Week 23: Mistake

We all understand the concept of learning from our mistakes.  I have found this to be particularly useful as I get more deeply involved in genealogical research.

Like everyone else, I made a lot of mistakes when I started doing genealogy research:

  • I accepted hints without verifying them.  It was great fun.  It left me with a lot of work to do when I realized my errors. 
    • What I learned from this mistake:  it was okay.  I see a lot of advice from experienced genealogists to newbies along the lines of “always verify your sources before you do anything else” and I think that if I had done this, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.  And if it wasn’t fun, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.  The wild ride of tracing my ancestors back to the Mayflower or Jamestown or William the Conqueror or Charlemagne was exhilarating.  And so what if I had to undo it?  I’m retired.  I have time.  The feeling of that thrill stuck with me and motivated me through the dull times.
  • I didn’t maintain a research log.  That was boring.  It was a lot more fun to click my way down a rabbit hole, not knowing how I got there and thus not knowing how to get back.
    • What I learned from this mistake: it was also okay.  Once again, I was having fun while I was learning better ways of doing things.  I figured out how to dig my way out of rabbit holes because I was in a rabbit hole.  That’s motivating.  I’m still not very good at keeping research logs, but I forgive myself for that.  I’m not going to get fired for doing it wrong – I’m retired.
  • I didn’t have very clear research goals at first.  I didn’t know that I needed a research goal.  I was just clicking away, building my tree, not sure where I was going.
    • What I learned from this mistake:  it was also okay. Are you beginning to see a theme here?  Once I had a shaky “wiring diagram” in place – births, marriages, and deaths for a significant number of generations, I began to think about what I wanted to do with this information.  I began to create what teachers call SMART objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.  I needed some raw data before I could begin to figure out meaningful goals.
  • I hesitated to put my research and writing “out there” for all to see when I knew there were errors in it.  But now my tree is public and I also write a blog that is publicly available. That means people can see my mistakes.  I try to identify any uncertainty I have about my information so that people don’t just copy it, errors and all.  I risked negative and even hostile responses.
    • What I learned from this mistake:  it was also okay.  I realized that almost no one was paying me anywhere near enough attention to point out when I was wrong.  When someone corrected me, it was almost always done kindly.  I ignored the few jerks who apparently had decided that their main function in life was to take me down a peg or two.  I have time – like I said, I’m retired – but I don’t choose to spend my time engaging with idiots.
  • I frequently failed at using technology that was new to me.  I have misused – sometimes spectacularly – Chrome extensions, excel spreadsheets, photo editing software, Microsoft Word hacks, Internet search techniques, genealogy websites, and self-publishing sites.  You name it, I have screwed it up in some fashion.
    • What I learned from these mistakes:  you know the answer by now – it was okay.  I didn’t break the Internet.  If I lost information, I found new ways of retrieving it.  I learned the value of saving and backing up my research and writing.  Sometimes the lessons were costly – not often in money but frequently in time.  See above – I’m retired, I have time.

I could go on but I won’t.  The bottom line is that the mistakes I make teach me a lot.  I learned the value of verifying hints because I got a little tired of rabbit holes.  I learned the value of a research log (well, kinda learned it) when I found myself revisiting sites I had already researched.  I learned the value of research goals when I found myself wandering aimlessly around without goals.  I learned the value of making my research and writing public when I began to receive kudos along with gentle corrections.  I learned the value of using new technology when I realized that using it made my research and writing better and easier.

All in all, I recommend mistakes.  Fear of them is paralyzing.   Many philosophers have been credited with a sentiment along the lines of “the best is the enemy of good enough.”  We’re never very good at something when we do it for the first time.  If we decide against doing something because we fear failure, we won’t do anything. 

Go for it. 

Week 22: Conflict

Several of my ancestors who took part in King Philip’s War were at the Great Swamp Fight in December of 1675 Source: Wikipedia

This topic made me think initially of major wars that my ancestors have fought in – the American Revolution, The Civil War, World War I, World War II – but I decided instead to write about my ancestors’ involvement in a lesser-known war, King Philip’s War.  This war, fought in 1675-1676, was between the English settlers in Massachusetts and the Native Americans in the region – primarily, the Wampanoag tribe.  This war is often described as the bloodiest war per capita in US history.  Hundreds of settlers were killed and thousands of Indians were killed, wounded or captured and sold into slavery or indentured servitude. The war decimated the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and many smaller tribes and mostly ended Indian resistance in southern New England, paving the way for additional English settlements.

For those of you not in the United States – or for Americans who haven’t researched early Massachusetts history recently – let me give you a little background on this war.  I have taken this information from the online Encyclopedia of Boston (https://bostonresearchcenter.org/projects_files/eob/single-entry-executions.html ), a website that is full of information about the history of Boston and the surrounding area.  Here’s the story told on this website: 

“Tensions between colonists and Wampanoags had mounted in the early 1670s, as Indians became frustrated with colonists’ attempts to convert tribal members to Christianity. Native Americans also objected to colonists’ interference with Native agricultural practices and outright seizure of land Native Americans considered theirs. These tensions erupted into violence when white colonists accused Wampanoags of murdering John Sassamon, a praying Indian (the colonists’ term for Indians who converted to Christianity). Colonists’ subsequent retribution for this murder is generally acknowledged as the start of the War.

“Beginning in June 1675, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks, Nipmucs, and Wampanoags fought the English, Pequots, Mohegans, and other native tribes. Conflict was close, cruel, and bloody. The war began to subside in August 1676, when King Philip was shot dead in Bristol, Rhode Island by an Indian allied with the British. After his death, white colonists mutilated his body, distributing and publicly displaying its parts in gruesome celebration. Philip’s head was displayed on a tall pole in the town of Plymouth for decades after his death in an effort to intimidate other Indians, and to warn them of what might happen to those who resisted colonists. Isolated skirmishes continued after Philip’s death. Dozens of Philip’s allies were subsequently executed on Boston Common.

“Those executed in 1676 included Matoonas, a sachem of the Nipmuc people who played a decisive role in King Philip’s War. Though a Christian convert, Matoonas turned against the English colonists after his son was beheaded in 1671 on questionable charges. Matoonas was tied to a tree, shot, and beheaded. Colonists placed his head on a pike, just as they had done with his executed son’s head five years earlier. At least fifty other native people were shot or hanged on the Common that year. Some were praying Indians, including Old Jethro, whose son handed him to the English, and Captain Tom, a captive of Philip’s troops. Though Captain Tom’s execution was appealed on the grounds that he was not an aggressor in the war, he was executed nonetheless.

“Many of those executed had been promised clemency by the English. After surrendering in Rhode Island in 1676, Potuck, a Narragansett sachem, had been promised safe passage by the English colonists. Instead, he was brought to Boston Common and shot. Indian John Monoco and two Nipmuc sachems, Muttawump and Sagamore Sam, were also assured pardons, transported to Boston, then executed without trial. Those not executed were sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

“White colonists carried out these public executions as retribution, as well as a warning to Indians interfering with what colonists believed was their God-given destiny to take Indian land and convert Indian souls. These executions served as one of the opening salvos in a centuries-long violent assault on Indians by white colonists and, later on, Americans.”

