October 19, 2009
“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995)
Each of us descends from eight great-grandparents. As immigrants make up a sizable portion of our population, many do not know the names of their great-grandparents. However, as all of mine were born in this country and with the advent of that intrusive tool, the internet, I have been able to learn something about most of them. Not surprisingly, and decidedly sexist, there is more information available about men than women.
Great-grandparents precede us by almost exactly one hundred years; so it is easy to look back on the history of the time in which they lived. Mine were born between 1837 and 1854, meaning that they came of age in the post Civil War era, the height of the Industrial Revolution. As I was born in the early days of World War II, they were born just before and just after the Mexican War. What the Vietnam War was to my generation, the Civil War was to theirs. And, just as I missed having to fight in Vietnam, three of my four great-grandfathers escaped the battlefields of the Civil War. The fourth was too young to fight, but because he was born in the south he felt the effects of the War. The two wars, in spite of the common tragedy of each, were entirely different. In terms of population, the country in 1861 was only one sixth the size it was in 1965, yet deaths in the Civil War were more than ten times those in Vietnam. On the other hand, Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg in 1863 were not broadcast live into our living rooms, as were Khe Sanh and Hue in 1968.
The recession of the 1870s matched the recession that occurred during the 1970s. Toward the end of their business careers, the Panic of 1907 presaged the Credit Collapse of 2008. And just as reforms followed the 1907 panic, including the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the trust busting of President Theodore Roosevelt, the credit collapse of 2008 will surely lead to similar reforms over the next few years.
The twilight years of my great-grandparents were marked by World War I, and it seems likely that the War on Terror, assuming it lasts the decades suggested by some, will mark my last years.
A curious aspect of my parents is that they were fifth cousins. This was not unusual in those early New England days. My mother and father shared in common great-great-great-great- grandparents: William Greenleaf and Mary Brown. William Greenleaf, born in 1725 and a merchant in Boston, was the high sheriff of Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, which includes Boston, during the Revolutionary War. Mary Brown was the daughter of Judge Robert Brown of Plymouth, MA. Together they had thirteen children, one of whom, Priscilla (born in 1755) married John Appleton of Salem and it is through them that my father descended. A second daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1766; she married Noah Webster (the lexicographer), then living in Hartford, and it is through that line that my mother descended. It also means that my great-grandmothers Jane Appleton and Jane Louisa Fitch Trowbridge were third cousins.
All but one of my great-grandparents died many years before I was born. The one that survived the longest, Mary Bolling (Kemp) Washington, was the last to be born and likely suffered the most difficult childhood. She was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1854, so was seven when the Civil War began and ten during the Siege of that city. The siege, depriving the inhabitants of sufficient food, lasted just over nine months, ending on March 25th 1865 about two weeks before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox – 95 miles to the west. While her parents died relatively young, my great-grandmother lived for ninety years, dying in 1944 when I was three; though I have no memory of her, I do have a cherished photograph with me on her lap struggling to be free.
Of my four great-grandfathers, the one about whom I know the least is my name sake, Sydney Augustus Williams. He was born in Taunton, MA on October 31, 1837, the son of Sydney Williams and Caroline (Messer) Williams. His mother was the daughter of Asa Messer, President of Brown University from 1804 to 1826. Sydney went to Bristol Academy in Taunton and graduated from Harvard College in 1858. Upon graduation he went to work in his father’s insurance agency in Taunton and, at some point, became Secretary of the American Mutual Insurance Company in Boston. In 1871 he married a widow, Charlotte Sullivan Blood (Richardson). She had been married to John Richardson and by him had two children. In 1873 she gave birth to my grandfather, Sydney Messer Williams, in Vevey, Switzerland. In 1965 my wife and I went to the city hall in Vevey and saw the record of his birth. My great-grandmother died in 1896 and her husband on January 26, 1912. Incidentally, an oil by Charlotte Blood of red flowers in a dark brown vase now hangs in my son Edward’s home. The painting reminds us that our ancestors are not just names on a piece of paper, but were real people who lived, breathed and appreciated beauty.
My other paternal great-grandparents were also born in Massachusetts. Walter Hunnewell, the son of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell a merchant banker and Isabella Pratt Welles, was born in Boston on January 28, 1844. Walter graduated from Harvard in 1865. Before joining his father’s firm (H. H. Hunnewell & Co.) he embarked as a volunteer and photographer on the Thayer Expedition, a trip up the Amazon led by Professor Louis Agassiz lasting about a year. Over the years Walter became a director of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Co., the Provident Institute for Savings and the Webster & Atlas National Bank; he was a Vice President of St. Mary’s Mineral Land Co., and a trustee of Boston Lying-in Hospital, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and other organizations. The “Italian Gardens” at “Wellesley”, the house built by his father, flourished under the eye of Walter when he inherited the estate in 1901, upon the death of his father at age 90 on May 20, 1901. Walter died September 30, 1921.
