CORRECTION: Turning our hearts

[Note: This post was written in collaboration with, and is posted by permission of Amy Tanner Thiriot.]

Earlier this month I wrote a post reflecting on Century of Black Mormons and introduced it with a short vignette about Caroline Skeen and John Butler. According to family histories, when they got married in 1831 the Skeens gave the couple two enslaved people as a wedding present. In these histories, the Butlers then freed these two individuals and converted to Mormonism. I used this rupture between generations to highlight how we choose to remember and forget. I was also wrong.

Amy Tanner Thiriot is the author of Slaves in Zion: African American Servitude in Utah Territory, 1847-1862, which is forthcoming with University of Utah Press. In it, she documents the lives of over a hundred enslaved people in Utah. She is also a friend and we have collaborated on a thing here and there. She read my post and sent me a kind email stating, in short, that there was no evidence that the Butlers received enslaved people nor that any manumission—the formal release from slavery—ever occurred:

Unlike later claimed manumissions in similar family histories, theirs was technically possible; the marriage of John Lowe Butler and Caroline Skeen happened several months before the Nat Turner Rebellion, when many Southern legislatures strengthened slave codes and restricted or eliminated most manumissions. There was also a solid emancipation movement in Tennessee until about that time. So, while the story isn’t impossible, what does concern me most is that Caroline Skeen was one of ten children.

The year before her marriage, Caroline’s father Jesse Skeen owned a dozen enslaved people, seven of them under the age of ten and five between ages ten and 23. (Where were their parents? Jesse Skeen’s parents and in-laws had died long before, so he probably wasn’t inheriting them from an estate. Either there was a sudden spate of maternal death, or he was purchasing children.) Only five of his enslaved people, the ones between the ages of ten and 23, would have been providing any significant labor to his expanding farming operations. It would have been unusual to have given two of these five workers to one of his ten children, especially since he had three disabled daughters who would need long-term care.

I can state positively that certain later claimed manumissions in similar family histories are not possible, because if they were freed there would be a record in the county courthouse (Tennessee) or state legislature (Mississippi), but this one is unlikely because of the ages and numbers of the people in the Skeen household. But. . . I would love to be proved wrong and have someone turn up documentation of a manumission besides the Redd family in 1858 Utah.

Some of these myths come from confused memories of old oral histories. For some myths, the origin is clear once you track down the real series of events, but I wish I knew what the original source of the memory was in the Butler-Skeen family. Hopefully families will be irked enough by my dismissing their family claims that they will do more detailed research than I could do on any single family, although in most cases they’re not going to find much more than the same census, probate, tax, and legal records I saw.

By the way, there’s a similar story in the Holladay family; they remembered that John Holladay freed his 100 slaves in the South. When you research the story, Holladay didn’t own a single slave. Not one.

A decade or more ago I had read Bill Hartley’s biography of John Butler, my ancestor, and I just assumed that it was accurate. I’ve worked long and hard in Mormon History, so I have sharpened my critical gaze. I know to question sources of all sorts. But this was a blind spot. Certainly, I wanted it to be true, but I’ve gone through this process enough on other topics not to be disappointed. My first thought was to ask Amy if we could share this information here. This is an important correction.

Not only is Amy a gifted researcher and author, but she is also a good person. Her first response to me was to question the utility of the correction. No one likes to be told, “Your family stories are wrong!!! Your sainted grandmothers are wrong!! Anything you know about slavery is wrong!” She is right of course. Most people don’t have the experience or toolkit to be wrong about the stories we tell. This is a problem the church has grappled with for decades now. Images of Joseph Smith translating with a finger on the plates still circulate. For all the emphasis we place on historicity in some areas, we are reticent to accept its universal burden.

Earlier this month Paul Reeve wrote a short description of documenting the church membership of Tom, a man enslaved by a Salt Lake City bishop. Tom was brought to Utah by Haden Wells Church, eventually joined the church, and then was sometime thereafter enslaved to Bishop A. O. Smoot. Think about that for a second. Your bishop is enslaving you. Amy remembered an exchange between one commenter on the post and Ardis Parshall:

Commenter: “Haden Wells Church is my ancestor and my son is named after him. I am so frustrated that we were raised without such vital information, and we looked up to these pioneer heroes. . . .At age 60, I am going through an existential crisis about all that we learned and believed growing up Mormon (and American).”

From Ardis in reply: “History is hard, no doubt about it. Each generation writes and discovers what speaks to the questions and needs of that generation. I have to tell myself regularly that most of the old stories are not wrong exactly (although sometimes they are); most often they are just incomplete. It’s our task to correct and complete — or at least supplement — the old stories with new insights and new characters and new meaning.”