According to the website “Walk Boston History” (https://www.walkbostonhistory.com/king-philip.html), the following statistics summarize the final outcome of this war:

  • 54 major engagements over 13 months
  • 600 English died
  • 1200 homes burned
  • 12 of 90 settlements destroyed
  • 2,000 Indians killed
  • 3,000 Indians died in captivity of illness or starvation
  • 4,000 Indians sold into slavery
  • 8,000 head of cattle killed
  • 50 years for the region to recover economically
This map shows the locations of major action in this war.  To orient people who may not know this geography, Plymouth,  Boston, and all of the sites to the west are in the modern state of Massachusetts.  Providence and the sites south and immediately west of it are in the modern state of Rhode Island.  Norwich and everything to the west are in the modern state of Connecticut.

My ancestors were living all over New England by the time of this conflict.  Most of them had arrived during the Puritan Great Migration, between 1630 and 1640.  From their earliest settlements along the coast, they have moved west and north along the river systems to settle the interior frontier regions.

Lt. John Marchant1625-1693Barnstable, MAEnsign of Yarmouth Company, June 8, 1664. Lieutenant of the Military Company in Yarmouth, August 11, 1670
Richard Swan1607-1668Rowley, MAGreat Swamp Fight
Nathaniel Dickinson1601-1676Hadley, MANathaniel was an original member of the Hampshire Troop, organized in March 1663/4 under Capt. John Pynchon. During King Philip’s War, 1675-77, Nathaniel lost three sons – John, Joseph, and Azariah. Another son, Obadiah, was captured by the Indians and taken into Canada but escaped and returned in 1679
Lt. Thomas Newhall1653-1728Lynn, MAWith Major Willard in 1676  The Major led the relief at the Battle of Brookfield (part of King Philips War). He remained there and at Hadley for a few weeks
John Babcock1644-1684Westerly, RICaptain of militia John Volunteered with the Connecticut Militia, which was organized for protection against the Indians; that in King Philip’s War he was with the Connecticut Militia in the “Great Swamp Fight”, Dec. 19, 1675, and that his son Elihu was born at that time.
John Crandall1617-1676Westerly, RIHe moved to Newport, RI, because of King Philip’s War
I can document six ancestors who participated in this war.

My ancestors Richard Swan,  Nathaniel Dickinson, John Babcock, and John Crandall were involved in the Great Swamp Fight (marked by the red star), one of the major engagements of this war. Source: https://familytiesandconnections.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-great-swamp-fight.html

Here’s a little bit of information about each of my ancestors who fought in this war or whose families were directly impacted by it.

Lt. John Marchant IV

My paternal 8th great-grandfather John Marchant IV (1625-1693) was born in Sussex, England, and came with his parents to Yarmouth in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, in 1638.  He married a woman named Sarah in Yarmouth in 1646, and they had 10 children before moving to the island of Martha’s Vineyard late in life.  I am descended from two of the children of John and Sarah – Prince Pease, the great-grandson of their daughter Sarah, married Martha Marchant, the granddaughter of their son Abishai, on Martha’s Vineyard in 1750.

Richard Swan

My paternal 9th great-grandfather Richard Swan (1607-1678) was born in East Riding, Yorkshire, and came to Massachusetts with his wife and children in 1638, possibly with the party of Ezekiel Rogers.  He was one of the founders of Rowley, Massachusetts, and was a prominent citizen there.  He owned several lots of land in the town, often served on juries in Essex County, and was chosen overseer of highways, gates, and fences there in 1648.  He was chosen selectman for Rowley in 1652, 1662, and1664.  He was constable in 1665 and deputy to the General Court in 1666 and 1667.  He appeared as a defendant in Ipswich Court in 1650 for “breach of Peace” for striking Ezekiell Northern in the face with a staff and was fined three shillings.  I am descended from his son Robert.

Nathaniel Dickinson

My paternal 11th great-grandfather Nathaniel Dickinson (1601-1676) was born in Ely in Cambridgeshire, England.  After marrying in 1629, he and his family set sail for Massachusetts as part of the Winthrop Fleet.  He settled in Watertown for a few years, and then moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut, by 1635.  He served in many official positions in Wethersfield, including on the Board of Selectman, Representative to the General Assembly, and deacon of the church.  He helped survey and lay out the land allotments in the town, and owned several lots himself.  After a religious dispute in Wethersfield, he moved with other dissenters to Hadley, Massachusetts, about 50 miles up the Connecticut River.  Although Nathaniel was too advanced in years to serve in the military during King Philip’s war himself, three of his sons – John, Joseph, and Azariah – were killed in this war.  The house of a fourth son, Obadiah, was burned by the Native Americans during this conflict, his wife was either killed or wounded, and Obadiah and one of his children were taken prisoner and removed to Canada.  I am descended from Nathaniel’s son Nathaniel, who also participated in this war.

Lt. Thomas Newhall

My 9th great-grandfather Thomas Newhall (1653-1728) was born in Lynn, Massachusetts to parents who had been in Massachusetts since 1630.  His father, also named Thomas, is often identified as “the first white child born in Lynn,” although that claim is now held in some doubt.  Thomas moved to the town of Malden after marrying Rebecca Greene there in 1674.  Along with many other men of the town, he served in the military during King Philip’s War in 1676, serving with Major Willard.  He is described as attaining the rank of Lieutenant.

Malden Town records also document him as an important land-holder, holding various public positions in the town.  Records for the town prior to King Philip’s War were destroyed, but the earliest remaining records talk about naming townsmen to serve as selectmen, constables, and (to quote one of the town records), “last, though not least, perhaps, in the body-politic, those whose office it was ‘to see to swine order,’ – the hog-constables.”  Thomas was a hog-constable.  I descend from Thomas through his first son, also named Thomas.

John Babcock

My 8th great-grandfather John Babcock (1644-1684) was born in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.  His father, James, fled with his family from Essex County, England, to Leyden, Holland, in 1620, and then came to Massachusetts on the Ann in 1623.  By 1638, the family had settled in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where John was born in 1644.  John married Mary Lawton in Westerly, Rhode Island (a town founded by John’s father James), in 1662.   

Tradition tells a romantic story about John and Mary.  According to the legend, John and Mary eloped from Newport and settled in what would become Westerly, where they remained undiscovered by their parents for several months.  This legend identifies them as the first white settlers of Westerly.  There is, unfortunately, no evidence proving this tale.  But it’s a good story anyway.

This marker, in Westerly Cemetery 7, displays the legend of John and Mary. Source:  Wikitree.com entry for John Babcock.

What can be proven is that 16-year-old John was part of the company of men who settled Westerly in 1660.  In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out and many settlers in Westerly fled to eastern Rhode Island for safety, John and his family stayed in the settlement.  By this time, John and Mary had six children.  John had volunteered to serve with the Connecticut militia (ownership of Westerly was disputed between Connecticut and Rhode Island until 1728), and participated in the “Great Swamp fight” on December 19, 1675 – the date of the birth of his seventh child, Elihu.  After King Philip’s War was over, John filled a number of public positions in Westerly, including “conservator of the peace” (sort of an early police force) and Deputy from Westerly to the colonial legislature in 1682 and 1684. 

