William Elder

I have been spending a fair amount of time with my Ancestors of late. Hours at a time, actually. Dwelling with them, learning their names and their children’s names. I have been studying their times and their habits, reading about their births, deaths and marriages. I have followed their professions, their ways of making a living. From one US Census to another. I have been attempting to understand their trauma, share their joys and their grief. And in the process, I confess I’ve been trying to tease their stories out of them. I have been wondering about their guiding principles. Their secrets. The things they never told anyone. The Truths they took with them.

They were by all accounts a hardy band. And in almost all cases, I have admired their tenacity, their persistence and their courage. They many times risked everything and moved into spaces about which they knew almost nothing. And for this lack of knowledge, they often suffered immensely. Yet they carried our family’s names forward with a of kind of blind devotedness.

And they carried and passed on to me and my family biological immunities through the illnesses they suffered and survived. They transmitted hard-won, genomic wisdom from choices they lived to regret. And all those emotional connections I carry have an origin, thought I don’t recognize them. I believe they are random genetic memories from lives long past. From those who paved my way. They are real enough, and I know there is a story behind them all.

These people, my Ancestors, are fascinating and complex people. Complicated, perhaps inscrutable. They hold keys to the mysteries we desperately need to understand. But mostly we will never know. Though some of them we would not want to know.

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I put forward one of the Progenitors of our family—on my mother’s, mother’s side---William Elder. He was born in 1707 in Lancashire, England to a devout Catholic family. He is described as a man “whose strong Faith was a part of his very blood and who inspired and strengthened others to persevere in their Faith, at whatever cost necessary.”

There is much in the family record that describes in great detail the degree to which Catholics were persecuted and restricted in England. There was little freedom for Catholics at that time, and those inequities molded and shaped many of my ancestors. For that reason and many others, not the least of which was the economic opportunity that the New World offered, many Catholics left their native land to come to the Colonies.

In William’s case, the exact reasons are not fully explained. But in about 1730, he left England and came to settle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. He was then still a young man, with a young wife and perhaps several, small children. It is apparent that he must have come to the Colonies with some means, because within a short period of time after his arrival, he ‘established himself’ on lands purchased in the vicinity of Emmitsburg, Maryland. And soon he was the master of a large estate with a large home.

But as it turned out, the laws then in effect against Catholics in Maryland were sometimes even more restrictive than in England. One of them forbade Papists “from building, holding, or occupying structures designed for public religious worship.” Freestanding Catholic Churches were not allowed. Consequently, Mr. Elder, our noble ancestor, “built into his large home the first chapel in which Mass was said in Western Maryland. He and all his neighbors assembled there to practice their Faith.” At a later date, a part of the land originally owned by William and his wife was donated for the construction of a prominent Catholic university. These were both magnanimous and bold gestures to benefit an oppressed, religious minority.


For many years, William and his family thrived in Maryland. His wealth and reputation expanded, and he was the object of much esteem and admiration. “He and his wife shared the respect and confidence of all to whom they were known. Their good neighbor spirit and charity were known and accepted throughout the land.” Their family was apparently greatly revered and respected by all with whom they came into contact. We are, I am, praised by extension.

Then we come to the matter of his Will. Dated April 18,1773, it is a precise and eloquent document. At the very beginning he makes peace with his Lord: “First of all, I give and commend my Soul into the hand of God who gave it and my body I recommend to the Earth to be buried in decent Christian burial, nothing doubting but at the general resurrection I shall receive the same again by the mighty power of God.”

Then on to the matter at hand: “And as touching such worldly estate wherewith, it hath pleased God to bless me in this life, I give, demise and dispose of the same in the following manner and form.”

He gave and bequeathed to his beloved wife “the plantation or parcel of land I now dwell on.”

Then he began to enumerate and describe the possessions he wished to divide and bestow. “I also give to my said wife all my negroes except those that shall hereinafter be mentioned as belonging to others.” He does not divulge the exact number. I don’t suppose it mattered.

In the next sentence he proceeds to itemize, in the same manner as “his negroes”, his “horses and cattle, sheep and hogs, with all my household goods and farming utensils.”

