The first time I remember actively hunting around to find information about my ancestry, I was in sixth grade, and a school project demanded it.
When I asked my mom’s side of the family, the response was Scottish, German, and English. When I asked my dad’s, it was Scottish and Welsh.
I’ve spent the last month or so paging through the painstakingly researched information that two great aunts (one on either side of my family) sent me long ago. I got a two week free trial to Ancestry.com a couple months ago and forgot to cancel before it charged me, so now I have a year to use their resources to further that information. In some cases I have more than Ancestry does — for instance, that one of my ancestors, farmer called Oliver Mears, named his son George Washington Mears. This son was born just after the Revolutionary War. An act of pure pride? One of my ancestors fought with Washington at Valley Forge — could it have been Oliver Mears, inspiring him to beget our nation’s first president a namesake?
I spent a long while last night researching my mother’s side of the family, tracing back the Mears name as far as my great aunt Dottie had gone and then some. There have been some funny little discoveries, some almost creepy, others mystifying. Aunt Dottie traced the Mears line back to Caledonia County, Vermont in the early to mid eighteenth century, to the same Oliver Mears. She scribbled notes on the page indicating that the land had been deeded to him possibly by a Boston Mears.
My research on Ancestry.com confirmed that — imagine my surprise when I stumbled across not one or two, but ten family trees that share that common ancestor, and the name Robert Mears which repeated every other generation for about a hundred years. Several generations of my family lived in Boston as far back as the early 1600s, which is astonishing to me. Could they have taken part in the infamous tea party? Who were these people, and when did they arrive?
I nearly moved to Boston five years ago with a friend. I’ve always wanted to go there, and though I’ve never been, I’ve always been a Red Sox and a Patriots fan — finding out my family lived there for over a hundred years made prickles raise on my arms.
My family has always been quite adamant that we were Scottish. On both sides. The Mears name was supposedly the Scottish branch of our lineage, but the Mearses that extended backward from Boston came from London. Of course, it’s possible the family originally came from Scotland, but I don’t know how much farther back I’ll be able to follow them without an extended sojourn in the UK. Scotland in the 1500s and 1600s was very different from London.
Through this research, I wonder. The oral traditions of a family are strong. My German ancestors came over a mere two hundred years ago, but my purported Scottish and English ancestors arrived long, long before.
Some of them seem to have been among the very first settlers of America — Boston in the early 17th century wasn’t exactly a blazing metropolis. If the family has maintained their insistence on their Scottishness for that many centuries, they must have come from Scotland at some point — and that kind of dogged ethnic stubbornness hints that perhaps leaving wasn’t their idea. Any number of reasons could have pushed them from home. Famine, sickness, economics, even the Highland Clearances (though timing-wise, the latter is unlikely).
Even more eerie is the ghosts of the women who cling to the branches of my family tree. One name stands out among the lines of Mears, Layton, Hurst, Bennett, Spanagel, and Schweinfurth, Unterwagner. Her name was Inez Viroqua Bennett, and all her siblings were called George, Ann, James, Robert, Thomas, and Frank. It’s likely that no one ever will know how a distinctly Spanish name wound up in a sea of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Germans. Her name draws my eye over and over when I look at the lists of my ancestors. There’s a direct line between us, and yet I know nothing about her or what caused Robert Bennett and Eleanor Milner to name their daughter so differently than the rest of their children.
When I search through the records in Ancestry’s databases, it’s harder to find women. It is a reminder that they were not as valued. Their names would not show up on deeds for land, and often not in wills. They are even less likely to appear on death records — the only death records I’ve found for my family’s women have been from the last hundred years. So Inez Viroqua Bennett will remain a mystery to me, her name a reminder of stories lost to time.
I’m not done searching yet, on either side of the family. The Taylors on my dad’s side who settled in the Scottish-populated mountains of North Carolina are a mystery as well — people who share my common ancestor Moses Taylor have said they were English, but a many times removed cousin I met several years ago at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games — a Taylor from the same region who is also descended from Pvt. Moses Taylor — has been raised knowing he was Scottish.
It’s tough to track people into the past, to follow the footsteps of bloodlines and names and hope to strike family among thousands of faces. In many cases, you can never know for sure when you get back far enough that Social Security numbers were nonexistent and almost all countries had kings in lieu of prime ministers and president, parliaments and congresses.
And yet the drive to find them is still strong. On my father’s side, it’s the Powells I want to find the most. We know they came from Wales, but that’s all. They are, like the ghostly Scots, but ghosts in a murky and distant past who sought a new life in a new world. They say a Scot is a Scot even unto a hundred generations. I haven’t had to go back a hundred yet, and I know who I am.
I want to know who they were. I want to know where they came from and why they came here. I’m an historian, after all. And history is all about the people and the why — it’s how the psychology of a human being becomes the psychology of nations. So I’ll keep reaching my fingers back into the folds of time before this country was a country. I’ll see if I can find the people who helped birth it, and who birthed me hundreds of years after their struggles.
Wish me luck.
Have you ever tried to track down your ancestry? What oral traditions have your families left you about your history?
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