John Crandall

My 9th great-grandfather John Crandall (1617-1676) was born in England and probably came to Massachusetts in 1634, settling in Salem and serving as a minister there.  However, his support of the Baptists led to his dismissal from that church in 1637 and his move to Newport.  He relocated to Westerly, in Washington County, somewhere around 1660, and is identified as a founder of that town.

Here’s a little bit about John:

A Baptist and later a Seventh Day Baptist, John and several companions were arrested at Lynn (in Essex County near Boston) on July 21,1651 and were imprisoned at Boston.  All three men were fined and publicly whipped for their “attachment to the Baptist cause.” In 1660, John was one of a group of five investors who purchased a land grant known as Misquamicuck (later Westerly, RI).  After several years of boundary and jurisdiction disputes, the town of Westerly was incorporated; John Crandall’s is the first name on the list of freeholders of the town in 1669.  He became the first elder and preacher in Westerly.

On 21 May 1669, the Governor and Council of Rhode Island appointed six men as Conservators of the Peace for the Colony. The men were assigned to geographic areas in pairs, the first of the pair to also act as coroner for their area. John Crandall and Tobias Saunders were appointed as justices at Misquamicut, with John likely acting as coroner.   John is also listed as a deputy representative of Westerly in the General Assembly in both 1670 and 1671.

John married a woman named Mary in 1649, although I’m not sure of Mary’s last name.  John died in Newport in 1676; this is a little hard to understand, as he was clearly living in Westerly at the time.  Some sources suggest that he had temporarily relocated to Newport to escape the violence of King Philip’s War, while others suggest that he was wounded in the 1675 Great Swamp Fight in West Kingston, Rhode Island (about 20 miles from Westerly).   He is buried in a family cemetery located near the Crandall homestead in Westerly.

In Conclusion

I have written about all of these folks before, in other contexts.  But it’s always enjoyable to catch up with old friends.  Until I grouped these individuals for this essay, I didn’t realize that so many of them had participated in the Great Swamp Fight.  Who knew?

Week 21: Yearbook

Unlike many previous weeks, I immediately knew what to write about when I saw this week’s prompt. 

After graduating from Tucson High School in 1939, my mother Violet H. Workman attended the University of Arizona for one year before she married my father, Lloyd C. Arnold, on December 28, 1940.  I have her 1940 college yearbook, which documents her year at the university.  I didn’t think to look at any other year, because I knew – or thought I knew – that she only attended the school for one year.

So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when I got a hint on Ancestry.com about her in the 1942 yearbook.  Had she gone to school a second or even third year and never talked about it?

The picture above tells the story.  I knew she had worked for the Dean of Women at the University of Arizona during the two years after she married, but it never occurred to me that her picture would be in the yearbook.  Not only was she in the yearbook, but she was also identified by name in a blurb about the university’s administration.  So-called “candid” photos like this one frequently identify the high-profile person – in this case, the Dean of Women – and don’t identify anyone else in the picture.  It probably didn’t hurt that my mother was very pretty.

This simple picture is the only documentation I have of my parents’ early married life. Within a year of this photo being taken, my parents had moved across the county (to Arlington, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC). My father, who was draft-exempt because of pleurisy, had been working for the Veterans Administration in Tucson, but got a better job in Arlington. So they moved. In 1944, my father’s draft exemption expired and he was almost immediately called into military service. When he got out of the Navy in 1946, he had a job waiting for him, as the Navy had promised. But it was in Arlington, the place where he had lived when he was drafted. My parents, who intended to live in Virginia for just a few years, ended up spending the rest of their lives there. It’s where my siblings and I were born and where I have lived my whole life.

The lesson for me is to broaden the perimeter of my searches a little.  Look in the years before or after my focus year.  Look outside of the towns or cities where I think my ancestors lived.  Be open to surprises.

Week 20: Textile

I had to think a bit before writing this week’s essay.  I don’t have any immediate ancestors who were involved in sewing, and I don’t have any handed-down items of clothing that connect me to a specific ancestor.  Going back further in my history, I have slave-owning ancestors in Virginia who might have grown cotton, but, given the time period in which they lived, they more likely grew tobacco.

Then I went even further back, to early New England ancestors who were weavers or tailors.  I can talk about them a little.

Thomas Newhall (1653-1728: 

Thomas was born in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1653.  His parents were Thomas Newhall (1630-1687) and Elizabeth Potter (1634-1687).  The immigrant ancestor in this line, also named Thomas Newhall (1594-1674), was born in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, and came to Massachusetts in 1630.  Thomas 1630 is often identified as “the first white child born in Lynn,” although this is questionable.  He is often referred to as “Ensign Thomas Newhall,” a title he earned for his role in the 1650s.

Thomas 1653 moved to Middlesex County after he married Rebecca Greene in 1674.  He is often referred to as “Lieutenant Thomas Newhall,” a rank he achieved during King Philip’s War.  Malden Town records also document him as an important land-holder, holding various public positions in the town. Records for the town prior to King Philip’s War were destroyed, but the earliest remaining records document townsmen named to serve as selectmen, constables, and (to quote one of the town records), “last, though not least, perhaps, in the body-politic, those whose office it was ‘to see to swine order,’ – the hog-constables.” Thomas was the hog-constable.

Thomas 1653 is identified in The Newhall Family of Lynn  (Henry F. Waters, 1882) as “husbandman & weaver.” 

Grave Marker for Lieutenant Thomas Newhall, Bell Rock Cemetery, Malden, Massachusetts. 
The inscription reads
“Here Lyes Buried Ye Body of Lieut. Thomas Newhall Who Decd. July 13 Anno Dom. 1728 In Ye 75th Year of His Age”
The Newhall House, in Lynn, Massachusetts.  This is where Thomas was born in 1653.

William Ripley (1588-1656):

My paternal 9th great-grandfather William Ripley came to Hingham, Massachusetts, from Hingham, Norfolk, UK, with his wife and four children on the Diligent  in 1638.  Among these children was my 8th great-grandfather Abraham Ripley (1624-1683), who was their fourth child.  William, who was a weaver,  was admitted as a freeman in 1642 and was granted a four-acre town lot in the 1638 division of lands.

Edward Wheeler 1669-1733

My paternal 8th great-grandfather Edward Wheeler was the fourth of 13 children born to John and Sarah Larkin Wheeler in Concord, Massachusetts.  Edward’s grandfather, George Wheeler, came to Massachusetts in 1638 and, along with his brothers, occupied a prominent position in the town.  He and his brother Timothy co-owned an inn in the town in the location where the Colonial Inn now sits. 

Edward’s father, John, served as a soldier for Massachusetts in King Philip’s War in 1675-76, and inherited a good deal of land when his father, George, died in 1687.  Edward’s mother, Sarah Larkin, was the daughter of Edward Larkin, who was a turner (someone who worked with wood) and a wheelwright in Charlestown, Massachusetts.  He was also a farmer.  He had come to Massachusetts in the late 1630s, and in 1657 was named to be a member of the local artillery unit.

