Hard to love

I want to love the husband of my favorite ancestor, Hepsibah, as much as I love her … but I can’t. When I first began researching George Athearn,[1] he seemed to be the very model of an eighteenth-century gentleman: a 1775 graduate of Harvard and judge of probate in his hometown. I was proud to have him as an ancestor, ecstatic to stay five nights in his former home, and diligent in finding out everything I could about him.

Judith Sargent Murray by John Singleton Copley.

I learned that he was a subscriber to The Gleaner, a book written in the 1790s by Judith Sargent Murray,[2] an early feminist and proponent of religious Universalism. I loved discovering that other subscribers to her book included George and Martha Washington, John Adams, Elbridge Gerry (for whom gerrymandering is named) … and Stephen Fales,[3] George Athearn’s business partner.

It is his business with Stephen Fales that precludes me from loving George Athearn as I would like. The first whiff of trouble came from a brief mention in The Fales Family of Bristol, Rhode Island, by De Coursey Fales – an otherwise excellent book that erroneously identified George Athearn’s business partner as Samuel Fales.[4] The book listed various wares advertised for sale by Fales and Athearn, including rum, sugar, and other articles produced by slave labor in the Caribbean.

Then I discovered an 1815 Circuit Court ruling, “Fales and Athearn v. Mayberry,” which described how the business partners arranged in 1798 to circumvent prohibitions on Americans engaging in the slave trade by having their brig “Peggy” sold in the Caribbean. Unfortunately for them, Captain Mayberry retained all of the proceeds instead of just his one-third interest, causing the eventual failure of Fales and Athearn.

The court case determined whether men who had been assigned a financial interest in Fales and Athearn’s illegally-derived assets could collect, and one of the two assignees was Samuel Brown of Boston. This is very likely the Newport native who helped underwrite the Columbia Expedition, America’s first circumnavigation of the globe. An interesting video from WGBH explores the nightmare of tracking down his genealogy.

The court case determined whether men who had been assigned a financial interest in Fales and Athearn’s illegally-derived assets could collect…

The most graphic pieces of evidence I uncovered came from British Bahamian court decisions in 1800 and 1801, which describe how the Fales and Athearn ship “New Adventure” – including its cargo of 97 negroes – was captured by a privateer. The ship’s captain was a native and resident of Newport, and the suit he brought on behalf of Fales and Athearn admitted in its first paragraph that the slave trade was “prohibited to Citizens of the United States of America by the Municipal Laws of the said States.” It also mentioned that while the “New Adventure” was off the coast of Gambia, it met up with the brig “Juno and Eliza,” also partly owned by Fales and Athearn. Ugggh! Yet another slave ship owned by my ancestor.

For several days after discovering the awful nature of my ancestor’s business, I felt physically ill. I also felt angry and betrayed. How could someone with George Athearn’s education and connections employ them to such ends? And how could my beloved Hepsibah stand to be married to him? Perhaps if he had been in some obscure corner of my pedigree I could have tried to ignore his existence … but there he stood, smack dab in the middle of my paternal line!

While I can never be reconciled to any of this, I’ve come to realize that George Athearn’s business sadly made him very much like other eighteenth-century gentlemen. The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve learned how much slavery was woven throughout the fabric of American culture, both North and South, from its inception. The slave trade was largely based out of Rhode Island, and even Alexander Hamilton and John Adams – who personally decried slavery – had fathers-in-law who owned slaves.

George Athearn had a namesake grandson – George Athearn Adams – who was a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist in Ohio and Indiana. He also had a granddaughter married to Dr. Thomas H. Webb, who worked to bring Kansas into the nation as a free state, published a book written by a sister of Henry Ward Beecher[5] and Harriet Beecher Stowe,[6] and had some degree of connection to John Brown.[7] While I’m grateful for these family members’ efforts to fight slavery in their own day, it doesn’t let me off the hook in responding to its legacy today. I guess this public recognition is the first step.


[1] George Athearn (1754–1837) was a son of James Athearn and Rebecca Scudder. He was born and died in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, and also lived in Providence and Boston, where he was a merchant.

[2] Judith Sargent (1751–1820) was the eldest child of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders. She married (1) John Stevens, a ship captain, and (2) the Rev. John Murray, who is generally regarded as the founder of organized American Universalism.

[3] Stephen Fales (1756–c. 1821) was a son of Nathaniel Fales and Sarah Little. A native of Bristol, Rhode Island, he was a merchant in Boston by 1789, and apparently died in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

[4] Samuel Fales (1775–1848) was a principal ancestor featured in De Coursey Fales’s family history. An article about him by a descendant was published in the New York Times in 2016.

[5] The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), a prominent abolitionist and Congregational minister, was tried for adultery with a member of his congregation in 1875.

