Essay - What it means to be a Ramapough Lenape Descendant…
Teresa Vega has been researching her family history/genealogy for almost 20 years. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that she began to research her family history in depth using a combination of traditional genealogy as well as genetic genealogy. She has been able to trace several maternal mixed-race lines back to colonial New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The ethnic admixture of these lines is a mix of West African, Malagasy, Native American and European people and represent some of the earliest settlers in this country along with Native Americans who have always been here. She has a Bachelors Degrees in Anthropology and Asian Studies from Bowdoin College and previously worked as an adjunct professor in Cultural Anthropology while attending CUNY Graduate School and University Center’s doctoral program in Anthropology. Her blog is www.radiantrootsboricuabranches.com
Growing up with my maternal grandparents, I was immersed in my ancestry. My grandfather shared stories of his paternal ancestors, who had initially lived in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey before migrating to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Yvonne Chandler, our family genealogist, and my grandfather’s 1st cousin, also helped me gain a better understanding of our family's past by sharing her research and memories. Cousin Yvonne had a passion for our oral history and was committed to verifying its accuracy.
In the late 1990s, Cousin Yvonne entrusted me with her research notes and paperwork. She urged me to continue the search for our Black Patriot, whom she had heard about. Cousin Yvonne also emphasized that our family had Native American ancestry, and she explained that our family line had instances of endogamy, or cousin marriage. It's worth noting that Yvonne's maternal line descends from the Afro-Indigenous Weeden and Hazard families of South Kingston, Rhode Island. Using Cousin Yvonne's research as a guide, I began to build my family tree around 2002.
It was a slow process at first, and I soon realized that my ancestors' "race" varied depending on the census year. Terms like "Colored," "Mulatto," "Black," "Negro," and "Free Person of Color" were used. However, I was unaware of the very real issue of paper genocide at the time.
In 2009, I received a message from my third cousin, Andrea, who stated that we shared Laura L. Thompson and George E. Green as our 2nd great-grandparents. I descend from their son, Richard W. Green, Sr and Andrea descends from their daughter Goldie Green making her a matrilineal descendant. Andrea and I began researching our tree together and faced numerous brick walls. However, we persevered and built out our family tree to include all our known third and fourth great-grandparents and their children by 2013. We also discovered that Mary and Catherine Thompson, our second great-grandmother's sisters, married two of their cousins, William H. and George W. Blanchard, who were also our cousins. Through researching Mary and Catherine’s children, we traced their ancestry back to New Amsterdam, and we learned that Catherine Thompson Blanchard's descendants have always been Ramapough Lenape tribal members. However, the official documents we had been using did not tell the full story.
To find out more about our ancestry, Andrea and I turned to DNA testing in 2013. Her 23andMe test revealed that our fourth great-grandmother, Antonia's (Tun) maternal line, originated in Madagascar. This led us to search for our Malagasy roots, taking us back to mid-1600s New Amsterdam/New York and the Tappan Patent in Orange County, NY, in 1683.[i] Although there are pros and cons to taking DNA tests, Andrea and I felt that it was necessary to break down brick walls. Who knew, when we spit into a tube, that we would eventually be able to hear our ancestors calling out to us from beyond asking us to give them back their voices?
In 2014, our third cousin Rod Hamilton contacted me on Ancestry.com, and we spoke right away. He informed me that his aunt, Helen Blanchard Hamilton (1916-2017), had undergone stent surgery at NY Presbyterian Hospital, close to where I lived. He urged me to visit her because she would be happy to see me. I did so immediately. It was a powerful moment when we met. At age 98, the first thing Cousin Helen said to me was that she could die in peace because she had found her mother's people. She shared that her father used to take her to the Ramapough Mountains between her mother's death when she was 5-years old, and his remarriage, telling her that this was where her mother's family was from. He also took her to her mother's cousin's shoe store in Newark, and with tears in my eyes, I told her that this man was my great-grandfather. My research is ancestor guided. On the day of my discovery, I could sense that our ancestors were celebrating with us. The loudest voices among them have always been those who wished to be found.
Cousin Helen eagerly agreed to take both FTDNA mtDNA and 23andMe tests to learn more about her heritage. Her test results revealed 4% Native American ancestry, specifically from the Ramapough Lenape tribe, which was supported by our paper trail and DNA matches with living members of the tribe. During my visit to Cousin Helen on her 100th birthday, she introduced me proudly to her father's side of the family as her cousin from her mother's side.
Cousin Helen's presence in my life felt like a gift from our ancestors who wanted to reunite their descendants. Despite historic trauma and violence associated with slavery, dispossession, and genocide, it was the seeds our ancestors planted generations ago that allowed us to grow and prosper. We are still here.