Edward and Sarah had 13 children, including my 7th great-grandfather Nathan Wheeler, who was their second child.  Edward was commonly known as “Deacon” Edward Wheeler, and he was a weaver by trade. I can’t find why he is called “Deacon.”

This is where Edward is buried:

The South Burying Place, Concord, Massachusetts

Robert Carr 1614-1681

My paternal 9th great-grandfather Robert Carr (1614-1681) was born in London in 1614.  He and his brother William came to Massachusetts in 1635 after the death of their parents; they came to live with their uncle William Carr, who had come to Plymouth on the Fortune in 1621 and soon settled in Bristol, RI.  He was admitted as an inhabitant in Portsmouth in 1639 and as a freeman in Newport in 1641.  Several records identify him as a tailor. 

Samuel Eddy 1608-1687

My 9th great-grandfather Samuel Eddy (1608-1687) was born in Cranbrook, Kent, England, in 1608.  Samuel was the ninth of 11 children born to John and Mary Fosten Eddy in Cranbrook, Kent, England.  John was the vicar of St. Dunstan’s Church in that town.

Samuel’s mother Mary died in 1611 – probably due to complications from childbirth, as her newborn son Nathaniel died in the same year.  John remarried in 1614, to Sarah Taylor, with whom he had one more child before he died in 1616.  Samuel was only eight years old at the time of his father’s death; John’s will directed that his 23-year-old son Phineas be placed in charge of Samuel until Samuel turned 22, at which point Samuel would receive his inheritance from his father.  Samuel also served an apprenticeship as a tailor while he was under his brother’s care and tutelage.

It appears that Samuel used his inheritance to purchase his passage to Massachusetts, as he arrived (along with his oldest brother John) in Plymouth on the Handmaid in 1630.  He may have been married when he came to Plymouth – his wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Thomas and Marie Savory, who followed their daughter to Massachusetts in 1633. 

Whatever part of his inheritance remained he used to buy a house and some land in Plymouth, and he was soon established as a tailor in the settlement.  He became a freeman in 1632 and was identified as a taxpayer by 1633. 

Despite this apparent prosperity, Samuel and Elizabeth found life in Plymouth difficult.  His training as a tailor was not as lucrative in Plymouth as it had been in England, and he had to turn to farming to support his small family.  He was not a very good farmer.  By 1638, Samuel and Elizabeth were identified among the “poore of the town.”  Samuel and Elizabeth had five children by 1644, and their weak financial situation led them to place three of their sons – John, Zachariah, and Caleb – as apprentices to John Browne of nearby Rehoboth, Massachusetts, as each boy reached the age of seven.  I am descended from their oldest son, John.

This plaque is in the Eddy Burial Ground in Swansea, Massachusetts.

Robert Moon 1621-1698

Robert arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637; he was 16 at the time, and I assume he came with his parents, but I haven’t been able to prove that.  He married Dorothy Osbourne (1624-1698) in Boston in 1644.  I haven’t been able to find out when Dorothy’s family came to Massachusetts.  Robert worked as a tailor in Boston before he relocated to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1651.

Thomas Baker: 1638-1710

Thomas Baker (1638-1710), appears on the list of freemen of Newport, RI, in 1655.  His father, William Baker (1616-1669), had come to Rhode Island by 1638, when he appears on the list of freemen and also receives a land grant.  Also in 1655, Thomas Baker was ordained, and in 1656, he and others separated from the First Baptist Church and organized a new society, the Second Baptist Church.  He then moved with his family to Kingstown, Rhode Island, where he organized the Baptist Church.  He remained the presiding Elder of this church until his death in 1710.  Some records suggest that he was a tailor before he was ordained a minister, because he identifies himself as a tailor in his land transactions in Newport.

Thomas Brownell 1608-1664

My 8th great-grandfather Thomas Brownell (1608-1665) was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1608.  Thomas and his brother George left Yorkshire at some point and went to London, where they probably worked as drapers (dealers in cloth or clothing and dry goods) for their uncle, Thomas Wilson The Elder.  Thomas married Anne Bourne in London in 1638, and they soon left for New England.  They lived first in Braintree, Massachusetts, but relocated to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, by 1640.

There is no indication that Thomas worked as a tailor or clothier in Massachusetts.  He was identified as a “planter” or farmer and served in several official positions in Portsmouth, including “water bailey;” this position gave him jurisdiction over fisheries and other maritime matters. He was also elected constable several times, and he served as Commissioner to the General Court. He was killed in an accident while on his way from his farm at the northwest end of Rhode Island to Portsmouth.  He was riding home with Daniel Lawton, the 21-year-old son of a friend, when the ride soon became a race. Thomas was thrown from his horse and died.

Thomas Hartshorn 1614-1683

My 10th great-grandfather Thomas Hartshorn (1614-1683) was He was born in Berkshire, England, but I can’t determine for sure who his parents were.  He arrived in Massachusetts about 1636-38 and settled in Lynn by 1638.  A tailor, Thomas was living in Reading in 1639, five years before its incorporation in 1644.   He appears in a number of records of the town of Reading; in 1662, he was one of 20 members of the church who paid a dog-whipper.  I had to find out what a dog-whipper was.  Well, it was the person named to control the dogs that sometimes accompanied their owners to church, and the definition was broadened to include the general responsibility of controlling stray dogs in the town.  An early animal control warden.

Moving right along.

Thomas married Susanna Buck in 1640 and they had six children, including my 9th great-grandfather, also named Thomas, who was their second child.  Thomas’s birth name illustrates a common practice of this time; Thomas (the father) and Susanna had a son they named Thomas one year earlier; this child did not survive and my grandfather was actually the second child (although the first child to survive) of Thomas and Susanna.

George Abbott: 1631-1689

My 9th great-grandfather George Abbott (1631-1689) was born in Chappel, Essex County, England.  He came to Massachusetts with his parents in 1637 and settled with them in Rowley.

About 1655, he moved to North Andover. He married Sarah Farnum in Andover, Mass. on April 26, 1658.  He was a tailor and farmer who acquired land and wealth (one of the five wealthiest men of Andover on the tax records), and he served in the militia. There were two George Abbotts in Andover at that time. My George was varyingly called George Abbott, Jr., George Abbott the tailor, and George Abbott of Rowley. The other George Abbott was called Sr. but was not our George’s father since his father lived and died in Rowley. 

On May 19, 1669, George was made a freeman of Andover and was chosen constable in 1689. According to one report, he beat the drum to signal time for labor to start and was paid 30 shillings per year to ring the bell at the North meeting house in Andover and sweep the floor, as was his son, John, in later years. George was appointed to collect the money (six pence) from anyone who brought a dog to the meetinghouse on the Sabbath.  This is my second “dog-whipper” of this post.

Walter Nichols: 1584-1639 My 11th great-grandfather Walter Nichols (1584-1639) was born in Great Coggeshall, Essex County, England, in 1584.  He married Elizabeth Catlin in 1607, and they had seven children before Elizabeth’s death in 1627. Walter came to Massachusetts with several of his children in 1635 and was admitted as a freeman in Cambridge by 1636.  He is identified as a clothier.  He returned to Great Coggeshall in 1638 and died there in 1639. I don’t know why he returned to England.