Ardis is wise. And history—all history—is complicated. Sometimes the stories we tell are not accurate. Sometimes we ignore things that are difficult. Sometimes we perpetuate inaccuracies that seem more favorable to our sensibilities. We are naïve. But in all cases, we must remember that it was God who declared that a record must be kept long before the church was organized into something even remotely similar to what many might recognize today. It seems to me that this record does not exist so that we can glibly tear down the facile beliefs of anyone, nor does it exist to content ourselves with its mere existence. It seems to me that it exists so that we can nourish ourselves and each other with our interpretive contributions. And ultimately, we will be able to help comfort the family of God, as Paul says, because we have found comfort in our tribulation.

Comments

  1. I’m confused. What were you wrong about? That the Skeens gave slaves as a wedding present? Or that the Butlers emancipated them?

  2. Latam girl, both, I guess. It looks like John and Elizabeth didn’t emancipate any enslaved people, nor did the Skeens give enslaved people to them.

  3. I wonder how many other points of familial pride we hang on to that were either completely fabricated or used to prove superiority?

    “My Ancestor . . .
    . . . had slaves, but freed them
    . . . was American Indian
    . . . was an Apostle
    . . . &tc.”

    It can be fun and interesting to unearth stories of our past relatives, but as Ardis pointed out, we have but a bare amount of the stories of who these people were, their circumstances, and the world they lived in.

  4. DEBORAH CHRISTENSEN says:

    I’m glad Amy Turner (I don’t know her) reached out to you. I’m a descendant of Caroline Skeen & John Butler from their daughter Keziah Jane who married Lemuel Redd. I’ve learned to be very cautious of family stories from that line. It’s been in recent years that we learned Lemuel Redd fathered children with former slaves while being married to other women….and this was in Utah.

  5. I’ll also try to respond to questions, if people have any.

    In seven years, within the scope of my project I have not yet seen an accurate white family account of ancestral slavery. The stories are either wrong in their particulars or in their entirety.

    The manumission stories are a curious subset of the erroneous stories. In the Redd case, the orphaned children in the white family freed their enslaved relatives in Utah c. 1858, but Redd descendants later remembered that they had been freed in the South before they went to Utah. (Yes, it’s a confusing story. See Tonya Reiter’s Utah Historical Quarterly article for more details, and to clarify the summary Deborah just provided.)

    To put it bluntly, when you’ve found 30 incorrect stories on the same topic, you assume the 31st will also be incorrect, especially when the details don’t appear to support the narrative.

    Skeen had a fiduciary duty to his own farm and to his ten living children, all of whom would be his heirs. (Although he later disinherited his daughters who joined the Church.) Enslaved people were labor or potential labor and net worth and social standing, and that’s something that subsequent generations appear to have forgotten when they’ve shaped and reshaped the stories of their ancestors’ human trafficking and slave holding. Could Skeen have given an enslaved couple to the Butlers upon their marriage? Based on census and tax records showing slaves, land ownership, and approximate net worth, it’s so unlikely that I would say no, although a qualified no. But in many cases, there is an actual story somewhere behind the legend. What could it be here? Skeen was widowed, and perhaps his deceased wife had owned slave property which could be distributed to Caroline upon her marriage. Perhaps he offered one of his enslaved children or teenagers to Caroline and she or her husband refused. Perhaps Skeen had enslaved people hired out that he could give to the Butlers, but tax records don’t support that.

    For the second part of Latam girl’s question, Bill Hartley’s biography of John Lowe Butler is well done, and he does question the accuracy of the family stories, but a look into the biography shows that we simply do not have enough reliable records to assess Butler’s sentiments on slavery or abolition. Unless he were to appear in historical records as a member of an emancipation society, or someone in the family did find a legal manumission, or someone located documentation that he sent enslaved people to Liberia, or another similar record, we really have no further way to evaluate whether he would have freed slaves, if Skeen or another relative had them to give!

    As I told J., in families like this, once I confirmed that they did not appear to take any enslaved people to Utah, I did not dig much deeper into the Southern records, so hopefully descendants will be able to illuminate the family stories further!

  6. As an LDS descendant of both the enslaved and slave owners, I grow a bit tired of the self flagellation going on with regard to condemning ancestors who may have owned slaves at one point in time.

    Some of the dialog I’m reading in this case sure sounds like virtue signaling to me.

    Was it horrific what was done to my family? Carried out of West Africa as slaves? Separation of children from parents as chattel slaves? Absolutely. No justification for the horrible deeds imposed on my family. None.

    But…
    Can people change? Did Abraham O Smoot continue to treat African Americans poorly after emancipation? Did he change? Do we deny him the benefit of the doubt that he did change?

    Or, it is just easy to express outrage and condemn anyone who may have touched the slave trade at some time?

    My slave owning ancestor ended up marrying one of his former slaves (my ancestor) and raising their family in the Church, despite the great risk it entailed and the resulting separation from his homeland and extended family due to his choice to be with her and choice to be a member of the Church. Pretty hard for me to condemn him with that legacy.

