Growing up I never knew my ethnicity or ancestral origins. I’m a white guy with reasonably straight hair, crooked teeth and a Romanesque nose so our guesses were pretty well contained to the British Isles. For some reason there was also rumor of Swedish blood, perhaps Dutch, maybe German as well. But again, these were all guesses as neither my father nor my mother had any real knowledge of their background. Neither of my parents shared a close relationship with their birth father so information about their paternal lineages were scant while the ancestries of each of my grandmothers were filled with stories about the generation or two before my parents but nothing further and events like divorce, remarriage, and foster care made connecting the factual dots a bit of a task.
My father, imbued with the same sense of temporal purpose that I now possess, began the research into our family line when I was a kid. In the pre-Internet 1990’s, researching one’s ancestry was a painstaking process, undertaken by some but certainly necessitating a dedication and a drive for tedium, searching for elusive birth and marriage certificates as one travelled between town clerk and record offices across a given region. A member of our church was an avid ancestry researcher and my dad and he began the process of discovery sometime around 1996. Their work yielded some, if limited, results. For one thing, it was beginning to become clear that the Everson family line went back a long way in New England. Exactly how far, though, would remain a mystery until I began the same research two decades later.
I’m not exactly sure what sparked my interest sometime this past January in Ancestry.com. I had long wanted to know the mystery of my history and perhaps I was simply a victim of their comfortable and engaging commercials. As I mentioned before, history research is not necessarily the most entertaining pursuit and one of the more effective aspects of their marketing is that it makes the connections through generations seem easy and it shines a light on the most exciting rewards, the bits of specific information one learns about those who have come before us. The small green leaves that float through the commercials are what Ancestry calls “Hints”, possible connections to or records of a member of your family tree, and they transform the entire searching experience.
I opened up a free trial account, plugged in what information I knew and my voyage into the past was underway, quickly building a Family Tree populated backwards and sideways in time with family members of whom I had never heard. And I was all in. I spent all my free hours (and some that shouldn’t have been free) building branches on my tree, I downloaded the app, I couldn’t help but share my excitement with everyone I knew about how easy the site was to use and the wealth of information I was soaking in.
Similar to the explosion of fantasy sports (I was never around during the era of newspaper stat searching and don’t think I’d enjoy it nearly as much), with the advent of the internet ancestry research has been revolutionized and has found a whole new mainstream market of people wondering from whence they came. Ancestry.com has compiled online the world’s largest database of genealogical records and made them relatively easy to search. Items like birth certificates, marriage certificates, census records, and records of the events in individual towns, items that only a decade ago would have been scattered across the region, all now appear together in search results. And just as with fantasy sports, the advent of the internet took this niche hobby to mainstream popularity.
I’ve researched my maternal lineage as well but in January I began with my central focus: where did the Eversons come from? When did they first arrive in the United States and where did they come from before that?
Once I supplied information about my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles the pace was rapid. Ancestry’s search engine provides a wide variety of variables so the smallest concrete detail, like a middle name or a period of time they might have lived in a particular city or town, make searches all the more fruitful. I filled in my dad’s birth father, whose location (Plymouth, MA) and name I knew but little else and I discovered a census record of him and his family from when he was a child. His father’s name, it turned out, was Forrest Montgomery (how awesome is that?!) and he and his ancestors had not moved more than 30 miles in 350 years.
Once I reached the generations of Forrest and his grandfather Julius, I was able to employ Ancestry’s Member Connect capability which brings up other members of the site whose Family Trees overlap with my own, displaying as one of the hints their family tree centered upon the person we have in common. Some Trees are private of course, as not everyone is willing to have their family history made the fodder of public research. For the rest of us public accounts, one is able to add the person in common to our own tree and with him/her all the relevant information, events, sources and family members from the other user’s Tree. By way of example, once I was able to determine Forrest was my paternal great-grandfather one of the Hints available to me was his appearance in several other Family Trees. Once I clicked on those Trees and then added him into my own, any parents, siblings and pertinent information from those Trees becomes part of mine, expanding my Tree rapidly (more of a bush, really).