Week 19: Food & Drink

When you study genealogy,  you almost immediately become aware of a vast array of “lineage societies” – the groups that form so people can trace their ancestry to significant historical events or people.  Here are a few of the most well-know lineage societies:

  • Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)
  • Sons of the American Revolution (SAR)
  • Mayflower Society
  • Jamestowne Association
  • Holland Society of New York
  • United Daughters of the Confederacy
  • Sons and Daughters of the Oregon Pioneers

There are other not-so-well-known societies:

  • Associated Daughters of Early American Witches
    • I qualify for this one through my paternal 9th great-grandmother Margaret Stephenson Scott, who was hanged as a witch at Salem on September 22, 1692
  • Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain
    • Because, you know, why not?
  • National Society of Saints and Sinners
    • For this society, a potential member must prove descent from a saint. I think this would be hard to do.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t worked toward joining any of these societies.  I’m interested in doing other things with my genealogy research.  However, I’m thinking about joining one of these organizations – Flagon and Trencher, a society composed of men and women who can trace their ancestry to one or more licensed operators of an ordinary tavern, inn, public house, or hostel, prior to July 4, 1776, in the area that became the original thirteen states of the United States.

From its website, it appears that this society exists primarily to hold yearly parties in various colonial taverns.  This is a society I can identify with.

I could qualify for this society under several of my ancestors:

I have downloaded the application form and I’m in the process of gathering the information necessary to qualify for this lineage society through my 10th great-grandfather John Parmenter (1588-1671), who was a church deacon and also the proprietor of the first tavern in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  (I think that’s an interesting career combination.)He received the license to run this tavern in 1643.  In 1655, the Parmenter Tavern served as the meeting place for the Massachusetts Colonial Court and Ecclesiastic Council, a group that existed to settle disputes in the community.  Town records show that John was reimbursed 17 pounds, five shillings, and 12 pence for entertainment costs associated with this meeting.

Week 18: Social

My 2nd great-grandmother, Mary Ann Botts Ellefritz

I don’t have much information about the social lives of my ancestors.  However, a few years ago I worked on a project I called “1900,” focused on where my great-grandparents were in 1900.  Here’s the opening paragraph of the book I wrote as the culmination of this project.

The twentieth century began on a Tuesday.  On that day, all of my great-grandparents but one were living in Illinois, Oklahoma, or Texas. 

Mr. and Mrs. Warner Lismond Arnold and their eight children (including their youngest son, my grandfather John Cecil Arnold) lived in Montebello Township, Hancock County, Illinois. 

Mr. and Mrs. Howard P. Ellefritz and their two children (including their oldest daughter, my grandmother Orpha Lydia Ellefritz) (they would go on to have eight more children) lived just a few miles away, in Pilot Grove Township, Hancock County, Illinois.

Mrs. Franklin Anthis (Mattie) lived with her ten children (including her two-year-old daughter, my grandmother Susan Vernon Anthis) in Justice Precinct 7, Lee County, Texas; her husband Frank, who had been dead for just a little over a year, lay in Forest Grove Cemetery in Milam County, Texas, a few miles from their home.  Mattie would join him 32 years later. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Calvin Workman, Sr., and their 11 children (including their youngest son, my grandfather Thomas Calvin Workman, Jr.), lived on the homestead in Bear Creek Township, Logan County, Oklahoma, that Tom had claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run a decade earlier.

As I amassed information on my spreadsheet for this project, I realized that I would have to come up with some creative way of telling the stories of these ancestors.  I didn’t want to simply present a chronology; that would be boring to write and certainly too boring for anyone to read.  So I decided to focus my story on one ancestor in each location, and to place them in context for key events in their lives.

Here’s how that worked for one of the paragraphs in my “origins” paragraph, above.  This is the paragraph I focused on:

Mr. and Mrs. Howard P. Ellefritz and their two children (including their oldest daughter, my grandmother Orpha Lydia Ellefritz) (they would go on to have eight more children) lived just a few miles away, in Pilot Grove Township, Hancock County, Illinois.

I chose to focus this narrative on the mother of Howard P. Ellefritz – my second great-grandmother Mary Ann Botts (1838-1913).  I chose her because her life extended from the time this branch of my family moved from Kentucky to Illinois; she was born the year after they arrived in Illinois and she died more than a decade after my focus year, 1900.

Now that I had a focus person, I had to figure out how to tell her story.    First of all, I established the role of the family in the community.  Here’s what I wrote:

The Botts family played an important role in the religious life of Hancock County.  Joseph, Joshua, and Mary Ann’s uncle Absolam Botts were among the founding members of St. Mary’s Baptist Church in St. Mary’s township in Hancock County.

I also wanted to provide information about the family Mary Ann grew up in:

Mary Ann grew up surrounded by family.  Eighteen family members, ranging in age from 1 to 47, relocated to Hancock County from Kentucky in 1837.  This list includes the following people (their ages in 1837 appear beside each name):

  • Her grandparents Joseph Botts (47) and Sabra Wilkes Botts (also 47)
  • Her parents Joshua Mills Botts (24) and Tabitha Allen Walton Botts (21)

Her 10 aunts and uncles all came along too.

  • Her aunt Matilda Botts (27), her husband Milton Johnson (29), and their daughter Mary (1)
  • Her aunt Mary Polly Botts (25)
  • Her uncle William Oscar Botts (20)
  • Her aunt Ann Amelia Botts (17)
  • Her aunt Martha Jane Botts (14)
  • Her uncle Absolam Graves Botts (11)
  • Her uncle Robert Kirtly Botts (9)
  • Her uncle James D. Botts (7)
  • Her aunt Maria Louise Botts (4)

Her 2 older brothers rounded out the party

  • Joseph Oscar (3)
  • William Edward (1)

Mary Ann grew up with younger siblings as well, including 4 more brothers (Simeon Erskine, Sidney Worden, Junius T., and Robert Lineas) and three sisters (Amanda Jane, Matilda Louise, and Barbara Isabelle.) 

Then (almost) everyone got married and began to have children, and almost all of them spent the rest of their lives in Hancock County

It is difficult to get a handle on Mary Ann’s life.  So many people came to Illinois and died there during Mary Ann’s lifespan; many more were born there; and many others came to Illinois and then left in further quest of land and prosperity

So I decided to figure out who would have been in Hancock County for key events in Mary Ann’s life:  the death of her father Joshua Mills Botts in 1863, the death of her grandfather Joseph Botts in 1880, and the death of her husband Solomon Ellefritz in 1894.  Each of these events would have called for a significant family gathering to honor the lives of these men whose stories framed the family’s life in Hancock County.

It is not possible to determine how the deaths of these particular individuals were marked; at the time in America, elaborate funeral rituals had become common, with mourning garb required of women for some period of time, but I don’t know how these rituals were observed for these specific events.  I think it is safe to say, however, that these deaths would have been marked by some significant family gathering and ritual.

