The Quakers Up My Family Tree
Do you ever wonder what’s up your family tree? Who were your ancestors? What were they like? I wonder! It’s always been a fascination of mine since my teenage days. My great aunt Amelia (Hess) Davis once lent me a whole packet of genealogical records.
Most of you know I just got back a week ago from a road trip where the main event was the Hess family reunion. The funny thing was that after that, a lady named Sarah Hess asked to be added to my local home school e-mail list that a mutual friend had recommended to her. I told her that my mother was a Hess and she said her husband had ancestors from the same area of Pennsylvania and that some of them were Quakers. Huh! I sent her information to my mom’s cousin Priscilla (Amelia’s daughter) to see if there was a connection, knowing, of course, that Hess is an extremely common German name so probably they weren’t much related. In the process, Priscilla did say there were several generations of Quakers, not up the Hess branch, but up the Graves side. (Another notable ancestor up there is Margaret Scott, the last and oldest person hanged in the Salem Witch Trials.)
Anyway, here’s what Priscilla said, and I’ll tell you what this has to do with you after that. Keep reading! Lots of links to come, too!
One of our immigrant ancestors was Noel Mew, an English mariner. His father was Richard Mew who was an English merchant and a friend of William Penn. Noel Mew bought land in New Jersey from William Penn, and later bought a farm in Rhode Island. They were Quakers. His daughter Mary married Michael Wanton. Their daughter Ruth Wanton married Gideon Freeborn. Their daughter Mary Freeborn married Stephen Potter. Their daughter Ruth Potter married Joseph Fenner. All of these folks were from Rhode Island and were Quakers.
Abigail Fenner married John Tomkins and the Tomkins were early Methodists. Some of them also seem to have been Baptists. John and Abigail were some of the founders of the Tomkinsville Methodist Church. This village is now spelled Tompkinsville. John and Abigail's daughter Mary Slack Tomkins married George Graves and had George Fenner Graves who married Priscilla Hollis and had Mary Adelle Graves who married Charles Hess.
So we had about 5 generations of Quakers in Rhode Island. It was the Tomkins who came to Pennsylvania and that seems to be about the time they ceased to be Quaker.
We had a difficult time finding the parentage of John Tomkins. Originally I thought he came from Rhode Island which is where Abigail Fenner was from. Not so. He came from the Tomkins family who came with a group from Connecticut to be the founders of the city of Newark, New Jersey. At the age of about 13 he ran away from home and went to sea. After sailing for about ten or more years he got off in Rhode Island and married Abigail Fenner who was from a prominent Rhode Island family. A Tomkins descendant who has done a lot of research to determine the possible parents of John Tomkins has come to the conclusion that he is probably the son of Joseph Tomkins and Bethiah Freeman. Joseph Tomkins was a Revolutionary soldier from the Newark area whom the British referred to as "the fox" because he was so clever at eluding them. This couple had a son who was supposedly lost at sea. There is a discrepancy of about ten years in the birth date of this son and the birthdate of our John Tomkins but who knows how accurate either of those dates really is.
OK, so that might be pertinent to my own family. But why did I put this here for the rest of you?
Our American history is made up not just of wars and huge events, but of common people with interesting stories. Your ancestors and mine shaped this country. Think how a small choice can affect the trajectory of a whole family line or even the course of a nation’s history. Why did John Tomkins run off to sea? Did he get in a fight with his big brother? Ten years later, he just happened to get off the ship at Rhode Island, where he met Abigail. What if he’d gotten off at New York or been lost at sea? What if well-heeled Abigail had turned up her nose at this sailor boy? Or, closer down the family tree, what if mom’s cousin Priscilla’s brother Charlie hadn’t become my dad’s college roommate, and introduced him to my mom? What then? I wouldn’t be here! I’m philosophical like that.
Do you know much about this country’s faith heritage? Do you know the major religious movements throughout our history: how each one interacted with the others and how each changed culture? The colonial Puritans persecuted not only the Rhode Island Baptists led by Roger Williams, but also the Quakers, who were a bit unorthodox in their beliefs. You do already know that William Penn was a Quaker, and founded Pennsylvania with the ideals of religious freedom and peaceful relationships with native Americans? He’s the one who sold land to Noel Mew. The Quakers were also (with their staunch pacifism and love of social justice) key figures in the abolitionist movement, often as conductors on the Underground Railroad. One of my favorite poets, John Greenleaf Whittier, was a Quaker. His poem “Expostulation” is a masterpiece of abolitionist verse. In modern times, they are known as the Society of Friends, and gender equality and service to humanity are hallmarks of their meetings. Good stuff! How do I already know this? I have educated myself as I have educated my children through over 20 years of home schooling. History is at the heart of what I teach, whether at home or in many classrooms. One of the very favorite novels that I’ve taught to countless students is The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I love how Hannah Tupper, a sweet old Quaker lady in colonial Massachusetts, is proved innocent of being a witch, because yes, I am thinking of my dear old Margaret Scott, who was hanged in real life.
Another thing. Who is keeping your family’s stories alive? Who is organizing the family reunions and bringing along the vintage photos? You might not be blessed to know many of your second cousins like I do, but you can start something right now with your family. Find them on Facebook if you have too, but start making those connections. Some of my dearest and life-changing memories are from family reunions. I’ve been trying to track the heritage of faith. Looking back at my family tree, I wonder how each generation passed down their values to the next, and how much of that affected my own upbringing, even subtly. I know, I am philosophical like that, to the core. I don’t stop there. I think about how I can pass down a legacy to the coming generations. My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren. And so I write. I tell the stories. Here. Right here on this blog and on my others. But I don’t just want to tell it, I want to live it – to do something worthwhile that will be an example to my own descendants.
How about you?
So, now that you’ve made it this far, here are the related links:
- Dignity, Decisions, and Liberty of Conscience (with more on Margaret Scott, alleged witch)
- Hess Family Memorial Reunion (Road Trip 2014)
- My Story of Liberty in 1976
- American History Unit Studies at Our House
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond literature study
- "With Literature and Justice for All" (teaching "Virtuous Reality" with American Literature for 4th-8th Grades, with the last stanza of the Whittier poem somewhere in there)
- Favorite Books for Teaching American History
- Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin (famous Quaker painter)