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It's Not Easy Being a Genealogist in New England

It’s Not Easy Being a Genealogist in New England
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Welcome to the May 2009 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

It’s Not Easy Being a Genealogist in New England

For instance, how could you tell if a child happened to be illegitimate? Well, there are ways …

There’s a tombstone in the cemetery of Cornwall, Connecticut, that reads as follows: “Here lies interred the body of Mr. 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 fifteen children. Twelve of them married and increased the family by repeated marriages to the number of twenty-nine. He had 120 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, 37 now living, which makes the number of offspring 189.”

Today, John’s descendants are most likely in the millions.

Abaih Edgerton of Pawlet, Vermont, left 209 descendants when he died at age 85. Eight families in Clarendon Springs, Vermont, produced exactly 113 children, including only one pair of twins. And Nantucket’s Tristan Coffin supposedly left even more descendants.

Keeping the branches untangled on these huge family trees is often a nightmare for genealogists. A common complication arises from the fact that many New England men outlived several wives and then, after marrying again late in life, sired more children. A hundred-year-old Connecticut journal mentioned by genealogist Donald Lines Jacobus in his book Genealogy as Pastime and Profession says: “Died of physical exhaustion, Lieut. John Brandon of Saybrook at the age of 110 years. He left him a young widow and three children, the latter all under 10 years of age.” (I’m not at all sure I believe that.)

I do know for a fact, however, that one Thomas William, second earl of Leicester, England, sired a son at a time when one of his daughters was already a grandmother. And from the records of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, going strong in Boston since 1845, I note that a certain Colonel William Webster, age 67, married a Martha Winslow of Kingston, New Hampshire, who was 19. She also happened to be the colonel’s sister’s granddaughter. Martha, then, was wife to her great-uncle, sister-in-law to her grandfather and grandmother, aunt to her mother and father, and great-aunt to her brothers and sisters. She was also stepmother to five children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Illegitimacy is another problem — not only because the records of illegitimate children are vague, but also because a professional genealogist will sometimes ignore a discovery of illegitimacy in order to spare his client any possible distress. Or let’s say they used to. It’s not so much a factor today. But discovering that an ancestor was hanged or otherwise executed is still ignored by some genealogists. Donald Lines Jacobus cites just such a case. He says that the history of a certain New England family published some years ago correctly states the date and place of a family member’s death. What it does not include is the fact that said family member was executed on that date for being “one of the greatest mass murderers known to American criminal history.”

One method of spotting an illegitimate girl in a New England family tree is by the actual name. It was sometimes considered appropriate to call girls born out of wedlock names such as Lament and Trial. (Boys born out of wedlock are more difficult for genealogists to identify, as they were usually given the name of the reputed father, if known …)

Those poor little girls. How would you like to go through life with a name like Lament?

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It's Not Easy Being a Genealogist in New England

Updated Friday, May 1st, 2009

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