I always thought I had a fair sense of my family's ancestry.
Until I started asking questions and getting answers to those questions. The correct answers, not family myths. Once immersed in finding those answers, I have to confess the entire process, at times, seemed overwhelming, if only from a sheer mathematical point of view.
I was fortunate as a child to personally know all of my great-grandparents with the one exception being the great-grandmother who passed away three years before my birth. I was also keenly aware that knowing these ancestors, personally, was a rare gift. Most of my friends had never even met their grandparents. But to discover who one's 3rd, 4th, 5th... 10th and 11th great-grandparents were? All of them?
To put it into perspective, we each have 128 ninth generation great-grandparents or 256 tenth generation great-grandparents. Pinpointing who those people were has proven to be a daunting, if not nearly-impossible task. But it can be done, particularly when a great-majority of them came to America between 1630 and 1650.
In essence, during that time period here - where we all live now - everyone knew everyone, literally.
But even though I had the good fortune to personally "know" my immediate great-grandparents, I never really knew that much about them, individually, in terms of having the desire to ask them pointed questions or being of an age where such questions might seem normal conversation for an eight- or nine-year-old. Mainly, I was frightened by most of these "old people."
As they each passed away, one-by-one, and as I neared adolescence, with them to their respective graves they took many answers to many questions I have now, in middle age.
I thought I'd never know.
Something's been nagging at me recently, in the dark recesses of the mind, to take a trip to Hingham, Massachusetts. I've been bothering my mother - or anyone who cared to go - to join me. I couldn't really explain what that feeling was. It was just there. Yes, I had uncovered a wealth of data connecting multiple ancestors to Hingham, Scituate, Barnstable, Charlestown and New York City, all based around my direct descendancy from Thomas Joy, my 11th great-grandfather on my mother's side, and one of Hingham's early settlers in 1646.
Basically, Thomas Joy was directly related to every early settler of Hingham, and by association, so was I. The Hobart family, the Hersey family, the Spragues, The Pitts family, the Andrew family, the Thaxters, the Low family, Gardner, Chubbuck, Penniman, Nichols, Beal, Cushing, Fearing. Frankly, it all just seemed like too much to assimilate and place into context.
Especially when I received an email a few weeks ago from a distant cousin in England whom I've never met - and likely never will - who asked me if I knew I was related to Pres. Abraham Lincoln. I must confess, I was immediately skeptical.
"You are," the man stated firmly.
So I decided to drive to Hingham myself yesterday with my mother and see if we could cull some answers by espying a bunch of ancient gravestones. Little did I know I was about to have an impromptu meeting with the Hingham Historical Society and an entire church filled with 100 people in the midst of a celebration.
I parked on a bustling Main Street in downtown Hingham, directly in front of the Old Ship Meeting House Church, or First Parish Church, which had been built by Thomas Joy's son, Ensign Joseph Joy, in 1681. I was fascinated by 10th great-grandfather Ensign Joseph's Joy's "story" because not only had he been credited with building the oldest, still operative christian place of worship in the United States, he had lost his life while serving Sir William Phipps in the doomed US Expedition to Canada in 1690, when Phipps, Massachusetts first governor, had taken 2,000 troops to attack the French in Montreal and Quebec.
I had no idea when I walked up behind the old and beautiful church, hoping for a simple snapshot, that I would be greeted by musket fire.
As I turned the corner to an ear-piercing volley of reverberating flintlocks, there stood 20 or so Colonial soldiers (re-enactors), an equal number of Civil War re-enactors and an onslaught of Hingham residents soaking it all in.
"This is surreal," I said aloud.
What is this? As it was, I had happened upon the Hingham's Celebration of Lincoln's Birthday, an annual event that's been held in town for the past 40 years. I felt like I had walked through a window in time and I had no idea that for the next few hours I would be immersed into a realm of self-discovery.
Invited into the church for the "ceremonies," by a lovely Hingham woman, Barbara McLaughlin, I felt as if I had stepped through an ancient portal following the same footsteps taken by my acnestors over 375 years ago. The event was emceed by the historical society's articulate Scott C. Ford, and with each turn of my head it seemed like I was seeing another ancestor's name emblazoned on the church walls, honoring their sacrifices and devotion to forming the town. At length, the guest speakers spoke about Major General Benjamin Lincoln, a second cousin, who fought side-by-side with George Washington to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, and of course, fifth cousin, Pres. Abraham Lincoln, all descendants of Samuel Lincoln, my 10th great-grandfather.
I marched outside with the cheerful throng and followed the parade down Main Street to Lincoln Square as one woman pointed out "Samuel Lincoln's house" not 50 feet from the bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln himself. The muskets blasted a three-gun salute. People cheered. Wreaths were laid. I was completely blown away and we were invited back to the old Derby Academy for refreshments and to meet various members of the historical society. None of it seemed real.
"We're cousins!" exclaimed Hingham Historical Society president Michael H. Studley. I found myself near-speechless.
"We're here to celebrate well, you," Mr. Ford added, as I explained how my mother and I had simply "happened" upon this event in an almost ineffable, ethereal way. At every turn I spotted a painting or a book or a plaque with one of my ancestors names on it.
Historical Society executive director Suzanne Buchanan, who organized the entire event, ushered me around, showing me maps and books and town records of every sort. I relayed to her our family's direct connection to The Hingham Settlers. I received an invtiation to come back to the society's archives to continue my research. I was floored. Was ... this... real?
As I walked among the graves of countless ancestors behind the ancient, beautifully restored, historic church, I stopped and paused and sat down near the grave of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. I reached out and ran my hand across the white marble of his tomb, with the grave of 11th great-grandfather Thomas Joy mere footsteps away in the foreground.
This was real. This is real, I thought. And in the words of Hollywood actor Martin Sheen, I wanted "to know even more."