By Diana Hammell
“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”
Speaking of one’s ancestors is always an interesting topic of conversation… the college president, the farmer who plowed all day with a broken leg, the horse thief. But what if your ancestor is depicted every year in grade school Thanksgiving plays, has been romanticized in TV and Hollywood movies, is a famous pirate, a character out of misty legend or – the holy grail of American history – a signer of The Declaration of Independence or Constitution? Caledonia residents can claim all of these.
It starts at Plymouth Rock
The late Bob Standish and son Scott of Caledonia are descended from Miles Standish who arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. Miles Standish was an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims as military advisor to Plymouth Colony. He served as an agent of Plymouth Colony while in England, as assistant governor and as treasurer in the new world and was also a founder of the town of Duxbury, Mass. In 1621 he was elected as the colony’s first commander of the militia, a post he was continually elected to for the remainder of his life. He was depicted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s book, The Courtship of Miles Standish (remember Priscilla?). Michael Douglas’ character’s daughter portrayed Standish in her school’s Thanksgiving play in the movie Fatal Attraction.
An icon of the American West
The late David Earp carried the last name of an icon of the American West – Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp “cleaned up” Tombstone, Ariz. as the town’s law officer and was further immortilized by the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, perhaps the most famous gunfight in American history.
“I always liked the Hugh O’Brien version of the movie better than the Costner one,” said David’s wife Lavonne.
The Declaration of Independence
Nancy Cowgill, formerly of Caledonia, and now of Brownsville, is descended from Henry Wolcott who arrived at the Plymouth Colony on May 31, 1630. After spending two and a half months aboard the Mary & John, they delayed stepping foot on land in honor of the Sabbath and actually touched terra firma the next day. Henry was a member of the Connecticut House of Delegates and was a member of the House of Magistrates. Henry had a son named Simon, Simon had a son named Roger and Roger had a son named Oliver.
Oliver Wolcott was born in 1726 and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was a Yale graduate, sheriff of Litchfield County, a judge, a militia leader, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Connecticut Delegate to the Continental Congress, Brigadier General of the Connecticut Militia, Lt. Governor of Connecticut and Governor of Connecticut. Cowgill said that Oliver was known to prefer military life to political life. “He was involved throughout the war in council or in the field,” she said.
The motto on the family coat of arms is from Horace and reads, “Accustomed to swear in the custom of no master.” Although the motto was from hundreds of years before the Revolutionary War, the Wolcott family of the 1700s proved to live by that credo. An equestrian statue of George III was pulled down by citizens, Wolcott’s daughters among them. Although the statue was gilded in gold, the lead underneath was rare and it was taken to Wolcott’s house in Litchfield, where his daughters and their “zealous” friends converted the material into 42,088 cartridges for the militia.
“Roger Wolcott was governor of Connecticut from 1750 to 1754,” said Cowgill. “His son, Oliver Wolcott (the signer), was governor from 1796 to 1797 when he died in office. His grandson, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. was Governor from 1817-1827. That was three generations of Wolcotts. Also, Oliver Jr.’s uncle, Matthew Griswold, and cousin, Roger Griswold, were Governors of Connecticut. So, if I have this right,” said Cowgill, “Roger had a son, a son-in-law and two grandsons as governors of Connecticut. Roger had 15 children and his youngest son was Oliver. It gets confusing.”
Cowgill also added that Oliver Wolcott, Jr. succeeded Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington and then Adams.
Cowgill is a lifetime member of the Wolcott Family Society. Nancy is part of the 12th generation of Wolcotts. Her father was also named Oliver Wolcott.
“Well behaved women never make history”
The Read family of South Carolina has family stories that connect it to Lady Godiva, an 11th Century noblewoman and advocate for the overtaxed citizens of Coventry, England. The story goes that Lady Godiva tried to convince her husband to lighten the tax burden on the citizens. After much haranging from his lady, the nobleman told his wife that he would ease up on the taxes when she rode through the town wearing no clothes. The grateful citizenry closed all their doors and windows and didn’t watch the ride in deference to their lady’s feelings. One fellow, however, did not honor her with this consideration, and Tom went down in history as a peeper. Chris Read Swain of Caledonia is proud of her ancestor’s fervor in doing what she could for the people.
