This post continues our discussion of the work of the artist Apay’uq, who is based in the Bristol Bay region of south-eastern Alaska. (See the artist’s work on her website).
Aqay’u’s striking painting, “Anerneq” (Spirit/Breath), 2020, bears the caption, “We are a part of the world, all as beings. We progress and evolve through each generation, but are expected by the spirits among us to carry on in the truest way of the human being. Respect all.”
The painting is centered on an enormous, serene green figure of Mother Earth, who in this rendering is the sacred essence “Anerneq”. Anerneq is sometimes described for Yup’ik and related peoples of southwestern and western Alaska as the soul or breath of a person that may be transmitted from one generation to the next, especially through naming ceremonies.
The green being, an emanation of the living landscape itself, is surrounded by life-giving waters of a flowing river. She holds in her large green hands a dried plant of the wormwood family, used, the artist explains, as medicine or tea being, here being smudged. Blessing smoke from the smudging rises up around her, towards four unclothed children, who sit within the green banks of the river, filled with brilliant flowers redolent of the forces of new life. The artist writes that in her mind the children represent the past, present, and future of the Yup’ik people. Above the youth are distant blue mountain peaks, shaped with faces of ancestors, who gaze up a a bright orange sky that perhaps evokes sunrise and the coming of a new day. Apaqy’uq notes that in her mind the the sky kisses the faces of the ancestors.
The artist further explains that the composition is inspired by the design of a traditional Yup’ik earthen or sod house, which was centered on a smoke hole. Here, the Mother Earth figure of Anerneq seems to be akin to a sheltering dwelling, from which blessing smoke rises up, as a prayer permeating all of creation.
To these observations, I will add some more speculative thoughts. It would appear that the young child at the upper right is holding a mask from the Yup’ik Winter ceremonial dance, which aids in the transition of animals and other living beings from generation to generation, allowing for hunting and fishing to continue in the coming year. Perhaps we could even understand the whole painting as a transformation of the classic Winter Ceremonial mask motif, in which various sacred natural beings and forces—including the North Wind, Salmon, Moose, Eagle, Duck, and Seal (sometimes signaled by feathers or tail carvings)— radiate out from a central face, held in concentric lattice work. The children themselves seem to be positioned rather like the feathers that encircle many Yup’ik masks, calling forth new life in the seasons to come.
If I am reading the image correctly, the children are creating music, hitting traditional drums with drum sticks, as would be appropriate when a mask is activated in ritual activity that supports the regeneration of life. Like the ceremonial masked dance performances, the overall composition appears dedicated to maintaining balance between visible and invisible realms, and between persons and nature’s beings.
Historically, winter ceremonial masks would have been allowed over time to dissolve and disintegrate in the outdoors, gradually returning to the landscape from which their materials had been gathered. Apay’uq’s painting, in contrast, is a long-term permanent gift, helping to instruct all who see it in the core values of respect and spiritual connections across time.
It appears that the eyes of the central green maternal figure are closed, and that we are meant to behold her in a state of sleep, trance, or dream-vision. She may in that sense be akin to a shamanic figure, who historically, guided by spiritual visions, would have carved masks or instructed mask carvers in the shape and imagery of each mask. Perhaps we are being invited by the artist into a productive dreamscape, witnessing how the energies of land, water, and air are passed along in great cycles of renewal, in ways that transcend conventional understanding. Looking into this beautiful, meditative face we are invited to slow down our own breathing and to become attuned to the gradual rhythms of the natural world. The encircling waterway that flows from the ancestral mountains past the children and through the Earth Mother may remind us of the annual run of salmon through Bristol Bay–which brings ocean nutrients deep into the land’s interior and its highlands. The net effect of the work is to honor the unified matrix of persons, animals, foliage, land, and water that will continue to nurture future life, so long as we honor our responsibility to safeguard these precious gifts.
For Further Reading
Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2001. What’s in a Name: Becoming a Real Person in a Yup’ik Community. in Strangers to Relatives. The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America. Edited by Sergei Kan. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press.
This short essay attempts to sketch out the life of Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892), who spent at least the first four decades of her life in slavery at Tudor Place in Georgetown. I share what is known of her life and indicate some of the major mysteries and areas of inquiry that remain.
Parentage and Descent
Barbara’s maternal grandmother was Sall Twine (c. 1761, died after 1802), a dower slave derived from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), the first husband of Martha Dandridge, later Martha Custis Washington, the wife of George Washington. Sall’s mother was presumably a dower slave, and thus Sall was as well, under the custodial control, if not the full ownership, of George Washington throughout George Washington’s life. (A widow or her new husband retained use value of dower slaves, but could not sell or transfer them without court permission. Dower slaves were normally passed onto the heirs of the widow’s late husband’s estate after her death).
Sall resided and labored with other dower slaves at Dogue Run and Muddy Hole farms, two of the five farmes that made up the Mount Vernon estate, She had an estimated six children with the enslaved man George, a gardener owned by George Washington who was based at the Mount Vernon Mansion House farm. Under the terms of George Washington’s will, George was to be freed after Martha Custis Washington’s death, and was in fact freed by her before her 1802 death, probabky in 1800. The dower slaves, however, including Sall, remained enslaved and were distributed among the Custis heirs. Over sixty Custis slaves had been previously transferred to Martha Custis Washington’s son’s daughter Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) and her husband the Georgetown merchant and mayor Thomas Peter (1769-1834), on the occasion of their wedding in 1795; many of these individuals had sold off by the Peters.
After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, ownership of Sall and her children passed to Martha Parke Custis and her husband Thomas Peter, who at this point resided at K street and Rock Street, to the immediate east of Georgetown, within the site of the new Federal City.
I am not sure of what became of George, the now free husband of Sall Twine, after this point. (Perhaps he eventually relocated to Gum Spring, along with other of the freed former slaves of George Washington.)
[In A Georgetown Life (2020) Grant Quertermous asserts that the mother of Baraba Cole was Sall Twine, but this is contrary to the oral history shared by the Barbara Cole’s descendants, and seems inconsistent with available documentary evidence.]
According to the 1799 inventory of slaves at Mount Vernon, reproduced above, Sall Twine, then based at Dogue Run farm, was the mother of Barbary, born around 1788, Abbay, born around 1789, Hannah, born around 1795, and George, born around 1798.
Hannah, age 7, presumably the daughter of Sall Twine is listed in Thomas Peter’s note of 1 April 1803 as being assigned to work at the Peter’s farm in Maryland, presumably the Oakland property (Kail 2016). The same note references George, age 6, being assigned to labor at the same property; I presume this is the young son of Sall Twine, enumerated in the 1799 Mount Vernon census of the Washington slaves. This George, as I have noted elsewhere (Auslander 2012), appears to have been later transferred to the son of Thomas and Martha Parke Custis Peter, John Parke Custis Peter, and labored through most of his life at Seneca farm and quarry, which had been part of the Oakland estate along the Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland. (An 1835 court petition notes that prior to the death of Thomas Peter, he transferred forty-six slaves to his two sons, John Parke Custis Peter and George Washington Peter, and a family associate.)
Sall’s daughter Barbary (b. 1788) was evidently transferred to Martha and Thomas Peter, who at the time of Martha Washington’s death were residing at their house on K Street near Rock Creek (now 2018 K Street), before they purchased in 1805 the eight acre property in north Georgetown that became Tudor Place. The Peters during the early decades of the 19th century alternated residence seasonally between their new property at Tudor Place and their 500 acre farm “Oakland” in southern Montgomery County, Maryland, along the Potomac River, in the vicinity of present day Seneca and Lock 24 on the C&O canal. The Peters also owned a smaller farm property known as Effingham, between present-day Sixth and Seventh streets in Washington D.C. (Kail 2016) Presumably. their enslaved people were transferred between these properties based on agrarian and domestic labor needs.
Barbary gave birth to her daughter, Barbara (later known as Barbara Cole Williams), around 1809. It is not clear whom the father might have been. (If the 1860 census entry mentioned below for Barbara Williams pertains to “our” Barbara, then she was born in the District of Columbia, which presumably means born at the Tudor Place property.)
The Cole and Williams Surnames
Barbara (b, 1809) is at times referred to as Barbara Cole and at times as Barbara Williams. Her daughter Hannah used the Cole surname, including in registering her 1847 marriage with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867. It is not clear if Barbara was born with the Cole surname, or if she acquired it through marriage to an enslaved or free man of color. Perhaps the surname was used by her mother Barbary, daughter of Sall Twine, or perhaps by her unknown father.
As noted below, I believe that Barbara Cole acquired the surname Williams through marriage to a William Williams in 1856.
I list enslaved and free Cole’s in antebellum District of Columbia in Appendix I. Perhaps future research will uncover connections between some of these families and Barbara Cole.
Life at Tudor Place and Oakland
Barbary’s daughter Barbara Cole (b, 1809) seems from an early age to have been assigned to look after Britannia Wellington Peter (later Kennon), born 1815, the youngest child of Thomas and Martha Peter to reach adulthood. In time, Barbara was Britannia’s principal maid, and later looked after Britannia’s only child, Martha “Markie” Custis Kennon (1843-1886) as a nurse (Quertermous 2020). As noted below, it appears that Barbara continued to work as a nurse or nursemaid until late in life.
According to oral history among the Pope descendants, Barbara (b 1809) was impregnated in 1828, at around age nineteen, by a white member of the Peter family, possibly one of Britannia’s brothers. She bore twin girls on 28 December 1828: Barbary who died in infancy and Hannah Cole, who lived until 1912. The Pope descendants note that their biogenetic relationship to the Dandridge line (as in Martha Dandridge Custis Washington) is confirmed by DNA testing and that they have numerous white DNA cousins descended from Martha Custis Washington.
We do not know if this sexual relationship with a white member of the slaveowning Peter household was transitory or long term. There are family stories that Barbara was resistant to control, and was at times transferred out to one of the family farms, perhaps at Oakland, as punishment.
According to their descendants’ reminiscences, Barbara and Hannah resided together in the attic of Tudor Place.
Barbara and Hannah would have had close interactions with the other enslaved people in the Peter household, including the cook Charity and her daughter Fanny; before they were sold to the Governor of Virginia James A. MacDowell (1795-1851) on 13 January 1845; Sarah the chambermaid; Charles, the groom; and Henry and the waiter and coachman.
After the marriage in 1842 of Britannia Wellington Peter to US Navy Commander Beverley Kennon, Barbara and her daughter Hannah were given to the new couple as part of their dowry from the Peter family. These two enslaved women moved with the young bride Britannia to the Washington Navy Yard, which Beverley Kennon commanded. They would have been at the Navy Yard during the birth of the Kennon’s couple’s only child Martha “Markie”, and at the time of the tragic death of Beverley Kennon, when a naval gun exploded on board the USS Princeton during a demonstration cruise on the Potomac in 1844.
Following the death of their owner Beverley Kennon in 1844, Barbara and her daughter Hannah appear in the Household Appraisal of Beverly Kennon’s Estate, as “Negro Girl Hannah $350.00. Negro Girl Barbara $ 200.00.” (Tudor Place Archives MS 7 Box 1 –26). They would then have become dower slaves, controlled by Britannia Peter Kennon, and evidently returned with her to Tudor Place.
The immediate aftermath of Beverley Kennon’s death must have been a deeply unsettling time for the enslaved people at Tudor Place. in the settlement of the estate, as noted above, the cook Charity and her daughter were sold away in January 1845. Hannah was also sold that year, it would appear, by Britannia to the former Congressman, Georgetown attorney John Carter, who lived several blocks south of Tudor Place. Britannia’s reminsicences assert that the sale was made to allow Hannah to marry her beloved, Alfred Pope, then enslaved and owned by John Carter. This may have been the case, or the sale may have been primarily motivated by the financial pressures to settle the Kennon estate.
In any event, an 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records the marriage between Hannah and Alfred as having taken place in 1847. The following year Hannah gave birth to the couple’s first child, the girl Jedidah, named for Alfred’s mother. Also in 1848, Alfred joined the attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl, and was recaptured. In contrast to nearly all of the Pearl escapees, Alfred was not sold to slave dealers, but was returned to reside with his owner. Two years later, Alfred, his wife Hannah, mother Jedidah, and daughter Jedidah, along with other enslaved people in the Carter household, were freed under the terms of John Carter’s will. The Pope family continued to live in Georgetown, several blocks from Tudor Place.
The 1850 slave schedule lists a “J. Peters” in Georgetown owning four female slaves, born around 1795, 1819, 1825, and 1837. None of these match the age of Barbara Cole, and it is not clear who precisely “J. Peters” was. It is possible that Sall’s daugher Hannah, born around 1795 according to the 1799 inventory at Mount Vernon, the aunt of Barbara Cole, is the eldest slave in this record, listed as born 1795. The 1850 census (of free persons) lists only one person with the Peters surname residing at Tudor Place, “M. Peters,” who must be Martha Custis Peter. The “J” in the slave schedule was presumably a mistake by the census enumerator.
It seem possible that Alfred and Hannah Pope might have labored during this period to raise the funds to secure the freedom of Hannah’s mother Barbara. or Barbara herself may have attempted to purchase her freedom. The fact that Charity and Fanny had been sold away may have increased their sense of urgency to secure Barbara’s freedom. If this was the case, no record of any such payment has survived, to my knowledge, in the District of Columbia manumission records of the period. Since Barbara was most likely a dower slave, there would have been legal challenges to manumitting her, although that consideration does not seem to have prevented Britannia from selling Charity, Fanny, and Hannah.
When Did Barbara Become Free?
There are several piece of indirect evidence that Barbara was free before 1860, and perhaps even before 1850:
The 1850 census lists a Barbara Cole, a free woman of color, born in the District of Columbia around 1815, residing in Washington Ward 1 in the household of “Mathew” (a mistaken rendition of “Nathaniel” ) Towson, a brigadier general in the US Army, who served as the Army’s Paymaster General. General Towson, who lived at 17th and F streets, just north of the Executive Mansion and opposite the Navy Department, employed two other live-in black servants, Luand (?) Witherson, born around 1825, and William Pierre (mistakenly written as “Pier” in the census), born 1824. Could Barbara already have attained freedom by this point? Given the circles that Britannia Wellington Kennon Peter traveled in, as widow to the former Commandant of the Navy Yard (who also headed the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs), it seems possible that she might have been able to secure Barbara a place in the Towson household.
The District of Columbia marriage records indicate that Barbara A. Cole married William Williams on 17 November 1856 (Film Number: 002079252). This is consistent with the 1890 District of Columbia City Directory entry that lists Barbara as the widow of William Williams (see below). This record would seem to imply that Barbara was free by 1856.
3. The 1860 slave schedule does not list any slave-owners with the surname Kennon or Peter in Georgetown, so it may be that by then there no enslaved people residing at Tudor Place. Britannia’s close Peter relatives retained extensive slave holdings at several sites in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, including in Seneca (the former Oakland property) and the four women listed in the 1850 slave schedule might have been transferred to one of those properties by 1860. It is known that Britannia regularly rented out some of the enslaved people she owned, and perhaps for this reason none are listed in the 1860 census.
4. The 1860 census lists a Barbary Williams, age 50 (born around 1810 in the District of Columbia ), living as a free black servant in the household of the Georgetown merchant Corrnelius Stribling, at the corner of Gay and Green Streets (present day N and 29th streets), along with two other free black servants Mary Carter and Eliza Carter. This household was two blocks due south from the home at O and 29th streets, of Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Barbara Cole Williams, and about four blocks from Tudor Place, where Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon still resided.
Speculatively the surname Carter of the two other servants in the Stribling household might suggest they had some connection with the household of Congressman Congressman John Carter, where Alfred and Hannah Pope had been enslaved up until 1850.
Barbara’s employer in 1860, Cornelius K. Stribling II, was the first son of Rear Admiral Cornelius K. Stribling, the third commandant of the US Naval Academy. Cornelius II was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was married to Emma Josepha Nourse, son Dr. Benjamin Franklin Nourse, descendant of James Nourse, whose family was prominent in Georgetown and environs. Britannia was on familiar terms with the Nourses, and through her late husband USN Commandant Kennon, knew many senior figures in the Navy. Perhaps she helped secure Barbara her position in the Stribling household.
(In 1850, in Norfolk VA, the father of Cornelius Stribling II, Admiral Cornelius Stribling owned six slaves. However, I do not see any evidence that Cornelius II owned any slaves.
Who was William Williams?
Who was William Williams, who evidently married Barbara Cole in 1856?
The 1850 census lists a William M. Williams, a free man of color living in Washington’s Ward 1, born around 1824 in Virginia, evidently a servant in the household of Maria Sperden. The 1853 City Directory lists a William Williams, colored, working as a driver and living downtown on C street between 3rd and 4th.
