Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Something Worth Knowing

A couple of weeks ago I made an exciting discovery, uncovering another son of our earliest Willett ancestor, Ebenezer Willett, 1798-1863. Samuel Willett was heretofore unknown to either myself or my genealogist friend and distant Willett cousin, Joyce. I found him using a database I hadn't seen before called New York'sTown Clerk's Registers of Men Who served in the Civil War. This is the only record I have found that clearly states the names of the parents of the veterans as well as the regiments in which they served and other various bits of information.

After I shared the information with Joyce, she went digging further and found some other information about our newly found uncle, including an obituary for Samuel's daughter Isabelle in The Schenectedy NY Gazette on October 31, 1934. This led me to today's story, which I consider one of the most interesting stories I've found to date. Here is an excerpt from that obituary:

Isabelle Willett Bardin, 83, daughter of the late Samuel Willett, Civil war Veteran who was body guard for President Grant....

As soon as I read that I knew there was a story there somewhere, and as it turns out, boy, was I right about that.

Samuel Willett, son of Ebenezer and Nellie Langdon Willett was born in 1820 New York City. He was married first to Elizabeth Bond. Their two children were Caroline and Ebenezer. Soon after Ebenezer was born, Elizabeth must have died, although we are still researching that. We think this is the case because  in 1850 Samuel has a new wife named Isabelle. He and Isabelle would have 2 daughters, Ida and Isabelle.

Samuel was a bootcutter by trade. He lived with Isabella and his children in the town of Argyle, NY in Washington County which is north and east of Albany, near the Vermont border. While he was living there, the Civil war broke out. Samuel lost his father, Ebenezer, in 1863 and in December of that year he enlisted with the Union Army and was mustered out with in a few weeks. Six days after he enlisted, his young son Ebenezer also enlisted. Together they would serve with the 16th New York Heavy Artillery, H Company.

Left behind with his wife Isabelle, were daughter Caroline, now a young woman of 20, her sisters Isabelle 10 years old and Ida, just a baby. The men of the family had left them behind to fend for themselves keeping the home fires burning while hoping they'd return safely. And, so they did. I didn't find any heroic accounts of Sam's military career during the war and in August of 1865 they were both mustered out as privates and returned to the family, continuing their lives. But it wouldn't be the last time Samuel left his family behind.

After the war, Samuel and Isabelle moved around some, residing in Troy, Albany and a couple of other towns in that area. Samuel continued to work as a boot maker and Isabelle continued to raise her daughters. The war was in the past and became a memory in New York, as time went on. Sam became an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans.

GAR Medal
"The great captain of the Union's salvation", as General Ulysses S. Grant was sometimes called, was elected president and served two terms from 1869 to 1877. His wasn’t the most successful presidency according to what I have read. His cabinet appointments were questionable and corruption was rampant in his administration. Although he had his loyal supporters, many of whom served under him in the war, his bid for a third term was lost and Garfield won the nomination. Grant went on a world tour where he was greeted by many with adoration and by all accounts enjoyed himself after a difficult two terms.
President Grant

Grant moved his family to New York City upon returning from his world tour and entered into business with his son and another businessman named Ferdinand Ward. However, he wasn't any better at choosing business partners than he was at choosing his cabinet, because Ferdinand had been running a Ponzi scheme and in 1884 the brokerage firm of Grant and Ward failed. Ferdinand was arrested and sent to jail. Grant’s fortune was gone.

That same year, in the fall, General Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. Depressed, without fortune he agreed to write his memoirs in order to make some money to replenish the family coffers. Samuel Clemens would be his publisher.

He began writing his memoirs in late 1884. But his health deteriorated rapidly and his physician, Dr. Douglas, knew that the heat of the city that summer would be too much for the ailing former president. He found speaking difficult and he was weakened and in great pain. The doctor took advantage of an offer made by his friends the Drexels who had a cottage available for the General in Saratoga on Mt. MacGregor.
Drexel Cottage

This move to Mt. McGregor was covered with daily reports in all of the newspapers of the day. There are day by day accounts of the General’s daily activities and updates on his health that began on the day of his arrival.

