Plein Air: Mapping Mary Ann Armstrong

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2012-02-05 01:28Z by Steven

Plein Air: Mapping Mary Ann Armstrong A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments
Number 24 (Fall/Winter 2009)

Deborah Fries, Editorial Board Member

The first time I saw her picture, I wanted to know everything about her. 

I wanted to know where she’d lived before she married my great, great grandfather in 1859.  I wanted to know what her parents, Mariah and William G. Armstrong, looked like; whether William G. had been a planter in Tyrrell County, North Carolina, or a yeoman farmer.  I wanted to know which of Mary Ann’s six children looked like her, rather than their eagle-featured father, Edward Parisher.  I wanted to know why she looked so very serious.

All of that wanting began in 2000, when distant relative and genealogical researcher Mark Bateman sent me a scanned photo of my great, great grandparents, along with a generous amount of his own Parisher family research.   And even though I’ve gathered a little more information, even had my mitochondrial DNA tested, most days I’m sure that I’ll never have enough facts to salvage historical certainty out of the shipwreck of fantasy.

Instead, I’ll have a breeches bucket of images: smoke rising from decaying peat in the Great Dismal Swamp; moss hanging from a pecan tree in a sandy yard; dogs sleeping in the shade of a magnolia; the ghosts of torn-down farmhouses and tobacco barns; rows of corn bending under hurricane winds; gold-rimmed English paste ware sitting on a sideboard.  A wide-cheek-boned woman in a lace collar frozen in her ante-bellum portrait, a man with a long goatee beside her.  I’ll be left with mysteries and wish-based assumptions, and an impressionistic synthesis of how my own family illustrates the rich history of the people who have lived on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound for more than 400 years..

Long after I opened the envelope from Mark that contained the photos of Mary Ann Armstrong and Edward Parisher, as well as scanned tintypes of two of their six children, I remained intrigued by the racial ambiguity of my great, great grandmother.  In 2008, I ordered a test kit from the research firm with the largest DNA database, sure that my matrilineal line would escort me back to Mary Ann’s genes and provide definitive conclusions. Was she biracial?  Triracial?  In all census records, she and her parents are listed as White, a mono-racial identity the picture seems to belie.  Mark had heard she was “part Indian.”  The molecular test results, I expected, would be oracular…

…Mary Ann’s appearance and information about her planter paternal line raised new questions.  Recently, I’ve been able to pose some of those questions to Dr. Arwin Smallwood, a University of Memphis history professor whose work in eastern North Carolina maps the entwined lives of Native, African, and European Americans from first contact to the present.

Smallwood, author of Bertie County, An Eastern Carolina History and The Atlas of African-American History and Politics: From the Slave Trade to Modern Times, as well as other scholarly works, grew up about 30 miles northwest of my maternal family’s farmstead.  Triracial himself, he is currently overseeing additional research projects in eastern North Carolina.   If anyone would understand the social permutations that were negotiated over hundreds of years in that region, and reflected in the picture of  my great, great grandmother, it would be Dr. Smallwood…

Read the entire article here.

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