Comfort in the Cave
on dancing figures and a tale of many Grizzelles
Some housekeeping: I want to recommend Maud Newton’s book, Ancestor Trouble, which helped me to begin conceptualizing this journey. I will surely reference it again and again.
And thank you to Autumn, a dear friend who has been supportive as I’ve started this journey. Check out her newsletter, which is a delightful insight into what knowing her is like:
I also want to thank those who have subscribed so far. I’m so glad to have you here, reading along.
Ancestry.com is a fickle mistress. She giveth; she taketh away. She makes the most amateur of genealogists, such as myself, believe in our ability to trace a family line with certainty all the way to 1475 over the course of several hours.
For the uninitiated, ancestry.com uses AI to provide “hints” about the family information the user inputs. The hints lead to birth, marriage, death, and census records, plus other historical documents that have been uploaded to the site either en masse or by individual users painstakingly scanning in their own family histories. To get started, I input my parents’ and grandparents’ names and their date and location of birth. From there, the hints came quickly for some while they were frustratingly evasive for others.
My maternal side is a dichotomy: my grandfather’s last name is a common German one with many spellings, and only a few generations back, the family was already in Germany. This made it difficult to trace, and I haven’t gotten far at all there. But my grandmother’s family history is a different story. It’s all there, thanks to other users who share branches on the tree, as well as the family’s prominence in colonial New England. There are lots of records about each individual, leading to fluttering green leaves that indicate the presence of hints. I climbed the tree as far as it would go, following branches, clicking into each potential father and mother, reviewing their locations and dates of birth and death, and accepting them as relations without digging into the details too much. Details, after all, could always come later. My goal was height. How far up the tree could I get? What could I see from the very top branches?
Turned out that the view was England in the year 1475, and the ambiance left something to be desired, with severed heads on spikes and human waste in the streets.
I looked cursorily through some of the individuals on my tree whose profiles were already fairly populated with information thanks to other users. Nathaniel Sylvester caught my eye, as one note said that he had purchased Shelter Island in 1651. Upon Googling Shelter Island, I found that Nathaniel had a Wikipedia page, one that introduced him as “an Anglo-Dutch sugar merchant, slave owner, and the first European settler of Shelter Island.”
It turned out that the Sylvester Manor has a storied past, one that is being unearthed by ancestors, archaeologists, and historians today. I want to speak in much more depth about the Manor and its history later on. I read through the entire website in an evening, learning more about the Sylvesters, their manor, and the enslaved people who lived on and worked the land. I ordered several books on the Sylvesters and their plantation, which is the biggest of its kind in the north and tells a unique story about northern slavery in colonial America.
Once I had populated the tree as far back as I could get it to go using only the information already on the site, I decided to get serious with it, to start with my maternal grandmother and write out ‘life stories,’ using mostly facts and a bit of historical context. This is a much more difficult process than gaily accepting the AI’s leafy hints, but it’s also more rewarding. I read about the history of the hospital my grandmother worked at. I looked through the pages of my great-great-great grandfather’s will, where he counseled his brother to, in the event of his death, bring up his children “not fashionably, but to fear and to love God.” Tragically, his brother got the chance to honor his request, as the children (including my great-great grandmother, one of the women for whom I am named) were orphaned.
As I was working my way up my maternal line — going from my mother to my mother’s mother to her mother and so on — I came to Deborah Smith, born in 1790 to a woman named Grizzelle. (The spellings of this name are multiple through the line but also for each individual person from one record to the next, from Griselda [which I rate a 9/10, sounds like a Disney villain] to Grissle [going to go with a 2/10, gaining those points only because they didn’t spell it gristle].)
It was here that I encountered my very first snag, which in a chat group for amateur genealogists is considered a rite of passage. The others in the group were sympathetic towards my plight and said that many of them had encountered the same thing, spending years researching family lines that were not in fact connected to them at all. My snag was that the Grizzelle Eastwick that ancestry.com claimed was Deborah’s mother would have given birth to her at an impressive 81 years old. Either we had a miracle on our hands or the AI (and my initial carelessness) had gotten something wrong.
I tried to untangle the knot, but after several hours, I was even more confused. The details of the confusion involved several different individuals who may or may not have existed, married, or given birth to the correct people in order to connect me with the family group that I’ve been calling the Grizzelles.
The most frustrating part of this was that Deborah Smith was my connection to the Sylvesters — Nathaniel and his wife, Grizzelle. If she was not Grizzelle Eastwick’s daughter, then perhaps she was no one, not connected to the Sylvesters whatsoever. And if Deborah Smith, whose connection to me I was certain of, was not connected to the Sylvesters, then I am not.
The advice from the chat group was to try going the other way; rather than working my way back in time, finding Deborah’s mother, I could work forward, starting from the more well-known Sylvesters and finding their children and grandchildren and so forth until I got to (or didn’t get to) Deborah.
