In about the 4th grade, I developed an interest in family history.
I’m sure it came from ‘Roots,’ because that was the national rage then. The white adults I knew were laughing about the character Chicken George and calling most blacks by that name, while the black adults I knew were talking about being empowered by Kunta Kinte (at least, that’s how I think I remember it from the viewpoint of more than 30 years later).
Anyway, I was smitten with the notion of figuring out who I am. Some of that, I think, is because I didn’t know my biological father, or even my step-father to any great degree, and already knew my name was different than that with which I was born. So I felt a little unmoored from life (and still do some days).
I tried to fill that hole with roots.
But my great grandmother beat me to it. Mom told me about all the work she had done and it blew me away. Understand, in my family, Grandma Parks is the platinum standard. A teacher, an author, educated and intelligent, curious, hard-working. She was the person everyone wanted to be; the pinnacle of what someone could be if they did the right thing and stayed intellectually hungry.
Plus, if I remember correctly, she assisted in her own birth, built the family’s one-room sod dug-out in the middle of the Kansas wastelands, walked all the local children miles to school, saved injured farmers with frontier medicine, eventually invented electronics, and graduated first in her class at Starfleet Academy (nod to Jimmy Fallon).
So she was a hep-chick.
Well, it also turns out that, after she retired (this would be the 60s, I think), sat on her front porch in Goddard, Kansas and wrote billions of letters in her quest to unearth her family line. The information she discovered, from this front porch, was amazing.
Fast forward thirty-plus years and my wife is doing the same research. She took my great-grandmother’s work as a starting point, traveled backward both paternally and maternally, and has gone slowly insane from the sheer volume.
But during her insanity, she’s found all kinds of cool bits and pieces about my family. She was moaning about this the other day, about how ultimately cool my blood line is (which, you know, obviously skipped this generation…might have started up again with my brother, though). She was carrying on about the cops and cop-killers, the Civil War soldiers, the Revolutionary War soldiers, the slave owners and tenant farmers, the losers and town selectmen, ministers, doctors, reprobates.
It’s been fun to watch her discover just how much of an American mutt I am (both sides of the family were here when the Bering Strait was still a land bridge!). So I thought it would be fun to occasionally take a look at some of the more interesting bits.
Today a quick look at Robert Parke, my 10th great grandfather. Born in Suffolk, England in 1580 and hot-footed it to the New World on a brigantine called the Arabella in 1630, landing at Boston, along with 75 other passengers. He was part of the massive migration of English Puritans (who are absolute dead-ringers for certain political groups today) that brought more than 10,000 people to New England in the 1630s.
Boston was founded in 1630 and Robert stayed there, no doubt partaking of the cool jazz and hot chicks that you know were just as much part of the city’s night life then as they are now, until 1640.
Good thing he stayed put, too. That way, he managed to miss the Pequot Wars. That particularly dirty war, between the settlers and the Pequot tribe, culminated in the Mysic Massacre, during which hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children were killed (between 500 and 700). Less than five survived the carnage while a few more fled into the woods. The English commander, Captain John Underhill, decreed that anyone trying to flee the flames should be automatically killed.
“Down fell men, women and children,” Underhill wrote in his journal. “Great and doleful was the bloody sight to the view of young soldiers that had never been in a war, to see so many souls lay gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along.”
William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Rock settlers, called Underhill a hero and gave thanks for the “sweet sacrifice” of natives “frying in the fire.”
Robert missed all that. When he did leave town, he ventured far into the deep woods and began a life of starting a village and then moving and starting another. He became, it appears, sort of the government’s Man Friday, running around getting things done.
In one village, I’m not sure which, he allowed his barn to be used for Sunday church services. The call to worship – and remember these were pilgrims and puritans so you damn well went to church – was the beating of a drum. The proclamation read: “For Mr. Parke’s barne, the Towne doe agree for the use of it until midsummer next to give him a day’s work a peace for a meeting house, to be by the Saboth come amoneth.”
Hard to tell from that phrase, which with I’m unfamiliar, what the payment was. Sounds like he got a day’s work each from various townspeople. That’s a sweet deal. “Hey, you can use my smelly old barn, which reeks of manure from my cows and pigs and horses – oh, my! – and in exchange, I’ll use my official town selectman position to get lots and lots of labor from you guys!”
There is another interesting record from the General Court of Massachusetts of May 30, 1644. “That he (Robert Parke) may proceed in marriage with Alice Thompson without further publishment.”
When I first read that, I thought it said ‘punishment’ and I got all lathered up to know what this Pilgrim brother was doing with his chicks that would lead to punishment. Then again, knowing that we’re talking about hardcore puritans, it might have been as innocuous as saying “Hellooooo…how you doin’?”
Ultimately, in 1930, his descendants put a plaque on a rock. It lists the various things he did and offices he held. A copper plaque jammed right into the face of a big rock.
It’s pretty cool. As far as I know, no one else in my family has an engraved rock. I mean, I spray painted my name on a garbage can once, but that’s hardly the same thing.
His is nobleman carving civilization out of something new. Mine’s really more sort of…loser going to jail.
Eh..wha’choo gonna do?