Archive for the ‘Genealogy’ Category

The United States declared war on Britain in 1812 when all Britain’s attention was focussed on, and resources stretched, fighting Napoleon’s French, who had subjugated much of Europe. Many factors were involved but essentially it was an attempt by the Americans to grab more or all of British North America (Canada) while Britain was occupied elsewhere. So Britain had to fight a war on two fronts, on either side of the Atlantic. It’s a long and fascinating story, at one point the British captured Washington D.C. and burnt the White House; the Americans were only saved by a huge storm which forced the British to withdraw. The war dragged on the two and a half years before being formally ended by the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814, although fighting continued into early 1815.

Throughout all this time the Royal Navy was actively involved, blockading the American coast, fighting American ships and landing troops on the coasts. One young Royal navy Lieutenant involved in all of this was a certain Charles Grisdale. Charles was most likely involved when a fleet of some 30 warships sailed out of Negril Bay, Jamaica on 26 November, 1814. ‘The fleet under command of Admiral Cochrane moved into the Gulf of Mexico ready to attack New Orleans. Cochrane’s fleet was transporting 14,450 British troops who had recently been fighting in the Napoleonic wars in France and Spain.’

Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans. January 1815

Perhaps Charles Grisdale was injured at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, whatever the case shortly thereafter Charles was back in Jamaica where he boarded the ‘postal packet’ Princess Mary bound for Falmouth in England.

But shortly after leaving Jamaica the ship ‘experienced the most dreadful weather’, in fact a ‘hurricane’, during which it ‘was struck by lightning… by which Lieutenant Charles Grisdale, of the Royal Navy, was killed, and several of the crew seriously injured’.

Princess Mary

Princess Mary

The newspapers reported the ‘instantaneous’ death after the Princess Mary arrived in England and mentioned Charles’ father, the Reverend Benjamin Grisdale of Withington in Gloucestershire. When Benjamin and his family heard of Charles death in their Rectory in Withington they must have been devastated. Whether Charles was buried at sea or brought back to England I don’t know, I presume the former.

Charles was only twenty-two and Benjamin’s first born child. He was named after Benjamin’s close friend General Charles Cornwallis, the commander of the British forces which had surrendered to George Washington’s Americans at Yorktown in 1781. Benjamin had been a long-time chaplain in the British Army and served throughout the American War of Independence; he was with Cornwallis at Yorktown. I wrote about him in a story called Rev Benjamin Grisdale and the siege of Yorktown 1781.

But in 1815 Benjamin still had three other living sons: Edmund (1799), Henry (1800) and William (1807), another son had died in infancy. He and his wife Elizabeth Unwin also had two daughters, all born in Withington Rectory. But before his death in 1828 aged eighty-four, Benjamin would have another tragedy. His next oldest living son, Edmund, had joined the Indian Army been made an Ensign then a Lieutenant and was shipped with his regiment to Bombay in 1819. But on 4 December 1820 Edmund died at Surat. We don’t know the circumstances of his death – I suspect he died of something like malaria rather than in battle.

Bombay 1820

Bombay 1820

Before I tell of the fate of Benjamin’s other children after his death I would like to say a little about his family and particularly that of his younger brother Browne Grisdale.

Both boys were the sons of Matterdale-born Benjamin Grisdale and his wife Anne Browne. They were born in Threlkeld, the next-door parish to Matterdale – Benjamin in 1744 and Browne in 1750. I don’t yet know which Grammar School they attended; it might have been St. Bees or Barton, or possibly Carlisle where Browne was later headmaster. But no doubt with the help of their uncle, Joseph Browne, who was both the provost of Queen’s College and the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, they both went to study to be priests at Queen’s College in Oxford.

Joseph Browne was elected Fellow 1 April 1731, and became a successful tutor; took the degree of D.D. 9 July 1743, and was presented by the college with the living of Bramshot, Hampshire, in 1746. In that year, he was appointed Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy and held that office until his death. He was instituted prebendary of Hereford Cathedral on 9 June of the same year (he was later called into residence), and on 13 February 1752 was collated to the chancellorship of the cathedral.

On 3 December 1756, Browne was elected Provost of Queen’s College. From 1759 to 1765 he held the office of Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. He had a severe stroke of palsy 25 March 1765, and died on 17 June 1767.

In 1776, while his older brother Benjamin was still in America with the army, Browne by now a priest and schoolmaster in Carlisle, married Ann Dockray in St. Cuthbert’s church in Carlisle. Five children followed, one after the other: Joseph Browne 1777, named after the Rev Joseph Browne, Mary Ann 1778, Elizabeth 1779, John 1780 and Caroline 1782.

Carlisle Cathedral - where Browne Grisdale was Chancellor

Carlisle Cathedral – where Browne Grisdale was Chancellor

Of course this family had sprung from yeoman farming stock in Matterdale, but Browne and his brother had both gone to Oxford and entered the priesthood and so other courses were expected of their children. Both of Browne’s sons, Joseph and John, were pupils at Carlisle Grammar School where their father was first a teacher and then headmaster. Browne himself later became the Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle and a powerful local Justice of the Peace.

Son Joseph entered the army and became a Lieutenant in the 17th Regiment of Foot, which was posted to the island of Minorca in 1800 as part of the long struggle with Napoleon. And there he died in early 1801, aged just twenty-three. In April 1801 an announcement appeared in The Monthly Magazine which, under ‘Deaths Abroad’, reported:

At Minorca, J. B. Grisdale, esq, lieutenant in the 17th regiment of foot, much lamented by his brother officers.

I wrote of Joseph in a story called Death in Minorca.

Browne’s younger son John on leaving Carlisle Grammar School (where he was a bit of a star) had gone to Christ’s College, Cambridge and won the second highest prize in mathematics. John had first entered Trinity College in 1799 but switched the following year to Christ’s. His decision to move to Christ’s was probably connected with Dr William Paley. Paley had graduated from Christ’s in 1763 as “senior wrangler”, became a tutor at Christ’s and since 1782 had been Archdeacon of Carlisle Cathedral and a colleague and friend of John’s father Browne Grisdale.

I told John’s story in an article called Alas how false our hopes! – the short life of John Grisdale.

Christ's College, Cambridge

Christ’s College, Cambridge

Not to repeat the story here, but John became at lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn in London but died suddenly ‘in his office’ there in 1812, aged just thirty-two. His father Browne, the Chancellor of Carlisle, died two years later

Withington Rectory where Benjamin Grisdale lived

Withington Rectory where Benjamin Grisdale lived

Down in Gloucestershire, Browne’s brother Benjamin, the Rector of Withington, would have heard of his nephews’ deaths with sadness. But then as we have seen he was soon to experience the deaths of two of his own sons: Royal Navy officer Charles returning from Jamaica in 1815 and army officer Edmund in Bombay in 1820.

What became of Benjamin’s other sons – Henry and William?

Henry followed a career path I don’t yet know, but on 27 June 1829 the Oxford Journal reported that ’an inquest was held at Withington, Gloucestershire, by Joseph Mountain, gent. coroner, on the 10th..  (for) Mr. Henry Grisdale, who, in a fit of temporary insanity, destroyed himself with a razor’

When I get a copye of the inquest report we will know more of Henry and his suicide.

After attending Rugby School youngest son William had followed his father and uncle and studied at Queen’s College, Oxford. He became a curate at Cubberley in Gloucestershire where his brother-in-law William Hicks was Rector. (William Hicks had married Mary Grisdale in 1833.) But in August 1841 William died in Cubberley Rectory aged just thirty-four – I don’t know the circumstances.