Mary Ann’s father, Joshua Mills Botts, died in 1863 when he fell off his horse.  He was only 50 years old at the time of his death.  His funeral and subsequent community gathering could have included about 70 members of Mary Ann’s family, who all lived nearby in 1863: 

  • Her mother Tabitha
  • Fourteen aunts and uncles
  • Eight siblings, plus the spouses of four of her siblings
  • Twenty-six cousins, and spouses of most of them

Mary Ann was 25 years old in 1863.  She had attended Knox College in Galesville, Illinois, for one year in 1858 and records identified her as a teacher.  She had married in 1861 and had a daughter in 1862.  Her brother Simeon had died of disease in 1862, six months after enlisting in the 28th Illinois regiment to fight in the Civil War.

By the time Mary Ann’s grandfather, Joseph Botts, died in 1880, Mary Ann’s situation had changed dramatically.  Her husband and her daughter had died of typhus in 1864, and Mary Ann married Solomon Ellefritz in 1867.  Solomon was 15 years older than Mary Ann and had never been married before.  They had seven children between 1868 and 1878, although two of them died in 1878 – a five-year-old girl named Mary and an infant named Martha.  My great-grandfather Howard P. Ellefritz (1870-1932) was their third child.

When Mary Ann’s grandfather Joseph Botts died in 1880, the funeral and subsequent community gathering would have included about 68 family members. Joseph was a respected man in the community, having reached the age of 80, so I imagine a larger gathering when he died.  This is what a county history said about him:

This family gathering would have skewed younger than the one 17 years earlier:

  • Mary Ann’s mother Tabitha
  • Twelve aunts and uncles
  • Three siblings and their spouses
  • Fifteen cousins, and spouses of most of them
  • Seven children
  • Six nieces and nephews
  • Three first cousins once removed (children of her first cousins)

When Mary Ann’s husband Solomon Ellefritz died in 1894, the funeral and subsequent community gathering could have included about 52 family members. This gathering would have skewed even younger than the one 14 years earlier:

  • Five aunts and uncles
  • None of her siblings (Most of them had moved away in the 1880s, although spouses of two of her siblings were still living in Hancock County)
  • Twenty cousins and some of their spouses
  • Seven children and two of their spouses
  • No nieces or nephews
  • Eight grandchildren

Mary Ann welcomed the new century in 1900 with the following family members leaving nearby

  • Five aunts and uncles
  • Four children
  • 20+ cousins of varying degrees
  • 6 grandchildren

I developed a massive spreadsheet to help me figure this all out.  Once I created the spreadsheet, I found that it was useful in helping me analyze all sorts of things about this part of my family tree.

Week 17: Document

This is the death certificate for my cousin, Bonnie Jean Harding.  She died in 1950

One of the first things I remember learning about my extended family was the story of my cousin Bonnie.  She was the daughter of my father’s sister Evelyn and her husband, Wes.  They lived in Hamilton, Illinois, the town where my father and all of his siblings were born and the town where they all grew up.  Wes was my father’s best friend in high school, and it was natural that he and Evelyn fell in love and married.  My father left Hamilton for Tucson, Arizona, after he graduated from high school in 1936.  It was the depth of the Great Depression and no one in his family had a job.  One of my father’s uncles was living in Arizona, and he said he could find my father a job if he came to Tucson.  My father made the trip, got a job, and the rest of the family soon followed.  Except for Evelyn, who stayed in Hamilton to marry Wes in 1939. In 1941, they had a daughter they named Bonnie Jean.  This is the only picture I have of Bonnie.

Wes is holding Bonnie in this picture; the red oval  is around Wes, Bonnie, and Evelyn (the dark-haired woman to the left of Bonnie in this picture)

I don’t know much about Wes and Evelyn’s lives in the early years of their marriage.  Although Wes registered for the draft in 1940, there is no indication that he served in the military until late in the war, in 1945.  The details on Bonnie’s death certificate, coupled with the stories I heard about Bonnie, may explain this.

Bonnie’s death certificate says she died as the result of congenital heart disease and other congenital “malformations.”  The symptoms my parents described to me relating to Bonnie sound like what we would now call some form of hydrocephaly and the resulting impairments to her growth and development.  She lived to be nine years old, but had lost (or possibly never had – I’m not sure which) the ability to walk or even to sit up on her own.  My parents described Wes pushing Bonnie along on a tricycle, with her resting her head on the handlebars because she could no longer hold her head up.

My cousin Cathy gave me more information about Bonnie. This is what she wrote to me today:

One thing to note about Bonnie is that she was very smart. She even would help my dad with his homework when they were together and had great conversations. I don’t think it was hydrocephalus. The death certificate is hard to read, but I think it might say malformation of the pituitary, which might make sense. Mom says that there was talk about the spleen, but she doesn’t remember particulars. But, the thing to memorialize is that she apparently was a very smart, talkative little girl. Aunt Ev and Uncle Wes came to Arizona several times, even bringing another couple once — who we also knew from Hamilton — to stay with my mom and my stepfather Jerry. Mom and Jerry also stayed with them in Hamilton during a road trip. They always remained family. My dad and Aunt Evelyn also talked weekly on the phone, which made me happy.

Within a year or so after Bonnie died, Wes and Evelyn came to visit my family in Virginia. My older brother was 7 or 8 years old, and I was 3 or 4.  I don’t remember this visit, but my parents told me that Wes and I quickly bonded.  To Wes, I was the little girl who could do all the things that Bonnie had never been able to do, and I reacted positively to someone who thought I was wonderful. [My cousin Cathy’s comments make me realize that Bonnie had been able to do lots of things before she died. I didn’t realize this.]

Wes and Evelyn were heartbroken when Bonnie died, as you can imagine.  Evelyn told how she fixed Bonnie’s hair after Bonnie’s death, saying she didn’t want to let anyone else touch her.   After Bonnie died, Wes and Evelyn thought about having another child, and Evelyn’s doctor told them that there was no reason to anticipate that a second child would be born with the problems that Bonnie had.  But they decided against having another child, because they couldn’t imagine facing the prospect of losing another child.

We and Evelyn continued to live in their home in Hamilton – Evelyn worked for the Post Office and Wes held a number of jobs in local industries.  In the 1980s, they decided to move to a new home “outside of town” – about five blocks from their long-time residence.  When they settled in their new home, Wes went out to stand in their front yard on the first day they lived there.  Looking around, he commented to Evelyn, “We can see Bonnie’s grave from here.” Wes visited Bonnie’s grave every Sunday for decades.

Bonnie’s death certificate tells one more story.  The informant is Chloe Harding, Wes’s mother.  I conclude from this that neither Wes nor Evelyn were in any condition to provide information about Bonnie’s death.

Wes died in 2007 and Evelyn died in 2012.  They lived fairly quirky lives, as I remember my mother telling me.  Wes didn’t trust banks, so he stashed money all over the house – in mattresses, under floorboards, and behind walls.  After he died, Evelyn was always worried about throwing anything out, because she never knew if Wes had stashed money there.  They always went to bed early – like, 7:00 at night – and got up before dawn, sometimes roaming the house at night.  Wes was fastidious about his lawn – it had to be mowed at just the right angle.  After he got too old to mow the lawn himself, he fussed at the people he hired to do it until they got it right.  They used one bay of their two-car garage as an outdoor living space — they put down indoor/outdoor carpeting and furnished it with patio furniture. The rest of the interior was still a garage — open walls with visible studs, garage shelving and lighting.

