I’ve just had a brush with some of my ancestors, and the experience has left me quaking in my sneakers.
OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. I wasn’t exactly frightened…more stirred up, the way somebody on a turbulent ride might get. The questions I had before the meet-up have been partly answered, but now I have many more, plus a few contradictions that aren’t easily put to rest, as the ancestors themselves lie silent.
Hearing that I wanted to peer back in time to find out about our family’s religious heritage, my cousin Alice suggested a trip to Nantucket—after Labor Day, of course. There were still lots of prosperous looking people strolling around, many with toddlers in tow, apparently arriving to attend a variety of weddings (but, mid-week?) on the island.
Back to the old, really old, people. If you are at all like me, you know a little something about each one of your four grandparents…but not a whole lot. Perhaps you actually spent time with them all (my mother barely knew her own father, so I definitely missed him entirely) or maybe just one or two of the foursome. In any case, each one can be considered the most accessible link to a history going back, back, and father back. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a relative — or, as in my case, a cousin’s husband – who has spent hours on genealogy, then it’s something like getting a flashlight that illuminates a long line of faces you, frankly, had learned to live without.
Our grandmother Mary Titus Shotwell Ingraham, who died 35 years ago, might just as well have been boarding the ferry from Hyannis with us, last week, for we went in search of her mother’s original people. Her mother’s name, before marriage, was Alice Wyman Gardner. My own father’s middle name was Gardner, so I’m pretty convinced of the connection.
“Gwy” as we called her — was a proud Quaker, and although my cousin had fifteen more years with her than I did, I vividly recall holding onto her wrinkled arm and attending Westbury Meeting a number of times, near our Long Island home. In those days, it didn’t occur to me to wonder how she got to be Quaker in the first place, but it turns out that this particular story started in the 17th century, on Nantucket.
In a nutshell: my cousin and her husband discovered that all of us are descended from the original ten (white) families who settled the island. Members of the Wampanoag tribe were absolutely there first. Here’s in part where my internal seas begin to get stirred up. How, you also might ask, can we be related to all TEN families? Why, intermarriage, of course. It wasn’t exactly as if they could meet thousands of people on Tinder back then; they couldn’t be too choosy, either.
A couple of miles outside of town, near a pond but way off the road, there’s a place called the “Founders Burial Ground.” We hiked out there one day to find a pair of monuments we’d heard about. The older one, erected in 1881, lists all the names (with birth and death years, mostly within the 17th century) of the ten original MALE founders. I’ll spell them out because maybe you’re related to some of these guys too: Tristram Coffin; Thomas Macy; Edward Starbuck; Peter Folger; John Gardner; John Swain, Jr; John Coleman; Richard Gardner: Christopher Hussey; William Bunker. Sound familiar? it’s hard to see the names in the picture, but here goes anyway:
Having not done the research myself, I have no idea what any of these gentlemen were really like, apart from the fact that they produced a lot of children (the stone calls them “worthy sires”) who became successful businessmen. But I do know from a book I picked up, Quaker Nantucket (by Robert J. Leach and Peter Gow; Mill Hill Press, Nantucket; 1997) that Thomas Macy fled with his wife Sarah to Nantucket in 1659 after being persecuted by the Puritans –oh, they could be nasty– for sheltering Quakers, then a loathed sect. Presumably, in a new place, all these families could become as Quaker as they wanted, which they did.
This “male” monument was joined by another, thanks to a fundraising campaign, in 2009. The new one, appropriately, commemorates the women, from those original ten families. If you look carefully, you can see their names here:
We now know to be alert for the “Whoops, you forgot the women!” moment when considering any society. In this little one long ago, it is crystal clear how far-ranging the female responsibilities were. Leach and Gow say this:
The wives, daughters and sisters of Nantucket were entrusted not only with household management but also with a major role in the direction of island life as a whole. (p. 23)
This was so, getting us into a whole new topic causing more turbulence, because the men of the island were essentially gone, busy building a whaling empire that coincided exactly with the rapid rise of Quakerism on the island during the 18th century. By the middle of the 19th century, with the discovery of petroleum, it all came crashing down, and the New Great Thing became the Gold Rush in California. Thank goodness at least some whales eluded those harpoons.
So, wait a minute, those quiet pacifists were also whale-killers who circled the globe to get rich?! And they had indentured servants, almost slaves, on board during their multi-year journeys? Just like Herman Melville described? Terrific.
When we visited the Whaling Museum in town, we saw a wonderful documentary film by Ric Burns called Nantucket that brought elements of this history alive. In one particular segment, the narrator tries to make a link between the business acumen of the Quakers and the “sense of destiny” they had about whaling. This part went too quickly for me to absorb; it seemed glossed over, almost as if the makers of the film knew they couldn’t quite explain it.
But that’s the way with history, I guess. The more you learn, the more you get wondering. And when it hits really close to home—slam bang in your own family—then you can have a real whale of a time trying to sort it all out.