|As an author and speaker, I often hear the question: how did I go from researching family history to writing a trilogy about my ancestor Cecily?Mine is a peculiar journey, but I’ve never met a family historian who didn’t have an odd story. We all know that sometimes we find our ancestors, and sometimes, they find us.
My husband once helped me search for ancestral graves in a sprawling, ancient Sicilian cemetery. Lost. He felt a tap on his shoulder. He jumped, looking behind him. No one was there, but he spied the family plot.
As genealogists, we’re first curious detectives, assembling the puzzle of ourselves and the ancestors who gave us ourselves. Yet the mystical arises—the things we know without knowing how. The things we feel.
|Session Number: T132, Hosted by the Virginia Genealogical Society
Title: “Do Not Forget Us”―The Women and Children of Seventeenth Century Virginia
|A Voice in the Night
At eleven, I was awakened one night by a voice urging me to write down my great-grandmother’s stories. “Grandma” was a demure lady in her mid-eighties. We, strangely, were buddies.
My grandparents had taken in four generations: my mother, my brother and me, my great-grandmother, my war-traumatized great-uncle, and an orphaned niece.
Great aunts and distant cousins were always visiting, and everyone had a story or two to tell. Fond memories brought loved ones back. In the telling, they lived again.
Now, prompted by the mysterious, unrelenting voice, I asked Grandma to tell me her stories again. This time I drew a tree and scrawled notes.
By the time I was fourteen, Grandma had died, but my enthusiasm for our heritage hadn’t.
At school, my teacher assigned us to create a family tree and write stories about our ancestors. My grandmother invited the family to bring their genealogy over, and my mother obligingly drove me to the courthouse. I now understood I could research family records on my own. Another revelation was that ordinary people could have extraordinary lives; anyone might find their stories enlightening and entertaining.
I wrote “The New Student and Professor Hull.” In what I thought was a clever ending, this student was Woodrow Wilson. Grandma had declared that her grandfather Hull taught Wilson at the University of Virginia. (A Southern lady never swears, she declares. Grandma had declared it. That was good enough for me.)
On November 20, 1993, my engaging hobby was about to change, and with it, my life. But I knew none of that then.
At the Library of Virginia, a book caught my eye. I tried to walk away, but this book was beckoning me. Dubiously, I opened it. A familiar grandfather leaped from its pages. My grandfather descended from eleven-year-old Cecily Jordan, who came to Jamestown in 1611. I was astounded. Our family memory didn’t go back this far.
Years passed. I continued finding Cecily unexpectedly, as if she were saying, “You’re working on the wrong ancestor. You should be working on me!” Her pushiness amused me.
Still, I searched for books about Jamestown’s women and children, finding little.
Visiting Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, I spied a low shelf labeled Virginiana. I knelt, my hand idly touching the books. My fingers brushed a thin volume called Ancient Adventurers. Electricity surged from it. What’s happening?
Knowing Cecily would be inside, I gingerly, almost fearfully, opened to read:
“Ann Burras, Temperance Flowerdieu and Sisley [Cecily] Jordan can represent all the unsung heroines of that heroic age. They possessed that courage, stamina, and faith in the new land characteristic of all their ‘sisters.’ They embodied the spirit and fortitude … of the master adventurers in the New World, who founded a nation and whose blood is the strength and the backbone of America today. Ann, Temperance, and Sisley can represent all of them. They were contemporaries of Pocahontas but, unlike Pocahontas, their bodies are forever a part of Virginia’s soil.”
The last sentence stung. These women and children are buried in unmarked graves, unmourned and forgotten, I thought.
Now Cecily’s prompting took a new meaning. Someone should tell their stories. Was my twelfth great-grandmother urging me to do it? If so, I was a poor candidate. What did I know of Jamestown? Three ships, 1607. Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Tobacco?
Still on my knees, a resolve emerged. I might be the wrong person, but something bigger was at work.
I spent endless hours researching, uncovering, writing. My timeline grew to hundreds of pages as I tabbed Jamestown histories and genealogies.
I dug through parish records, archaeological reports, old maps, letters, ship manifests, even Spanish and French archival items. I sweltered below deck on the Susan Constant and visited English hometowns, trying to understand. The English Channel held secrets, as did the stone stairs where these women boarded ships, many never to return.
Lacking their courage, I gave up a few times along the way.
Finally, I finished Dark Enough to See the Stars after eight years. The books which followed—When the Moon Has No More Silver and The Sun Is but a Morning Star—were eleven more years.
Even with its struggles, journeys with these women, now my friends, have enriched my life beyond belief.
The Jamestown Sky trilogy has been a bestseller at Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement since debuting in 2006. I wasn’t the only one, I learned, who wanted to know more about Jamestown’s women.
Along the way, the voices of ancient friends and family spoke to me. Correct this. Look here. Nope! Try again. Now I had not one voice urging me but many.
I’ve traveled the country telling these women’s stories—their hardships, poverty, and starvation, but also their faithfulness and determination never to give up.
Never give up. Sure, our curiosity and genealogical research can take us down odd paths, paths we never expected. Sometimes illuminating, sometimes challenging. But the journey is always worthwhile.
You can do it.
And maybe you have an ancestor beckoning you to tell her story. Give it a try. She may even help you along the way.
Ask me how I know.
By Connie Lapallo
Connie is a storyteller, historian, and author of the Jamestown Sky series, based upon the true story of Jamestown’s first women and children.
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