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  • Writer's pictureTom Paine

Our Backstories, Front and Center

a Kentucky couple over the decades

Our backstories began generations before us, and however much of that tale we think we know, there is more fascination lying in wait. We all have unsolved mysteries waiting to be rediscovered. Alex Haley was onto something with his seminal book Roots, The Saga of an American Family (1976), revealing his long forgotten African forebear, Kunta Kinte, sold into slavery at age seventeen in the Gambia. Nowadays, on PBS’ Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates surprises celebrity guests by revealing their unexpected forebears. On one episode Actor Ted Danson learns that he is descended from seventeenth century feminist and reformer Anne Hutchinson. Genealogy is on a tear right now. is a $1.4 billion company with 20 million people in its DNA network, testing their DNA and 3.5 million subscribers building their family trees online. But then what? 

            Genealogy can take you pretty far back, but, in another sense, how far does it take you? It almost teases you—giving you the bare bones but not fleshing out the person in the round. It may be replete with information, but the genealogical template hardly makes for an easy read, let alone a page turner.  For one thing, the raw data of dates occupies a different part of the brain than the emotional affect of the underlying stories. And that is where we all want to be.

            Genealogy has come a long way, but still, for some reason, the documenting of one’s family roots is called a family tree, though a tree metaphor seems more apt to describe the branches of the descendants that spring from those roots. No biggie.

            I caught the family history bug early, in my elementary school years. I’ll admit, Dad had made it easy—when I was eight, he gave each of his four children a copy of a family history, Paine Ancestry, written in 1912, in which he had inserted numerous illustrations of forebears. He had generously done the same for my aunts and uncles. The illustrations—sometimes of portraits that this extended family was lucky to have, some from the seventeenth century—brought these men and women to life.  But they remained mute.  The question I have been asking myself of late is, If I could invite them over for dinner, what stories would they tell?

            In that ponderous tome of family history, I learned that an ancestor had been on the Mayflower. For a fifth-grade Thanksgiving event, I helped paint a mural of Pilgrims and Indians and modestly mentioned I had a Pilgrim ancestor named Stephen Hopkins. Not every kid had that, and who was I to boast about something, especially because, I have since come to realize over time, it was something I had nothing to do with. Now I have begun to feel that forebears with uplifting stories to tell are to be shared. If they are hard for non-descendants to think of as family, think of them as family friends. Those whose example deeply moves us belong to all of us. They can inspire us.

            In my tribe the womenfolk seemed to outlast the men. They deserved to, no doubt, back in a world that denied them equal stature. My grandfathers died before I was four. I loved family visits with my widowed grandmothers and great aunts. One great aunt pointed out how the gaze of her grandmother in the portrait on the wall seemed to follow you around the room. By the time I was in my teens, whenever I was in the presence of a grandmother or great aunt or a nonagenarian who had known my long departed great grandfather, I found myself asking questions, almost interviewing the poor soul. I would immediately write down what I had heard on notepaper and store the sheets in a folder, for what use I had yet to conceptualize. In those notes, my role as family archivist began.

            Still, I needed the framework that genealogy provides. Already in my teens, I was beating a path to legendary Goodspeed’s Bookshop in Boston, where I bought their ancestral fan-chart, a 2 by 3 foot roll on which you could fill in ten generations of grandparents. For the earliest generations there was only room to fill in the name and the year of birth and death, and that was it. It was hardly the room they deserved.

            Then along came Goodspeed’s folio sized books labeled “ancestral record” on the spine, allowing a four lined box per person. I had room to note their occupation or civic participation or military service. I could add information about any surviving image of the person, or of a place where they lived, or note if there was an image of the person, or whether their homeplace still survived.  There was room outside the box to record extras.

            Mum’s side of the family tree was hard to fill in, and not just because she lacked a big Nash ancestry book. She had been dutifully charting her tree on notepaper, painstakingly copied from a relative’s notes, since photocopying had yet to emerge. Mum’s tree posed a problem.  Her great grandmother, wife of James Nash, was known merely as Elizabeth, and no dates of birth and death were given. His parents were known, but why not his wife? That left a huge blank going back from the early nineteenth century, unlike any of Mum’s other ancestral lines.

            To try to fill in such gaps, I made visits to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, the premier such group in the country, now known online as American  New Englanders, especially Bostonians, have been more obsessed with family history than just about anyone else except the Mormons, but for secular reasons. The New England Historic Genealogical Register had been publishing family genealogies for over a century. They would start with some progenitor, and track all the descendants, using numerical system to keep generations straight. Typically the records delved into essentials—full dates, children, place of residence, profession, military service, other marriages, but left me tantalized for more.

