Illustration by Jaime Jacob
I spent part of one day studying the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.
This is what I know now: For the past 750 years in London, the Worshipful Company has worked together mainly to control the quality and price of seafood in the city. Over that time, it has used its income to amass property throughout the United Kingdom.
The current prime warden is Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter. Now, I’ve read a bit, so I know about her marriages, her accomplishments as an equestrian and her charity work. Nowhere in my research does it indicate how Her Royal Highness learned the difference between a salmon and a mackerel.
Obviously, the Fishmongers is more of a white-gloves group. Over the centuries, its liverymen — board members who answer to the prime warden — have included kings, princes, dukes, earls and barons of all sorts. And one of those prime wardens was Isaac 1 (1587-1661), my 10th-great-grandfather.
Sir Isaac is one of the 20,000 family members I’ve drawn together during my seven years of clicking away at the genealogy website ancestry.com. He is far from the most notable. A few more clicks take me over the moats into actual castles. Ever hear of King Henry I? He’s my 26th-great-grandfather. Charlemagne? My 37th.
If you’ve done serious genealogical research, these claims of mine probably triggered a gag reflex. Ancestry.com is to genealogy what paint-by-numbers is to French impressionism. You get a picture, but no one with clear vision would consider it authentic.
Several websites offer family-tree research, and Ancestry probably is the best known. Its appeal lies mainly in its simplicity. First, you type in the names and the birth and death information of your parents and grandparents. Based on other family trees on file, Ancestry suggests names for the great-grandparents and beyond.
You may then review a bit of information and decide whether to accept the suggested person into your tree. Sometimes, you get actual proof because other seekers provide birth certificates, obituaries or census data. Other times, it’s just a case of the names and locations seeming reasonable enough.
We set our own parameters. If a suggested ancestor is said to have lived 120 years or to have become a parent before age 12, you should walk away. For me, anyone listed with a birthplace in Ohio before 1620 is out. These sorts of quick-click trees often are spliced together with wishful thinking, but authentic genealogy isn’t science fiction.
I know a little about real genealogy because I’ve dabbled in it. My interest began about 25 years ago when my children were starting school and Thanksgiving was approaching. A family legend said I had ancestors on the Mayflower, and I wanted to be able to tell that story.
At that time, you couldn’t do easy internet searches. I consulted with family members and sketched out the connections we knew for certain. I visited graveyards in Ohio to scribble down names and dates, and I went to libraries to view obituaries on microfilm. Luckily I stumbled upon a cousin named Cook who had paid a researcher to build a verified family tree.
That’s how I found Francis Cooke (1577-1663), a religious zealot with some carpentry skill. He boarded the Mayflower in 1620, survived the ocean trip and raised six children in the New World. Evidently his sons didn’t find the Puritans pure enough, because they moved their stern families west to Pennsylvania. People there weren’t sufficiently pious either, and the Cookes kept moving. My grandmother, Myrtle, a Cook without the “e,” grew up in Lima, Ohio, eight generations removed from Francis.
Another family legend was that we had a Native American ancestor on the Bradford side. It took some effort to narrow down the possibility to a Sarah Jane Cummins, who may have been raised in an orphanage in the early 1800s in St. Mary’s, Ohio. No birth records existed, so I gave up. Recently, my brother Jim and I took the ancestry.com spit test. My DNA holds no trace of a Native American ancestor.
The time I spent on dead ends like Sarah Cummins isn’t a waste. I learned a lot about American history at Notre Dame, but I’ve learned even more on my genealogy jaunts.
For example, I saw several deaths in 1919, a prompt to study the Spanish flu epidemic. I saw patterns that made me learn about immigration. In 1907, for example, 11,747 newcomers arrived in one day at New York City’s Ellis Island. Whole villages, it seemed, would uproot themselves in Ireland or Germany or Italy. And at the same time my German immigrant ancestors were buying up farmland in Ohio, their cousins were building entire German-speaking towns in Texas.
