© Paul K. Davis 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 23, 2009


A dozen years ago a cog slipped in my brain, and I began compiling genealogy data. Since then I have identified hundreds of my ancestors and my wife's, including slave owners and abolitionists, crusaders and medieval feminists; and thousands of our distant relatives, including patriots and royalty, poets and politicians, from Jamestown to Delhi. Their stories are fascinating and enlightening.
"To Rachel Ashby (late widow of Joseph Hunt) ... ... negro man Sam, negro man Tom, negro girl Weaton."

So reads part of a court order from 1759, specifying the portion of the estate of my 6-greats grandfather Joseph Hunt which were due to my 6-greats grandmother Rachel.

When I began researching my ancestry and my wife's some dozen years ago, I knew there would be ancestors of whom I would be pleased, as well as those whose actions were less laudable. The slavery issue is one for which I have found ancestors on both sides. They're all my ancestors, whether I like it or not. I have decided to learn from them, in either case, and I would like to share some of what I've learned.

My great-great-grandfather James Repass served for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and another of my great-great-grandfathers, Marion Davis, served for the Union. Knuti's great-great-grandfather George Gustin also served for the Union, and died in the final campaign in Virginia. Three years ago, while in Washington DC on business, I took the opportunity to drive down and visit his grave, also visiting Jamestown where some of my own ancestors first set foot in America. Another of Knuti's great-great-grandfathers, Barton Bellis, ran an underground railroad depot in Missouri, helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada before the war.

A bit earlier still, one of my 4-greats grandfathers, James Heaton, a member of the Ohio state legislature, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, urging him to make a formal public statement against slavery. Jefferson's reply turned out to be one of the last letters he wrote, and has been on special display in the Library of Congress. His answer, "A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others." can be viewed either as a cop-out, or as wise practical counsel.

Much more definite was my 7-greats grandfather Elihu Coleman, a Quaker, who in 1730 wrote a motion, adopted by his meeting and sent on to the district, opposing slavery, exposing the misuse of Biblical passages concerning slavery, and praising Moslems for having a better practice concerning slavery than Christians. One of his paragraphs reads, "Christ forbids his followers to meddle with the tares, lest they hurt the wheat, therefore none can have any plea for making them slaves, for their being ignorant or wicked; for if that plea would do, I do believe they need not go so far for slaves as now they do."

Elihu had some first hand knowledge of a practice nearly equivalent to slavery, for his grandmother, Mary Morrill, had been sent from England to New England as an indentured servant. Luckily for her, a free and progressive man named Peter Folger fell in love with her and was able to purchase her indenture, freeing her so they could marry. Besides Elihu Coleman they had another notable grandson, Benjamin Franklin, who is thus my first cousin, ten times removed.

I need not recount all the great attributes of such an important scientist, author and statesman as Franklin, but I will call attention to two of his faults. He had an illegitimate son, and he was opposed to immigration of Germans to America. He believed Germans would not assimilate well with Americans of British ancestry. If he'd had his way, nearly a third of my ancestors would not have become Americans.

Another interesting ancestor is my 8-greats grandfather John Tuthill, known to his friends as "Chalker John", and described as "an extraordinary natural mathematician." He apparently always carried chalk with him so he could do mathematics whenever it came to him. Perhaps he had a mathematics gene eventually inherited by my uncle Norman, who was a mathematics professor. I don't know.

When I first started my genealogy research, I really didn't expect to get very far back in time, but I've had good luck in that few of the records of my ancestors have been destroyed in wars, floods or fires, as often happens. One line of ancestry I've studied extensively goes back to the Saint Owen family, who were the lords of six English manors in Sussex and Herefordshire in the fourteenth century. I was able to follow the family through the horrendous Black Death of 1348, in which many of their serfs perished, and then the recurrence of the plague in 1362, in which many members of the lord's family perished. I noted that my ancestor, Ralph Saint Owen, served in the parliament of 1352, which sought to put the peasants in their place. One of the curious results of the first Black Death was that proportionately more peasants than lords died. The lords found it necessary to bribe serfs from other manors to come to theirs in order to maintain agricultural production. Wages rose until parliament enacted a wage freeze and adopted a law that you could not seek new employment without the permission of your former employer or lord.

