Origin stories

Alicia Crane WilliamsEvery family has a story about its origins, particularly about how the immigrant(s) came to the New World. Often these stories can seriously stretch credibility, but we can accept them as folklore if not fact. We do not often think about tracking down the origins of the stories, themselves, or that such an exercise may be valuable to our research.

For example, how would one track down the origin of the story about how Deacon Thomas Dyer of Weymouth ended up on this side of the Atlantic? The story says that he was in love with Agnes Reed in Old England; her family was sailing for New England, but when he went down to the dock to see her off, he could not be parted and got on the boat without even going home to say goodbye to his own family. Then, later, when he was due a legacy from his family in England, he declined to make the trip back, sending instead a servant who absconded with the money! A “likely story?” Probably made up by an overly imaginative descendant and not worth researching? Is it even researchable?

In the case of Thomas Dyer and Agnes Reed, the story becomes important because it is the only source for her name, which does not appear in any New England records. I needed to find out just how far back this cockamamie story could be tracked to see if there was any validity at all for “Agnes Reed.”

I found that Harrison Gray Dyar told both the story of Thomas getting on the ship and the name of Agnes Reed in his 1903 book, A Preliminary genealogy of the Dyar family (pp. 3–4), but gave no attribution for either. In 1926, George Walter Chamberlain wrote, in his genealogical account of the Dyer family in History of Weymouth, Massachusetts (pp. 209–10), that the name of Thomas’ wife was “traditionally reported to have been Agnes Reed” and that this statement “appears to have been made about 1803 by Col. Asa White, a descendant of the fifth generation.” Chamberlain also included exact birth dates for all the Dyer children, only two of whom are recorded in the vital records, noting that “The births of the last six were obtained from Family Records in 1803.”

How do we find something written by Col. White in 1803? Well, if it is old, the first place to look is the manuscript collection at NEHGS. Although I did not find Col. White’s original account, I did locate important information about it in a few pages catalogued under the name of Anson Titus.[1] The Rev. Anson Titus was the minister at the Weymouth church in the 1880s when he copied Col. White’s 1803 account, presumably from papers available to him either in the church or elsewhere in the town, and published it in the Boston Evening Transcript’s genealogical column.[2] Col. White mentions both “the Deacon’s book” and correspondence between Thomas and “his brethren in England” as his sources.

Without access to those original papers, of course, we cannot be certain whether Col. White copied the information correctly or completely, but we can have reasonable confidence that he was using sources traceable to the Deacon’s own pen, very likely including a family Bible, all of which gives support to the claim that his wife’s name was Agnes Reed.


[1] “Mss A 5781 [Thomas Dyer of Weymouth] [manuscript] Titus, Anson, 1847–1932.”

[2] An abstract of the account will appear in the upcoming Early New England Families Study Project sketch for Thomas Dyer.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

17 thoughts on “Origin stories

    1. Jade, An origin story doesn’t have to go back 15 generations. For an adoptee it begins with them until or unless they discover their birth parents’ stories. Children of divorce, orphans, or separated families may not know the way-back origin story, but they have a story. It is the family’s stories we are told when we are young, long or short, that identify our place in the world.

      1. Alicia, certainly there **are** stories to be discovered by the researcher, but if the family’s or a parent’s policy is “mum’s the word,” or complete disinterest in the past, one can not really say that “Every family has a story about its origins.” Not every child is told something about context. I suppose “the stork brung ya” is a story, but maybe not what you meant.

        1. Jade, I hear you. The story is there, just not being passed on. That probably means it is quite a story, but it is too bad when nothing gets passed on. Perhaps someday that will change.

  1. We have several in our family. One is about Peter Bither…..originally Peter BITER….was “cabin boy” who bit anyone who tried to hurt him….oh, and it seems THEY SAYS he was the son of a “lord”? whose step mother had him sent on ship so her son could inherit…he was apparently able to read and write at a fairly young age to judge by comments from a will. Also polite when people were not trying to mess with him. A woman gave him a Bible and a book when he was 12 or so in her will (he was indentured after he was across the ocean)….apparently a rather wealthy sort had paid to have him sent but….did find a couple records that indicate his passage was paid for. No last name mentioned, just Peter. May have been “sold” simply for the cash…..Oh, and he was a man with an “attitude”….tended to speak his mind. Was “busted” more then once for arguing with his “betters” during Rev War. And usually right, which no doubt was terribly annoying. And why he kept getting promoted and quite a few “above and beyond”. Brave man.