Another important thing to learn is that you can’t feel special about your ties to King Henry or Charlemagne. If you are of European heritage, statisticians say there’s almost a 100-percent chance you have some royal connection. One ancestor I found is said to be linked to 34 American presidents, numerous authors, several famous actors and assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
That seems unlikely. But at the root of this is a nearly universal urge to know who we are and why we’re here. It is our personal Genesis, where we start with family legends and then learn about who begat whom and all the consequences.
These family trees are peepholes into the lives of our people. Ideally we don’t limit ourselves to the mere recording of names and dates, lest we do a disservice to ourselves and our forebears.
Most of us find our roots among humble, hard-working farmers. It makes sense because, a century ago, 60 percent of Americans lived on farms or in rural areas. You also find a good number of cooks, bakers and millers, just as their surnames suggest. Others seem to appear on our trees just because they could procreate. Like Shakespearean extras, they strutted and fretted their hours upon the stage and were heard no more.
On occasion you stop your mouse-clicking to ponder the life of someone like Harry Emmet Cook (1879-1959). A direct descendant of my Mayflower ancestor, Harry was my father’s maternal grandfather, Myrtle’s dad and a well-to-do farmer just northeast of Lima.
When hard times hit in the 1920s, the family sold off much of its land and put the money into a bank. The bank failed in the crash of 1929, and the Cooks lost their fortune. Because of that, Myrtle’s oldest son, my father, grew up in poverty. A few years later, the new owner of the former Cook farm hit the jackpot by selling the property to Ford Motor Co., which built an engine plant there. In old age, with his life in tatters, Harry was institutionalized and received electroshock therapy.
Three generations before Harry Cook — thanks again to ancestry.com — I stumbled across Johann Peter Shrout (1733-1804). He was the first person in Hardy County, Virginia, to be sentenced to death. Johann, who owned a 253-acre plantation, had strangled his wife to death with a broomstick. When it came time to carry out the sentence, the court had to improvise a method of execution. They had Johann stand on a casket held aloft by six strong men. A noose was fitted around his neck, and the deed was finished when the men dropped the casket.
Three generations further back, I found Ambrose Dixon (1623-87), another Virginia planter and a current focus of my studies. A devout Quaker, he owned at least two slaves and ran afoul of the law by leading an unauthorized raid on an Indian encampment in 1651. That doesn’t sound like your normal Quaker. Lucky for me, I can easily learn more because there is an actual Ambrose Dixon Society with a Facebook page.
And then it’s just one more generational jump backward to our prime warden himself, Sir Isaac Penington, Ambrose’s father-in-law.
Sir Isaac’s expectations of privilege go as far back as the fourth-century King Merwig of Thuringia. Young Isaac inherited wealth from his father and then increased his holdings through marriage to a rich second wife. At age 54, he was elected to the post of sheriff of London and two years later to Parliament. Two years after that, he was appointed Lord Mayor of London.
His connections helped him on this meteoric rise, but political winds usually shift. Sir Isaac had been on the panel in 1649 when King Charles I was sentenced to death so Oliver Cromwell could take over the government. Soon after Cromwell fell ill and died in 1658, a new monarch, Charles II, reestablished the throne.
To avenge the death of his father, Charles II decreed that many of Sir Isaac’s cronies should be hanged, drawn and quartered. The new king’s men even dug up the body of Cromwell, dead and buried for over two years, and decapitated it. Sir Isaac’s life was spared, but he was given a life sentence and died within a year at the infamous Tower of London.
These stories I know only because I found them while looking for something else.
It seems accurate to call my 10th-great-grandfather a money-grubbing scoundrel and a traitor to king and country. I also can call him a fishmonger, now that I know what that is.
The tales are there, dirty laundry and all, if you choose to look. But before you judge my ancestors too harshly, unless you’ve done the clicking, please keep in mind that I might be kinfolk to you, too.
Ken Bradford is a freelance writer and former reporter and editor at the South Bend Tribune.