The pitfall of this model, however, is that a structure built on unsteady ground is unreliable. If I copy someone else’s Tree once it coincides with my own, I am subject to that user’s diligence and attention to detail as to whether the information is factual. While the opportunity for mishap does exist, given the previously mentioned nerdy dedication necessary for such a hobby, in many cases that diligence proves true- one is able to see on what source (if any) each piece of information in the ancestor’s profile is based and many (most, even) researchers are careful not to add information as fact unless there is a provable source.
So what have I discovered?
My family goes back to Plymouth in the 1660’s. For those with their calendars handy that’s 40-odd years after the Pilgrims landed. My paternal lineage looks like this:
Christopher (that’s me) – Michael (my dad) – his dad (confidential, out of respect for the privacy of the living) – Forrest Montgomery – Lillian and unknown – Julius Herbert – Joseph H – Levi – Levi – Richard – Richard – Richard – John
While the initial immigrant, John, is still a mystery (more on this in a moment), there is significant information on those in my line born in the late third of the 17th century. A few had roles in creating some of the earliest townships in Massachusetts, Kingston and Carver among them. I’ve uncovered land deal records as early as 1705 that delineate my ancestors’ property based on posts, stones and natural landmarks. Levi Everson Sr. fought in the American Revolutionary War and his grandson Joseph H Everson was a soldier in the Civil War. I’ve connected with a very distant cousin who’s been able to supply me with photos dated around the turn of the century, my great-great-grandfather and his family laid out in black and white. And it turns out many in my line were shoemakers.
And while I have dedicated a serious amount of time to this pursuit, far more than any other branch or twig in my tree, John Everson, my original American ancestor, still remains a mystery. I am able to accurately trace my family line to Richard, John’s son, whom he gives up to the colonial version of foster care in 1668 at “about the age of two years old”. This practice of giving one’s children to be raised by someone else was not so uncommon, especially when the parent was poor and/or the foster family had a particular trade or wealth to impart on the child. Within the same Plymouth Colony Record, however, it states that John Everson was “warned to depart towne with all convenient speed”. The record makes no mention of why he is forced out of town or to where he went. A year later a similar record makes mention that John Everson came before the town to say that he had given up his daughter Martha to another colonist, implying that he hadn’t left town when ordered and that whatever pattern or lifestyle he followed continued to force him to give up his children. And while I can form no concrete link between him and this original John, there is also a John of roughly the same age as Richard and Martha of whom there are many records to be found as an adult, who would (theoretically) be my original ancestor’s third child. Beyond these notes about giving up his children and being warned out of Plymouth in 1668, John is a difficult man to find. I have uncovered no other note of his time in Plymouth, no record of his immigration to the country, no indication of where he might have gone once he departed the colony, if he even left at all. I have located a Boston Town Record from 1663 wherein three different business owners are fined for giving employment to a John Everson contrary to town order but nothing further to chase this lead and solidify it as the John from my search. It is these few shreds of antiquated information, these faint shadows left behind three centuries ago that form the baseline of my hunt and I’m often taken with the idea that, much like a negative space work of art, it is through the impressions he made on the world around him that I’ll be able to construct an image of my elusive ancestor.
One of the coolest aspects of ancestry research is being able to connect ourselves to the world that existed before we were here, to see into the lives of those who shaped what we were born into. What is past is prologue, everything we are is the story of where we’ve been and being able to see that past gives a much clearer picture of the present. As part of our research my Dad and I recently took a trip to Plymouth, MA to dig through records and hopefully add a few more pieces to our puzzle. As we walked through a town that was historic but alive and quaint in the modern New England summer, I found myself overtaken with attempts to visualize the town as it was before everything we knew existed, and how, though completely different, the skeleton remained the same, laying under the present-day like tracing paper. As we wandered through the Plymouth Burial Grounds in search of gravestones from the 18th and 17th centuries, we were walking in the footsteps of some of the earliest citizens of our nation mourning and burying their dead, founders, pioneers and settlers that included my own father’s-father’s-father (x4). It’s a form of time travel, journeying to a place whose farness comes not from geography but from its place in our collective past and I find it to be a fascinating pursuit. It’s a great source of connection between my Dad and me, each eager to know where the history that we share, that he passed to me, will lead. And it’s a fantastic act of perspective, allowing us each a glimpse of our place and size against the enormous, unending wave of Time.