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My weird American family history story



We're big fans of genealogy television. And there are several shows we watch regularly. I know quite a bit about the basic history of one side of my family. A little less about the other. But when I heard that Genealogy Roadshow is taking casting applications, I decided to submit my information a few weeks back. Some of you may remember seeing a brief post on social media about it. (I even called my mom to ask if I could put her name on the form to bring her to a potential taping...since it's her side of the family.) I have no clue what the chances of being selected for the program are. I do, however, feel like a few stories from my family history are uniquely compelling and shed some light on American history. To really unearth more would require special expertise and access that I do not possess.

My great-great-great...5th?...7th?...grandfather may have come to this country against his will. That's the start of what I want to know. A white German named Casper Berger, he came over to America in approximately 1744 landing in New Jersey. He may or may not have been tricked by unscrupulous persons into making the journey but what we do know from historical record is that he couldn't pay up when he arrived. It was common for the time. He was a stonemason who was sold as an indentured servant and built houses to gain his freedom. In fact, at one point in our history colonial leaders thought white slaves were a great way to build the population!

Fast forward a few years to the American Revolution and my ancestor owns a tavern that is used by patriot spies to gather intelligence on the British. Cool. Then my heart sank a little to learn that said ancestor bought a slave to fight for independence for him. What?! My modern mind struggles to comprehend. The slave in question, Samuel Sutphen, starts out as the slave to a British loyalist who had to flee to friendlier territory in New York. Berger buys him for L92.10. Apparently, my relative had done a month of military service and would now like a slave to do it for him? I'm a little shaky on the details of how common this was, why, etc.. With the promise that Sutphen would be given his freedom after the war. Of course, he wasn't. Instead, Berger made a little profit...sold him for L110.00. Sutphen went on to have 3 more masters before the last one finally agreed to let him buy his freedom for L92.10.

It brings so many questions about what was going on in the minds of those early Americans. The complicated relationship between black and white Americans is obviously not a new issue--it's an ongoing issue. But new to me is this added dynamic of someone who was possibly himself once enslaved turning around and buying another human being for the purpose of fighting for political independence. I'm trying to imagine the circumstances, personality, and social situation that allowed this to happen. And, side-by-side, how were these white (I'm presuming lower class) colonials being brought as...the polite word is Redemptioners? Was it purely economic? Can we think of the profiteers as early "predatory lenders?" What finally broke this system? My understanding is that it continued into the 1800's. Did an understanding develop over time of how British citizens, Germanic citizens (who had no protections from Parliament), and African slaves were or were not different in degree or kind? My ancestor's tavern, for instance, become a major social hub in the community while Samuel Sutphen continued for many years to unsuccessfully claim his Revolutionary pension.

I think all this is a fascinating episode of American history that echoes to today's race relations and way we feel about the early Founders of our country. Race, national origin, and class have always been complicated in the United States. Our contemporary struggles are nothing new.

Comments

  1. Wow. I knew a little bit about indentured servants... but clearly there is much more to learn!

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