On June 16, 1885 according to the New York Times, ‘General and Mrs. Grant arrived at the
Drexel Cottage on Mt. McGregor along with his eldest son Colonel Frederick Dent Grant, his wife and 2 children Julia and US Grant, 3rd; Mrs. Nellie Grant Sartoris, the General’s daughter; Jessie Root Grant, his youngest son, with his wife and daughter Nellie. Dr. Douglas, Mr. Dawson, General Grant’s stenographer; Harrison Terrell, his colored valet and Henry McSweeney his nurse.’
Grant and his family on the porch of Drexel Cottage 1865

The Times goes on to report:

 “A tent was pitched this afternoon near the building, which will be occupied during the General’s stay by a veteran who has offered to do guard duty for his old Commander.”

From the book “The Captain Departs” by Thomas Pitkin and John Simon

“When the train arrived at the little platform…there was a hospital cot waiting for the General, but Grant ignored this and started walking up the hill toward the Drexel Cottage. He tottered only a little way, however, passing under an arch which welcomed “Our Hero” and let himself be carried in a rattan chair. He walked up the steps of the cottage with the sole assistance of his cane…After resting a while on the porch, where Mrs. Drexel was to receive him, he went inside and Harrison changed his clothes. He came out again in top hat and black coat and sat for hours until the mosquitoes drove him in. Sam Willett, an Albany G.A.R. veteran mounted guard before his door, telling reporters that he would stay on duty until the general left the mountains.”

Sam Willett had left his family again to serve the General. I don’t know if this was a hardship for the family. Surely with Sam away, no boots would be made or sold to the town folk. Certainly he would be needed at home. Isabella in her early 60s now would need him there to help her. His children were gone from the house by then, except for Ida who was just about 20. She probably had no memory of the first time her father went off to serve his country. But Sam had a loyalty to this man that was not to be equaled. Perhaps he viewed him as a sort of father figure, having lost his father just before he left for the war. Or, perhaps he knew him personally.

On June 30, 1885 The Albany Evening Journal reports:
General Grant in the field.

Something Worth Knowing

“Comrade Samuel Willett of Albany who guards General Grant’s cottage is every inch a soldier. He sleeps in a tent which the general manager…has had pitched about two rods from the cottage. Comrade Willett is a sturdy, thick set man, with bright blue eyes. His hair is grizzled and his face is smoothly shaven. “The first time I saw General Grant” Comrade Willett said to the Journal representative today, “was at Williams Wharf, Virginia and he taught me somethin’ worth knowing” ejaculated the old soldier as his ample breast heaved with pride. I enlisted with the Sixteenth Heavy Artillery, Company H, which left Troy, NY in December of 1863. The next spring, while I was doing fatigue duty helpin’ loadin’ black oats, three bushels to a bag, General Grant walked quietly down alongside of us. The boys began a’cheerin’ and I jined in. ‘Twas mighty hard work, shoulderin’ them oats the way we were doin’ it.”
How to Shoulder a Bag of Oats

General Grant looked at us a while and finally said “Boys, I’ll show you how to shoulder a bag of oats without so much trouble. And he explained to the officer in charge of the work that by having two men place the bags on the shoulders of the men who carried the bags up the hill they’d get there with less effort. After that, twas only boys’ play to carry the bags. I’d go to war today if I got a chance. I’ve done all kinds of guard duty. The doggondest worst thing I ever guarded was ten Army mules. They would kick and fight an’ bray all night. The smallest thing I ever guarded was 15 cents worth of old crude iron bits.” Comrade Willett is positive General Grant is the ‘greatest general in the world’. “Well, he kin out-flank and out-general the best of ‘em” is one of Willett’s favorite expressions when referring to Grant’s ability. Mr. Willett is hale and hearty and 66 years of age. He is proud of his charge. At General Grant’s request, he does not wear an Army uniform.”

In another article in the Evening Journal, the reporter writes:

The Guard’s Rheumatism is Gone

Comrade Samuel Willett of Albany who guards the cottage occupied by General Grant has suffered from rheumatism for many years. He says the “air” at Mt. MacGregor is curing him. “This is just the place for the old hero,” ejaculated Comrade Willett today, “and it’s just the place for me, too. If I get rid of this rheumatism, I’ll be as spry as I was nigh on 20 years ago when I enlisted in the Army."

Sightseers and reporters made the trip up the mountain daily by bus or train hoping to catch a glimpse of the family and the General.