The 1858 District of Columbia Directory lists a William Williams, colored, employed as a coachmen residing in an alley between M and N streets, north, near Vermont Avenue. This location was about two miles due west of Tudor Place and the residence of Alfred and Hannah Pope (who lived at 78 Montgomery street in Georgetown, now 28th and O streets.) Two years later, the 1860 directory lists a William Williams, colored, as a waiter, living nearby at 235 L street, north. (There is not a black William Williams of credible age in the 1860 census in the District.)
At least fifteen black men named William Williams served in the US Colored Troops and at least eleven black men of the same name enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War; I am not sure at this point if Barbara’s husband served in the Union Army or Navy.
In Appendix II, I list enslaved and free people of color in the District of Columbia with the surname Williams, some of whom may be related to Barbara’s husband.
Post Civil War
It is possible that Barbara alternated between the Williams and Cole surnames. The 1865 Georgetown directory lists a “Mrs. Barbara Cole, col’d” (colored), living at 23 Fourth street (present day Volta Place), about three blocks from Tudor Place, just across High Street (the present day Wisconsin Avenue).
The 1870 and 1880 censuses gives no indication of a Barbara Cole, a Barbara Williams or a William Williams of the correct age living in Georgetown or elsewhere in the District of Columbia. I am not sure what point Barbara became widowed.
On August 18, 1871, Hanna Cole Pope opened a Freedman’s Bank account in the District, and listed as her mother “Barbara Williams,” but giving no indication of where Barbara was living at the time.
During the later decades of her life, Barbara Cole Williams must have known her granddaughter and namesake, the remarkable Barbara Ellen Pope (1858-1908), daughter of Hannah Cole and Alfred Pope. Barbara Pope, a teacher, accomplished writer. and Niagra Movement member, was famously arrested in 1906 for refusing to sit in a “Jim Crow” segregated railroad car and subsequently won her legal case with Niagra Movement support, establishing the right of interstate transportation without discrimination based on race. (Harris 2015).
The 1876 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a servant at 810 20th Street. After this there is no listing of Barbara for twelve years until the the 1888 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a nurse at 1143 Connecticut Avenue.
Two years later, the 1890 District of Columbia Directory lists Barbara Williams, widow of William, nurse, residing at 2900 O Street in Georgetown, the same address as her daughter Hannah Cole Pope and son in law Alfred Pope, where Barbara E. Pope resided as well. [The Pope family descendants recall that Barbara E. Pope lived her entire life in her parents’ house, escpt for time she spent at Tuskegee. According to the 1900 census, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope, occupation schoolteacher, resided at te 2900 O Street address ,where she is also listed in the 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses.]
Family Search’s database of DC deaths (record 662) notes that Barbara Williams died on 18 August 1892 in Washington D.C, at age 86. She is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown: The record from an undertaker reads,” Barbara Williams born 1806/died Aug 9 , 1892 – place of death 2900 O Street, NW,” the home of her parents Alfred and Hannah Pope. . Her eldest granddaughter Jedidah A, Pope Thompson, died 10 August 1897, and is buried in the Old Methodist burying ground of Mount Zion Cemetery (Sluby 1975, p 57). In contrast, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope (who never married) is buried in Columbia Harmony Cemetery (subsequently moved from Rhode Island Avenue to Hyattsville, Maryland).
Appendix I. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Cole in the District of Columbia
A. Free persons of color with the surname Cole in antebellum DC in 1860 include:
The family of James and Catherine Cole in Ward 2:
James Cole 42 Catharine Cole 38C Georgiana Cole 18 Wm Cole 16 Wille Ann Cole 10 Hester Tyler 25 Ida Tyler 4 (Georgeanna Cole’s freedom was attested to on 5 May 1859, by John S. Norris in front of a Justice of the Peace.)
On July 2, 1860, George Cole, a free man of color, states that he has been illegally arrested and confined to jail as a runaway slave. He sought a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted.
B. Enslaved Persons with the surname Cole
The 1862 Compensated Emancipation petitions in the District of Columbia indicate that at least fourteen enslaved people with the surname Cole were freed. These includeL
Sibey (or Libey) Cole, born around 1787, and her likely daughter Rachel Cole, born around 1833, owned by Ulysses Ward. (Sibey was acquired from Ulysses’s wife).
Ellen Cole, born around 1810, owned by Matthew McCleod (Inherited by Matthew’s late wife from her mother in law, Mrs. Mary Manning of St. Mary’s County Marylan.)
James Henry Cole, born around 1840, owned by Michael R Combs (received as a deed of gift from Michael’s grandfather Michael Sardo)
Maria Cole, born around 1847, owned by Thomas H. Barron, acquired through Thomas’ marraige. (Maria was in Prince George’s County when the act of emancipation was passed.)
Milly Cole, born around 1819 and her children Jacob Cole, b. 1839 and Rosa Cole , owned by Charles Lyon. Milly Jacob and Rosa, born 1852, were all purchased from Thomas and Cathereine Barron in 1854 An associated note indicates taht Jacob Cole, a “good mechanic, ” was purchased by Charles Lyons from Mr Sheckell of Washington City D. C. a Negro dealer about the year 1854” (Rosa Cole is not emancipated in 1862, so perhaps died at some point.)
Julia Cole, born around 1822, and her children Joseph, William, Robert and Albert, owned Mary A Harvey. (All inherited from Mary’s late father the late Michael Sardo last of Washington County in the District of Columbia. (Note that Michael Sardo also bequeatheed James Henry Cole )
Joanna Cole (alias Alexander) born around 1835 owned by Lieut. Henry L. Abbott, US Army, Acquired, “By virtue of a bill of sale from Mary Helen McLeod of Georgetown D.C. executed on the 19th day of June 1860” )
Appendix II. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Williams in the District of Columbia
A. Enslaved Persons with surname Williams:
Owned by Thomas Donoho (who purchased Selina Wiliams and child John Henry from Joshua Talbot in 1833):
Salina Williams 51 James Henry (son of Selina) 30 Lydia (daughter of Selina). 24 Lewis (son of Selina 15.1 mo Marion (daughter of Selina 20 Gertrude (daughter of Marion 6 Laura (daughter of Marion 3 Edward (son of Lydia 6 Albert (son of Lydia 18 months
These are presumably related to Harriet Williams, owned by Thomas Talbert [Jr.] in the 1857 tax assessment in unincorporated Washington County,
Dick [i.e., Richard] Williams, 18, in the 1855 tax assessment, owned by Margaret C. Barber (current grounds of the Naval Observatory)
Owned by Fielder Magruder:
Duke Willams, born 1822 Adeline Williams Lewis Williams Charles Williams Maria Williams (daughter of Adeline )
(Fielder purchased all except Maria around 1856, from John Throckmorto. Maria “born of Adeline since i purchased her.”)
B. Free Williams:
William Williams a free man of who in the District of Columbia in March 1836 sought an injunction against a Thomas Duvall, to prevent Duvall from transporting his enslaved wife and child out of the District of Columbia Williams asserted Duvall had imprisoned his wife and child in a slave jail with the intention of selling them to a slave dearlr. . (Petition details at: https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/petitions/details.aspx?pid=4283 )
In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860
Nathaniel Williams 57 M A Williams 30 Rebecca Williams 25 Joseph Williams 29
In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860
Joseph Williams 53 mulatto Bessie Williams 49
In Georgetown Ward 4 in 1860:
Charles Williams 53 M A Williams 50 Sarah Williams 21 John Williams 20
Washington Ward 1 in 1860: Mary Williams 54 Mary Williams 12
Washington Ward 1 in 1860:
Chas Williams 40 Mathilda Williams 38 Mary Williams 19 Charles Williams 17 Francis Williams 16 Richard Williams 12 Martha Williams 7 Isabella Williams 6 Julia Williams 2
Washington Ward 2 in 1860:
Emily Williams, 28, servant in the household of William Thompson. plumber and gas fitter
Washington Ward 4 in 1860:
Frederic Williams 30 Lucy Williams 30 William Williams 18 Percilla Williams 15 Ann Williams 12 Charles Williams 10 James Williams 8 George Williams 4 Robert Williams 1
NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:
Geo Williams 47 laborer Delphia Williams 63 Sarah Cole 25 Jos Cole 7 Eugene Cole 4
NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:
Geo Williams 47 laborer Delphia Williams 63 Sarah Cole 25 Jos Cole 7 Eugene Cole 4
I do not know if this Williams-Cole family is somehow related to Barbara Cole Williams.
I am grateful to Wendy Kail, former archivist, Tudor Place, for her assistance in researcing enslaved persons at Tudor Place and at related Peter properties. Ann Chinn, historian and direct descendant of Barbara Cole Williams, has generously shared her family knowledge of this rich and complex history. Many thanks to Lisa Fager, (Executive Director Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc) for sharing information on Mt Zion burials; and to David Taylor for sharing information on Barbara E. Pope’s burial.
April 15, 2023 will mark the 175th anniversary of the escape on The Pearl the largest attempted non-violent escape of enslaved people in American history. On April 15, 1848, approximately seventy-seven enslaved people—according to one account “38 men and boys, 26 women and girls, and 13 small children or infants” — boarded the schooner The Pearl, which sailed surreptitiously from a District of Columbia wharf near seventh street down the Potomac, with the hopes of voyaging up the Chesapeake to reach the free state of New Jersey. In the early hours of April 18, a posse of slaveowners on a steamboat intercepted the ship near Point Lookout, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and captured the escapees. Nearly all of the enslaved people were sold by their owners by slave traders; many were transported to New Orleans, to be sold in slave markets there.
As we approach the 175th anniversary, the challenge of locating the fate of the escapees and their descendants seem especially urgent. Lines of descendants from Alfred Pope and the Edmonson’s are well documented and Kaci Nash  has made some progress in tracing the post-slavery history of the Bell family. Yet the other fugitives and their posterity remain, to my knowledge, untraced.
Having previously studied the enslaved families in the household of Ariana Jones Lyles of Tenallytown, at her 95 acre farm known as The Rest (in the current vicinity of 39th and Windom Streets NW, Washington DC), I am particular intrigued by three of the enslaved people she owned, who are listed as escaping passengers on The Pearl:
Nat Rosier Augustus Rosier Hannibal Rosier
Who precisely were these individuals and what became of them and their kin?
The 1828 Inventory of the Dennis Magruder Lyles Estate
Two of these individuals. Hannibal and Nat, appear in the 1828 probate inventory of the estate of Ariana Lyles’ late husband, Dennis Magruder Lyles, in the Piscataway district of Prince George’s County, at his family seat of Harmony Hall, located about three miles down the Potomac from the current location of National Harbor: “One boy Hanable,” valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Sophia, so is presumably her son. “One small boy Nathaniel,” also valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Harriet, so is likely to be her son. There is no reference to an Augustus or Gus, so presumably he was born after the 1828 inventory.
The full inventory of enslaved persons, to whom we will return to, is as follows.
Prince George’s County Inventories, Register of Wills. TT vol 7. p. 248. Slaves of Dennis M Lyles, bequeathed to widow Arianna Lyles. (Names followed by valuation in dollars.)
Negro Man John 325 Ellick Oliver 300 William 300 Enoch 250 Elick 350 Randolph 350 Huke? 350 Humphrey 150 John 50
Negro woman Kitty Rachel 225 one small boy Abraham 50 one small girl Sarah 25 woman Sophia 200 one boy Hanable, 50 one boy James 150 woman Harriet 225 one small boy Nathaniel 50 one small girl Priscilla 25 One old woman Winny 25 one boy Bacchus aged about 14 years, 200 One girl Jane 50 One girl Arianna ? 100 one woman Mary 200 one girl Betty 50 One boy Thomas 50
With the exception of Rachel, and perhaps Sarah, all of these enslaved individuals passed to Ariana Lyles, the widow of the late Dennis Margruder Lyles. Under the term of Dennis Lyles’ will, his slave Rachel Loggins was freed. (Prince George’s County Will TI#l:438j Prince George’~County Certifi-cates of Freedom, p. 126, 1 January 1829)
In 1836, seven years after her husband’s death, Arianna Jones Lyles acquired the property known as The Rest, which still stands at 4343 39th street on the northeast corner of 39th and Windom, a bit southeast of the current location of Tenley Circle. The house had been previously owned by Arianna’s aunt Sarah Jones Love. The property was adjacent to the estate known as Clean Drinking, which had been in the possession of her mother’s kin, the Jones family. The Rest farm and orchard extended south to the northern border of the Highlands, the Charles Josephus Nourse estate. Presumably, in the late 1830s the widowed Ariana Lyles relocated to The Rest with her young daughter Sallie and fifteen or so enslaved persons. It is from this property, so far as we can tell, that three of the enslaved individuals owned by Ariana Lyles–Hannibal, Nathan, and Augustus Rosier–escaped in mid-April 1848. These three, along with the other 74 or so other escapees on The Pearl were recaptured on April 18 and were forcibly returned to the District of Columbia.
1848: Who Remained in Georgetown? The Case of Alfred Pope
It is generally asserted by historians that nearly all the recaptured escapees on The Pearl were sold by their owners to slave traders. The only clear exception to this case that I know of was Alfred Isaac Pope of Georgetown, whose owner Colonel John Carter, a North Carolina congressmen, decided not to sell him. Alfred, believed to have been fathered by a white male relative of Colonel Carter, held a relatively high status in the Carter household. Alfred’s descendant, the community historian and activist Ann Chinn, shares the family story that Colonel Carter asked Alfred, with astonishment, why he had chosen to escape, given his comparative life of privilege in Georgetown. Alfred replied that he simply could not tolerate a life in slavery. This seems to have influenced Colonel Carter, who in his will indicated that Alfred and his wife Hannah Cole Pope should be freed, along with the couple’s daguther Jedidah, Alfred’s mother Jedidah and other people enslaved in the household, which they were after Carter’s death in 1850. The Pope’s in time became one of the most prominent African American families in Georgetown.
Hannah Cole, it should be noted, was a direct descendant in the female line of enslaved woman Sall Twine, a dower slave held by Martha Custis Washington at Dogue Run farm at Mount Vernon. Hannah’s mother was Barbara Cole Williams, who was held in slavery in the household of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, great granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, at Tudor Place in north Georgetown. Hannah, her descendants note, was fathered by one of the white brothers of Britannia. As Britannia’s (unacknowledged) niece, it may be that Hannah was afforded some restricted privileges within the Tudor Place compound. Around 1845, Britannia consented to Hannah’s request that she be sold to Colonel John Carter, who lived a few blocks away, so that she could reside with the enslaved man Alfred Pope, whom she intended to marry.
An 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records that Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole were married in 1847. The following year, Alfred Pope boarded The Pearl, in the failed escape.
It is not clear why Hannah did not join her new husband on The Pearl. Perhaps, Alfred hoped to establish himself in New Jersey or another free state, and in time arrange to purchase Hannah’s freedom at a distance. Since the Pope’s first born child Jedidah was born around 1848, it is possible that Hannah was pregnant or caring for a newborn in April 1848, and thus deemed an escape inadvisable. It may also have been that Hannah was reluctant to leave behind her mother Barbara, who was still enslaved at nearby Tudor Place as a maid to Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon.
Reviewing the 1848 slave trading records
What happened to all the other escapees on The Pearl?
After they were captured and returned to the District of Columbia, some of the fugitives were initially purchased from their owners by the slave trader Joseph Bruin, who in 1843 had formed in Alexandria, the slave trading firm Bruin and Hill with his partner Henry P. Hill. Bruin purchased the six Edmonson siblings and transported them to New Orleans, bringing back the two Edmonson sisters to Alexandria because of a Yellow Fever outbreak in Louisiana. Their freedom was eventually secured through fundraising by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and others. Bruin’s slave jail became nationally infamous after it was featured in Rev. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unfortunately, no records of Bruin and Hill’s operations survive to my knowledge, so it is unclear if Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rosier were purchased by the firm from Ariana Lyles after their recapture.
In a widely reprinted letter to the editor, Congressman John L Slingerland of Albany NY, describes encountering (evidently on the evening of April 21) about fifty fugitives from The Pearl, “some of whom were nearly as white as myself,” confined to a rail box car at the District of Columbia’s railroad depot, about to be taken to “Georgia.” Slingerland describes a Baltimore-based slave dealer on the train, purchasing the escaped individuals from their owners. (first published Albany Evening Journal; reprinted in the The Semi-Weekly Eagle, Brattleboro, Vermont. May 4, 1848, under the title “Horrors of Washington-Scene at Washington:). Harriet Beecher Stowe reports in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Part II, Chapter Six) that after the recapture about forty Pearl escapees were transported to Baltimore, and held there about three weeks, until they were transported south to New Orleans.
Some of these names, including the Edmonson siblings, are recorded on the slave manifest of the brig Union, arriving in New Orleans on 18 May 1848. However, the three Rosier men are not listed. Nor have I seen them listed in the other coastwise inward and outward slave manifests held in the National Archives. (It is possible that were listed under other surnames than Rozier or Rosier, or that they were sold locally within Maryland, Alexandria or the District of Columbia, in which case no ship manifests would record their names.)
