Last weekend, on a snowy New England afternoon, my wife and I had lunch in Cambridge with an old friend of mine…and his new fiancée. The engagement came as something of a surprise: I hadn’t known he was seeing anyone seriously. Over lunch they told us their story. A year ago, on New Year’s Eve, they each declined various invitations in favor of a quiet party in someone’s apartment. The host was my friend’s college friend; her sister went to school with his now-fiancée. They met and hit it off…
The story gave me reason to think again on how many little decisions can affect each person’s life in a huge way. A few years ago I was stuck in a job I hated in a city I wanted to leave. If I’d been able to leave there when I’d wanted to, I would almost certainly not be with my wife today. Our future children will owe their existence in large part to that delay. My family, and I’m sure yours, is full of such tales. My grandfather’s then-unheard-of divorce that paved the way for him to marry my grandmother. My great-grandfather’s job offer that led my grandmother’s family to move into a building right across the street from my grandfather.
Each of us exists only because billions of little things happened that led each of our ancestors to have the child who continued the chain at that precise time. Take away any link at all from our long, long lines of direct ancestors and – poof! – we’re gone. Studying my family’s history these past couple of years has given me a lot of insight into these private “but-for” moments, but also into certain well-known historical events without which I’d probably never have existed.
Of course, there were things like an Gorta Mór, which spurred massive-scale emigration from Ireland to the United States in the years after 1846, and England’s persecution of Puritans and Separatists, which led some of my ancestors to sail to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Here, though, I’m going to talk about some famous events that – arguably – had a more direct impact on my coming into being. I won’t pretend that these were all good events, just that without them I’d likely never have been born.
(This was pretty long, so I split it in two. This post covers events up to the American Revolution, the next one will cover more recent events.)
The Salem Witch Delusion, 1692
In Salem, in front of the Salem Witch Museum, stands a statue of a fellow named Roger Conant. He’s my direct ancestor, though for many years I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know the statue was of the honorable Roger Conant, founder of Salem. Mistaking his buckled hat and cloak, for years I thought it was a statue of a witch. Anyone who's been to Salem might find that mistake understandable.
Thus it was that the Scruggs family moved northward from their original homestead. When Thomas Scruggs died in 1654, his widow granted the land to John Raymond, who’d married her daughter Rachel. Their son, John Raymond, Jr., was reportedly (at the age of 15) the first soldier inside the Narragansetts’ fort during King Philip’s War in 1676. He survived that experience and married a local girl. They attended the Salem Village church, now in the town of Danvers. The church where all the witchcraft hysteria broke out.
The Battles of the Plains of Abraham, Sainte-Foy, and Quiberon Bay, 1759-60
The September 1759 battle at the Plains of Abraham, coming at the end of a three-month siege of the city of Québec, gave the British control of that major port on the St. Lawrence River for the first time, as the French army and most of the city’s French population evacuated. Ice closing the mouth of the river forced the British navy to leave the area, however, lest the ships be trapped there all winter. This left an opening for the French, who won a victory at Sainte-Foy in late April 1760, forcing the British to retreat inside Québec’s city walls.
As an American, an Irishman, and a Francophile who sympathizes with the Québecois who’ve been discriminated against over the centuries, I’ve always considered the British victory unfortunate. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. The British victory made settlement of Vermont and northern New Hampshire safe for New England colonists. As early as 1761, New Hampshire and New York were fighting over Vermont and their governors were issuing town charters there. A number of my ancestors came from places like Middleboro, Massachusetts, and northeastern Connecticut to be among the early English settlers in those newly-created Vermont and New Hampshire towns.
Not all of my colonial ancestors were in Vermont or northern New Hampshire at the time of the American Revolution. Some, whose children would live in Vermont, were still in Massachusetts. One in particular, John Perkins III, was living in Middleboro. In 1772 he married a local girl, Hannah Gardner, and they had two sons in their first two years of marriage. But conflict was on the horizon.
In the months before Lexington and Concord in April 1775, as patriots across Massachusetts prepared for the coming conflict, John enlisted as a minuteman in Col. Theophilus Cotton’s Plymouth County regiment. When news came of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the regiment was too far to join the fighting. Instead, it formed a circle around the town of Marshfield, a Loyalist stronghold where a small number of British soldiers were staying. The cautious Col. Cotton, however, decided not to attack Marshfield and the British troops escaped to Boston by ship on April 21.
The next stop was Albany, but heavy snows and lack of snow (they needed it for the sleds to work best) delayed their arrival; the first cannon didn’t reach the city until early January 1776. Bringing the guns to Albany meant two crossings of the Hudson River. The river ice was strong enough to support normal transport, but not the weight of the cannons. Knox’s men spent days walking out on the river with buckets of cold water, which they poured over the existing ice in the hopes of thickening it. Eventually the cannon crossed the Hudson again from Albany and the arduous trip through the Berkshire mountains began. From Albany Knox’s crew dragged the cannon over 150 miles to Washington in Cambridge, arriving January 27, 1776. A journey he expected to take two weeks had taken more than ten.
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Like I said, there are more in recent times. Stay tuned.
So, open thread people? Can you think of any historic events that shaped your family’s fate? Any specific private choices?