Can African Americans
Make the Connection?
Michael Nolden Henderson
The Story of the First African-American in Georgia inducted into
The National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR)
Almost 35 years ago, when the best-selling book and popular TV mini-series “Roots” engulfed the consciousness of the American public, people from all ethnic backgrounds began researching their ancestry. Never before had the study of genealogy seen such immense interest on such a wide scale. Yet, some families have for generations maintained up-to-date information on their ancestry, due in part to their connections to heredity or lineage societies, many of which are exclusive and open only by invitation or to those whose pedigrees are well documented.
Some of the more familiar of the over 130 lineage organizations in the country include the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), and its counterpart group, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of the Union. Entrance into these exclusive groups is accessed by an individual or family being able to trace -- through documentation -- a direct bloodline connection to an ancestor who either participated in a conflict in the formation or protection of the United States of America, or who was among the first families instrumental in the founding of a colony in the U.S.
By and large, membership in these groups has remained almost exclusively white. Whether this has been by choice, happenstance or ignorance, the reality exists that African Americans and other non-whites do not appear on the membership roles in significant number. Few would argue that gaining membership into these groups is an arduous task. Knowing the names of one’s ancestor through family lore passed down through generations is not enough to satisfy the stringent requirements for membership. Rather, providing documentation -- such as birth, marriage and death certificates, baptismal records, land deeds, infantry or militia lists, court records and other legal evidence of one’s connection to a patriot or first family -- is the yardstick by which eligibility is measured.
While most of these lineage societies do not keep formal records of the ethnicity of their members, it is safe to presume that African Americans are not found in large numbers on the membership roles. However, membership is open to those who can prove their ancestral connections to the founding of America and its struggles for freedom and independence. For many, that requirement is not so simple. Yet, for one African American man, entering the membership roles was less about the desire to belong than the yearning to discover his ancestors.
On June 29, 2010, Michael Nolden Henderson, a retired U.S. Naval Lieutenant Commander, became the first African American in Georgia to be inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). At a ceremony held at the Georgia State Capitol, Henderson took the oath of the SAR and entered quietly into the annals of history. But how did he do it? Many in the genealogy circles will admit that African Americans have an especially difficult time researching their ancestors beyond 1870, the proverbial “brick wall.” Prior to that decade, blacks were not listed on the U.S. Census, so finding the name of an African American in a document would be difficult, at best. Slaves were often not listed by name, and if they were, typically only a first name was shown on inventory records, court documents, church roles or other paperwork. So, how did Henderson manage to trace his roots to theAmerican Revolution?
“I wasn’t looking to be a member of the SAR. I was trying to find my African roots, my Kunta Kinte, so to speak,” says Henderson. For two decades the native of Algiers, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, has journeyed into the past to uncover German, African, Native American and French ancestors, many of whom were found in the very earliest days of the existence of Louisiana as far back as 1726. Henderson employed a number of research tactics including searching through archival records at the New Orleans Notarial Archives, skimming documents on microfiche at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, and browsing through books and research papers at various libraries across the U.S.
After learning the name of his fourth generation great-grandmother, his research intensified. Agnes was a former slave who had purchased her freedom in 1779, at the beginning of Louisiana’s involvement in the American Revolution. “When I found Agnes’ manumission document, I was surprised to learn that slaves in Louisiana could actually purchase their own freedom through a custom called coartacion that was quite unique to Louisiana,” he explains. After having the Spanish language manumission document transcribed, Henderson learned that the self-purchase of Agnes was not an open and shut case, as it were. Rather, it involved a year-long court battle with Agnes’ owner that revealed clues about Agnes’ past and provided vital information as to the direction of her future.
A gentleman named Mathieu Devaux (alias Platilla) had been listed as a third-party in the case and had put up the money to cover Agnes’ self-purchase. Devaux was a native of Marseille, France and served as an artilleryman in the Spanish militia under the command of General Bernardo de Galvez. After several attempts to get Agnes’ owner to accept his monetary offer, Devaux made a plea to General Galvez to intervene in the case. The General, who was also Governor of Louisiana at the time, finalized the purchase and signed Agnes'manumission, freeing her from slavery. “As I studied the history of Louisiana during this time period and how my ancestors fit into it, two things about this case fascinated me,” Henderson says. “First, I was curious about this Devaux character and amazed at the extent to which he went to assist Agnes in gaining her freedom. Then, I was fascinated that the signature of Bernardo de Galvez, a historic figure, actually appeared on my ancestor’s document.” Through further research, Henderson learned that following the court case, Devaux and Agnes maintained a relationship that lasted over 30 years and produced seven children, all of whom were born free prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In the years following her freedom, Agnes adopted Devaux’s first name as her last and was known as Agnes Mathieu, a surname she passed on to her children and several generations down through Henderson’s maternal grandmother. “It wasn’t until I discovered all of this that I realized why we spell that family surname the way we do -- Mathieu instead of Matthew,” Henderson says. “Mathieu is the French spelling, something even my mother was not aware of.” With that knowledge, Henderson sought more information about Devaux, a research journey that took him to Devaux’s birthplace in Marseille, France. “I wanted to know about Mathieu, where he was from, what his life must have been like and why he came to Louisiana.”
While in Marseille, Henderson visited the church where Devaux was baptized in 1737. He has since located marriage documents of Devaux’s parents and grandparents, taking his research all the way back to 1688. “People are often amazed that I, an African American, have been able to trace my ancestry back so far. They want to know how I did it,” he says. “I explain that my research has been possible because I’ve embraced all aspects of my ancestry. I don’t take it personally that my ancestors were enslaved; I’m not ashamed of it. Nor am I ashamed of the relationships they had with white Europeans. It happened. I can’t erase the past. I can only accept it as a part of who I am and embrace it as part of my personal narrative in America’s history.”
So, how was Henderson able to land on the roles of the SAR? He made the connection through Mathieu Devaux’s military service under General Bernardo de Galvez. Through birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as Devaux’s last will and testament, Henderson was able to document his lineal connection to Mathieu Devaux, his fourth generation great-grandfather, who served as a militiaman under Galvez, a recognized Revolutionary War Patriot. Henderson meticulously compiled the documents and submitted them to the Button Gwinnett Chapter of the SAR and, after nearly four months of scrutiny, Henderson’s research was approved and he was accepted into the organization; a history-making event.
For Henderson, membership in the SAR has significance beyond a personal nature. “This is bigger than me. This is an opportunity for African Americans, Louisiana Creoles of color and others to see themselves connected to American history beyond slavery,” he says. “Our people have a rich story, one that can be documented in many instances. We have an obligation to our ancestors, to our descendants and to the broader American audience to tell these stories.”
Anita R Paul
Contributing Writer for Our Heritage Magazine