1855 Tax Assessments, Washington County, District of Columbia
Are we sure that Ariana Lyles sold Hannibal, Nathan and Augustus Rosier after their recapture in 1848?
The January and February 1855 tax assessments for Washington County (which was until 1871 separate from the capital city of Washington for tax collection purposes) lists the following enslaved people owned by “Lyles, Mrs. Arian[n]a J”, with their names, ages, and estimated value:
Given that Hannibal. Nathaniel and Augustus are not included in this tax assessment, they presumably had been sold before 1855. It seems likely that in keeping with nearly all the other owners of the Pearl escapees, Ariana Lyles sold them in 1848. (Incidentally, Kitty, the first woman listed in the 1828 inventory of Dennis Lyles’ estate is missing from the 1855 assessment, but I speculate she may be the same person as the Kitty, age 42 (born around 1813) in the tax assessment list of Thomas Marshall, Arianna’s son in law and immediate neighbor. Perhaps Arianna’s daughter Sallie brought Kitty into her marriage with Thomas Marshall.)
Compensated Emancipation Petitions, 1862
In her 2005 book on The Pearl, Josephine Pacheco incorrectly asserts that Hannibal Rosier, escapee on the Pearl, was the only one of the estimated seventy seven escapees who still resided in the District of Columbia at the time of compensated emancipation in 1862. This is clearly incorrect. As noted above, Alfred Pope, a Pearl passenger, was freed in 1850 following the death of his owner Col, John Carter, and continued to live in Georgetown with his wife Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Babara Cole Williams, who had remained enslaved at Tudor Place.
There is a Hannibal Rozier in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles, but he was six years old when manumitted, so was born around 1856 and clearly could not have participated in the April 15, 1848 escape on board The Pearl, six years before his birth.
Having said that, the enslaved Rozier family documented in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles is certainly intriguing. The thirteen enslaved people freed in her household are:
Randall Ford, 57 Maria 26, Caroline 16, Adrian Conter , 32 David Oliver, 24 John Oliver, 26 Henry Rozin, 8 Hannibal Rozin, 6stemboat Sophia Ford, 70 [Chiah?] Bowman, 62 Eliza Rozin, 31 Maria Brown, 26 Caroline Oliver, 16 Sally Rozin, 4 & Anthony (no age given)
Of these, Ariana attests she inherited all from her late husband Dennis Margruder Lyles, with the exception of Chiah, whom she “purchased from the Estate of Hanson Marshall late of Charles County Maryland, deceased.”
Of all the individuals listed in the petition, only Randolph Ford matches with anyone listed in the 1828 inventory of the Lyles estate at Harmony Hall.
All four of the individuals with the Rosier surname —Eliza, Hannibal, Henry and Sallie—are born after 1828, so it is not surprising that they are absent from the inventory of Dennis M. Lyles’ estate. Of the four Rozier’s listed in the 1862 petition, only Eliza is recorded in the 1855 tax assessment rolls. Eliza is presumably the mother of Henry, Hannibal and Sallie. Perhaps Eliza, born around 1833, was a daughter of Harriet or Sophia, the evident mothers of two of the escapees on the Pearl, “Hannable” and “Nat.” (I do not know if Eliza took her surname Rozier from her mother, or from a husband, as both practices are documented in enslaved communities.)
1870 Census: Eliza and her Children
I see no evidence of the Pearl escapees Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rozier in the 1870 census, the first Federal census in which the names of all persons of color were recorded, or in the 1880 census. Perhaps they died in the period since 1848, or perhaps their names had been changed. (In the 1870 census, there is is only one African American with the surname Rosier born in Maryland in the state of Louisiana, the state to which the recaptured Rosier’s were possibly transported in 1848: this is Charles Rosier, born around 1829, living as a farmer in East Baton Rouge.)
However, Eliza Rosier and her children Hannibal, Henry and Sallie, listed in Ariana’s 1862 peition, do appear eight years later in the 1870 census in downtown Washington DC, in an alley off of 10th street:
Randolph Ford Age 57 (hence born around 1805 )
Eliza Rozur, 42 (born c. 1828)
Hanibal Rozur, 16 (born 1856)
Henry A Rozur, 12 (born 1858)
Sally Rozur, 10, born 1860
Note that the ages of Hannibal and Henry have been exchanged between the 1862 and the 1870 census, and that Sally is listed in 1870 as two years younger than in the 1862 petition, which suggests the 1870 census enumerator may have been hasty and somewhat inattentive.
In any event, since the eldest of Eliza’s listed children was born in 1854, six years after The Pearl incident, they clearly could not have been fathered by any of the escaping Rozier men. Perhaps the escaping Hannibal was the elder brother, uncle, or grandfather of Eliza, and she named her child Hannibal ( most likely born in 1854, six years after the failed attempt) in his memory.
It is just possible that the “A” in Henry Rozier’s middle name may have stood for Augustus, and that he too was named for one of the Pearl escapees.
As noted above, in 1870 Eliza and her children are living with 65 year old Randolph Ford (born around 1805), who had also been listed “Randall,” (same age) in the 1862 petition and had been listed as Randolph in the 1828 inventory of Dennis M. Lyles, as one of nine enslaved men owned by the estate. Perhaps Randolph Ford is the father or father-in0law of Eliza Rozier, and grandfather of the children Hannibal, Henry and Sally.
Hannibal Rozier, presumably the son of Eliza, is listed in the 1873 District of Columbia directory, as a laborer, boarding at 504 10th street, SW. I have not yet located further records of him.
Nathan Rosier: 1870 Freedman’s Bank
A possible kinsman of escapee Nat Rosier may appear twenty-two years after the Pearl Affair in the Freedman Bank’s records, in the District of Columbia. On April 16, 1870 Nathan Rosier, age 63 (born around 1807) opens a bank account with a $7.50 deposit, noting that his parents are no longer living, and indicating that he was born and grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland.
In his 1870 bank record Nathan lists his wife Jane Rosier and children Henrietta Turner and James Rosier. He reports as his half brothers Henry Smallwood and Joseph Rosier, and as his sisters Cenia Ann, Jane, Eliza, and Mary.
This Nathan, born around 1807 cannot be the “small boy Nathaniel” listed in the 1828 inventory of the Dennis Lyles estate. As noted above, there is no Nathan or Nathaniel of his age listed in the 1828 Dennis Lyles inventory. Much more likely is that the escapees Nat, Hannibal and Augustus were all young men in 1848, perhaps in their twenties.
Yet this Nathan Rozier in the 1870 bank record seems likely to be a relative of some sort to the group Rozier’s previously enslaved by the Lyles. One of his sisters is “Eliza,” who could be related to the Eliza listed in Ariana Lyle’s compensated emancipation 1862 petition.
I do not see Nathan and Jane Rozier in the 1870 census, but the 1880 census lists a Nathan Rozier, born around 1839, a farmer in Trappe, Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, married to Jane.
Background: Enslaved and Free Rozier’s
There are many 19th century records of enslaved and free people of color with the surname of Rozier, Rosier, Rozur, or Roser, primarily in the District of Columbia, and the Maryland counties of Montgomery County, Prince’s George’s County, Queen Anne’s County, Talbot, and Charles County.
It is possible that this extended network of enslaved and free Rosier people had their origins in the estates of H. Rosier, who is recorded in the 1810 census in Pescataway and Hynson Hundreds, Prince George’s, Maryland, as owning 20 slaves (with two free people of color) and Mary Rosier, who in 1810 in the same district owned 52 slaves. These slaveowning Rosier’s were likely descendants of Benjamin Rosier (d.1681) Charles Cty, Port Tobacco, MD.
The estates of H. Rosier and Mary Rosier, near the current location of National Harbor, were within a few miles of the location of Dennis Magruder Lyles’ family seat Harmony Hall, where the slaves enumerated in the 1828 inventory resided. I am not sure if the enslaved individuals in question came into the Magruder and Lyles family through inheritance or sale.
As of this writing, I have found no direct documentary traces of the fates of The Pearl escapees Nathanial, Hannibal and Augustus Rosier after their recapture on April 17, 1848. It seems likely that they were quickly sold by Ariana Lyles, who had evidently inherited them or their parents from her husband Dennis Magruder Lyles in 1828, to local slave traders. Perhaps they were sold within the District of Columbia or surrounding Maryland counties, or perhaps, like so many other Pearl fugitives, they were transported in New Orleans and then were resold into plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, where many enslaved people faced horrific working conditions and abbreviated life spans.
One of the many remaining questions from the spring of 1848 is how precisely did Hannibal, Augustus, and Nathaniel learn of the pending escape, as word spread through the network of enslaved and free families in Georgetown? At the time, were all three residing at The Rest, over three miles from the heart of Georgetown up the Fredrick Road, now know as Wisconsin Avenue? We do know that some enslaved people from Georgetown, including those from Tudor Place, were regularly rotated out to family farms in Tennalytown, so they may have helped spread the word. Alternately, Ariana Lyles may have rented out one or more of the Rosier men to a white family or business in Georgetown, where they gained knowledge of the plan. We can only speculate why of the fifteen or so people then enslaved at The Rest, only the three Rosier young men decided to take the great risk of escape, while the others remained in captivity. (Ann Chinn suggests that escape organizer Paul Jennings, who had been enslaved by President Madison. worked hard to spread the word among enslaved people in the area’s affluent households.)
One thing we can be sure of, however, is that, whether they were conscious of the fact or not, as the three Rosier men sailed down the Potomac on board The Pearl on April 16, 1848, they passed directly by Harmony Hall and the other lands on the eastern shore of the Potomac where generations of their forbearers had been enslaved. A day later, as the white posse returned them under armed guard back up the Potomac, they would have passed the same sites of familial enslavement, as they approached the District of Columbia and faced a terrifying and uncertain future.
Mary Beth Corrigan, “The Legacy and Significance of a Failed Mass Slave Escape”, H-Net Reviews: Josephine Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, April 2006.
Josephine F. Pacheco. The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005
Quertermous, Grant S. (ed.) A Georgetown Life: The Reminsicences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place. Georgetown University Press. 2020.
Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl The Heroic Bid For Freedom on the Underground Railroad Harper-Collins: New York 2007
Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. . Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1854.
I have been fascinated by an object from the dawn of the American Independence period, a wax and shellwork tableau created by Samuel Fraunces as a gift for Martha Custis Washington. Fraunces (1722 or 1723–10 October 1795), a chef and restaurateur who was later household steward to President Washington, established in 1762 the Queen Charlotte’s Head Tavern in New York City. This tavern was the location of George Washington’s final address on December 4, 1783 to the officers of Continental Army, days before Washington resigned his military commission and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. On that same day in December, Fraunces wrote to George Washington alluding to this intricate object: “I most earnestly beg your Excellency will order about the Carriage of a small piece of Shell Work which I have lately compleated for Mrs Washington purposely—whose acceptance of it will confer the greatest Honor on me—the [feild] is Hector and Andromache adorned with Shell Flowers the collection of a number of years—.” The gift was conveyed to Martha Washington in 1785 and she reportedly placed it on her bedside bureau; it was later acquired by her grand-daughter Martha Custis Peter and her husband Thomas Peter and has remained ever since at Tudor Place in Georgetown. (Note 1)
Recently conserved and restored, the elaborate object depicts one of the the most famous scenes in Homer’s Iliad, the moment in Book Six when the great warrior Hector poignantly takes his leave from his wife Andromache and their newborn baby Astyanax, held by a nursemaid. Hector resists Andromache’s pleas to remain within the relative safety of the city walls, even as he prophesies the fall of Troy, his own death in combat, and the enslavement of his beloved wife by the besieging Achaeans. The scene would have been instantly familiar to educated Americans. Alexander Pope’s English language translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey sold 20,000 copies in the colonies in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution (Winter 2005). Earlier vernacular, illustrated translations of Homer circulating in the colonies included George Chapman’s version (1598-1611) and John Ogilby’s Homer, His Iliads (1660).
The Genre of Shell Work
Fraunces’ tableau is an example of “Grotto work” or shell work, a genre that was developed in the 17th century and became increasingly popular during the 18th century. Sea shells were collected and carefully arrnaged to emulate flowers and trees, and to depicts classical scenes, encouraging the careful contemplation of natural specimens and literature. These pieces, sometimes referenced as Grotto-esques, emulated sea-carved natural grottos, which were thought to be a particularly compelling formations, often with mystical or mythological associations. Nearly all shellworks during this period to my knowledge were created by women, and were considered a significant component of female education. Many contained classical allusions. (see Keim 2004) The Chester County Historical Society for example, contains a shellwork titled, ““Calypso’s Grotto,“, created by schoolgirl Sarah Morris in 1764, representing the sea nymph who imprisoned Odysseus on her island in Homer’s Odyssey. (Baerman 2019).
A fascinating recent Master’s thesis by Brooke Baerman (2019) argues that 18th century shell-based grotto works tended to be complex microcosmic projections of women’s consciousness, subtly mapping interior female bodily space, including the reproductive tract. Architectural formations such as Greco-Roman temples, created by shells and wax work, she argues, evoked mysterious female power and sexuality in social acceptable, albeit oblique, registers.
Although Samuel Fraunces may have been unusual in his pursuit of this primarily female decorative form, his choice of a Homeric subject for the tableau was well in keeping with 18th century conventions.
The imagery chosen by Fraunces is in many respects understandable, and in other ways puzzling. The scenario of Hector and Andromache’s parting would have been immediately understood as a supreme signifier of patriotic duty, highly applicable to the case of George Washington, who like Hector chose to leave behind the comforts to domestic bliss to face the mortal dangers of the battlefield. Hector, the bravest and noblest of Trojan heroes, was an obvious analogue for George Washington himself, whose feats in arms were increasingly celebrated in the later years of the American War of Independence. Similarly, Andromache would be understood as a clear counterpart to Martha Custis Washington, the epitome of a loyal wife on the home front as war raged. The decision to clothe the figurines in elaborate 18th century apparel was in keeping with iconographic conventions of the period; the well-known published English language versions of Homer similarly included illustrations depicting classical protagonists in contemporary clothing.
Having said that, there is something enigmatic about Fraunces’ decision to emphasize Book Six’s most haunting passage. The power of the scene for readers lies in the knowledge that Hector will within days perish at the hands of Achilles, that his baby Astyanax will be hurled to his death from the ramparts of the city, and that Andromache will face a long life of servitude (eventually becoming queen in a distant city). As Hector declaims to Andromache in Pope’s famous version,
Yet come it will, the day decreed by fates— How my heart trembles while my tongue relates!— The day when thou, imperial Troy! must bend, And see thy warriors fall, thy glories end. And yet no dire presage so wounds my mind, …As thine, Andromache! thy griefs I dread, I see thee trembling, weeping, captive led: In Argive looms our battles to design, And woes, of which so large a part was thine; To bear the victor’s hard commands, or bring The weight of water from Hyperia’s spring; Then, while you groan beneath the load of life, They cry, Behold, the mighty Hector’s wife!” (Alexander Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 136)
How, we might wonder, would the darkness of this scene, envisioning the fall of Troy and the horrific fate of the hero’s spouse, seemed appropriate to Fraunces as a gift to Martha? Would it it have been read as an unfortunate omen that the newly independent states were similarly destined for defeat and subjugation and that Mrs. Washington too was destined for enslavement?
I speculate that during the many months or years that Fraunces labored to create the tableau, probably between 1781 and 1783, he may not have felt fully confident that the colonists’ cause would prevail. Working as an undercover intelligence agent for the Continental forces, Fraunces was well aware tha Washington’s forces continued to face vicissitudes in the face of overwhelming British military force on land and especially by sea, and that a victorious outcome was by no means assured. What Fraunces and his contemporaries would have been fully confident in, however, was that George Washington had chosen the path of honor, and that regardless of the ultimate fate of the American cause, Washington’s name, like Hector’s, would echo down through the ages as a paragon of selfless devotion to principles of martial duty. Again, as Pope presents Hector’s words,
“Me glory summons to the martial scene, The field of combat is the sphere for men. Where heroes war, the foremost place I claim, The first in danger as the first in fame.” (Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 137)
The tragic, even elegiac notes of the scene would thus perhaps have been considered appropriate to George Washington, who even if he died in combat would be assured his place as “first in fame,” whatever the fate of new republic, Similarly, Martha’s matchless reputation as a selfless spouse would remain unquestioned.
Another potentially discordant aspect of the scene is the fact that George Washington was widely known to be childless, so there was hardly a precise analogue to the baby Astyanax in the General’s parting from Martha and his household at Mount Vernon. It is perhaps for this reason that Fraunces chose not to to depict the famous moment in which Hector lifts aloft the baby in his arms to seek the gods’ blessings, a scene beloved by many previous and subsequent artists. In Fraunces’ rendition, the primary emphasis is on Hector and Andromache on the right, while the nursemaid is significantly off to the left of the stage, holding a baby that is just barely visible. The primary focus of the tableau is on Andromache on the far right, her left arm extended: the clear implication is that Martha Washington, as mother of the new republic, reigns triumphant. (The fact that all the viewers face towards the viewer’s left would seem to be consistent with the artist’s expectation that the work would be read as a text, from right to left, telling a story that anticipated the developing American story.)