In her last years, Evelyn developed a pretty bad tremor in her arms.  This was a familial tremor – my father had it, my brother had it, I have it, and my daughter has it.  Evelyn found that drinking wine helped calm her tremor, so she routinely drank several glasses of wine as she cooked dinner.  The resulting dinners were sometimes interesting, I’m told. She loved coffee (which may have had an effect on her tremor), and she drank it through a straw when her tremor worsened.

I know that people who don’t have children can be very happy.  I know that people who lose children can go on to have productive and happy lives as well.  But I think Wes and Evelyn were broken by Bonnie’s death.  Their graves flank Bonnie’s in Hamilton’s Oakwood Cemetery, and their grave markers identify them as “Mother” and “Father.”

I’ve known this story for a long time, and I’ve written about it often. It still brings me to tears.

Week 16: Negative

‘nuf said

I decided to write this week about two ancestors (father and son) that I don’t like very much.  I think you’ll understand why when you read about them.

This is the story first of my 9th great-grandfather) Robert Cross (1612-1693).  Robert married Anna Jordan (1617-1677) in Ipswich, Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1635.  Anna had come to Ipswich that year with her parents Stephen Jordan (1589-1670) and Susannah Merril (1585-1673) on the ship Mary and John. 

I don’t know when Robert came to Ipswich. 

Robert and Anna had 11 children in Ipswich, including my 8th great-grandfather Robert Cross II (1642-1710), who was their third child.  Robert 1642 married Martha Treadwell (1643-1738) in Ipswich in 1665, and they had eight children there, including my 7th great-grandmother Mary Ann Cross (1675-1710), who was their fourth child.  Martha’s parents, Thomas Treadwell (1605-1671) and Mary Wilson (1605-1685), had married in England in 1633 and come to Massachusetts Bay in 1635 on the ship Hopewell

Robert Cross (both 1613 and 1642) were – shall we say – colorful residents of Ipswich.   Things started out reasonably well for Robert 1613.  He owned six acres of land with a house on it before 1638.  After the spring of 1637, when he and 16 other young men of Ipswich saw service in the local Pequot War, he received additional land.  By 1649/50 he owned 40 acres of land in Ipswich.  But he was a difficult man; according to one source, he had “developed an idea that the magistrates . . . were prejudiced against him.”  He was in court several times for apparent altercations with his neighbors.  He also apparently threw his daughter (also named Martha) out of the house for consorting with a man in the village. He continued to challenge the authority of the magistrates, comparing them at one point to the Spanish Inquisition.

Martha’s parents (who were apparently upstanding citizens of Ipswich) could not have been happy when Martha decided to marry Robert 1642, the son of the town reprobate.  Things did not go any better for Robert 1642.  After a day of military training in 1667, after he and some of his friends had too much to drink, they committed what the court described as a “barbarous and inhuman act” – they tore open the grave of Masconomet, who was the sagamore (chief) of local Agawam tribe.  Masconomet is remembered as the Indian leader who boarded Winthrop’s ship Arbella after the fleet landed in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630. He subsequently ceded a lot of tribal land to the Puritans who settled under Winthrop, and he pursued a path of assimilation for his people.  Masconomet himself took on the name “John the Sagamore,” lived on farmland adjacent to where the English settlers lived, and gave his children English names. 

So this is the grave that Robert 1642 and his drunken buddies decided to desecrate.  They scattered Masconomet’s bones and carried his head around on a pole.  Robert 1642 was identified as the ringleader of this group, and for these actions he was jailed until the next “lecture day” (religious observance or a day of rest).  On the appointed day he was sentenced to sit in the stocks for one hour and to remain in jail until he could pay a fine of six pounds.  After he was released from jail, he was required to re-inter the bones of the Indian chief and erect a cover of stones two feet high over the grave.  According to the same source, alcohol was Robert’s curse; court records reveal that he was “much in drink” on several occasions over the next several years.  He continued the pattern set by his father, apparently feuding with (and sometimes assaulting) his neighbors.

Some people are just like that.

Week 15:  How Do You Spell That?

Some records have Anglicized my 8th great-grandfather’s name as “Richard John Workman.” That was never his name, so far as I know..

I have Dutch ancestors who lived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century.

That is all.  That is my essay for this week.

Me, walking away while whistling

What? You want to know more?  Glad you asked.

Here are a few of the names from my family tree who lived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. 

Jan Jantze Woertman             

Marrietje Teunis Denyse                   

Teunice Nyssen

Femmetje Seals                      

Anna Maria Andriessen                     

Tryntye Wybrantz

Pieter Claesen Wyckoff         

Grietje Cornelis VanNess                  

Sara Pieterse Montfoort

Williamtje Jansen Schenck    

Marie Catherine Deveaux Jung         

Simon Janz van Arsdalen

Gertie VanDerVliet               

Pieterje Claessen Vanschouwen

Mayke Gybertse Gerrets Maycke Hendricks vanderBurchgraeff (swear to God!)

I haven’t included all the various spellings of these names. If you just insert random capitalizations, spaces, and combinations of consonants, you’ll get an idea of how these names have appeared over the years.  Now just imagine how people of varying degrees of literacy spelled names that in many cases they were hearing but not seeing in writing.  Then imagine how genealogists over the years have “corrected” the spelling to accord with what they thought was right. 


I have a friend who was born and raised in Amsterdam, so I consulted with her about what spellings were “right” – or at least consistent with the way Dutch names were generally constructed and spelled.  She was able to help me a little, but I still have A LOT of questions.

I have learned about the Dutch patronymic naming system (that’s when the children’s names take a variation of  their father’s name as a surname).  Here’s an example. 

  • My 10th great-grandfather’s name was Pieter Claessen (his father’s name was Claes).
  • Pieter’s son as Cornelius Pieterse. 
  • Cornelius’s son was Simon Cornelise.  And so forth. 

This system can be very useful when you’re trying to connect generations in a family tree.  The son’s patronymic provides a pretty solid clue about his father’s first name.

But then I had to learn about how the English required the residents of New Amsterdam to adopt permanent surnames when they took over the colony in 1660.  My Dutch ancestors gradually adopted random surnames – which sometimes were just the Anglicized spelling of their most recent Dutch surname, but also sometimes were nearby geographic features.  The men mentioned in the bullet points above adopted the surname Wijkhoff (later modified to Wycoff), which was passed down through the generations.  Nobody has been able to figure out where they got the name Wijkhoff (or Wycoff). 

Researchers sometimes “back-correct” the surnames by adding Wyckoff to people who lived before the surname change occurred.  For example, Pieter Claessen is often identified on people’s trees with the surname Wyckoff for events that happened before the family adopted the Wyckoff surname – his birth in 1620, his 1636 arrival in New Amsterdam, and the birth of 11 of his 16 children.

