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It’s all in the family

Genealogy can be a funny hobby. For example, although this isn’t something I generally brag about, I may be King Henry 8th’s illegitimate great-granddaughter-in-law (about 14 generations past). More demonstrably true, if there were two of me, I’d be my own 4th cousin. I know the circumstances behind my cousinhood, but I have no idea about Henry and me. There’s probably a story there.

I never used to like genealogy. I couldn’t see the lure of dry statistics, and it seemed silly if the goal was to prove royal lineage. I thought Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said, “I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

My attitude softened once I got hooked on history and realized that statistics, far from being dull, were often gateways to stories. Birth and death dates, in context with historical events of the times, can reveal details that make us feel closer to people of the past.

For example, when I was researching the story of John Cavarly, the Waterford sea captain who fell in love with one of his passengers, I read that his mother was a difficult woman whom he went to great lengths to avoid. That little tidbit became even more amusing when I checked my family tree and found that John’s mom was my great-great-grandfather’s sister. The old man was legendary for being pigheaded and prickly, so the siblings must have been a dynamic duo.

In another instance, while I was digitizing my family line, I noticed that one of my ancestors lost his wife and three children all on the same day. The stats showed that he remarried a few years later and went on to have three more children, all named after the three who’d died. A little digging turned up the horrific backstory. The family lived in Massachusetts in the early 1700s, around the time of the Deerfield massacre. My ancestor came home from his farm chores one day, only to find that his entire family had been murdered, presumably by Indians. His attempt to replace the irreplaceable seems unbearably sad to me, but it also demonstrates the courage and resilience that early settlers had to have.

If you want to appreciate how much our forebears and their loved ones suffered for our country, take a look at the vital statistics of Col. William Ledyard’s family. His wife, Anna, was 37 years old when William was killed by the British at Groton Heights in 1781. That January, the Ledyards had had a baby boy who would die 16 months later. The couple had buried a teenage daughter two months before William’s own death, and another daughter would die the following March. The magnitude of Anna’s grief is impossible to comprehend, but knowing about it certainly makes her seem real.

When I’m writing a column, I like to see what I can find out about my subject’s family before they came to America. Researching the Bill brothers, Frederic and Henry, turned up some genealogical gold. The Bills, who founded the Ledyard and Bill Memorial libraries, were descended from John Bill, a literary agent for King James, the monarch who commissioned the King James Bible. John Bill’s job was to scour Europe for important books for his royal client’s collection. I wonder if Henry and Frederic ever knew where their love of books might have originated.

Once, on a whim, I printed my family tree. There were over 2,200 entries in my data base, so I had to print it off in pieces, then tape the pages together. The result covered the top of a large table and was a sight to behold. Reviewing it, I was concerned to see that some names were repeated and appeared at different junctions in the diagram. The apparent anomalies weren’t errors; they were products of marriages between cousins. Even within just one family, it gets complicated.

If I could expand my chart to include the extended Mitchell-Bingham-Tiffany family that I recently wrote about, along with all the other long-time New London County families, it would be a giant tapestry of interwoven relationships. You could spend a life time following all the threads to their rich but often hidden stories. 

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