An American Family Story in Ten Parts

1. In 1621, Thomas Prence arrived in Plymouth Colony and claimed “one akre” of land in the new settlement. Thirteen years later, a combination of ambition and a reputation for being one of the most ardent Separatist Puritans in a colony full of Separatist Puritans led to his election as governor, and he would remain a member of Plymouth’s political elite from that point forward. After the 1657 death of William Bradford-Plymouth’s original governor and more than any other man the motor that drove the colony-Prence once again became governor.

2. When Quakers attempted to proselytize in the colony, Prence and his fellow leaders refused to contemplate anyone else claiming the freedom of religion that they did when founding their New World Zion. Freedom of religion was reserved for the established majority  in colonial New England; in Massachusetts Bay to the north, four Quakers were hanged for defying the immigration ban. For its part, the Plymouth general court banned Quaker immigrants, with public floggings and heavy fines the penalty for those who defied the edict. Quakers who already resided in the colony were forbidden to vote or claim any civic rights. The law occasioned some backlash and was difficult to enforce, and a tactic compromise emerged where Quakers would be allowed to remain in the colony so long as they did not worship or perform any other activity in public that would distinguish them from the Puritan majority. They were, in short, assimilated via the threat of violence. But Thomas Prence was rarely a compromising sort. An official who challenged the Quaker ban was stripped of his offices and of the right to vote. Prence cultivated a reputation as “a Terrour to evill doers,” where “evill” was defined as anyone who opposed his will.

Thomas Prence was my eleventh great-grandfather.

3. Peregrine Stanborough was born in 1640, in Southampton, Long Island; he was the son of one of that settlement’s founders, and very likely the first white child born in Southampton. That village was founded by Puritan emigres from Massachusetts Bay, part of the larger diaspora of English Puritans that spread white European peoples throughout the regions now known as New England and New York. Southampton’s immigrants were tolerated quite well, actually, by the Native peoples on Long Island. The Shinnecock Indians helped guide the first settlers to the site where they would construct Southampton, one of the oldest European settlements in present-day New York. The English settlement grew so quickly that the Shinnecock peoples ended up dispossessed of most of their land. The oldest Indian reservation in the United States is the Shinnecock Reservation, where those who hosted the distinguished founders of Southampton were relocated to in 1701.

4. The first African slaves arrived in New Netherlands (called New York after 1664) in 1626. By 1700, more slaves were held in New York than any other northern mainland colony. Slaves built the colony’s prosperity in part by allowing whites to engage in commercial ventures while still knowing African and African American slaves would perform essential agricultural labor. Slaves and their work fed and sustained those who did not labor in the earth, but rather among the ledgers and manifests that made New York a pre-eminent center of commercial wealth by the late 18th century. Many of the products that passed through this thriving port city were the products of enslaved labor elsewhere in the sprawling British Empire. White wealth was built largely on black slavery.

5. Peregrine Stanborough shows up in the Southampton village court records with his father Josiah about a decade after his birth. Peregrine apparently stole some fruit from a neighbor, and Josiah refused to whip his son. Both of them ended up in front of Southampton’s court. Josiah was placed in the stocks for refusing to punish his son. Peregrine was tied to the whipping post and flogged.  While this must have been a horrific punishment to endure, it did not stop Peregrine from inflicting it on others later in his life. When he died in 1701, his will deeded a couple, “my Negroes, Will & Isabel…with the bed they lye on” to his wife.

Peregrine Stanborough was my eighth great-grandfather.

6. William Painter was born in Ohio in 1821. Painter emigrated to northern Iowa in 1849, which was, according to family records, “then the habitation almost exclusively of the red man.” Taking advantage of federal land policies that privileged white land ownership on easy terms via the expropriation of Native lands and (when necessary) the removal of Indian peoples, Painter built a grist mill in 1852, and helped lay out the settlement of Decorah the following year. “William Painter may well be proud of the appellation of The Father of Decorah, to which he is justly entitled,” his biography reads.

7. William Painter was the subject of a phrenological character study, not an uncommon practice for prominent men of white communities in the mid-nineteenth century United States, somewhat akin to having one’s portrait painted. Phrenology, a study of the shape and dimensions of the cranium that was cloaked in scientific verities and thus lent credence and authority by those whose good opinions of themselves it confirmed, was all the rage in this era. Phrenologists claimed irrefutable evidence-drawn from painstakingly examining the shapes, contours, and capacities of various skulls-of “Anglo-Saxon superiority.” Samuel George Morton’s comprehensive phrenological tome, Crania Americana, was published in 1839. It argued that, in the case of the “red man” who had formerly occupied Decorah’s town site, “the structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man,” rendering him “adverse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge.” Other phrenologists argued that the area of their skulls corresponding to “tameableness” being so prominent is what explained Africans’ suitability for slavery. Even abolitionists used phrenological arguments, positing that emancipation could be accomplished peacefully because, while blacks’ skulls were poorly-developed in areas of cunning and intelligence, the opposite was true for “docility.” As for William Painter, however, “his head from the eyes outward through the temples is broad…This development evinces great mechanical talent and mathematical ability.”

