My mother’s maiden surname was Vardon. She would sometimes tell us that her ancestors were likely from France. The name, she said, would be pronounced Var-doohn. She would make the “n” at the end almost silent, put emphasis on the last syllable and give it a bit of nasal tone. She also would tell us that her grandfather Vardon must have been a military man – he was a Major – and that her grandmother was thought to be …. a Jewess. This last bit of information was often whispered.
None of this was true.
Robert Vardon, the first Vardon in Canada was christened in a church in London, England. Maurice Vardon, my mom’s grandfather had a middle name Major, after his mother, Mary Jane Major, who was from a family that lived in … wait for it … Majorville, Ontario, just north of Pickering. Mum’s grandmother’s name was Rose Mary Wright, not a very Jewish-sounding surname but who cares, really.
I can’t really blame Mum for these inaccuracies. Her grandparents were both dead before she was born and she never knew anyone beyond her aunts and uncles…whom she remembered by a little rhyme that went “Etta, Eva, Gertie, Flo, Harold, Gladys, Mae and Joe.” There was another verse that went “All the Vardon’s have big feet, except for Flo and she’s real neat.” I think Mum made up that last part.
How surprising it was to me, then, to do some digging into the family history and be able to track the Vardon’s back to the 1600’s.
I spent the last couple of days tracing the early footsteps of the Vardon clan on the East Coast of North America.
Robert Vardon, who was christened on March 31,1754 in the Royal Hospital Chapel, Greenwich, Kent County, England, came to North America in the mid 1770’s with the British navy. He was initially based in Halifax but ended up on the frigate, Albany, one of the three famed war ships that held off the Revolutionaries at Penoboscot in 1779. This rout of the Americans is called the greatest American Naval disaster until Pearl Harbour. Because of this defeat, Paul Revere, who led the ground forces for the Revolutionaries, faced court-Marshall, his reputation from his earlier famed “The Redcoats are coming” ride being the only thing that led to his acquittal.
This week I stood on the hill at Castine, Maine on the foundation of Fort George overlooking Penobscot Bay, trying to imagine what it was like in the summer of 1779 when this famous battle took place, and what part my ancestors had in it.
Late in 1779, shortly after the Penobscot rout, Robert Vardon became the captain of the Albany. He must have been on the crew during that battle which lasted for about a month in July and August of 1779. What followed was unclear but the Albany was later sunk in the Bay as the American Revolutionaries drove United Empire Loyalists out of the region. Robert returned to England, not yet 30 years old. With him he took a 16 year old girl, Phebe Milliken, who was likely pregnant at the time. Their first child was born in 1784 in England where Robert and Phebe were also married.
They returned to New Brunswick in 1786 to a piece of property that was just north of St. Andrews, a point of land that for years was called Vardon Point. It is now at the end of the Holt Point Road at Bocabec, New Brunswick. There is not much there now and no trace of the Vardon’s who sold the land and left for Ontario in the mid 1800, after Robert and Phebe died. The point is still mostly wilderness with a few houses scattered along the bay.. The markers in a cemetery near the road from earlier than the 1850’s are so worn as to be unreadable. I suspect that one of them is for my fourth-great grandfather.
This morning I stood on the rocks at low tide at Vardon Point. It was dead silent and there was no one else around.
I thought how the rocks and tides and geological features had likely not changed that much in 200 years. But there was nothing left there of Robert Vardon or his clan.
Except today. I was there. Standing on the same rocks on the beach where he likely also enjoyed some solitude two centuries ago.