Grant Me Liberty or Death- Francis Henry Jacobs
Updated: Jul 7, 2019
52 Ancestor Prompt: Independent
From a young age, I heard stories that my 2nd great-grandfather was African. I dismissed them as stories told to instill pride in a little girl of her unwavering hair, wide nose and brown skin. I remember being in elementary school and having several topics to choose from for an assignment. One of those was to research your family history. I asked my grandfather about his family. He took out a piece of paper and wrote down the names of each person and their parents starting with me. He made it back to the names of his grandparents and that was as far as he knew. His grandfather's name was Henry Francis Jacobs. My grandfather was named after him.
I chose a different topic for my school project. My information was limited. Even though most of my classmates were first generation Americans, they were able to trace back much further to European popes and kings. All I had were some names from a small group of islands 2 hours from where I lived.
The piece of paper stayed with me as I later pursued researching my family history. I spent hours looking at census and baptismal records. I only found my 2nd great grandfather's name twice. It was listed on my great grandmother's baptism. He was 49 when she was born. His place of birth was St. Croix around 1851.
The US Virgin Islands have been under 7 flags of the Spanish, Dutch, British, Knights of Malta, French, Danish and United States. The U.S. has been in possession of the territory since 1917. Records of its inhabitants prior to this date are with Denmark and only a portion have been made available online in the last few years ago. Through my searches and struggle to understanding Danish record keeping, I did not find much information on Henry Francis..
But when someone wants you to know their story, you will eventually hear it.
Earlier this week, I spoke to my grandfather's niece. Her mother was the 3rd born of my grandfather's siblings. She knew of his story and was able to pass it down to her own children.
There was a ship of Africans most likely en route from Ghana or the Congo areas of Africa according to my ancestry DNA results. This ship could have been en route to any possible number of destinations across the Caribbean, South America or the United States. My 2nd great grandfather was on one of those ships. Faced with an unknown future and horrific conditions, he made a choice of risk . He jumped overboard and swam to the nearest piece of land. That piece of land was the island of St. Croix.
There are stories and monuments erected of Africans who attempted the same choice with different fates. Their bodies are a substrate of the ocean as a layer of the Middle Passage.
Maroonberg or Maroon Hill located in the hills of the east end of St. Croix was created by enslaved runaways in the 17th century. It was a haven and community establishment for survival outside of Danish rule. The rocky hills provided little accessibility to landowners searching for Africans that had escaped their plantations. While some Africans risked return trips to plantations relying on the solidarity of those still enslaved to bring supplies back to Maroon Hill, a great number of inhabitants used it as a point of departure to flee to the neighboring Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra. There is a high likelihood that my 2nd great-grandfather Henry became part of this community upon his arrival to St. Croix.
Henry Francis Jacobs was not my ancestor's birth name. I may never know the name he was born with as he reinvented himself to start a new life. He chose the surname Jacobs and moved to the island of St. Thomas. Perhaps a nod to the Biblical story of Jacob who changed his name after escaping a dangerous life of his own.
It is in St. Thomas that Henry Francis met and married Anna Schou who was affectionately called Baby Schou. In 1897, at the age of 46, they welcomed their daughter and my great grandmother Hermina Naomi Jacobs.
The 1920's census lists him as a single farmer renting land. I have not seen a record of him past the 1930's census where he appeared to be in his late 70's. I believe he was at peace with the life he had lived sometime after that date..
Today I know, because of him, I am 4 generations from Africa.
Because of him, I am 4 generations from a man who chose the promise of freedom or death.
Thank you for your independent streak Francis Henry Jacobs.
Thank you for letting me find you.