[6] Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was the author of the popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[7] John Brown (1800–1859) was an abolitionist who believed that only the shedding of blood could purge the sin of slavery from America. He was executed for orchestrating a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

24 thoughts on “Hard to love

  1. Thank you for telling me about your struggle to appreciate your ancestor. You are able to “know” him in greater detail than I know mine. I see benefits and disadvantages in this.

    Many — maybe most — of my early ancestors were illiterate and left no stories. The trails they did leave in New France (now Québec) are sketchy and in an earlier form of French.

  2. I feel your pain! I knew I would find slave owners when I began my research because of my Southern roots despite my families insistent that there were not any. It was their belief that I wouldn’t find any slave owners because of my ancestors devout Christian values. It is disheartening to see the list of slaves each relative owned but that is what the research shows; the good and the bad. We just have to be true to the findings and facts, however depressing they might be.

  3. Thanks for sharing your conflicting feelings about your ancestor. This is what makes genealogy a bit messy, our histories are all part of the best and worst of American history. We all have those stories if we dig deep enough. My Palatine ancestor, who moved to New York with his family in 1710, gained a large tract of land on the Mohawk River in exchange for ‘firewater’ to the Native Americans. Another ancestor moved to Quebec after the Revolution; we suspect he was involved in smuggling at the border.

    To some degree, this is how our people survived a tough wilderness. It’s the piece of history we wouldn’t otherwise know about by reading history books.

  4. I really don’t think its fair to cast a shadow on a man because his father-in-law owned slaves.
    Also, as abhorant as slavery is, we’re looking at the situation through 21st century eyes. If we do that too thoroughly, nothing in history is safe from criticism. Think of what we’re doing today that our great-grandchildren will be ashamed of. Seems to me there’s lots to chose from.

    1. I’m sorry you thought I was casting a shadow on Alexander Hamilton and/or John Adams. It was only my intent to point out how pervasive slavery was in the North, and that even a Congregational minister in Massachusetts like Abigail (Smith) Adams’s father could be a slave owner. When the actress Kyra Sedgwick was featured on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” it came as a shock to find out that her ancestor Theodore Sedgwick—whose 1781 lawsuit on behalf of an enslaved woman named Mumbet (later Elizabeth Freeman) famously led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts—had purchased a slave himself just four years earlier! So this whole history is very complicated…but sweeping it under the carpet doesn’t help. I agree that future generations will judge us for misguided and even evil contemporary practices—and rightly so; that doesn’t mean we can somehow rationalize the horrors of slavery and its legacy.

  5. I agree with those who have said here that we all have some ancestors which have done wrong, and that, to quote Bruce, “…we’re looking at the situation through 21st century eyes”. What happened, happened. If we can’t accept it, we should stop doing genealogy!

  6. President Obama has ancestors who were slave owners. Most of our early presidents were slave owners. I had many ancestors who were slave owners and all of them were from northern states, including New York and New Jersey. A high percentage of the early baptisms at the New Amsterdam Dutch Reformed Church were slaves. Prominent early New England families, including some members of the Winthrop familiy, owned ships engaged in the slave trade. Slavery was a fact of life in Colonial America. New York and New Jersey gradually abolished slavery but only in the early 19th century. New Jersey had lots of issues with people “emancipating” slaves when they were either too old or disabled from working.

  7. Interesting research. I can feel in your commentary you agnst. As others have said, suprise, pride,disgust at ancestors birth, busness dealing, lawful or unlawful comes with the territory.
    BUT, slave trade, child labor, females even if white unable to own/hold property, abandonment are all reflections of their times.
    Search back further and find persons burned as whitches ( either side of that mess), religious shaming and “dismissal”, hanging/draw and quartering/burning/ rack and death at a guillotine. Protestenants killing Catholics or Catholic killing Protestants. English extermination the Irish and the Scots. French, Germany, Italian, Prussians, Russians et al persecuting “those others” and yes selling/transporting/killing prisoners or their conquered people to far off land as slaves and servants.
    We, humans with “Christian” value or other creeds, can be rather very cruel – in every generation.
    Your George was a man of his time ( Hepsibah and descenddnts) lived and benefited from his desire to provide for his family and go on to live their lives.
    We do not relsh that to the Native Americans, all our fore fathers and mothers, pilgrims, puritans, colonists are all complicit as invaders and exterminators.
    Descendent “guilt” is self inflicted and in my personal opinion as bad as ignoring or hiding or denial such participation in by ancestors.

  8. For me your story reflects the terrible disappointment we all feel when we find our ancestors to be: “human all too human.”