Cubberley Church

Cubberley Church

So the upshot of all this tragedy and death is that not one of the six sons of the ‘successful’ cleric brothers, Benjamin and Browne Grisdale, had survived long enough to have families of their own! There are no descendants bearing the Grisdale name.

On another occasion I might tell something of the daughters. Brown’s daughter Mary Anne married the Reverend Walter Fletcher who became Browne Grisdale’s successor as Chancellor of Carlisle. Benjamin’s daughter Mary married the Rev William Hicks of Cubberley as already mentioned.

Some years ago a nice lady in the United States contacted me about her family. There were a couple of mysteries. One of these remains a mystery, but I can now shed some light on the other. Although I do try to write stories rather than genealogical exercises, this article is just that: a genealogical investigation. It is also the story of a line of Penrith cordwainers or shoemakers

Penrith Workhouse was exactly the same as Cockermouth Workhouse shown here.

Penrith Workhouse was exactly the same as Cockermouth Workhouse shown here.

Let’s start with a ninety-two year-old ‘pauper’ and former joiner called William Grisdale who died in the Penrith Union Workhouse in 1890. William had spent at least the last ten years of his life in this horrendous institution; which at least gave him food and shelter after he had fallen on hard times. William had married Hannah Butterworth way back in 1821. He spent his whole life as a ‘journeyman joiner’ in Penrith, and between 1821 and 1833 he and Hannah had had six children. Hannah died in 1849 aged just forty-six. Once William’s children had all left in the 1850s, he started to be a lodger with various families in Penrith before having to go to the workhouse sometime in the 1870s.

Nineteenth-century Workhouse 'inmates'

Nineteenth-century Workhouse ‘inmates’

One little mystery is that it is clear that William was the son of cordwainer (i.e. shoemaker) Thomas Grisdale and his wife Jane Dixon. But it seems that William was baptized Thomas in St Mary’s church in Lancaster on 15th December 1799 and was born on 30 November 1798. His parents usually lived in Penrith, where all their other children were born, but had come somewhat south for at least a year to work in Lancaster. Why Thomas had changed his name to William (which was his grandfather’s name) we still don’t know, but it seems he did.

There is more to tell of William’s children, but maybe another time. Here I want to go back and clear up one other mystery.

As noted, William’s father Thomas was a Penrith shoemaker. He born in 1766 in Penrith and when both he and his wife Jane died (in 1821 and 1845 respectively) he was said to have been a ‘shoemaker’. I keep stressing his vocation because it’s important later. Thomas’s father William was a shoemaker too. His father and his mother, Elizabeth Stewardson, were married in Kendal in 1762. We find William mentioned as a shoemaker in Kendal (probably while an apprentice) but shortly after their marriage the couple moved to Penrith where their children were born, including Thomas in 1766.

Cordwainers as the Grisdales might have looked in Penrith

Cordwainers as the Grisdales might have looked in Penrith

Now the mystery was this: Who exactly was William Grisdale? Where had he come from?

When William was buried in Penrith on 18 March 1800 the transcript of the parish registers say he was a ‘shoemaker aged 57’. I will show that either the age given by the informant was a mistake or it is a mistranscription of the original entry. This age led me initially to believe that William was the last child of Matterdale-born Joseph Grisdale and his wife Jane Robinson. Joseph had become the Miller at Pooley Bridge Mill in Barton in Westmorland, and his son William was baptized there on 5 June 1743, which given a few weeks delay from birth to baptism could easily fit William the shoemaker’s supposed age of 57 in March 1800.

But I was never happy with this identification. Millers were a step or two up the social ladder from simple shoemakers and none of the family names prevalent in Joseph’s family ever reappeared among the Penrith Grisdale shoemakers.

I then became convinced that William was actually most likely born in the parish of Watermillock, in which a good part of the valley of Matterdale lies – this as we will see is correct.

Cordwainers/shoemakers

Cordwainers/shoemakers

In the mid-1790s the Penrith Trade Directory listed only three Grisdales: Jacob, William and Thomas, all listed as cordwainers i.e. shoemakers. Surely there was a relationship between the three? Thomas (born 1766) called his first child Jacob in 1791 and the name appears again later. Now Jacob is a very rare Grisdale name. In fact there is only one earlier occurrence of the name and that is a Jacob Grisdale born in February 1748 in ‘High Lowthwaite’, which is geographically in Matterdale but in Watermillock parish. He was the son of Benjamin Grisdale and his wife Grace Railton. And this Benjamin Grisdale was a shoemaker too! And he too had moved to Penrith because when he wife Grace died in Penrith in 1774 she was said to be the ‘wife of Benjamin Grisdale shoemaker’. This Benjamin had another son called Benjamin in 1736 who also became a ‘shoemaker’.

It was pretty obvious that the cordwainers William and Thomas Grisdale in the Penrith Directory were the father and son I have already discussed. Was William perhaps the brother of Jacob the third Penrith cordwainer in the directory or maybe his cousin?

Back in Watermillock in the early 1740s three William Grisdales were baptized in Watermillock church in 1740, 1741 and 1743. The last two rather unhelpfully both being sons of different Benjamin Grisdales. We can exclude the William born in 1743 because we know what happened to him. The William son of Benjamin born in 1741 attracted me for some time but always seemed wrong for complicated reasons to do with exact places of birth.

Ulcatrow in Matterdale/Watermillock

Ulcatrow in Matterdale/Watermillock

That leaves only one William Grisdale who could be our man: William Grisdale son of Thomas Grisdale of Ulcatrow who was baptized on 16 October 1740. But can this square with his supposed age of 57 when he died in 1800? Well it can because rather stupidly I hadn’t looked at the second page of the marriage bond between William and Elizabeth Stewardson made in Kendal on 19 April 1762. Here it clearly says that William is ‘21’. The ‘and upwards’ which follows is part of the printed form, and Elizabeth’s age is clearly said to be 24, which it was. If William was 21 on 19 April 1762 he would have been born between 20 April 1740 and 20 April 1741, which fits precisely with the William son of Thomas Grisdale of Ulcatrow baptized in Watermillock church on 16 October 1740. Actually William can’t have been over 21 because there is no other William Grisdale who would then fit the bill.

This attribution now seems blazingly apparent to me but it wasn’t for a long time. William’s age of 21 makes more sense than say 19 if he had been the son of Joseph Grisdale the Miller. In addition William named his first son Thomas, no doubt after his father. Finally it explains why neither he nor his sons named a son Benjamin, which one might have expected if William were the son of a Benjamin.

Page 2 of marriage bond of William Grisdale and Elizabeth Stewardson in 1762

Page 2 of marriage bond of William Grisdale and Elizabeth Stewardson in 1762

So what was the relationship between shoemaker William and Thomas, father and son shoemakers, and father and son shoemakers Benjamin and Jacob Grisdale? There must have been one; it just depends on how far back we need to go to find it. Remember young Thomas Grisdale (born 1766) called his first son Jacob and the name crops up again later. It’s most likely that father and son William and Thomas worked with father and son Benjamin and Jacob – they were all shoemakers in Penrith. But what was the ‘blood’ relationship?