Photographs above from the Daisy and Helen Blanchard Hamilton Line
In 2016, our ancestral Colored Cemetery in the Byram section of Greenwich, CT, was vandalized by a couple who aimed to expand their waterfront property by making our ancestral burial ground their front lawn. Andrea and I had taken a break from researching our Thompson line and were investigating our 2nd great-grandfather’s Green line from Greenwich, CT and Westchester County, NY. My cousins, Pat Bryant and Eddie Jones, joined me in visiting the Colored Cemetery in August of 2016. Our ancestors were screaming out to us literally from below. A month later, we were at Greenwich Town Hall representing our ancestors and writing them back into the historic record. Since that time, we have met even more cousins on this line from all walks of life. After a three-year battle, we successfully prevented further desecration of our cemetery, and the Town of Greenwich agreed to make The Colored, Byram, and Lyon Cemeteries into historic ones. In the near future, we will be having a private family ceremony to honor them.
I have spoken about the historical erasure of our ancestors, which has always been rooted in paper genocide. Paper genocide is the operational arm of actual genocide and dispossession, rendering people invisible on paper. Although it may seem harmless, paper genocide is a violent act that erased the indigeneity of my ancestors on both sides of the Hudson River, going back hundreds of years.
Our 2nd great-grandparents united two families who identified as Black and Native, but who were also tri-racial. Through researching my great-grandfather’s paternal line, we discovered that his ancestors married members of the Mohawk, Golden Paugussett, Shinnecock, Nipmuc, Wappinger, Wampanoag, and other smaller tribes, which is evidence of our long colonial history in the Tri-state area. Our 2nd great-grandmother’s line began in New Amsterdam and moved to the Tappan Patent, NY before ending up in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Monmouth, Burlington, and Sussex Counties in New Jersey. Her Indigenous Munsee ancestors included the people who would later become today’s Ramapough and Delaware Lenape, such as the Tappans, Haverstraws, Hackensacks, Minisinks, Manhattans, Pomptons, Acquacanocks, Esopus, and others.
Photographs above from the Catherine Thompson Blanchard Line
Since 2016, our ancestors have been actively engaging with us and providing us with clues hidden in archives that confirm our oral history. In 2018, Andrea found two runaway slave ads for our 4th great-grandfather, Anthony Green, and for our 4th great-grandmother, Antonia (Tun), and her infant son John Green. The fact that they both self-emancipated speaks volumes about their desire to be free, and I find strength in their conscious resistance to the powers that be. I also know that it is not by chance that I engage in acts of resistance, as it is clearly in my genes.
Between 2019 and 2022, we discovered Tun’s paternal father Samuel Freeman was the Black Patriot whom our Cousin Yvonne remembered. Because of Yvonne’s dedication to proving our oral history, I decided to apply for DAR membership for our 5X great-grandfather. In late 2021, I started researching Samuel Freeman and found that he fought in Hardenburgh’s Regiment from Orangetown, NY and was later sent to New York City to build fortifications before the British took over in 1776. We also found a land indenture that provided the name of his wife, Sarah Van Salee, a woman whose ancestry started out Afro-Dutch and Malagasy, but ended up being so much more, including Ramapough Lenape.[ii] One of her Lenape identified cousins, Elizabeth Susan Van Surlay Revey (1826-1898), later married Isaac “Indian Ike,” Revey-Richardson, a Cherokee man whose ancestors were relocating to the Oneida Nation in the late 1700s and ended up settling in Monmouth County, NJ. Today, our Van Salee-Revey-Richardson cousins are members of the Sand Hill Indians of Monmouth County, NJ. Our cousin Claire Garland recently wrote an article that told one of our ancestral stories.[iii] We have been able to compare our family trees and it is clear that our Thompson-Blanchard ancestors also married into the same Revey-Richardson family several times.
In 2022, after a twenty-year search, we finally found our own direct connection to the Ramapough Lenape through our 4th great-grandfather, Samuel Piggery who lived in Mahwah, NJ. We believe that Samuel Piggery’s father was a man named Robert Pigot (1739-1810), who served in the 80th Regiment Light Foot Infantry during the French and Indian War.[iv] Robert was first married to Elizabeth Koning (1750-1779) with whom he had 4 children. His second wife was Hannah, whom we have no information on, had 4 additional children with him.[v] We don’t know who Samuel Piggery’s mother was, but we do know that she was most likely Munsee Lenape as her known children married women who were Lenape. Robert was born in England and resided in Orange and Ulster Counties, NY prior to the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, Robert was a schoolmaster in NYC. He was also a witness on Frans Van Salee, Jr.’s will in 1769.[vi]
We knew that Laura L. Thompson’s mother was Susan Picket, and later realized that the surname Picket was a derivative of the Scots-Irish surname “Piggott.” We located another son of our 4th great-grandmother Tun and Samuel Piggery named Tobias Picket, who confirmed the different surname spellings. His name is listed differently in many census records as Pigaret, Pickett, Pigot, and Piggery. As soon as I searched for the Piggery surname in my AncestryDNA matches, all my Piggery/Pigaret Ramapough Lenape cousins appeared. I share DNA cousins with living descendants of most of Samuel Piggery’s children, including the ones with his legal wife Elizabeth Dee. We also found deeds that showed Tobias' migration from NYC to the Hackensack Valley between 1835-1840. These deeds link Samuel and Elizabeth Piggery’s children to his children with our 4th great-grandmother. Furthermore, these deeds also show a connection between Tobias and his maternal grandparents, Samuel Freeman and his wife Sarah Van Salee, who were from Orangetown, NY.
