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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.

Roger Conant statue
Roger Conant - the Salem ancestor I mistook for a witch
Poor Roger was just one of many ancestors of mine who settled early in Salem, and he surely knew the others. One of them was a fellow named Thomas Scruggs, who owned a 300-acre farm on the Forest River, near today’s historic park Salem Pioneer Village 1630. Like klompendanser’s ancestor Robert Moulton, Scruggs temporarily lost his right to bear arms for speaking out against the persecutors of Anne Hutchinson during the “antinominian controversy” of the 1630s.
Pioneer Village Salem
Pioneer Village Salem, on the site of the original Thomas Scruggs farm. If he hadn't swapped farms, I never would have... Aw, you get it.
At some point Scruggs swapped farms with William Trask, who had been granted 200 acres west of Wenham Pond in what is today the northwest corner of the city of Beverly. (Conant and three others received neighboring grants in the same area.) The plan was to create a college overlooking the bay on the original Scruggs farm. Scruggs and Trask worked diligently but it never came to pass. Ironically, Salem State University sits very close by today.

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.  

Witchcraft Hysteria Land - The Salem Village church is marked in the center with an "X," the Raymond homestead to the right with an "R." The present-day city of Salem is the "Town of Salem" on the peninsula in the bottom right corner.
During the witchcraft trials, John’s nephew William Raymond, Jr. briefly testified – for the defense – in the case of Sarah Buckley, who was acquitted. William Raymond directly called young Ann Putnam, who had accused Mrs. Buckley, a liar, saying he had been present and seen nothing that she described. Apparently John and his wife Martha had had enough. Soon after William’s testimony, they packed up and left Salem Village for Middleboro, some 70 miles to the south. Their son Thomas, about five at the time of the move, later married his first cousin in Middleboro. (Her parents had made the move under very different circumstances – a story for another day.) Subsequent generations would marry and have children with people they met in Middleboro – not Salem Village.

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.

La Citadelle de Quebec
La citadelle on the Plains of Abraham, Québec City. The English conquered the city in 1759 and withstood a French siege.
Ultimately the French siege was unsuccessful because in November 1759 the British navy had intercepted, at Quiberon Bay near the Breton coast, the French fleet bringing reinforcements and provisions. When the British navy was sighted approaching the area, Chevalier de Lévis abandoned the siege and retreated to Montréal, where he surrendered to a larger British force in September 1760. France was pretty much done for in the province of Québec.

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.

Historic marker in Woodstock, Vermont
With the French and their allies out of the picture after 1760, New England colonists rushed to fill the land north of Massachusetts. This marker shows that the town of Woodstock, Vermont was chartered in 1761, months after the fall of Montréal. My family was there by the early 1770s.
Their children would not have married as they did had Vermont and northern New Hampshire not been “opened” to New England colonists by the defeat of the French and their Native American allies. Indeed, some of my ancestors pushed on into what is today southern Québec, the Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’Est) area, and one couple (whose parents had come from hundreds of miles apart back in the “states”) met and married there. Had the French held Québec, I’d not be alive today.
The glorious British victory allowed colonists to move north into inspiring landscapes like this one in Québec's Eastern Townships
Henry Knox’s “Noble Train of Artillery,” 1775-76