The Classical Pastand the American Revolution
This was not the first time Fraunces had molded wax figurines of classical subjects. During the summer of 1768, starting on July 21, Fraunces repeatedly advertised in The New York Journal that his recently opened Vaux Hall Gardens would feature a group of “magnificent wax figures, rich and elegantly dressed, according to the ancient Roman and present mode, which figures bear the most striking resemblance of real life and represent the great Roman General Publius Scipio, who conquered the City of Carthage, standing by his Tent, pitch’d in a Grove of Trees.” The assemblage depicted Scipio (popularly known as Scipio Africanus) surrounded by the captured leaders and generals of Carthage. Fraunces had already been working with shells by this period; the advertisement notes, “Also there are several very masterly pieces of Grotto work, composed of various shells, etc”.
The summer of 1768, it should be noted, was a time of great political ferment in the colonies, and Fraunces, as an active member of the Sons of Liberty, would have been keenly aware of how much hung in the balance. In February of that year, Samuel Adams had circulated a letter opposing the Townshend Act and denouncing taxation without representation, an act of defiance that would lead to the Crown’-appointed Governor dissolving the Massachusetts General Court. During that summer, pressure was building in New York and Boston for a boycott of British goods. It seems possible that Fraunces intended the Cathaginian scene to be read allegorically, as an example of the fate awaiting tyrants.
The Pastoral and American Aristocracy
In contrast to most artistic depictions of Hector’s parting, the tableau does not depict the hero in armor or with shield and sword (see for example the 1711 French engraving above). Rather, the scene in Fraunces’ waxwork is of unalloyed bourgeois domesticity, the only hint of Hector/Washington’s martial status being a sash across his chest. Indeed, Fraunces chooses to embellish his figures with pastoral elements, presumably intended to honor the first couple upon their (presumed) retirement to Mount Vernon. Sheep, redolent of the blessings of peace, surround Hector and Andromache, and a lamb even nuzzles the hem of its mistresses’ bounteous dress. The couple appear to have entered the stage through classical columns in the center of the composition, draped with flowers and vines. On a branch just above Hector’s shoulder is perched an owl, familiar of the goddess Athena, its wings outspread in blessing of the heroic couple. (Given that Athena was the patron of Athens, the presence of her companion animal here may presage the Achaeans coming victory over the Trojans.)
In his desire to honor the Washington’s, the royal lineage of Hector, son of King Priam and of Andromache, princess of Thebes, must have seemed appropriate to the artist and his contemporaries. Around the time Fraunces created the tableau, many of the Washington’s most fervent supporters saw them as the potential foundation of a new American aristocracy. The Order of the Cincinnati, composed of officers in the Continental Army, had been founded only a few months before Washington gave his parting December 1783 address to his officers. Washington would eventually promote reforms in the Order, including abolishing hereditary membership, precisely because he wished to be sen as uphold ing republican, as opposed to aristocratic values. Yet Fraunces, who would later serve as the first President’s steward in New York and Philadelphia, presumably felt that analogies between the Washington’s and the Trojan princely couple were entirely appropriate.
The Force of the Gift
The foundational anthropological theorist of the gift Marcel Mauss long ago noted that the gift embodies aspects of the persona of the donor, which will be transferred, in effect, into the personhood of the recipient; gifts are thus iconic of the relationship between giver and receiver, and may modulate or transform that relationship in complex ways. In this light, Samuel Fraunces’ decision to include in the tableau scores of tiny shells from his own collection, evidently from his home region in the Caribbean, suffused the object with elements of his own biography. The positioning of a loyal servant to the left of the royal couple might also be understood as the artist embedding himself within the gift, so that an aspect of his own being travels with it to Mount Vernon. (Note 2)
The artist may even have placed himself more directly within the gift. Given his surname and French heritage, Fraunces was presumably aware of the medieval and Renaissance French invented tradition (modeled on Virgil’s casting of Rome as founded by the Trojans) that Hector and Andromache’s son Astyanax had not perished at the Fall of Troy but had instead survived and, under the name of Francus, founded the royal lineage of the “Franks”. In Pierre de Ronsard’s 1572 epic La Franciade the god Jupiter saves the boy, who is renamed “Francus,” and after wedding a princess on Crete founds the royal French dynasty.: The poem begins:
“Sing for me that race Of French kings descended from Francion, Hector’s son and of Trojan stock/ Who in his tender childhood was called Astyanax /…tell me how many times on the seas (Despite Neptune and Juno) he overcame Fortune/ And how many times on solid ground he escaped From danger, before going on to build the walls of Paris”( (Phillip John Usher translation, 2010)
Perhaps Samuel Fraunces was thus inserting himself in effect into the position of the baby in arms (Astrynax/Francus), and implying that George and Martha Washington might think of him as their adopted son. It should be added that honoring the French royal family would have seemed entirely appropriate to American patriots after the French navy’s pivotal intervention at Yorktown.
Race and Slavery
Historians have debated if Samuel Fraunces was of African descent. He was from the Caribbean (possibly from Barbados or Haiti) and was known as “Black Sam.” (His tavern is sometimes called “Black Sam’s” in contemporary accounts.) The 1790 census lists him as owning one slave, and in 1784 he advertised the auction of a fourteen year old male slave. He is listed as white in official records, and was a member of Trinity Church, which prohibited blacks from full membership, yet he is referenced as mulatto or negro in journalistic and other unofficial accounts. W.E.B. DuBois strongly suspected he was of African heritage. It seems likely he was a light skinned man of color. Fraunces was certainly a most fascinating “shape shifter” during the Revolutionary War; working as a spy for the American cause, he contributed to the unmasking of Benedict Arnold and foiled a major assassination attempt against George Washington. (Note 3)
Regardless of the racial background of the artist, the problem of slavery does seem to hover around the entire work. The classical nursemaid is depicted as white, but nursemaids at plantations such as Mount Vernon during this era would of course have overwhelmingly been enslaved women of color. The documented use of sea shells from the Caribbean in the composition may allude to the wealth of the West Indies, so key to the prosperity of the new republic, a wealth that was anchored in enormity of slave-based plantations throughout the west Atlantic world. The wealth of the Washington’s, like that of the Trojans and the Archaens as recorded in Homer, depended on a complex system of enslavement, rank, and labor extraction.
Hence, a fascinating irony: the shadow that lurks over the parting scene in Book Six of the Iliad is the anticipated terror of the protagonists, especially Andromache, falling into slavery. White American revolutionaries in the late 1770’s and early 1780’s similarly feared the fate of returning into “enslavement” by the British Crown. Yet, their cherished freedom rested, to a large extent, on the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. This exquisite pastoral scene, in which nature’s bounty blesses the first couple and by extension the new nation which they have helped to birth, is founded upon the nearly invisible labor in bondage of people of color. One even wonders if Fraunces wrote himself into the composition, in the role of a servitor to the first couple, in the personage of the nursemaid, whose own precise position and status was ambiguous.
This wax and shell work might thus be read, retrospectively, as an act of partial disavowal, obliquely alluding to the uncompensated labor of multitudes, signified by the anonymous nursemaid, while redirecting the viewer’s attention away from an enslaved workforce to the triumphant primary couple, heralding a new era of purported freedom. In that sense, the tableau might be read as containing in microcosm, the underlying contradictions of the new republic, which would ultimately determine the climatic conflict eight decades later over the meaning and destiny of the American experiment.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Julie Miller (Library of Congress) for insights into Samuel Fraunces, to Robert Paul (Emory) for calling my attention to the Frenh myth of Fraunus, and to Laurie Kain Hart (UCLA) for noting the likely symbolism of the tableau’s owl.
On March 5, 1785, Governor Clinton of New York wrote to George Washington that he had arranged to ship the Samuel Fraunces’ tableau, referencing a “…Box…marked GW the latter contains a Glass Case with Wax or Grotto Work, presented by Mr Francis to Mrs Washington and by him left with Mrs Clinton to forward. I have put it up with all possible Care and earnestly hope it may arrive safe, tho’ I confess I would not be willing to Insure it as it appears to me to be a very Ginger Bread piece of work—If any of the parts should get loose they must be fastened with a little Rosen and white Wax—this is the makers direction which he desired might be communicated.”
Mauss argues that all gifts contain a balance of interest and disinterest, tactics and altruism. Such certainly appears to be the case with Fraunces’ gift. It seems clear that Fraunces was a genuine admirer of Washington and there is every reason to think the gift was heartfelt. Having said that, Samuel Fraunces had strong motivations to cultivate George Washington’s favor. He had emerged from the Revolutionary War, in which he served the Revolutionary cause at considerable personal costs, with many debts. In several letters to Washington in the mid 1780’s, Fraunces references his financial straits and pleads for Washington’s assistance. Congress did eventually agree with Fraunces’ position and awarded him payments for his services rendered as an undercover intelligence agent during the war.
Speculatively , might Fraunces’ decision in 1768 to present in the Vaux Hall Gardens a life size tableau of Publius Scipio, popularly known as “Scipio Africanus’, surrounded by captured Carthaginian generals, have been an effort to depict an African or black-themed scene in a socially acceptable fashion?
For Further Reading
Brooke Baerman. 2019. “NEW ORDER FROM YOUR HAND, NEW LUSTRE FROM YOUR EYE”:THE ART, CRAFT, AND SCIENCE OF PHILADELPHIA SHELLWORK GROTTO.. University of Delaware, Master’s Thesis. (Accessible online)
Samuel Fraunces, letter to George Washington, 4 December 1783 (New York Decr 4th 83)
Laura Keim. Shellwork Shadow-Box Grottoes from Colonial Philadelphia,” Piecework Magazine, March/April 2004, 42-46.
I am fascinated by two paintings created about four decades apart, by the same artist, Berthold Klinghofer (1893-1975), who is a distant cousin of mine through marriage.
“Czernowitz Ringplatz” ( 1911) depicts the fabled central square of Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovinan region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine) on the eve of World War One. (Note 1) Czernowitz, a predominantly German-speaking city renown for its vibrant Jewish cultural community, was referred to as “Little Vienna” during the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ringplatz seems to have been modeled on the Vienna’s own central imperial Ringstrasse center. The plaza was a favorite of painters and photographers and is chronicled in several surviving photographic postcards., as in the postcard below.:
The Ringplatz is nostalgically referenced by many Jewish residents and descendants, including in Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s book, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (University of California Press, 2011). The Ringplatz exemplified the cosmopolitan and pluralist ethos associated with Czernowitz in the final decades of the Hapsburg reign,. The first conference devoted to the Yiddish language was held there in 1908 in Czernowritz,where many significant German speaking Jewish intellectuals, artists, and literary figures, including Rosa Auslander and Paul Celan, came of age.
Klinghofer’s painting, created early in his career when he was about twenty years old, captures the vibrancy and dynamism of the city center, in a manner that evokes earlier Impressionist celebrations of urban bourgeois urbanity. In the foreground, a city trolly prepares to embark from its downtown terminus, its well dressed riders nearly all facing forward. To the trolly’s left we see an elegantly attired woman from the rear, sporting a red hat which seems to match the bright red trolly. Perhaps she has just alighted from the tram. Speculatively. we may be being treated to a first glimpse of the colorful urban center as seen by a new arrival to the town. (Note 2)
To the right of the terminus, we see three men in conversation, near two trees in full foliage; a man sports a beard that might signal his status as an observant Jew. In a touch of humor, we glimpse a man, perhaps a sailor, emerging from an open air walled pissoir or public urinal. Behind the terminus, heading in precisely the opposite direction as the tram, we see an open sedan automobile driving along through a crowded thoroughfare. Here and there we glimpse knots of people in animated conversation, standing, on benches, or shopping at open market stalls. Others walk alone, flaneurs making their way through the elegant cityscape. In the upper center we see the high wall of a grand four story building, decorated with festive advertising text. Everywhere, we see the untrammeled joy and interaction of metropolitan life, the coming together of those of different backgrounds amidst the hum of commerce and curiosity.
Don’t Forget (c. 1947)
Consider the horrific contrast to a work painted by the same artist about four decades later, “Don’t Forget: Crematoria,” an homage to the terrors of the Holocaust. (Note 4).
A crowd of naked inmates is forced by black-clad guards towards the blazing red oven of the crematorium. imaged as the gaping mouth of a monstrous creature. Where its nose would be a swastika is placed over the black outline of a Wehrmacht military helmet. Above the demonic face we see a chimney belching smoke from the remains of the murdered victims. Across a low wall are clustered the crowds of those, still clothed, destined for slaughter. A curving line of the victims stretches out as far as the eye can see. In the upper left, are written the words “Don’t Forget” in English and Hebrew, below a yellow Star of David.
It seems likely that the artist was mindful of the pivotal scene in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, in which the protagonist Freder, son of the industrialist, has a vision of the underground machine complex as “Moloch” the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.
In the film a giant head with a vast burning maw devours the laborers of the city. As in Klinghofer’s painting, smoke emerges from the vast mechanical figure. In Metropolis, helmeted warriors force unclad workers into the burning mouth; so too in the Holocaust painting are the victims fed to the merciless god of fire.
Berthold Klinghofer during the Holocaust
Berthold Klinghofer was a professor and respected artist in Bukovina before the war, and held art shows in Czernowitz in 1938, 1939 and 1940 as well as one in Bucharest. Then, like thousands of other Jewish Romanians, he was caught up in the deepening campaigns of anti semitic extermination.
Over the course of 1941, the fascist Romanian regime of Antonescu increasingly allied itself with Hitler’s Germany, in terms of military policy and violent anti-semitism. The Romanian military participated in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In appreciation of Romania’s service, the German high command awarded a section of the Soviet Union’s southern Ukraine, north of the Dnister River, known as Transnistria, to Romanian control. This territory was used primarily as a space of violent oppression for deported Jews from Bukovina, Galicia, Moldova and elsewhere. Some were directly placed in labor camps, others wandered desperately from place to place. Others were forced north further into Ukraine, where they were victims of murderous killings by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi SS mobile killing squads.
Some of Klinghofer’s travails during this period are documented in an article in the newspaper Die Stimme (The Voice) Mitteilungsblatt für die Bukowiner, the long running newspaper of Jewish Bukovina, in the May 1959 edition page 9. (German version at https://bit.ly/33rw5sd)
Meeting of Three People Said to be Dead After 18 Years
On July 16, 1941, on the orders of the SS-Kommando stationed there at the time, attorney Sascha Pinkensohn, Prof. Berthold Klinghoffer, and Dr. Elias Weinstein were arrested in Czernowitz. In the gendarmerie command, to which they were transferred immediately afterwards, they learned that they were to be executed the following night. A short time later, they were escorted by a strong military patrol to the village of Revna, 7 kilometers from Chernivtsi, to be taken to the gendarmerie post there. Already on the way, Klinghoffer attempted suicide by poisoning.
As if by a miracle, these three prisoners escaped the cruel fate of the shooting: Klinghoffer, who was brought to Czernowitz by a patrol a short time later, managed to escape with his family to Bucharest. He was captured there by military authorities and, after horrible torture, was brought back to Czernowitz, from where he was deported to a penal camp in Transnistria. After the end of the war, Klinghoffer fled with his family to the free world and, on a detour via Canada, arrived in Milan, where he took up permanent residence with his wife and son.…Berthold Klinghoffer is currently staying in the country [Israel} with his wife as a tourist.
The three friends, who experienced fateful moments together, were able to see each other again for the first time after 18 years in Tel-Aviv.
Berthold Klinghofer is listed in the “Lists of remits made to Jews from Romania that had been deported to Transnistria,” a set of documents held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Limited funds were transferred to Jewish deportees, in some cases proving the difference between life and death for those confined to Transnistria.
In my own family, my great grandparents Isak and Clara Auslander after their deportation from their home in Radautz (Radauti) were for a time sustained by financial transfers from their son in law, Dr. Robert (Berl) Klinghoffer. As a physician Robert was allowed to remain in his home town of Storojinet, Bukovina, during war, and was able to provide modest financial support to his wife Sara’s parents, and their grandson Severin Pagis (who would later be the Israeli poet and scholar Dan Pagis), who was eleven when the deportation took place.
Berthold Klinghofe was first cousin of Dr. Robert Klinghoffer .(Robert’s father was brother to Moshe Klinghofer, Berthold’s father). According to records in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Berthold received a payment from someone in Romanian territory on 9 Nov 1943. I do not know as of this writing who provided this support. The death date of Berthold’s father Moshe Klinghofer is listed as 1943, so it seems likely he died in Transnistria during the deportation period.
