Recently, I began the process of reviewing and confirming my family connections to Francis Cooke, a passenger on the Mayflower. This process reminded me of how I view history, how I make sense of it, and how I find myself in the unfolding narrative of time.
How do you make sense of history? More specifically, how do you view American history? Is there a unique perspective coloring your understanding? For me, I view it through the lens of my own family. I’ve discovered through genealogy research my family was involved in many significant events in our country’s past. This personal perspective makes these days of old come alive. The good, the bad, the inspiring, and the questionable all intrigue me.
When I begin the review process for a possible colonial ancestor, I begin with the known facts from my genealogy research and slowly walk backwards in time. Initially, events are quite concrete and known but as I walk back in time I become less certain about the details and my imagination begins to craft a story. It’s an exciting process!
I begin with myself and my own presence in time. I pause at this juncture and ask myself the following question, “Where do I come from?” Perhaps at some point in your life you’ve asked the same question?
From this place and with this question, I commence my walk backwards into history. In this case, I start with my father. I consider his experiences in the tail end of World War II and his experiences in the Korean War.
My mind is drawn into my father’s moments on the battlefield when incoming mortar fire pins him down in a foxhole. I can feel the cold. I can see the thick spring mud covering his boots. I experience some share in the terror. And for a moment, I am there with him.
As I continue back in time, I think of my father’s mother, my grandmother. She always told us a story of the 1938 Hurricane in Providence, Rhode Island. It was one of the fiercest and deadliest hurricanes in Rhode Island history.
As I review my grandmother’s dry genealogical data this moment in time floods my consciousness. Again, I am present as my grandfather frantically awaits the return of his wife, trapped by the rising water and billowing wind in downtown Providence, after a trip with family members to visit her aunt. This moment in history, captured in so many newspaper articles and newsreels, is made personal and real by my grandmother’s involvement in this event.
This connection continues as I review the facts of my great-grandmother, Mary Louise Waterman. She married Richard Edward Raybold and they courted in Sandwich, Massachusetts. A story, handed down in my family, has my great-grandfather, as a young man, seeing my great-grandmother, as a young woman, walking down Main Street in Sandwich with a “lithe step” and thinking he’d like to get to know this attractive young lady. I further see them courting on August evenings with a walk to the beach perhaps making their way to the bay over the recently constructed boardwalk.
As my great-grandmother matured she became involved in the suffragist movement with her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton and I see them working together with their fellow suffragettes pursuing a women’s right to vote. Once secured, my great-grandmother exercised her right to vote for the rest of her life.
As I go further back in time, a sense of my imagined history begins unfolding as the concrete becomes blended with more mythical considerations. Surely, I know my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were married in Sandwich as their marriage certificate assures me of this fact. Moreover, their graves, so lovingly tended in Bayview Cemetery, confirm their connections to Sandwich. The greater details of their lives, however, become understood only in my imagination.
This imagined view of history, my own family history, becomes more operative and amplified as I walk down the genealogical line which brings me closer to Francis Cooke. In the distant mists I know a few facts but the details become less clear and my mind ventures toward the idealized and the imagined. A few concrete facts become identified and my mind crafts a partly conjured up narrative to accompany the facts.
For example, I know my great-great-grandmother, Ellen Gray, was born and died in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. I also know she moved to New Jersey with her husband in her twenties, she became ill, and she returned to Barnstable only to die young from what appears to have been cancer. I also know her father died shortly after his only daughter passed away.
From these meager facts, my imagination creates a story. I join Ellen, a cherished daughter of her father, Charles Thatcher Gray, as she returns home to West Barnstable after being stricken with a fatal illness. She is tenderly cared for by her father and mother in their family home in West Barnstable. I further imagine the difficult death and passing a woman with cancer would have endured in the late 19th century.
Lastly, the fact that Ellen’s father died only a few short months after his daughter’s death in 1883, makes me wonder if my third great-grandfather didn’t die of a broken heart after witnessing the sad death of his only daughter, Ellen, my second great-grandmother. In my mind’s eye, I sit at his bedside as he passes away.
The Civil War then captures my attention and I see my family involvement on the Union side of this brutal war. I see my 2nd great-uncle, William Wood, dying in Virginia of yellow fever leaving a wife and two small children. Further down in history, I see bits of the War of 1812 and a great-grandparent, Nathan Benjamin Johnson, the husband of Mary Johnson, battling his way through this engagement with the British.
Some time earlier in history, the facts show Major Isaac Johnson, my sixth great-grandfather and husband of my sixth great-grandmother, Mary Kingsley Willis, leading troops against the British in the Revolutionary War with the 3rd Company in the Massachusetts Militia. The military records confirm he was commissioned February 7th, 1776. Taking this fact, I envision my great-grandfather Isaac reading the recently published “Common Sense” to his chilly troops in March searching for motivation to continue this rebellion. I am there in my imagination.
The Revolutionary War leads me back further into the colonial period and the French and Indian Wars unfold on the horizon. I join my ancestors participating in these engagements in the northern woods of New England.
And then the tragic confrontation identified in history as King Phillip’s War unfolds which pitted the natives of Southern New England against the European colonists.
This sad chapter in New England history ended fifty years of positive relations between the Native peoples and the European colonists. I wonder how my very own ancestors engaged with the Native Americans and can only assume they were as aggressive towards their original neighbors as any European was at that time.
Of all the tragic events of early colonial life, this one captures my imagination the most. What would have happened if Governor Josiah Winslow, my first cousin ten times removed, and Metacomet, the Native American leader, could have come to a mutually beneficial agreement rather than declaring war upon each other’s people? Perhaps so many of the horrors that subsequently unfolded in this nation between Native and European could have been avoided if a different choice was pursued?
And finally, my imagination encounters Francis Cooke and I consider what it was like for my tenth great-grandfather to experience the New World for the first time. Again, the cold, and the hardship become experiences I feel in my bones. In addition, I share in his joy as he celebrates his ability to worship in freedom in the New World. I enter these moments briefly and then return to the present. I remind myself that what he was and what he did, in a small but real way, impacted who I am. Ideologically, spiritually, politically, and even genetically his life formed my life.
It’s true, most everyone views history from their own personal perspective. Some see American history through the lens of the native peoples, some see it through the lens of enslaved people, some see it through the lens of individuals in a war for independence. As I say, my perspective is a personal one influenced greatly by my own family’s involvement in America’s past. These recently discovered personal connections make history come alive for me. Vibrantly alive.
Finally, it seems to me, from these kernels of fact and imagination we can learn much from each other and craft a present and future founded on truth that leads to justice. We share a present, and with some luck, we shall share a future. Perhaps knowing where we come from and how we view the past can help us walk forward in a more harmonious way? How do you view history? More specifically, how do you look at American history? Is there a unique perspective that colors your understanding? Why is it important to you?