An experiment in time and place

Steward 1
Nos. 1 and 2, with their three children in Goshen, New York, ca. 1857.

A number of years ago I read a passage in a book on the British aristocracy that has stayed with me, a passage having little to do with peers and their families and quite a lot to do with how we all can look at our ancestors. The author, the late Richard “Dickie” Buckle, proposed the temporal impossibility that all of his great-great-grandparents might have met in a room in London about the year 1800, and with this rough structure he mused about who they were – and whether they might have known one another.

For my purposes, the year 1875 works best, although my sixteen great-great-grandparents were not all alive at that date. My grandparents were born in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland, so their grandparents – in this thought experiment – will be somewhat arbitrarily placed in Manhattan, perhaps at a hotel catering to railroad travelers!

Cornelia Wheaton Ayer
No. 6, a native of Syracuse, New York.

Of my paternal grandfather’s grandparents (1–4), two had died by 1875; all four of them lived, or had lived, in New York City, and they all moved in the same circles. Nos. 1 and 3 were both dry goods merchants, a term for (successful) shopkeepers who, during the nineteenth century, tended to move away from serving customers and toward investing their profits in other businesses. My paternal grandmother’s grandparents (5–8) lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Newark, New Jersey; the couples almost certainly had no connection to one another, although No. 8 could conceivably have known Nos. 1–4, as she was also a native of Manhattan. No. 5 was a partner in his brother’s patent medicine company, and was probably the richest member of this group; on the other hand, given the glacial reception he received on moving into Boston in 1899 he would not have met Nos. 1 or 4 socially. No. 7 was a music teacher; his wife, No. 8, belonged to a family which had come down in the world, so, as I say, Nos. 1, 4, and 8 could potentially have found a quiet corner in the hotel to have a good, snobbish chat about the rest of the party.[1]

Frances Giles Boucher
No. 16, my matrilineal great-great-grandmother.

Nos. 9–12 (my maternal grandfather’s grandparents) were then in quite modest circumstances: 9 was a carpenter and contractor (in Richmond, Virginia), just starting his career, while 11 (of tiny New Straitsville in Perry County, Ohio) was what used to be called a “promoter” – he made and lost several fortunes and died, unluckily, during a career downturn. Finally, Nos. 13–16 (my maternal grandmother’s grandparents) lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland; No. 13 had until recently been a commercial traveler selling paints and varnishes, and No. 15 was a musical instrument maker and the father of a newborn daughter, my matrilineal great-grandmother (the sixteenth of an eventual twenty-three children). No. 14, a native of Brooklyn, might have had a glancing acquaintance with Nos. 1 and 4, if she kept up with Gotham’s society columns; No. 15 is my most recent immigrant ancestor, born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1822.

In general, even those of my ancestors who were “haves” by 1875 had started out with less: No. 5, the proto-industrialist, slept on a bedroll under the counter at his first paying job in Baldwinsville, New York, and I can’t actually identify the parents of No. 9 or the father of No. 16. Nos. 1 and 3 had been badly affected by the Crash of 1873, and No. 13 ended his partnership with a younger brother who went on to establish a lucrative varnish company. No. 11 left his widow in reduced circumstances; a corset saleswoman at Lane, Bryant, No. 12 weathered the Long Beach earthquake of 10 March 1933. She was the last of my great-great-grandparents, and for some reason no photo survives of her with my mother, who was five years old when this sole surviving great-grandparent died in September 1937.

This thought experiment, arbitrary as it may be, shows interesting spans of time (my great-great-grandparents were born 1814–1856 and died between 1867 and 1937) and space (from Bielefeld in Baden to Long Beach, from Newcastle, Maine, to Richmond). There are some intriguing parallels, like the Ohio residence of Nos. 11–12 and 13–14: their grandchildren, the Virginia and Maryland natives, met in Annapolis, not in Cleveland. My parents, for that matter, met in Georgetown (D.C.), not in Boston or Baltimore!