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 Siege of Boston, 1775. The British held the city but were surrounded by Washington's Continental Army. My ancestor was in Roxbury (blue circle), not far from Dorchester Heights (red circle), the capture of which by the Americans sent the Brits packing.
In mid-1775 John’s company went to Roxbury, right outside Boston, and joined Washington’s Continental Army, which had the British pinned in Boston. The only British attempt to break out of Boston was at Bunker Hill on June 17th. The British took Bunker Hill, their objective, and adjacent Breed’s Hill, where the heaviest fighting had taken place, but suffered such heavy casualties that they declined to engage the Boston-area colonials again.
Highland Park on Roxbury's Fort Hill, site of a key fort during the 1775-1776 Siege of Boston
During the siege Roxbury had a "High Fort", shown here, on Fort Hill, and a "Low Fort" down near the meetinghouse, a bit closer to Boston Neck and the British-controlled city. Knox oversaw the building of each.
Thus it was that John’s company camped in Roxbury for the many months of the siege. The two sides would occasionally shoot in each other’s direction, but no real fighting took place. Washington, looking to end the siege, sent young Boston bookseller Henry Knox to retrieve the cannons the Americans had captured at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, in May 1775. The seizure of that fort, which contained much in the way of artillery but was poorly guarded, had been the brainchild of a Connecticut militia officer named Benedict Arnold, who had not yet abandoned the American side.  Arnold and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys captured the fort easily, but Arnold determined that transporting the cannon to Boston would be logistically impossible.
John Perkins's pension application from nearly 60 years later, citing his service in Roxbury.
25-year-old Henry Knox and his men did the impossible. Knox did not leave Boston until November 17, 1775. He traveled first to New York City and arrived at Ticonderoga on December 5. Knox selected 59 cannon, weighing a total of about 60 tons. (The biggest guns, 11-footers, weighed over 5,000 pounds each.) The guns were loaded on a boat, captained by Knox’s brother William, to sail down Lake George, which was fast covering with ice. The boat struck a floe and sunk, but the Knox brothers devised a way to raise it and complete the crossing. At Lake George the crew built 42 strong sleds and hired 80 yoke of oxen.

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.

Along Henry Knox's trail in Northboro, Mass.
Washington put guns at strategic points around Boston, including near my ancestor John’s camp in Roxbury. The big spot, however, was Dorchester Heights, which offered a commanding view not only of the city but of the British navy in Boston Harbor. Washington’s men took the Heights on March 4, and this time snow intervened to help the Americans, by ruining British General Howe’s plan to attack and evict the Americans. With Knox’s cannon up on Dorchester Heights, the British decided to abandon Boston. On March 17, 1776 (still celebrated here as Evacuation Day), the British soldiers and their Loyalist supporters boarded ships and sailed for Halifax, never to return.
Dorchester Heights - fortification of this hill by Washington's army prompted the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776.
Dorchester Heights in South Boston, Mass. Once Knox's cannon were placed here, the British skipped town.
With the British gone, within a few weeks John Perkins III was sent home to Middleboro to make more children with his wife. And not a moment too soon: the son from whom I descend was born nine months and two weeks after John’s company was discharged at Roxbury.

*    *    *

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?

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 09:39 AM PST.

Also republished by These Green Mountains and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (25+ / 0-)

    “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 09:39:41 AM PST

  •  What a great story! (6+ / 0-)

    Loved it. Reading "1776" by McCullough must be like reading family history for you.

    If you have kids, are they interested in family history?

    •  I actually had to re-read it (7+ / 0-)

      I had no clue until fairly recently that any of my ancestors had been here before 1860.

      No kids yet but I hope to have them and that they'll be interested. Literally nobody in my family has had any kind of interest in what I've been able to learn. Except maybe a couple of people on the other side, my mother's side, who are in their 70s. Oh well...

      “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 10:23:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I love my Salem birthplace (8+ / 0-)

    and always love your History of its importance.  I have to give a double shout out for Middleboro!
     I also come from the First Settlers on the North Shore. Unfortunately, the witch hysteria became Salem's "claim to fame". In fact, Salem became the largest Seaport in the World, with it's protected harbor, and access to the New World. It was far more important to the development of our modern lives for many other reasons than the ignorance of a few.
      I have recently begun filling in my maternal lines, the Morgan line goes all the way back through the North Shore  (thats 500 years in the same area), back to ancient times and the last King of an Independent Wales in the early 1200s.
     I went to elementary school right across from the Roger Conant Statue.

    Join the Koskraft Group Koskraft

    by meagert on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 10:11:55 AM PST

    •  Salem! Middleboro! (8+ / 0-)

      As it turned out I passed through Salem last Sunday and then wound up in Middleboro on Monday afternoon. A walk down Chestnut St. is all you need to see to have an idea of the Salem fortunes made at sea.