From the book “The Captain Departs”:

Now and then Grant, sitting on the porch on sunny afternoons, writing or reading the newspapers, would look up and nod or wave his hand. Sam Willett, the G.A.R. veteran who had constituted himself Grant’s guard and had pitched a tent behind the cottage, spent part of his time playing with the Grant grandchildren and Dr. Douglas’s two little girls, and the rest keeping unwanted visitors away. Usually no one attempted to reach the porch, but he posted himself at the foot of the steps to prevent it.”

Dignitaries and friends made the trip to visit the General when he was first at the cottage. Samuel Clemens visited numerous times, assisting him with his memoirs, although it was said that Grant was such a gifted writer that there was almost no editing to be done. But, General Grant faded quickly while he was occupying the Drexel Cottage that summer. Each day his activities became more and more difficult and his voice became lower and lower.
The last photo of Grant on the porch of the cottage.

General grant finished his memoirs on July 19th when Samuel Clemens read what he’d written those past few days and declared it completed. Seeing how his friend’s health had deteriorated helped him make that decision . The General asked that his book be read aloud to him, but he took a turn for the worse and that request was never honored. From that day on he was in horrible pain, able to communicate only by writing on a pad of paper he kept with him, if he could summon the energy to scribble a note. His family remained near him and tried to persuade him to eat, but he could not.
Sam Willett courtesy of the Grant Cottage State Site.

While Sam kept guard outside, on the 23rd of July, early in the morning while the grandchildren still slept, the General passed away, with his wife and children at his bedside. How sad Sam must have been at the news. The sobs he heard from within the cottage as the General’s wife grieved must have tugged at the old soldier’s heart.  How he had loved his old Commander.
Grant's Death mask

The undertaker was called for and he prepared the body for burial while it was laid out on the kitchen table in the cottage. An artist was called to make a death mask. The family had decided to delay moving his body from the mountain until funeral arrangements could be made. The decision whether to bury him in New York or in Washington hadn't yet been made and it would take time to decide and then prepare his burial place. 

July 29, 1885


The electric lamp under the flag-draped canopy in the cottage parlor cast a soft light upon the body of General Grant in his coffin. It lies as if in peaceful sleep. The arms cross the breast in natural repose. Only the wasted hands recall his pain. The face is calm. It shows no signs of where the disease crept. There is fullness in the outline and nothing of the death pallor. The hair is combed so that the gray scarcely appears. Bunches of white are in the beard, but it is trimmed as of old. The lips are speaking lips, slightly parted, yet with no space between them. Death has made the face younger by ten years. The body is clothed in broadcloth. Above the buttons of the Prince Albert coat a gold stud glistens. There is a plain gold ring on the little finger of his left hand. The stud and the ring are the only jewelry. White stockings show above the tops of patent leather slippers.

As the days went by, “Another fine Sunday came and with it trainloads of visitors, some of whom hoped to get into the Grant cottage, but most of whom were content to walk buy or gather on a nearby knoll. The family remained in seclusion, except that in the afternoon they were joined by reverend Dr. Newman and Mrs. Newman for devotional services.

In the rear of the cottage, screened from public view, the veteran Willett amused the children. He had constituted himself the children’s playman, and protector. There were still three of them at the cottage: “Colonel Fred’s little boy, aged four, named after his grandfather; Julia, his sister, nine, pretty and demure; Nellie, Jesse Grant’s little girl, a bright pretty child of three.” The old soldier, who had served three years under Grant, had become quite expert in the handling of children. He had rigged up for them swings and a croquet ground, a summerhouse thatched with boughs and leaves, “and there they play every day.” From The Captain Departs

The General's body was placed on a train at the little platform at Mount MacGregor. Samuel Willett, is sure to have been there, escorting his beloved General to the train. Standing at attention, perhaps saluting his Commander one last time, he stood watching the train until it was no longer in sight.

SamWillett 1885

Ulysses S. Grant Home Page
The Grant Cottage
Excerpts from The Captain Departs

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Coincidence: 1. The state or fact of occupying the same relative position or area in space

Genealogy is filled with coincidences and serendipitous discoveries. One of the stranger coincidences in my ancestral journey has to do with two families named Brown.