[1] They represent almost three distinct generations, born in 1814, 1832, and 1848 respectively.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

18 thoughts on “An experiment in time and place

  1. I’ve often played with this idea. . .picking a date and checking to see where ancestors were and who knew or might have known each other (1650: the groups in Andover, Rowley, Newbury, and Plymouth) it’s a fun way to look at local history and time periods.

  2. A lot of the original New England colonial ancestors, Anglican and non-conformist to the Puritan extreme theology — did meet on this date, 375 years ago as summoned by the Lord Proprietor of the Province of Maine, Sir Ferdinando Gorges. While knighted as an Englishman however the name is of French origin as his ancestors arrived in England under William the Great from Normandy in about the year 1000. According to the “Maine Province and Court Records” they appeared at the “First Generall Court holden” in Saco, Maine on June 25, 1640. These early colonials coming to the coast of Maine and New Hampshire for commerce. land and other economic opportunities attempted to remain neutral to the political and theological complexities around them and welcomed both French and Native people into their midst. At the 1640 , Saco Court , the colonials with family names such as Vines, Godfrey, Frost, Mitton and Small were charged with the “Due Execution of Justice” to all the inhabitants in the area. However they too were caught in the ensuing Puritan instigated Indian and French Wars and had no choice but to escape for shear survival , many chose to migrate to Cape Cod and other New England Island areas for safety. Some did return back to Maine and New Hampshire as the “second wave of colonials”. Just like that of the French and the Native, their history as well has been largely written off the records of New England !

    1. Viola, this was a fascinating diaspora, as many of these staunch Anglicans who were living in Maine and New Hampshire had Cape Cod roots, and in some cases, family still living there who received them when King Phillip’s war became overwhelming.

      I remember one Maine resource exemplifying the difference in the two communities (Lygonia and the MBC) by an anecdote where ordinaries (bars) were built hard by the churches so that churchgoers arriving from long distances could “cosset their throats before they hurled insults at the devil.”

      The “praying Indians” of the Cape, who had been converted by Rev. Samuel Treat at Eastham, and other friendly tribes close by (Nantucket for ex.) helped form a buffer that allowed much of Cape Cod and parts of eastern Massachusetts to be a refuge for returning families. The reality there of a mariner’s existence, deforestation, and reduced other natural resources forced them to look once more at what they had left behind in the north (as well as the invasive supervision, religious stringency, and intolerance of the MBC?) and to dare to return when they believed it safe once more.

      1. Yes and a legacy of New England anglicism that is little known… I am not aware of any family roots in Cape Cod other than that was were the Small’s (my clan) found refuge. Some stayed, some migrated back to England and through out the American colonies. Many did return to Maine along with those Puritan second wavers to make Maine the very complex region that it now is. It is troublesome that Maine still neglects its own history and little is taught of this diaspora !

        1. Your clan is my clan…in many ways. The living in close proximity plays out over and over, but also a fascinating story of diaspora through ocean travel. This is long…but I don’t know where to cut it off.

          The Smalls and other related Cape Cod families (George and Joseph Strout, as well as Beriah Smith) were involved in land acquisitions to feed and supply growing families. Some of their collateral families (see below), and others were married into the LARGE Small family and were involved in Francis Small’s acquisition and dispute of Maine’s Ossipee tract. There was also land awarded in Maine for service in the Louisburg military campaigns in the Canadian territory and some of the Cape folks were taking advantage of those grants.

          What has always fascinated me is the relationship between Francis Small(ey) and John Small(ey) who immigrated to Piscataway, NY. I understand that the family connections between these exploring families could explain the similarity in name of the Piscataqua area of Maine (from the natives) and the Piscataway area in NJ (name given by the settling famiies).

          In fact, the answer may lie, to some degree, in the intermarried descendants of Gov. Robert Treat of CT, John Pike of Connecticut, and the Cape Cod Smalls (both our Francis Small(ey) and John Small(ey) and John HIggins of Eastham (emigrants to Piscataway) and Christopher Strout of Provincetown MA. These emigrations were not like the pioneers that much later crossed the Great Plains of the US, who never saw their families again once they left. All of these families had seafarers in them, and in many cases had economic strength through owning ships, and so had mobility and the economic necessity of trade and traveled up and down the coast.