All along in my genealogical inquiries, I have been as much interested in my wife as myself. One of my early discoveries was that she is a ninth cousin of the late princess Diana. It turns out that Diana had some American ancestry. I have also been interested in our friends, and I later discovered that Peggy Rahman also shares descent from the same family, the Cogswells, who unite Knuti and Diana. Similarly, my mother is a 15th cousin, once removed, of queen Elizabeth.

At this point I began to do some calculations. We each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, etc. By the time you go back twenty generations, which is about five centuries, we each have over a million entries in our ancestor table. Another three centuries and the ancestor table would have more entries than the number of people that existed. For a moment this seems perplexing, but then one realizes that the same person can occur more than once in the table. For example, Knuti and I are 16th cousins, so some of the same people in my ancestry also appear in hers. They are therefore duplicates in our daughter's ancestry. A further conclusion is that, if you go back a thousand years or more, most of the people alive were your ancestors, and they are also the ancestors of most other people alive today. My experience indicates that, within an ethnic group, any two people are likely to be about 10th to 13th cousins, and two people of different ethnic groups are nevertheless likely to be 20th to 30th cousins.

Thanks to the research of others, available through the Bay Area's excellent libraries and now the internet, I was able to trace Knuti's ancestry further back. I knew that she admired the medieval queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and from the statistical analysis I believed there would be a connection. In fact, I found six lines of descent of Knuti from Eleanor.

Being now intrigued, I bought and read a biography of Eleanor. She was quite a personage. She was the heiress to the largest duchy in France. Her grandfather was a famous troubador. She was orphaned as a teenager, and became the ward of the king of France, who married her to his son. When this son, named Louis like his father, became king, she became queen. When he joined the second crusade, so did she, with husband leading the armies of northern France and wife leading the armies of southern France. This crusade achieved no lasting success, but apparently she proved a better general than her husband. The more cultured and more capable Eleanor sought out of the marriage, but the Pope himself insisted on being their marriage counselor. After one last try, they had a second daughter. Then they convinced a French bishop to ignore the Pope and annul their marriage, since there was no male heir as needed by the kingdom. She promptly married Henry, duke of Anjou, who shortly became king of England, making her a queen again.

Eleanor and her two daughters by Louis, who became duchesses, are largely responsible for a medieval flowering of literature which included the writing down of the Arthurian legends and the development of the concepts of chivalric love and knightly responsibilities. Not only did many in her circles regard men and women as equals, a few went so far as to claim women are superior, and Eleanor herself was certainly evidence.

Her family with Henry of England was more complex, including unsuccessful rebellions by her sons against Henry. She lived to see her son Richard, called the "Lion Heart", become king, lead his own crusade, become a captive, be ransomed, and die without an heir. (I, like many, are convinced he was gay.) In the succession battle she was taken captive by one of her own grandsons, and then released by her younger son, who became king John. She died in her eighties, in the same year - 1204 - as the idiotic fourth crusade, which I will mention again later. The effigy on Eleanor's tomb shows her reading a book, and one biographer points out we cannot tell whether it was a Bible or troubadour poetry. Either would have been appropriate to her.

Through Eleanor I can trace Knuti's ancestry to Charles the Great, that is Charlemagne, and I have also found a line by which I descend from him. In some libraries one can find a set of volumes giving lines of descent from Charlemagne as if it were a great and honorable thing. In fact, as I've implied, just about everyone is descended from him; it's only a question of whether the documents survive showing your line of descent. For that matter, just about everyone is descended from the many peasants of Charlemagne's empire, but nobody wrote down their names or catalogued their families, so we cannot trace those lines of descent.