In 1870, there was a tiny little village in Massachusetts called Whitinsville. It is still there today, but as it was then and is now, Whitinsville (pronounced White-ins-vill) is not a town, but what is called a Census Designated Place. By definition that means it is an area where there is a concentration of people living, as if a town, but it isn't incorporated and there is no separate local municipal government. Whitinsville is officially a part of the town of Northbridge.

Northbridge was originally inhabited by the Nipmuc tribe. It was once part of neighboring Mendon and then later part of Uxbridge, before it became a separate town in 1772. Being locate on the Mumford River, it was ideal for the textile mills that sprung up in the area, providing jobs that attracted European immigrants and locals to the area.

John  Whitin, the patriarch
Whitinsville was named for The Whitins (a variation if  Whiting) who were a successful family in the area, first manufacturing farm tools, like hoes and shovels. Once the Mumford River's energy was harnessed, they built a cotton mill. This mill was large, utilizing 1,500 spindles at a time. Soon, the sons of the family became frustrated with the crude tools and machinery available to the industry and began to develop their own patented equipment in their machine shop and became the largest producer of textile spindles in the area. So successful was this family, that by the turn of the century, they owned and operated five cotton mills in town, a machine works and a huge foundry.

Although there were many mills and other industries in Whitinsville, the entire town of Northbridge, in 1870 had a population of only about 2,600 people. Although I don't have the exact population of Whitinsville at the time, we can be reasonably certain that the population was measured by the hundreds rather than the thousands.

In the mid 1800s, Alexander Brown immigrated from Ireland to Whitinsville as a young boy. Alexander's bride Ann, was also born in Ireland. In 1870, Alexander and Ann are a young couple living in Whitinsville and Alexander is a Dresser Tender, which is a job in the cotton mill tending the thread on the spindles.

Meanwhile, another fellow also named Brown, Andrew Brown that is, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, not at all far from Whitinsville. Andrew married Almira, also from Rhode Island. They moved to Chicago for a short time in the 1860s after Andrew returned from the war. There, a son Ethelbert was born in 1868. When Ethelbert was just 2 they had moved back to the Northeast and settled in Whitinsville where I found them in the 1870 census as well. Andrew was a boot maker.

The Black Eagle Tavern, Whitinsville
For a few years around 1870 these two Brown families probably interacted in the little village. Perhaps Andrew and Alex met at the local tavern and tried to figure out if any of their family members were related. Ethelbert, Andrew's son was two years old in 1870. In 1872, Alex had a son also named Alexander. Maybe they talked about their sons and compared notes about their wives. Perhaps their wives became friends. They may have exchanged recipes or met in the local butcher shop or sat together at the Friday night socials.

Andrew and Almira moved back to Providence by 1880, where they raised Ethelbert. Ethelbert met a gal named Margaret Hines and they would have a daughter Hortense. Hortense had a sister Mildred Brown and they grew up in the Franklin area, about 20 miles south of Whitinsville. Hortense Gertrude Brown Locke was my first husband's grandmother, my sons' great grandmother. She lived to be 106, to date my sons' longest lived relative.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Ann Brown, moved from Whitinsville, also about 1880, to Sutton, MA which is also about 10 miles north of Whitinsville. Their son Alexander met and married Alice Moore. They raised their two girls named Anna Brown and Mildred Brown in Sutton. Anna Frances Brown Crowell is my husband Ed's grandmother. Anna's sister, Mildred ALice Brown Kelliher, was my husband's longest lived relative who died in 2002 at the age of 104.

I am not sure what this coincidence means, really. Let's just say that it was a big confusing tangle when I discovered these two Brown families while I was researching my children's (and ex-husband's) families and Ed's ancestry. For a time I was thinking they may have been related, but not so.

These two unrelated Brown families who both lived in 1870s Whitinsville produced the longest lived family members in the two separate family trees that I've been researching, which was kind of interesting.

Both families also included women named Mildred Brown. I don't know if I will ever find another link between these families. I suppose it's possible. For now, for these two Brown families, the only link I can find so far is me! A hundred years after Andrew and Alexander both made Whitinsville, Massachusetts their home, I would end up married twice. First. I was married to the great great grandson of Andrew Brown. And now, I am married to the great great grandson of Alexander Brown. Go figure!

