Unearthing Stories of the Past

Boat in Fog at Stonington Harbor

There is properly no history, only biography.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I joke about unearthing my ancestors; really, it’s their stories I’m after. Sifting through the scant evidence of existence left behind by my grandparents, great, great and even greater, has become a passion, if not a full-blown obsession. Dusting off the simplest details of their lives has ignited the flames of my imagination like nothing ever has—ever. With all my heart, I want to know them and to bring them to life.

Maybe it was my illness, which I can thank for bringing me in touch with the fragility of my own life. Maybe it was falling under the spell of The Princes of Ireland, an epic novel spanning 12 centuries of one Irish family’s captivating story, which I can thank for showing me that families live over great spans of time, not just one lifetime. Maybe it was travelling to Peru, where I meditated on my need for true community, which I can thank for guiding the way to find my place in the world. Maybe it was losing my job, which I can thank for teaching me what it feels like to be invisible, in a culture where work tends to define our being. Maybe it was the broken ankle that I can thank for a summer of rest and elevation, giving me a stretch of guilt-free time to dig in to the details. Of course, it’s likely that it was all of those things and none of those things.

It was my time to understand my family, and that was that.

As the details—dates of birth and death, census details like occupations, income and unborn children—accumulated, I became gripped by a need to know my family’s story. More importantly, I became compelled to tell it. I needed to sleuth out the facts, such as they are, and to cobble together their stories. To tell them, so that they will not be lost.

Weirs at Deer Isle

How sad it seems to me that any human being’s story should become lost to history. But, the truth is, most lives become invisible after just a couple of generations. What can be the purpose of our lives if we leave no trace of our work, thoughts and deeds? I understand more clearly now that it is not those details that make us who we are; it’s the way we touch each other’s lives every day that bring meaning to our lives.

When my great great great great great grandparents were exiled from Acadia during the British expulsion of French-speaking, Roman Catholic Acadians, they spent 10 years living in squalor in Salem, Massachusetts. No means existed to tell their stories, beyond scraps of history’s artifacts. With bits like names on a ship’s manifest, I’m left to piece together the probable details of their lives—really, to reconstruct the background against which they lived out those years, waiting to return home. Knowing anything of who they were and how they touched each other’s lives, is a slow and surprisingly spiritual process. They deserve to be known. With no ability to write their own stories, no cameras to capture their smiles and tears, they left little mark on history. But they lived nonetheless, and I want to know their lives, to have them as part of me.

Fog at Stonington Harbor

My sister and I, in the absence of living relatives who could help us, began with a tattered scrap of paper with one family’s names and dates, spanning two generations. We added to it the fragments of our childhood memories, which we soon discovered extended not much further than our parent’s generation. That mere handful of details opened the way for weeks of research, leading me to meet cousins from Maine, to Arizona and Florida, even to Malawi, building connections I didn’t know were possible.

Two months later, I’m finding glimmers of understanding about ancestors who lived one hundred, two hundred, even five hundred years ago in places like Maine, Nova Scotia, Ireland, England and Massachusetts. One even arrived on the Mayflower, signing the Mayflower Compact. It’s impossible to explain how energizing and powerful this work is for me, as it anchors my life in the context of so many others—my family.

That these lives will not be forgotten is deeply important to me. That the backdrop of history against which they lived is known by my family and descendants is profoundly important to me. Nothing short of bringing my son into the world has ever felt this important.

The stories are coming to life with ever more vivid color and detail, some imagined, some rooted in census records, church documents, gravestones and—where I’ve been lucky—historical accounts that describe their lives. My ancestors, the names now numbering in the thousands on the family tree, were all kinds of people. Some led important lives (by our culture’s rather artificial construct of important); most led quiet lives that might seem not important at all to us today.

They toiled at jobs like farming, fishing, cutting stone, dying cloth, raising sails on the tall ships of their day, digging trenches and building roads. Some found their way to keeping grocery stores, tending horses or, later, serving as ministers, deacons and teachers. One found his way into medicine and served as the island doctor in Deer Isle, Maine. All lived modest lives, close to the land.

All of them lived by the sea.

Cove at Deer Isle Northwest Harbor

As I uncover and dust off the barest facts of their lives, I’ve come to understand some of my ancestors—even to see them in my mind’s eye. I feel their worry and fear, as evidenced by traces of their movement across great distances, during the times of the great famine in Ireland or the expulsion of Acadians from their homeland in Canada. Or at the time of the Civil War, when my great great grandfather, with a young wife and three (soon to be four) small children at home, went down to the village on Deer Isle to register for the draft, alongside his older brother. I feel the tears of those four young children a few years later, orphaned not by war (he was spared) but by some other mystery of life, as they headed off to live with their grandparents on the farm up the road.

Learning that my great great great great great grandmother rocked the cradle of John Quincy Adams at Quincy, Massachusetts, during the same years my Irish great great great great great grandmother might have struggled to find a way to feed her family; and, just a few years later, a handful of young American colonists set sail for Deer Isle from Cape Cod, in hopes that their labor as settlers would later earn them a grant of one hundred or more acres of rocky, thin soil—knowing these things has given a depth to my own fleeting life that I could not imagine otherwise knowing.