A Read ancester, while hunting in the king’s wood, killed a deer and was caught. The king told Read, “I should hang you from a tree.” Read replied that there wasn’t a tree in England tall enough to hang a Read. He was spared and was banished from England.
Swain’s distinguished ancestry doesn’t stop there, if one could say that Mary Read distinguished herself as even more of a blood thirsty pirate than her male counterparts were. Mary Read and Anne Bonny were famous pirates of the Caribbean. Born in the late 1600s, Mary’s cross dressing days started when her mother dressed her as a boy so her girl-disliking mother-in-law would give her financial support for “the boy” after Mary’s older brother died. The old lady was fooled and shelled out the money until she died. Mary Read had a very brave and adventurous nature. Wearing male disguise she joined the military and distinguished herself in battle. She also joined a ship’s crew. Her ship was boarded by pirates which led to her emloyment as a pirate herself. Read’s career was to come to a stop at the end of a rope, but she was pregnant (called ‘pleading the belly’) and she received a temporary stay of execution. She died in prison in 1721.
Swain’s several-great-grandfather, George Read (not directly related to Mary) was attorney general in three Delaware counties, a member of the Delaware Committee of Correspondence where he was active in the patriot movement, member of the Delaware Constitutional Convention, governor of Delaware, judge of the Court of Appeals, Delaware state senator, chief justice of the State of Delaware (an office he held until he died in 1798), signer of the Declaration of Independence and signer of the U.S. Constitution. Read was called upon to join the Constitutional Convention in Delaware where he served as president of the committee that drafted the document. When in 1777 the British captured the governor of Delaware Read took over and led the state through the crisis of the war, raising money, troops and supplies for defense.
Swain actually has two relatives who signed the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina was the youngest signer. Lynch studied law in England and graduated from Cambridge with honors. As soon as he returned home he was commissioned a company commander in the South Carolina regiment and was elected to a seat in the Continental Congress. At the close of 1776 he and his wife sailed for the West Indies. The ship disappeared and there is no record of his life after.
Swain’s South Carolina ancesters were all plantation owners. She has copies of letters written from 1819 to 1842 from a father on his Charleston plantation to his son on his Georgetown plantation talking of the “rabble rousers talking about secession.” In another letter he talks about how slave babies were dying mysteriously. He went to the nursery and found a young girl stomping on the cradles and violently shaking the babies inside them. “I immediately cut off all the rockers,” he wrote.
Afra Harleston came to South Carolina in the 1670s to be indentured for two years to earn enough money to refurnish their home in England, which had been taken by Oliver Cromwell. At only 16 years old and alone on the ship (her brother didn’t show up to go) she fell in love with the first mate. After two years of work they married and settled on their “Comming Tee” plantation.
The Constitution, Indians, molds and steam engines
Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire was 32 years old when he signed the U.S. Constitution and is an ancestor of Joanne Zard of Caledonia. Gilman won a captaincy while serving in the Continental Army and served throughout the war. After the war he immersed himself in politics, sat in the Continental Congress and represented New Hampshire at the Constitutional Convention.
What Zard finds most fascinating is that her and Swain’s relatives knew each other while in the Continental Congress and now their descendants find each other in Caledonia.
Also on the Gilman side, Zard’s great-grandfather graduated from Harvard and was a missionary to the Sioux nation and served in Nebraska. “My grandfather, born in Nebraska when his father was a missionary, was pretty interesting, too,” Zard said. “He was a professor at Iowa State 48 years in the botany department – he was a mycologist (mushrooms/fungi/molds). In the 1930s he developed the mold used in Maytag Blue Cheese, which people can still purchase today. He was a published author (it’s even still available on Amazon) and the president of the American Mycological Society from 1951 to 52.
“My mom said there was also someone in the Thomas family who was involved in finding the headwaters of the Mississippi. My paternal grandfather was an inventor and engineer. In the early 1900s he developed a steam automobile at about the same time Henry Ford was working with gasoline engines.”
It’s been said that 14 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry to the Mayflower. Certainly not as many as that can claim such amazing ancestors as these here.