And everyone spells everything differently.   There’s a whole field of study in genealogy dedicated to understanding Dutch surnames and tracking their various spellings over the centuries. 

How do you spell that?  Heck if I know.

Week 14: Check It Out

Robert Overton, 1609-1678

I had a death in the family within the last few months – I lost my 9th great-grandfather Robert Overton (1609-1678). 

Every genealogist has leads that don’t check out – you follow and verify hints until you get to something that just doesn’t make sense, so you abandon that ancestor or that particular storyline.  My purported ancestor who didn’t “check out” is the fine gentleman pictured above – General Robert Overton.  Here’s how The Hylbom Family Ancestry Project summarized his life:

He was a prominent soldier and scholar, who supported the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century.  He fell in and out of favor with the political and religious authorities of his time, and he was imprisoned a number of times during the Protectorate and the English Restoration for his strong republican views.  He was imprisoned at various times in two different fortresses on the island of Jersey (in the English Channel), in a castle in Wales and in the Tower of London.

The story goes on:

Robert’s son, William Overton,  was an immigrant to Virginia in about 1668, and his wife, Elizabeth (Mary) Waters joined him there in 1670.  They were previously engaged in England and were married on shipboard immediately upon her arrival in the colony, and they probably left England because of the political turmoil surrounding his father.  It is said that the novel, “To Have and To Hold,” written by Mary Johnston and published in 1900, related the romantic story of Elizabeth (Mary) Waters and William Overton.  Johnston based her story on the tradition that Elizabeth Waters fled England, disguised as her maid, to escape a marriage to a nobleman she despised.  William‘s life in America was spent in the county of New Kent, Virginia.  Part of his land later fell into Mathews and King William counties, and his offspring resided on land which became Hanover and Louisa counties.  Some descendants went to North Carolina, thence to Kentucky, and some remained in Kentucky for several generations before moving westward to Texas and other states.  Still another group migrated to Tennessee and Louisiana, where several became prominent in state affairs.

I can trace my ancestry pretty definitively to William Overton.  Here’s what that lineage looks like.

So, cool – right?  I have embraced Robert Overton as the father of William and thus my 9th great-grandfather.  I am planning a research trip to England in September of 2022, and the towns associated with Robert Overton – Easington in Yorkshire and Seaton in Rutland – were on my preliminary itinerary. 

I was going to take a picture of myself beside this plaque.  It was going to be fabulous.

But then I checked it out a bit more – mainly to confirm what I knew, or so I thought.  I almost didn’t bother.  I did not expect to lose Robert Overton from my family tree.   Here’s what I encountered on Robert’s Wikitree profile, in the discussion about his children. I had looked at the Wikitree profile before, but I either missed this or it had been added since I had looked at it.

William Overton of Virginia is generally believed and often found in print and on the internet as the son of Robert Overton of Seaton, Rutland. The most recent study of the Overtons challenges and refutes this identification. [The Overtons: 700 Years with Allied Families from England to Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas, published by Nan Overton West, 1997.]

  • There is no actual evidence to connect William Overton and Robert Overton. [WHAT!!!] This is most important as in order to prove the English origins of an immigrant we need to have something in the way of wills, land records, correspondence, baptism records, court cases, etc. to show or even suggest that the immigrant could be the son of the proposed father. In this case, no such document exists. Robert Overton did have a son named William baptized in 1538, [this is the William on the relationship chart above] however, this William certainly died young [if he existed at all].
  • The will of his grandfather John Overton in 1648 names many relatives including his grandchildren; however, he does not name a grandson William Overton. The will includes his son Col. Robert Overton and grandchildren Robert, Ebenezer, Anne, Alicia and Joane Overton – no William.
  • The will of the proposed father Col. Robert Overton in 1678 does not name a son William. In fact, the will reads as if Col. Overton had exactly two living sons, Ebenezer and Fairfax, who shared equally in his estate.
  • Col. Robert Overton, while in captivity on the Isle of Jersey, wrote a 372 page manuscript from 1665-1669 touching on a wide range of matters including his family, love for his wife, politics, and poetry. This document was discovered in 1992 and is written in his own hand. It is currently held in the Special Collections and Rare Books Department at Princeton University. Despite discussing his family in detail, he never names a son William.
  • There is no evidence that Col. Robert Overton even had a son William. As noted, no William is named in any of the documents where he should occur. Robert Overton is frequently said to have had a son William born on 3 December 1638; no English record has been found to confirm this birth date.  Also, there is no room for this supposed William if Col Overton’s son Jeremie on 29 September 1637 and son Robert on 2 May 1639.

There was almost certainly a man named William Overton who married Elizabeth Mary Waters in Virginia around 1670.  They almost certainly had a daughter Mary Elizabeth who married Robert Anderson in New Kent County.   I can trace their descendants fairly reliably to me (Virginia records from the 17th and early 18th centuries are not very good).  But there is no reliable link between William and Robert – and lots of evidence that Robert never had a son named William.

I reluctantly gave up Robert – and reluctantly isn’t even the correct word.  I was dragged kicking and screaming to take Robert off my tree, because his story is just so durn cool and there’s a plaque!  A real plaque!  But he’s gone.  RIP. (Well, confession time:  he isn’t ACTUALLY off my tree – I’ve disconnected him and his wife from William.  They still exist as a floating tree somewhere on my ancestry account.)

How did this mistake happen, and why did virtually all of the people who link to Robert through William accept this connection despite the fact that there is no proof of the lineage?  I can think of a few reasons.

  1. Way too many genealogists (myself included, obviously) accept hints without thoroughly exploring them.  I offer the excuse that I was a baby genealogist when I first encountered Robert and that I now understand the danger of unverified hints – but I have also continued to accept this lineage because “everyone” agreed with me, even as I have gained experience and even some claim to expertise.  I have written about this relationship a couple of times and never questioned it.  It was only because I was drilling down into it again in preparation for my trip that I stumbled over the information that disproved my link.
  2. It’s very cool to be linked to someone famous – even if it’s a famous person you’ve never actually heard of.  It’s cool to connect to an important part of history like the English Civil War.  After I learned about Robert Overton’s role in the Civil War, I read more about the conflict itself.  I also read about the Mont Orgueil Castle on the Isle of Jersey, where Robert Overton was imprisoned.  I tried to figure out how to get to the Isle of Jersey while we were in England – I thought it would be very cool.  I was very attached to Robert and his story and I overlooked the small detail that I didn’t actually have any facts to prove that I was descended from him. (Did you pick up on how often I used the word “cool” as I described my connection to Robert?)
  3. American genealogists often don’t know much about tracing vital records in England – particularly such old records.  The “absence of proof” is not taken as “proof of absence” as it might be if we were exploring American records we were more familiar with.  And any British genealogists trying to trace Robert’s descendants would be looking at his children who stayed in England – not an ephemeral son who supposedly went to America – and so would probably not notice that there are a lot of us who believed William was Robert’s son.

So, I was tripped up.  The fact that I was in good company is of small comfort.  I was still wrong, and I had to give up one of my favorite ancestors.  RIP, Robert.