    While some of our ancestors were perhaps not always the best lot in the bunch, I don’t feel you’re casting judgment on George, rather I think you’re describing your very personal regret – at as his actions, and surely pity for his wife. I don’t think you are considering George completely through 21st century eyes either. For one thing, you are way too smart to do that, and for another you’d be the first to admit how little good it would do. Best we all can – we have to forgive them ….. somewhat.

    Pamela, I think the mistake we make is in believing that our ancestors must have always come from some pristine place and un-muddied waters. I know I tend to want to do this myself. Similar to you, I’ve recently discovered a whole host of slave owners out of Virginia. I am at once disgusted and forlorn at the prospect of claiming them as my own. But they are mine, and like you I will find a place for them in my chart, telling their story as honestly and as fairly as I can, as you have done so for yours here.

    Go easy on yourself Pamela! George’s mistakes are not yours…..

  9. I don’t think the point is, as some have discussed, to feel guilty about our ancestors or what they did; it is to acknowledge it. My family is Northern through and through and proudly discusses an ancestor who participated in the Underground Railroad. My genealogical research has shown me that many more owned slaves–not large plantations, but one or two or three slaves. And many benefited from Native American’s who were backed into corners and sold land for little. Others fought them. Racial reconciliation isn’t just about overcoming prejudice, but acknowledging our country’s history and coming to an understanding of the long tentacles of some of its early legacies. Studying family history has helped me see the human side of that history and want to know more.

    1. Thanks for you comments, Abby. I think you have understood well what I was driving at. Before I undertook the study of genealogy, I had no idea that slavery had been prevalent in New England for two hundred years…though on a smaller scale than in the South. I know the history I learned—even at the college level—was about slavery as a Southern institution, with not a little smugness from Northerners. I certainly didn’t know that Rhode Island was the center of the slave trade, nor did I know that most (all?) of our oldest institutions of higher learning have endowments chock full of money derived from slavery-based profits. Wallowing in guilt is not really useful, but a clear-eyed acknowledgement of how endemic race slavery was throughout ALL of American society…and how much that still resonates to the present day…has value. I think some of the comments reflect a meta-version of my feelings about a particular ancestor. It is hard when people (or whole institutions) we’ve come to admire turn out to have a deeply gritty underbelly.

  10. I too have slave owners, although as far as I know no one in my ancestral lines actually owned the slave ships. I think we have to declare to ourselves “Never again” and look around at today’s enslaved peoples to see how we can help there. If we don’t learn from the past, we are condemned to repeat it.

  11. I understand and agree with your disgust BUT you are not them. Just because you have their genes does not mean that you are guilty of anything. I’m sure we ALL have things that past family have done that we are not delighted by but, the fact remains that we are not them! We are, as they were, human beings. We all make mistakes. Cut them some slack, vow to not repeat their bad deeds and move on. I’m sure there is a lot of good in your family too.

  12. “For several days after discovering the awful nature of my ancestor’s business, I felt physically ill. I also felt angry and betrayed.” I am sorry but that comment is simply unbelievable, but certainly politically correct. How people acted a couple/three hundred years ago has nothing, zero, nada to do with you, me or anyone else over the past century or two.

    1. Dear Ted, I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect you’re not a counselor! While it can be helpful to try and put oneself in another’s shoes, in general I think it’s a good practice not to tell other people how they did or did not feel. Obviously various people are going to experience things differently based on their temperament and experience. Just yesterday, I twice had to enter a classroom where cat dissections were going on. Because I’m highly allergic to cats, I’ve trained myself to be distant from them and have never had one of my own, so it was not a traumatic thing for me. I have some friends, though, who are involved in cat rescue, and whose cats basically are their children; I think they would have found that situation much more difficult.

      While I did not actually vomit, I can assure you that I really did have a knot in my stomach for a couple of days. Some might accuse me of not feeling ENOUGH compunction, or of dwelling too much on how it affected me instead of how it affected the people who really suffered at the hands of my ancestor. Also, because I really had made an emotional connection—however illusory—to my supposedly illustrious ancestor and had spent five nights in his home, it really DID make me angry when I found out about his sordid past.

      I know that I’m not alone in feeling a sense of remorse for the actions of my ancestors. I’m not sure whether you read the article linked in footnote number 4, but it was written by an African-American woman who made the same discovery, and her feelings were very close to mine. And we’re hardly the only ones. David Allen Lambert at NEHGS has made a special point of assisting tribes with their genealogies after he discovered that one of his ancestors was involved in slaughtering a group of Native Americans hundreds of years ago. These actions don’t “fix” the atrocities of the past, but some feel that it is a good way of expressing regret and a desire to create a better future.

  13. I was so disillusioned a number of years ago when I found slave owners in my maternal family tree that I almost gave up genealogical research. My late father, who had been a history teacher, pointed out to me that this was indicative of their being fairly well to do, and that it was quite common in Maryland. We may be horrified, but for those people living in the 18th century it was a sign of one’s prosperity. They saw nothing wrong with owning slaves, indeed, quite the contrary. In my opinion, we’ve come a long way, but they might beg to differ.