Robert’s son, Arthur Klinghoffer (born 1927 and now living in Israel) recalls being reunited with Berthold and his wife Stefania (Fanny, nee Segal) in 1944 in Czernowitz after the city had been liberated from Romanian fascist domination by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Arthur assisted Berthold and Fanny in creating paintings for the local Communist Party leadership. The next year Robert, Sara, and Arthur Klinghoffer, moved away from Soviet control and settled in Radautz, and in time made their way to Israel. Berthold and Fanny, in turn, made their way to Vienna, where Berthold became a member of the Viennese Academy of Art, and later settled in Milan, Italy. He and Fanny visited Arthur and his family in Israel in 1959, as noted in Die Stimme article above. Berthold died in 1975.
My great grandparents were confined for the deportation period of 1941-44 to a Transnistria work camp in Vindiceni, which is where my great grandfather Isak Auslander died in January 1944, two months before the Red Army liberated the area. I am not sure where precisely Berthold and Fanny were confined in Transnistria.
It is interesting, in any event, that in his postwar painting, Berthold chooses to depict the Holocaust through the motif of Auschwitz, a mechanized death camp, as opposed to the less centralized mass murders committed by beating, starvation, disease, and mobile killing squads that characterized the Final Solution in Transnistria and elsewhere in Ukraine. (It is sometimes said that the Holocaust in Central Europe was characterized by death through the gas chamber, and in the East, by death in the ravine ). It may be that the artist chose for the purpose of simplicity to center on what had become the universal recognizable signifier of the Holocaust, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. The term “Holocaust,” as is well known, references a burnt offering, and the painting encompasses the variegated fate of the Six Million within the imagery of a vast fire sacrifice.
The Two Paintings, Compared
Whatever the artist’s precise motivations, it occurs to me that the “Don’t Forget” work can be read as a precise inversion of the 1911 “Czernowitz Ringplatz” painting, created roughly four decades earlier. In the Czernowitz image, the fully clothed protagonists delight in the common public square, freely pursuing their own pathways in every direction through the city center. In “Don’t Forget,” all are coerced into a vast forced march that culminates in nakedness, forced into a single burning fire as the singular telos of all their journeys. We are as far as possible from the public plaza that symbolized the common space of civil society under conditions of cosmopolitan urbanity; now, the violent state is all powerful, endlessly consuming those have been utterly subjected to its destructive appetites. (Note 4)
To be sure, there is no way of knowing if Berthold even remembered his youthful, pre-Great War painting of the Ringplatz as he painted the Holocaust commemorative work after World War Two. Nonetheless, the structural contrasts are striking. Towering above the market scene of downtown Czernowitz were inscribed exuberant advertising signs, visual celebrations of the commercial joys of the city. Now, written above the unfolding terror of the death camp are only the somber written injunctions not to forget, and a reproduction of the Star of David which Jews were forced to wear under the Third Reich. The center foreground of the Ringplatz composition was a city red tram setting forth, its riders optimistically looking forward towards the viewer as they embark on their urban adventure. In contrast, in “Don’t Forget’ all the figures in the foreground are seen from the rear, as in the final moments of life they are pushed into the red mouth of the crematorium. Adjacent to the Czernowitz transport terminus were two vibrant green trees, a verdant oasis in the midst of the city; the landscape of Auschwitz is entirely denuded of natural beauty, as all life is offered to the red flames and turned to black smoke.
Finally, in Ringplatz the varied architecture of the cityscape serves a visual correlative to the diverse urban dwellers who saunter to and fro, each a bit different, each on his or her private errand. In the Holocaust painting, nearly all distinctiveness is leached away from the naked victims, and there is no trace of the beauty of architectural diversity. Only one squat ugly building dominates the field of vision, a relentless mechanism of mass murder. All signs of the lost world of cosmopolitanism have been eradicated, in this dreary city of the dead.
I am not sure if when creating “Don’t Forget,” Klinghofer was directly familiar with Paul Celan’s 1948 poetic meditation on the Holocaust, Todesfugue (Death Fugue) . Like Klinghofer, Celan was a native of Czernowitz and was subjected to slave labor in Transnistria, where his parents died. The poem famously repeats the line, “Black milk of dawn we drink you at night” (“Schwarze Milch der Frühe trinken dich nachts”) A similar monochromatic gloom permeates Berthold’s painting. We are infinitely far from Czernowitz’s Ringplatz, in which articulated shadows from the green trees indicate a precise time of day; here, in the death camp and its long aftermath, there is no conventional passage of time, no distinction between daytime and nighttime, between dawn and sunset, only the endless rhythm of the transport and the repeated machinery of mass death, in the perpetual shadowlands. The crematorium’s fires burn not only millions of human bodies, but all memories of the sun-drenched city, even as, paradoxically, the artist pleads with us to stay loyal to the impossible yet vital work of remembrance.
Note 1. Edgar Hauster, an authority on the history of Czernowitz and Bukovina, has kindly shared an entry from Klinghofer’s birth register, indicating that Berthold was born as Baruch Klinghoffer on May 20, 1893 in Paltinosa [Paltinoasa] in the vicinity of Gurahumora [Gura Humorului], son of Moses Klinghoffer, [propination licence] holder in Paltinosa, and Rifka Scheindel, daughter of Mendel and Sluwe Rath from Radautz:
Note 2. A recent copy of the painting by Victor Volkov was evidently acquired by the Czernowitz Art Gallery. (See an essay in German and Ukrainian by Tetyana Dugaeva: http://hauster.de/data/ChernivtsiKunstalbum.pdf) I am unsure of the provenance or current owner of the actual painting, which is reproduced along with the Volkov copy on the Czernowitz L Discussion Group blog at: http://ehpes.com/blog1/?p=10364
Note 3.. “Never Forgot: Crematoria” is one of eleven works on Holocaust and refugee themes by Berthold Klinghofer in the collection of the archives of the Ghetto Fighters Museum and Archives in Western Galilee, Israel. The works may be seen by entering the term “Klinghofer” into the search box. I am unsure of the date of the painting, other than it must be post-1945.
I have been puzzling over the early life stories of my mother’s mother Yetta (Anderson?) Epstein (c.1894 or 1897-1959) and her sister “Bessie” (March 1885-17 December 1970), whose initial married name was “Masse Lebed,” and who was later known as “Bessie Labb.” Untilly recently, I had been uncertain of the maiden name of Bessie and Yetta. As noted below, I now having two working theories of their maiden names and family background.
Masse or Bessie (b. March 1885; d. 1970) and her younger sister Yetta (b. 1894-1897; d, 1959) were evidently both born in Pavoloch, Russia, a substantial Jewish settlement in Ukraine. (Bessie gives Ruzhyn, her husband’s home town, as her place of birth on her shipping manifest into New York, but listed “Pavolitz” as her place of her birth in her naturalization petition.) As noted above, I had been unsure of Yetta and Bessie’s maiden name . Yetta is listed in the 1920 census as unmarried, with the surname “Anderson,” but my late mother Ruth Auslander believed this was not her actual maiden name. Bessie’s granddaughter,recalls that her mother Florence believed that Bessie’s maiden name was actually “Antinson” and that Bessie and Yetta’s mother’s name was Tzeral or Izeral Antinson. I can see no emigrants listed from Russia with the name of “Antinson,” however.
I had considered names such as “Antonovich,” “Antonowsky”, “Antonovskaya,” and “Antonovskiy”which are are fairly common Jewish Ukrainian names that do show up in early 20th century US immigration records (sometimes shortened to “Antonoff”). However, when I recently consulted my AncestryDNA results, I notice that I had a number of distant cousins with the surname “Aronson and ” “Nathanson.” I discuss the possibilities of these two two surnames in turn, noting that Yetta, Bessie and Tillie may have been related to both families.
Option 1: Aronzon or Aronson Family Links
I have a number of significant DNA matches to members of the extended Aronzon (Aronson) family with roots in the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine’s Kiev District :This includes an X-match (indicating links through my mother) to a maternal descendant of the well known late Yiddish poet Aliza Aronson Greenblatt,, who emigrated from 1904 with her family from a shtetl in southern Urkraine. This extended Aronson group is descended from Shaya Aronson (1793-1840 in Berdychiv, Zhytomyrs’ka, now Ukraine) . Berdichev is the adjacent region to Pavoloch, the place of birth Bessie Labb (Lebed) lists on her naturalization petition. Shaya’s son Issac (b. 1826 in Berychiv appears to have been taken south by relatives as a child, to Mogilev in southern Ukraine, where he and his descendants settled, until a number of family members moved to the US in the early 20th century. Presumably some members of the Aronson family descended from Shaya remained in the Berdichev area, and it is possible that Yetta, Bessie and Tillie were related to them.
In this connection, I am intrigued by the figure of Isadore Aronson, who was born in Russia around 1870; he emigrated in 1877, and married Sarah Edelstein in New York in November 1894. From at least 1908-12 the couple was living in Reading, PA, the same town that Yett and her husband Isadore Epstein would live in from around 1923-1940. Then, the Aronson’s moved to Baltimore; in 1920, they were residing about a half mile away from the building on Jackson Place in which resided Yetta Anderson and her sister Bessie and brother in law Abraham Labb.
I have not yet found any Aronson’s who came from Pavoloch itself, though, so perhaps the connection to Yetta, Bessie, and Tillie is a somewhat distant one.
Option 2. The “Nathanson” Theory: Bessie and Yetta’s Maiden Name?
Several Nathanson families among my DNA matches emigrated to the United States or Canada from Pavoloch in Ukraine in the early 20th century:
Benjamin (later “Barnet”) Nathanson and his wife Hannah (Posner) Nathanson,, who arrived 1903 from Pavoloch and settled in New York City. His parents were evidently Nathan and Louise.
Abraham Nathanson, arrived in 1905 from Pavoloch (and later married Fannie Edelstein)
Matus Nathanson (son of Israel (Sru) Nathanson) and his wife Loie, their daughter Ronze and son Elic, arrived 22 Nov 1912 from Pavoloch.
Edie Nathanson arrived with her three children in 1899 from Pavoloch, to reunite with her husband Samuel Nathanson in Chicago.
Julius (Khanina) Nathanson, came as a child from Pavoloch and Kiev to Chicago; later had a career as a prominent singer and performer in the Yiddish Theater.
Nathan Nathanson, son of Israel Nathanson, emigrated from Pavoloch to Canada in 1921
Max (Mordecai) Nathanson, son of Israel (Srul) Nathanson and brother of Nathan, came through Canada, arriving in the US in 1901, settled in Chicago and married to Fannie.
There is no immigration record for a Yetta Nathanson arriving in the 1913-14 period, when Yetta would have arrived (according to the 1920 census). Yet two young women from the Kiev region might be cogent fits:
Perl Natanson, born 1896, arrived 30 July 1914 in New York, giving Kiev as her place of birth. She had been staying with her mother Mariyam (?) Natanson in Kiev and indicates she plans to stay with her uncle John or Leib Posner (?), at 409 Union Street (Brooklyn). I do not know if this Leib Posner is related to Hannah (nee Posner) the wife of Benjamin (Barnet) Nathanson, referenced above.
Sura Natanzon from Tolne (Tolna), born 1894, in the Kiev District (a town about 200 km from Pavoloch), where she had been staying with her father “C. Natanzon”. She arrived 11 Jun 1913, and will be staying with cousin R. Nathanson, 179 Hameyer (?) St in Brooklyn
Whoever Yetta was and precisely when and where she arrived in the United States, we do know that by 192- she was in residence in Baltimore, living in the same building as her sister Bessie and brother in law Abraham Labb, discussed below.
Relatives in Baltimore?
Beverly Epstein, widow of Yetta’s son Norman Epstein, recalls that Yetta had a sister or cousin in Baltimore named “Cecial.” In this connection, it is interesting that in the 1930 census a Cecilia Levinstein, age 65, resided in the Baltimore household of her son in law, Ben L Nathanson and his wife Anne, along with Ceclia’s daughter Ida Levenstein and Ben and Anne’s newborn son Richard. (Benjamin and Anna had married four years earlier in Washington DC.) Benjamin was the son of Aaron Nathanson, who had arrived from Russia in the US around 1882-83, and settled in Baltimore. I am not sure if Yetta and Bessie had a connection to this branch of the Nathansons or Levensteins.
it is also interesting that a Social Security record on Ancestry.com lists the father of Bessie Labb as “Labbi Morris” (perhaps meaning Lieb Moishe?) and her mother as a “Ceal Tobosnick.” This could be consistent with the family memories that Yetta and Bessie’s father was “Moishe,” and that their mother’s name was Tzeral or Izeral. [It is perhaps relevant that the Yad Vashem database lists a “Tabachnik” family from Pavoloch as Holocaust victims.]
The Lebed/Labb Family
It appears that Masse (later Bessie) married Lieb Abraham Lebed (later known as Abraham Labb, b. 20 July 1886) on March 2, 1902, perhaps in Skyrva (Skvira or, in Yiddish, Skver), about 13 miles southeast of Pavoloch. The couple resided in Ruzhin (in Yiddish: Rizhn or ריזשן). currently in Zhytomyr Oblast, a city in Ukraine long associated with Jewish learning, about 30 km southwest of Pavoloch.
A November 1907 immigration card lists Abraham’s father “Fesach” (presumably Pesach) Lebed. Shipping manifests suggest the couple lived in the home of Abraham’s father, Pesach Lebed, while in Ruzhin.
Cousin Paul Labb shares a story that the family plan had been for Masse (Bessie) to marry a rabbi, but that Lieb Abraham paid the coachman not to take her away, and began courting her.
Abraham apparently had a violent encounter with Cossacks who may have killed his father; Abraham, his grandson Paul, believes, fought back and thus had to flee the country. He traveled through Europe, looking for mezuzah on dwellings and appealing to fellow Jews for help. He finally was able in 1907 to journey to the USA three years before his wife. His November 1907 immigration form lists his brother in law as “Nusan Kuschner,” residing at 2317 New Market St, Philadelphia, PA. (I am unsure if this Kuschner is the husband of one of Abraham’s sisters, or somehow related to Bessie. Possibly, Nusan took the angilicized name “Nathan” and may have lived in Baltimore )
In any event, Abraham arrived on the ship S.S. Cassel sailing from Bremen into Baltimore on November 7, 1907, giving his name as “Lieb Abraham Lebed.” He listed as his closest relative in his home country his father, “Poisach” (?), perhaps Pesach (?) Lebed of Ruzhin. His occupation is “joiner” and he was headed for Philadelphia, PA. He appears to be traveling with three others from Ruzhyn, Fakol Apleznyk (?), Fega Furmann (female, milliner) , and Uscher Lievak (?), who also listed their destination as Philadelphia. These three individuals may have been Abraham’s relatives.
Two and half years later, the shipping manifest for the SS Brandenberg, arriving from Bremen into Baltimore on March 3, 1910 identifies Abraham’s wife “Masse Lebed” as a man.) She lists as her closest relative in her country of origin as her father-in-law, Pescach (Paysach?) Lebed, in Ruzhyn.
The 1910 census shows Abe and Bessie “Leb” (sic) living at 1117 E Leonhard St, Apt 305 in Baltimore. Abe’s job is listed as “shirt presser” in a factory.
In December 1913, Abraham’s cousin Saryl Lebed (1898-1978) arrived in Philadelphia from Ruzhyn and then evidently stayed with Abraham and Bessie for some time in Baltimore. Saryl’s father Yossel (Yanofsky?) Lebed was the brother of Pesach Lebed, the father of Abraham. (This seems to be the same period that Bessie’s sister Yetta was staying with the Labbs as well, so the Seryl and Yetta presumably knew another well. From at least 1920 through the rest of her life, Seryl resided in Philadelphia, but I do not know if she and Yetta remained in touch.
Abraham filed his naturalization papers in Baltimore on 14 July 1916. He indicated that he and his wife Bessie lived at 907 E. Fayette Street in Baltimore, MD. (I am not sure where Bessie’s younger sister Yetta was at this point,)
In 1920, Abraham and Bessie were sitll living in Baltimore, now at 130 Jackson Square, Baltimore (the square, which no longer exists, was in the area now occupied by the 1700 block of E. Fairmont Avenue). They resided with their nine year old son Charles. In an adjacent apartment in the same building, Bessie’s sister, enumerated as “Yetta Anderson,” was living as a boarder, in the apartment of a Bessye Bolden. She was working as a button hole maker in a tailor shop.
On 1 February 1923, Abraham and Bessie’s daughter Florence was born in Baltimore.
By 1930, the Labbs were living in Washington DC, at 2406 18th Street, NW, near the cross street of Belmont Road in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. Abraham Labb is listed as a tailor, worth $14,000. Cousin Paul recalls his father was also a union organizer.
By 1935, the Labbs were living in Brooklyn, NY. at 196 Pulaski Street. By 1940, Abraham, Bessie and daughter Florence were at this same address, but the elder son Charles was already married and living elsewhere.