Charles Brown, possibly a common ancestor?
You never know who you might meet up with along these journeys.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Incident at Pullin Point

Preface: Patten was my paternal great grandmother's maiden name. Josephine lived in New York City where my grandmother was also born, and for years I thought that the Pattens were an old New York family. However, Josephine was only the second generation to be born in New York. Her people actually came from Massachusetts, specifically Malden and Chelsea, once part of Boston. 


 The Incident At Pullin Point

     It was a cold blustery Sunday, the day after Christmas in 1751, when the ship The Bumper, having sailed from London, struck rocks at Pullin Point Beach. Captain Nicholas Cussens and all but one member of the crew made their way safely to shore.

     Captain Cussens, being a Bostonian, hired local men whom he knew to board The Bumper and help unload the cargo and salvage what they could from the crippled vessel. Among those who boarded her were Benjamin Prat, Samuel Tuttle, Jr., Thomas Patten, Bartholomew Flagg, Ebenezer Bootman, John Brintnall, Jabez Burdett, Nathan Cheever, Edward Watts, Joseph Prat, David Sargent, Saml. Floyd, Ebenezer Prat, and Nathan Lewis.

     Mr. Tewksbury, also from town, was willing to allow the sails and rigging that had been removed, to be stored in his barn until the Captain had decided what to do with it.

     But the locals didn't remove everything from the Bumper that day. Crewmember John Scalley, who had been left alone, hidden below, had been sick for ten days prior to the shipwreck. He was alive when the ship had struck that day. He was not carried off when the crew escaped to safety, nor were his fellow shipmates allowed to go back the next morning for him in order to get him medical help, in spite of their pleas. Instead, Captain Cussens ordered them to stay on shore and wait for his orders which would come later in the day.

     That night, on the Captain's orders the Mate, the Boatswain and others went back to the ship under the cover of darkness. They were ordered to remove Scalley's corpse, if indeed he had died, and they were to bury it in the rocks beneath the ship so that no one would find it.

     The body of John Scalley was discovered, but not until January 13th after an investigation had been launched by Selectmen.  It was suspected that it was The Bumper that brought smallpox to town shortly after it was 'cast away on Pullin Point Beach'. Upon questioning the crew, the story unfolded of the cruel manner in which Captain Cussens left Scalley alone to die and that with full knowledge he caused townsmen whom he knew had not had "the Distemper" to board the ship where Scalley remained and to  handle and store infected equipment and cargo that would carry the smallpox throughout the town.

     Meanwhile, the widow Brintnall who was also the schoolteacher in town, having likely survived the smallpox in an earlier time, did offer her home to those who had been stricken, where she would allow them to stay. The Selectmen voted to supply the sick with nurses, attendants and other necessaries, and to do so in a way to prevent, if possible, the further spreading of the disease.

     Another ship's captain from the area suggested that the sails and other equipment be buried or aired, but the Selectmen felt it was more dangerous to move them and voted to leave them where they were stowed. Mr. Tewksbury, however, had more than a little concern with his family going in and out of the barn in which the sails were housed. Eventually the Selectmen relented and allowed them to be removed and brought to the beach and buried. Later, everything from the ship would all be removed to a nearby island, in the hopes of making Chelsea safer still.

     In May of 1752, the Selectmen of Chelsea voted to prosecute Captain Nicholas Cussens. From the indictment:

" Chelsea aforesaid Inhumanly And Wickedly cause and procure Benjamin Prat, Samuel Tuttle junr, Thos Patten, Bartholomew Flagg, Ebenezer Bootman, John Brintnal, Jabez Burdet, Nathan Cheever, Edward Watts, Joseph Prat, David Sargent, Samll Floyd, Ebenezer Prat, and Nathan Lewis whom he the said Nicholas then knew had not been visited with the small pox but were Liable to take and recieve the same to go on Board the said Ship and to handle and remove the said Goods so infected as aforesaid out of ye said Ship and that the said Benjamin Prat, Samuel Tuttle Junr, Thomas Patten, Bartholomew Flagg, Ebenezer Bootman, John Brintnal, Jabez Burdett, Nathan Cheever, Edward Watts & Joseph Prat by so going on board the said Ship and removing the Goods aforesaid Did then and there take and receive the Infection aforesaid and thereupon soon after fell sick of the Disease aforesaid and thereof ye said Benjamin Prat, Samuel Tuttle junr, Thomas Patten and Bartholomew Flagg afterwards at Chelsea aforesaid Died ..."