Here we enter another quagmire of various Benjamin Grisdales. Theoretically there are four Benjamin Grisdales who might be the shoemaker one: 1) Benjamin son of Thomas Grisdale and Mary Brownrigg, baptized in Matterdale in 1696; 2) Benjamin son of Thomas Grisdale of Dowthwaite, baptized in Matterdale in 1706; 3) Benjamin son of Edward Grisdale of Dowthwaite Head and Elizabeth his wife, baptized in Matterdale in 1711, and 4) Benjamin son of Joseph Grisdale of Townhead (Dockray) and Jane Martin, baptized in Matterdale in 1713.

Queen's College Oxford in 1675, where many Matterdale Grisdales studied

Queen’s College Oxford in 1675, where many Matterdale Grisdales studied

To cut a long story short, we can exclude the Benjamin (number 3) born in 1711, because we know he died at Brownrigg Farm aged 68 in 1779. While not as certain I believe we should exclude number 2 as well because most likely he was the father of the later illustrious Reverends Browne and Benjamin Grisdale, who both went to Oxford University. This Benjamin married Watermillock girl Ann Browne in 1738. She was the daughter of  a well-to-do George Browne of Tongue whose son Joseph (Ann’s brother) not only went to Oxford but was later  to become the University’s Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy and Provost of Queen’s College! To be honest I don’t see George Browne letting his daughter marry Benjamin Grisdale the son of the rather poor Joseph Grisdale and Jane Martin of Townhead, but I may be wrong.

I don’t know what became of Benjamin number 1 born in 1696, unless of course he is the ‘pauper’ Benjamin who died in Skelton in 1787 said to be 87 years of age. I admit there is a chance that this older Benjamin was the shoemaker we are looking for but for the moment I doubt it.

If all this is correct then the Penrith shoemaker Benjamin Grisdale was the child of Joseph Grisdale and Jane Martin of Townhead (Dockray) in Matterdale, a couple who are the ancestors of numerous people I have written about on this blog. When Joseph died in 1750 he left some money to his sons including Benjamin, who was thus obviously still alive at the time.

Dockray Matterdale with Dowthwaite Head in the distance

Dockray Matterdale with Dowthwaite Head in the distance

Returning to Thomas Grisdale of Ulcatrow, the father of the shoemaker William Grisdale who married Elizabeth Stewardson in Kendal; who was he? Well at the moment I have not the slightest idea. Could he be linked in some way to the very first Josiah Grisdale who married Sarah Atkinson in Greystoke church in 1735, and who was also living in Ulcatrow in 1737 when his daughter Ann was baptized? This first Josiah Grisdale (from whom countless Grisdales are descended) has always been a complete mystery, because as far as I can see there is no mention of his birth, baptism or even death anywhere. He was clearly a respected Matterdale man because he was a Churchwarden of Matterdale church and also a witness in 1747 to the will of Edward Grisdale the brother of the late Rev. Robert Grisdale, the founder of Matterdale School. He was also a witness in 1754 at the marriage of Joseph Grisdale and Dinah Todhunter. If we could find out anything more about his place of birth or death or his parents it would clear up a lot.

So still more questions than answers. However I think with some certainty we can push the family of the nice American lady I mentioned at the beginning back one generation to Thomas Grisdale of Ulcatrow, whoever he was.

Page 1 of Kendal 'shoemaker' William Grisdale's marriage bond 1762

Page 1 of Kendal ‘shoemaker’ William Grisdale’s marriage bond 1762

We know that there was a free tenant farmer called John Grisdale farming at Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale in 1524. As I have suggested before, either he, or possibly his father or even grandfather, had probably arrived in Matterdale sometime in the later 1400s (see here). We know too that Grisdale refers to where the family originally came from and when they moved from ‘Grisdale’ they would have been given the name ‘of’ or ‘de Grisdale’ by the locals to help identify which John or Edward or Robert they were talking about. I have discussed elsewhere which Grisdale this might have been (see here). My own view is that it was present-day Mungrisdale which for a long time was called simply Grisdale. But it is almost certain that the family was called Grisdale before it moved to Matterdale. Here I’d like to explore the question of when, and perhaps also where, the Grisdales first got their name.

In the future I’ll have a lot more to say about the sixteenth century Grisdales of Matterdale but let’s start with saying a little about English family or surnames – how and particularly when they arose and when they stabilized.

oxfordAs in many countries in England names were for centuries just first or ‘christian’ names: Robert or Richard or if we go back before the Conquest then more likely Alfred or Harold. There was a patronymic system, so you might have Robert son of John, from where might arise Johnson. The same was seen in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Using anglicized names, in Scotland a Malcolm mac Donald, i.e. son of Donald might give the family name MacDonald; in Ireland Fergus O (son of) Neill could give the family name O’Neill; while in Wales the family name Price will have come from a son (ap) of Rhys.

I can’t help mentioning the two Irish homosexuals William fitz Gerald and Gerald fitz William. Fitz of course being the Norman-French designation for son. Hence Fitzroy – son of the king.

Before such surnames derived from ‘first’ names became fixed, simply calling someone Edward son of Alfred might not suffice so we find longer names such as Edward son of Alfred son of William.

Such a system of naming is still found in many countries. In Iceland: ‘A man named Jón Einarsson has a son named Ólafur. Ólafur’s last name will not be Einarsson like his father’s; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Ólafur is the son of Jón (Jóns + son). The same practice is used for daughters. Jón Einarsson’s daughter Sigríður’s last name would not be Einarsson but Jónsdóttir. Again, the name literally means “Jón’s daughter” (Jóns + dóttir).’ In Iceland too you can still find matronymic names such as Heiðar Helguson (Helga’s son). It must make Icelandic genealogy very hard.

I will later show early examples of this way of naming for real people in Matterdale and in Grisdale itself.

Another major group of English surnames derive from occupations: Wilfred (the) Smith, Henry (the) Tanner or even Margaret Thatcher. Of course Henry the Tanner’s father might not have been a Tanner, he might have been Edward the Butcher. But if you’re called Tanner then somewhere along the line the occupational name of one of your ancestors who was a Tanner became fixed and became the family name.

Then there are surnames derived from characteristics or nicknames: George Strongarm or Stephen Goodenough.

And then there is another large group of names which are locative i.e. they describe a particular place. In an existing stable community someone might be called by the house where he lived, for example Arthur (of the) Newhouse, or a very specific locality, maybe Thomas (of) Underwood. Such names when they were first used only made sense if the other members of the community knew where the ‘Newhouse’ or ‘Underwood’ was; they wouldn’t have meant much to people from elsewhere. This brings us to names such as Grisdale, names referring to slightly larger and further away places. If Jeremiah had moved to the area from Stafford he would often be called Jeremiah de Stafford. If the ‘de Stafford’ became stuck as the family name and the ‘de’ dropped as it often was we get a ‘Stafford’ family.

It is important to note that it made no sense whatsoever for some who lived in Stafford to be called ‘of’ or ‘de Stafford’, because everyone there was ‘of’ Stafford. Don’t get confused because lords of the manor often took a secondary (sometimes primary) appellation from their manor, i.e. Lord X of Stafford, or even in the late thirteenth century a certain John Lancaster de Grisdale (to whom I’ll return on another occasion). Calling someone ‘of’ or ‘de Stafford’ only made sense when someone moved from Stafford to somewhere else and his origin was used to identify him in his new home. This is the case with the name Grisdale.

