Red, White, and Black

oak tree and houseI have been digging around in the scrubby underbrush of my family tree. I am hoping to squeeze a book about my family out of a few stories I have heard as well as a few details that I can glean from my research. Now, there’s all kinds of things I already know about my ancestors, such as I know there were quite a bit of cousins marrying cousins in the not-so-distance past. I know that my forebears were participants in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. I know some of them were church founders and circuit-riding preachers.

Last week, I  bumped into  something that I had overlooked years ago when I started researching my family tree. The first Matherne in North America in the early 1700s had 3 slaves. From what the slim evidence I can find, it’s possible Johann Matern (spelling changed through the years)  received slaves as a gift from the same company that sponsored his passage to Louisiana from Europe. The negroes may have been just a loan. His trip, you see was financed by a banker who supposedly received early profits rendered by the German pioneers. However the company went bankrupt in a few short years in a rather significant historical and spectacular way.*

I don’t know if Johann’s slaves were his own property, or they were supplied, much like my father had a “company car” in the 1960s.  They may have come with the job. All I know is a census in 1728 said he had 3 slaves and 3 sons, and a few cows and pigs, too.

The next mention of slaves in my family tree was in regard to  Johann’s grandson, Jacques. Jacques bought a Negro boy, aged 11,  named Theodore in 1771. The purchase price was  200 dollars.  That would be about 5,000 dollars in today’s currency. I don’t see any more records of sales or purchases of slaves in my background while poking about the website, Ancestry. However I am impatient. I am not searching slave records myself. I just borrowed from other family’s records about the slaves.

I know that my ancestors, from my dad and mom’s side of the family, fought for the Confederacy. No slave or servants are listed as attendants on either side. Then, after the Civil War, my ancestor Ursin Matherne, told my mother’s family’s people that he was a descendant of a family of hunters. Somewhere along the way,  slaves and farming seemed to have disappeared from the family lineage.

Ursin Napolean Matherne was friendly with the native American population in the South Louisiana.  Friendly is just one way to describe Ursin’s relationships with American Indians.  More on Ursin’s relationships with the natives in another post.

For today, I just want to think about what it meant to own other human beings. My family owned slaves. They fought for the Confederacy. Somehow, I pictured them as pure and poor, and of course, being too morally upright to own slaves.

Until a few years ago, I would have considered these actions as not relevant to me or current events today. Yet, it’s not ancient history. These people, my ancestors, lived only a few hundred years ago. To my dismay, white superiority is an idea that has not been relegated to the dust bin of history as it should be.

Whether it’s marching in Charlottesville or trolls on the internet surmising that our past president, a black man, embodies the spirit of the AntiChrist, my contemporaries are bringing back old stereotypes and myths based on skin color. I am ashamed of that kind of southern culture. It has no place in my heart or in my thinking.

Slavery didn’t help my ancestors in the long run to have better lives. The early experiments with slavery by my family didn’t last. I can’t see how human bondage could lead to happiness or lasting contentment, no matter the short term goal in finances or farming. Nor do I see the value in worthless arguments about skin color today.

*Story of John Law and the Mississippi Bubble


8 thoughts on “Red, White, and Black

  1. Company car. Company slave. Well, that’s an interesting concept.

    Can’t let your comment about Obama being a black man pass, however. Though everyone and his dead uncle refers to him as black, including Obama, the truth is that he is mulatto, a perfectly good word that means half black, half white, as you know. Obama is no more black than white. Mulatto.

    This leads me to the fact that, due to cultural changes over the past few decades, black has become something sought after while half a century ago and earlier it was something you did not want to be. Before the culture shifted, if you had one iota of “black blood,” you were black entirely, a sorrowful thing. Nowadays, if you have one iota of “black blood,” you are still black entirely, but it’s a very cool thing. It can even get you elected president.

    I find all of this stuff quite fascinating. And I’m going to take this opportunity to come out of the closet. I have a not-too-distant black ancestor (the early 1900s). Someone in Georgia even wrote a book about her. I’ve forgotten the title at the moment. But, according to some ways of looking at it, that makes me a Proud Black Man.

    Maybe I’ll join the Panthers. Or BLM.


    1. I haven’t forgotten that the world black makes you upset. And you like the word mulatto. However, I won’t discuss it in this forum. It’s quite likely there is Native American, black, or even Spanish ancestry in my lineage. I can’t find evidence of it, but I still think that most Cajuns have more African-American and native ancestors than their neighbors in Mississippi, Alabama, etc. The French had a more open relationship with other races than the English settlers in other parts of the South. New Orleans was a melting pot of cultures so it’s more likely that the areas surrounding New Orleans shared in that cultural mix than areas more remote. The largest slave market was located in New Orleans, leading more credence to the idea that racial mixing was more likely. All that being said, I can’t find anything like that in my ancestral line. It’s probably there, nonetheless.


      1. The word black does not upset me in the slightest. Accuracy matters, however. And I neither like nor dislike the word mulatto. It’s simply a word of the English language, and it has a specific definition. Opinions don’t alter facts. Obama is a mulatto, and so is the recently acquired fiancee of Prince Harry, a lovely example, by the way.


  2. When I was a little girl, I learned from my mother that the word, mulatto, was impolite. Fast forward 50 years. It’s not just impolite it’s an anachronism. Every shade of black, brown and other ethnicities are on display everyday in modern America. The point of my article was to point out that my family owned slaves. Quite likely, as well, there was a bit of mixing of black or Indian blood, too. I can’t find it in the records, but I see it in the brown complexion and facial feature of some of my family. Genetics doesn’t need to confirm it. Ok. That’s all I have on this subject. Time to move on.


    1. I did the DNA with The results were a bit odd. Not at all in sync with known family history that has been thoroughly researched on my mom and father’s side of the family for hundreds of years. I suppose it’s good I did it, but it seems more like a parlor game. The results seemed to be without any context to my known heritage.


  3. Family stories are just that stories. I flipped over a few stones looking for what might be underneath and found some of those stories just not true. Great Grandma was not an orphan, she was from Norway but not born on a whaling ship in the South China sea. She did put her youngest five in an orphanage and run off with a fur buyer. My grandfather never forgave her for that one. My Dad’s mother’s Dad was supposed to be half Indian, the DNA says”not likely”. My Dad’s mom’s people were homesteaders on the Dakota pierre, I have piles of photos of that life. She told my sister if we ever sold those old photos, she would haunt us, she carried her family photos all over the west during her married years. I’ve found that the US/Canada border was pretty much just a black line on the map for my Dad’s family on both sides.

    As to blackart stories: a killing pretty much meant picking up stakes and moving to a big eastern city or going west to the logging camps on the west coast.


  4. I sympathize with you about family stories sometimes being just stories. My great-grandmother believed, as did her family, that she was 101 when she died. She was 99. The papers wrote up a big story about her birthday, proclaiming her the oldest citizen of the country. Not so. Some stories are true. Are the sources deemed worthy? Are there more than one witness? Do others outside of the family recall the same event? In some ways, we can make sense of our family lore.


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