In 1739 the Brintnall Families are in Chelsea but the Pattens hadn't yet come from Malden. Note if you enlarge the map you can see Pullen Point which today is Winthrop Massachusetts, just off Hog Island

     My fifth great grandfather, Thomas Patten, perished in January 1752 after unloading the ship The Bumper on December 26. Also, lost were his 7year old daughter Jemima, and his wife's grandmother, Phebe Smith Brintnall. One account I read said that as the result of this shipwreck, of the 15,000 or so inhabitants of Boston, including Chelsea, 5,998 people became infected. The widow Brintnall who took in the sick during the epidemic was Thomas's mother-in-law, Deborah Mellins Brintnall. She lived for another 36 years.

     There was a passionate debate going on when smallpox hit Chelsea, not for the first time. Epidemics were frequent throughout the Colonial era and the debate had been started in 1721 when  Dr. Boylston from Boston and Reverend Cotton Mather had been proponents of inoculating people after having learned that they were doing so in Europe. Inoculations required that people were infected with smallpox, causing  a milder form of the disease which made them immune to future exposure. The two worked together on perfecting the procedure in Boston. Dr. Boylston experimented by inoculating two of his slaves and his own son, all three surviving. But, it was controversial on many levels and Clergy and politicians were both for it and against it.

     Some questioned whether it was wise to be infecting people with a milder case of smallpox and exposing all others who hadn't been inoculated. And, should the state be forcing inoculations? But there were religious questions, too. Was this not interfering with God's plan? The debate would rage on, some getting inoculated, some not, more epidemics would come and go all over the colonies. Finally, almost 50 years later, Jenner discovered that injecting cowpox was a safer and effective way to prevent smallpox. (trivia tid bit: the word vaccine comes from the root vacca the latin word for cow)

     People fled their homes, their towns, their states to avoid smallpox back then. In 1752, almost 2,000 people left the greater Boston/Chelsea area. Perhaps that's how the Pattens wound up in New York. Thomas's son John, was just 2 when his father died. John was the first of the Pattens in our line to live in New York, where he died in 1828. Great great great great great grandfather Thomas Patten died almost 200 years before I was born. And still, it was a painful discovery. It is just by chance or fate or Divine plan that The Bumper and her nefarious Captain Cussens "cast away" on Pullin Point after my 4th great grandfather John was born and not before; and that baby John Patten was able to survive the deadly epidemic.

     And because he did, the family survived the Incident at Pullin Point, and probably more equally dramatic moments in history just waiting for me to discover. I hope you'll be there with me when I do! 

Read more about the 1752 Smallpox epidemic at Chelsea by clicking HERE

Thursday, April 7, 2011

'Dorothy, Close your eyes. Click your heels together three times and think to yourself, 'there's no place like Holmes.'

My Willett branch is said to have descended from Thomas Willett, the first Mayor of New York. To date, I have yet to find that direct link, but every once in a while I read a little more about Thomas just in case he does in fact turn out to be the immigrant ancestor I have been looking for.

Thomas was born in Leydon, Holland in 1610. His parents were members of the Leydon Congregation who had fled England for the Netherlands seeking religious freedom. In 1629, Thomas left his family behind and at the age of 19 set sail as a passenger on the Mayflower. It wasn't the Mayflower we are familiar with that came here 9 years earlier, carrying the pilgrims who settled in Plymouth. From what I have read there were 20 ships named the Mayflower in 1629, when Thomas made his voyage. He arrived at Salem, MA and took another boat to Plymouth where he would make quite a name for himself. 

