Thanksgiving & Family
Regular readers of my blog and website will know that I identify as a Canadian; I was born in Canada, I have spent most of my life living in Canada (except a few years in Upstate New York), and I generally celebrate Canadian holidays.
This doesn't mean that I don't honor and respect other holidays, especially the closest neighbor of Canada - America - especially considering my paternal family's deep roots in America that, in some cases, predate the founding of The United States of America.
Several of my ancestors were actually deeply involved in the founding of America, including several direct family members who were Pilgrims who came to the New World in the early 1600's. Numerous towns and (now) cities in New England were co-founded by several of my family members, including numerous places in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Many of these family members had left England to escape religious oppression, and spent months in horrible conditions trying to reach New England.
My discoveries of these many ancestors who left England - some by choice, many by need - came as a shock to me. I had never known a great deal about my paternal family as both of my paternal grand parents were deceased by the time I was born (my grandmother was killed as the result of an automobile accident in 1953, and my grandfather died from cancer in 1959). My father, the youngest of 5 children, was without his parents by the time he turned 17 and was pretty much on his own. While my dad had a good relationship with his one sister - my Aunt June - his relationships with his other 2 sisters and his brother weren't as close. There were reasons for this, as there always are, but growing up we simply did not see a lot of my aunt's and uncle (my uncle, in fact, avoided contact with most people in general, and I only remember seeing him a handful of times in my life). In general my dad's family was shrouded in mystery to me with my dad rarely speaking about them, especially when my Aunt June passed away at a young age in 1984; we didn't see any paternal family members for decades after that.
I also knew very little about my paternal grandmother's family - I never met a cousin from that side of the family until a few years ago, and I didn't even know my grandmother's maiden name until I was almost 50!
In general, my paternal family remained a mystery to me until I began researching my family's history. In short order I started discovering all sorts of family "secrets" and soon I was obsessed with uncovering the truth about my paternal ancestors. What I discovered was both incredible and incredulous, and it has taken me on a decade's long journey through American and European history.
I mention American Thanksgiving as I never considered the possibility that anyone in my family would have had anything to do with that special American holiday, but I was wrong. As I began tracing my family back through the centuries, I discovered many of these ancestors were very well documented, and some were even mentioned by name in documents contained in Library of Congress records; this was because a lot of my ancestors were part of the "Great Migration", the period in which English religious dissenters flocked to the New World. As I traced back my heritage, I found a number of my great-grandfather's were religious figures who were prominent members in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Discovering that I was descended from religious figures was a shock in itself - I do not come from a very religious family - but discovering that so many of my ancestors were Pilgrims and historical figures was mind-blowing, to say the least. When I shared this information with other family members, including my dad, their reaction wasn't much different from my own.
Prior to this discovery all I knew about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving was based primarily on what I had seen on TV, and in particular, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special (hey - at least I'm being honest here!). Since I don't like not knowing about things, I started doing some more research on the Pilgrims, what drove them to leave England, and what their journey to the New World involved, and what obstacles and challenges they faced once they arrived in North America. Needless to say, the truth behind their journey was a real eye-opener for me.
As I researched ancestor after ancestor, I found stories about many of my ancestors - some were stories of triumph while others were filled with tragedy - but the common thread that each story had was one of faith and courage. More than just a few family members died during their long journey to the New World, and even more perished once they arrived in America. Some of my ancestors chose to leave their homeland of England in the hope of finding prosperity and opportunities in America that simply were not available in England. Other's left their homes in order to escape religious persecution and to be allowed to live their lives and practice their religion as they wished.
None of the journey's that my ancestors took were easy ones. It didn't matter if they had money or not, the journey to the New World was filled with danger and disease. The ships that these people travelled in were small and slow, with the journey often taking 3 months to make from England to Massachusetts.
I cannot even begin to imagine what it would have been like to leave everything that I know behind, get into a cramped and uncomfortable wooden ship and travel across the vast Atlantic ocean for 3 months, only to arrive in a wild and unfamiliar land. I have personally travelled the world, and I find the process of flying - even in business or first class - tedious at best. Spending 14 hours in a plane in relative comfort and safety has made me crazy on many trips, but compared to what my ancestors did, my journeys were nothing.
Many of my relatives arrived in the New World with little or no belongings and had to build their lives from scratch. Luckily for me, most of my ancestors thrived in the New World and went on to raise healthy families and become an integral part of their communities, and many of them even going on to found new towns and cities. Not all of my ancestors were fortunate however, and several died en route to America, and still many more met with tragic ends in the New World, either through disease or during wars with the French or the Natives.
The common link that I have found that runs through the lives of each of these stoic ancestors was their faith in God, and that faith is what I am certain helped them endure the hardships in their lives, and that helped them to prosper in this new and strange world that they had entered. The faith that my ancestors, and indeed anyone who made the journey to the New World must have had, is incredible and foreign to me.
The backgrounds of my ancestors who would eventually become part of the first wave of new immigrants to America varied, with some being of noble lineage while others were farmers and members of the clergy. When they arrived in the New World, some were considered "free men" having paid their own way to the new world, while many others were indentured, owing the expense of their passage to wealthier individuals who had paid for their journey. Out of this diverse group of people, they would go on to raise their families in this new country and their descendants thrived and prospered.
Surprisingly to me, the majority of my ancestors rebelled against England and fought for their new country during the War of Independence. Only a handful of distant relatives stayed loyal to England and left America and went to Canada (still a British colony at the time). During the Revolutionary War, my 11th cousin 9x removed, General George Washington, led his troops to victory over the English oppressors. Yet another distant cousin, General Benedict Arnold (my 25th cousin, 5x removed) would betray his fellow Americans and attempted to end the Revolution in favor of the British.
From the humble beginnings of my Pilgrim ancestors, many family members have made their mark on not only American history, but on the history of the western world. Many of my family members went on to lead fantastic lives, forging their place in the history books. Several US Presidents share the same ancestors as I, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, my 9th cousin, 2x removed. FDR was the President who declared that American Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November. Prior to FDR, US Thanksgiving had moved around on the calendar.
There are many, many more famous people who have descended from the same ancestors as yours truly, as well as a few infamous and even notorious individuals. Celebrities are the only category in my family tree that outnumber US Presidents and European Royalty. My family tree contains well known American names such as Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, Jane and Peter Fonda, Zac Efron, Carnie and Wendy Wilson, Kevin Bacon, Amelia Earhart, Anna Faris, Andrew & Elisabeth Shue, Ellen DeGeneres, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Brad Pitt, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and many, many other celebrities. My family also includes business and military leaders who, depending on what historic information you believe, put America on its path toward become a beacon to the rest of the world. Notable relatives include: Frank and Charles Woolworth, founders of Woolworth's; John Davison Rockefeller; John Pierpont "JP" Morgan; Samuel Colt; members of the Vanderbilt family and more.
On this American Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to wish all of my American family, whether distantly or closely related, as well as all of my American friends and business associates a healthy, happy and safe Thanksgiving. I would also like to request that everyone take the time to reflect on this important holiday, and to give thanks to those that made it possible.