I truly enjoy watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. One thing I particularly like are the historical surprises that pop up for nearly every guest, not all of them well-received.
Finding my own roots was never a particular interest of mine, even after watching the dramatization of Alex Haley’s book, Roots, back in the 1970s. I can recall assuring someone that I couldn’t care less who my ancestors were and I truly meant it.
That attitude changed 30-some years ago when a copy of the Rice family tree compiled by my aunt Mary Rice found its way into my hands. I was intrigued to learn that my seventh great-grandfather, John Rice, was a founder in 1677 of the town of East Greenwich, in which I was born. That started me poking around a bit for more information.
My friend Alan Clarke, knowing of my interest, sent me a copy of Rhode Island Roots: Journal of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society. He did so because the lead article, written by genealogist Cherry Fletcher Bamberg 1, was all about that same John Rice. Among other things I learned from Bamberg’s article was that John arrived on this continent in the early 1660s when he was but a teenager and probably an apprentice cordwainer (shoemaker) 2.
I also discovered that even though he was one of the original grantees of East Greenwich he was never a resident. I had previously been pleased to think that I was born in the same town in which my distant ancestor had lived. But no, he lived in Warwick. There were other surprises.
I’d assumed that our name was derived from the Welsh Rhys, as is often the case with people named Rice and Reese 3, and I liked the idea of having Welsh ancestry. But Bamberg mentioned in passing that John’s last name was originally Riss, from the German 4. This was a disappointment. I didn’t mind his being German, but if I couldn’t be part Welsh I would have preferred something more interesting like Tibetan or Guarani. John’s descendants had so many offspring that today there are thousands of us carrying minute amounts of his genes. Like everyone else I have 512 seventh great-grandparents who contributed to my genetic profile. I even know the names of some tenth great grandparents, each of whom accounts for 1/2048 of my genes. Every generation doubles the number of your ancestors. So discovering that your family tree goes back to Charlemagne doesn’t mean you have much in common with the old boy. By now his genes are as diluted and meaningless as a homeopathic cure.
In my further reading, I came upon another surprise that was much worse than disappointing. It was appalling. John’s son, John Rice Jr., was a slaveholder. We know this because in his will he left two enslaved servants, “Rubin and Moll,” to one of his sons. Some folks will say, “Get over it. That was 265 years ago. You’re not responsible for your ancestors’ misdeeds.”
True, but I don’t like having an ancestor who helped establish the current caste system that for generations has condemned millions of people to a life of diminished opportunities and vicious prejudice.
Folks will also say, “People back then thought differently about such things.” Yeah, but there were people back then who knew that slavery was evil, including one of my eighth great-grandfathers, Samuel Gorton. He’s credited with writing (while moderator of the General Assembly in 1652) the first edict of emancipation ever adopted in America. Unfortunately, it was never enforced and in 1705 was superseded by a law that established the principle rule of the slave industry—Blacks and Native Americans could be owned by their white brethren. The stage was set for eighteenth-century slavers like the powerful Brown brothers of Providence to become filthy rich buying and selling people.
I guess if I can be ashamed of John Rice, Jr., for being a part of that nasty business I can also be proud of Samuel Gorton for opposing it – even though neither of them contributed greatly to who I am.
2. Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, “John(1) Rice of Warwick, Rhode Island, Rhode Island Roots, v.24, nos.3&4, Sep./Dec, 1998, p.154, 156.
4. Bamberg, p.154.
Donald Tunnicliff Rice is one of the many East Greenwich babies delivered at home by Dr. Young and currently a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio. His most recent book is “Cast in Deathless Bronze: Andrew Rowan, the Spanish-American War, and the Origins of American Empire” (West Virginia University Press).