Adventures in Genealogy: What We Discovered About Our Family Tree
An Adventure Story
I have to admit, my mother and brother are the genealogists in my family! Oh, I have dabbled here and there, and helped out a bit from time to time. But my mother and brother have put countless hours into pouring over old records, searching through graveyards, and contacting sources in England to uncover the marvelous story I'm about to tell.
It is the story of my great x8 grandfather, Antony Thacher. Family lore was well established, surrounding the facts of his life on Cape Cod, once he arrived there and founded the town, where I still live today. But it was the story of his arrival here in the "new world" that is so dramatic and, really, the stuff of movies.
The story begins in the small English hamlet of Queen Camel, which lies in Somerset. Today it remains a quaint town, in a beautiful rural area.
(Now remember, this story is 100% true!)
In the year 1635 and Antony Thacher was about to embark on a voyage that would take him far from his English home, on a perilous ocean journey, to New England. He was a separatist, a firm adherent to the reformed church. His father and brother (both named Peter) were both ministers at St. Barnabas' Church, the local parish in Queen Camel. (this church still stands, and is a place I would like to visit one day!). It was a time when Protestants were still being persecuted for their refusal to follow the Catholic faith, which at that time still dominated the Church of England.
Antony was about 47 years of age, and had five children. Sadly, his wife had died in childbirth with the fifth baby. It was urgent in those days for a widowed father to find a new mother for his children, especially as several of Antony's were still quite little. He soon found Miss Elizabeth Jones, age 34, to fill that role. It was Elizabeth who would be his partner on an incredible adventure that would send them halfway around the world, and test their will to survive.
Antony and Elizabeth embarked on the "James" (named after King James I, former King of England) from Southampton, England on 6th April, 1635 with all but the youngest of Antony's children, who remained in England with family. They set out for New England, and the promise of religious freedom and economic prosperity. After the grueling voyage across the Atlantic (imagine taking five children on such a trip!), they arrived at Newbury (Massachusetts) in the month of June, but were not destined to stay long in this seaside town.
Antony's cousin Avery, who had traveled along with his own family with Antony to New England, was offered the job as pastor of a parish in the town of Marblehead, which lay quite a ways to the south of Newbury. Since travel by land was impossible, with no major roads yet constructed, the two men readied their families for another journey by ship that would take them from the harbor at Ipswich, southward along the New England coast and around Cape Ann to Marblehead, where they would settle permanently. (see map)
The two families hired a ship, and set sail on 11 August 1635 aboard the "Watch and Wait", which was a three masted vessel known as a bark. The weather was fair and seas calm for the first few days. On the evening of August 14th, however, a hurricane suddenly blew up, and the helpless ship was caught in a perilous situation, pounded by the ferocious sea. The fragile vessel was no match for mother nature's fury, and it began to break up. Antony helplessly watched in abject horror, as his poor children, his cousin's entire family, the captain, and all of the crew perished. He was totally unable to help them, as he fought for his own life in the churning sea.
In the end, the only survivors of the wreck were Antony and his new wife, Elizabeth. They struggled up on the shore of a small rocky island just off the coast of what is now Gloucester, Massachusetts. This island is known to this day as Thacher Island. After being stranded on this empty shore for a few hungry days, they were rescued at last by a fishing boat, passing by.
Antony was devastated and traumatized, of course, but a few days later, he composed a letter to his brother Peter, back in England. In it, he describes the horrible night that had claimed the life of his family. It is lucky for our family that this letter somehow survived the passage of time, and gives us a moment by harrowing moment account of that dreadful night.
The following is the full text of Antony's letter to his brother, Peter Thacher. These are the very words from the pen of my great-great grandfather, whose courage and resilience resounds through time to this day.
"Thacher's Woe": Antony Thacher's Letter Home
"I must turn my drowned pen and shaking hand to indite this story of such sad news as never before this happened in New England. There was a league of perpetual friendship between my cousin Avery and myself, never to forsake each other to the death, but to be partakers of each other's misery or welfare, as also of habitation, in the same place. Now upon our arrival in New England there was an offer made unto us. My cousin Avery was invited to Marblehead to be their pastor in due time; there being no church planted there as yet, but a town appointed to set up the trade of fishing. Because many there (the most being fishermen) were something loose and remiss in their behavior, my cousin Avery was unwilling to go thither; and so refusing, we went to Newbury, intending there to sit down. But being solicited so often both by the men of the place and by the magistrates, and by Mr. Cotton, and most of the ministers, who alleged what a benefit we might be to the people there, and also to the country and commonwealth, at length we embraced it, and thither consented to go. They of Marblehead forthwith sent a pinnace for us and our goods.
