‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

“I might understand if only you wouldn’t explain.”[1]

The contours of this year’s two hundredth anniversary of Maine’s statehood have been undeniably unexpected. Most anniversary celebrations here were cancelled or postponed, leaving most Mainers “celebrating” from the comfort of their homes. I began to think about the convergence of ancestral factors in my family history, Spanish Flu and Covid-19 aside.

My cousin Asa Williams, the builder of Our Old House, came to Maine about the same time and from a nearby Massachusetts town as my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read, with their wives (who were third cousins and stepsisters), settling at the Fort Western Settlement, the area’s trading post, bank, and social venue, the center of the tiny community’s daily life. Both were active in the community, Asa as a meeting house founder, tythingman, and the town’s sealer of leather, and George in local politics and education. Now I am on the Old Fort Western Boards of Trustees and Directors. The more I try to leave, the more I’m bound to stay. The farther away I travelled, the closer I got to home. Tell me my ancestors don’t influence my life!

These two ancestors provided the foundation for generations of family to prosper here. Even the building of Our Old House is part of the convergence. Asa built initially a half-cape-style structure, but about 1820, the year of statehood, or shortly thereafter his son, Asa, added the front Federal-Style section, expanding the house by four rooms (with closets!) and a wide front hall. Asa Sr. died in July that year, living just long enough to see statehood. I’ve always thought that his son added the front rooms to provide for his mother and unmarried sisters pursuant to his father’s will.

This year’s four hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower also came to mind. I discovered that apparently I descend from Mayflower passenger John Howland on both paternal and maternal sides, from Desire Howland, his daughter, to his great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Harriet Sturgis Lee, my paternal great-great-grandmother, and then from his daughter Ruth Howland to his great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter Frances Hall McLeod, my maternal great-grandmother. I think it is interesting that my ancestors on both sides, descendants of Pilgrim John Howland, came to Maine from the same Boston areas, not necessarily knowing each other, but converging in … me.

Now that I understand that my family history has come full circle, I’m left with one unanswerable question:

Was any of it random?


[1] “Mummy, I think I might understand if only you wouldn’t explain.” ― Dorothy L. Sayers, The Wimsey Papers.

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

11 thoughts on “‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

  1. Yes – was it random? My mother’s maternal and fraternal families both had a history in Davenport, Iowa, but her parents met Coincidentally in Los Angeles. I wonder … did the families know each other those generations earlier? Was that shared heritage part of the attraction? The love letters don’t mention Iowa…

  2. I also am surprised and intrigued by how different lines in my family were close enough to touch, and yet it wasn’t until generations later and several states away that the lines come together. Your question is a very good one. Random, or guided?

  3. Was it random indeed. For years I was told that my mother (from Boston) and my father (from New York City) met when he was at Harvard. Last year I came across a newspaper clipping for a mill being opened by my mother’s grandfather. Among the people invited from New York City was my father’s grandfather. Did those two talk at the opening? Did my grandparents know of the previous generation’s connection? Did they tell my parents? If only I had known to ask my parents!
    And yes, I am descended from John Howland through his great granddaughter Joanna Howland.

  4. I forgot to add one of my Mayflower ancestor couples produced the wife of my grand uncle. Also in Iowa. She was my 6c1r and married my grandmother’s brother.

  5. My parents are both from Tennessee, although opposite ends of the state (maternal in Obion County, paternal in Upper East on land that was part of Watauga Association, Virginia, North Carolina, State of Franklin and finally Tennessee.). They met and married in London, England when Dad was my Grandaddy’s CO. Granddaddy took pity on the single guy from his home state and brought him home for some home cooking. He stayed.

    I’ve never found a link between the families, but then, my maternal grandmother is a complete and total brick wall, so who knows? But not on the Isbell or Ferguson side, for sure.

  6. For me, the nucleus is Pittsylvania County, Virginia. As a native Californian whose parents came from different states, why is it that line after line leads back to Colonial times in that county? And imagine the surprise when the newly traced lines of our son-in-law led to – you guessed it!- Pittsylvania County. Not one of these many families lived there after 1825, yet their descendants converge in a little California town a hundred and fifty years later. Full circle, indeed………..

  7. I was just looking at my great grandfather’s descent from John and Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland yesterday. He descended from them seven times. Two from his mother and five from his father. An example of how families intermarried. His family was from the upper Cape and Southeastern Massachusetts. His wife from the lower Cape also had Mayflower lines but none from John Howland.

  8. My convergence took a much more roundabout way. Both my father and my mother are 8th great-grandchildren of Kenelm Winslow (although the line on my mother’s side is through adoption, not blood).

    My father’s line is the more typical: from Plymouth/Marshfield, down to Freetown, then to Falmouth (Maine), Westbrook, Webbs Mills, Gilead, then Shelburne NH and North Conway.

    My mother’s line is much more convoluted: from Marshfield, to Berkley, to the Pioneer Valley, to Western NY, Haldimand and Monck counties Ontario, Philadelphia, and finally to Carney’s Point NJ/Wilmington DE.

    They met because my father’s roommate at Bowdoin College was my mother’s next door neighbor and “big brother”, because they were both only children.

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