By Daniel Hubbard | January 23, 2011
I just ran across a year-old copy of American Heritage magazine. It is a history magazine not a genealogy magazine but history and genealogy continuously impact each other. What has happened affected and was affected by the relationships between the people to whom it happened.
In this particular issue (winter 2010) there are thirty-five articles about thirty-five “decisive moments in American history.” Any list like that has to be taken with a grain of salt. There are always omissions and debatable entries, but as food for thought they are always interesting. A list like this also leads to questions like “How were my ancestors connected to those moments? Did they participate? What would they have heard or read or would they have remained ignorant? What aftereffects did they experience—whether or not they knew why things happened the way the did?”
The very first article describes an event that occurred in 1617, or perhaps the year before. The momentous event was that a Frenchman got sick. Of course he wasn’t just any Frenchman. He was a nameless sailor and when he actually fell ill is obviously not known with any precision. Yet the world would never be the same. If the who helps not at all and the when doesn’t help much with understanding what happened, perhaps the where and the how of the matter will give more information. The place was Cape Cod and the how is not known with certainty. It might have been small pox or a form of viral hepatitis.
In early 1600s the French were far ahead of the English when it came to the exploration of North America. They had already spent decades exploring, fishing and attempting to settle along the St. Lawrence River. Soon they would take control of the river and work their way deep into the continent. Yet as valuable as the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes were, the entrance to their inland empire was far to the north. The climate of the Atlantic Coast to the south of the river was both temperate and tempting. In 1605 during his second exploration of North America, Samuel de Champlain sailed south as far as Cape Cod. The land was to his liking but he and his shipmates were not to the liking of the Patuxet and Nauset tribes. They skirmished with the French and drove them away. Champlain concluded that the area we call New England was already too densely populated to be the location of a new and tenuous settlement.
Just Another Shipwreck?
Over a decade later, little had changed. When some French sailors washed up on the shores of Cape Cod after a shipwreck, nearly all were killed by natives—something Champlain might have predicted. The few survivors were taken into captivity. The event should have been no more than a ripple in a pond but it wasn’t. One of those survivors was contagious with something very deadly. Many diseases were unknown in the New World before contact with Europeans. In the case of small pox, no native had any immunity to a disease that killed 30% of the time even in a population that had developed resistance. As the disease took hold, terrified people fled and carried the disease with them. The result was collapse. Over 80% maybe even 90% of the native population of the coast died. In some villages the death toll was perhaps 100%.
The coast that French explorers and sailors had found to be so deeply hostile and impossible to settle was now nearly empty of inhabitants. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, tired, hungry and cold they would have been in no position to defend themselves against the people that Champlain had encountered. What they found was nothing like what the French had seen-
ye people not many, being dead & abundantly wasted in ye late great mortalitie which fell in all these parts aboute three years before ye coming of ye English, wherin thousands of them dyed, they not being able to burie one another; ther sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses & dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould
Bradford even reported that some of their food supply came from food stored then abandoned by the dying. Another Englishman remembered similar sights-
[they] died on heapes, as they lay in their houses And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle
When my own Puritan forebears began to arrive just to the north at Massachusetts Bay in 1630, the world they found was much the same. A coastline that should have been teeming with native inhabitants was sparsely populated. There were no European settlements waiting to welcome them but neither were their Indians prepared to drive them back to their ship.
Had that sailor not been ill with a deadly disease, my own ancestors may not have dared to embark for the New World or they might not have survived the conflict that would have been waiting at the other end of their voyage. Had another sailor started an epidemic twenty years earlier, New England might have become a part of Nouvelle-France and the English Calvinists that inhabit my past might have been French Catholics instead. The great conflicts of the following century between France and England might have had a different result in North America had the English been restricted to trying to expanding from Virgina.
How were your ancestors affected by the little quirks and great events of history? It is something worth wondering about. Family history shouldn’t float free but be part of the greater historical past. Historical context can throw a whole new light onto a name and a date. It can explain something taken for granted. It can connect our little genealogical corner of the past to the much larger past. It might even show you that something is fishy and you have more work to do.
It can be an interesting exercise to simply pick a historical event and work out what it meant to a forebear or two. In this case, one sick Frenchman who probably wanted nothing more than to see home again caused a calamity of unimaginable proportions for one group of people and opened the way for another, my English ancestors among them, and changed the course of history.Twitter It!