          Gov. Robert Treat was governor of CT when the royal charter went missing and was hidden in the oak tree that is pictured on the CT commemorative quarter. He was also a founder of Newark, NJ, andHe was the father of Rev. Samuel Treat of Eastham, whose daughter Jane married Constant Freeman, a descendant of Constant Southworth stepson of Governor Bradford of Plymouth (through Samuel Freeman) and several of their very mobile children moved to Maine.

          John Pike, sea captain and another NJ founding father from CT, was the father of Sarah Pike Strout (wife of Christopher Strout, early in Provincetown) whose wandering children settled early on in Cape Elizabeth, ME. As I trace my family tree, I can see that these seafaring ancestors of mine were not only descended from the Plymouth Coles, Colliers, Fullers, Prences, Cookes, and Clarkes, but also intermarried with the Crosby, Smith, Snow, Cole, Eldredge, Mayo, and Nickerson families of the Cape, the Binneys and Vickerys of Hull, the Coffin family of Nantucket, the Jordan, Cutts, and Pepperell families of Maine, and a sprinkling of those serious puritan Winslow and Cotton families of the MBC, so I can really see a shifting scene of ocean voyages as their roaming descendants arrived in Maine and intermarried. The Native American reprisals stir the pot and influence greatly the comings and goings.

          It IS fascinating. Many of the descendants of these tough people were the same pioneers who settled the Great Plains of the US. My ggrandfather, Dominicus Strout Hasty (a Dominicus Jordan 4 descendant) was a surveyor, engineer, and school teacher, but also a Nebraska territorial representative, and amazingly, from the sixth generation of Mainers after four generations of Cape Cod folk. How these people ever survived…?

          An early history of the goings on in Spurwink, Cape Elizabeth, on Richmond Island and Poopurduck (sp?) and later Kittery and Gorham would be an incredible treasure. The great fire in Portland did us no favors. I do have a marvelous 19th century storybook of acounts called “Maine in History and Romance” by the Maine Club Women. It is full of old Maine lore of Indian attacks and historical accounts about early Maine settlers. I am looking for more of these types of books to solidify the mental picture that is forming.

          1. You may wish to read Elizabeth Ring’s ( the Maine high school teacher and historian who was the backbone behind Portland Landmarks)… “Maine in the Making of the Nation, 1783-1870” and reprinted in 1996. Her work starting from the MacArthur papers in Limington, ME traces these early colonial settlers with emphases on the Small’s and the deed that Francis Small was given by Captain Sunday and it is now memorialized in the Francis Small Land Trust, through the generations as they expanded westerly and often by sea voyage.
            It is my great grandfather (9th) Daniel Small (Smalley) that purchased land like many from Cape Cod in Connecticut ‘s Notch (now Columbia, CT).

            I have never heard of your comparison between the “Piscataqua area of Maine (from the natives) and the Piscataway area in NJ (name given by the settling famiies”. It is an intriguing one and perhaps could be explored further by the lineal group, The “Piscatagua Pioneers” ?
            It is my father’s family name — Hayhurst that I however associate with northern New Jersey as they migrated from Scotland and Germany to Tennessee and Virginia. It is my Virginian birthright that sparked my interest in Colonial History and like Virginia, Maine has got as well a very rich Colonial history. But of course — the saying that “those that win the war, write the history” is a very appropriate one in the case of Maine !

  3. I am pretty convinced a number of mine crossed paths in Morristown, NJ during the revolution and in Washington county PA after the revolution. They then ended up in Knox county Ohio were they intermarried.

  4. An interesting idea to play around with. Most of my ancestors and most of my husband’a ancestors came from New England and/or New York and New Jersey, so I think it quite likely some of them may have moved int he same circles. We’ll see…

  5. I’ve always found it intriguing that my fourth great-grandparents on my paternal grandmother’s side lived in a county adjacent to that of my fourth great-grandparents on my maternal grandfather’s side. The Fultons and Sloans (father’s side) were in Westmoreland County, PA; the Weyands, Millers, and Groves (mother’s side) were in Somerset County, PA. To the best of my knowledge, these two families did not meet until my parents met in Chicago in the 1950s.