      North Shore all the way, pretty cool. My people from there eventually all ended up in Vermont. Only in the 20th century did my relatives start to come back to these places our ancestors helped found, but without knowing it.

      “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 10:27:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting subject. (7+ / 0-)

    In regards to my own family, I've always been amazed at the number of times the branches of my mother and the branches of my father intersected, even in Germany (this was completely unknown to either of my parents until I began my research).  But I've yet to find a common ancestor.

    The thing is, I'm sure at some point there is a common ancestor - it's almost statistically impossible there isn't.  It's just that existing records don't go back that far in order for me to identify who they were.

    But if there had been a marriage between an ancestor of my mom, and an ancestor of my dad as a result of all that earlier association I found in the existing records instead of being just passing acquaintances, I wouldn't be here today.

    Regarding John Raymond, my daughter had an ancestor, Hannah Raymond, born in Salem in 1642 to Richard Raymond (son of George Raymond) and Judith Williams.

    Any relation to your John Raymond?

    •  Richard Raymond (6+ / 0-)

      I'm pretty sure he was an older brother of John Raymond, Sr., the one who took over the Scruggs land.

      I guess in a small rural area over centuries there'd have to be a common ancestor. There's so much we don't know, but I've found enough common ancestors in these New England lines. I'm sure there were many such situations in Ireland. I recall reading that, even in the later 1800s, people living 10 miles apart in rural Ireland were unlikely ever to meet.

      “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 10:39:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  On the prowl for Volunteers to host a Friday (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat, JBL55, klompendanser

    GFHC Open Thread.

    Current schedule

    Jan 31   Zwenkau
    Feb 7     open for adoption
    Feb 14   open for adoption
    Feb 21   open for adoption
    Feb 28   Land of Enchantment
    Mar 7     Land of Enchantment

    Looks like fenway49 will need another date for Part II of the series (pick a date, any date!)

    We have plenty of open dates, so who wants to take one? Eh, eh?

  •  Sure. The Russian Revolution of 1905 (9+ / 0-)

    My mother's father's family lived in Pinsk, in today's Belarus. My grandfather was an anti-Royalist, and in a story he recounted when he was in his early 80s, he explained that he was in the university at Pinsk when the aborted revolution of 1905 took place. He said he had been so incensed at seeing the Czar's police beating some of the female students that he shot one of the policemen.

    When his mother learned what what he had, she got him on the first train to Warsaw, where they had relatives, and then pawned everything of value for tickets for the rest of the family. When the police came to question him, he was gone, and the gun was in his mother's bosom. They were on the next train to Warsaw after that.

    He said he waited to tell the story because it was embarrassing, and I have no reason not to believe it. I've found my other three grandparents in the Ellis Island records, but not him, because, well, Yael Zavel what? He got his citizenship by serving in the U.S. Army during World War I as a supply sergeant in Clermont-Ferrand, where I figure he was buying tires from the Michelin factory.

    •  Very interesting (8+ / 0-)

      Talk about standing up for your values!

      My grandmother's father came from a small village about 20 miles north of Pinsk. He came to this country in 1907, when he was 18. I don't know how or why because he died in 1940, before even my mother was born.

      My great-grandmother's citizenship application (after he died) said he'd entered via Philadelphia, but he was in New York by 1910 and stayed there for the rest of his life. He met his wife in New York. I can't find him in immigration records either.

      “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 11:12:54 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sounds not unfamiliar. (7+ / 0-)
      I've found my other three grandparents in the Ellis Island records, but not him, because, well, Yael Zavel what?
      A friend of mine's grandfather and great-uncle left Russia around that same time.  They were so afraid of being followed that they changed their names at Ellis Island.  

      The grandfather died without revealing his secret, and my friend was visiting his great-uncle (who was in failing health) when the great-uncle remarked, kind of casually, "You know our name isn't really -----."

      My friend still bears the new name, but he was glad to hear the story, and now if his children ever research their family history (as one of the daughters has said she'd like to do), the search will be more fruitful now that the real name is known!