    1. I admit that seeing slaves listed in probate records is deeply unsettling…especially when they’re listed in the estate inventory literally between “1 pr. iron dogs [andirons], 1 ditto kettle” and “a parcel of Boards & Joyce [joists], and Old Shais [chais], some oak Timber.” This does does not make me happy, and I don’t delude myself into thinking that it could ever have been pleasant for those who were enslaved, but there were doubtless varying degrees of treatment meted out by masters. Finding out that an ancestor was a slave trader…especially during a time when it was illegal…for me personally adds an extra layer of horror. I know for a certainty that two of the people onboard the “New Adventure” died in the harbor after the ship was taken as a prize, and that everyone on else suffered horribly because none of them were given anything to eat or drink for several days. Who knows what fate the survivors met once they were sold? The life of a slave was brutal and usually very short for those who toiled in the sugar cane fields. Direct profit from the slave trade just seems like a very ruthless way to earn a living, and it’s not like George Athearn had no other choices for a career.

  14. Pamela, your essay is magnificent! Even with all the pain and anguish you’ve suffered in researching it all, your gracefulness shows mightily. For “the record,” I once knew a Fr Steve Fales in Connecticut, and I think he hailed from Rhode Island. I believe he was ordained Deacon with my then-seminarian at the Cathedral in Providence around 1978. Steve later served as Rector of St Peter’s, Cheshire, CT, not far from where I was, North Haven. St Peter’s was a wonderful and strong parish as I recall.
    Anyway, I wonder if Fr Steve descends from these slave-holders? I’ve no idea where Steve is now, but the 2008 Church Annual gives an address in Carmel, IN, where he was/is rector of a large parish. That’s the only source I have at hand, as I’m hopelessly retired and out of the loop, no longer collecting such ecclesiolotry (a term I learned from your dear spouse).
    All the best to you, Brandon, and your family and parish. Keep up all the good – albeit painful – work of genealogy. Who knows? you may inspire some of us who sit on our duffs, yet pay through the nose to ancestry.com, waiting for someone to move us toward looking into our own families.
    Phil Ayers

  15. On March 2, 1807, the U.S. Congress passed an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States…from any foreign kingdom, place, or country.” The law was to take effect on January 1, 1808. Your essay seems to indicate that the court case you found stems from activities in 1798 — a time when it was still legal to import slaves into the United States.

    “The most graphic pieces of evidence I uncovered came from British Bahamian court decisions in 1800 and 1801” — at the time of these decisions, importation of slaves was still legal in both the United States and Great Britain. What types of evidence did you find?

    “The [1815 Circuit] court case determined whether men who had been assigned a financial interest in Fales and Athearn’s illegally-derived assets could collect, “Whether” being the operative word here. Did the case, in fact, determine that they had engaged in an illegal activity? Was the activity found to be illegal in the state in which the slave ship was registered? Going by the dates you mention, it was not illegal in the United States.

    It seems your disapproval of your ancestor has nothing to do with whether he was operating legally or illegally — but the fact that he was involved in the slave trade. We should not impose 20th and 21st century values on our 17th & 18th century ancestors.

    1. The history of slavery and its prohibition in the United States is indeed complex. Here are some details that prove that what George Athearn and Stephen Fales engaged in was illegal at the time:

      From http://abolition.nypl.org/print/us_constitution/

      “In March [1794], Congress prohibited the use of any U.S. port or shipyard for the purpose of fitting out or building any ship to be used for the introduction of slaves. The law also prohibited ships sailing from U.S. ports from trafficking in foreign countries. Ships sailing from the United States to Africa, even if of foreign registry, were required to “give bond with sufficient sureties, to the treasurer of the United States, that none of the natives of Africa, or any other foreign country or place, shall be taken on board… to be transported, or sold as slaves in any other foreign place, within nine months thereafter.” Penalties under the law included fines ranging from $2,000 for outfitting a ship to $200 for an individual working on such a vessel. The act provided that the ships could be confiscated, and half of all fines given to any informants, thus providing an incentive for ship captains and mariners to monitor the activities of anyone they suspected of being involved in the illegal slave trade.

      “Until 1800 none of the states had reopened the African trade, which had been effectively closed since the Revolution. Before 1800 all introductions into the U.S. were thus illegal, even if the slaves were brought in by foreign ships. After 1800, however, Georgia and South Carolina reopened their international slave trade, and in the next eight years, these two states would introduce about 100,000 new slaves from Africa.”

      You are correct that the Act of 1807 permanently banned all slave trade to the United States as of January 1, 1808.

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