We embarked at Ipswich, August 11, 1635, with our families and substance, bound for Marblehead, we being in all twenty-three souls, -- viz. eleven in my cousin's family, seven in mine, and one Mr. William Eliot, sometimes of New Sarum, and four mariners. The next morning having commended ourselves to God, with cheerful hearts we hoisted sail. But the Lord suddenly turned our cheer-fulness into mourning and lamentations. For on the14th of this August, 1635, about ten at night, having a fresh gale of wind, our sails, being old and done, were split. The mariners, because that it was night, would not put to new sails, but resolved to cast anchor till the morning. But before daylight it pleased the Lord to send so mighty a storm, as the like was never known in New England since the English came, nor in the memory of any of the Indians. It was so furious, that our anchor came home. Whereupon the mariners let out more cable, which at last slipped away. Then our sailors knew not what to do, but we were driven before the wind and waves.
My cousin and I perceived our danger, (and) solemnly recommended ourselves to God, the Lord both of earth and seas, expecting with every wave to be swallowed up and drenched in the deeps. And as my cousin, his wife, and my tender babes sat comforting and cheering one the other in the Lord against ghastly death, which every moment stared us in the face and sat triumphing upon each one's forehead, we were by the violence of the waves and fury of the winds (by the Lord's permission) lifted up upon a rock between two high rocks, yet all was one rock. but it raged with the stroke, which came into the pinnace, so as we were presently up to our middles in water, as we sat. The waves came furiously and violently over us, and against us; but by reason of the rock's proportion could not lift us off, but beat her all to pieces. Now look with me upon our distress, and consider of my misery, who beheld the ship broken, the water in her and violently overwhelming us, my goods and provisions swimming in the seas, my friends almost drowned, and mine own poor children so untimely (if I may so term it without offence) before mine eyes drowned, and ready to be swallowed up and dashed to pieces against the rocks by the merciless waves, and myself ready to accompany them. But I must go on to an end of this woeful relation.
In the same room whereas he sat, the master of the pinnace, not knowing what to do, our foremast was cut down our mainmast broken in three pieces, the fore part of the pinnace beat away, our goods swimming about the seas, my children bewailing me, as not pitying themselves, and myself bemoaning them, poor souls, whom I had occasioned to such an end in their tender years, whenas they could scarce be sensible of death, - and so likewise my cousin, his wife and his children: and both of us bewailing each other in our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ, in whom only we had comfort and cheerfulness insomuch that, from the greatest to the least of us, there was not one screech or outcry made, but all, as silent sheep, were contentedly resolved to die together lovingly, as since our acquaintance we had lived together friendly.
Now as I was sitting in the cabin room door, with my body in the room, when lo! one of the sailors, by a wave being washed out of the pinnace, was gotten in again, and coming into the cabin room over my back, cried out, "we are all cast away. The Lord have mercy upon us! I have been washed overboard into the sea, and am gotten in again." His speeches made me look forth. And looking toward the sea, and seeing how we were, I turned myself to my cousin and the rest, and spake these words: "O cousin, it hath pleased God to cast us here between two rocks, the shore not far from us, for I saw the tops of trees when I looked forth." Whereupon the master of the pinnace, looking up at the scuttle-hole of the quarter-deck, went out at it; but I never saw him afterward. Then he that had been in the sea went out again by me, and leaped overboard toward the rocks, whom afterward also I could not see.
Now none were left in the bark that I knew or saw, but my cousin, his wife and children, myself and mine, and his maidservant. But my cousin thought I would have fled from him and said unto me; "O cousin, leave us not, let us die together;" and reached forth his hand unto me. Then I, letting go my son Peter's hand, took him by the hand and said; "Cousin, I purpose it not. Whither shall I go? I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful to us and receive us to himself!" adding these words; "The Lord is able to help and deliver us." He replied, saying, "Truth, cousin-, but what his pleasure is, we know not. I fear we have been too unthankful for former deliverances. But he hath promised to deliver us from sin and condemnation, and to bring us safe to heaven through the all-sufficient satisfaction of Jesus Christ. This therefore, we may challenge of him." To which I, replying, said, "That is all the deliverance I now desire and expect."