One of the more amazing lines of descent which I have found, on which several genealogists have worked, is from Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It goes like this. After Muhammad's death, three of his close associates were in turn his successors, that is "caliph" in Arabic. Then Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, followed by Ali's son Hasan, who was also a grandson of Muhammad, were caliph. But the vast Moslem empire was beginning to fall into civil and religous strife, and Hasan was forced to abdicate. To this day Islam is split between the Shi-ites, who favored Hasan and believe Islam should be lead by the descendants of Ali, and the Sunnis, who favor selection of leadership from the broader Islamic community. Ali's descendants were persecuted by the majority, and one of Hasan's great grandsons, named Idris, escaped to Morocco, where he became the ruler. Some generations later this dynasty was overthrown by fanatic religious extremists, and the heir, named Hasan after his ancestor, escaped to the land which is now Portugal. His descendants became a noble family there, the "Maia", and converted to Christianity when the Christians reconquered the area from the Moslems. This family intermarried with other noble Spanish families, and among the descendants was a lady name Sancha de Ayala, who accompanied her princess Constance when she married the English prince John (not king John) in 1371. In England Sancha married a knight named Walter Blount, and it turns out that Knuti and I are both descended from this couple.

Various Middle Eastern rulers can also trace their descent from Muhammad, so, for example, Knuti and I are 38th cousins of Abdullah, the current king of Jordan.

I decided to read a little bit about the life of Muhammad, and found out, among other things, that he was not nearly as anti-woman as many modern Moslem dogmatists. He had been an employee of his first wife, Khadija. She proposed to him. While she was alive he took no other wife. He educated his daughter Fatima who became Ali's wife, and he called her his "shining light". Because all of Muhammad's sons died childless, anyone who traces descent from Muhammad does so in a partly female line, through Fatima.

Charlemagne and Muhammad, from a genealogical point of view, are connecting links - notable people whose descendants have been fairly well documented, who lived long enough ago to have many descendants, and whose descendants, for political reasons, often entered into cross-cultural marriages.

Another interesting connecting link is the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who ruled from 1081 to 1118. His life is documented in a biography written by his educated and ambitious daughter, Anna Comnena. I recommend this book highly. It covers a fascinating time in history and is written in a sparkling style. Anna is also an example of a favorite topic of mine, the blending of ancient Greek philosophy and culture with the Christian religion.

Alexios inadvertantly started the Crusades. He was hard pressed by the Turks, due to the military incompetence and in-fighting of his immediate predecessors, and appealed to Western Europe for assistance. He had in mind that the West would loan him portions of their armies until he restored his boundaries. What happened was whole armies, under their own dukes and kings, tramping across the remnants of the Byzantine Empire to reach the Moslem world. Somewhat over a century later, the fourth crusade, which I have already mentioned, turned on the Byzantine Empire and overthrew Alexios's descendants. A side effect, though, was that Alexios's descendants were dispersed. One great-great granddaughter married a Turkish sultan. Another married the crusader king of Jerusalem. Others married the duke of Austria, the king of Hungary, and a German prince. One of his great-great grandsons escaped eastward and established a dynasty near the nation of Georgia. Yet another established a new capital across the straights, and a 4-greats grandson eventually overthrew the crusaders and re-established Greek rule in Constantinople. For a genealogist, this means the possibility of trans-continental relationships. For example, through Alexios, Knuti is an 18th cousin, 7 times removed, of Kandahari Mahal Begum, the first wife of the Indian emperor Shah Jahan.

Coming back now, to somewhat closer ancestors, I've already mentioned Jamestown. One of my ancestors, a John Price, arrived there in about 1611, and I also appear to be descended from John Rolfe, who many of you may recognize as the husband of Pocahontas. (No, not John Smith, as some popular accounts would lead you to believe. She saved John Smith's life, but she married John Rolfe.) I am not, however, descended from Pocahontas, but rather from Jane Pierce, whom Rolfe married after Pocahontas's death.

Nevertheless, when in Jamestown, I purchased some books on Pocahontas. When the legends are stripped away, she is still a remarkable person. She was a genuine peacemaker between the English and the Powhatan, despite the fact that she had been held a virtual captive for some time by the English. She unfortunately died quite young, of an illness caught on a trip to England. Her tribe, blaming her death on the English settlers, launched an extermination campaign, and both sides began their well-known mutual slaughter. I wonder how much better the world might have become if she had lived.

Though I am not descended from Pocahontas, she did have a child, and a list of her current descendents fills an inch-thick book in the Stanford library. Among them is Edith Bolling, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, who played such a large role in guiding the United States during her husband's incapacitation.