    •  Lot of people from near Pinsk here! (5+ / 0-)

      My maternal grandmother was from Kopyl.

      I wouldn't give up on the Ellis Island search, because you can look by last European city and first name. Maybe that would be enough.

  •  My mother always laughed when she told the (8+ / 0-)

    story of meeting my father.  She'd mention that her mother was right that she'd get into trouble if she kept going into bars alone.

  •  My father was from TX and my mother from NJ. (6+ / 0-)

    WWII took him out of Texas and onto naval bases around the world.  

    After the war, he was stationed in NYC and living in NJ, and my mother commuted to work at Schirmer's music publishing in NYC.

    They took the same train to NYC and one day he struck up a conversation with her.  The rest is, as they say, history.  Or herstory.  Or both.

    So I guess I owe my existence to the war.  That, and my mother's willingness to talk to a strange man in a Navy uniform on the train.

  •   I speak for many when I say without Hitler (4+ / 0-)

    we wouldn't exist. Our parents never would have met !

    I'm sure there are infinite variations on this theme.

    I must be dreaming...

    by murphy on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 02:11:16 PM PST

  •  Fate & family (4+ / 0-)

    I'm late in weighing in on this, but as to things that shaped the direction that my family took I'd offer a brief story.  I had three great-grandparents who were German-born and who came to the U.S. in the 1852-60 period.  But one of them was a matrilineal ancestor who came at the bidding of her mother, who had emigrated, but who left father and brothers behind in Germany.  I can't know the whole story of her mother, but this woman came over with her eldest daughter in 1857.  She died four years later, by which time that eldest daughter had married a sailor who became a ship captain, and they set up housekeeping back in Germany.  So, before she died, the mother sent for the next daughter -- who was my great-grandmother -- and she arrived in 1860.  By Feb. 1861 this daughter (my ancestor) was herself married, and in August of that year the mother died.  Now here is the interesting thing:  some time ago I discovered a death record for the mother that noted that she died of cancer, and had been ill for five years.  As she was only in this country for four years, one might assume that she knew of her illness before she left Germany.  Did she leave with the intention of marrying her daughters off in America before her death?  There's nothing to speak to this question.  And why did she choose to go where she did?  Again, no answers.  And, I might add, no clue.  But, as many of you have said, if things hadn't transpired as they did, I wouldn't be here.

    "There is no way to give to honest toil its just reward--its full share of all wealth produced--but by the full application of the single tax. And righteousness and justice require it to be done." --A. Moll, 1897

    by Zwenkau on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 08:05:22 PM PST

  •  Those small things (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, klompendanser, jnhobbs, edwardssl

    It's easy to think it's big decisions, but really the little ones make lots of difference. Like which New Year's Eve party to go to. There's a movie "Sliding Doors" that plays with that. Gwenneth Paltrow's character either catches or misses a particular subway train and her life follows two parallel paths as a result.

    Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

    by Land of Enchantment on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 07:26:40 AM PST

  •  Our ancestors keep crossing paths (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    edwardssl, NonnyO

    ...including spending time on the "bad boy" lists in Salem ;)

    Love the angle of the picture of Roger Conant's statue -- he looks a bit like Gandalf.

    This whole diary, and putting one's ancestors into the historical context is what genealogy is all about for me ... the little decisions our ancestors made that, if different, would have led to a completely different outcome. LoE mentioned "Sliding Doors". I would also recommend a book "Life after Life" by Kate Atkinson.

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 08:28:05 AM PST

  •  In WWII my father was told to expect (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fenway49, edwardssl

    a 90% chance of being killed in the invasion of Japan. He was one of the soldiers on Guam waiting to invade when the atomic bomb was dropped.

    Since he knew railroads, he was assigned to get the trains between Tokyo and Yokohama running again.

    After his return to the states he met my mom. I'm always conflicted when I think of the horror of that bomb being dropped.

    working for a world that works for everyone ...

    by USHomeopath on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 09:57:07 AM PST

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