Salient points

Mrs. A. C. Burrage Jr. and Mrs. C. F. Ayer, ca. 1915.

One of my great-grandmothers[1] was a penniless orphan, the kind found in storybooks: beautiful and, secretly, a dispossessed member of a once proud family. As often happens when a child’s parents die young, much of this background was lost: my grandmother’s mother, born Sara Theodora Ilsley in Newark, was the daughter of a composer (and member of a distinguished family of musicians), granddaughter of one of the men who owned the yacht America,[2] and the descendant of a notable set of families along the Eastern Seaboard, including the first Congressman from New York City (and an aide-de-camp to General Washington)[3] and the Attorney-General of the Colony of Pennsylvania.[4]

Her descendants knew almost nothing of this when I was growing up, perhaps because of that break occasioned by Theodora’s father’s death in 1887 and her mother’s death in 1895, when she was fourteen. Fedy, as she was called, was probably brought up by her brothers Beek[5] and Frank[6]; along the way she was taken up by wealthier friends, in whose train she visited the Misery Island resort (off the coast of Beverly, Massachusetts) and where she met her future husband, Charles Fanning Ayer.[7]

In the Boston of a century ago, and the circle into which Fedy married, being well-bred as well as beautiful was a salient point. In time, my great-grandfather bought a number of Fedy’s family portraits to decorate the country house the newlyweds built on the North Shore of Boston. The earliest of these paintings included Dirck Lefferts (1719–1799), perhaps a namesake for Fedy, since the Dutch name Dirck translates as Theodore (rather than Richard, as members of the Lefferts family were later wont to do).[8]

In the Boston of a century ago, and the circle into which Fedy married, being well-bred as well as beautiful was a salient point.

My grandmother, Fedy’s younger daughter, was named Anne Beekman for her great-great-grandmother, the wife of John Finlay of Montreal. An intriguing contemporary use at the time of my grandmother’s birth was that of Fedy’s first cousin once removed, Anne Beekman Hamilton (1852–1942), who married the Canadian publisher Sir Hugh Graham in 1892. In 1917, Sir Hugh became the 1st (and last) Baron Atholstan; as he had no male heir, the title became extinct at his death.

Genealogy has only gradually become an egalitarian pursuit; it took NEHGS about half a century to admit women members. For my great-grandmother, who burnished her prosperous husband’s household with eighteenth-century family portraits – who was well-bred as well as beautiful – it was only a matter of time before she joined the Society, as she did at the 4 April 1923 meeting, along with her friend Mrs. Godfrey Lowell Cabot and about seventy other members.[9]


[1] Sara Theodora Ilsley (1881–1945) married Charles Fanning Ayer in 1904.

[2] John Beekman Finlay (1810–1869) was married to Elizabeth Lawrance Fowler 1842–65. With fellow New York Yacht Club members John Cox Stevens and Edwin A. Stevens, George L. Schuyler, and Hamilton Wilkes, J. Beekman Finlay formed a syndicate to build a schooner to challenge the membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes in 1851.

[3] Colonel John Lawrance (ca. 1750–1810), also a Senator from New York 1796–1800, was married to Elizabeth McDougall 1775–90 and to Elizabeth (Lawrence) Allen 1791–1800.

[4] Tench Francis (ca. 1703–1758) eloped with Elizabeth Turbutt in 1724; among their grandchildren was Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, who married Benedict Arnold in 1779.

[5] Beekman Finlay Ilsley (1873–1928) married Charlotte Christian Gilchrist in 1898.

[6] The Rev. Francis Grenville Ilsley (1878–1925) married Katherine Fiske Ferris in 1921.

[7] Charles Fanning Ayer (1865–1956) was married to Theodora Ilsley 1904–45 and to Anne Phillips in 1946.

[8] Fedy’s father’s maternal grandmother was Sarah (Durrell) Coes; Dirck Lefferts’s daughter was Sarah (Lefferts) Beekman. I can find no other Theodora in the families of Fedy’s parents.

[9] Only two of the resident members elected were men. Henry Edwards Scott, “Proceedings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 77 [1923]: 154–57 at 155–56.

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.

9 thoughts on “Salient points

  1. This story of a woman who lost both parents at a young struck a coincidental cord. Yesterday, an article from 1902 retrieved from tells the story of my ancestor, Florence Belle Showler’s mysterious disappearance from her widowed Aunt Barbara Agloe’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn at age 18. Another relative was quoted as saying Florence felt like a prisoner at her aunt’s home. Her father had died when she was 3; her mother at age 14. records indicate aunt Barbara was her guardian but had exhausted, in 2 years, the $500, a large sum for the times, bequeathed for Florence’s care.
    Florence did reappear at some point after being missing for two years. She married and lost her first husband, George Clarke in the spring of 1918, the first of three waves of the Spanish Flu and remarried, Edward Boland, but never had children. I question if the trauma of her youth lead her not have children.

    1. I suspect this trauma left a mark in each case. Fedy’s brothers died young, and before her, and I wonder if all these early deaths weren’t hanging over her her entire adult life — as, perhaps, with Florence.

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