Spousal cousins

Scott Steward’s ICYMI post “Surrounded by family” inspired me to reflect on shared ancestors among my mother’s paternal grandparents, Millard E. Morse and Myrta E. Pierce, who married in Wareham, Massachusetts, on 13 October 1906. This photo, a family gem, captures the happiness of their wedding day.

Considering this couple came from long-established Plymouth County families, it came as no surprise to me that they would share 33 pairs of shared ancestors — starting six generations preceding them, well beyond any shared recollections. In my novice days as a genealogist, over 40 years ago, what a boon I experienced in accessing the New Bedford Public Library’s collection of family genealogies. And what a delight to find family groups in the General Society of Mayflower Families silver books! A few Plymouth families still elude me, but among the “new” Mayflower lineages I documented were the parents of Sylvia Fish, born circa 1777 in Sandwich, daughter of Levi Fish and Sarah Cobb, and Rebecca Palmer, born circa 1739, daughter of William Palmer and Esther Taber.[1]

Unlikely seventh cousins once removed: my grandparents, Emory and Lois (Rhodes) Morse, in Wareham, Massachusetts in 1936.

My mother’s parents, Emory Morse and Lois Rhodes, never would have dreamed they had ancestors in common. Three of Lois’s grandparents were born outside the United States: paternal grandfather William Rhodes in Devon, England; paternal grandmother Mary Counihan in County Kerry, Ireland; and maternal grandfather Mariano Sylvia in St. Michael, Azores.

That left a possibility that the lineage of Lois’s maternal grandmother, Mary Bethiah (Paine) Sylvia, born on Block Island in 1848, might lead to a “duplicate ancestor.” It took me years to trace Mary’s ancestry back into eighteenth-century Massachusetts.

Though Mary B. Sylvia lived until 1933, her last studio picture above dates to 1898, perhaps on the occasion of her daughter Isabelle’s marriage to Amos Chase. How I wish her husband joined her for the sitting, because no formal picture of him survives!

A series of discoveries, first within traditional published genealogical studies and later from genetic evidence, confirmed one set of Mary Sylvia’s great-grandparents as Seth Phinney and Sarah Cotton, who married in Harpswell, Maine, in 1788. Seth was likely born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, circa 1760, before his parents moved to Harpswell in 1763.[2] Seth could count Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers in his pedigree, and thus, this Mayflower passenger who died during the first winter emerged as the ancestor-in-common of my mother’s parents.

We have no control over where our forebears lived. It strikes me as a marvel of geographic and historical happenstance when ancestors we know by name lived in regions that generated remarkable records and served as an area of study that other genealogical scholars continue to plumb. With generations of unknown Irish and Portuguese ancestors, I never take the privilege of discovering a paper trail for granted.

Three lines of descent from Thomas Rogers to my mother, Marilyn (Morse) Dwyer:


[1] Approved Mayflower supplemental lines of Michael Dwyer, General Society #48,876.

[2] Joseph Crook Anderson and Lois Ware Thurston, Maine Families in 1790 (Rockport, Me.: Picton Press, 1994), 4: 218–19.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

18 thoughts on “Spousal cousins

  1. Hello distant cousin! I too share a Mayflower Society approved Thomas Rogers’ lineage, through John Phinney and Sarah Lumbart.

  2. My paternal grandmother was almost pure Yankee. 4 Plymouth Colony immigrants (no Mayflower passengers, however), at least 60 others who arrived before 1640. But apart from intermarriage among the early settlers of Dover and Salisbury (a couple marriages among 2d cousins or 2d cousins 1x removed, and 1 marriage of first cousins), the only marriage among distant cousins was between her maternal grandparents (my g-g-grandparents) George Emery and Ena Ann “Rowena” Wells of Shelburne, NH in 1878. Both were descendants of the immigrant Richard Hildreth, of Cambridge and Chelmsford.

    My parents are 9th cousins, descended from Kenelm Winslow, but the line on my mother’s side is through adoption, Max Winslow having been her mother’s stepfather. Apart from that adoptive line, her ancestry is all Mid-Atlantic.

  3. My wife and I are 10th cousins, as we both are descended from Mayflower passenger Richard Warren’s daughter Mary. We are each also descended from other passengers, and so, as with your case, ours demonstrates the likelihood that if you find descent from one Mayflower passenger, you are very likely descended from others, given the very small pool of potential marital combinations in early Plymouth. The body of genealogical work surrounding the Pilgrims also is a very good demonstration of the principle of “pedigree collapse” that explains why, as we go back through the generations, we don’t eventually wind up with more ancestors than the number of people who have ever lived.

    1. There are some wonderful charts on the pedigree collapse, and that becomes even more tangible when we look at autosomal DNA. I think the Warren descendants are among the most prolific Mayflower descendants.

  4. 33 pairs! Makes me feel somewhat better about my intertwined ancestors from Sherborn Mass. The degree of intermarriage between 1st and 2nd and removed cousins in my tree is somewhat concerning to the modern mind. (Somehow the Mayflower descendants stayed out of this….)

  5. I have an insurance agent book that lists several of the names you mentioned from Wareham and Barnstable. The name Phinney and Fish are included. It shows what premium was paid on property listed with location of home or business. Years ago I contacted a genealogy society from that area but they weren’t interested. If someone is interested in information on a name I can see if it’s in the book.

    1. Thanks for your response. The Phinney name would not surface in Wareham in the 19th or 20th century. Levi Fish only came to Wareham or Rochester around 1830. I would be curious if the names of Edwin Morse, d. 1892, or Edwin H. Morse, d. 1923, were mentioned in the book.

  6. Hi Possible Cousin! Do you have any Dwyer relatives that lived in Palmer MA, Early 1900s- 1940s? My Late Father was adopted from there in early 1940’s, He was four, He remembered his last name being Dwyer. You bear a slight resemblance to him in your mouth and neck area!

    1. Hello! You never know especially since my Dwyers lived on Palmer Street in Fall River. We have no relatives in that part of Massachusetts. I suggest that you look for Dwyers in the census for Palmer and work your way back to Ireland. If there is a connection to County Kerry, there is a possibility of a remote relationship. Keep me posted.

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