One final point here: if a man moved to London from a known town such as Lincoln, Norwich or even Stafford there was a good chance that he would be given that name. But if someone moved from the tiny mountainous hamlet of Grisdale (now Mungrisdale) to London then calling him ‘de Grisdale’ probably didn’t make much sense as no one in London would have had any idea where Grisdale was. If however the Grisdale man moved to somewhere much nearer than London he might indeed have been called Grisdale – this is undoubtedly what happens with our Grisdale family. I’ll give two real examples later.

edward3port

King Edward the Third

Before I do this it might be quite instructive to actually look at the real names of the principal families in Matterdale and Grisdale way back in 1332.

Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the French-speaking kings of England would continually tax their victims, i.e. the people of England, to pay for their luxuries and incessant wars. They periodically taxed both the clergy and the laity. The later taxes are known as Lay Subsidies and are recorded in ‘Rolls’, hundreds of which still survive. There was a Lay Subsidy in 1332, the sixth year of King Edward III, and luckily it includes Cumberland. Here we find the names of the inhabitants of all the parishes, villages and hamlets, as well as the value of their goods and how much tax they should pay (in this case a fifteenth). Both Matterdale and Grisdale (now Mungrisdale and spelt Grisedale in the lay subsidy) were in the Ward of Leath, and here are the inhabitants’ names:

Matterdale 1332:

Robert son of Alicia, Henry del Crokwath, William son of Richard, William de Blatern, Richard servant of Richard, Robert son of Robert, John Gedirwit, John de Burton, Adam son of Robert, John Dickson, Adam son of Richard, Waddle forestar, Adam de Withebathin and Robert son of William

Grisedale 1332:

William Skraghird, Peter son of Hugh, William Slegh, William Riotis,  Robert son of John, Robert son of Gilbert, William son of Robert, Adam son of Peter…… there were seven more names but the Roll was ripped after Adam.

Crookwath Barn

Crookwath Barn, Matterdale

What you can immediately see is how many families didn’t yet have a surname – notice all the ‘sons of’. But some family names had stabilized: William Slegh and John Dikson to name just two. It’s interesting to note that Wilfred Grisdale married Ruth Slee in Matterdale in the seventeenth century and Dickson was a common family name in Matterdale for centuries to come. And then we have the place names: further away places such as ‘de Burton’, ‘de Blatern’ and ‘de Withebathin (Wythburn?), and then local places such as ‘del Crokwath’ – Crookwath being a tenement near Dockray in Matterdale which was farmed by the Grisdales in the seventeenth century. We even find the occupational name Waddle forestar.

So in 1332 the process of stabilizing surnames in Cumberland was nowhere near finished, and you can find the same in all the other places covered by this Lay Subsidy Roll.

One point of parochial Grisdale interest is that while we can see that although families such as the Slees and Dicksons were already in Matterdale in 1332 the Grisdales clearly were not.

In England in general surnames were formed over the period of about 1250 to 1450. In the south of the country many had become fixed by 1350 but in the north, including Cumberland, it wasn’t until about 1450 that most families had a fixed name.

Now let’s return to the question: when and possibly where had the Grisdales become Grisdales?

As I have already said, it is my belief that the first Grisdales arrived in Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale in the second half of the 1400s or maybe as late as 1500. As we have seen even surnames in Cumberland had stabilized by this time and thus we can be reasonably sure that when they arrived they were already called Grisdale or just possibly still ‘de Grisdale’ and that therefore they had not come directly from Grisdale.

Where had they been before?

Are there any mentions of Grisdales before we hear of John Grisdale, the early sixteenth-century farmer at Dowthwaite head? There are just two.

In the year 1407 a certain Rowland de Grisdale held one burgage in the new town of Kendal in Westmorland from its lord Sir William Parr. He had held the same in 1404. Also in 1407 ‘Rolland de Grisedale’ held two tenements (i.e. farms) in Underbarrow/Bradley Field, just a couple of miles west of Kendal, of Sir William Parr’s son John. We know that he had held this tenement in 1390 as well.

Burgage is a medieval land term used in England and Scotland, well established by the 13th century. A burgage was a town (“borough”) rental property (to use modern terms), owned by a king or lord. The property (“burgage tenement”) usually, and distinctly, consisted of a house on a long and narrow plot of land (Scots, toft), with a narrow street frontage. Rental payment (“tenure”) was usually in the form of money, but each “burgage tenure” arrangement was unique, and could include services. As populations grew, “burgage plots” could be split into smaller additional units. Burgage tenures were usually money based, in contrast to rural tenures which were usually services based. In Saxon times the rent was called a landgable or hawgable.

Burgage Plots

Burgage Plots

It’s interesting to note that almost six hundred years later another Grisdale, Richard, was farming in exactly the same place as Rolland Grisdale was in 1407! I wrote about this later Richard here.

Bradley Field Farm. Here or near here Rolland de Grisdale farmed around 1400

Bradley Field Farm. Here or near here Rolland de Grisdale farmed around 1400

Now we don’t know if this Rolland/Rowland Grisdale was in any way connected with the Grisdales of Matterdale who first appear in the records about a hundred years later. But bear in mind two things. First, if Rolland de Grisdale of Kendal had children its most likely that they would have been called ‘de Grisdale’ too; the fact that we don’t find any children has to do with the paucity of the records not the fecundity of fifteenth century Lakeland people! Second, lo and behold, in 1571 in the Greystoke church records we find the burial of ‘Rolland son of John Grysdell of Matterdale’. It might of course be a pure coincidence, but it just might not.

Just try a thought experiment. If this Matterdale Rolland died as a young man in 1571 then his father John could well have been born in the first quarter of the 1500s, and indeed his father might have been the John we know was farming at Dowthwaite Head in 1524, who I think must have been born in around 1470 – 1480. If Rolland of Matterdale had been named by his father John after his own grandfather (as was often done) then we are within spitting distance of Rolland de Grisdale of Kendal. Of course this is pure conjecture, but the fact is the Matterdale Grisdales had to have come from somewhere before they arrived in Matterdale and Rolland of Kendal is the only person bearing the Grisdale name we find in any fifteenth century record.

Halton Lancashire on the River Lune

Halton Lancashire on the River Lune

But now let’s go even further back to the very first Grisdale I can find: Simon de Grisdale. Simon appears in the 1332 Lay Subsidy Roll we have already discussed, not in the Lake District but rather in the parish of Halton in Lancashire, a few miles from Lancaster. He held a tenement in Halton of its lord William de Dacre.

Now here’s another coincidence? Because Dacre lies immediately adjacent to both Matterdale and Grisdale in Cumberland. William was the lord of this Dacre.

He (William) was born on 12 March 1265/6 in Castle Naworth, Yorkshire, the son of Ranulph and Joan de Lucy. He first married Anne Derwentwater (Derwentwater is a lake in the Lakes district of Cumbria). Next he married Joan Garnet, the daughter and sole heir of Sir Benedict Gernet, the Royal Forester.

He obtained a charter for free warren of all his demesne lands at Dacre and Halton in about 1303/4 (actually he first got the manor 1297)…. He joined the expedition of Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots,” in to Scotland the same year. He was also engaged in the wars in Scotland between 1308 and 1311. The family had neither been rich, nor members of the baronage, but the family’s fortunes rose with the success and booty gained by William in these wars.

‘Though the Dacres and their heirs held Halton for about three centuries, their history belongs to Cumberland and there is little trace of their interest in Lancashire.’

