Some family history from the 1600’s.

This week I learned of a connection between my 8th great grandfather and a rock star.

John Bray II, my great, great, great, great, great, great, great great grandfather on my maternal grandfather’s side of my family ( that’s a lot of greats) was born in 1620 in Plymouth England.  This was the same year that the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth taking pilgrims to Cape Cod.  

Screenshot 2018-08-29 17.03.44In the early 1660’s John and his wife, Joan Pierce (1630), whom he married in 1653,  immigrated to North America along with their 1 year old son. They lived at Kittery Point in Maine where he worked as a shipwright. The first settlers had come to that area about 1607 so this was, indeed, the New World.

The home where the Bray family lived was a large, two and a half story frame house that faced the bay.  Although there have been lots of changes over the 350 years, the basic frame of that house still remain today, the oldest house in Maine.  

It was in Kittery that my 7th great grandmother, Joan Bray/Deering (1662-1708) was born and grew up. 

Old_Bray_House,_Kittery_Point,_ME-1The house remained much as it had been originally for many years,  with a central door, windows on either side and across the front and side dormers in the upper floor.  There was a chimney in the middle of the roof which suggests a central fireplace.  The house was large and apparently served as both a tavern and meeting place in the community in the 1670’s.  John was also a ferry operator during that time. 

There are several photos of the house on the internet, taken many years ago and it is a well documented piece of local architecture. No doubt most of the house has been renovated and materials replaced but its essence remains.

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Gradually people started to add to the house.  Little by little the house grew.  By the early 2000’s there were several oddly applied additions to the original front structure.

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Singer John Hall in the renovated Bray house at Kittery Point.

In 2007,  Daryl Hall of the rock duo Hall and Oates,  having an interest in old historic houses bought the home and property in an auction for about 1.7 million dollars.  He did further renovations and photos look like the inside was beautifully restored. He sold the property in 2012 for 1.9 million dollars.  John Bray’s will left the house to his wife and children in his will and the value of his estate when he died in 1689 was something just over 325 Pounds.  

Today the property has been encroached upon by other structures.  The original frame house forms the front part of a very large structure that clearly has had several additions to it over the years.  It is visible (and the front section identifiable like in old photos) on Google Earth.

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Vestiges of the original Bray House from the mid 1600’s remain although it has been altered and added to many times over 350 years.

I visited that district about five years ago and went to another area (Penobscot) where my fourth great grandfather, Robert Vardon, was involved with a naval battle aboard the 16-gun sloop, HMS Albany, in August/September 1779 during the American Revolution. The opposing American ground forces (led by Paul Revere) and several American ships were remarkably held at bay by three British ships. The British subsequently won the battle(s) and in the course of the fignting the Americans lost 470 men while the British lost only 13.  (  You can read more about that battle here.     http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/penobscot-expedition-americas-forgotten-military-disaster/  )

It was that Vardon grandfather that subsequently married Phebe Milliken (1767) who was the great great granddaughter of John Bray.  Robert and Phebe eventually relocated to what is now New Brunswick as United Empire Loyalists.

How amazing is it that I can trace these records back so far.  Something made possible by the internet and unimaginable only 30 years ago.  

Now for a little classic ’80’s Hall and Oates.

Discovering my inner Mormon through my DNA

Several months ago I spit in a test tube and sent the my saliva off to have over 700,000 of my DNA markers analyzed to find out what my genetic heritage is.

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This is where my DNA comes from. The darker circles make up 80%.

Six weeks later I got an analysis that showed me to be about 42% West European,  36 % Irish (this component includes northern Scotland as well), 10% British and a 10% smattering of other several other ethnic extractions ranging from Scandinavia to Spain to the Middle East.

At first I was not surprised by this – maybe a little disappointed not to see some African genes in there.  I have been able to trace most of my relatives on both my parents’ sides back several generations and they all seem to cluster in Britain or Scotland as far as 1600.

Screenshot 2016-09-05 11.34.23On further reflection, I  started to wonder why I had such a strong component (42%) of Western European genes. According to this analysis, my DNA distribution is almost the same as people who currently live in Western Europe, and not as compatible with natives of Britain or Ireland. Maybe it was because many of my UK relatives originated way back in Western Europe.  Certainly migration has happened over the centuries. But still, Western European DNA markers making up the major contribution of my genetic material seemed a bit strange.

 

Ancestry has identified me as a distant relative of over 100 people scattered over North America that I have never met.  For some of them who have their family tree posted online, I can see the common relative – usually a third great grandparent on either my Dad’s or Mother’s side of the family.   David and Agnes Geddes seemed to produce lots of kids and scatter their genes widely as did Robert Riddell, my mom’s great great grandfather.

