McCain's ancestors owned slaves

The senator's family history includes a Civil War era plantation in Mississippi.

Topics: John McCain, R-Ariz.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is learning a lot about his family history in the course of this presidential campaign.

Because of his bestselling family memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” which details the lives and military careers of his father, Adm. John McCain II, and grandfather, Adm. John “Slew” McCain, veterans flock to his campaign appearances and book signings. They trade stories about his heroic forebears and share anecdotes.

The family’s storied military history stretches back to Carroll County, Miss., where McCain’s great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain owned a plantation, and later died during the Civil War as a soldier for the Mississippi cavalry.

But what McCain didn’t know about his family until Tuesday was that William Alexander McCain had owned 52 slaves. The senator seemed surprised after Salon reporters showed him documents gathered from Carroll County Courthouse, the Carrollton Merrill Museum, the Mississippi State Archives and the Greenwood, Miss., Public Library.

“I didn’t know that,” McCain said in measured tones wearing a stoic expression during a midday interview, as he looked at the documents before Tuesday night’s debate. “I knew they had sharecroppers. I did not know that.”

This documentation includes slave schedules from Sept. 8, 1860, which list as the slave owner, “W.A. McCain.” The schedules list the McCain family’s slaves in the customary manner of the day — including their age, gender and “color,” labelling each either “black” or “mulatto.” The slaves ranged in age from 6 months to 60 years.

“I knew we fought in the Civil War,” McCain went on. “But no, I had no idea. I guess thinking about it, I guess when you really think about it logically, it shouldn’t be a surprise. They had a plantation and they fought in the Civil War so I guess that it makes sense.”

“It’s very impactful,” he said of learning the news. “When you think about it, they owned a plantation, why didn’t I think about that before? Obviously, I’m going to have to do a little more research.”

Then he began to piece together information out loud. “So maybe their sharecroppers that were on the plantation were descendants of those slaves,” he said.

Tracing the genealogies of slaves is often easy, because slaves frequently adopted the surnames of their owners. In 1876, for example, a Mary J. McCain married Isham Hurt. The two had a son, blues guitarist “Mississippi” John Hurt, in 1892 on Teoc, the plantation community where the McCains owned 2,000 acres.

“Is that right?” McCain asked, after considering his possible connection to the famous bluesman, who died in 1966. “That’s fascinating,” he said.

McCain said his interest in his family heritage always had been focused on his military background, not his Southern roots. “I just hadn’t thought about it, to tell you the truth, because I really feel that my heritage is the military,” he said.

The South — and its struggle to reconcile its past — has presented the GOP candidates with a briar patch of issues to deal with during this campaign. Both McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have grappled with South Carolina’s fight over whether the Confederate flag should be allowed to fly over the capitol.

In addition, Bush has spoken at a college, Bob Jones University, that maintains a ban on interracial dating.

While McCain denounced Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones and the university’s dating policy, he has hedged on the flag issue. “As to how I view the flag, I understand both sides,” McCain said a few weeks ago. “Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage.

McCain added at that time: “Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who have fought for the Confederacy, none of whom owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably.”

Mark Salter, McCain’s Senate chief of staff and co-author of “Faith of My Fathers,” said Tuesday that no one in McCain’s family had ever told him that his ancestors had owned slaves. Salter said that McCain simply assumed his family would have shared such information.

In “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain brushes over much of his Mississippi heritage, dedicating about four pages to it. According to Salter, the family history was based on a haphazard mess of information contained in a box kept by McCain’s younger brother, Joe.

Furthermore, in his book, the senator writes that the McCains of Teoc “never lamented the South’s fall.”

The writer Elizabeth Spencer, a cousin to John McCain, does mention the family’s slaves in her family memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart,” — a book McCain and his co-author Slater both say they have read, though they say not closely enough to have caught her glancing references to the family’s slaves.

Early in Spencer’s book, she refers casually to the issue in a reference to her family’s history. “All the descendents of slave-holding families I have ever known believe in the benevolence of their forebears as master,” she wrote.

An entire floor in the Carrollton Merrill Museum is devoted to the McCain family’s local legacy. Boxes are crammed with McCain family memories: In one small, clear, plastic box, a photo of John McCain in full Navy attire is signed “With Love to Grandmother and Aunt Catherine, Johnny.” On the back of the photo is written in fading ink: “John S. McCain III, graduation from Naval Academy. Now a P.O.W. in Vietnam.” McCain said he was surprised to learn of the photograph.

Also in the museum is a 1949 letter to Katie Lou McCain, a great aunt to the senator, from family friend Ella Stone, who wrote: “He [William Alexander McCain] bought a plantation on Teoc creek [sic] and named it ‘Waverly.’ They owned slaves and were happy in their plantation life until that terrible holocaust, the War Between the States.”

At the end of the interview, McCain said he was glad to know about his family’s history. “At the next opportunity, I’m going to go” visit the Merrill Museum, he said.

Though McCain may have been ignorant of his Mississippi roots, those who live in Carroll County today remember the McCain family well. Residents recall the senator’s great-grandfather, John McCain Sr., who served two terms as sheriff. They remember Katie Lou McCain and Sen. John McCain’s uncle, Joe, who owned Teoc until his death in 1952.

Simpson Hemphill, a longtime Carroll County resident, lives 4 miles down the road from the old McCain place. “That place was a couple of thousand acres,” says Hemphill, 70, in a lyrical drawl. “They raised cotton and corn.” Hemphill didn’t doubt that the McCains owned slaves, “but back then that was as legal as a loaf of bread.”

McCain — an Arizonan raised all over the country, in true military brat fashion — might be shocked if he were ever to visit Carroll County, birthplace of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. If the proverbial sleepy Southern town ever existed, Carrollton is it. The civil rights movement seemingly hasn’t made it down to Carrollton, where blacks and whites still live, literally, on opposite sides of the railroad tracks. Confederate flags wave on front porches. The Arizona senator has never visited rustic Merrill Museum, built in 1834, which sits on historic Carrollton town square where a Confederate flag flies in front of the county’s grand Civil War memorial.

McCain dismisses the significance of his Southern roots in the campaign, saying it would be “ridiculous” for him to campaign in South Carolina as “a good ol’ boy.” He’s a military man, he says, and that institution is his real home, not any particular geographical location. When accused of being a carpetbagger in his first run for the House in Arizona in 1982, he noted that the longest he’d ever lived in one place was in Hanoi, when he was a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years.

He says he has been touched by South Carolina’s patriotism during this campaign. He says he feels a commonality with the residents of this state because of their love of country and their military service. But not, he says, because of his Southern roots.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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