Friday, June 25, 2010

Ancestor Love, Part One

This was my religion long before I ever chose to associate myself with any sort of "official" religious point of view or denomination. It grew out of a general inquisitiveness and a specific need to know about my father's family; because, unlike my mother, he appeared to have landed from another planet (one I would later find out was called "Chicago").  Up in Maine (my world was the suburbs of Buffalo at the time), I had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and what seemed like oodles of cousins.  I knew this, of course, because we visited them and they visited us regularly.  My father's parents, I was told, were long dead...but I was to think of my great-uncle and -aunt as grandparents.  (This didn't fly once I got old enough to know the difference.)  There were some cousins out in Chicago that I knew about -- one even came to visit -- but they were older and the distance was great.  I asked my father repeatedly about these people and could not begin to understand why he couldn't or wouldn't share more information.  My whole world was my family at that age (7 or 8?) could it not be the same with him?

So, I concentrated on my mother's side.  Descendants of the Mayflower and the others who soon followed, their American past had long been documented for the likes of me to discover anew. The genealogical collection at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library is filled with family histories tracing these early families through 7, 8, 9 generations as they scattered across New England, the Mid-Atlantic and eventually the Midwest -- usually coming up to the very beginning of the 20th century.  I only needed a couple of generations to connect myself to these various lines, and that's where my great-great-uncle Dexter came in. When he caught the bug, it was all about connecting oneself a) to the Pilgrims and b) back to Europe in the hopes of unearthing some royal blood.  It was all about snobbery, which is very funny because the Pilgrims seemed like very annoying annoying that they had to come to the middle of nowhere to find any peace.  (Think Utah.)

For me, it had nothing to do with snobbery.  It had everything to do with figuring out my origins; and, if I couldn't get any traction with my father's side, I could at least find out everything that was knowable about these New England folks -- the good, the bad, and the downright embarrassing.  And I got it in spades.

It was also a chance to kindle an interest in history.  Following my mother's ancestors as they left Massachusetts and New Hampshire for Connecticut, Maine and New Brunswick, Canada (Loyalists!), is like watching the larger story of the American colonies (the Northern ones, at least) unfold.  Maine, where I spent my teenage years and college, is particularly interesting.  Younger sons, who would not inherit land back in an increasingly-crowded Massachusetts, would slowly colonize Maine (then a district of Massachusetts), creeping farther up the coast and inland, generation by generation.  Richard Gowell -- whose surname my mother would inherit almost 300 years later -- began his time on these shores around 1660 near the modern-day state line between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.  His great-grandson would know Berwick, some 20 miles to the north, and Lebanon, another 10 miles to the north.  His great-great-grandson (my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather) would grow up in Auburn (like me), a whopping 70 miles to the north and east.

Other lines went even farther inland, but they all share the same characteristic of bleeding across the land like an ink stain or a spilled glass of red wine.  It can't have been an easy life.  It rewarded the hearty (many of these ancestors lived to a ripe, old age), killed many long before their time, and severely tested those with frailties or other limitations.  If you were so inclined, it could make you a real ass.

Take Stephen Douglas Alden, my great-great-grandfather.  He was born in 1863, so clearly his first and middle names were no Lincoln-lovers, his parents.  His surname Alden, he inherited as a (gr x 6)-grandson of Pilgrim John Alden.  He was born in an area along the Androscoggin River that would come to support many milltowns with its falls and rushing water.  The Maine Aldens had been farmers up to this time, but the industrial age was pushing many into the mills, including Stephen.  It must have been something of a shock, and he doesn't seem to have been made the better for it.  He later would marry another descendant with a famous New England last name -- Elsie Edith Whitney.  But, these were the poor, country cousins and apparently Stephen wasn't (by then?  ever?) a very nice man.  The marriage ended just shy of the turn of the century, which I can only imagine was quite a scandal.  I've been told my great-grandmother never forgave him and would later shut her own door in his face.

So, here's the rub.  To a teenager, eager to learn about his ancestors, "Stephen Douglas Alden" sounds like quite a catch. After all, he's named after a prominent political figure of the time; he carried the surname Alden; he marked the moment an agrarian society enters the industrial age!  Then the adult learns this seemingly storied ancestor was an absolute cad.  But the bubble didn't burst; it simply got more defined.  And it made what came after him in the form of family drama -- even to my day -- more understandable.  I don't have to like Stephen, but he's undeniably part of my puzzle.  And my sister's.  And my cousins'.  Forever. And, for that, I do have to love him.  And now, after years of searching, I know he (and his 3rd wife!) are buried near New Haven, CT, where I'll soon visit his grave (and forgive him).

I don't have a picture of Stephen, but here is his son Arthur Francis Alden, who was later killed in France during World War I. Handsome, no?