Dacre Castle in 1802, Built by the Dacres in the mid fourteenth century

Dacre Castle in 1802, Built by the Dacres in the mid fourteenth century

Remember too that Dacre was part of the barony of Greystoke as were Matterdale and Grisdale (Mungrisdale).

So is it too much too imagine that when William de Dacre wanted to find farmers for his new Lancashire manor he might have asked his Cumberland steward and he found a Simon living in Grisdale to whom he granted a tenement in Halton, and who then became known as Simon de Grisdale?

Again, I repeat, all this is pure conjecture. So what might we be able to say?

From what we know of English surname formation, and particularly in northern England, the most likely scenario is that sometime in the fourteenth or fifteenth century (and I would say more likely in the fourteenth) an ancestor of the Matterdale Grisdales had moved from Grisdale/Mungrisdale to somewhere else where they started to be called ‘de Grisdale’. The ‘de’ part would most likely have continued in use for quite a while before eventually disappearing – there are hundreds of examples of this. And then, I think, one of this family, called by now Grisdale (and its variant spellings), arrived to take up the farming of the tenement at Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale in the latter part of the 1400s. This might have been the John Grisdale we find in the records or possibly his father.

Could the person who originally left Grisdale have been the Simon de Grisdale we find in Halton in Lancashire in 1332? Could Rolland de Grisdale in Kendal around 1400 have been one of the family too? We don’t know but it’s certainly possible, after all if Simon and Rolland de Grisdale had sons where did they end up?

1576 Map of Grisdale/Mungrisdale

1576 Map of Grisdale/Mungrisdale

 

1747 Map of Grisdale/Mungrisdale

1747 Map of Grisdale/Mungrisdale

 

 

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Trying to uncover all our ancestral lines is a labour of love taking many years, even decades, particularly if you really wish to gain a full understanding of your ancestors’ lives and share them with others having the same family interests. It is this fuller understanding of the social and economic history that our family lived through that enthralls Stephen Lewis and has helped him to make some touching discoveries…

For some people filling in the pieces of our family tree jigsaw-puzzle is enough in itself. Yet most of us soon start to become enthralled by the social and economic history of our family, even if we previously had no interest in ‘history’ as we might have been taught it at school. What was life like for one of our ancestors, or his/her family, at a particular time and in a particular place? Why did one of our ancestors emigrate? Why did so many children die young? We literally want to put some flesh on our forebears. We want in some small way to bring some of them back to life, perhaps for the first time in centuries.

How can we do this? And, importantly, how can we communicate and share what we discover? What I‘d like to do is simply offer a few suggestions derived from my own efforts in researching and communicating the social history of parts of my own family. Some of the results can be found on my family history blog grisdalefamily.wordpress.com.

First we need to make choices, but don’t agonise too much about where to start. If you’re most fascinated by those of your ancestors bearing your own name then start there. On the other hand if you’re more interested in certain places where some of your ancestors lived then research that. Or perhaps start with just one person that you’d most like to bring back to life.

How much flesh we can put on the lives of particular ancestors or families will of course vary. If they were rich or famous, if they emigrated, joined the church or accomplished heroic deeds then the records of their lives will likely be more extensive. However, even if some or most of your ancestors left little trace of their lives, besides a few events and dates, you can still tell an interesting story.

Our ancestors’ landscape

A good starting point is to research geography. Physically what was the environment in which your ancestors lived? Was it a remote mountain community where people tended sheep? Was it a maritime port heaving with merchants, sailors and fishermen? Or perhaps it was an industrial town full of ‘dark satanic mills’? Try to find out what the physical environment was and how it changed and evolved, and why. Try to be precise. Where exactly was Dowthwaite Head Farm in Cumberland? What did it look like? What surrounded it? What was a particular Lancashire cotton mill really like? How had the surrounding environment changed? Understanding the places goes a long way to understanding the lives of our ancestors.

 Making a living

Geography links to my second suggestion. Research what your ancestors did to make a living. The records might reveal that someone was a ‘waller’, a ‘chalker’ or a ‘cotton bleacher’. What did these occupations really involve day to day – in terms of travel, health, income and the precariousness of existence? Mariners by definition travelled far and wide, as did wallers (though more locally), whereas ‘yeoman’ farmers usually stayed put. You might have no personal records of your ‘waller’ ancestor but you can still start to reconstruct their life from what is known of the lives of others with the same job.

Class & cash

The next thing to consider is the important fact of class. All societies at all times have been stratified. The rich and powerful try to hold on to their privileges and extend them wherever they can. The poor try to survive. The ‘middling-sort’ tries to move up or arrest a decline of their family. A family’s class and economic position and its dealings with other classes in the vicinity can tell us much about their likely lives, their hopes and their decisions. Were your ancestors forced to quit the land because of the centuries-long rapacious land enclosures in England, or the brutal highland clearances in Scotland? Who exactly was doing the enclosing or clearing and why? What were the consequences for your ancestors? Once you understand this you can often make sense of why, to use an example from my own family, a family moved from rural Cumberland to the Bolton cotton mills, emigrated to Canada or joined the military. People tend to make such big moves only when they have to. What pushed them to it?

 Making your research relevant

All of these things: geography, work, class and economics play out at the local level. But it’s also interesting to try to place these events in a wider national or international context. One of my own family members became an Army officer and died in Minorca in 1801. What in heaven’s name was the British Army doing in Minorca? My research turned up a very interesting story covering the time of Britain’s four-year ownership of the island. Another family member started life as a cotton bleacher in Bolton in Lancashire, became a missionary in India and ended up a bishop in the Canadian prairies. Researching this opened up the fascinating history not only of Britain and its empire but also the history of the Canadian West.

Such research will take you down paths you might otherwise never have ventured. The social, political and economic histories you discover will start to have a real relevance because they involved and affected specific people you know and care about. You don’t need vast libraries and certainly not historical training to do any of this; you can find a great deal of what you need on the internet. When I started to research and write stories about my own family, not only did it open up vast areas of social and political history I had never thought about before, but it also elicited many unexpected, illuminating and often touching responses from all over the world. I am sure it will do the same for you.

 

 

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When I started writing these family history stories I stated that the vast majority of people with the name Grisdale or Grisedale, wherever they might be in the world, could find their roots in Matterdale, indeed probably in Dowthwaite Head. However I also said that a few people might trace their origins to the other ‘Grisedale’ in the far west of the Yorkshire Dales, near the border with Cumberland. But is this true? Did any Grisdale/Grisdale family ever really originate in this Grisedale? I think perhaps not.

Grisedale Yorkshire

Grisedale Yorkshire

As I have discussed previously, Grisdale is a place name and it is beyond doubt the case that the Matterdale Grisdales had originally moved to Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale from a Grisdale in Cumberland, probably in the fifteenth century if not earlier. This Grisdale was most likely (Mun)grisdale rather than the Grisdale/Grisedale running down to Ullswater (see here). The third place in Cumberland of the same name is Grisedale Pike near Keswick, but this never was a settlement.

And then there is the Yorkshire Grisedale, often spelt historically without the E. It’s a tiny side valley of the small Garsdale and is situated a couple of miles from the town of Sedbergh – which is now in Cumbria but was historically a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Grisedale really is a miniscule place. In 1975 a Yorkshire Television producer called Barry Cockcroft made a documentary about Grisedale which caused quite a stir. It was called The Dale that Died. ‘The film focused on a 61-year-old former miner, Joe Gibson, who had begun a new life as a sheep farmer in Grisedale. This remote Yorkshire valley had once been the home to 14 families. But when the film-makers arrived Joe, with the help of his wife and son, was the only farmer still living and working in the dale.’ The Yorkshire Post more recently wrote:

Theirs (the people of Grisedale) was a hard life. From this depiction it was easy to see why Grisedale should have “died” with people moving out and leaving houses to become derelict..

