I spent last week travailing out-of-the-way grave yards throughout Vermont.
My grandfather is an avid genealogist, and every so often he likes to retrace our family’s roots and pay his respects. This year, I accompanied him. And his trusty dogs, too, of course.
According to my grandfather’s research, my ten-times-great-grandfather, Samuel Winsley, arrived in New England in 1638. Even with the inconsistencies in public records, it is surprisingly straightforward to trace the growth and movements of his family over the next 375 years. He and his sons founded Salisbury, MA, then Kingston, NH — although that settlement had to be abandoned more than once because of wolf attacks. The actual placements of these settlements don’t quite coincide with today’s town lines, with specifications vaguely bequeathing land “north of the Merrimack and west of the Ocean.” In fact, my own parents inadvertently bought property on land that originally belonged to grandson of Samuel Winsley.
By the Revolution, my line of the family had meandered into Vermont, where it would largely remain until WWII. Our tour focused on those graves, the oldest from 1812, the most recent belonging to my great grandparents. Some of the cemeteries were large, and still actively in use. Others were forgotten and overgrown, only accessible through long (and possibly felonious) walks through farmers’ fields. The foliage was turning early, and it was a beautiful, if somber, errand.
I learned a lot about my family from our trek. These people must have been incredible survivors, to make it through the unforgiving seasons in a harsh and wild place. They lived with so much uncertainty — more than one family had an instance of a loved one leaving for a journey and simply never coming back. It was also interesting to see that if my ancestors survived childhood (and for the women, the added hurdle of childbirth), they tended to live for seven, eight or nine decades. They loved to recycle names, with the father’s first name serving as the sons’ middle names, and with daughters often named after mothers and grandmothers. Clarissa, Minerva and Phoebe appear nearly as often as Mary. I’m bemused to find the variations in spelling used for Winslow. Even though I know that standardized spelling is a modern conceit, it still strikes me as odd that some people weren’t even consistent in their own lifetimes, using “Winslee” in one census and “Winsloe” in the next. By the late 1800s, the current iteration of the name seems to have won out.