When you delve back into your ancestry you often uncover surprises, some pleasantly exciting and some a bit disappointing. In some cases, it’s a bit of both. Such is the case of the person behind this latest painting from my current Icons series. This piece is 24″ by 12″ on masonite and is titled Icon: Eleazer.
The person represented here is a fellow named Eleazer Lindsley. He was born in Morristown, New Jersey in 1737, a member of the family that founded much of that area. He did well in the years before the American Revolution, owning a grist mill and several other businesses. He was a man of status that was increased with his participation in the war. He served as a Colonel and acted as an aide-de-camp to both General George Washington and General Lafayette. Both were guests in his home at various time and Lafayette personally gifted and placed a signet ring on Eleazer’s hand in appreciation. It was never to come off and was buried with him when he died in 1794.
After the war, for some reason Eleazer chose to leave the comforts of his home state and set out with his extended family to settle in the newly acquired frontier territory. After the war, the government took much of the land in what is now central and western NY and divided it into parcels that were given to those who served in the war as a form of payment for their services rendered. Under these Land Patents, a private might receive 200 acres, moving up through the ranks to a general who might receive 2000. When Eleazer and his family arrived in this area they collectively held 6000 acres.
They settled just south of what is now Corning, NY, occupying a fertile river valley. Today, much of the area probably still looks relatively unchanged from that time with most of the land still in fields and forests. This area is now the town of Lindley— they dropped the “s” from the name in the 1840’s for some reason. Eleazer became the first state assemblyman from the area. He was also active in a plan to secede from NY and from a new state consisting of the area that is now central and western NY. When he died in 1794, this plan died as well, although it has periodically been thrown out there by upstaters over the years.
There’s a lot more to tell about Eleazer, much to be proud of,especially for someone like me who grew up near the area and never knew of my connection with the founders. But there was also one dark fact that taints the whole story.
You see, when Eleazer arrived in their new home their party consisted of about 40 members, most of them my ancestors. But among the group were also seven slaves. The family story, much of which is contained in family papers and documents held now at the University of Michigan, claim that the slaves were treated as family members, one being called Uncle Pap, and that they were eventually emancipated in the very early 1800’s. A story written in the late 1800’s says that many of the slaves settled and raised families in the area.
Now, part of me wants to believe that part of the story or to write it off as simply being an accepted thing at the time–after all, Washington, Jefferson and so many other Founding Fathers had slaves. But the fact remains that Eleazer owned slaves and it bothers me that he somehow justified that in his mind, especially given that he so heartily participated in a war of independence.
When painting this piece, I found it hard to not make him a bit harsher in his gaze. Though there is no evidence of mistreatment, he holds a pair of shackles in his hands as a symbol of slavery.
When you do genealogy you often find yourself hoping for and attributing high ideals to your ancestors. You want to see them in the very best light and tend to set aside negatives. But as you dig more and more, you find that they are simply the same flawed humans that we encounter every day, possessing good and bad qualities. I often find myself wondering if I would personally like these ancestors. But, like him or not, Eleazer is part of my family tree. But I do like this painting, if only for the narrative behind it. I think the dichotomy of light and dark elements in the story are exactly what I hope for in this series.