Moreover, Henry, a son of Samuel and Elizabeth Piggery, ended up in Sussex County, NJ. Some of his children relocated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania as well as Greater Philadelphia. It seems that they followed their uncle Henry, Samuel’s older brother, who had relocated to Sussex County from Bergen County sometime before 1830.
We surmise that Anthony Piggott, a Black Loyalist from “Massanacchus [Mahwah] nigh Hackensack,” is also related to our Piggery ancestors. In 1774, Anthony fled Mahwah with his wife, Sarah and two sons, John and Cesar and joined the Loyalist cause. He is listed in The Book of Negroes as embarking on the ship Grace bound for Port Roseway (Shelburne), Nova Scotia in 1783.[vii] John Stewart (1766-1841) was the Loyalist Anthony and his family worked for, as Free People of Color, during the Revolutionary War. John was the son of James Stewart (1726-1822) and Mary Taylor (1724-1833) and was born in Elizabethtown, NJ. When the Revolutionary War started, James moved his family to Minisink, Orange County. The family were originally Patriots who later became Loyalists. In 1794, James moved his family to Upper Canada West. Between 1797 and 1809, the Stewart family received land grants for 1,900 acres of land from Governor John Graves Simcoe.[viii] Despite my Patriot and Loyalist ancestors having heard the calls for freedom and independence during the Revolutionary War, it is important to note that neither side fully delivered on their promises.
Recently, we have identified the family lines that trace back to the Ramapough (Munsee) Lenape, which include many surnames such as Thompson, King, Blanchard, Wright, Van Salee, Mann, DeFreese, Van Dunk, Dee/Day, Milligan, Peterson, and Green.
Our ancestors never recognized the state borders that were imposed, especially after 1712. They kept one foot in the Ramapough Mountain areas and one foot outside, and actively resisted slavery, dispossession, and genocide. They were also among the founding families of the early Black abolitionist movement in NY, NJ, and CT in the late 1700s and they were also proud members of the NY and CT Colored Troops.[ix] To them, their identity was not confined to paper categories; they were both Black and Native --- two categories that are not mutually exclusive. Our roots have always been radiant.
[i] The Tappan Patent (Orange County, NY) was founded in 1683. In 1798, the southern part of Orange County split off and became Rockland County. In 1840, Bergen County as it exists today was formed.
[ii] I use the term ‘Afro-Dutch” to describe the early Africans who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626 and were acculturated by the Dutch. These early Africans primarily married among themselves, but also married, or had children with, people of Native and European ancestry. Intermarriage between people of African and Native descent has been documented in my family. Other scholars have described intermarriage and adoption between Native and African people for centuries. See: Lipman, Andrew W. 2015. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. New Haven, CT: Yale University; Newall, Margaret Ellen. 2016. Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, and Forbes, Jack D. 1993. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
[iii] Claire Garland, a Revy-Van Salee cousin, describes our Lenape ancestry in her article “Indian Summer at Sand Hill: The Revy and Richarson Families of the Jersey Shore” in New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 9 , No. 1 Winter 2023: 168-224) (https://njs.libraries.rutgers.edu/index.php/njs ).
[v] “Genealogical Exchange,” in New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Volume 118, Issue 4, 1987. #1847 (Piggott).
[vi] Orange County Wills Transcribed; Author: New York. Surrogate's Court (Orange County); Probate Place: Orange, New York, p. 34-35.
[vii] Hodges, Graham Russell and Alan Edward Brown, Eds. 2021. The Book of Negroes: African Americans in Exile after the Anerican Revolution. New York:Fordham University Press, 2021, p.34.
[viii] Upper Canada Land Petitions(1763-1865) Mikan number 205131 micro form c-2806 page 214-215 James and sons listed on land grant James Stewart Taylor Stewart Benjamin Stewart John Stewart Enroch Stewart (http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-119.01-e.php?&q2=29&q3=2610&interval=50&sk=251&tt=1313&sqn=1&&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 )