Red, White, and Black

oak tree and houseI have been digging around in the scrubby underbrush of my family tree. I am hoping to squeeze a book about my family out of a few stories I have heard as well as a few details that I can glean from my research. Now, there’s all kinds of things I already know about my ancestors, such as I know there were quite a bit of cousins marrying cousins in the not-so-distance past. I know that my forebears were participants in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. I know some of them were church founders and circuit-riding preachers.

Last week, I  bumped into  something that I had overlooked years ago when I started researching my family tree. The first Matherne in North America in the early 1700s had 3 slaves. From what the slim evidence I can find, it’s possible Johann Matern (spelling changed through the years)  received slaves as a gift from the same company that sponsored his passage to Louisiana from Europe. The negroes may have been just a loan. His trip, you see was financed by a banker who supposedly received early profits rendered by the German pioneers. However the company went bankrupt in a few short years in a rather significant historical and spectacular way.*

I don’t know if Johann’s slaves were his own property, or they were supplied, much like my father had a “company car” in the 1960s.  They may have come with the job. All I know is a census in 1728 said he had 3 slaves and 3 sons, and a few cows and pigs, too.

The next mention of slaves in my family tree was in regard to  Johann’s grandson, Jacques. Jacques bought a Negro boy, aged 11,  named Theodore in 1771. The purchase price was  200 dollars.  That would be about 5,000 dollars in today’s currency. I don’t see any more records of sales or purchases of slaves in my background while poking about the website, Ancestry. However I am impatient. I am not searching slave records myself. I just borrowed from other family’s records about the slaves.

I know that my ancestors, from my dad and mom’s side of the family, fought for the Confederacy. No slave or servants are listed as attendants on either side. Then, after the Civil War, my ancestor Ursin Matherne, told my mother’s family’s people that he was a descendant of a family of hunters. Somewhere along the way,  slaves and farming seemed to have disappeared from the family lineage.

Ursin Napolean Matherne was friendly with the native American population in the South Louisiana.  Friendly is just one way to describe Ursin’s relationships with American Indians.  More on Ursin’s relationships with the natives in another post.

For today, I just want to think about what it meant to own other human beings. My family owned slaves. They fought for the Confederacy. Somehow, I pictured them as pure and poor, and of course, being too morally upright to own slaves.

Until a few years ago, I would have considered these actions as not relevant to me or current events today. Yet, it’s not ancient history. These people, my ancestors, lived only a few hundred years ago. To my dismay, white superiority is an idea that has not been relegated to the dust bin of history as it should be.

Whether it’s marching in Charlottesville or trolls on the internet surmising that our past president, a black man, embodies the spirit of the AntiChrist, my contemporaries are bringing back old stereotypes and myths based on skin color. I am ashamed of that kind of southern culture. It has no place in my heart or in my thinking.

Slavery didn’t help my ancestors in the long run to have better lives. The early experiments with slavery by my family didn’t last. I can’t see how human bondage could lead to happiness or lasting contentment, no matter the short term goal in finances or farming. Nor do I see the value in worthless arguments about skin color today.

*Story of John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

A Good Worker Who Deserves Some Negroes

1728 Johann Adam Matern, of Rosenheim, Upper Alsace. 26 years old. Weaver. A good worker who deserves some negroes. Three pigs.

Thus reads the roll in or around 1728, describing my forebear, the first Matern/Matherne who came to the New World with several hundred Germans as pioneers.

I don’t know why he was considered worthy of owning other human beings. Yet so the record reads.* A few years later, in 1731, Johann has increased his holdings. By then, he acquired 3 sons, 3 negroes and 7 cows.

He got his Negroes. I suppose that’s a sign of success. Just like you and I might be proud to have a new car or a house with no mortgage, Johann was the proud owner of 3 negroes. I hope my readers are not incensed beyond reason. It was a sign of the times.

I am rather proud that he’s described as being a good worker, not so much as a man who owned other people

*THE SETTLEMENT OF THE GERMAN COAST OF LOUISIANA AND THE CREOLES OF GERMAN DESCENT. John Henno Deilor

A Weaver’s Tale

This post is the second in an occasional series about my father’s family. 

