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Faith in Vermont: Spring Travels, Part 1: The Ancestry Outing

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Posted on May 28, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Like so many Americans, my children are made up of an improbable blend of stories from all over the world. They are the offspring of fortune-seekers who traveled back and forth between China and the West Coast for a century before settling in California in the mid-1900s, of Italians who arrived in the early 1900s to work in the shoe factories of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and of Scotch-English pilgrims who came in the 1600s seeking land and religious freedom.

It’s that last group – the colonial WASPs – who receive the least amount of attention in the ancestry narratives I tell my children. To begin with, those people came over so long ago, before the United States was even united; their stories have been swallowed by the mists of time, obscured by the constantly dividing branches of a family tree filled with Elizabeths and Johns. Not only that, but during this time when multiculturalism is being (quite rightly) celebrated, colonial Anglo-Saxon culture just seems a whole lot less interesting than Chinese or Italian heritage. 

About a year ago, I realized that career opportunities and family affections had relocated both my parents and me to within a few hours of where our family’s American story started. Since my two oldest daughters are studying early American history this year, the timing seemed right to take an “ancestry outing.”  Which is why, in early May, I set out early one morning with my parents and four daughters on the 100-mile drive to Washington, New Hampshire, the location of nearly 200 years of Peasley family history.

Washington is a tiny town (pop. 1,123) located in a rocky, hilly, forested area full of lakes and ponds in southwestern New Hampshire. At the town’s diminutive Shedd Free Library, our band of merry travelers met the keeper of our family’s history (every family seems to have one): my mother’s cousin Norma. Norma had put together an ambitious itinerary for the day that included visits to various historical societies, cemeteries, homes, a church, and a one-room schoolhouse.

While it’s interesting to see the geography of your genetics, and moving to set foot on land your ancestors once walked, staring at the gravestone of a relative you never knew does little to foster a sense of connection or an understanding of who you are. This was true for me, and more so for my daughters. Our biggest takeaways from the day were the stories that Norma told us as we traveled between the sites of the past.

The Peasleys are my maternal grandmother’s people. They moved to Washington, New Hampshire in 1870 when my great-great-grandfather Auren Peasley bought 300+ acres of land on and around Lovell Mountain, where he raised cattle. But the family first arrived in the colonies from England sometime around 1641, back when they spelled their surname “Peaslee.” 

The family patriarch was Joseph Peaslee, who settled with his wife and two daughters in Newbury, Massachusetts. They left England because they were Quakers, which didn’t go over well in England at the time. Apparently, it didn’t go over much better in the colonies: Joseph Peaslee was known as a preacher, and he disregarded the General Court of the Massachusetts Colony’s order to attend public worship in favor of preaching to his friends and neighbors at home. To avoid being fined for his disobedience, he continued to move further and further outside the jurisdiction of the church, landing at last in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Joseph Peaslee wasn’t our only ancestor to fall afoul of the Puritans: One of my daughters’ favorite stories concerns my 9thgreat-grandmother, Susannah North Martin, who was hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 for being a witch. Apparently, Susannah was known for being “outspoken” – something my daughters can relate to – so when her neighbors’ cows started dying, she took the fall. 

After lunch, we followed Norma to the neighboring town of Weare, New Hampshire. “Weare” is pronounced “where,” which gave our family no end of “Who’s on First?”-style fun on the drive over (“Whereare we going?” “Yes, that’s right!”) Weare is significant in our family lore because another ancestor, Aura Morse, was swept away in the flooding Piscataquog River after the Hurricane of 1938. This served as a cautionary tale for my daughters: It turns out that Aura, who could have watched the floodwaters rising from her own front porch, chose instead to join a crowd of onlookers standing on a bridge over the river; four women drowned when the bridge washed out. The moral of the story: Never stand on a bridge over a flooding river! 

Like so many other old New England families, our family has long heard whispers of possible Native American intermarriage. Apparently, if you look at a picture of Auren Peasley’s wife, my great-great-grandmother Matilda Morse, she looks a little…different. Both Norma and my mother recalled that their mothers would never discuss it, but my maternal grandmother did send Norma some articles about Native American heritage before she died, leaving the question open. 

What Norma was able to uncover with more certainty is that my great-grandmother, Alice Douglas, wasn’t really Alice Douglas at all, but was born Alice Daigle, daughter of Lazare D’egme Lallemand Daigle and Lydia Louise Archambeault. Her father changed the family’s surname to “Douglas” in order to hide what would have otherwise been quite obvious: They were French Canadian. And as any New Englander knows, French Canadians were the scapegoats of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, blamed for infiltrating New England and taking away jobs. 

I’ve shared these few stories and snippets from my own family, because these stories aren’t unique to us: They are part of an American story cycle that’s been repeated in countless other families over time. Look back far enough, and you’ll likely find people persecuted for their beliefs or ethnicity, who just want a little freedom and a plot of land. Over time, they inch forward socially once it’s possible to admit to being a Quaker, or a French Canadian…and take small steps back morally when they become persecutors of the next wave of newcomers, like the Italians or the Chinese. 

“But it’s different this time,” they insist, every time.

Remembering these stories is important, because there is nothing new under the sun, and the only way to break the cycles is by realizing that we’re stuck in one. 

But I’m concerned: At every tiny town we visited, there was a tiny historical society presided over by an octogenarian woman, the keeper of the stories. What will happen to our stories when these women are gone? My great hope -- for the sake of my own children, our nation, and our world -- is that those of us in the upcoming generations will commit to remembering the stories.

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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