Stories of my Ancestors

I had some fun in the past few months as I researched my family’s roots. I began by asking myself a few questions that I detailed in another post, Tracing My Roots. Fortunately, I have answered the questions about my family’s past satisfactorily.

I can substantiate that my family did, indeed, own slaves. I discovered a bill of sale on Ancestry.com for a 12 year old boy named Theo who was bought by my ancestor, Jacques Matherne, in 1783. Before Jacques, census records show that Jacques’ grandfather, Johanne, owned five slaves in the early 1700s, shortly after arriving in Louisiana from Germany.

I couldn’t find records of any other ancestor owning slaves. However, slave ownership was quite common in the South. About 1/3 of white families owned slaves in the pre-Civil War days. On average, a slaveowner owned 3-5 slaves. So it’s quite possible that others in the family tree had slaves, too. I just don’t see a record of any others owning slaves.

Did my family participate in the Civil War? Yes, I found a record that my great-great grandfather, Joseph T. Martin, was drafted in 1862, then captured by Union forces the same year near Thibodaux, Louisiana. According to what I have found, he was released on his own recognizance and returned home shortly thereafter. He never traveled more than 30 miles from home during the Civil War.

Again, there probably were others in my family who took up arms for the Confederacy. Starting in 1862, there was a draft, so most families had a family member who served the Confederacy. However, most records only list surnames and a capital letter. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to ascertain if the A. Matherne that I found on a Lafourche Regimental Roll was my ancestor, Anatole Matherne. Could be but who’s to say that were other men named Matherne with an A for a first name in the region.

I uncovered other interesting stories, too. Ursin Napolean Matherne was a philanderer, and in the spirit of his middle name, made many conquests. My great-grandfather fathered at least 16 children, from 3 different women. Those are the children that one can verify. Where there more? Probably, considering he had a marked propensity for leaving his wife and children for periods of time, with little or no explanation for his whereabouts upon his return. I have relatives I know little or nothing about up and down the bayous of Louisiana.

One of the women that I am descended from was Clinda Picou Matherne, my great-grandmother, married to the above-mentioned Ursin Matherne. She was renowned in her community as a traiteur, a Cajun term for a faith healer. She prayed for the sick, laying hands on the ill, then she offered a remedy, usually a homeopathic cure. Payments were traditionally received, though not required for her services. She lived to an old age, just a few months shy of 100 years old. To the end of her days, she was known for praying and offering cures for the sick.

There were other details, too such as when and how my ancestors came to America. I detailed a bit about the long journeys of the Cajuns, who left France for Canada, were forcibly evicted from that land, and eventually made their way to Louisiana. My family was part of that journey, too.

I made a Shutterfly book of pictures and stories about my ancestors. I plan on gifting copies of the book to my nieces and nephews. I didn’t write down all the stories I have heard or read about my ancestors. However, I hope the stories that I managed to wrote down will be handed down for more generations to discover.

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