As noted below, my mother Ruth Epstein (later Auslander), visited the Labbs in Brooklyn around 1944, when she was 12 years old or so, and stayed with them for a week or two. She particularly remembered Florence but believes she also met Charles at some point. The Labbs paid a visit to the Epsteins in Philadelphia at some point soon after this, but it does not appear that the families stayed in touch.
Abraham died on 10 Aug 1960 and was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens County, New York. A decade latter, Bessie died 17 Dec 1970, at age 85, and was also buried at Mount Hebron.
Abraham and Bessie’s son Charles was a wrestler selected for the US Olympic team, but being Jewish was not allowed to compete in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Charles married Florence Geller (1915-1987). The 1940 census lists Charles as a salesman. Charles and Florence’s two children were Marilyn Labb (later Zeitan) and Paul James Labb.
Paul recalls his grandfather tried to instill physical and mental strength in his grandson. He recalls Abraham would give him exercises to do and told him that in the old country a boy would be given a calf to raise and lift up as it grew, to build his muscles.
Florence married Bernard Waxenberg (incorrectly listed in NY state records as Wallenberg) , on 17 October 1946. Their children are Carol, Alan, and Roberta. Florence passed away in June 2020.
Yetta and the Epstein Family
As noted above, Yetta appears to have been born in 1897 in Pavoloch, Ukraine. Yetta’s youngest child, Norman Epstein, recalled his mother told him that the family had been bitterly poor in the village she grew up in, and that their house had dirt floors.
According to the 1920 census, Yetta (listed with the surname “Anderson”) arrived in the United States around 1913. I have not yet found ship manifest or naturalization records that would indicate when and how Yetta precisely came to the US. (it is possible that she as never in fact naturalized, but there should be a ship passage or border crossing record somewhere.
There are multiple Yettas, Idas, Ettas, and Ethels, listed in the immigration records for 1913 or thereabouts, but so far as I can tell, all can be ruled out due to age, marital status, or region of origin. The name Yetta is sometimes transcribed as Ethel or Etta, which complicates the search for records. (In the 1930 census in Reading, PA, Yetta Epstein is listed as “Jennifer.”)
My mother stated that Yetta, over the strenuous objections of her family, at some point between 1920 and 1923 moved away from living with or near the Labbs, and married or cohabited with Isidore Epstein, a skilled tailor, who had emigrated from the Bryansk region of Ukraine some years earlier Evidently, Yetta had hardly any connections with Abraham and Bessie after she left Baltimore.
There are several possible immigration and naturalization records for individuals named Isadore or Isidore Epstein, but I have not yet seen a convincing fit.
I have not found a marriage record for Isidore and Yetta, and do not know if they legally married. The 1930 census indicates that they had been married for ten years, that is to say had married in 1920. Their first child Morris (“Mo”) was born in late 1924. (It seems possible that “Morris” was named for Yetta’s father, Moishe. ) As late at 1940, Yetta is still listed as an alien in the census, and I am not sure if she was ever naturalized.
The couple resided in Reading, PA from the mid-1920s until 1940. Their seven children, all born in Reading, in turn were:
Morris “Moe” Epstein (26 DEC 1924-23 APR 2016)
Harry Epstein (26 AUG 1926 – 6 SEP 1996) Who worked as public school teacher in the Philadelphia area
Charles Epstein (02 DEC 1927 • 14 AUG 1994) Charles worked for the Social Security Administration.
Louis Epstein (17 Nov 1929-20 March 2020)
Ruth Epstein (29 FEB 1932-13 JUNE 2014) Married Joseph Auslander, and later Maurice Shapiro. She worked as a nurse in the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD Many photographs of Ruth Epstein Auslander are at: http://ruthauslandermemories.blogspot.com/
Ann Epstein ( 25 NOV 1933-1 OCT 2000)
Norman Epstein (12 OCT 1935- 10 NOV 2006) Elecrical engineer. Married Beverly. Sons Eric and Carl.
Isadore was a skilled tailor, but, family members recall, “he drank all the money away.” Financial troubles were incessant. One family story has it that the children at one point had to sleep on the cutting tables in a tailors’ shop; they were often just one step ahead of the bill collectors and irate landlords. Isadore was physically violent with family members, at least until the older sons were able to protect the younger children. Facing financial trouble and months behind on the rent, the family surreptitiously left Reading during the night, relocating to Philadelphia in 1940.
It appears that Moshe, the father of Yetta and Bessie, had a sister Tillie (also known as “Taub”), born 29 February in 1869, possibly in Motovilovka, Zhytomyr, Kiev, Ukraine. She married a Yankel (Jacob) Vogin, evidently in Motovilovka. The couple emigrated to the United States in 1923; perhaps they were spurred to leave by the terrible 1919 pogroms committed against the Jewish communities of Ukraine, including in Motovilovka. The family settled in Philadelphia, where they stayed with Yankel and Tillie’s son Joseph Waine, who had emigrated to the US in 1916. (Joseph had deserted from the Czarist army and took multiple steps to cover his tracks as he traveled to Palestine and then to Alexandria, changing his name to Weine and later Waine, and listing his nationality as “Greek” when he entered the United States.)
Jankel (Jacob) died i 1944 and Tillie died 30 December 1945 in Philadelphia, so did overlap with Yetta’s residence in the city.
David Folkman, great grandson of Tillie Vogin (who was known affectionately as “Bubba Tibel” by her grand-children) recalls that the Vogin descendants were close with Yetta when she was alive, and that they rekindled their relationship with Moe and Lou after David met Moe’s daughter Arlene in high school in the late 1960s. ( I don’t recall my mother mentioning the Vogin or Waine connection: since she lived outside of Philadelphia from the late 1950s onwards she may have missed the restored connections between the family lines.)
Ruth Meets the Labbs
My late mother Ruth recalled that around 1944, when she was about twelve years old, her mother Yetta asked her to write to her sister Bessie Labb, with whom she had evidently had no or minimal contact for many years. Ruth received a letter back from Bessie’s daughter Florence, my mother’s first cousin. The letter contained an invitation for Ruth to visit the Labb family in Brooklyn, a trip for which the Labbs provided train fare. This was the first long trip alone my mother had ever taken, and she recalled the week or two with the Labbs as life-transforming. Bessie was kind, their place was filled with flowers, and the family opened her eyes up to art and music and culture. Cousin Florence in particular was enormously warm and understanding. There was even discussion that Ruth might come and live with the Labbs, and be supported in her dream of pursuing her education.
Ruth recalled that Bessie and Abraham did at some point during the following months visit the Epsteins in Philadelphia and stayed in their home for one night. We are not precisely sure what transpired, but the visit clearly did not go well, and after the Labbs left there appears to have been no contact at all between the Labbs and Epsteins. It is possible that the Labbs were appalled by Isidore’s alcoholism and violent temper.
Isadore’s alcoholism worsened and he died, with cirrhosis, in 1952. My mother recalled that Yetta was exhausted caring for him, day and night, and that she and her siblings finally were able to send her on a vacation to Florida. This was to be the first vacation of her life. The night Yetta arrived at the vacation destination, Isadore died. The family discussed what to do; Ruth argued to let Yetta have her vacation in blissful ignorance of Isadore’s death for a few days, but was overruled by the other siblings, and Yetta came back immediately. Yetta, my mom recalls ruefully, never ever had a vacation, up until her own death seven years later in 1959.
Bessie Labb’s descendants recall that Bessie had relatives in Baltimore, and that there is apparently a family relationship to film director Barry Levinson. As it happens, Levinson’s noted 1990 film “Avalon” recounts the story of his family’s early decades in Baltimore, starting with the arrival of his mother’s father Samuel Krichinsky (27 MAR 1895-OCTOBER 1973 ) who was born, like Yetta and Bessie, in Pavlowitz (Pavoloch), and who died in Baltimore. Samuel Krichinsky, arrived in Philadelpha on 1 April 1912. Ten months later, on February 3, 1912, his brother Wolke Krichensky, bookbinder, son of Lieb Krichinsky from Pavoloch. arrived in Baltimore; he may be the same person later listed as William Krichinsky, who died in Baltimore in October 1918 during the influenza pandemic. Their brother Hyman arived in Batlimore 6 Dec 1913, Samuel’s parents, Leib and Malka Krichinsky, emigrated from Pavolocfh to Baltimore in 1922, along with four more children.
[Traveling with Wolke Krichensky was a family headed by a Reine Segal, housewife, daughter of a Zeko Kalinska (sp?), with four children including an “Eta Segal,” also all from Pavoloch. All of these individuals indicate that they will be residing in Baltimore with Reine’s husband, a Mr. Segal, a cousin of Wolke Krichensky. The Eta listed is only born around 1907; might it be more than coincidence that she shares a name with “our” Yetta Anderson, born around 1897?]
The Holocaust in Pavoloch, Ruzhyn, and Bryansk
What do we know of the fate that befell relatives of Bessie, Yetta and Abraham who stayed behind in the Ukraine region of what became the Soviet Union, during the area’s experience of the Shoah 1941-1944?
Lieb Abraham Lebed (Abraham Labb) appears to have grown up in Ruzhin, now in the Kiev District of Ukraine. This is where he and his wife Masse (Bessie) evidently lived up until 1907, when Abraham had to flee, bringing his wife to join him three years later in Baltimore.
The city of Ruzhin was occupied by German troops on July 16, 1941, and subjected to a series of attrocities. The first massacre of Jews took place in September 1941, and a second massacre took place in May 1942:
The brother of Peysach Lebed (the father of Abraham Lebed/Labb), Yossel Yanofskly Lebed was killed on 10 September 1941, according to his great granddaughter, in testimony recorded at Yad Vashem.
Several Lebeds from Ruzhin are listed in the Yad Vashem database of victims of the Shoah:
Moishe Lebed, shoemaker, b, 1882, his wife Fega, and their sons Idl and Sunya, both school children, are listed in the Yad Vashem database as murdered during the Shoah in Ruzhhin. Their sons Leonid and Shloime Lebed were killed in Soviet military service during the war.
Brandl Lebed’s daughter Rivka Mitnik was murdered during the Shoah in Ruzhin.
Ester Tzirkul (nee Lebed) was evacuated from Ruzhin to the Caucasus Region, and perished as a result of her evacuated.
Semyon Lebed from Ruzhin died during Second World War in the Soviet armed forces. (We know that virtually all Jewish prisoners of war were summarily killed by the invading Germans).
Masse (Bessie Labb)’s September 1941 naturalization petition indicates that her place of birth was Pavoloch, Russia, a substantial Jewish settlement in Ukraine, about 30 km northeast of Ruzhin. Presumably, Yetta was born in Pavoloch as well. (By coincidence, during the same month that Bessie was naturalized in Baltimore, in September 1941 a terrible massacre of 750 Jews in Pavoloch was commited on the eve of Yom Kippur by the German Nazi invaders; we do not know when, if at all, Bessie and Yetta learned of the horrors that had been perpetrated in their natal town.)
As noted above, it seems most likely that the maiden name of Bessie, Yetta, and their aunt Tillie was Nathanson or Natanson. The Yad Vashem database lists over twenty Natansons murdered during the Shoah in Kiev and over one hundred Natansons murdered elsewhere in Ukraine. (I do not see any reference to Natanson victims in Pavoloch itself.) I know of at least one Natanson (Miriam) among the victims of the 1941 mass killing at Babi Yar.
Isadore Epstein, Yetta’s husband, evidently was born in Bryansk, in far eastern Ukraine, about 700 km northeast of Pavoloch. Bryansk was occupied by the advancing German military on October 6, 1941. 7,500 bodies of Jews and gypsies were found after the war in 14 mass graves. A monument has been erected to 500 Jews murdered on March 2, 1942. Another mass killing took place in August 1942. A detailed account of the atrocities is given at: https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Bryansk/bry001.html
The Yad Vashem database lists a Rasia Epshteyn (daughter of Abram and Perla) and a Sonia Epsztein, both murdered during the Shoah in the Bryansk region, and several other individuals with the surname of “Epshteyn” who were evacuated from Bryansk to locations including Uzbekhistan, Lipetsk, Melekess, Gavrilovka Vtoraya. and Borisoglebsk. At least one of these individuals perished as a result of evacuation.
My mother Ruth, when I asked her how many of her relations in Ukraine had survived the Holocaust, said that they all died, without exception, but did not wish to discuss any details.
Yetta and Bessie’s aunt (father’s sister) Tillie and her husband Yankel Vogin listed their birthplace at Motovilovka, in the Kiev District. (I do not know if Tillie’s brother Moishe was born in Motovilovka or Pavoloch, where Bessie was born.) The Yad Vashem database lists about seven residents of Motovilovka and Velikaya Motovilovka, who were murdered in the Shoah. Cousin David Fogelman (Tillie Vogin’s great grandson) believes how that Tillie and Yankel’s immediate relatives in Motovilovka survived the war.
(Please feel free to share corrections on any of the above material; this is very much a work in progress.)
On October 25, 1726, Harvard’s recently appointed President Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth wrote in his diary,
“I bought a negro wench (thot to be under 20 years old) of Mr. Bulfinch of Boston, sail-maker. Was to give 85 pounds for her; she came to our house at Cambridge this day, I paid no money down for her, but was to pay in a few months. “Twas Mrs. Bulfinch I discoursed with about this matter, I saw not her Husband, tho he had been discoursed with before.” (Wadsworth, Benjamin. Papers of Benjamin Wadsworth, 1696-1736. Cambridge: Manuscript, 1736. (461). Harvard University Archives.)
When I taught two courses in Harvard’s AAAS department as a visiting faculty member in 2010 and 2011, my students and I were fascinated by encountering the story of this woman in President Wadsworth’s diary in the Harvard Archives. What can we infer about her early life, the circumstances that brought her to Cambridge, the nature of her life under slavery in the Wadsworth household and her subsequent experiences?
Rev. Wadsworth had been elected College President several months earlier, and authorization had been made to build him a new house on the College’s grounds. This structure, later known at Harvard as “Wadsworth House,” would house him, his wife Ruth Wadsworth (nee Bordman), and their two slaves, the “Mulatto Titus” (whom he seems to have had for some time) and this newly purchased woman, who seems to have arrived a week or so before the Wadsworths moved into the partly finished residence. With his new salary, it appears that Wadsworth felt confident enough to purchase a second slave, although he was cautious enough to defer immediate payment. He was perhaps relieved to talk to Abigail Bulfinch, Adino’s wife, who evidently agreed to his deferred payment plan.
The 1726 Slave Sale
It seem likely that Rev. Wadsworth had learned of the available woman from Boston newspapers advertisements that fall. A few weeks before the enslaved woman arrived in the Wadsworth’s house, advertisements had stated, “A Parcel of Fine Negro Men and Women, lately come over, to be sold at Mr. Bulfinch’s house near the Mill Creek.” (Boston Gazette, Sept 21-Oct 3, 1726, p. 2; Boston Gazette, October 3-October 10, 1726, p. 2, November 24, 1726) Two weeks after the diary entry, another newspaper announced, “Several choice Gold Coast Negros, lately arrived, to be at Sold at Mr. Bulfinch’s, near the Town Dock, Boston.” (Boston News-Letter. Nov 11-17, 1726, p. 2.)
It is unclear if Adino Bulfinch had himself directly been involved with the transportation of these enslaved individuals, if he was acting as a middleman, or if he was reselling this human property. On July 18, 1726, the Boston News-Letter printed five separate advertisements for the sale of newly arrived “negroes.” It is possible that all of these were related to the arrival of the ship The Dolphin, which had come from St. Kitts, bearing a cargo of seven enslaved people. One notice stated: “Several Negro Boys, Girls and Women to be sold on board the sloop Dolphin, lately arrived from St. Kitts, now laying at the Long Wharf, and if desired, the buyer may have 3, 6, 9 or 12 month credit. (Boston News-Letter, July 18, 1726. p. 2). The sloop Dolphin, built 1724, is recorded as having in 1725 delivered three slaves from Curacao to New York (slavevoyages.org; British National Archives, Kew, CO [Colonial Office] 5/1223, 89). About a month after the advertised sale of slaves on board the sloop, it was reported that the Dolphin had set sail for London (Boston News-letter. August 25, 1726, p.2).
This same set of enslaved people may be related to those advertised on September 15: “To be sold, A Parcel of Negros, Just arrived, viz. Men, Women, Boys & Girls, they are to be seen at Captain Nathaniel Jarvis’ House near Scarlet’s Wharf. Boston News-Letter, September 15, 1726, p. 2). [ Note 1]
Alternately, there is some circumstantial evidence that the seller of the enslaved woman, Captain Adino Bulfinch (1660-1746), was co-owner with the Jewish merchant Isaac Lopez, of the vessel The Eagle, which appears to have been transporting slaves out of Barbados. (Eli Faber, Jews, slaves, and the slave trade: setting the record straight. New York: New York University Press, 1998. p. 302; fn. 8, citing Colonial Office records in the Public Records Office in London.)
What do we know of these two slave traders?
