There’s nothing like breaking through a brick wall on the family tree.
I had one of those spine-tingling discoveries recently, thanks to Ancestry.com. That on-line service touts millions of records on-line. Information is digitized and uploaded regularly, so it helps to check back often.
A couple of weeks ago I logged on and proceeded to spent two days in 17th and 18th centuries. That’s how addictive genealogy can be.
I’ve never been to New Marlborough, MA in the present day, but I’ve definitely “visited” the village in 1771. I imagine the clapboard houses and white church steeple nestled in the Berkshires. In my mind’s eye, there’s a town square with sheep grazing on the green, maybe a hat maker’s shop with a painted sign out front, and a tavern with a pewter flagon over the door. Men pass by in tri-cornered hats, ladies in sweeping skirts with pinafores and caps not unlike the outfit I’ve worn for DAR re-enactments.
One of the passersby is my 4th-great grandfather, Jedediah Hoyt, who has just buried his wife, Anna Raynsford Hoyt. Apparently Jedediah is less than enchanted with life under the British crown. Five years later he’s a sergeant in the Continental Army.
I sit at my computer, calling up searches to complete this story. I find Anna’s parents in Canterbury, CT, a few miles from New Marlborough. Sure enough, there are Nathan Raynsford and his wife Esther, having baby “Anna.” baptized in 1743.
I open a file containing Nathan’s will, visible in 18th-century handwriting, thanks to digital images.
I trace Anna’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas Gardner, and learned that he arrived in 1624 as a young Englishman with the Dorchester Company, a group of merchants who pooled their money to make money in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Fourteen brave fishermen landed on Cape Ann and set up an outpost now called Gloucester, MA. Their leader was Thomas who, like the others, was motivated by the profits from dried salted cod and herring.
I think of the voyage in an un-stabilized boat, the seasickness, the danger of capsizing, storms, fires on board, the danger of running out of food or fresh water, encountering pirates, contracting disease, suffering accidents and life-threatening infections.
In Massachusetts, mere existence was tough enough without Puritanical restrictions. Those unforgiving Massachusetts church leaders we idolize at Thanksgiving did what they could to make the Dorchester fishermen conform. They cut down a Maypole that the settlers had erected on the green. Some were sent back to England for reading an Anglican prayer book. So much for religious tolerance!
This isn’t to say that every session on Ancestry is successful. My recent good fortune was discovering documents that I hadn’t seen before or had heretofore ignored—those meticulous New England town records that have survived for nearly 400 years.
Which brings me to my next point. Colonial diaries, ship’s logs, contracts and other documents make the family search a bit easier than later periods when settlers scattered hither and yon.
That’s how I nailed these Raynsfords. In fact, Edward, Anna’s other great-great-grandfather, was elected deacon at First Church, Boston. I can picture him in his black pilgrim hat and wide collar.
In 1668, 20 years before the Salem witch trials, Deacon Edward got into a kerfuffle with the new preacher in town. That minister was none other than Rev. John Davenport, my 10th great grandfather on another family line. I imagine the forthright minister and the cantankerous deacon arguing over theology that’s footnoted in history books today. Eventually they died were buried in the same graveyard: Kings Chapel, Boston. Their 17th-century gravestones can be viewed online too.
Oh, and by the way, I will give a genealogy how-to workshop at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Catawba County Library in Newton. The presentation is free and open to the public. It’s sponsored by the John Hoyle Chapter, DAR. Preregistration isn’t necessary. Just show up with your curiosity and a notebook.
Photo: By Patrick from Barrington, RI, Moretown, VT, United States – Church and Autumn Leaves – Stowe, VT, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11770456