.
I explained that I re-enact as my fourth great grandmother, Julia Eagan born abt. 1790. She and my fourth great grandfather, Ammon Eagan 1788-1868 were land-holding, free people of color who lived in Wilson County Tennessee at the time of the Civil War. I share their little known history in an attempt to broaden people’s understanding of the complexity of southern history. That’s when my fiddler friend smiled and said, “Yes, I known, none of my ancestors were victims, they were heroes or villains.” I thanked him so much for that simple sentence that encapsulated the goal of my presentations. So I have slightly reworded his comment with the writing of this article.
Let me introduce you to two of my ancestors that fall into this description. First there‘s Capt. John Fulcher, my ninth great grandfather, born in Virginia 1666 and died in North Carolina 1712. He married Kate “Katie” Anderson, a free woman of color, more on her a little later. On 28 April 1711, the Virginia census lists my 9th great grandfather as owning at least 2887 acres of land in Virginia, placing him on the list of one of the largest land-holders in Virginia. His will dated 29 October 1712, left a substantial portion of that land to his wife, Katie Anderson, my 9th great grandmother and all of their children, along with the formal documentation of their freedom.
Now you can understand why I consider my 9th great grandfather as my HERO. However, a small portion of the Virginia legislators considered him a villain. They perceived his action as a threat to democracy. Thus in response to my grandfather’s action, on 5 March 1713, the council recommended the General Assembly:
“Provide a law against such manumission of slaves, which may by their increase and correspondence with other slaves, may endanger the peace in this colony”.
After ten years in 1723, the Virginia Assembly prohibited the freeing of slaves except in cases where they rendered some public service such as foiling a slave revolt. In 1782 the General Assembly returned the right of manumission to individual slave holders. In and after 1806 the General Assembly required the slaves that were freed to leave the state within one year of their emancipation.
Now let’s take a look at my 9th great grandmother, “Katie,” John’s wife and mother of his children. She was born abt. 1670 in Virginia and died abt. 1734 in Virginia. Some historians always follow her name with (slave) and list her husband as “slave holder”. It is true that John was a slaveholder, many rich men and women in the south did own slaves at this point in history, and in many other places in the world. But listing Katie as a slave is not necessarily correct. If she was a slave prior to their marriage, it is almost certain that he would have freed her before the marriage because he would not have wanted any questions as to the free status of his children. She might have been indentured and later obtained her freedom. The point is, one adopts a lazy historical methodology when one simply assumes she was a slave. It also makes it easy to immediately assign the status of victim to her standing in society.
It is far more likely that Katie was a free woman of color and due to the social pressures of the time, neither she nor John addressed the social mores that sort to stigmatize someone’s social status based on the color of one’s skin. In reference to her children being slaves, it is far more likely they were considered indentured until the age of maturity, which was common at this time in history for both “blacks and whites”.
For those of you who are now shouting this is UNFAIR, I am reminded of a line from a television drama whose lead character, Jesse Stone, played by Tom Selleck, is the town’s chief of police. A young girl tells him that what he is doing is unfair. He replies, “I’m not in the fair and unfair business, I’m, in the legal and illegal business”. In other words, we are not judging what is fair and unfair when studying history; we are trying to understand what was legal and illegal and to move on from there. Slavery was legal, indenture was legal; our task is to understand how our ancestors operated and thrived within the circumstances of their times and to hopefully be inspired by their wisdom.
Thus when I think of my 9th great grandmother “Katie”, I see an intelligent young woman who caught the eye of a promising young man. She followed the counsel and wisdom of her elders and said yes to his proposal of marriage. It is also important to know that since Katie never took the surname of Fulcher, nor did her children; she may have been from an equally prosperous family that made her relationship with John a mutually advantageous match.
Upon the death of her husband, they had prepared their children to manage the prosperous plantation which John left to Katie, his widow and their children. Thus I see my 9th great grandmother Katie as my HEROINE. Of course there are those who prefer to see her as a slave because it makes it easier to portray her as a victim and to deny the success of their family. Also we have the documentation that at least two of their grandsons fought in the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington. Washington would have seen them as patriots, the British would have seen them and Washington as villains, the Anderson(s) and I see them as HEROES.
So much for a day of civil war re-enacting. If you’ve never attended a re-enactment, put it on your list of things to do. Who knows? You may find that none of your ancestors were victims; they were heroes, heroines and/or villains.