Thursday, March 29, 2012


My great-great grandfather, Francis C. Brice, moved from Duplin County, North Carolina to southern Georgia in 1833, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, their young son, also named Francis, and two slaves, Dave X and Ireland X.

By what standard do we judge the actions of our ancestors? The fact is we will never know about most of them, since we each have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-greats, 32 direct ancestors in the generation preceding that, and so forth, all of them converging in our family histories from their own ancestral streams, or so we hope. Still, those of our forebears from whom we have inherited our surnames seem somehow more pertinent than many of the others.

Francis Brice was only one generation removed from the old country (England), his parents having emigrated to settle first in Pennsylvania, then in North Carolina. When he moved to Thomas (later Brooks) county Georgia, he purchased land formerly belonging to the Creek nation. Southern Georgia was taken from them in 1814, after they were massacred by that old Indian killer Andy Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, and the 200 or so survivors escaped to Florida to join the Seminole.

In addition to erecting his plantation, Tallokas, on ground forcibly taken from its former inhabitants "with extreme prejudice," to use the 20th-century term, Francis had left his North Carolina home under a cloud, as the ownership of the two slaves he took with him was disputed by his own mother, Martha.

This was probably due to an oversight in Joseph Brice's will. Executed shortly after he died in 1829, it conveyed three slaves by name to his wife Martha and a fourth to their daughter, Rachel A. Brice. However, the North Carolina registry of slaves indicates the family owned six slaves at the time, and when Francis departed the family home he undoubtedly took the two slaves whose names did not appear in his father's will, Dave and Ireland.

Martha apparently never forgave her son for carrying off two people she regarded as her property, and left him out of her own will. This underscores the fact that human chattel was far and away the most valuable form of property in the ante-bellum south, that much more capital was tied up in slaves than land, and that the old southern economy was based primarily on slavery and only secondarily on land. The Civil War was as much about massive capital destruction as it was the establishment of freedom and justice, and indeed the former was a precondition of the latter.

As I try to absorb this information, all of it new to me, my initial reaction is horror and disgust, for it appears that my direct ancestors willfully and without any visible remorse profited from two of the nastiest chapters in human history, New World slavery, and the forced alienation of New World natives from their lands and lifeways. I'm tempted to say they were forced by circumstances, but these were autonomous, independent souls who made their own circumstances.

Lincoln tended to see the Civil War as a blood sacrifice which God required of the nation as a penance for the sin of slavery. I don't understand it quite in those terms, but I can see his point. Exodus 20:5 specifies that the sins of the fathers shall be visited on their children "on the third and the fourth generations." That would be me.

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