            Meanwhile I was compiling images of the houses where forebears had lived. I even collected nineteenth-century stereographs of landscapes and townscapes known to them.   I collected copies of seventeenth ancestral signatures as these came available online. Pure gold was to find that a forebear had been published—in a book or periodical—and find a copy on ebay. Their words told a lot more about themselves than some dates or some formal portrait or photograph. Old movies from the 1920s-40s revealed my grandparents enjoying leisure times in exotic places, alas with no soundtrack. Sometimes, from the era when talkies were being developed, recordings were made of the actual voice of a public figure—like Teddy Roosevelt. My many times great uncle Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s delicious voice survives online.  No offspring for him; he belongs to us all. As for pre-1935 recordings for our regular relatives, forget it. What I would not give to hear Lincoln’s voice.

            Photographs have at least haiku stories to share. I was charmed to find that two of Lynn’s great grandparents William Draffin Sharp and Alice Sutherland, growing up in rural Kentucky, had been photographed as a pair at least three times—as newlyweds, in middle age, and old age, always sitting side by side—arm in arm in 1870, elbows touching in 1890s, and separated by the framed photo of a lost grown son in 1905. I wondered why such a human thing as a married couple should be so rare in Boston images of that era. Were they trend- setters in Kentucky?  I wonder why smiles were so rare in the poses back then as well. When I found an 1861 carte de visite photograph of my great great grandmother Hannah Farnham Lee smiling across the ages, at age eighty, I sensed another haiku story.

Hannah Farnham Lee (1780-1865) in 1861

            I once hopped in a cab in Boston and asked the driver if he minded me asking where he was from, and he said, not at all, he was from Haiti, so I volunteered that my great great great grandmother (Hannah with the smile) had written a biography of a man from Haiti who had come to New York as a slave 1800, supported his now destitute masters until the day they died and as a free man and thriving hairdresser became a leader in New York’s Black community. Pierre Toussaint was his name. At which point the driver said, my name is Albert Toussaint, and my grandfather in Chicago has a copy of that old book! Me and my big mouth. Toussaint, one of the leading Blacks in early 19th c.  New York City, is up for canonization. Indeed, Hannah’s brother in law had written, “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen or gentlemen who were not Christians—but one man I know who is both—and that man is Black.” 

            Years after I had learned that Stephen Hopkins was a Mayflower Pilgrim, I learned that he was actually not one of the “saints” seeking religious freedom, but was a “stranger” offering his practical skills to the religious community, and sometimes got into trouble for selling liquor on the sabbath. When I discovered that Stephen Hopkins had a much more colorful story to tell—if only through other people’s words—I was hooked.  He was the only Mayflower passenger who had lived in the New World previously. On his way to Jamestown in 1609, he had been shipwrecked in Bermuda! During the colonists’ months there building a new ship, he had advocated self-government on the island and been court martialed for mutiny and nearly executed, only to be pardoned. In Jamestown he got to know Powhatan, and see John Rolfe, his fellow Bermuda survivor, fall in love with Pocahontas. Meanwhile news of the shipwreck inspired Shakespeare’s immortal last play, The Tempest. The Mayflower Compact which Hopkins signed arose because of circumstances similar to what he had experienced in Bermuda. None of that was known to the author of the Paine Ancestry.

            After first cousins, my son and I were separately DNA tested by 23andme. When we shared results, I noted evidence that may have explained the gap in the Nash family tree—that the elusive Elizabeth was possibly of native American descent. Suddenly the features I had taken for granted in her portrait jumped out at me as very Native American, as did the features of two of her grandchildren from photos taken in the 1880s. Here was a potential family story, embarrassing no more, that begged further investigation.

            I once wrote a novel about an adopted Asian American in search of her roots in Taiwan. Her stories were there, waiting to be discovered.  And if they were poignant stories, she would feel a kind of cross-generational, even multi-ethnic empathy. I was channeling some deep-seated impulse we probably all share more than we know, to feel connected to those that came before us, and share our stories, and discover the surprising ways that they intersect.  And ultimately discover that we are all family.

            In all the ways I have illustrated here, your backstory awaits your exploration. Don’t put it off too long, or you may never get to pure gold. The search is the thing. And there will always be room for more nuggets shedding light on what Henry Louis Gates calls “the DNA of American culture.”



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