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.
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.
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.
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.
— — —
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.