A Note To My Readers: Today I decided to begin the process of developing a list of my direct ancestral lines -an index of sorts- from the first European to step off a ship and on to the New World. I regard the list of names as passengers who ride time through a wormhole…and I am along for the ride.
a Martin, Purdy, Penird, Curtis/Curtice, Carwithyn, Case, Curry, Learn, Jennings, James, Bowker, Roberts, Powers, Colwell, Frear/Freer, De Lay Haye, Le Roy, Van Bommel, Mynderse, Louw, Heermanse, Persen, Theuynes, Pierson, Gould, Richardson, Wellman, Willmarth, Billington, Myers, Van Kleeck, Bennett, Tobey, Jenne, Dawson, Hobbs, Garfield, Lambert, Chancy, Gunn, Williams, Van Dorn, Smith (two lines), Irwin, Davenport (two lines), Moulthrop, Street, Halle, Woodward, Hunt, Longstreet, Woertman, Briggs, Graford, Schenck, Shubber, Hinckley, Bliss, Brokaw, Ingersoll, Weyburn, Bratton, Wilson, Rowley (two lines), Green(e), Tyler, Downing, Robinson, Rowland, Hill, Franklin, Palmer, Coleman, Titus, Hoag, Germond, Wright, Searing, Dickinson, Bartlett, Elliott, Fuller (two lines), Johnson, Potter.
I am them. They are me.
Among them are sea captains and privateers, physicians, preachers, farmers, innkeepers, tailors, stonemasons, teachers, canal ‘boatmen’, bootmakers, theater owners, haberdashers, seamstresses, surveyors, merchants, carriage makers, master painters, carpenters, a stenographer, speculators, abolitionists, suffragettes, a politician or two, a murderer (Mayflower passenger, John Billington), Quakers, Mayflower passengers, Huguenots, Revolutionary War soldiers and Civil War soldiers.
The paths and places have taken me from England and Holland, France and Germany to the New World…Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the nexus of New York State from the earliest days of New Amsterdam, the settlers along the upper Hudson Valley, post Revolutionary War military tracts and the westward movement along the Erie Canal system to central and western New York. I listened as my ancestor, Reverend John Robinson, preached to Separatists in the home of his friend, William Brewster in Scrooby and led them from England to the streets of Leiden, Holland.
It was not without a bit of interest that I discovered that my paternal 9th great grandfather was Mayflower passenger, John Billington, who was a thorn in the side of the Puritans, a nuisance to Captain Miles Standish and an aggravation to Governor Bradford. In 1630, when he was forty years of age, he was tried and hung for the murder of John Newcomen. The first recorded execution in the New World. While reading the accounts of John Billington, I found scholarly studies about his existence and fate including the earliest work, the famous “Mourt’s Relation,” written in 1622 by William Bradford’s cousin George Morton who like John Billington was a Separatist to the latest by Josh Clark, “How Stuff Works, Who Was America’s First Murderer?” Some concluded that his decidedly different opinions earned him an unjust outcome. It was documented that young Newcomen was a poacher…a serious crime when survival was so dear and declared a crime punished by death. He had been warned to cease his criminal activity more than once. Billington, who was no marksman especially with such a crude weapon as was had in those days, shot to warn the young man, but instead wounded him. Newcomen fled into the woods and was found bled out. A quick trial and execution, the Billington properties taken over by the colony, wife and children put out to service and Standish and Bradford had rid themselves of the “vulgar knave”. One of my fellow descendants, a law school student, had taken on ‘the defense of John Billington’ as an academic piece and fascinated me enough to delve into the Bradford papers myself. I can credit my grandfather with teaching me that written history is at best a fascinating trail of human life and at its least…propaganda.
It was interesting to compare the two men…Robinson and Billington…both my 9th great grandfathers….and to note that they both rebelled against an established authority with two decidedly different outcomes.
Like dandelion seeds taken by a breeze I have followed my ancestors to the rough and rowdy days of Deadwood City, pioneering the plains of Nebraska and taming the wildernesses of Michigan and Wisconsin after a long and difficult
overland trip in Conestoga wagons. With all the family’s worldly goods loaded into wagons, the oxen followed the old Indian trails through the densely wooded Endless Mountains of northern Pennsylvania and we arrive at the great Susquehanna. Poling the flat boats along low waters, we travel northward to the Chemung system of the southern tier of New York State and build a log cabin at the base of Taughannock Falls. Fleeing religious and political persecution and the devastating loss of my family from the Black Plague, I packed up my only surviving child and make a life with other French Huguenots along the upper Hudson River. From the mighty Hudson, sturdy Quakers carry me along the newly built Erie Canal system to settle on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Before the building of the Panama Canal I ride with impatient passengers on trains struggling through the malaria ridden isthmus to reach the promise of gold in California. I sail on the sloop, Keziah, to the deepest parts of the Atlantic in search of sperm whales.
Countless journeys await me and some individuals I know better than others. Beyond the clinical names, dates and locations. Some were so well documented by their activities, or a published biography or genealogy that it was a short step into their lives with a quick familiarity. Some were so available to me by my mother’s stories that it was as easy as sharing a glass of lemonade on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. And some I had to work for. What genealogists refer to as the dreaded ‘brick wall’. In fact, there are a few that remain in that list and most are my female ancestors. Nothing is more gratifying than identifying an individual and rescuing them from that list and exploring history with them.
On occasion someone is searching for their ancestor and we find each other to share information, photos and memorabilia and declare ourselves “cousins”. That has happened to me several times and without equivocation, one of the best experiences to have as a genealogist.
Finding family. And fellow passengers.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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