The Dark Side of one Daughter of the American Revolution

I think he was a captain, my great-great-great-great-grandfather (though this search suggests he never rose above private), and that Captain Freethy fought in the Civil War.

man holding the barrel of a musket; the cuff of his jacket suggests a colonial uniform coat
Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Both my grandmothers became genealogists in their retirement – Nana Converse took several trips in Arvee the RV out to Salt Lake City to make use of the Mormon records that now form the basis for Ancestry.com. But what I particularly remember is Grandma Parker showing me white file boxes full of documents, sitting on the end of the same dining room table of the same house that now both belong to my mother.

With the summer sun in the big bay window at our backs and me probably already in my bathing suit, ready for the lakeside beach across the road, Grandma told me about Captain Freethy who fought in the Civil War, and she explained that I could be a Daughter of the American Revolution if I wanted to be. She had the documentation to prove it. There might even be a college scholarship in it for me. (I didn’t know anything then about the racial wealth gap and the racist underpinnings of much of America’s generational wealth.)

I don’t know now what happened to her research. Grandma and I seemed to be the only ones to really care about these things in more than passing detail. I do know, of course, that as a white woman whose ancestors founded towns across eastern Massachusetts, starting with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation, my lineage can be recreated. I probably wouldn’t even find it challenging.

I particularly remember talking about Capt. Freethy –family farmer in a small town founded under the name of Sedgewick, Massachusetts, now Brooklin, Maine – because his eldest daughter Ruby Maria Freethy is my namesake, and so much about her life has always intrigued me. She was my mother’s favorite grandmother’s favorite grandmother, and stories of her bold life still live in family lore, along with mysteries I have always longed to unravel.

For years now I’ve thought that someday, when I’m living on the royalties of my third or fourth book and can dedicate myself to the research, I’ll write a family history, some combination of fact and fiction that will have something to say about American audacity and grit, something of why I’m so proud to call this country mine.

Of course, it’s not so simple nor so romantic as all that. As I endeavor to become more “woke” – and inevitably fail and must always endeavor again – the history of my people becomes muddier and bloodier. What once I might have envisioned as a light-hearted romp through history is an ever darker tale. And perhaps all the more important to write.

So, on a day like today, as we celebrate the birth of a great and troubled nation, let it be with clear eyes.

man in colonial farmers' garb, holding  long rifle in the crook of his arm; in the background, a split rail fence and small pale blue shed
Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

As a child, I often imagined Capt. Freethy going off to war. He kisses his eleven children, last of all his eldest daughter Ruby in her simple muslin dress and long, dark braids. “Mind the little ones well, and help your mother – no shirking on the housework!”

For certain, my namesake Ruby was no shirker. She would go off herself at just fourteen years old, down to work in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, because her family couldn’t survive on the income of their farm alone.

I liked to think of Capt. Freethy marching off in a smart blue wool coat, rifle resting against his shoulder, or riding off on a sleek, strong gelding. I imagined him meeting up with his fellow soldiers, likely on a warm Portland afternoon in August with Company K of the 20th Regiment of the Maine Infantry, spine stiff with pride to be following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who fought for the freedom of this country as Capt. Freethy would fight for its unity.

Maine, in fact, was a deeply abolitionist place in the 1860s, contributing more troops to the Union than any other state, more than many states that were significantly larger with big cities like Boston, New York or Philadelphia.

I didn’t know this about Maine, back when I was in the high school marching band the year we played the soundtrack to the movie “Gettysburg,” but as I pounded the bass drum-as-cannon, I often imagined Capt. Freethy charging into battle with the 20th Regiment, wringing victory from that July 3rd afternoon, gung ho to free the oppressed and make the United States a better place.

Perhaps he was as idealistic as I wanted him to be; perhaps he did see himself furthering the natural rights and freedoms of man that his grandfather fought for in the Revolutionary War. Now, though, I know it’s equally likely that, like many of my classmates in 1998 and most of our troops today, Pa Freethy may also have signed up with the Maine for the money – to put food in the mouths of his babies, maybe even buy a better plow at the end of the war, and collect a small pension into his old age.

Whatever his reasons, I still believe that Capt. Freethy did a noble, necessary thing. I’m still proud to be descended from a man who fought for Lincoln and not for Lee. I still believe he made the world a better place for his children and other people’s children. Not perfect, of course, but better.

I also know that Ruby and I are descended as well from old New England families that, though they may not have owned slaves themselves, almost certainly participated in the Triangle Trade that brought those slaves to the Americas. I know that when Ruby, for the good of her struggling family, went down to labor in the danger and squalor of the Lawrence mills, the cotton thread in those ravenous machines was the product of sharecroppers, Black Southerners who were by then enslaves not by the whip and the chain, but by the invisible shackles of an unbeatable debt. And they fed their families, and Ruby fed hers, and I’m grateful to be here today because of it, but I can’t say I didn’t come into this world on broken backs. And there’s no reparation that truly accounts for all of that.

My family didn’t come here “the right way,” as today’s bigots on the right would have you believe. There was no “right way” before the Twentieth Century. Pilgrims and Puritans, free or indentured, man, woman or child, my ancestors boarded those ships however they could, for whatever reasons, and invaded these shores.

All over my workplace are buttons and stickers saying, “We were refugees, too,” and for many of my colleagues, their parents or grandparents, that was literally true. I can never wear that pin because, though I have said in the past that my people came as refugees, they did not. Though they may have seen themselves as fleeing persecution, they arrived on these shores as colonizers.

Captain Freethy’s grandfather fought for our independence from Britain, but he didn’t fight the Three Fifths Compromise. Captain Freethy fought on the side of emancipation, but sent his daughter to Lawrence as a cog in a capitalist scheme fueled by white supremacy.

After writing my second draft of this reflection on Independence Day, I did some research. I didn’t like guessing at my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s rank, but I hit a roadblock. So, I did something I have been thinking about for several years now: I bought myself a membership to Ancestry.com and started my family tree.

It’s as easy as I knew it would be to reconstruct my grandmothers’ research. In Tuesday’s ill-advised almost-all-nighter, I got back to my great-great-great-grandmother Ruby Maria Freethy Smith’s great-great-great-grandparents, and I’ve amassed over 750 “leaves” — mostly state and federal documents verifying the lives and families of my ancestors.

Ruby’s father’s name wasn’t John, so this isn’t him, after all. Ruby’s father’s name was Alfred Freethy, and it seems he didn’t go off to war at all, not to Gettysburg nor anywhere else with the Union Army. It was his grandfather, Joseph Freethy, who is listed in records from March 1779 as a corporal in the Battalion of Massachusetts Bay during the American Revolution, for which he was granted the land on which Alfred and Ruby most likely lived, and a pension for himself and later his widow. 

All those stories I’ve been telling myself about Ruby’s father all these years … I made it all up.

It’s a powerful reminder that we remember what we want to remember. I wanted to imagine my namesake’s father risking life and limb for something good and pure. We are often compelled, especially as white people, to think of our nation, too, as something just and noble.

This Independence Day, let us remember that much of our history is imagined, packaged in simplified stories that were crafted for emotional effect. Our capacity for self-delusion is vast, but for everything that’s good in our intentions, there is always a dark side.

So, put on your red, white and blue, fire up the grill and pour yourself a drink, gather round your friends and family, find a good spot to watch the fireworks after dark. Enjoy the holiday. But don’t forget that our country was forged in blood and built by slaves, and throughout our history, some men have always been more equal than others.

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