A sentence later, he “leaves to Anne, my beloved daughter, one negro girl named Cate, which she hath already in her use and service, one cow and calf, two ewes and lambs, one feather bed and bed clothes, 10 pounds currency.…” etc., etc.

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And what now does one make of this wealthy and respected Catholic land holder? This good neighbor, the object of such veneration and respect. How do we reconcile this Christian manifestation of charity and generosity, this esteemed protector of family and home? How do we now hold him in our hearts?

With what set of rationalizations can we now regard him? Is he beyond some cultural ‘Statute of Limitations’? Is it enough to say that he was operating within a legal and moral framework of his time? It is in fact absolutely true that he was doing nothing illegal. Nothing that others of his stature and class were not doing. How do I now go forward and regard these “respectable and honorable people” who preceded me in this world, who are my blood kin?

How can I judge my forebearers, set apart by hundreds of years? Can I in fact judge them? And by what set of standards? By today’s ethics? 21st Century moral guidelines? Are they hereby tried and found guilty? Or do we evaluate them by the more lenient 18th and 19th Century values and criteria? Or by some combined set of principles and benchmarks that give us room to forgive and absolve?

And how am I involved in this issue? To what degree? How am I indicted, if in fact I am? Certainly not as a decision maker, an owner, a buyer and seller of other Human Beings. But down the generations, one could without doubt say that my family and I have been continually favored. Many of us were stakeholders. We are the sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of men and women who consistently, over the Centuries, received favorable treatment under laws which we took a hand in writing. We are involuntary, unwitting shareholders in a System which gave us preferred treatment and excellent returns on investment in Human Capital and Collateral.

And I dare to say that Mr. Elder and his branch of my family are not the only one to own other humans, to consider others as transferrable property, as legal chattel. There were others. More egregious than he. For the most part, they did not hide their ownership nor their perpetual title. Indeed, there seems to have been some pride involved. It was the mark of a successful Capitalist. The badge of the Owning Class.

And how do I regard a Church which condoned and encouraged this practice for hundreds of years? Which in fact profited from it by accepting gifts of land and money which were gained to a large degree by this practice of Human ownership, of permanent bondage and endless oppression. The Catholic Church, like almost all other Christian churches and institutions at the time, was deeply rooted in what was essentially a Slave Society. With the teachings of a Loving and Charitable God as their backdrop, they ignored and disregarded the subjugation and suffering of entire Races of people.

And how do I consider this Church which, with astounding hypocrisy, seeks now to judge and withhold its most sacred sacrament, The Body and Blood of its Christ, over some transgression about which Jesus never even spoke? How dare these sanctimonious and self-righteous men point a condemning finger at ANYONE. This same Church whose Legacy is dripping with the sweat and the tears and the blood of enslaved Human Beings and Indigenous Peoples, Children of their God and Divine Savior, All. How do I regard it with anything less than complete contempt and loathing?

Although it is no longer a Church I call my own, there are those in it whom I respect deeply. And I grieve for those who hold and maintain the teachings of the original Lord in the midst of this detestable leadership. Still ‘doing unto others’, still reaching out to ‘the least of their Brethren’, I am saddened that they will be lumped in with the falseness and deception of a set of autocratic bishops with cold hearts and judgmental souls.

And I understand that these American bishops, despite all their Power, do not make a majority. I trust that the real Catholic Church, with the Pope at its head, still holds to its original mission. And I believe that that is the Church which will survive. Though now with fewer adherents.

But in regards to my own Ancestors, I am left not with answers, but with more questions. Not keys to the mysteries I sought to find, but keys to the ones I wished I had not. I discover keys to dark rooms and dank cellars. I uncover keys which unlock crumbling sheds and collapsed shanties. And I find one more for that old shack, out back, chained shut for so long.

I confess some of the Ancestral luster is gone. I make no assumptions of Honor or even decency. It makes one wonder what Blindness we now possess and promote. What we now see and do not see.

Which is of course the value of History. Evaluating new information. Re-evaluating old information. Turning pages and appraising, over time, those who made judgments, reached conclusions and implemented decisions. History is, in the end, our Guide and our Teacher.

“We can do better,” History says.

“We must do better,” History demands.