Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Context is king

Great Comet of 1680 over Rotterdam by Verschuier
The most common feedback I get about In Search of Barnabas Horton is how much readers enjoy the historical context I created. Even as I started research on Barnabas, I knew I would develop a parallel research track to include his environment. Our ancestors didn’t live in a vaccuum and the vast majority left no personal papers. An understanding of the cultural, economic, and political environment in which they lived brings our ancestors to life in a way that a dry recitation of dates cannot. Context not only tells us what likely happened, but gives us an idea as to why.

Below is a sampling of successful historical contexts from In Search of Barnabas Horton.

Baking Trade
Researching this context was a natural fit for me. Not only do I enjoy baking with yeast, but many years ago I spent time in France at the home of a good friend whose father baked bread and pastries professionally. Having observed a professional baker at work, I found it relatively easy to situate Barnabas in the trade. How years of working heavy loads of dough, inhaling moist flour particles, and firing ovens took their physical toll. Nighttime work disrupted marital life. But in order to explain why Barnabas broke the law or why his apprentice likely stole from him, I needed to understand the assize of bread. I needed to understand how the guild economy functioned. Once I discovered the Langton family’s milling background, knowledge of the changing relationship between bakers and millers during this time enabled me to speculate on why Barnabas chose to wed Mary Langton over other available marriage partners.  

Frontier Life
Living museums, like Plimoth Plantation, surround visitors with sights and sounds of early colonial times. Like the baking trade, I found researching Barnabas’s frontier life fun. Some of my favorite school trips had involved saw pit demonstrations and witch trial reenactments. Complex questions soon emerged, however, that knowing how to churn butter could not answer. With a life expectancy of roughly 50 years, Barnabas migrated with the mindset that he would not likely live long in New England. So why move at such an “old” age? [1] Why did he take on so much civic responsibility? What could be said of interpersonal relationships among Southold’s townspeople? What would original town records reveal? As it turned out—plenty.  

Enclosure & Primogeniture
I resisted delving into the English enclosure process and hereditary laws, including primogeniture. They struck me as tedious, complicated, and irrelevant to Barnabas. When an expert reader pointed out weak spots in Chapter One concerning these issues, I regrouped to learn definitions such as entailment and dower rights. Eventually, I gained confidence to speculate why Barnabas’s great-great-great-grandmother, Anne, wrote two wills months apart, to evaluate the impact of Libbeus Horton’s land sales on his heirs, and to suggest why Barnabas himself eschewed primogeniture. Arguably, there is more to explore within these generations in Leicestershire.  

Not every event will fit your timeline, however, or answer your questions. One historical event I tried to include but ultimately omitted, happened the year Barnabas died—the Great Comet of 1680. A global phenomenon, the comet’s sighting triggered days of fasting and humiliation across New England. Puritan ministers believed earthly events were direct messages from God to men. Calamities like King Philip’s War or a poor harvest were “proof” of God’s displeasure. Successes were “proof” of His approval. What better sign of Barnabas’s unruly children’s moral lapses than a brilliant comet blazing across the sky, portending a great misfortune soon to befall them? Unfortunately, Barnabas died five months before the Great Comet was sighted in New York.

City of Albany to Anthony Brockholls,
Acting Governor of Province of NY; Munsell's
Annals of Albany Vol.6:95.
Note: "ye Domine" = the pastor (Dutch).

Any family genealogist can add historical context to his or her findings. Start with a simple search at Google and, browse your local library’s history shelves, or search the online library catalog of a large university, like Columbia or Cornell. Then see if your local library can request those books through their inter-library loan program. Take time to read footnotes and bibliographies for new source material. Check out the digital image collection at the Library of Congress website.[2] Follow the trail of breadcrumbs, but stop when you feel overwhelmed. Context should be interesting, fun, and, most importantly, relevant.

[1] “Plantations are for young men that can endure all pains and hunger.”Robert Reyce to John Winthrop, taken from John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father by Francis J. Bremer (Oxford University Press, 2005), 155.

[2] Check out their wonderful series of black and white photos of the Old House in Cutchogue here.