New York man finds slave ancestor's bill of sale
When he was 13, Dennis Richmond Jr. watched Alex Haley’s Roots on television and became obsessed with his family’s history.
On Wednesday, the 21-year-old Yonkers man found a major root of that family tree, on a day and in a place that could not have been more significant.
Richmond and his uncle, John Sherman Merritt, sat in the Knapp House of the Rye Historical Society — a structure that dates to 1667 and is the oldest surviving residential building in Westchester County — and held in their hands a bill of sale.
The note shows one prominent Greenwich property owner, Daniel Lyon, selling property to another major Greenwich property owner, Nathaniel Merritt Jr., whose family gave its name to the Merritt Parkway.
The property Lyon transferred was “my Negro girl named Pegg” for a price of “Fifty Pounds New York Money.”
That "Negro girl" was Margaret "Pegg" Green, Richmond’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, who bore six sons, some of whom took the surname Merritt. (Some documents call her "Peg.")
Richmond found his way to Rye after learning that many Merritt papers were held there, not in Albany, where he had been told the bulk of genealogical records are stored.
“When they pulled out that document, it was so remarkable,” said Richmond, a senior majoring in African-American studies and education at Claflin University in South Carolina. "I got goosebumps."
He made his discovery one day before the 226th anniversary of the sale. Pegg Green was sold to Merritt on July 7, 1790.
The story gets better.
Sheri Jordan, the executive director of the Rye Historical Society, whose collection includes the bill of sale, said Pegg would have known the Knapp House, which was then owned by the Halstead family, contemporaries of the Lyons and the Merritts.
“They all traveled in the same circles so, if they had held parties, Pegg would have attended,” Jordan said. “It is highly probable that she was in that house. I’m sitting outside in 90-degree weather and I just got goosebumps thinking about that.”
Goosebumps, all around.
The land on both sides of the Byram River was peopled by Merritts and Lyons, Jordan said.
"Nathaniel Merritt Sr. owned land in New Castle and Nathaniel Jr. owned property in Greenwich," she said. "The truth is that Rye was founded by settlers coming out of Greenwich, so most of the families that owned property in Rye were big landowners in Greenwich as well. They were always selling off little pieces of property here and there."
Pegg was freed on April 12, 1800. She immediately dropped her slave name and became Margaret. She died about 40 years later, Richmond said.
If Richmond and his uncle were excited by the document, so, too, was historian Jordan.
“It doesn’t happen a lot and with African-Americans; it very rarely happens," Jordan said. "(Former society Trustee) Pam McGuire and I have been doing research on this, trying to find out about the hidden history of slavery in Rye. We heard from Dennis and it was the most amazing thing. We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, I'm pretty sure that’s one of the bills of sale that we have.'”
The discovery helped Richmond clear up longstanding family questions, Jordan said.
“They were never sure who was the father of Margaret’s six boys and we were able to determine, based on the land deeds that we had, that it probably was Anthony Green, who belonged to the property of the farmers right next door," she said. "They seemed relieved because they kind of assumed that maybe they were all fathered by the white slave owners. To be able to see this, it was really an amazing thing.”
Pegg’s sale was different from many, Jordan said.
“We have other bills of sale, but they only say, ‘So-and-so sold a Negro wench or a Negro boy.’ But this bill of sale says ‘Margaret (Pegg).’ She was named in the bill of sale so, obviously, she meant something to the families. When she was freed, all of the papers afterward referred to her as Margaret.”
She took ownership of herself and of her name.
The impact of that paper was not lost on Richmond.
“What made it real, how far we’ve come, is that the document that I saw with my uncle was one that Pegg could not even read, something they would not have let her touch or look at, something that would mean she would have to move somewhere else,” he said.
Jordan was still clearly excited about being able to help Richmond’s family make the connection.
“I spend all of my time as the director of the Historical Society saying, ‘History is the story of people like you and me and what their lives were like.’ To sit there with Dennis and John and realize that I’m sitting here with a piece of paper that brings your family all the way back to 1790, I literally teared up. And Dennis might be able to trace Pegg back farther through Daniel Lyons’ papers.”
Richmond helped Jordan and McGuire make a connection, too.
“Most African-Americans, you get back to the Civil War and you’re lost,” Jordan said. “Pam and I have been tracing it, but we didn’t know where to go from there. Connecting with Dennis gave us the whole story because we’ve been trying to piece together the story of where did these freed slaves go. It was very moving.”
Richmond likes to think his sixth great-grandmother would be proud.
“I think she'd be excited to know that I'm in school, that her descendants know how to read and write, that they're literate and they’re still in the tri-state area. But not a lot has changed. In 1790, people were racist. People are still racist. In 1790, you had slavery going on in the country and across the world, and, in many parts of the world, you still have slavery going on. You had a huge upper echelon class in 1790 and it’s the same in 2016.”
There was slavery in Westchester in the Revolutionary period, Richmond said, but “if you had six slaves in Westchester, you were considered a big slave owner. Most had one or two. She mostly would have worked in the home, cooking and cleaning.”
“Pegg was a young girl, born around 1770, who would have been around to see bombs bursting in air," he said. "She would have heard stories about liberty and seen us go from being a New York colony to this new thing called America and to hear people talk about how they liked things better under Britain.”
Richmond was sure that the best way to mark the day, 226 years after his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was sold, was to talk about her.
“My family is spread from New York to California,” he said.
But their roots stretch back to Rye, to a 20-year-old woman sold exactly 226 years ago.