Storms and Shipwrecks of New England
Which words I had no sooner spoken, but by a mighty wave I was, with the piece of the bark, washed out upon part of the rock, where the wave left me almost drowned. But recovering my feet, I saw above me on the rock my daughter Mary To whom I had no sooner gotten, but my cousin Avery and his eldest son came to us, being all four of us washed out by one, and the same wave. We went all into a small hole on the top of the rock, whence we called to those in the pinnace to come unto us, supposing we had been in more safety than they were in. My wife, seeing us there, was crept up into the scuttle of the quarterdeck to come unto us. But presently came another wave and dashed the pinnace all to pieces, carried my wife away in the scuttle as she was, with the greater part of the quarterdeck unto the shore; where she was cast safely, but her legs were something bruised. And much timber of the vessel being there also cast, she was some time before she could get away , being washed by the waves. All the rest that were in the bark were drowned in the merciless seas. We four by that wave were clean swept away from off the rock also into the sea; the Lord, in one instant of time, disposing of fifteen souls of us according to his good pleasure and will.
His pleasure and wonderful great mercy to me was thus. Standing on the rock, as before you heard, with my eldest daughter, my cousin, and his eldest son, looking upon and talking to them in the bark, whenas we were by that merciless wave washed off the rock, as before you heard, God, in his mercy, caused me to fall, by the stroke of the wave, flat on my face; for my face was toward the sea, Insomuch, that as I was sliding off the rock into the sea, the Lord directed my toes into a joint in the rock's side, as also the tops of some of my fingers, with my right hand, by Means whereof, the wave leaving me, I remained so hanging on the rock, only my head above the water; when on the left hand I espied a board or plank of the pinnace. And as I was reaching out my left hand to lay hold on it by another wave coming over the top of the rock I was washed away from the rock, and by the violence of the waves was driven hither and thither in the seas a great while, and had many dashes against the rocks.
At length, past hopes of life, and wearied in body and spirits, I even gave over to nature; and being ready to receive in the waters of death, I lifted up both my heart and hands to the God of heaven, - for note, I had my senses remaining perfect with me all the time that I was under and in the water, - who at that instant lifted my head above the top of the water, so that I might breath without any hindrance by the waters, I stood bolt upright, as if I had stood upon my feet; but I felt no bottom, nor had any footing for to stand upon but the waters.
While I was thus above the water, I saw by me a piece of the mast, as I suppose, about three foot long, which I labored to catch into my arms. But suddenly I was overwhelmed with water, and driven to and fro again, and at last I felt the ground with my right foot. When immediately, whilst I was thus grovelling on my face, I. presently recovering my feet, was in the water up to my breast, and through God's great mercy had my face unto the shore, and not to the sea. I made haste to get out, but was thrown down on my hands with the waves, and so with safety crept to the dry shore, where, blessing God, I turned about to look for my children and friends but saw neither, nor any part of the pinnace, where I left them, as I supposed. But I saw my wife, about a butt length from me, getting herself forth from amongst the timber of the broken bark; but before I could get unto her she was gotten to the shore. I was in the water, after I was washed from the rock, before I came to the shore, a quarter of an hour at least.
When we were come each to the other, we went and sat under the bank. But fear of the seas' roaring, and our coldness, would not suffer us there to remain. But we went up into the land, and sat us down under a cedar tree, which the wind had thrown down, where we sat about an hour, almost dead with cold. But now the storm was broken up, and the wind was calm; but the sea remained rough and fearful to us. My legs were much bruised, and so was my head. Other hurt had I none, neither had I taken in much quantity of water. But my heart would not let me sit still any longer- but I would go to see if any more were gotten to the land in safety, especially hoping to have met with some of my own poor children; but I could find none, neither dead nor yet living.
Twin Lights of Thacher Island, Cape Ann
You condole with me my miseries, who now began to consider of my losses. Now came to my remembrance the time and manner how and when I last saw and left my children and friends. One was severed from me sitting on the rock at my feet, the other three in the pinnace; my little babe (ah, poor Peter!) sitting in his sister Edith's arms, who to the uttermost of her power sheltered him from the waters; my poor William standing close unto them, all three of them looking ruefully on me on the rock, their very countenances calling unto me to help them; whom I could not go unto, neither could they come at me, neither would the merciless waves afford me space or time to use any means at all, either to help them or myself. Oh, I yet see their cheeks, poor silent lambs, pleading pity and help at my hands. Then, on the other side, to consider the loss of my dear friends, with the spoiling and loss of all our goods and provisions, myself cast upon an unknown land, in a wilderness, I knew not where nor how to get thence. Then it came to my mind how I had occasioned the death of my children, who caused them to leave their native land, who might have left them there, yea, and might have sent some of them back again, and cost me nothing. These and such like thoughts do press down my heavy heart very much.