There's a huge amount written about Thomas, and if I prove he his our ancestor I will definitely delve deeply into that research. In addition to eventually becoming the first Mayor of New York, this young immigrant was a VIP in Plymouth, succeeding Myles Standish as Captain of the Militia, being appointed as assistant Governor and most importantly for his future, was early on put in charge of trading posts in Maine which positioned him for trading with the Indians as well as with the Dutch in New Amsterdam (NY), thanks to his knowledge of the language. He soon traded with ship owners, becoming an owner of a fleet of ships himself, and he owned large tracts of land in New York, Swansea, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

An interesting little fact that I hadn't ever heard before came to  light recently. Thomas Willett married Mary Browne, daughter of John Browne from Plymouth. Several generations later, through their daughter, Esther Willett Flynt, Thomas and Mary's great granddaughter Dorothy Quincy was born in 1709. Dorothy is the subject of a poem written in 1871 by her great grandson Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 1809-1894

Oliver never met Dorothy. She died 47 years before he was born. But, like me, he knew he owed his life to his great grandmother and all of his ancestors who came before him. Her decision to say "yes" allowed him to "be". It's a humbling thing when we first realize that personal and private or even seemingly trivial decisions we make everyday may somehow determine the course of history. 

Young Oliver saw a portrait of a young Dorothy Quincy hanging on the wall of his grandmother's Cambridge home. Whenever he visited her there, near the "three-hilled rebel town" of Boston, he must have studied it, and it inspired him to write the poem "Dorothy Q: A Family Portrait. Through that portrait and family stories passed down to him he got to know her. It's exactly what I do, getting to know my ancestors through pictures or bits of stories and news clippings and the documents, etc. It just makes me smile to think of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Physician, poet, writer, coiner of the terms anesthesia and Boston Brahmin, friend to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writer of Old Ironsides and father of the Associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., thinking about his ancestors as I do mine. And it's certainly fun to think that there may come a time when I can put a common ancestor, Thomas, up there in our tree as well. I will certainly let you know if I ever do make that connection.    

Dorothy Quincy Jackson


By Oliver Wendell Holmes


GRANDMOTHER's mother: her age, I guess,
Thirteen summers, or something less;
Girlish bust, but womanly air;
Smooth, square forehead with uprolled hair;
Lips that lover has never kissed;
Taper fingers and slender wrist;
Hanging sleeves of stiff brocade;
So they painted the little maid.

On her hand a parrot green
Sits unmoving and broods serene.
Hold up the canvas full in view,--
Look! there's a rent the light shines through,
Dark with a century's fringe of dust,--
That was a Red-Coat's rapier-thrust!
Such is the tale the lady old,
Dorothy's daughter's daughter, told.

Who the painter was none may tell,--
One whose best was not over well;
Hard and dry, it must be confessed,
Fist as a rose that has long been pressed;
Yet in her cheek the hues are bright,
Dainty colors of red and white,
And in her slender shape are seen
Hint and promise of stately mien.

Look not on her with eyes of scorn,--
Dorothy Q. was a lady born!
Ay! since the galloping Normans came,
England's annals have known her name;
And still to the three-hilled rebel town
Dear is that ancient name's renown,
For many a civic wreath they won,
The youthful sire and the gray-haired son.

O Damsel Dorothy! Dorothy Q.!
Strange is the gift that I owe to you;
Such a gift as never a king
Save to daughter or son might bring,--
All my tenure of heart and hand,
All my title to house and land;
Mother and sister and child and wife
And joy and sorrow and death and life!
What if a hundred years ago
Those close-shut lips had answered NO,
When forth the tremulous question came
That cost the maiden her Norman name,
And under the folds that look so still
The bodice swelled with the bosom's thrill?
Should I be I, or would it be
One tenth another, to nine tenths me?

Soft is the breath of a maiden's YES:
Not the light gossamer stirs with less;
But never a cable that holds so fast
Through all the battles of wave and blast,
And never an echo of speech or song
That lives in the babbling air so long!
There were tones in the voice that whispered then
You may hear to-day in a hundred men.

O lady and lover, how faint and far
Your images hover,-- and here we are,
Solid and stirring in flesh and bone,--
Edward's and Dorothy's-- all their own,--
A goodly record for Time to show
Of a syllable spoken so long ago!--
Shall I bless you, Dorothy, or forgive
For the tender whisper that bade me live?

It shall be a blessing, my little maid!
I will heal the stab of the Red-Coat's blade,
And freshen the gold of the tarnished frame,
And gild with a rhyme your household name;
So you shall smile on us brave and bright
As first you greeted the morning's light,
And live untroubled by woes and fears
Through a second youth of a hundred years.

Click here to read about the painting that inspired Oliver Wendel Holmes' poem