Someone contacted me by email last week, a woman I don’t know who shares enough to DNA markers with me to indicate we are probably fourth cousins.   None of the names in her tree were familiar to me except Dixon, the family name of my third great grandmother on my mom’s side.  After a couple of email chats we determined that her third grandmother and mine were sisters.  So our common contribution of genetic material must have come from our common fourth great grandfather, born in 1786 in Northumberland, England or his wife, my fourth great grandmother, Martha Moore.

It astounds me – and would likely amaze these ancestors.to think that a determinable part of me is a remnant from this couple who lived 200 years ago.  And that some of my genes will be detectable in fourth degree offspring in 2300.  This is  how I imagine life after death.

Screenshot 2016-09-05 11.41.01Then, Ancestry told me that there is a strong possibility that I am related to Sarah Jane Busenbark since I share many genetic markers with several people in her family.  Where on earth did this come from?  Well, Busenbark is a modification of Busenberg, a German name – fits with my Western European genetic make-up.  And I have one great grandfather whose identity remains a mystery.  I could have received an eighth of my genetic material, or even more from this unknown donor to my gene pool.

So I started to look into Sarah Jane Busenbark a bit more.  It turns out she was born in Romulus New York in 1825 – upstate New York – about 25 km from Manchester NY where, in 1823,  Joseph Smith  found the “plates” that started the Mormon religion.

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Sarah Jane Busenbark was part of this trek across North America in 1856.  Was she a distant relative of mine?  Ancestry says yes.

At age 18, Sarah Jane married  Newton Hall and in the mid 1850’s they moved west, presumably part of  incredible migration of  Latter Day Saints who drew handcarts across the country to Utah. They ended up in Salt Lake City region.  Sarah’s husband became an associate of Brigham Young in the establishing Mormon Church and they had nine children.

 

Immediately, I started reflecting on the story of the Mormon Church as told in the hilariously irreverent Broadway show – Book of Mormon.   Although I had never heard of Sarah Jane Busenbark, I certainly knew, from the score of Book of Mormon, about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.    I am very much amused and almost a little excited to think that one of my probable relatives, perhaps a great great grandmother or great great aunt was part of this story.

This whole connection may not be altogether accurate but Ancestry says there is a very strong probably that I have a genetic connection to Sarah Jane Busenbark.  And I choose to believe that  because it fills in the only gap in my great-grandparent line, explains my strong Western European genetic make up and, dang it,  Mormon’s just believe.

 

A pilgrimage of sorts…

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.

What's left of Fort George at Castine, Maine

What’s left of Fort George at Castine, Maine

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.

Vardon Point, New Brunswick

Vardon Point, New Brunswick

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.

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Click here for an ancestry.com version of how this land was purchased and divided by the Vardons and the Millikens in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

The butterfly in me …

A few weeks ago I went to the IMAX theatre at the Museum of Civilization in Hull to see the movie “Flight of the Butterflies”.  In addition to being a visually spectacular film in 3D it told another amazing story.

Monarch butterfies weighing only a few grams migrate from our back yards in Ontario to one particular spot in Mexico where they spend the “winter” months.  They then fly back to the southern US where they lay eggs and a new generation is formed which makes the second migratory loop to the northern parts of North America.  The generation that goes through the egg/caterpillar/pupa/butterfly phase here in Canada is the one that goes back to Mexico.  This journey is incredible enough, given the size of the delicate butterfly and the distance traveled.  But even more unbelievable is that the butterfly that migrates back to Mexico has never been there. It was her grandmother that spent the previous winter at the same location.

What could be the explanation for this?  There must be something inate that leads the butterfly to Mexico – something in its DNA that acted as a homeing GPS.

I have often found it remarkable that caucasian visitors from the northern hemisphere (including me) who visit East Africa are drawn to return there.  I have this unusual inner voice drawing me back repeatedly.  I have often wondered what this is all about.

Now I know.  Or think I do.

I imagine that there is some little piece of my DNA that knows where I came from – not last year but hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I think that some of us have some tiny piece of genetic material that recognizes East Africa as the place of our origin and, although we are not a migrating species, there is some biological inner voice that draws us there.  If it can happen to a Monarch Buttefly or Pacific Salmon, why not us.

Homo Habilis Maxilla

This is an actual 1.5 million year old maxilla and teeth from Homo habilis – one of my extended family members?

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to wander in the Rift Valley where humanity originated.  In a little museum in Arusha Tanzania, I have seen part of a 1.5 million-year-old skull of Homo habilis – one of my great, great, great, great, great, …x many greats ……..  grandparents, perhaps.

Science supports the idea that all humanity originated in East Africa.   It makes me wonder – does my DNA remember this in some primitive way and that is why, like the butterfly that returns to the place of its ancestors without a map, I am drawn to return to the Rift Valley of Kenya?

It is, I am sure,  my ancestral home.

The Rift Valley of Kenya - I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.

The Rift Valley of Kenya – I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.