Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Touching History

For the last few months, I've been on the trail of my husband's ancestor, his 4th great grandfather, Samuel Palmes, who fought in the American Revolution at the tender age of 21. I had a little information about him and knew where he was buried; Warner Cemetery in East Haddam, CT. I thought Samuel would end up where he was - a name on a website. I was fortunate enough to make a trip to New England two weeks ago, and struck, for lack of a better term, ancestral paydirt.

The journey from finding a name on Ancestry.com to physically standing in front of the actual headstone was an adventure in itself. When we reached East Haddam (hubby and I, with our 2 young children, drove from Florida to Boston in 2 days), we couldn't find the cemetery. It's not listed on Mapquest! Right on cue, as if we were in a movie, an elderly gentleman came out of the nearby church and asked if he could help us "find someone." At first, I thought he had come outside because my kids were running around the cemetery like loonies. I told him we were looking for Grandpa at Warner Cemetery, and he proceeded to take us there.

To reach Warner Cemetery, you have to drive through winding, scenic roads along a craggy hillside with fantastic views of the Connecticut River. We parked at a house that was built in the early 1700s and walked into the backyard. Beyond an overgrown field next to a horse pasture, was a wooded area surrounded by an ancient stone wall. The cemetery.

It was pretty small and exclusive - the Warner family had owned it and only relatives and close friends were buried there. With only about 40 or so graves to search, it wasn't difficult to find Samuel, along with several other Revolutionary soldiers. The American Legion had recently placed an American flag on his grave, which was in good shape. He died at 91 years of age, and his wife and her brother were buried beside him. Finding the grave would have been satisfaction enough, but then Karl (our guide, who turned out to be the town historian) took us to the Victorian-era library's genealogy room. He brought out several books that listed our Samuel as well as his illustrious great-grandfather, Edward, who'd come to America on a commission from King Charles II. The most exciting discovery was a handwritten book finished in 1912, written by Samuel's grand-nephew. That writer even mentioned my husband's grandfather by name (he was born in 1896 and was a teenager at the time the book was compiled).

Before this trip, all we'd known about Samuel was that he'd fought in the war and had a twin brother. Afterwards, we discovered many things. We found descriptions of their military service, of their hardships and how they missed home. Samuel's twin, Andrew, served out the war imprisoned on a British warship and made a daring escape to Cuba (he succeeded and fathered 11 children and lived to be 94). We saw facsimiles of Edward's and Samuel's signatures and seals, and Karl even knew where Samuel's tannery had been located. We saw "refugee lists" of patriots who'd fled Long Island for Connecticut when their lands and farms were confiscated. One of those refugees was Sarah Foster, Samuel's wife, who'd boarded a boat as a little girl, leaving her home behind.

As my fellow writers (and probably dear readers) may well imagine, the plotting wheels in my head were spinning out of control. My muse scrambled for paper and pen, all the while shrieking in my ear, "write, you fool, write!" The town of East Haddam is small and quaint, with many original buildings dating from pre-Revolution days, and fields, streams, and woods intact. I imagined I was walking through the same fields and looking upon the same scenic vistas as Samuel might have, two hundred and fifty years before.

Not only was this vacation more enjoyable than I'd hoped it would be, but it gave our kids an opportunity to "touch" the past. They cleared leaves and old branches from the grave and traced the letters of his name. They found a few rocks and pinecones to bring all the way back to Florida. They looked at the flag on his grave and read the words "Revolutionary War Soldier." An era they've only seen in books and movies was alive for them. Across the enormous span of time, they were introduced to a grandfather they could never know, but now will never forget.

And, yes, to keep my muse happy, I am starting to ponder the story of a young patriotic sailor, sneaking overboard a mighty warship with his fellows; dreams of home foremost in his thoughts. And did I mention that Edward, who became one of the wealthiest men in Connecticut at the time, fell in love with the Governor's daughter? Hmmm....


meemzter said...

Interesting...will make a great novel!

Paty Jager said...

Great fodder for, no doubt, more than one book! After all, they were twins. ;)

Julianne said...

Even the grandfather's story might be interesting, Anna! Sounds like a great vacation! Good luck with the new novel project. :)

Anna Small said...

Thanks, everyone! Can't you just picture a set of dashing twins?! Truth is always stranger than fiction, right?