Today, entering Grisedale from Garsdale is like stumbling upon a secret, semi-wild place. However, it’s clearly not dead. Some buildings are derelict but many have obvious signs of life. Closer inspection reveals that although not exactly thriving, the story of its death was greatly exaggerated.

Grisedale is a cul-de-sac dale off the Hawes to Sedburgh road bordered by Wild Boar Fell. It’s not the sort of place you pass through on the way to somewhere else. You have to have a reason for going there and that, it seems, is part of its attraction for those who have come to call it home.

But this is all pretty recent history. The question here is whether the valley ever gave its name to people who had moved from there, and that means going back much further. Given that in earlier times people bearing the name of a place, village or town usually got the name because their family had at some remote time come from there, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that there was never anyone called Grisedale/Grisdale who lived in the valley itself.

Sedbergh Church

Sedbergh Church

In the early 1600s, records suggest that there were maybe only a couple of families living in Grisedale. They would go to the church in Sedbergh for baptisms, marriages and burials. The Sedbergh parish registers start in the sixteenth century. In 1618 for example we find Anthony Dawson of ‘Grysdale’ marrying Isabell Bethom. In Sedbergh around the same time we find two Grisdale families, those of Richard and Edward Grysdale. The family name was usually spelt as Grysdale, but we also find Grisdale, Grisedall and Grysedale. At that time most of these rural families were illiterate and the parish priest wrote what he heard. Remember that Shakespeare would even spell the same word three different ways on the same page!

Richard Grysdale married Isabell Makereth in June 1611, but Isabell soon died. With a second wife called Alice Harrison, Richard had twins Agnes and John, who were baptized on 8 July 1616. But Alice herself died following childbirth and was buried a few days after her children were baptized. The family lived in ‘the Mosse’ in Sedbergh, which is most probably present-day The Moss House.

Edward Grysdale and his wife Agnes, who also lived in Sedbergh, had a son John in 1620 and a daughter Margaret in 1623.

Finally there was also a John Grysdale, whose wife Margaret died at Firbank, Sedbergh in 1618.

Two issues arise. First, it seems that the two sons called John eventually moved away from Sedbergh as there is no more mention of them in the records. Second, where had these Grisdales come from? Given the absence of any Grysdales in Sedbergh prior to 1611, it’s pretty clear they come from elsewhere, but, I would suggest, not from nearby Grisedale.

Sedbergh town and church

Sedbergh town and church

It is important here to remark that surnames deriving from places or trades or any other source had almost everywhere stabilized by the fifteenth century. By the time we get to the early 1600s, when we find Grysdales in Sedbergh, anyone who had moved from Grisedale to Sedbergh in recent years would already have had a family name that had become fixed decades, or more likely centuries, before – John (the) Tanner, William (the) Forrester or Richard Stafford. The ancestors of anybody who carried the name Grisdale because they had moved away from ‘Grisedale’ in Yorkshire would have had to have made the move way back in the remote past before names became fixed.

With only two exceptions there is nobody in any historical record called Grisdale (or variants) outside Cumberland in the 1500s, indeed no one outside Matterdale (or nearby locations such as Threlkeld). On the other hand there are a couple of dozen different types of records of sixteenth-century Grisdales in Matterdale, usually found to be living in Dowthwaite Head.

Given all this, it is my conjecture that although the two Sedbergh-born John Grysdales may have married and had children elsewhere, there is no evidence whatsoever that any Grisdale family got their name from this Yorkshire Grisedale.

Dowthwaite Head Farm

Dowthwaite Head Farm

Now it is quite possible, I would say even probable, that the Sedbergh Grysdales had in fact originated in Matterdale. This can’t be proved so what follows in conjecture. It’s reasonable to assume that Richard and Edward Grisdale of Sedbergh were related, even perhaps brothers. They both named their only sons John, so it could be that their father was a John, maybe the John whose wife Margaret had been buried in Sedbergh in 1618. Note also that Richard Grysdale had named his only daughter Margaret in 1623! Edward, Richard and John were three of the most common names of the Grisdales of Matterdale in the 1500s and into the 1600s and beyond. Among the nine Matterdale militia bowmen who were mustered in Penrith in 1581 there was a John, an Edward and a Richard. A Richard Grysdell of Dowthwaite Head married Janet Grysdell (also of Dowthwaite Head) in 1579. They had a son called John in 1583. The wife of Edward Grysdell ‘junior’ died in 1561 and an Edward Grysdell of Dowthwaite Head had two children in the 1560s. Robert Grysdell of Dowthwaite Head who died in 1584 had a daughter called Margaret, as well as sons called Edward, John and Christopher. Christopher Grysdell of Dowthwaite Head who died in 1597 was said to be the son of Edward Grysdell in his will. And finally there was a John Grysdell of Dowthwaite Head who died in 1579, and Robert Grysdell mentions his son John in his will of 1584.

So maybe the Richard, Edward and John Grysdale of Sedbergh came from Dowthwaite Head?

I’ll return to the possible fate of the Sedbergh Grisdales another time. All we know for now is that is that Richard’s daughter Agnes died in 1650 in Settlebeck in Sedbergh itself, while Edward’s daughter Margaret married Thomas Harrison in 1662 in Sedbergh and his wife Agnes died in Sedbergh in 1669. Where Richard and Edward and their sons John went remains to be discovered.

From its early days in Dowthwaite Head around 1500, the Grisdale family inexorably grew and spread out. Even in the sixteenth century members of the family had started to work and farm throughout the valley of Matterdale, and even further afield. They moved for instance to Hollas (Hollows), as well as to Matterdale End, Dockray, Crookwath, Mills, Ulcatrow and to nearby parishes such as Keswick and Threlkeld (to name just two). Some even ventured to London. In the eighteenth century they started to move to Penrith, Kendal, Carlisle, Patterdale and elsewhere, as well as to Lancashire and Yorkshire. And so it went on. By the nineteenth century the family started to emigrate overseas: to Canada, the United States, Australia, India and even South Africa. Many of the articles on this blog have been concerned with such families.

Dowthwaite Head Farm

Dowthwaite Head Farm

One of the upshots of this century-long process of birth and emigration has been that the number of people carrying the Grisdale name in Matterdale itself has fluctuated enormously. I hope to be able to provide some estimates of numbers in the future. But what is abundantly clear is that starting with maybe just 5 to 10 Grisdales in Dowthwaite Head in the early years of the sixteenth century, the family grew rapidly. During the seventeenth century and much of the eighteenth, the Grisdales were, it seems, everywhere. They were one of the most numerous and influential families in the valley. They were mostly yeomen farmers, but the family also produced innumerable clergymen (some famous, most not), some entrepreneurs who became rich, while, naturally, many joined the army.

Yet by the time we reach the late eighteenth century the exodus from Matterdale had really heated up; spurred it should be said by the on-going land grab called the ‘enclosures’. My own Grisdale family left Matterdale in around 1810-1815 and settled  in nearby Penrith. As the decades passed, more and more Grisdale families gradually left, until in 1891 there was only one person called Grisdale still living in Matterdale. He bore the common family name Solomon. Of course it wasn’t that there  weren’t many other people still in Matterdale who were descended from the hundreds of Grisdales who had lived in the valley for the last 500 years, there were. But in 1891 the 23 year old Solomon Grisdale was the last to carry the name.