Issac Lopez had arrived in Boston by 25 October 1716, when he paid 19 shillings and 3 pence for importing “goods”. One source references him as a Jewish London-based merchant who came to Boston in June 1716, in the company of two other Jewish merchants, Abraham Gutatus and Jacob Ruggles, a surprising occurrence given New England’s overt anti-semitism (Saul S. Friedman, Jews and the American Slave Trade, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1998. p. 119) . This Isaac Lopez appears to the same person as “Isaac Rodrigues Lopez commonly Isaac Lopez, Wall Merchant of Saint Alphage , City of London,” who died 1752, and who is referenced in court records in the British National Archives, London.
While residing in the city of Boston, Lopez was elected constable in Boston, a low-status position he refused, paying a fine in consequence. He in time received permission to build a timber house in the town. Isaac, who also appears to have had ties in Barbados, owned with Joseph Lopez the slaving vessel Barthny registered in London, and the Jsp (Joseph) & Isaac, registered in Boston (Faber, ibid, citing Colonial Office records in Public Records Office/British National Archives). (Note 2)
By 1724, Lopez made plans for leaving North America. He asked that all in Boston indebted to him come to settle their accounts, as he aimed to returned to Europe in the fall. (Boston Gazette, May 18, 1724). On January 13, 1726, Lopez, referring to himself as “merchant on the dock,” posted a similar notice in the Boston Gazette, threatening to sue his remaining debtors. In summer 1726, Lopez advertised to rent out of his house (Boston News-Letter, June 16 & 23, 1726). It appears he left the city entirely by 1728.
Adino Bulfinch, who had emigrated from Britain to Boston in 1681, in the early 18th century served as surveyor for Boston’s highways and became a prominent sailmaker and merchant. (A scion of the Boston Bulfinches, Adino was the great-grandfather of Charles Bulfinch, who would serve as architect of the rebuilt US Capitol after the War of 1812.) As a sailmaker, Adino was involved in various aspects of ship building and may have met the slave trading Isaac Lopez in this capacity. Bulfinch eventually built a “mansion house” on the Mill Creek, mentioned in the advertisement.
It is not clear how long Adino was involved in the slave trade, but he had evidently been a slave owner well before the 1726 sale. Commonwealth legal records indicate that an enslaved man named Rochester in Adino’s possession had been executed for arson in 1705. (Daniel Allen Hearn, Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960, McFarland, 2008. p. 109). Three years after the sale to Rev. Wadsworth, Adino advertised for the return of a runaway “servant,” Jeremiah Jones (Boston News-Letter, June 12, 1729, p.2).
When Adino Bulfinch died in 1746, two decades after the slave sale to Rev. Wadsworth, his will bequeathed to his daughter Katherine (after his wife Abigail’s decease) his slave Phillis and to his daughter Sarah (again, after his wife’s decease) his slave Hannah. (Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Probate Records, Vols. 238-40). We do not know if these enslaved individuals were from the same cohort as Venus.
The Enslaved Woman’s Background
Whether the enslaved woman in question had arrived in Boston on The Eagle, the sloop Dolphin, or some other vessel, the wording of the 1726 advertisements indicates that the “negro wench, thot [thought] to be under twenty years old,” was recently arrived from the Gold Coast, that is to say the region of present-day coastal Ghana. It is difficult to say where in West Africa she might have been born. The standard practice of American slaving vessels during this period was to travel down the West African coast from present-day Senegal, and then proceed as far as the Gold Coast only if they had not acquired sufficient slaves to fill their hulls; it is thus possible that Venus had been obtained at some point well to the north of the Gold Coast, and that the advertisement only refers to the point at which the ship had left the African coast to cross the Atlantic. Even if she had first entered a ship on the Gold Coast, her origins are uncertain. Many persons were captured far within the African interior and then marched to coastal castles, such as Elmina, where they were purchased by ship captains and then brought across the Atlantic under horrific conditions.
In any event, we may infer that “the negro wench,” like the other men and women being sold by the Bulfinches was recently arrived in the United States and probably spoke little or no English.
We have no idea of what African names the woman purchased by Rev. Wadsworth in 1726 and transported to Cambridge may have gone by, but we do have a good indication of what name she was given by her white owners. The records of the Church of Christ, Cambridge, which was located immediately next to the site of Wadsworth House, report the baptism of “Venus, Negro servt of Madm Wadsworth” on August 17, 1740. At this point, President Wadsworth had been dead for three years; his widow, Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth, would continue to reside in Cambridge, up until her death at age seventy-three on February 17, 1744/1745. (1744 in the Julian calendar; 1745 in the Gregorian Calendar.)
The other enslaved person in the Wadsworth household, the “Mulatto Titus,” had been baptized in the same church and admitted into full communion on September 21, 1729, three years after Venus had been purchased by President Wadsworth. At one point after 1726 a enslaved man named Titus, presumably the same person, ran afoul of the Harvard administration and was prohibited from the “enclosures of the College” (Harvard University. Faculty records, 1719-1857. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1719-1857: 125). Titus is mentioned twice in President Wadsworth’s diary (Wadsworth, Benjamin. Papers of Benjamin Wadsworth, 1696-1736. Harvard University Archives. Cambridge: Manuscript, 1736: 470,503.)
President Wadsworth’s 1737 will makes no mention of his slaves; however, as noted above, it is clear from the Christ Church records that as of 1740, when Venus was baptized in Christ Church, President Wadsworth’s widow Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth still owned her. At this same ceremony, Lucy, an “indian servant” owned by Ruth’s brother Andrew Bordman, was also baptized.
It seems likely that Venus’ primary responsibilities were domestic labor within the Wadsworth household, including cooking and cleaning, although she may perhaps have been assigned work of caring for Harvard students as well. Rev. Wadsworth choice of the name “Venus,” the Roman goddess of beauty and love, may have implied he found her beautiful. (Classical names were not uncommonly assigned to enslaved people in colonial New England: we know of at least one aother enslaved woman named Venus in nearby Menotomy during the late colonial period.)
It is not entirely clear what happened to Venus after Ruth Wadsworth’s death in 1744. The Wadsworths had no children, and there are no probate records related to Ruth Wadsworth, which suggests she died with very little in terms of material resources. Perhaps she had sold Venus before her death, or Venus, if she survived, simply passed into the ownership of Ruth’s natal family the Bordmans, the prominent Cambridge family, closely intertwined with decades of Harvard’s history, with whom she evidently was living after her husband’s death in 1737. Ruth seems most likely to have resided with her brother Andrew Bordman, a Cambridge merchant and town official, whom Benjamin Wadsworth designated as his “natural brother” in his will.
It should be noted that the Bordman’s owned several slaves, including the Native American woman Lucy, noted above, as well as Cato, Cuffee, and Jane. The Bordmans had significant managerial responsibilities at Harvard College across four generations, as stewards, cooks, and so forth. It is surmised that many of their slaves labored to provide for Harvard students. Ruth’s brother Andrew Bordman served the Harvard College steward and college cook. Thus, if Venus survived, it is possible that she continued to cook, clean, and otherwise look after Harvard students for many years.
Was she “Venus Whittemore” ?
It is possible that this Venus is in fact the same person as “Venus Whittemore”, the only other person named “Venus””to appear in the Church of Christ Cambridge records. “Venus Whittemore, negro,” died in 1825 at the age of 107, according to several newspaper accounts, and was buried in the Old Cambridge Burial Ground, across from the gates of Harvard College. This Venus, formerly enslaved by Deacon Samuel Whittemore (1693-1784), is referenced in Cambridge and Commonwealth judicial records from 1793 to 1818 as having been in effect sold during a “poor auction” in the early 1790s arranged by the administrator of the late Samuel Whittemore’s estate. The Poor Auction’ was a post- slavery practice through which the labor of destitute, previously enslaved persons was made available to white property-owners, who were compensated for ‘caring for’ the destitute person: the bidder who accepted the lowest amount from the municipality generally speaking, won the auction. By 1783 or so, slavery became unenforceable in Massachusetts, and previously enslaved individuals such a Venus Whittemore passed into rather ambiguous slates, not legally enslaved but still in precarious economic and legal positions, subject to Poor Auctions and other strictures that approached slavery by another name.
Through the 1793 Poor Auction, William Watson of Cambridge (the son of Deacon Samuel Whitemore’s daughter Elizabeth) purchased rights to Venus Whittemore’s labor. Yet Venus, apparently cognizant of her rights under Commonwealth judicial precedents, refused to comply with this arrangement. The Cambridge town leadership eventually consented to support her as a public charge for the rest of her life.
The case led to some subsequent litigation, which stretched into 1818, in which William Watson’s widow Catherine Watson (nee Lopez) attempted to recover a bond her husband had paid associated with the poor auction. (Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusettts, Volume 15, October 1818 term. pp. 286-88). ) Venus Whittemore for some time resided in in the home of her late master, Samuel Whitemore, on the southeast corner of Mount Auburn and Brighton (now 44 JFK Street, near Harvard Square, the plot currently occupied by the Fox Club). She later was housed in the Cambridge almshouse. She died a member in good standing of Christ Church Cambridge.
It is interesting to note that Andrew Bordman, the brother-in-law of the late President Benjamin Wadsworth) and brother of Ruth (Bordman) Wadsworth, to whom the “Wadsworth’s Venus” belonged, does seem to have had close connections with the Whittemore family, including the uncle of Deacon Samuel Whittemore the noted Captain Samuel Whittemore (1694–1793), the oldest known combatant in the American Revolutionary War, who is commemorated by a monument in Arlington, Massachusetts for his heroic encounter with British regulars. On January 22, 1724/5, two years before President Wadsworth purchased Venus, a Samuel Whittemore secured a loan for Andrew Bordman from Nathaniel Hancock and James Reade. (Harvard Archives, Bordman papers). In 1731, Samuel Whittimore in turn secured a loan from Andrew Bordman. Samuel Whitemore later was involved in a land sale to Andrew Bordman 1769 April 8. On May 12 1766, In the lead up to the American Revolution, a Cambridge Committee composed of Captain Samuel Whittemore and two others instructed Andrew Bordman as their Representative to the Massachusetts General Court of their unwavering opposition to the Stamp Act. Given the close relations between these two slaveowning families, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Venus may have passed from the ownership of the Wadsworths/Bordmans to the Whittemores at some point in the latter half of the 18th century, following Ruth Bordman Wadsworth’s death (Note 3).
Having said that, the ages of the two Venuses do not quite match up. President Wadsworth estimated the age of the “Negro Wench” whom he purchased in 1726 to be “under twenty” years of age, presumably meaning nearly twenty, which might mean she was born around 1707 or 1708. If Venus Whittemore died in 1825 at age 105, she would have been born around 1718. For the moment, then, any connection between the two Venuses must remain rather speculative.
In any event, it is noteworthy that in 2016, two hundred and ninety years after Venus was purchased by President Wadsworth, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Congressman John Lewis unveiled a plaque honoring Venus and Titus, as well as the enslaved individuals Bilhah and Juba, owned by Harvard president Edward Holyoke, installed near the Wadsworth Gate at Wadsworth House.
In her 1773 poem “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Phillis Wheatley addressed herself, from the position of the enslaved, to those who were privileged to study the great mysteries of the universe at Harvard College: “Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights / Above, to traverse the ethereal space / And mark the systems of revolving worlds.” How fitting that Venus, however ill treated she was in life, now has a position in the firmament, at a gateway to the university campus which she helped sustain through her uncompensated labor across the decades. To seek to understand her life, and the lives of the other individuals enslaved at Harvard College, is indeed to “scan the heights,” to ponder the mysteries of past failings and triumphs and to consider whom we might, in time, strive to become.
Captain Nathaniel Jarvis, a shipwright, the fourth of his name in his family line, was evidently born 1693. He is referenced as having sold at least one slave in Antigua. Eight months after the sale to Rev. Wadsworth. (June 12, 1727) a group of “likely negroes” were being sold by Benomy Waterman, “to be seen at Captain Nathaniel Jarvis’ house.” (Samuel Gardner Drake, The History and Antiquities of Boston, 1856. p. 574) Jarvis continued to sell slaves into the 1730s, as indicated in this notice: ““Several likely young Negroes of both sexes, lately imported from the West Indies, fit for either Town or Country Service, among who is a choice Negro Man suitable for a Gentleman’s Family: To be sold. Inquire at Capt. Nath Jarvis’s near Scarlet’s Wharff at the North End, Boston” (Boston News-Letter. December 28, 1732).
.I am unsure if Isaac Lopez was related to the prominent slave trading Portuguese-derived Jewish family the Lopezes, of Newport RI, centered on Aaron Lopez, who owned around thirty vessels in the 1760s and 1770s, many of them slaving ships (Saul S. Friedman Jews and the American Slave Trade, p.123. ) The name “Isaac” has at least one instance in the Newport Lopez family line: An Isaac Lopez, aged 6 months and 2 days, son of Moses Lopez, (older brother of Aaron Lopez) was buried in 1762 in the Sephardic Jewish Touro Cemetery in Newport, R..I (Whitmore, William, H. , compiler. Port Arrivals and Immigrants to the City of Boston, 1715-1716 and 1762-1769. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973. Also see Lopez entries in the American Jewish Historical Society, Oppenheim Collection, Vertical Files.)
Deacon Samuel Whittemore, the owner of Venus Whittemore, appears to have been kin to the slaveowner William Whittemore, a Harvard College graduate and school teacher in Menotomy (later West Cambridge/Arlington) who owned the enslaved individuals Dinah Whittemore and Cuff Cartwright/Whittemore (c. 1746-25 Jan 1826) . The latter served as a militiaman with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and received a government pension for his services. (Beverly Douhanl. Buried Secrets of Menotomy’s Slaves; Quintal, George Jr. Patriots of Color, “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill. 2nd edition. Gardner, Maine: G .Quintal, 2007, p. 209) Toby, an an enslaved servant of “Samuel Whitemore.” was baptized at First Church Cambridge in 1740, the same year that Venus, the servant of Madame Wadsworth, was baptized there.
I continue to ponder our family history in Bukovina. Here is an essay I wrote several years ago, inspired by a family heirloom.
The “Lost World” of the Hapsburgs
In many respects our modern world was born out of the First World War. It is also worth recalling the worlds that were lost in the wake of the struggle. The Jewish central European novelist Joseph Roth observed during the interwar period that the Great War, “…is now, in my opinion, rightly called the World War, not only because the whole world was involved in it, but because as a result of it, each of us lost a world, our own world.” (Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb, pp. 38-39) For Roth, the key loss was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which for all its faults, had emancipated its Jewish populations over the course of the 19th century, and provided them with a measure of legal protection against anti-Semitism as well as sense of cultural anchoring in German language and literature. (My grandfather, like many of his background, joked that he preferred to “read Shakespeare in the original German.”) As fascism and overt anti-Semitism rose throughout the former imperial lands over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, many Jews came to recall the reign of the Hapsburgs with bittersweet nostalgia, as a “lost world” of cultured cosmopolitanism.
A Linen Cloth
Recently, I have been contemplating an heirloom object passed down through my own family, which seems to evoke, in part, this nostalgic longing for a pre-war lost world. In 1936, my grandfather Dr. Jacob Auslander, a physician residing in New York City, traveled to his hometown of Radautz (Rădăuți) in Bukovina, a former outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of the Kingdom of Romania. He hoped to bring back his parents, Isaac and Clara, and his six-year-old motherless, nephew Severin Pagis, who was being raised by Isaac and Clara (Severin’s father had emigrated to Palestine). Issac and Clara refused to emigrate to America, in part over economic fears about life in Depression-era America. (Jacob, in hindsight, better anticipated the dangers of Nazism and fascism in Eastern Europe than did his parents.)
On his way back home through Vienna, a city he loved, Jacob bought four identical linens. Each featured an elaborate vase motif inspired by the Hapsburg Coat of Arms, held aloft by the mythical winged lion creatures known as Gryphons. Upon returning to New York he presented the linens to his wife Rebekah and her three sisters living in New York. One of these beautiful cloths has come down to me and my wife Ellen. We treasure it as one of our very few material connections to the family’s Old World history.
I suspect that in 1936, like many Jews of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jacob valued the cloths for the evocation of the lost era of the Hapsburgs, a time of relative Jewish safety, in striking contrast to the waves of intolerance then sweeping the continent. I should note that my beloved ninety-year-old cousin Arthur, who met his uncle Jacob during his 1936 visit to Bukovina, is skeptical of this interpretation: he recalls that Jacob was a committed leftist, with little sympathy for the Hapsburgs. Yet it may be that a political critique of the Empire could coexist with enduring nostalgia for that particular lost world.
The Holocaust Comes to Bukovina
In any event, for the Jews remaining in Radautz, the last remaining traces of that former world were shattered during October 9-10, 1941, when Romanian fascist authorities ordered all Jews in the town to board cattle cars normally used to transport livestock to their deaths.