Political leaders are not the only notable people figuring in my charts. Recently, reading through a large file by genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner, I noticed first some of my own ancestral surnames, and then an individual identified as a poet. While I have read widely in various fields, modern poetry has been lacking from my interests. Nevertheless, since this individual appeared to be a distant relative of mine, I decided to read the Wikipedia article on him. I was surprised. His name was Langston Hughes and he turned out to be Black. Langston's great grandfather, Ralph Quarles, was a White plantation owner, and a distant relative of mine, who had children by one of his slaves. This was quite common, more common than many realize. But, uncommonly, Ralph emancipated her and their children, and the children were able to move to the free state of Ohio.

Let me quote from one of Langston's poems

"America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath - America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem...And make America again!"

Not only do most African Americans have some White ancestry, but many more White Americans have Black ancestry than realize it. I have in fact found unexpected Black ancestry of one of my relatives by marriage.

On a recent trip to Washington DC on business, I chose on Sunday morning to attend the Universalist National Memorial Church, where I was greeted with a message I cherish, that God is Love. After the service we had coffee and goodies in their "John VanSchaick" room, which rang another bell in my head. They referred me to the UUA web site's biography section, where I learned enough about VanSchaick, a noted Universalist minister of a century ago, to begin tracing his ancestry. As I suspected, he is of the same family as my great grandmother Eliza Caroline Vanscoyoc. Not only that, my co-worker and fellow genealogy enthusiast John Goebel, is from this family, as is our own Pat Rodgers and, for that matter, president Theodore Roosevelt. Our common ancestor was one of the first Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam.

Very similarly, when I heard Chris Schriner's grandmother's maiden name, and recognized it as the name of two thick volumes in the Sutro library in San Francisco, I investigated further. I found that Chris's grandmother was indeed from this family, and his great grandparents are listed in the book. What's more, Chris's 4-greats grandfather, of whom Chris had known nothing, is prominently featured, with an article several pages long, detailing his Jeffersonian political views and Universalist religion. The ancestor of the American Dudley family is Thomas Dudley, governor of Massachusetts four times between 1634 and 1650. Another of his notable descendants was William Ellery Channing, so prominent in the origin of American Unitarianism.

Another such pleasant surprise for me was in the internet data base of Larry Overmire. I noticed that in his entry on Benjamin Franklin he discussed Franklin's sympathy with Universalism. Further investigation showed that whenever a prominent Unitarian or Universalist or sympathizer occurred in his database, there was a listing of our seven principles. Larry, it turns out, is a Unitarian Universalist in Oregon and a poet. Through his database I have found several more connections to prominent UUs.

I would like to close now, with an anecdote from my grandmother's life, and an explanation of the subcaption I place on every page of my internet database.

It took me several conversations with my mother to fully understand this anecdote about my grandmother. It seems grandma was having problems in high school, specifically in her required foreign language class. My great grandparents suggested she could go to live with her aunt in another school district, where a foreign language was not required. Now I had long known about this great-great aunt of mine. She was described, in one of my third cousin's writings, as "a very opinionated woman and no one else knew anything!" My grandmother chose to study harder. But I recently learned a further irony. The language my grandmother was studying was German. This was just before World War I. During the war Indiana passed law against speaking German, so my grandmother never got to make use of her efforts.

This law, it seems to me, was pretty stupid - just as stupid, though not as destructive, as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In both cases the discrimination was not against distant enemies of whom the only knowledge was war-mongering propaganda, but against friends and neighbors, who were well-known not to be a threat. Many German-Americans and Japanese-Americans were even serving in our armed forces during both wars.

My favorite piece of music, which we will sing together shortly as our closing hymn, was originally composed for words in German. Four of those words I have taken strongly to heart, and use them as my internet page subcaption, namely "Alle Menschen Werden Bruder", together with my English translation, "all mankind become brothers." I feel that I am demonstrating, in my genealogy research, what should be obvious, that we are all cousins, and should accord everyone the "inherent worth and dignity" named in our first principle.


Go in peace; go in joy; but especially go in sisterhood and brotherhood, remembering that everyone you meet, eveyone you hear, and everyone you read about is your cousin.

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