Madelon Sprengnether

Minding Memory

Who Owns This Country: A Two-Part Series

Reflections on “BlacKkKlansman” and Charlottesville

Posted Sep 06, 2018

Focus Features/film publicity poster image
Source: Focus Features/film publicity poster image

Part I: The American People

We take these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

When Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham declared that “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” she addressed an audience of descendants of white Protestant immigrants from northern and Western Europe. The “we” she referred to consists of light-skinned (not infrequently blond and blue-eyed) people like herself. She railed against the changing demographics of our nation, “foisted upon the American people.” 

Spike Lee, a descendant of African slaves, conceives of America differently. For him, this country was founded on the dispossession of people of color: Native Americans and Blacks. For him, “America” did not come into being as a result of the high-minded intentions of the founding fathers but through the decimation of its indigenous people and the forced labor of those whose bodies were the property of their masters.

The signers of The Declaration of Independence, as courageous as they were, included only men like themselves in their resounding act of defiance against colonial rule. 

When you or I say “we,” or “us,” whom do we mean?

Do we include the inhabitants of the land who preceded the waves of European migration beginning “in 1492” when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” (as I was taught in grade school), along with those who were kidnapped from the African continent and brought here by force? 

Do we include previous or current migrants from less privileged parts of the world, who are as likely as not to be non-white, and/or non-Christian?

Who are “we” and how are we different from these others? How many of our seemingly “white” histories and genealogies are intermingled with those of darker-skinned people? 

I did some research a while back into one branch of my family tree: the French fur traders who founded St. Louis. The patriarch was a man named Pierre de Laclede, who partnered with a divorced woman named Marie Chouteau. Their children and descendants (given that they never married) bear her surname. An astute woman, Madame Chouteau understood that as a “widow” (which she claimed to be) she had property rights; as wife, she did not. 

Marie and Pierre met in New Orleans and decided to try their fortunes by traveling up river to a site near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Pierre de Laclede and his stepson Auguste Chouteau established a settlement dubbed “Mound City” (for the Indian Mounds on the east side of the river), and later named St. Louis. They conducted a thriving trade with the Osage Indians, the dominant tribe in that region, and lived, for a time, peaceably among them. 

I also learned that the Chouteau family owned slaves. I was shocked to discover this and even more dismayed to learn that some of them were Indian. I had not been aware of the practice of Indian slavery among warring tribes--not unlike the practice of the ancient Greeks (the cherished founders of Western Civilization) of enslaving members of their defeated enemies. My French fur-trading ancestors adapted this custom to their own use. 

I have other ancestral family lines, which do not include slave-owners.  But this new information was unwelcome to me at the time, and I was unable to assimilate it, so I put this reasearch aside to pursue other writing projects.

I have a friend who has shown more courage than I. Having deep roots in South Carolina, she came upon a family journal (yes in a dusty attic!) noting their slaves and progeny over several generations. She has painstakingly transcribed the mothers’ names and the dates of their children’s births (and deaths) and published them in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly(June 2018: 123-39). Knowing the difficulty of tracing the ancestry of slaves, she undertook this laborious task to provide information that might be useful to some of her family’s slave descendants.

We know that women slaves were subject not only to their white masters’ rule but also to their lust. Thomas Jefferson, one of the signers of The Declaration of Independence, had a long-term sexual alliance with Sally Hemings, the mixed race half-sister of his own wife Martha. Our founding families (my own included) are deeply implicated in the racial history of this country. 

Pierre Chouteau, the natural born son of Pierre de Laclede and Marie Chouteau, had not only a European-American wife whom he kept in St. Louis, but also a Native American wife in the field. Even more painful for me to learn, he was the first Agent of Indian Affairs appointed by President Thomas Jefferson for the newly acquired Louisiana territory. As such, he played a significant role in the land cession treaties negotiated during his lifetime. 

How many of us white folks have such hidden histories—of slave possession or displacement of native populations? Most of us, I would guess, “own” land traded for trifles through the kinds of treaties my ancestor Pierre (and other members of his numerous family) facilitated.   

How can any of “us” innocently claim possession of this country? 

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Please read Part II: Charlottesville -- I will publish it soon.