Being Sold Down the River Was a Real Thing

St. Peters Church. This is also the home church of Martha Custis and site of her wedding to George Washington.
visitnewkent.com

A really nice thing about genealogy is that I can call my obsessive behavior research.

Fun Fact: When a baby was born in St. Peter’s Parish, where the Cloptons had their Virginia foothold, it was recorded in the church registry with the name of it’s parents. Congratulations! When an enslaved baby was born or baptized it was also documented in the church register but with the name of it’s owner, not it’s parents. For example, entries for my eighth great grandfather, one of the Roberts: “Margaret, daughter of Rob. Clopton born ye 8th day of April 1717,” is recorded right next to “Hannah, a negro girl of Robert Clopton Born Febry ye 5th, 1717.” A ways farther on is “Robt son of Robt & Mary Clopton born July 28 bapd 7ber 1st 1728.” I’d also like to point out that I saw the names “Xtopher” and “Epaphroditus” while flipping through this church register. Thought you ought to know.

Short Lecture: By 1760 40% of the population in the Tidewater area was made up of enslaved Africans who worked while the planters honed their aristocratic lifestyles. If I’m understanding correctly (thanks to reading some fine books*), within a couple decades the tobacco fields wore out and at the same time migration moved into the Deep South where the big money was in cotton. Growing cotton was extremely profitable if you scaled up to big-ass plantations with free labor. This cotton boom created a corresponding demand for enslaved people who provided the free labor. Tidewater folks were looking to get out of tobacco anyway and it made financial sense to sell huge numbers of people to be literally herded south and west; literally “sold down the river.”

Working Hypothesis: This supports the idea that my fine Clopton tobacco barons faltered financially, sold the people they enslaved, and went west to invest in something new. Through the 1700’s my direct grandfathers were paying personal property taxes on their enslaved people, their horses, cattle, mules, land and buildings. (Seriously. Usually the enslaved people were listed by sex and age group, pretty much like the livestock. Sometimes they had their first names listed. In 1784 John Clopton, probably one of mine, owned Landon, Harry, Dolstra and Dick.) By the 1800s it seems like my string of Williams, Roberts and Johns had decamped to Kentucky.

*American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard, and The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

I took a DNA test turns out I am 100% yrmama

Wikipedia

In 1989 yrmama lived in St. Louis and someone left a message on her answering machine about doing genealogical research on the Clopton family in that area. As a heedless youth, she didn’t call him back, but she sure would now. In those olden days people had to do things like call all the Cloptons in the St. Louis phone book to find anything out. I did know from working with school field trip groups in my job at the science museum that there was a Clopton school somewhere nearby, which was surprising, and that all the teachers and students were black, also surprising. I thought Clopton meant Iowa and we all know that is likely to mean white. Then I did other things for about thirty years.

It turns out that there are a whole lot of Cloptons who don’t live in Iowa and who are not white. My exceptionally problematic father was Edwin Clopton, as was his father who went by Bill. From there on back is a long string of Williams, Johns, and Roberts and Davids. Most of them were named William and I’m not even kidding. Maybe that’s why Grandpa was Bill. Going backwards there are five generations in Iowa, a couple in Hart County, Kentucky, then Virginia. Virginia tobacco plantations all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600’s.

I’m now obsessively compiling information about my enslaving Clopton forebears and the folks they enslaved. Thank you, internet. I’m not sure exactly why, but I want to know which ancestor in my direct paternal line was the last to own slaves. I believe it had to either be John Robert Clopton (1760-1830), or his son David Clopton (1794-1865). Both of them were born in tobaccoplatationland, New Kent County, Virginia and moved westward during their lives. John Robert settled in Hart County, Kentucky, a slave state, but with a different flavor, I think. Young David moved on from Kentucky into Missouri, into Iowa about 1850, and then retired and died back across the Mason Dixon line in Missouri. One of David’s sons, Robert Clopton (1823-1865?) even fought for the North in the Civil War and died in combat in southern Illinois. That’s quite an expanse of reality for David although I don’t know what he thought of any of it.

So David. John Robert. Which of you pulled the plug? I want to know why. Why did you give up that evil gravy train? Was it economics? Was it downward mobility? Did the overwhelming westward ho mood inspire you to liquidate and put all your capital in expansionist adventure? Did you suddenly turn into an abolitionist? What the heck were you thinking? Did you have any idea that the next five+ generations of your lineage would pat the too-inquisitive on their tow heads and say, “we don’t talk about that”?