But I must let this pass, and will proceed on in the relation of God's goodness unto me in that desolate island, on which I was cast. I and my wife were almost naked, both of us, and wet and cold even unto death. I found a napsack cast on the shore, in which I had a steel and flint and powder horn. Going farther, I found a drowned goat; then I found a hat, and my son William's coat, both which I put on. My wife found one of her petticoats which she put on. I found also two cheeses and some butter driven ashore. Thus the Lord sent us some ' clothes to put on, and food to sustain our new lives, which we had lately given unto us, and means also to make fire; for in a horn I had some gunpowder, which, to mine own, and since to other men's admiration, was dry. So taking a piece of my wife's neckcloth which I dried in the sun, I struck fire, and so dried and warmed our wet bodies; and then skinned the goat, and having found a small brass pot, we boiled some of her. Our drink was brackish water; bread we had none.
There we remained until the Monday following; when, about three o'clock in the afternoon, in a boat that came that way, we went off that desolate island, which I named after my name, Thacher's Woe and the rock, Avery, his fall, to the end that their fall and loss, and mine own, might be had in perpetual remembrance. In the isle lieth buried the body of my cousin's eldest daughter, whom I found dead on the shore. On the Tuesday following we arrived in Marblehead."
(It would appear that there was probably another page to the letter, as it seems to end rather abruptly here)
Sunrise on Thacher Island
Life Goes On
Antony and Elizabeth Thacher stayed in Marblehead for a few years, probably struggling to recover from the shock of their loss. But life goes on, and in Marblehead they started a new family. My great x7 grandfather, John Thacher was born while they lived there. Before long, Antony's adventure lust got the better of him, and he set out again into the world....on a brand new quest. In January of 1639, Antony and two other men, were granted a charter from King Charles I, giving them permission to settle the area on the Cape Cod peninsula called "Mattacheese" by the local Native Americans. At that time, there were no European settlers on the Cape itself, and even the Native American population had dwindled in recent decades due to disease.
Antony Thacher, John Crow, and Thomas Howes, started out toward the south with their families, along the Massachusetts coastline, toward Cape Cod. They planned to launch a settlement there, and begin to farm the land. They had to transport all their belongings agonizingly slowly, along narrow wooded footpaths, used by the Native Americans, since there were no roads. The new town was named "Yarmouth" after Yarmouth, England. (It seems as though the early settlers did not have much imagination when it came to picking names for their towns, since nearly every town in Plymouth colony has a like-named city or town back in England.)
Needless to say, the Thacher family grew and prospered, creating a quaint village from the wilderness, where they farmed and built homes and lived out their lives. My mother, Antony and Elizabeth's direct descendant, grew up in this same Cape Cod town, and I live there still. I guess the gene for wanderlust was not passed on to subsequent generations, because almost all of my many aunts, uncles and cousins live on Cape Cod as well. We all get together at least three times a year (Christmas, Easter, and 4th of July), and we have talked of seeking permission to have a huge family reunion party on Thacher Island, but no one has undertaken that project yet. There are two lighthouses on the island today, and a house for the lighthouse keeper and family. The rest is low bush, small trees, and a rocky shore.
The area of present-day Yarmouth, where Antony and his growing family set up their homestead, is known as the Old King's Highway today (also Main Street or Route 6A). This picturesque road, on the north side of Cape Cod, is one of the prettiest places in the mid-cape area. A pleasant drive along this winding byway is like stepping back in time. It is graced with many large and stately homes, dating from the late 17th century to the end of the 19th century, when so many local families prospered via the maritime industry.
I often wonder what Antony would think of our little town today. As my mother is so fond of saying, "It's not so important how proud you are of your ancestors, what matters is - how proud would they be of you?"
Visit my genealogy website!
Brief Tour Along Rt. 6A through Yarmouth, Cape Cod
You Can Write Your Family History
Collecting Dead Relatives
A humorous look at the hobby of family research.
Ancestors (poem by the author)
Trudging through the tangled path,
thwarted, stalled, and pressing on-
once more perseverance hath
the ages won.
Never looking back nor seeking
comforts of familiar places-
ravaging wildness wreaking
Dauntless, following the need
pulsing through their gritty marrow-
beyond tomorrow, cast slow-speed,
flies the arrow.
Morning ever dawns anew-
places, mortals, hours unfolding,
leave behind the smallest clue-
Peering back through chapters' prose,
victories found within the pages-
touted brazenly by those
in modern ages.
Whence come forth the haughty proud,
we followers left in their wake?
What deeds enveloped in fate's shroud
their pride will make?
© Katharine L. Sparrow