  2. Alicia,
    Every one of your posts is a delight to read – full of good and useful information, cheerfully delivered, about how to proceed in doing research that can be trusted.
    Thanks so much! Diana Light, Irvine, CA

  3. Alicia,
    What a great story! My husband is descended from Thomas and Agnes so I am adding this story to my files.
    I enjoy your posts.
    Jo Merrill

  4. Hi, Alicia, Thanks for this interesting story. I wonder if anyone has tracked down the “origin” story of Eleazer Bishop. Boggs and Bishop state [W. E. Boggs and Burpee R. Bishop, The Genealogy of the Bishop Family of Horton, N. S. (1918), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89062404843;view=1up;seq=9%5D:

    “Tradition has it that in the year 1692 there came from the Channel Islands to New London, Connecticut, a lad named Eleazar Bischoppe. Two stories have come to us regarding his coming.

    “First. The lad Eleazar, at about the age of seven years, was playing by the shore of the Island of Guernsey, (or Jersey, for both places are spoken of) with a large handsome dog. It was presumably a sea-port, and he was playing near the wharf, when the captain of a British ship which had called there, saw the dog, and was so determined to secure it that he sent men ashore with instructions to bring the dog aboard under any circumstances. The lad refused to part with his companion and so both dog and boy were brought on board the ship which was bound for America. Before the long voyage across the Atlantic had ended the ship’s crew had so far won the affections of the dog that it was willing to remain on board, and as the captain had no further use for the boy whom he had kidnapped he determined to dispose of him at the first opportunity. Arriving in port at New London, Connecticut, he was able to attain his purpose, and disposed of the boy to one Richard Dart, a tailor of New London, who paid for the boy’s passage by giving the captain a yoke of oxen. Richard Dard lived four miles from New London harbor. He married at the age of twenty-one.

    “Second. Eleazar ran away from home in the Island of Jersey, was a stow-away on an America bound British ship, and at the age of fourteen found himself in New London, in the home of Richard Dart, who took the boy as his own and brought him up in his own family.

    “It is recorded that two companions of Eleazar Bishop, one Deshon, and the other John Sharpe were brought by a British ship to New London, Connecticut. A wealthy farmer, Richard Dart, paid for the young Bishop’s passage as related above.”

    As reported in Tangled Roots, a Canadian man has traced his ancestry to an Antoine Bishop baptized in Jersey in 1726 (and there is a record of an Antoine Bishop and his daughter Anne as godparents at a baptism in 1717 there), indicating that there was a Bishop family in Jersey in the early 1700s. Unfortunately, the Jersey records don’t go back far enough to mention Eleazar [Tangled Roots: Descendants of John Bishop (1709-1785) of Horton, Nova Scotia, a New England Planter, Vol. 1, Colonel John Bishop (1736-1815) (Wolfville, Nova Scotia: Genealogical Committee of the Bishop Family Association, 1990), xi.]

    It would at least be interesting to know if the story was recorded before its publication in the book by Boggs and Bishop in 1918.

  5. And then we do research and blow the “origin stories” out of the water!!! That has been my experience in several cases.

  6. My favorite “origin tale” is the often-repeated claim that a male ancestor was “one of three brothers who came to America together, then lost touch with the other two”. (Why is it always three brothers, never two or four???…) In 30+ years of researching many branches of the family tree, I’ve only found this to be true in a few cases. A Swedish ancestor DID lose track of his two brothers after they landed in New York and he never learned what happened to them. But another ancestor and his two brothers who emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1700s did manage to stay together and acquire a huge chunk of farm land on which to raise rather large families. More often, however, it’s ONE brother who takes the big step of leaving the shores of home for America, then acquires the means for other siblings and family members to join him.

    That said, I never dismiss “unverifiable” tidbits found in obscure documents. Sometimes they’re the only place one will ever find a clue to the name of a female ancestor. I’ve broken through several brick walls after following such “iffy” leads.

  7. I became interested in genealogy due to the family origin stories on both sides, but I became a historian because I wanted to know the validity in each. On my mother’s side, our Langworthys were descended from Ethan Allen – no, but they did march with Allen at Ticonderoga. On my dad’s we were descended from a kidnapped sailor forced to become a pirate – wrong, I think someone confused privateers with pirates! My Miner ancestors were privateers on Long Island Sound during the Revolution, but they had already been here since the 1630’s when they arrived in Boston as part of the Great Migration.

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