  6. This is fascinating. I did not know of your CT information. Thanks for the reference to the Ring book. I will follow up on it (the Ring connection, through the Clarkes, is another ancestral name!)

    I believe that a large part of the piece missing for understanding these families and their migration is not seeing this “travel around, invest in land in other places” because it is spread out over the colonial records of so many colonies. The investors either frequently moved to their new holding, or left the investments to their expanding progeny, and then THEY moved there.

    With the advent of computers and my knowledge of simulations, it should be possible to create a virtual representation and animation of these comings and goings. I can picture it.

    Oh, for another lifetime to spend in the Maritime Museums. Do you happen to know if anyone has ever catalogued/indexed the ships’ records and logs found at the maritime museums in Bath, Philadelphia, Salem, Nantucket, etc.? This would be a worthy project, although BIG. Right up there with the Ellis Island project.

    NEHGS and Alicia Crane are already working on their next big Migration endeavor…wonder if this Maritime project would ever fly for them?

    My dad’s side of the family is old Virginia too: Graves family of Jamestowne. Includes all sorts of plantation folk: a pirate doctor Pierce who once owned part of the land the White House sits on, granted for service privateering (named his plantations Port Royal and Jamaica!), and another Beall who anciently owned the land “Overlook” in Maryland, later commandeered by the federal government in the 30’s and now called “Camp David”. Another ancestress was Lawrence Washington’s fourth wife and lived at Mount Vernon, and some of the current grounds came into the estate as part of her dowry. Plus Timothy Matlock, Jefferson’s redactor of the Declaration of Independence is family, and some of Jefferson’s Stith inlaws were married to distant cousins. I found Doliante’s Maryland and Virginia Colonials to be very valuable.

    Fascinating addiction, this genealogy?

  7. The CT purchase by the Cape Cod investors such as Daniel Small, his brother Benjamin and others was a part of the Clarke and Dewey Tract. Originally the land was in Lebanon, known as the North Society or Lebanon Crank and it is now the town of Columbia. You would probably be more likely to find the ship passenger lists at the European ports of departure and yes this would be an intriguing way to learn who came with whom. My only attempt at Bath was to see if I could find the shipping record of my grandparents when they left Maine by steamer to Boston and than Norfolk. But was told that these trips would be like “taking the local Greyhound” and such passenger lists were never kept. My own Virginia birthright is very recent as only I and my father were born there. And as a kid I could never figure out why those Yankees were so dense to be claiming Plymouth Rock as the first European settlement when I know that this claim was Jamestown’s ! Of course a good second is that of Popham Colony. Both companies settled by similar high church Englishman.

  8. I used to teach at the Children’s School of Arts and Science in Bath….even made it to the Maritime Museum and to Fort Popham with them, but NEVER thought of looking for genealogy records before now. There are little maritime museums all over, many with records. The thought of a fire…..

    Even Jamestowne has to cede to Roanoke….and there were French fisherman before that. The state history museum has information about early Viking presence as well. LOVE history.

    I had at least four Smalls in my family tree. Small world….pun intended.

    1. If your Small lineage goes Edward, Francis, Daniel …. than we are connected. And of course I assume that you made some contact with the Maine Rep. Mary Small (R- Bath) …..while in Bath ? Her’s was one of the families that migrated back to Maine from Cape Cod. After spending a number of years updating Underhill ….. I am focusing more and more on my mother’s maternal side – the Wing and Wood lineage. The latter going back to the very founders of Sandwich MA, Hampton, NH (Bachiler) and stance supporters of the Quakers ….some like my own, Daniel Wing was in turn demonized by the Puritans ! I am as well attempting to trace all of my “mother’s” back to the first European woman that landed on these shores. A tough one because records are even more lacking here, About early colonial settlements, a number of Maine historian sorts say that English Fishing communities were located along the southern Coast of Maine in the 1500’s.