Solomon was born in 1868 and christened on 22 September in Matterdale church. He was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Grisdale (born 1842), who was herself the illegitimate daughter of Ann (born 1818). Ann was the first of nine children of the well-to-do Dockray yeoman farmer Solomon Grisdale and his wife Elizabeth Wilson. I won’t here tell the story of these two illegitimate births except to say that historically, while such births outside wedlock were not unheard off, they were in this family very rare. This family were descended from Joseph Grisdale (1687-1750) and Jane Martin (1687-1769), who were also yeoman farmers in Dockray, and from whom so many of the people I have discussed in this blog are also descended. Of course before that the family can be traced back to Dowthwaite Head.

At first Solomon’s mother Elizabeth had continued to live with her new son on the farm of her grandmother Elizabeth, with other members of the family. Solomon Senior had died in 1866. In 1878, when Solomon was ten, his mother married a Yorkshire road contractor called John Raine, and in 1881 the family were living just outside Dockray at High Row. They were still there ten years later and the 23 year-old Solomon was a labourer working building roads with his stepfather. By now, as I have said, Solomon was the only Grisdale in Matterdale.

In 1896 Solomon married Harriot Nicholson in the Church of All Saints in next door Watermillock. He was a ‘main road foreman’ or ‘contractor’ in his own right. The couple lived in Dockray and two children followed: Thomas in 1897 and Laura in 1905 (there may have been others who died young).

And here, finally, we do come to the last of the Matterdale Grisdales, for Thomas and Laura were the very last.

Matterdale Old School

Matterdale Old School

It is interesting to consider that both Thomas and Laura were christened in Matterdale church, a place with so many connections with the Grisdale family going back to the 1580s. Thomas would also have attended the old Matterdale School, founded in 1722 by the Rev. Dr. Robert Grisdale.

What became of them? Well their stories are very different.

Solomon decided that there were probably better opportunities for road building in the Cumberland town of Cockermouth than there were in rural Matterdale. He took his family there soon after 1905. A third child called Percy was born there in 1908, followed in 1919 by a daughter Edna. The family lived at ‘2 The Laurels’ until their death many years later. Would Solomon have known that just around corner the rather grand Cockermouth house now called Wordsworth House, where the poet William Wordsworth was born, had been bought with Grisdale money? I guess not.

Some of the 5th Battlion the Border Regiment in France

Some of the 5th Battlion the Border Regiment in France

Once Thomas was old enough he started to work with his father building roads. By 1915, when he was only 18, he had progressed to be an ‘Assistant Surveyor’. But Thomas had the misfortune to be born when he was. He was just coming to adulthood when the Great War broke out. Like countless millions of others throughout Europe, Thomas Grisdale volunteered to join the army. He enlisted in Cockermouth in the 5th Battalion of the Border Regiment on the 22nd November 1915. He had just turned eighteen. After some months training he was shipped from  Southampton to France on 6 May 1916. I won’t tell of Thomas’s military life here. Suffice it to say that he fought in many of the important battles of the Great War over the course of the next two years. After being wounded in September 1916 he spent some time recovering back in England, but he was soon back in the trenches in March 1917. After fighting at Paschendale, in March 1918 Thomas’s regiment found itself ‘based at Roisel, working on road and tramway construction and building large dug outs at Templeux’. This was unfortunate because this was where and  when the German army had planned a huge attack, now called the Kaiser’s Battle, which started on the 21st of March

On March 21, 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive against the British Fifth Army, and the right wing of the British Third Army. The artillery bombardment began at 4.40 am on March 21. The bombardment hit targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours…

Although the British had learned the approximate time and location of the offensive, the weight of the attack and of the preliminary bombardment was an unpleasant surprise. The Germans were also fortunate in that the morning of the attack was foggy, allowing the storm troopers leading the attack to penetrate deep into the British positions undetected.

By the end of the first day, the British had lost nearly 20,000 dead and 35,000 wounded, and the Germans had broken through at several points on the front of the British Fifth Army. After two days Fifth Army was in full retreat. As they fell back, many of the isolated “redoubts” were left to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the following German infantry. The right wing of Third Army became separated from the retreating Fifth Army, and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.

One of the 20,000 British dead on this one day was Thomas Grisdale. There is much more to tell, another time I hope. Thomas was buried at the Pozieres Memorial Cemetery in France. Back home in England he is remembered on the Cockermouth War Memorial and on the gravestone of his parents Solomon and Harriot.

Thomas’s younger sister Laura Grisdale never married and stayed in Cockermouth for the rest of her life. She died in Cockermouth in 2006, aged 101! She was for sure truly the last Matterdale Grisdale.

Cockermouth gravestone of the last Matterdale Grisdales

Cockermouth gravestone of the last Matterdale Grisdales

Some aspects of genealogical relatedness.

It might seem an odd question to ask, but are you your child’s cousin? The answer, perhaps rather surprisingly, is that you well might be. In fact if you go back far enough the chances are high that you are. The only question being how far back you have to go. Understanding why illustrates some interesting features of family history and history in general.

In an article in Family Tree magazine I wrote about how many ancestors we have. The fact is that the numbers don’t keep on doubling in each generation (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents etc), but rather at some point the number of our direct ancestors stops expanding and goes into steep reverse. The reasons for this have to with ‘cousin marriage’. Our ancestors married cousins of various degrees, and not just that but when they, just for example, married a second cousin they were most probably related in multiple other ways to their spouse as well, not just in one way.

One of the upshots of this is that any particular ancestor you have might be your ancestor several times over but via different routes. Your 6th great grandmother could be your direct ancestor by three or four quite separate routes. The frequency that this happens in your own family, and the timescale over which it happens, will depend to a large extent on whether your family came from a small, possibly remote, and certainly rather closed community, or not. The more cut-off or remote a community is, the more different degrees of cousin marriage would have been prevalent and thus the sooner in the past you are likely to find some people being your ancestors more than once by different routes.

Saxton's 1577 map of Lancashire. 'Meoles' is top left

Saxton’s 1577 map of Lancashire. ‘Meoles’ is top left

I’ll take one example from my own family. My paternal grandmother was called Mary Seddon. She came from a long line of farmers in the Lancashire parish of North Meols (pronounced Meals). The resort town of Southport developed there in the nineteenth century, but prior to this North Meols was for many centuries a small, isolated and very cut-off farming, fishing and smuggling community. There were only a limited number of families and they continually intermarried. These families included the Linakers, Blundells, Aughtons, Bakers, Hootons, Gregsons,  Rimmers, Abrams and Seddons; all of whom appear in my own family history. Indeed not only did these families marry each other, they also married within the same family, quite often first cousins with the same name! Nearly all the marriages were between cousins of some degree and involved several distinct relationships between the spouses. Because the community was so small and closed (people twenty miles away said they didn’t understand the accent), this inbreeding can quite readily be spotted in the records. Whereas with a family in a much larger or more open community, like a big city, this type of cousin marriage is likely to have been much less frequent and significantly harder to spot when it did occur.

On this side of my family I can clearly identify several cases where a direct ancestor is an ancestor by several distinct routes.

