Kissing Cousins

My parents, Mark and Judy Harris, on their wedding day.

My parents, Mark and Judy Harris, on their wedding day.

When my parents were moving toward marriage in the late 1960s, my grandfather became concerned that they might be related.  It was a reasonable concern.  Both my parents’ families had lived in the same small town of Richmond, Indiana for over a hundred and thirty years.  And, most suspiciously in my grandfather’s eyes, my father’s great grandparents and my mother’s great grandparents were buried no further than 50 feet from each other in little Ridge Cemetery on the east side of Richmond.

I can happily report that after over 25 years of genealogical research I have found not even one common ancestor in my mother’s and father’s family trees.  The odds that two people from a small town in Indiana–and both with family trees full of Quakers–aren’t related are small indeed.  But somehow my parents dodged the bullet.

Julia and me on our wedding day.

Julia and me on our wedding day. June 22, 1996. Richmond, Indiana.

When my wife Julia and I were moving toward marriage in the mid 1990s, I don’t remember thinking much about the two of us being related.  Julia’s paternal grandparents came over from Greece in the 1920s, taking fifty percent of her ancestors out of the running to be related to mine.  Julia had grown up in California and her mother’s family lived in Colorado.  They had no connections with the small Hoosier town where my parents and their families had been for so long–at least as far as I knew.

Over the years, as I found free time to pursue my family history hobby, I learned more and more about my own family and Julia’s.  I was shocked to find out that Julia’s mom’s family had actually spent some time in Richmond in the mid 1800s.  Buried in the past of Julia’s mom’s family were Quaker ancestors–people who were close neighbors and friends of the many Quakers who filled my parents’ family trees.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877), famous Underground Railroad conductor and Julia's distant cousin.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877), famous Underground Railroad conductor and Julia’s distant cousin.

With a little digging and the help of ancestry.com, I eventually found our common ancestor.  James Wright and his wife Mary were Quakers from Chester County, Pennsylvania who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  They left Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, like many other Quakers, and moved to Virginia.  From there, their descendants would eventually follow the common Quaker migration path to the Carolinas and then to the slave-free states of the Northwest Territory–primarily Indiana.  Along the way, Quaker sons and daughters married their neighbors and distant cousins leaving a web of relationships and wonderfully copious records keeping track of it all.

In this particular branch of our family trees, my wife and I come from strongly anti-slavery roots.  James Wright’s great granddaughter married into the Coffin family, making my wife a distant cousin of Levi Coffin, a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad who reputedly helped 2,000 to 3,000 slaves to freedom in the years before the Civil War.

Allen Jay 1831-1910

Allen Jay (1831-1910), who as an eleven-year-old boy helped a runaway slave to freedom. A distant cousin of mine.

James Wright’s fourth-great grandson married into the Jay family, making me a distant cousin of Allen Jay, whose family helped many runaway slaves find their freedom.  When he was eleven years old, Allen himself played a key role in helping a slave to freedom, driving the man from one stop to the next on the Underground Railroad.

It is a little strange to think of my wife as also my cousin (and just to be clear, we’re 9th cousins, only slightly more closely related than Barack Obama and Dick Cheney).  But I am very proud that our shared heritage is full of men and women who took on slavery as a moral evil and committed their lives and their livelihoods to making a difference by helping slaves find freedom–one person at a time.  This common branch in our family trees provides a wonderful legacy for our two sons.

— — —

To learn more about Levi Coffin see his wikipedia page.  See also a recent article about his home, a national historical site.

For more information about Allen Jay and other relatives of mine involved in the Underground Railroad, see my previous blog post Underground.

My grandfather’s suspicions about my parents’ potentially intertwined ancestry may have fueled his interest in genealogy.  It was his interest that ultimately fueled mine.  To read more about our relationship, see my previous blog post My Grandfather, Genealogy and Me.

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This entry was posted in Jay family, Underground Railroad, Wayne County Indiana and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Kissing Cousins

  1. Love it! Levi’s mother and my 5th great grandfather are siblings! 🙂 Also have some Jay cousins! Small world!

  2. ArborFam says:

    Thanks! Levi’s paternal grandfather is my wife’s 7th great grandfather, which I think makes my wife Levi’s first cousin, seven times removed. Allen’s paternal great grandfather is my 6th great grandfather, which I think makes him and me second cousins, five times removed. It’s amazing how many connections there are among us descendants of Wayne County Quakers. (As I recall, you and I also share some Hill family ancestry). Thanks for reading!

  3. pokedpotato says:

    This is great! I read this right when you published it but my Nook did not bring up the pictures. I love seeing the pictures that you add. So neat that you were able to figure out that you & Julia were 9th cousins!

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