8. Blacks whose skulls showed broadness from “the eyes outward through the temples” were not classified as mechanically or mathematically talented by phrenologists. William Painter’s head was “rather low and flattened,” which was for those of African descent the sign of inferior cranial development and thus a stunted intellect, rendering the subject suitable for only the most brutish form of labor. It was a blessing for such as these to have the supervision and structure that only chattel slavery enacted by high-minded whites could provide, according to the men who proclaimed the irrefutable truths of science. Broad- and flat-headed William Painter’s phrenologist declared that “[h]e will be known for his sound judgment, mechanical ingenuity, strong affections, thoroughness, and uniformity; for his love of truth and disposition to fulfill his engagements, and to treat other men with justice and proper considerations.”

William Painter was my fourth great-grandfather.

9. John Henry Gannon was born in 1883 near Graigueachullaire, Dunmore County, Galway, Ireland. He married Catherine McWalters in February, 1910, and in May, the two of them boarded the SS Cedric with hundreds of other migrants bound for a better life in New York. By 1915, John and Catherine were farming near Wasta, South Dakota, on land that had been opened for white settlement several decades before, with the removal of the Lakota peoples that reached its bloody denouement at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Fortunately for them, the Irish were deemed “white men,” and thus eligible for the provisions and easy purchase terms of nineteenth-century homesteading legislation. Had they arrived a century earlier, they would have been seen by Americans as “wild Irish,” and not “white.” But by the 1840s, the Irish had arrived in such numbers that, even if they hadn’t found full social and cultural acceptance, the descendants of earlier immigrants who saw themselves as white extended that whiteness to the Irish. Such is the purely scientific and not at all culturally-contingent constancy of race.

John Gannon was my great-grandfather.

10. I am not an Amerindian, nor am I a potato, so I am thus not original to this land that Europeans called “America.” The United States, a territory carved out of Native, then Spanish, territory and launched into economic power by the produce of slave labor, is largely peopled by those who share my origin story. Many of us are are the sons and daughters of immigrants, some who came willingly, some who came because they felt they had no other choice, and still more who came because they literally had no other choice. My forebears worked hard and built things. My forebears had others work hard and build things for them. My forebears faced difficulties and adversities. My forebears benefited from privileges which devolved on them solely because of phenotype, and that spared them from even worse difficulties and adversities. They identified, and were identified as, white. As such, they were admitted into an exclusive socio-political sector of the societies into which they immigrated. They were able to climb a ladder that was kicked away before many newer arrivals, or more recently and begrudgingly-admitted members of this society, were allowed to start their own climb. I am the product of courage, of hardship, of privation, and of labor. I am the product of privilege, of violent expropriation of land and labor from others, and of phenotype. More than one thing can be true.  And more than one thing often is. It is impossible to separate one’s story from everyone else’s. No one gets away clean from History.

Coda: We are being told that America is to be Made Great Again by small, frightened men who truck in fear.  But when was it great and for whom? Langston Hughes knew, when he wrote “Let America Be America Again”:
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

We haven’t yet decided how we want to answer that question.

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3 thoughts on “An American Family Story in Ten Parts”

  1. Kevin, I haven’t had a chance to read thru the whole essay yet. It’s late at night. On the Pilgrims, some scholars would refer to them as Radical Puritans instead of Separatist Puritans (the Radical may be closer to what they were called by others) The Puritans in Massachusetts did not use “Puritans” to identify themselves since it was a term of abuse. They may have used the term, “the Godly,” sometimes. Also, there was no concept of religious freedom in the 17th century. England and other countries had a single established church. The Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s were gaining a place to worship as they wanted by leaving England with the permission of the English authorities, not to seek religious freedom as we think of it. The early English colonies were allowed to leave because it got the dissenters out of England and they established the English in America to contest the French and Spanish claims. There was no concept of religious toleration, from my reading, is an 18th-century concept that gradually gained favor. Some scholars have projected this back into the 17th century. Roger Williams, other Baptists, and Quakers had to leave to set up their own communities. Anne Hutchinson, it appears was expelled from Massachusetts not because she was a dissenter. Instead, she claimed to know who would be saved and who wouldn’t, which the Puritans believed no person could tell. She was eventually expelled from Rhode Island as well. The 17th century is incredibly different from ours. A good description of this is in Nick Bunker’s “Making Haste from Babylon: the Mayflower Pilgrims and their World.” “We might prefer to think about the people of the time as men and women in our own image, but if we do so, we run the risk of misunderstanding everything about them … And yet, if wish to see things as they were, we have to recognize that an abyss of difference divides us from the Jacobean mind.”

      1. I like your essay very much. As you say no one gets away clean from History. Although some are more tarnished by it than others. We can’t change history and we shouldn’t in my opinion project all of our moral judgments on the past. We weren’t there. I think it is better to try and understand and interpret the past without overly imposing the view of our time on it. I made the point about the Puritans and how different the 17th century was because the colonies were not founded as beacons of religious toleration as many would like to believe. In Maryland, supposed to be a haven for Catholics, Catholics could not vote and the colony endured a lot of fighting and chaos between Protestants and Catholics. Now we have many claiming that we were founded as a Christian nation, which is simply untrue. The founders purposely left religion out of the Constitution except to say there could be no religious test for an office holder.

        My eighth great-grandfather, a Puritan, came to New England in 1635. The other strands on my father’s side were all in Massachusetts by 1661. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Ulster in 1820 of Scots descent as was my great-grandmother. They came to the US in 1855 or so, first settling in Indiana and then moving to Ohio. They would have called themselves Ulstermen. The term Scotch-Irish is an American invention.

        I sometimes wonder if we will ever settle issues of race, we can’t change the past. The current administration and its supporters are making things much worse. The founder of the Bettman Archive said: The Good Old Days weren’t.

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