Family Friday: Lost at Sea

My family’s history has been a huge influence on the things I write. Each Friday, I take a look at some of the research that’s inspired my stories.

In 1999, as a twenty-two-year-old embarking on my first extensive exploration into my ancestry, I was looking for easy answers. Youth and inexperience stood in the way of real discovery. My Aunt Donna had just died. I was working an unfulfilling job and already losing sight of the goals I had set for myself upon my college graduation just months earlier—keeping true to my desire to write, reading more than ever, getting healthier and more in shape. It was a dark time and I wanted this new project to yield instant results.

I believed whatever people told me. Whatever my grandmother told me of my grandfather’s disdain for his father, I believed it. When I uncovered my great-grandfather’s four marriages, I instantly vilified him, concurring with what I understood of my grandfather’s assessment of the man. As I researched further and further, seeing what I believed to be a pattern of family dysfunction, I applied easy labels to my ancestors. I didn’t do the work to corroborate my initial findings. I didn’t try to put my ancestors’ actions into any historical context. I found what I found and that was good enough for me.

Age has uncovered a desire within me for the whole truth. Over the years, I have been fortunate to uncover many new bits of information to add to this historical record. I have begun to place the events of my family’s past into context. I have quit believing in the way we never were.

Over the next few Fridays, I’ll use this space to explore four myths I constructed for myself and the realities I’ve since uncovered. Here’s the first:

Myth 1: The Death of Leonard Clark Destroyed a Traditional Family

Leonard Clark, my fourth great-grandfather, was lost overboard on November 13, 1844 off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts from the schooner Minna of Harwich. At 28 years old, he left a wife and six children. His foot, boot, and a sock marked with his initials drifted ashore in December and were identified by his wife, Esther.

The 1850 United States Census, one of the first official documents I discovered during my research, an almost illegible document stored on Microfilm, painted for me a picture of a single parent household. Esther had not remarried. Except for the one child who had died of scarlet fever just a month after Leonard’s disappearance, all of Esther’s children were still living under her roof. Further census records indicate that Esther continued to run her own household until about 1870, at which time she moved under the roof of her third-born son, Joseph. I took this to be abnormal in what I considered the more proper, antiquated nineteenth century.

From colonial times, mortality rates had been excessively high. Stephanie Coontz, in her book The Way We Never Were, reports, “One-third to one-half of all children lost at least one parent before the age of twenty-one.” Families whose breadwinners earned their keep on the sea were living even more dangerously. Samuel Eliot Morison reports, in his book The Maritime History of Massachusetts 1783 – 1860, “Seventy-eight men of the Cape Cod fleet were drowned in 1837… Eleven vessels from Marblehead, with sixty-five men and boys, went down in the September gale of 1846…” The predicament of Leonard’s family was not, as I had imagined, uncommon.

In fact, an 1850 map of Cape Cod hanging in the Brooks Free Library in Harwich, Massachusetts indicates that Mrs. Leonard Clark may not have been the only mariner’s widow living in the town at the time. According to the map, her immediate neighbors in southeastern Harwich, right there on the ocean, included at least three other female heads-of-household.

Next week, I tackle the myth of Joseph F. Clark’s multiple marriages breaking apart his family unit.