Among those in the sealed train cars were Isaac, Clara and their eleven-year-old grandson Severin. We do not precisely know what transpired within those spaces of unimaginable horror. The circumstances are hinted at in a famous poem that Severin wrote years later, after he had emigrated to Israel and taken the name Dan Pagis:
Lines Written in Pencil in the Sealed Train Car
Here, in this cattle car, I am Eve, Mother of Abel If you see my other son, Cain, son of Adam, tell him that I
The poem is brutally interrupted even as it runs in an endless circle: Eve never completes her written message, yet at the same time she eternally repeats it. I am struck that these lines powerfully evoke the predicament of the Old Testament’s first family after their expulsion from the Garden, traveling “East of Eden.” In perpetual exile, all of us, the children of Adam and Eve, are bound to contemplate our human propensity both for endless love and for unspeakable violence. The poem is among the most powerful evocations I know of loss—of childhood innocence, of mythic homeland, of historic belonging.
Those who survived the train trip across the Dnister River in October 1941 were forcibly settled in the region known as “Transnistria” (Across the Dnister), established under joint Romanian-German fascist rule. From late 1941 to early 1944, many thousands of deported Jews were subjected to forced labor, gradual starvation, overcrowding, disease, and arbitrary beatings. Many were murdered by mobile Nazi execution squads, the dreaded Einzatzgruppen D.
I have only been able to trace a little of what befell Isaac, Clara, and young Severin during the Deportation period. Three documents in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC record that small amounts of money were transferred to Issac in 1942 and 1943, by the Jewish Agency in Bucharest and by his son-in-law Dr. Bertl Klinghoffer (Arthur’s father), who as a skilled physician was allowed by the fascist authorities to remain in his home village of Storojinet.
Arthur recently wrote to me that his father tried to send more money to Isaac, through a secret messenger who disappeared and who was presumably killed.
We believe that Issac perished in Transnistria in 1944; his wife Clara finally made it back to Radautz where she survived until 1948 and is buried in the old Jewish Cemetery. (Last summer, I was deeply moved to learn, two German high school teachers and their students travelled to Radautz from the Rostock region, and worked with local Romanian young people to help restore the cemetery, carefully cleaning, among others, great-grandmother Clara’s tombstone). Their grandson Severin emigrated to Palestine in 1946, and under the name of Dan Pagis went on to become one of Israel’s most important poets and literary scholars.
The Work of Objects
Here, then, is yet another reminder of why we so profoundly need museums, those repositories of physical objects, which link us in such intimate ways to the mysteries of the natural world and to our own human pasts. We are a story-telling species, and objects, which we can touch (or almost touch, even if preserved behind glass) inspire us, again and again, to tell new stories, linking us to others, across the chasms of loss and time.
So here is a story I tell myself, as I hold in my hand the linen brought back by grandfather Jacob in 1936, from a world that was on the verge of annihilation, although few fully anticipated that terrible future at the time. I imagine him looking at these textiles in a Vienna shop, contemplating the gryphons lifting up the lost emblem of the empire. Classically trained, grandfather likely knew that the gryphon was the ancient symbol of the eternal nature of the marriage bond: a gryphon is said to travel the entire world in search of its lost mate. Jacob knew he was returning to America without his parents, but in these beautiful cloths, perhaps he sensed he carried a trace of their marriage bond, the bond that would sustain them through at least three years of the Holocaust, until Isaac was finally taken from us.
My grandfather died before I was born, and I cannot confirm the literal truth of my reconstructed story. All I know is that we need such stories, amidst all the joy and tragedy of life, to remind us again and again of the power of love, resilience and hope. This is the gift that objects bequeath to us—triggering our imaginations, binding us to worlds and persons whom we have lost, and calling new futures into being.
I have been puzzling over why it is that the two most prominent carved rockfaces in the United States–Georgia’s Stone Mountain and the Black Hills’ Mount Rushmore–which are both subject to considerable renewed controversy at the present moment, are incised upon spaces that were, and are still, held sacred in Native American communities. More is going on I suspect than the opportunistic use by white sculptors and monument-makers of available, spectacular natural canvases. The ritual potency of these magnificent landscape sites for the indigenous inhabitants of the continent, I tend to think, while only dimly understood by white artists and planners, still exercised some sort of pull upon these white actors, driving them, in ways they did not consciously understand, to refashion locales of autochthonous spiritual power in more familiar (and pointedly white) forms.
The drive seems to have been akin to what historian Terrence Ranger (1987) terms the impulse “to take hold of the land” in 20th century Zimbabwe, as Christian missionaries and local evangelists appropriated indigenous sites of power on the landscape, recasting them as Christian sites of pilgrimage. The pattern echoes that found in Europe, as Christian actors on expanding frontiers of Christendom reclassified “pagan” landscape sites, including megaliths, as places of Christian veneration.
Having said that, there appear to be some special features to white monumentalism in North America, that are rather distinct from practices of appropriation in Old World and African contexts. My thinking is influenced by Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods (2001) in which he rather playfully ponders why (overwhelmingly, white) Americans feel compelled to erect enormous garish roadside attractions (the world’s largest Paul Bunyan, the world’s largest light bulb, extravagantly humongous dinosaurs, and so forth) seemingly at random across the national landscape. Gaiman suggests that although they lack any deep understanding of Native American spirituality, these more recent arrivals sense, if only distantly, that they are in the presence of places of power, which they seek to mark, access, fix, and redirect. While non-indigenous Americans speak of the land as “our land,” they remain haunted, Gaiman suggests, by a sense that the Land, in its fullest form, escapes their full capacity to encompass it, and thus they are compelled, in ways they can never fully comprehend, to try to take hold of that very land through monumental practices, many of them hyperbolic and extravagant.
Gaiman playfully suggests that the ultimate instance of this tendency is Rock City at Lookout Mountain, visiting by thousands following the injunction to “See Rock City, ” painted across innumerable signs and barn sides, venture through a phantasmagoric array that is drawn primarily from European folklore–carved gnomes, elves, and Fairyland kitsch, including Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty–in a winding maze through light and darkness. Acts of carving and mimesis seem to key here: the impulse is to impose form upon that which is formless, to capture and contain (and palatably market) the vast oceanic depths of the sublime in ways that are seemingly knowable and proximate.
Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore would seem to be closely related special instances of this general white American tendency to inscribe figurative form upon indigenous spiritually-charged landscape locales. It is to be sure very difficult to reconstruct the meanings that Stone Mountain had for earlier indigenous inhabitants. It is known that across the rounded top of the mountain, a stone wall was constructed many centuries prior to European contact, evidently prior to the onset of Mississippian civilization, into which a low entrance doorway had been placed, perhaps evocative, some have suggested, of a space of symbolic rebirth. It is known that early white visitors would tear down these rocks and roll them over the precipice, and that sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who initially oversaw the neo-Confederate carving project at Stone Mountain before parting with the enterprise, also had many of these Native rocks removed. ostensibly to protect workmen laboring below the summit from falling stones. The rebirth of the second Ku Klux Klan upon this mountaintop in November 1915, on the eve of the Atlanta screening of Birth of a Nation. seems consistent with a white impulse to simultaneously access and dominate Native American spiritual capacity in the interest of making white supremacy pointedly visible: the burning cross upon the mountaintop, bringing light to darkness, ritually re-enacted white control over communities of color, and perhaps also emulated the power of D.W. Griffith’s film itself, which Woodrow Wilson infamously celebrated as “History writ in lightning.”
Borglum, himself a Klan member, began work with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had leased the Stone Mountain site, to honor the leaders of the Confederacy in an enormous carved bas-relief on the mountain site. Earlier plans called for a vast army of carved Confederate soldiers and modern Klansman to swarm over the mountain, led by the figure of General Lee on his faithful horse Traveler, ceremonially enacting the rise of the white-dominated South. Budgetary constraints, and political differences led to Borglum’s departure and a pause to the project. (As Hale argues in her book Making Whiteness, the UDC was primarily motivated by a desire to glorify the Confederate cause, while Borglum was more taken with the motif of sectional reconciliation, reuniting the leadership of the Confederacy and the Union, a symbolic unification which, as David Blight demonstrates in Race and Reunion (2001), rested upon a triumph of white political domination over African Americans.
In light of Hale and Blight’s overall argument, it should not be surprising that it was only in the context of postwar massive white resistance to court-ordered integration, and the concomitant rise of neo-confederate symbolism through the region, that the Stone Mountain project was revived and completed, with the three heroes of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, shown astride their horses, their hats held across their hearts, forever faithful to the Lost Cause.
Although there is no explicit representation of Native American presence in this monumental work of carving, I am put in mind of Renée Bergland’s argument in her fascinating 2000 book, National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. In dominant white literary and cultural imaginings, Native Americas, she argues, have long been rendered spectral figures, partially honored but more fundamentally marginalized, subjects of white anxiety, fear, veneration, and dismissal, in complex acts of disavowal, a refusal to acknowledge fully the histories of genocide and land seizure upon which the nation is founded. What remains for most white writers is a lingering sense of frisson in the presence of the ghostly Native American figure, a partial return of the repressed, which ultimately is written over in white literary practice to make the national landscape “American.’
Something similar, I suggest, is at play in the Stone Mountain confederate memorial. The energies which drive forth these three deceased galloping horseman, and which would have driven the never completed bas-relief of thousands of Confederate soldiers and Klansmen, involved a summoning up of the Armies of the Dead. To bring the Dead out of their kingdom and into the present world of the living (and here I am only speculating) involves tapping into vast spiritual reservoirs associated with spectral Native American presence, what Bergland terms “the national uncanny.” The enterprise of white supremacy, and of an associated regime of white racial terror, paradoxically, rests upon the continuous appropriation of Native American powers, embedded in an awe-inspiring landscape.
Comparable dynamics, it would seem, inform Gutzon Borglum’s masterpiece at Mount Rushmore, imposed on a high rockface in the Black Hills, long held sacred by Native Americans. The carved shaped form of white faces is actively imposed on the relatively formlessness of the prior, sacred mountainscape. In this reading, it is hardly coincidental that three of those depicted, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, were actively devoted to the displacement of Native Americans and the expansion of white national control over previous Native-held lands, and that the fourth, Theodore Roosevelt, presided over American expansion into an overseas Imperium. The core logic appears to be one of national (white-coded) expansionism, which in the context of the monument is animated (these are human faces after all) through the imputed magicality of Native spirituality, embedded, as in Stone Mountain, within a glorious natural edifice of stone, the most palpable signifier of the Eternal. In this respect, it is fascinated that Borglum dreamed of carving out, behind the sculpted faces, a Hall of Records, in which the story of his monument, along with the founding documents of the Republic, would be stored for all time. The energies of a place that had existed since time immemorial would be redirected, in effect, towards the forging of an infinite future for the Nation, a nation that rested for Borglum and his supporters, upon triumphant white males gazing out upon a conquered and subjugated landscape, as far as the mind’s eye can see.
Bergland,Renée L. The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects University Press of New England, 2000
David W. Blight. 2001 Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press.
Gaiman, Neil. 2001. American Gods. Harper Collins.
Grace Elizabeth Hale. 1998. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998
Ranger, Terrence, Taking Hold of the Land; Holy Places and Pilgrimages in Twentieth-Century Zimbabwe. Past & Present, Volume 117, Issue 1, 1 November 1987
Last night I watched a digital screening of Mark Titus’ stunning new film The Wild, a sequel to his 2014 film The Breach, on the struggle to save southeastern Alaska’s Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine project, which threatens vast environmental damage to the world’s last surviving major salmon fishery. There are many extraordinarily interesting aspects to the film, including the filmmaker’s skillful, and brutally honest, interweaving of his own struggle to recover from alcohol addiction with the collective quest to save Bristol Bay, in the face of the Trump administration’s headlong rush to relax environmental safeguards around mining expansion; and the subtle ways in which aerial and underwater shots of landscape and salmon are used provide glimpses into a Sublime that holds out the promise of individual and collective recovery from all that ails us.
For this purpose of this post, I’d like to concentrate on the way in which Titus uses the work of two quite different visual artists early on in the film. Brooklyn-based Zaria Foman is seen working in her studio on her enormous pastel, photo-realist works of wild places, awe-inspiring visions of diverse sites threatened by global climate change. Yup’ik artist Apay’uq Moore, who lives and works near Bristol Bay, is seen creating, on a much more intimate scale, acrylic paintings in her own studio, with an emphasis on her painting “My Agreement,” a visionary interior depiction of her first pregnancy, work which I have recently written about.
Why does Titus choose to open his own journey, out of his interior darkness back into nature and the joys of community, with these two sequences, of two women artists, non- native and native? In a sense, this a classic invocation of the Muse, with which epic journeys, from Homer through Virgil, Dante and beyond, are launched: the poet or bard, sometimes lost and despondent, summons up creative genius through a transcendent figure or figures, promising a new spark of life, a transfer of creative energy and vision that will propel the narrative forward. As Titus puts it, he had hit rock bottom following family tragedies and the election of Donald Trump, retreating inward into his own pain and cycles of denial, betrayal and self pity. Over the course of the film we learn that his own journey back to the surface has depended on re-encounters with an extraordinary group of people, united in their love of the bay and of sockeye, brimming over with a passion that just might be enough to overcome the short-sighted rapaciousness of corporate greed. But to get there, the filmmaker needs, in effect, the intervening presence of visual artists, to re-open his eyes and soul (and in a sense his camera lens) to the possibility of radical transformation, at individual and collective levels. All in the service of his central question: how do we save what we love?
Zaria Forman’s work does not directly, to my knowledge, address Bristol Bay or salmon as such, but it is easy to see why a filmmaker such as Titus would be so deeply drawn to her creations. Her large, piercingly beautiful canvases of glaciers and icebergs are cinematic in their scope, awakening within the viewer a sense not only of wonder but of a place we have always strangely known, even at the moment those places are most endangered. She is a visual poet of water in all its forms, from melting polar icecaps to the rising sea levels half a world away that threaten to engulf the Maldives and other island nations. Her evocation of photography, and especially 19th century nature photography from the age of natural science expeditions, is well suited to Titus’ purposes, launching us on this journey back into one of the planet’s great remaining natural sanctuaries, on the threshold of water and land. The scenes of Forman talking about the urgency of her climate change art, and calling into being images of ice floes that tower above her, are utterly thrilling–and for the filmmaker, who at the onset doubts his ability to create once again, are precisely the needed catalyst.
The companion sequence with Apay’uq does a different kind of work for the film. In terms of the plot, she is the first of a range of individuals whose livelihood directly depends on this enormous salmon run and the complex ecosystem it nurtures. Beyond that, the specific artwork featured here, “Our Agreement,” anticipates the central psychological and spiritual narrative arc of the film. The artist generously invites us into her own womb, in which her developing unborn child is seen being nurtured by her mother’s blood vessels, as the mother is herself nurtured by the blood and life force of Salmon, which speaks to her silently, promising a vital form of reciprocity: I will care for you and yours, as long as you protect me and my kind. The Wild is in many respects a deeply interior journey that is continuously projected out onto a stunning exterior landscape. Although the filmmaker does provide spoken narration, the most important work of the film, and its saga of psycho-social transformation, is accomplished through visual imagery that sears its way into the unconscious mind.
Well into the film we learn of the moment that provided Titus will the “moral clarity” to understand his own crisis of denial, the instant when he failed his own young niece Poppy’s desire for him to be present at a sporting event and she was visibly devastated. His journey back to psychic integration is imaged as him walking down a hallway holding Poppy’s hand as they gaze together into a green glowing wall (perhaps an aquarium tank?), an image that is, tellingly, used in at least one of the film’s poster. Traversing the route back to sanity requires standing outside of oneself and entering into a continuum of inter-generational transmission. I walk hand in hand with generations past and future.
And that is precisely what is so extraordinary about salmon, and why they are, in Levi Strauss’ terms, not just got to eat, but “good to think.” They are good to think about the profound mysteries of reproduction, not just biologically but in terms of the inter-generational transmission of wisdom and consciousness, the inner landscape that Apay’uq’s Our Agreement takes us into. Returning again and again from its thousands-mile journeys across the Pacific, Salmon provides its human cousins with a model for what we all owe to future generations whom we will never see. Salmon undergo the most remarkable series of bodily transformations, moving from being freshwater to saltwater beings, and then, when finally swimming back upriver, forgoing all food and consuming their flesh in their undivided mission towards spawning the next generation. We need Sockeye and other anadromous species for so many reasons, not least of which are the ways in which they remind us of the necessity for metamorphosis, for tireless, fully-directed efforts towards a future, for reproducing a universe that is so much vaster than any one individual self. Whether the scale of that commitment be externally macrocsomic, as for Zaria Forman, or keyed to an intimate inner world as for Apay’uq, that is the common mission of the artist, who in Paul Klee’s famous terms, does not simply show what is visible, but instead “makes visible.” Through the artist we see with new eyes, and that is the gift the artists give to Titus at the onset of the film, and the gift which he, swimming with salmon upstream against all odds, gives back to all of us.