Two hundred and ninety-six years ago, Johann Matern, my ancestor, came to Louisiana from Germany. A great number of Germans had come by ship under the direction of John Law, a Scottish speculator and banker. Many died aboard the ship. The survivors realized quickly that John Law’s promises were nearly worthless: no funds, no slaves nor easy living awaiting the pioneers.

The group proposed to farm an area a bit southwest of New Orleans. They provided food for the soldiers and government officials in the city. The pioneers formed small villages in what became known to the French-speaking population of New Orleans as Des Allemands. These sturdy Germans flourished despite the many difficulties of pioneering in a subtropical climate. 

Let’s get back to my 6th great-grandfather, Johann. He was from the upper region of Alsace-Lorraine, a place that over centuries changed from French to German hands over and again. Maybe Johann left to escape the strain of competing powers fighting over his homeland. I don’t know. I do know he was probably bilingual, speaking German and French. map alsace lorraine

Johann was 26 years old when he came to the New World. He had a wife, Regina, an infant son, and Regina’s two sisters listed as members of his household. Johann listed his occupation as a weaver. The little band of Germans had no use for someone to spin thread into cloth. They needed to build houses, grow food and establish a community.

Johann cleared his land to grow rice and corn and raise pigs. If he entertained any images of wealth in the New World, his hopes would were dashed. The man was awarded 8 arpents (6-7 acres) of land. Maybe he entertained his growing family which would reach six children with stories of Rumpelstiltskin, the folktale about an imp who spun gold out of straw. At any rate, Louisiana had no gold. Or silver. Or even pleasant weather.

German Coast
The Matern farm was located within the village of Hoffen. The area is near the present day town of Destrehan on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.

At the age of forty-one, Johann died. What killed him? We don’t know. I do know his house didn’t die with him. He had six children at his death. His name, Matern, later becoming Matherne, has become a well-known surname in South Louisiana. In the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. James, Lafourche and Terrebonne, the name Matherne is part of the landscape.

There are over 3,000 people in the area who share the name, Matherne. In my neck of the woods where I grew up, the Matherne name loomed large. A school and a graveyard bore the name. They were farmers, hunters, and ranchers. Some were angels, starting a new Protestant church, founding members of banks and such. Others were devils, with stories that some would rather not be told.

I will tell some of the stories of the people called Matherne.

A Floyd Is Born

This is the first installment of an occasional series about my father and his forebears.

FLoyd 39-40 age 7_8
My father is about 7 years old in this picture. The shirt isn’t dirty. It’s a thumbprint from God knows when.

On December 24, 1932, a boy was born. His mother was 40, and his father 45. He would be the youngest of eight children. It may have been a starry night, and perhaps some of the family had attended church services that featured a Christmas carol or two, maybe even the one about the star that guided wise men to Jesus. The family had little resources or time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, as my dad was making his way into the world that day on one of the holiest nights of the year  in the midst of the greatest economic downturns the nation had seen or would ever see again. That boy would grow up to be my father.

His parents’ called him Harold. His sister preferred his middle name, Floyd. She thought perhaps the name Floyd was pretty and infamous, like the bank robber/Robin Hood folk hero of the same name. The name stuck. He would always be known as Floyd, not Harold

I am fairly certain that my grandmother and namesake, Laurentine, was not interested in another child. She had six other sons, and as well as one daughter. She had named the seventh child born a few years before after her husband. No other Junior had been planned. The couple would have no more children after Floyd, my dad, was birthed. 

Floyd, the pretty boy, would grow and become in many ways the elder of his seven siblings. That’s a story for another day.

FJ Kenneth Floyd
Dad is far right. Also pictured is his older brother and another relative. His brother is holding a pet rabbit.

The Matherne family was like many families in the 1930s. Strapped for cash, my grandfather sold some  farmland. His second to youngest nearly died of typhoid. Floyd, my father, escaped unscathed from disease during those lean years. His memories of his early years were happy ones. 

One of his favorite stories took place with the boys in the picture on the side of this post. He and his brother were playing in the family barn, and somehow, the littlest, a nephew, was left tied in in the loft for most of the day, His mom went looking for him at dusk, only to find him hanging from a rafter. No one was hurt, although Floyd and his brother probably earned a switching behind the woodshed for that prank.

Pretty boy Floyd, that is my father, not the outlaw, had many adventures as did his forebears. We’ll pick up later with some of those tales. For now, we leave Floyd in his youth, having fun in bayou country.