      Hopefully both of us have updated a lot of that that is lacking in many New England’s historians knowledge base !

      1. Yes, dear cousin, we are related but at a generation back. I am a dual descendant of Francis’s son Samuel Small and his wife Elizabeth Heard (through TWO of their children!) and Francis’s daughter Alice and her husband Beriah Smith. Some great stories from this period of time. I am still working and so time is somewhat limited, plus I serve as a trustee for the Mensa Foundation, working with their scholarship program and new projects oversight, so I’m a little busy. Most of what I know about the Small family, I have gleaned from histories of Limington and Limerick, Maine, (a little about the Ossipee tract struggles) and so would appreciate anything you could point me to that would give more detail and background.

        Keeping it in the family?

        1. Again you must read “Elizabeth Ring’s“Maine in the Making of the Nation, 1783-1870″ and reprinted in 1996. Her research on the Ossipee Deed is the best that I have ever seen. And while our ancestors were locked in legal battles with each other …. all has mended. A great source of everything Small would be the online work by the late James Small. My earlier attempts here with sorting out the Underhill lack were not the best…but others have done better.

  9. Oh, I’ve done this before; it’s SO much fun! (commenting on the original premise for this post…got a bit lost with all the discussions on Maine, etc, bu anyway—).
    When hubby and I got married, taught him to do genealogy. Turns out we’re related many times back in the New England colonies. Our families founded every town along the New England coast. One year we drove the Boston Post Road, stopping at every old cemetery along the way, all of which held numerous ancestors for us both. What a marvelous trip that was. Yes, these people knew each other well…we’re related many times…they worked together, intermarried and so on. One ‘set’ (one of his and one of mine) even wrote an Indian version of the Bible together in the early days.
    But the thing between us that was most interesting was that, altho we grew up near each other, our families ran in different circles and we thought they never ran into each other. Wrong.
    We had that imagined meeting/thought experiment in real life, over 300 years ago in New England, and then again in Colorado a hundred years ago.
    His paternal and both sides of my family have been in Colorado since Territorial days. As the years went by, we found more and more connections. His ggfa was a land agent here at the same time mine was a county assessor. One day I introduced hubby to my gma’s neighbor, who was also my sister’s godmother. She said “Are you related to Ruthie Cohig? We worked together for 30 years.” (his grandmother). His sister found a photo of the duplex another ggfa owned, and finding it in the census we discovered my cousins, with whom I attended church every Sunday as a kid, rented the other side of that duplex! A hundred years ago, one of his family owned a grocery where my family, living a few blocks away, surely shopped at. The same Dr MacDonald who served the men building the Moffat Tunnel, of which his ggfa was one, also delivered my Daddy down in Denver in the 1930s, and delivered his sister here in the 1950s. The list goes on for some time, but those are some of the more interesting examples.
    Must add one rather “silly” belief I’ve had since a child. Loved a story by Maeterlinck called “The Children’s Bluebird”, wherein the children visit the land of the dead and met their grandparents. They were told that no one really dies as long as someone is alive on earth to remember them. Might be superstitious, but you know how those things we think in childhood stick with us…just like the imaginary meetings prompted by the book on British peers.
    Thanks for the trip down (genetic) memory lane; enjoyed all of the stories.

  10. Question on the Maine books: do any of these cover Downeast Maine? My family there came down the Bay of Fundy or across the water from Grand Manan Island, both New Brunswick. Very different history than in the south. Also had a family from Nova Scotia via Grand Manan. But that one was originally from CT. He fought three times for the Patriots, then married a Tory girl and changed sides (what men will do for love….). They were sent off to Nova Scotia as Loyalists, but over a century made their way back to the US in Maine. BTW, Grand Manan is loaded with Smalls; one of the three most common names there.

  11. My 16 great-great-grandparents could have all met at a Grange meeting in central Vermont in or around 1860. They ranged in age from 20 to 62, all lived within a 25 mile radius, and were all farmers or farmers wives except for one who was a shoe maker – the son of a harness maker.

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