Family associations

My grandfather in Topsfield with his sister Margaret and son Charles, December 1953.

Here I don’t mean surname associations or descendant groups — I mean a family’s association with a place. This concept is on my mind as my father prepares to sell his house, built 27 years ago on land that his parents had bought back in the 1920s. For that matter, my paternal grandfather[1] was born in a house his parents built and on a piece of land that had (already, in 1898) been in the Steward family for about 150 years.

Sad to say that neither my great-grandparents’ house nor the older John Steward Homestead still exist. Both outlived their perceived usefulness, and the land on which they stood (in Goshen, New York) was developed into a highway exit almost 60 years ago. Stewards had lived on the Goshen place for 220 years at that point; the first were my grandfather’s great-great-great-grandparents John Steward (1715?-1770) and his wife Elizabeth Bradner. While a later John Steward left Goshen for New York City about 200 years ago, the country property remained in the family for another 140 years — my grandfather was born there, and his father,[2] paternal grandmother,[3] and paternal great-grandmother[4] all died there, despite their usual residence in Manhattan.

The John Steward Homestead in Goshen.

My grandfather came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard, and, having married a Boston girl, he stayed. His siblings scattered, to California, to Manhattan, to the diplomatic corps, and to Italy. By the time the Steward houses in Goshen were facing demolition, he was well-established in Topsfield, on the North Shore of Boston. Indeed, during the last years of the Goshen houses, my grandparents, parents, and uncle and aunt each had a house on the property my Steward grandparents bought following their wedding in 1927. Even if bidding on the Goshen land had been a possibility, their new roots in Massachusetts were already well-established.

The Steward family in Goshen, December 1928. My grandfather stands at far right.

I was born in Boston, but for the first nine years of my life we lived in Topsfield. (Even when my parents separated, my father moved into a former garage building belonging to his brother, originally a part of my Ayer great-grandparents’ property in nearby Hamilton.) Later, my father moved to Manchester, on the coast, until, following my grandfather’s death, he inherited my grandparents’ house in Topsfield.

My grandparents’ stable land, where my father built his new house.

He decided not to move into his parents’ house, and sold it, reserving several acres next door on which to build a new house. If my grandparents’ house was where we spent most Christmases between 1962 and 1990, my father’s new house next door was the locale for Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings from 1994 until 2019, the last year we could all gather before the pandemic. So, again, for much of my life, two houses on Asbury Street have been family centers, where my father’s two brothers and three stepbrothers — and their growing families — could be expected during the holiday.

This year, for the usual reasons — and those unique to this pandemic time — we won’t gather at my father’s house for a family meal. (We will, however, be preparing to vacate the house — a different sort of festivity!) I still can’t quite believe it, that I won’t get in the car with bags of presents to drive the familiar route to Topsfield. I wonder how my grandfather felt, the first time he didn’t make the trip to Goshen, or later, when his parents’ house sold, or later still, when it was demolished. There is a void, with the loss of this collection of bricks and mortar, and while I am fortunate to have many photos of these houses, both at Christmas and at other times, the physical loss of those rooms where we all once gathered makes an absence in fact and in spirit.

It is a coincidence that this festive time of year will be marked by the end of one chapter in my family’s life. There is a lot to celebrate, and memory can do much. The loss is a bit like a phantom limb, though, and I hope that the balance at Christmas will trend toward joyous memory rather than sad reminiscence. We have had about 280 years in just two (main) places, and one day soon all those associations will reside firmly in the past.

I think that’s worth a toast.


[1] Gilbert Livingston Steward (1898-1991) was married to Anne Beekman Ayer 1927-47 and to Victoria Tytus Coolidge in 1951.

[2] Campbell Steward (1852-1936) married Margaret Atherton Beeckman in 1885.

[3] Catharine Elizabeth White (1818-1867) married John Steward in 1841.

[4] Martha Jackson (1787-1820) married John Steward in 1811.

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.

12 thoughts on “Family associations

  1. Scott – my paternal grandparents bought property around 1914 (marriage year) in New York State that was Livingston land. About 2010, the property was sold and remodeled (house and land). As you said, it was strange that the family would not gather in some way there each year.

  2. My true home town has been experiencing a wave of “knock-downs” since about 2000. Our New Home of 1952 succumbed in 2005 (two families only – the fool I who sold it in 1999); re-imagined from the foundation up so clearly similar to the original, while many another in that town has had even the foundations ripped out to have more flexibility re building codes. Sure, its Location Location Location, but more importantly its LAND LAND LAND. They don’t make much of that anymore. Never sell.* Many a NYC fortune was built on renting Manhattan land, to this very date.

    Genealogical Research Note: It is not just the data within a deed that is important (and it is), but also the relationships of boundaries to boundaries within a neighborhood with likely family associations.

    *Yes, some times there’s no choice.

  3. An interesting post for this season. I have several houses in Massachusetts that were well used and are fondly remembered. I didn’t particularly like a couple of them except in memory. It’s odd how that happens. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Most of the early family homes in my family on Long Island are either torn down or unrecognizable. I have fond memories of several and several were at a time when there were no street numbers I have no idea if they still stand. We are the third owners of a house in NH built in 1935 (first year of FHA mortgages) and it is a treasure.

  5. Thanks Scott for this wonderful reminiscence. My sense of ‘place’ in the world is defined by my ancestry, too, with all since 1800 born within a few miles of one another. My father’s boyhood home, to which he returned when he retired, was built by my 3g-grandfather nearly 200 years ago. Although I visited often as boy, I never lived there, yet it is the ‘place’ most associated with my sense of home and family, and I still visit to
    travel the old roads regularly.

  6. Hello Scott,
    I’m researching Syracuse NY in 1851 around the time of the Jerry Rescue, and am very interested in anything you can share from your great-great-grandmother Cornelia Wheaton Ayer (1835–1878). I read her mother (Ellen’s) diary and her father Charles was a prominent figure in many regards. Do you know of any other family diaries from the Wheaton’s of that time? I read mention of Ellen’s daughter, Ellen Louisa (sister of your G-G-grandmother Cornelia) having one. Would very much appreciate a moment of your time!

    Please contact me by email – thank you!

  7. Thank you for your wonderful post. I have a possible Bradner “association” (!!) in my family tree, from the 1855 NY state census in Goshen: the family of widowed Sarah “Bradnor,” 60, and her two adult children, Sarah, 26, and Benjamin, 22. My possible relative was a boarder or servant in this household. Please email me so that I can obtain any details you might have. Despite the difference in the spelling of this surname, their presence in Goshen indicates that they might be co-descendants, along with you, of Elizabeth Bradner.

    1. All of John and Elizabeth (Bradner) Steward’s descendants descend from Elizabeth’s parents, John and Christian (Colville) Bradner. I think there is a Bradner genealogy, although it’s been years since I’ve looked for one — and Ronald Stewart’s book on the Steward/Stewart family of Blandford, Massachusetts covers the Stewards of Goshen.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.