    Let’s not be, as the poet Peart said “Quick to judge. Quick to anger. Slow to understand” in this kind of situation.

    jb

  7. But in all cases, we must remember that it was God who declared that a record must be kept long before the church was organized into something even remotely similar to what many might recognize today. “It seems to me that this record does not exist so that we can glibly tear down the facile beliefs of anyone, nor does it exist to content ourselves with its mere existence. It seems to me that it exists so that we can nourish ourselves and each other with our interpretive contributions.”

    Yes and yes. You just summarized my Saints presentation. But I might have to quote this because it’s so well said.

  8. And yet, jb, as recently as this past January you were “both angry and sad” as you were “still trying to process this information” about your ancestry and how that would have affected your family’s standing in the Church had that ancestry been known. I’m glad you’ve come to a happy understanding so quickly, I hope you will allow us the necessary time to reach such a resolution.

  9. Deborah Christensen says:

    jb I think I understand what you’re saying about being outraged just to be outraged.
    That’s not what I got out of the post.
    What I read is how we need accurate stories of our ancestors; not family lore. If we have the true stories then we can learn from their triumphs and failures. I personally find more inspiration from the accurate details about the Skeen’s & Butlers. I can see myself, and all my flaws, in my imperfect ancestors and relate to them.

  10. Thanks Ardis, I highly respect your thoughts and opinions on this issue.

    I was mostly thinking about the problem of denouncing our own family members when it comes to slavery. My family obviously had both sides of the coin going on. I would like to have more understanding and compassion for them and give them the benefit of the doubt, unless proved otherwise.

    My feelings of sadness and anger are mostly aimed at those whose behavior, post-slavery, forced my ancestors to deny their own heritage to protect themselves from discrimination and persecution and to survive in a rural, Mormon-dominated, agrarian environment. “Passing as White” was obviously a survival tactic used by many in the stories we read about Black Mormons and their descendants.

    I do have to admit I was really put off (or set off) by the political grandstanding about “Tom (a negro)” by SLC Mayor Biskupski and Jeanneta Williams of the NAACP during Tom’s headstone ceremony. They used Paul Reeve’s work to gain political points without mention of Paul’s work (at least as reported in the SL Tribune). Using solid historical work by someone else to make a political point against groups you don’t like rubs me the wrong way.

    My best to you all.

    jb

  11. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    In at least partial defense of the civic leaders, jb, Tom came to public notice due to the work of Mark Smith, a city employee (cemetery sexton) who spent years researching the graves under his care. Paul recently found definitive proof that Tom had been baptized as a Mormon, but Tom’s existence and status as an enslaved man was known. Yes, they could have cited Paul for his work on that aspect of the story, but funds for the marker and raising public awareness of Tom’s existence was the result of community work stemming from a city employee’s work — it isn’t like these civic leaders horned in on a Mormon project.

    People in Utah — like people in the LDS community — are not yet used to grappling with our history with slavery. If — IF — we get it wrong in our early fumblings, that calls for charity on everybody’s part. We’re trying to figure it out for the first time, adapting to an emotional and personal understanding of what slavery meant, in contrast to the cool intellectual and emotionally distant awareness of earlier times.

    I knew some of my ancestors “owned” slaves. That was just a fact I knew as I grew up, the same as I knew about my ancestors’ religious ties and military contributions and land ownership. But in recent years I’ve become more aware of how extensive my family’s involvement — North and South — really was. In even more recent years I’ve begun to have more than an intellectual understanding of what that meant, especially since engaging in an extensive reading program including slave narratives and current academic histories. I’ve also come to believe that it’s incongruous to celebrate and take pride in my ancestors who fought in such-and-such wars, or who sacrificed everything to live as Latter-day Saints, or who did anything else praiseworthy and deserving of filial honor — while at the same time shrugging off any personal responsibility for the less noble things they did, including generations of enslaving of human beings. No, I’m not personally responsible for their wrongs, but neither am I personally deserving of credit for their good deeds. If the one is part of my ancestral identity, so is the other.

    I think I have a responsibility to make things right as far as possible. Can’t change the past, but I can change our obliviousness of the past. I can rediscover and honor the lives of those who suffered at the hands of those ancestors I am so proud of.

    That’s true for me as an individual, and just as true for me as a Latter-day Saint and as a Utahn, or with respect to any other part of my identity. Part of that is getting the story right, as J. and Amy are grappling with in the OP here.

    It isn’t virtue signalling. It’s a sometimes awkward attempt to come to grips with new ideas and deliberately forgotten or distorted history. It takes time and work. In the future we may find better language and reach understandings that are just and fair and somewhat less inflammatory. But what we’re struggling now to figure out is real, and new, and difficult. We’re all trying.

  12. Thanks, Stapley, for this illuminating update!

    And thank you, Ardis, for your most recent reply. I’ve recently come to similar conclusions about the way I relate to my ancestors, who include the Butlers and the Skeens, among others who, as far as I know, don’t have as much ugliness in their past as undeniably do the Skeens.