As I tried to piece together the puzzle from both ends, sketching out confused family trees in my notebook, I also tried to work through my emotions about said puzzle. When I had found Nathaniel Sylvester’s Wikipedia page and the Sylvester Manor, I had felt this guilt, one that sat in my chest and which I felt I could do nothing to dispel. This is one of the focuses of this newsletter. It’s what Maud Newton writes about in her book Ancestor Trouble. My very first goal in the process of trying to turn this guilt into something productive was to write about the Sylvesters.
But perhaps I was not related to them at all.
Shouldn’t this have made me feel good? To be unrelated to these people — would that absolve the guilt, what I felt was complicity? What would I do with the books I had ordered? Read them or pass them on? There are countless sins in the world with which we have nothing to do, and of which we must remain ignorant in order to maintain our sanity. Was this one of them? A sin I had nothing to do with, and could let go of? It feels like absolution should not be — is not — the goal. Should it even be part of the conversation?
“Humans have always struggled with the idea that our ancestors might determine our destiny, that they could bless us by passing along longevity or sex appeal or doom us with dementia, baldness, or gout. Over the past century, we've often thought in terms of genes versus environment. We've sought to know what our parents transmit through the raw material that produces us and what comes from the way we're raised. The either-or view of nature and nurture may be giving way to a more nuanced view, in some ways an older view. The hope and anxiety are timeless.”
— Maud Newton, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation
I live chained to the wall of a cave. On the wall before me dance shadows; their limbs flail joyfully, they weep and mourn and love and lust after one another and I see it all in this blurry way, the fire that lights them being the one that truly dances and fuzzes their outlines. When Socrates talks about Plato’s cave allegory, he says that the philosopher has been freed from the cave and is able to see the source of the shadows, the reality of them. But the prisoners who remain in the cave, shackled, don’t mind their lives. They don’t desire to leave. They’re happy and content in the world they’ve always known.
I find myself wanting to use philosophy, ethics, theories of morality and goodness and evil, to understand myself and my simultaneous desire and lack thereof to leave the cave. I know that to do so is to see the figures for what they are, and to see the world for what it is. Not only that, I fear there is a mirror somewhere behind me, illuminated by the fire, and that if I look into it, I won’t ever have the same image of myself again.
It’s a privilege to be able to look away, and I believe it’s a duty not to. To look directly at the figures and see their true nature.
As I pulled at the strings of the Grizzelles, Sylvesters, and Deborah, I thought about my dual desire. I wanted, impossibly, to find that I was and was not related to these people who had displaced the Manhasett, the indigenous people of Manhansack-aha-quash-awamock (now called Shelter Island), and who had enslaved people on that land. Much of the Sylvesters’ money came from sugar plantations in Barbados, a place where the stories of brutality turn one’s stomach.
I thought about sin: would I be absolved if I found that Deborah was related to another Grizzelle, one entirely disconnected from this family? Would this particular sin be wiped off my slate, would that affect anything at all?
I suspected that the answer was no. In the end, whether or not I share a drop of blood with the Sylvesters, people lived and died at their plantation against their own will, and they were buried in unmarked graves. This is a thing for which I do not have words. This is a thing which has to do with all of us. I believe that we are all connected, either through shared experiences of life on the planet, or through common ancestors (the original humans, taking their first steps on two legs over 4 million years ago in Africa), or through some sort of cosmic power or being. The systems of the life I live in modern-day America were shaped by these inhumane acts — of what one doesn’t want to think is human, but which is, undeniably, humanity: a fact of our history and also of our present. (Here I’m speaking not just of colonialism and slavery but of cruelty more broadly.) We are all connected to it, whether we are the recipients of wealth as a result, or whether we experience continued effects of oppression.
After several days of searching (and I am lucky that the search was so short), I found a book on colonial families of Philadelphia that untied the knot for me. Yes, said the book and its history of who begat who: you are related to the Sylvesters.
The focus of this newsletter is ancestry. But as I move forward in this project, I think of the scores of people to whom I am not related. The people about whom I will not write, about whom no one will write. The people who are forgotten in my own history and in every other history. I am aware of the flaws inherent in centering myself and my blood in these considerations, and yet, my hope is that if I proceed with care and intention, the act of centering myself can prove useful in some way. I am not yet sure what that use, exactly, is. I appreciate you being on the journey with me.
True: the people to whom we are connected should not be the only people we care about.
True, also: those who have lived unaware must unchain ourselves and look at the figures before the fire.
Throughout this journey and these letters there will be plenty of contradictions. My contradiction today, here, is that I am glad to be related to the Sylvesters so that I can share not only their story but also my own process of thinking about that story. I am also horrified to be related to them, horrified by what they have done, and I must be honest about the fact that in some ways, I would like to go back to my cave wall, to watch the figures dancing on it, and to wonder, blissfully, without knowing and without pursuing the question: who were they?
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