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

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