On May 15, 1873 Walter married Jane Appleton Peele. Jane, born on December 8, 1848, was the daughter of Willard Peele and Sarah Ann Silsbee of Salem, Massachusetts. As an aside, Sarah was one of eleven children – eight survived – which included Edward Augustus Silsbee, a sea captain and noted collector of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Edward Silsbee deserves a separate telling of his own story . Jane gave birth to six children – one of whom, Willard, predeceased her – including my grandmother, Mary Peele Hunnewell. Jane died at age 44, on September 15, 1893.
My maternal great-grandparents represented the North and the South. My mother’s paternal grandparents came from New Haven, Connecticut. My great-grandfather, Henry Lucius Hotchkiss, the sixth child of Henry Hotchkiss and Elizabeth Daggett Prescott, was born December 18, 1842 and married Jane Louisa Fitch Trowbridge in 1875. In 1843 the senior Henry, with his brother Lucius, teamed up with L. Candee and formed a rubber manufacturing facility to produce rubber boots under the Goodyear license – the first company to utilize Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process. By 1863, the first Henry Hotchkiss had become president of L. Candee, Inc. My great-grandfather (Henry Lucius) attended Hopkins Grammar School and Williston Academy in Easthampton, Massachusetts (the school from which I graduated in 1959.) He left Williston in 1860 to join his father in business. His first job was paymaster of the New London Railroad, a company of which his father was a trustee. He soon joined L. Candee and by 1863 was treasurer. By this time the company employed 2000 people and was producing 20,000 boots and shoes a day. The senior Henry Hotchkiss died in 1871, and that year Henry L. succeeded his father as president of Union Trust Company, a New Haven bank founded in 1868. In 1892, L. Candee & Co., with Henry Lucius as president, along with a few other independent rubber companies joined to form U.S. Rubber Co. of New Jersey. My great-grandfather served in the office of chairman and as a director before retiring in 1899 and then, with his wife, took a trip around the world. He also was a director of the National New Haven Bank and a trustee of Hopkins Grammar School. He died at the age of 87 on May 10, 1930 – purportedly of a heart attack while attending the Harvard-Yale crew race on the Thames in New London.
His wife, Jane Trowbridge, was the daughter (and fourth child) of Henry Trowbridge and Mary Webster Southgate, a granddaughter of Noah Webster. Jane was born on November 16, 1851 in New Haven. She died on April 20, 1902 at the age of 50. My grandfather was 23 at the time.
My mother’s maternal grandparents lived in Tennessee. My mother’s grandfather was Joseph Edwin Washington and her grandmother, Mary Bolling Kemp. They lived on a farm (Wessyngton) in Cedar Hill, Tennessee, about forty miles north of Nashville, not far from the Kentucky border. Joseph Edwin, born on November 4, 1851, was the son of George Augustine Washington and Jane Smith. George’s father, Joseph, acquired the land and built the house in the last decade of the eighteenth century. At its peak, the farm comprised about 15,000 acres and was the second largest grower of dark fire tobacco in the world – second to the Khedive of Egypt. During the Civil War George made frequent trips to New York; his oldest son fled to Canada, so Joseph Edwin stayed home with his mother to defend the farm against Northern raiders. After the War, Edwin graduated from Georgetown; three years later he graduated with the first class from Vanderbilt Law School. He was admitted to the bar, but never practiced. With his father, he managed the farm.
For two years he served as a representative to the state legislature and in 1887 was elected to Congress where he served ten years. Thus, my grandmother, born in 1888, spent her early years in Washington, D.C.. In 1896 Edwin was appointed road commissioner for Robertson County where Wessyngton was located; so returned to the farm. He was a director of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis and the Nashville & Decatur Railroads. In 1904 he became, along with two brothers-in-law, Felix Ewing and Charles Fort, a founding member of Planters Protective Association, an organization of dark-fired tobacco planters, organized against the so-called tobacco trust. He died August 28, 1915 and is buried in the family cemetery at Wessyngton .
My great-grandmother, Mary Bolling Kemp, was born in 1854, the daughter of Judge Wyndham Kemp and Seignora Peyton Bolling, in Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg, of course was the site of the infamous siege in the last months of the Civil War. During those months Robert E. Lee’s son, Fitzhugh, became a life-long family friend and later became godfather to my grandmother, Elizabeth Wyndham Washington. Mary Kemp, after a difficult early life in Petersburg during the siege, bore four children, including my grandmother, and lived to the age of 90, dying in 1944; she is buried alongside her husband. The photograph of my great-grandmother with me on her lap is a reminder that the Civil War is not all that distant.
The historian, Margaret MacMillan, in her book, Dangerous Games, warns of those who use history to justify their interpretation of events. However, history does help us see our lives in a larger context. Edward Hallett Carr in his 1961 lecture, “What is History”, said that history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Jessica DuLong, in her delightful book, My River Chronicles, writes: “Grasping history’s messages is more intuitive than literal, but the information connects us to our place in time.” And, while I am not a fan of ancestor worship, I do think we benefit from knowledge of whence we came. As much as we are products of our environment, equally we are a result of the genetics we have inherited. I have found the study of one’s family as meaningful in understanding the continuum of history. We realize the miracle that has allowed us to be born – a function of two strangers meeting, falling in love and having children. It is a never ending process toward infinity, both exciting and humbling.