Mount Adams Cemetery, Deer Isle

My journey wants to lead me on pilgrimages to find these people, or what I can discern of their lives and spirits in the places they called home. A few weeks ago, I stooped to touch the earth at my great great grandmother’s grave on Deer Isle, filling with sadness at its untended, unremembered condition.

Paulina Johnson's Grave, Deer Isle

The stone, in a few year’s time, will surely sink into the earth, just 150 years after her passing. She died at 29 years old, on November 4, 1866. My own mother died on the very same day, 107 years later in 1973, leaving me and my two sisters as young teenagers. I understand all too well the terror and loneliness of growing up without a mother. Is it any wonder that I can so clearly feel the pain of these children? The oldest of them, in several years, would marry my great grandfather, an Irish stone cutter from Quincy, Massachusetts, who worked on Deer Isle’s rich granite quarries. They would head off together to Salem, Massachusetts in 1883 to begin a new life together.

Beginning a new life is a common thread of the many families whose lives I’ve tried to understand. Finding something better, always moving forward to set down roots in a new place when times got hard. That’s what they did, by the looks of it, every one or two hundred years. That’s what we do today, even more frequently, judging by the abundance of books and resources guiding to begin anew.

This work has shown for me the greater context of my little life within the community that I came from and still belong to. I see my life as a strand in a great, wide braid of colorful threads, fanning out at both ends into the stories of those before me and those who will come after me. If my quest for no lives to be lost and forgotten seems a stretch, just know that I will do my best to make it happen. I will tell their stories.

I will continue to write about food, health and all the things I find important, adding this new passion to my collection of others, and leaving my little mark in history by writing. My ankle is healed now, and I’m out in the world again, but I know now that this work of telling the family stories is mine to keep, whether I’m nursing an injury or not.

If I’m lucky, I’ll have an impact on a few lives while I’m at it.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me. If you’ve ever been captivated by the stories of your ancestors, you can count on me to want to hear all about it!

16 responses

  1. Such an interesting thing, to look at the history of our ancestors. I have a packet that someone in my family began putting together and I discovered that one relative was “killed by Indians”. It’s just a list of the family names, so to know more would be wonderful. Maybe one day I will delve into it.
    I love your pictures here.

  2. I know I like your food posts and such but I am a huge history buff – even going so far as to work in not only as museum for a time but in a nursing home as well so as to hear more and more stories of how life was – Please keep us posted on further findings on this aspect of your life as well.

    • Thanks, Tameson. What a wonderful way to bring the past into your present — I love it! I’ll definitely post more about this. I don’t think I could not say more. Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. I share this obsession. I have inherited hundreds of family artifacts and feel pulled in so many directions because I want to know everything about everyone…and patience doesn’t seem to be an inherited family virtue.

    • What an exciting inheritance! I actually don’t have a ton of patience either. If that broken ankle hadn’t have come along, I’m not sure how far I’d have gotten. Thanks for stopping by; I’m glad to know about your blog, too.

  4. I love the richness of this piece. It is such an honouring of ordinary lives and reminds me that my life is not an isolated energetic dot but part of a long thread of human experiences. It gives me a fuller meaning of the word legacy. We all need to tell our stories. Thanks.

    • There’s so much to know; I don’t expect the quest to ever end. One of the most fascinating aspects of it is the understanding of just how interconnected/related we all must be. I hope you pick your obsession up again, Tammy.

  5. Lovely, lovely post as well as photographs, Eleanor. I didn’t intend to stay in New England when I moved here many years ago. I’m still a California girl at heart, but this place has somehow become inseparably part of who I am. Your thoughts about your family and those that came before you reflects a deep, abiding sense of place.

    • Thank you. That sense of place came as somewhat of a surprise, partway into my research. I expected to become really excited about my Irish ancestors. I am, but I feel such a sense of connections with the ones who lived closer by.

      I’m glad that you chose to put down roots in New England. I find it so easy to relate to the stories and photos of your beautiful blog, and that’s at least in part because we’re neighbors, sharing so much. I love California, too, but I’m glad you’re here.


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  8. I too have been looking at the past history of my family. I love the way you express yourself. It is a wonderful adventure to travel and see where we all came from and why we relate to others the way we do. I was excited to share with my daughters about their past. My oldest granddaughter is 15. I told her she has the same birthday as one of her great grandfathers sisters. She loved that. I enjoyed reading your blog and will continue to do so. I emailed it to my daughter. She loves to write and would love to read this. Thanks so much for sharing.


    • Joyce, thank you for your words and for reading mine. This is powerful work, indeed, this family history stuff. I noticed your last name; perhaps we’re connected in some distant way. I’ve met so many new cousins through my research. That’s been one of the greatest joys of it all. Have fun exploring your family’s stories and sharing them with your family!

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