Adding Twigs to the Family Tree
Welcome to the June 2013 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
Adding Twigs to the Family Tree
It’s a fun endeavor, but you better be prepared for some surprises …
There’s a tombstone in the Cornwall, Connecticut, cemetery that reads: “Here lies… John Sage who departed this life on January 22, 1750, in the 83rd year of his age. He left a virtuous and sorrowful wife with whom he lived 57 years and had 15 children. Twelve of them married and increased the family by repeated marriages to the number of 29. He had 120 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren…which make the number of offspring 189.”
Can you imagine the number of John Sage’s descendants today? It would have to be in the millions—a genealogist’s nightmare.
But it can get even more complicated. A few years ago, while perusing through the records of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society for a story I was researching, I noted that a certain Colonel William Webster, age sixty-seven, married a Martha Winslow of Kingston, New Hampshire, who was nineteen. She happened to be the colonel’s sister’s granddaughter. So his new wife, Martha, was wife to her grand-uncle, sister-in-law to her grandparents, aunt to her parents, and great-aunt to her brothers and sisters. Incidentally, she was also a stepmother to five children, fourteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Another problem in genealogy pursuits is illegitimacy. This is because a professional genealogist will sometimes ignore a discovery of illegitimacy in order to spare his/her client any possible distress. (The same holds true for ancestors who were hanged or otherwise executed.)
One method of spotting an illegitimate girl in a New England family tree is by the actual name. Girls born out of wedlock were often given names like “Lament” and “Trial.” Boys born out of wedlock were given the name of the reputed father, if known (or, occasionally, guessed at), making it difficult for a genealogist to identify anyone positively.
Many New Englanders enjoy tracing their family history themselves, without the help of professionals. Writer Eben W. Keyes II was just such an amateur genealogist. He once told me that he used to occasionally telephone town halls for information, although he eventually found that a written request for data was more rewarding. One such telephone inquiry was to the town clerk of a small northern New Hampshire town which shall remain unnamed. The conversation, as he recalls, went approximately as follows:
Keyes: “Hello. I’m interested in any records you have of Ezra Snow, who was born in your town about 1750. Can you tell me who his parents were, and if he had any brothers and sisters?”
Voice (pause, as records are consulted): “Yes, Ezra Snow was born here in 1748, son of John and Rachel Snow. He had two brothers, John and Amos.”
Keyes: “Thank you! Do you have any records of his marriage? Or of any children?”
Voice (pause): “Yes. Ezra Snow married Elizabeth Caldwell in 1774. Seems they had two children, Ezra, born in 1776, and Sarah, born in 1779. He died in 1820.”
Keyes: “You’ve been very helpful. May I have your name in case I need more assistance later on?”
“Voice (pause): “Ezra Snow.” [click]
Only in New England…