Friday, May 21, 2010


In Which We Climb to the Topmost Branch...

The school year is finishing up soon for the kids, and as summer break draws near, it seems to me the teachers are cramming in a lot of last-minute projects that might have served a better educational purpose had they been assigned a few weeks earlier.

For example, last month, the Brownie came to me with a familiar worksheet that had her name in bold on a line at the top, a line that branched out to blank spots labeled “Mother” and “Father” and “Siblings.”

“You’re doing a family tree!” I exclaimed, which was my first mistake. Expressing anything other than bland ambivalence over projects in which my daughter is engaged is a big no-no in my house. The Brownie is at that age where parental enthusiasm is one of life’s greater embarrassments.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” she said tartly. “I just need to know what year you and Mom were born. And stuff about grandparents. And anything you might remember beyond that.”

As it turned out, the Brownie needed very little help from me. I only had to confirm a few birth years. Sadly, I did not have include the death year for my parents—my daughter had it already filled in. And there was space to write in a few illuminating details about each generation. For her maternal grandfather, she wrote “He was a fighter pilot. Then he flew airplanes with people onboard, but didn’t crash any of them.” For my father, who was a welder by trade, but who had made an early impression on the Brownie with his vast handyman skills, she wrote “Builder of houses and cities,” the sweetest piece of loving exaggeration I’ve ever read.

For me, incidentally, she wrote, “Sits around all the time on the computer.”

I tried to maintain an even emotional keel for the duration of this exercise, but I got a little excited—and not in a good way—when I saw that the worksheet didn’t allow my daughter to enter any genealogical information beyond her great-grandparents.

“Well, that’s all most people know,” she said. “Our teacher said you have to be, like, an expert to find out anything older.”

I hoisted myself up in my chair a little at this. “Young lady,” I said. “I’ll have you know you come from a family who can trace its roots back 12 generations—13 in your case. Your great-grandfathers on my side were some of the first settlers in America. The map of New Hampshire is littered with roads and waterways and whole towns that bear our name. And the person who gathered what we know of our family wasn’t an expert. She just cared enough to research and save our history.”

And this is indubitably so. My great-aunt Esther (my grandfather John’s sister), like her mother before her, was the family historian in her time, carefully researching village records, copying information off of far-flung gravesites, and maintaining a network of correspondence with a number of amateur and professional genealogists to fill out the branches in our family tree.

I expected the Brownie to give me a contemptuous eye-roll as I told her this, but to her credit, she seemed genuinely interested. “Really?” she asked. “Can we talk to her?” I didn’t have it in me to tell her Aunt Esther died about 20 years ago, in a car accident (a recent and disturbing trend in my family, alas). Instead, I said, “No. But I have a letter from her that has a good bit of information.”

When I was in 9th grade, I had to research my family tree. It was for history class, and we were required to fill out a lot more than just the names and key dates of our grandparents and great-grandparents. So at my Dad’s suggestion, I gave Aunt Esther a call. She was so excited that someone of my tender years should be interested in our family’s history it brings tears to my eyes to recall the conversation now. She gave me loads of information, then followed it up with a thick envelope full of family information and old letters. I dutifully cribbed from her lifetime of notes, filled out my tree (it took almost two whole pieces of big posterboard to copy down), handed it in, then promptly forgot about the letter.

After her death, other relatives—a cousin or two, and a couple of aunts—took up the cause and I started getting phone calls asking me if I still had Aunt Esther’s letter. Apparently whatever genealogical records Esther kept were lost or mislaid or possibly even thrown out after she died, and the letter she sent me was in all likelihood the most comprehensive family record in existence. Problem was, I couldn’t find the letter. I knew it had to be somewhere in one of my many boxes of papers, or possibly at my parents’ house—neither they nor I ever threw anything away. Eventually, I found one faded photocopy of the letter, but trying to photocopy that produced illegible results, and I didn’t want to send my only copy off. After my parents’ death, I finally found the original and made scans and copies, one of which I hand-delivered to my aunt, while I emailed copies to others.

I found my own copy for the Brownie that night, and I was a little surprised to find out how little information my great-aunt had actually gathered. Don’t get me wrong: her research efforts, considering she had no formal training and worked without benefit of the Web, were nothing short of heroic. But it was dismaying to realize she had only death dates for a lot of my direct-line male descendents, and not a lot in the way of personal information. Oh, she had a few stories—my family is nothing if not a family of storytellers. From her I’d known that her brother (my grandfather) was renowned in town for his feats of physical strength. That the family farm had once served as a hiding place for booze during Prohibition. That one great-grandfather—Samuel—had most probably served in the War of 1812. And she always maintained that great-grandpa Nicholas was the first of our family to come to America. I recall that she had an inkling that Nicholas was the first to come to New Hampshire and to hack out a homestead from the hills around the little village where my family lived (and still does). Esther certainly knew his death-date—1675—and that he’d been buried in Massachusetts, a fact that my Dad, a New Hampshireman through and through, often lamented, appalled at the idea that our great ancestor was interred among flatlanders. But never mind.

