For the past few years, I have made twice-yearly trips (summer & fall) from my home in Missouri to Western New York State to visit family. While visiting NY, I always try to get in a little genealogy research and it’s been my goal to visit some ancestral homes.
Last month (October 2016), I also visited my brother and his family in New Hampshire. This gave me the opportunity to visit three ancestral homes — all built by veterans of the Revolutionary War. While I did not go inside these homes, simply passing through the geographic settings in which they lived was an impacting experience. In the course of my genealogical research and preparing DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) application papers on each of them, I’ve studied their lives. So much so that, on a certain level, I feel like I know them.
Places convey a feel. They have an energy about them which comes from the land, the flora and fauna. We’ve all felt that. Walking on a sandy beach feels different than hiking the leeward side of a forested mountain. The ocean pulses with loud, rhythmic power. It’s moody. A mountain side can be lush, quiet and damp. Place is affecting. In visiting the homes of John Norton, Joel Marsh and Jonathan Tidd, I hoped to have something like a personal “encounter” with these ancestors.
My first stop was the home of John Norton in Royalston, MA. Royalston is located in the hilly northwestern part of central Massachusetts. There are no interstates or other highways passing through town. There are no gas stations, no stores of any kind, no restaurants. Per the 2000 Census, there were a little over 1250 people residing in the town. This is about 200 less people (per the 1810 Census) than at the time John Norton built his home. Because very, very little has changed in Royalston in the past 200 years, if I imagined away the pavement and the power lines, I could easily see John Norton inhabiting that place.
After the War, John Norton married and raised his family as a simple farmer in Royalston. On Sundays, he walked a few hundred yards to the town commons where the family attended services at the First Congregational Church (built in 1766 and still standing). Like modern-day residents of Royalston, if he needed anything that wasn’t produced on his own farm, he had to travel to another town.
Visiting Royalston on a sunny, fall day left me with a feeling of pastoral simplicity. A peaceful sense of the days, months and years of life rolling out at a slow and steady pace. After serving eight wearying years as a soldier in the American Revolution, marching on foot hundreds miles over that time, seeing death and destruction, I can fully appreciate the appeal of this place to John Norton. I see it as a place that provided him the rest and peace he no doubt needed after his long and bitter war years. John’s own hometown of Ipswich, MA, was far more populous and bustling.
While visiting my brother in NH, we drove south to Woburn, MA, to see the home of Lt. Jonathan Tidd. I’ve written about the Tidd family of Woburn in this post. The city of Woburn would be unrecognizable to Jonathan Tidd. While he lived there, the population was about 1700; today over 37,000 people live in Woburn.
The Tidd house today, very much expanded and modernized, serves as a residential care facility. At one time, the house was run as a hotel for stage-coach passengers traveling the main route from Boston to Lowell and Nashua, NH. The Tidds provided hearty meals and occasional overnight lodging.
Because the home sits in what is now a modern residential area, with strip malls and other commercial areas very nearby, my imagination was too limited to get a “feel” for what it may have been to walk this area in Jonathan Tidd’s time. So, alas, there was no lasting takeaway from this visit. But, I’m still happy that I went.
Returning to Western NY, I made my way from Manchester, NH, to Bethel, VT, to see the home of Col. Joel Marsh. After the war, Col. Marsh was given a 450 acre mill lot in Bethel to build a saw mill and a grist mill to assist settlers in the area with building and sustaining themselves in the area.
It was a cool and foggy morning as I drove the winding mountain roads into Bethel. The area is “characterized by steep craggy hillsides covered with lush deciduous/coniferous forest and transected by narrow valleys.” (Bethel’s History)
When Joel Marsh lived in Bethel, the town population was about 1000; today there are about twice that many. That’s not much of an increase in 200 years. Thus, similar to what I encountered in Royalston, the minimal growth and change to the place made it possible for me to picture Joel living in this place. And working. Because the saw mill that Joel built and operated is still running.
The craggy hillsides, the shallow White River strewn with rocks and boulders and the laboring loggers and millers I viewed all conveyed a far different style of living from that of John Norton’s quiet little retreat in Royalston. Bethel is vigorous and hard-scrabble. Man is subduing the surrounding wilderness rather than peacefully nurturing the land for provision.
Can visiting ancestral homes tell us anything about the character of the people who lived there? Perhaps so. Perhaps not. As with us, some of our ancestors (John Norton) deliberately chose where to settle. Others stayed where they were born (Jonathan Tidd) or took advantage of an opportunity to increase their fortunes (Joel Marsh).
I am incredibly fortunate that these ancestral homes still stand for me to visit. As another family history blogger states: “Having walked around places where my ancestors farmed, went to church, did business, and carried on their lives, I have a richer picture of what their lives might have been like.”