Mom’s family lore was that we were descended on her mother’s side from Sir Isaac Newton. The genius who discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation, who helped to develop calculus was supposed to have generated a tribe of women who counted change out on their fingers. Reportedly, my grandfather had on several occasions commented that he couldn’t believe someone, that is, my grandmother, who was descended from Sir Isaac Newton would have so much trouble doing simple arithmetic.
I took the story of our illustrious ancestor at face value. I mean, why would Nana lie? She’d even seen Sir Isaac’s tomb in Westminster Abbey when she toured England in the late 1960’s.
I innocently inquired, “Did you tell everyone on the tour that he’s your relative?”
“Heavens, no!” was Nana’s response. It wasn’t nice to draw attention to oneself in that way.
Why not, I wondered. I would have said something. I was 11 and things like this were interesting and important.
Turns out, Nana’s uncharacteristic diffidence was justified. Sort of.
Since I am eternally curious and found a sliver of time that is not otherwise occupied, I have embarked on a panoramically vast journey through time. I have been sucked into family genealogy. Blame it on those cute ancestry.com ads where a man recounts how he switched his attire from lederhosen to kilts after taking a DNA test and discovering his heritage was Scottish, not German.
Or perhaps I am just old enough now to appreciate family ties. The miracle of computers and the instant connection provided by the internet has made it easy to explore one’s heritage without leaving the house, or in my case, without even moving my chubby little derriere from the couch.
I went mad on the ancestry.com site. Starting with the people I knew, basically my parents, and their parents, I was able to find records of the generation before them. And so on and so on. I spent, quite literally, hours clicking from record to record.
It’s a good thing I enjoyed talking with adults when I was a child, and have an excellent memory for minor details, because I was able to piece together fleeting bits of family information with the online records. I was able to find the 102 year old lady whose photograph scared the soup out of me as a seven year old, because she was just so, well, old. She was Margaret Register Highsmith, my 3rd great-grandmother. Finding Margaret made solid another piece of family history: a cotton quilt that was supposed to have been woven on an antebellum North Carolina cotton plantation. An appraiser confirmed that the quilt was made pre-1850, and its simple pattern is a common one that would have been woven by slaves. Margaret was born in North Carolina in 1808 and migrated to Missouri with her husband, James Highsmith, in the late 1840s. Presumably, the quilt was hers. Although it was made under circumstances that are distasteful and disheartening to 21st century Americans, this piece is historical and a precious part of our family’s history.
Back to Isaac. After some early and easy successes I began hitting roadblocks. Records weren’t available. Information was either faulty or miraculous, like those of the female on an Ancestry member’s family tree who gave birth to three children two, three and five years after her own death. Individuals seemed to have dropped into the wilds of West Viriginia with no recorded antecedents, making further excursions to the past impossible. In search of alien ancestors…now there’s a topic!
When I could no longer proceed painlessly, as usual I made every effort to avoid hard work. Skating around painstaking labor is impossible in genealogy unless you are prepared to shell out volumes of money to experts. So, I nibbled at the edges of some onerous, tedious tasks.
Finding information on a famous person is much easier, though, than for the farmers and shopkeepers that populate most of my family tree. Sir Isaac Newton had several websites devote to him. The fact that Isaac (I can call him just plain Isaac, can’t I, because we’re kin?) had never married and had no known offspring was a troubling detail. Aside from the fact that he probably worried his poor mother sick (“Isaac, dear, why don’t you find a nice girl and settle down?”), it appeared that my genius forebear was perhaps a great uncle many times removed. That would still count. A genealogy showing his family tree listed a couple of siblings who had done their mother proud and reproduced, but that trail ran cold and so did my interest. Maybe something would turn up, maybe not.
Circling back to random searches that produced lovely nuggets of data, I discovered that despite the lack of Isaac Newton in my pedigree, I had some surprises. Roosting in my family tree is an accused and acquitted New England witch; a family of Cranes who apparently supplied clergymen and governors to the colony of Connecticut; at least two Mayflower families; someone you might have heard of if you’re into dictionaries (hint: his name is Noah Webster); the Civil War-era governor of Georgia (3rd cousin 5x removed). Going further back, in England there may have been some minor nobility. One line I found fascinating because of my deep and enduring love for the Plantagenet family and medieval English history. It seemed like the branched trail might actually lead back to them, but the link was spurious. Although there is hope! If I could only find Reuben Overton’s parents, maybe…
At any rate, I had an evening of feeling that maybe the reason I loved English history was because it was mine. By the light of day I realized it doesn’t matter who one’s ancestors are but it certainly is amusing fun to dig around in their ashes. And possibly those of others. I’m a fairly nosy person.
And Isaac? Well, the thing is, we are descended from Isaac Newton. Only it isn’t the Isaac with the brilliant scientific mind, but another Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton, my 7th great-grandfather. 1709 – 1791 Son of William Newton and Barbara Johnson Newton, was born in Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, Virginia Colony and died in Duplin County, NC. His son, also named Isaac Newton (1737 – 1799) was the grandfather of David Alderman, who was Nana’s second great-grandfather. The first Isaac would have been her 5th great-grandfather. The Aldermans farmed in North Carolina and intermarried with Highsmiths for a couple of centuries until some of them eventually ended up in Missouri, where my grandmother was born. Maybe they ran out of space in North Carolina, with the intermarrying and all.
In the end, Nana was right. After all, she never said it was that Isaac Newton.