To her great credit, the Brownie was fascinated by this information, and even wedged in a note about it at the bottom of her worksheet. But after she handed her homework in she, like her callow 9th-grade father—promptly forgot about it.

But I didn’t.

And so, armed with the letter, I stayed up late that night, and many other nights the past few weeks, forsaking sleep and blogging and other essentials of my personal life in an effort to, I don’t know, honor great-aunt Esther, trying to see what the Information Age could do to build upon the elbow-grease and shoe-leather efforts of my grandfather’s sister. My search took me first, and inevitably, to, then on ever deeper into various family message boards, and still further into the almost-endless volumes of information available through the Web portal of the National Archives. I added considerably to our family’s history, but I’ll be the first to admit that if it hadn’t been for Esther’s work—and especially some of the key dates she’d acquired--I’d still be online now, lost and squinting, poring over nearly illegible pdfs of Colonial era church and village records.

But thanks to her, I’m pleased to report that she was right. But she was wrong, too. About our earliest traceable ancestor being a New Hampshireman and buried ingloriously in the flatlands of Massachusetts, I mean. Turns out he was a Massachusetts man (or, for the purposes of the blog, we can call him “MM”). And let the record show I’m proud to claim him as such.

Friends, family, I refer you to the venerable History of the Town of Dorchester


Which records the origins of Dorchester, Mass., part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the arrival of settlers from its sister city of Dorchester, England, who came over between 1614 and 1650. Amongst their number was one Nicholas George (born February 12, 1599) and his wife Elizabeth (born January 16, 1601).

My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents. First of my direct-line descendants in the U.S.

Or, as it was known then, the New World.

Once you know where to look, Nicholas pops up quite a bit in early Colonial histories. Here he is in 1667, getting his liquor license (yep, he’s one of ours!)


An “ordinary” for those of you who don’t know (and are still awake at this point) was a public house, a tavern, which you wouldn’t think was the sort of thing Puritans went in for, but they did (although there was evidently a stigma attached. Nicholas wasn’t admitted into the church until just a few years before his death).

It’s a strange thing to see an ancestor on the printed page like this. And “see” him is the right word. Because even in these spare sentences, I form an image of him, probably no more accurate than the Brownie's image of my father as a builder of cities, but just as well-meant. I feel--I need to feel--that I have a glimpse of the kind of man Nicholas was. And though a dozen generations and nearly 400 years separate us, I feel like that gap isn’t completely unbridgeable. Really, there are some days when I feel like an even greater and more insurmountable distance separates me from, say, my own children.

And I perceive—or at least imagine--that Nicholas and I were probably a lot alike. Tavern owners of that era, in addition to having a likely weakness for intoxicants (genetic, I’m afraid), were at the center of village life, and often the best-informed, if they took the time to speak to their patrons. I used to think that if I didn’t become a journalist, I probably would have owned a bar, just to talk to folks and meet interesting people and hear their stories. Except that I could never run a business—I’m too disorganized, and have no head for numbers.

But then, maybe Nicholas didn’t either, if I correctly read between the lines of this passage:


Nicholas died just as great-aunt Esther had recorded—on April 3, 1675, in colonial Dorchester. Seventy-six years is a pretty respectable lifespan for a man born at the end of the 16th century, but his wife totally outpaced him. And ran a bar while she did it:


Well done, Elizabeth. I wonder what your 21st century namesake, the Éclair, would make of you. And vice versa.

Certainly the Éclair’s big sister was impressed. I presented copies of the above passages to the Brownie the other day and once again, she displayed commendable interest and enthusiasm in the information I’d gathered.

“Whoa,” she said, instantly calculating the distance between Grandma Elizabeth’s birth year (1601) and her own (2001). She reviewed Nicholas' passages, and I had to explain what an "ordinary" was to her.

"He wasn't just a tavern-keeper, you know,“ I said. "He was like your grandfather. He was a builder. They all were. Of houses. Of cities. Of a new world."

The Brownie looked at me with new eyes just then, the distance between us shortened for a moment. “That's pretty cool," she said, then paused a beat. "And you found all this just sitting around on the computer?” she asked.

“Sure,” I answered. “Didn’t you read your own worksheet? It is my job, after all.”

But the truth is, in my own very small way, I'm a builder too.

Like my fathers before me.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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