The Seductions and Confusions of Genealogical Research
For a long time, I thought that researching family history was a dubious pastime. Also one fraught with peril, when undertaken for the purposes of ancestor-glorification and ego-gratification. Should you have a forebear by whom you set great store – for example, as my Aunt May did by Philip Alston, you may well learn many disreputable things about him, of which owning slaves is only one.
That didn’t stop May from pursuing pedigrees on my behalf. I remember being told as a teenager that she had filled out a chart in my name, detailing a lineage that would qualify me to join not only the Daughters of the American Revolution but also the Daughters of the Confederacy. This was not how I pictured my future and I told my father, none too politely, to forget it.
Yet somehow this document survived – I found it among the other papers in the Pile. Labeled D.A.R. ANCESTRAL CHART, it diagrams a branch of my father’s family, starting with his name, Richard Griffin Banks, and working backwards in time through a Major Edwin Banks and a Dr. Richard G. Banks.
This wasn’t the kind of rabbit hole I had any intention of going down. Until for some reason it was. Richard Griffin Banks is an unusual name. Maybe I wasn’t ready to track my father on a genealogy website, but why not just Google him and see what I found? Several hours later I was following the Internet trail of a Confederate Army Surgeon named Richard Griffin Banks. Could this be my father’s great-grandfather, the Dr. Richard G. Banks from the Ancestral Chart?
As my morning slipped away, I pursued Dr. Banks through 38 entries in my search results. I learned that he was a trustee of a public school in Hampton. I learned that at one point he became embroiled in a dispute involving a school budget which caused him to be assaulted with “horse whip and pistol” by C.J.D. Pryor, a teacher at the school.
At that point I clawed my way out of the ancestry rabbit hole for the time being – but not before taking note of a line in the Richard Griffin Banks entry on the “Deceased Banks . . .” website: “Unclear why he was born before the marriage date of parents.”
What started as an idle pastime – Googling my father’s name – produced several surprises. It was of no particular consequence to learn that my great great grandfather may have been born out of wedlock. But I was shocked to come across the information that he had owned 7 slaves. It wasn’t surprising that my planter ancestors would have been slaveholders, but this great great grandfather was a doctor. I didn’t know — though I have since learned — that households owning small numbers of slaves were not unusual; nearly half of the Southerners who owned slaves held fewer than five.
According to a website compiling “All Deceased Banks & Bankses Persons of European Origin in the U.S. . .” Dr. Banks’ Hampton, Virginia, house was burned down during the Civil War and the family was forced to flee, saving only a pair of silver candlesticks. This colorful detail comes from the records of a Mrs. James Banks and may or may not be apocryphal. (And if it IS true, what became of those candlesticks?)
I take note of the qualifying “of European Origin” in the webpage title. In the 1840 census, Dr. Banks’s household consisted of “1 white male, 1 white female, and 7 slaves.” In 1840, enslaved men and women were not listed by surname. But if they were eventually assigned the last name of Banks, as was common, it must have seemed important to the compiler of the genealogy to exclude them from the white Bankses.
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