But what about a parent’s relationship with their child? Obviously you are your child’s parent by definition – the closest kinship relationship. Your own parents were your child’s grandparents and so on. Yet your child has another parent as well. It is because you might be related to your spouse or partner that your child can also be your own cousin. The ‘degree’ of the cousin relationship being determined by how far back you have to go till you and your spouse find common ancestors. With first cousins it’s quite clear. If you married your first cousin this means you share a common pair of grandparents. In turn this means that your child will be a first cousin ‘once removed’ of both you and your spouse.

In closed communities like North Meols where there were more often than not multiple cousin relationships between couples, then almost invariably any child will be a cousin of some degree of both of his or her parents – say a ‘2nd cousin once removed’.

Alberbury Shropshire

Alberbury Shropshire

In my own family this suggests that up until the time of my grandmother’s own parents (called Richard Seddon and Margaret Blundell), all parents and children in this line of the family were pretty certainly ‘cousins’. I can prove that this was the case. Yet North Meols did start to open up, and more and more people came in as Southport developed, including my Lewis family which arrived from Shropshire in about 1871. When my Southport-born grandfather married Mary Seddon and they had a son (my father), was he a cousin of some type of his own parents? In order for this to have been so my paternal grandparents’ lines would have needed to have crossed sometime back in history. Was there at some time a union between these lines of this Lancashire family and this Shropshire family? Over the period of time I can trace, roughly 400 – 500 years, I can’t see any such union, although it’s still possible. Yet if we were able to look further back into history we would very probably find some very ancient such union. While North Meols and western Shropshire were both pretty closed societies they weren’t hermetically sealed. But the fact remains that my father was not a cousin of his parents over any reasonable timescale. The same is even truer of the relationship between me and my daughter, because my wife isn’t even British.

What’s the answer for you? Is your child your ‘cousin’? If you and your partner come from the same small and relatively closed community then you very well likely are. You might not have to go back very far to prove this. If, however, you and your partner come from separate or much more open communities, or even from different countries, then any cousin relationship with your child would probably be only of immense antiquity or wouldn’t for all practical purposes exist at all.

Counting your ancestors

Posted: November 30, 2013 in Family History, Genealogy, History

This is the text of an article publish in Family Tree magazine in March 2013. A more extended version can be found here.

Tackling a numerical problem – just how many ancestors have we got and how on earth could we count them? Here Stephen Lewis explains how to make sense of a seeming paradox…

Almost everyone with an interest in family history and genealogy will at one time or another ask themselves how many ancestors they have. As we research our roots further and further back, the numbers seem to explode, and it starts to become incredibly difficult to keep track. What determines the number of your ancestors? What factors are at play?

An explosion of ancestors

On the surface the question of how many ancestors you have might seem simple to answer. After all you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and 16 great-great-grandparents do you not? Don’t you just need to do a simple mathematical calculation to work out the number of your direct ancestors who were living and breeding so many generations ago? The numbers surely just double in each generation: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on, forming a pyramid.

Using 1947 as a reasonable starting date and 30 years as the average inter-generational length, ten generations ago – which takes us back to the time of the English Civil War and to the early days of British settlement in North America – it seems we should all have had 1,024 eighth great-grandparents. You might also be interested in working out how many direct ancestors you might have had in total between a certain date in the past and now. You can just add up the numbers for each generation. Going back 10 generations (starting from your parents) the total is 2,046 direct ancestors.

But, as many will have noticed, there is a problem with this. If we calculate the numbers 30 generations ago, at about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, we would seem to have needed about 1.1 billion direct and distinct ancestors alive at that time, and in only one generation. Obviously this is impossible, as the total world population in the 11th century is estimated to have only been about 250 to 300 million.

So the number of our ancestors can’t keep on doubling as we go further and further back. Sooner or later the number of your ancestors must have stopped exploding and must have started to shrink, and shrink fast. What causes this so-called ‘Pedigree Collapse’ and what determines when it happens? Both questions are answered by understanding the nature and extent of cousin marriage, or inbreeding if you like; levels of migration and outbreeding influence this.

Cousin marriage

In some societies cousin marriage is either illegal or socially taboo. In England, even though Henry VIII abolished  restrictions on marrying ‘cousins’ so he could marry Catherine Howard (Anne Boleyn’s cousin), for centuries there have been both ecclesiastical and  other controls on marriage between family members. Today in the West, close cousin marriage is rare, although recently an Australian research scientist, Dr Alan Bittles, concluded that ‘slightly more than 10per cent of marriages worldwide are between people who are second cousins or closer’. In the past, not only was some degree of cousin marriage likely, it must have been extremely common. Without it we couldn’t even attempt to make sense of the development of human numbers over the centuries and millennia.

The first effect of cousin marriage is to reduce the rate of growth of the actual number of your ancestors, as compared to the theoretical maximum. If your parents were first cousins this means they shared one set of ‘duplicate’ grandparents and thus rather than them having the maximum of eight grandparents between them, they would have had only six. This is a 25per cent reduction in their grandparental ancestry, a reduction that goes back forever. Similarly, a marriage of second cousins would reduce numbers by one-eighth, or 12.5per cent, in each generation.

The problem is that no matter how high the historic level of individual first and second cousin marriage – and it wasn’t very high – although it will reduce the rate at which the number of your ancestors increases, it will never put the process into reverse. For example, using the completely unrealistic assumption that every single one of your ancestors married a second cousin, which would reduce the supposed number of your ancestors at the time of the Norman Conquest by a staggering 96per cent from the theoretical maximum of about 1.1 billion, it would still mean that your distinct direct ancestors (in one generation) alive at the time numbered about 4.4 million, still more than the estimated total British population. And this is without taking account of the fraction of the population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people alive at the time who had no descendants or whose descendant line died out.

Multiple relationships

It’s relatively easy to show that as the practice of individual cousin marriage increases your ancestor pyramid will narrow. Yet the total number will still keep on growing. It will never go into reverse. However such a reversal must have happened – both in total and for every single one of us. Simply put, the reason for the reversal is that when your ancestors married or bred with a cousin (of whatever degree) they very often also had more than one family relationship with their mate – sometimes many more.

Let’s use a very simple hypothetical example to elucidate this. Imagine again that your parents were first cousins, so they shared a common pair of grandparents. But they could also be second cousins as well, in which case they would also share a common pair of great-grandparents. The first cousin relationship would reduce the number of your ancestors in, for example, the fourth generation from 16 to 12. The addition of the second cousin relationship between them would reduce this number still further – from 12 to 10. As we go back in time, such multiple relationships between spouses proliferate. They might be second cousins twice over and third cousins or fourth cousins many times over. Such multiple relationships have an additive effect on the reduction in the number of your ancestors. The further you go back into your history the more likely you will find that this has been the case – in fact it is absolutely inevitable.

This is all mathematically, biologically and historically certain. With enough multiple relationships, with enough breeding between males and females who are related in multiple ways, the cumulative effect of removing duplicate ancestors will at some point eventually outweigh the doubling effect and the number of your discrete ancestors will start to shrink.

Try a thought experiment. Imagine a Mr and Mrs Crusoe washed up on a desert island. Any children they have will need to breed with each other – heaven forbid with their parents! Their children will all be first cousins. As the generations go by, all the couple’s descendants will become related to each other in multiple ways. If you are a descendant of the Crusoe family today and calculate the number of your ancestors, it will first quickly grow but eventually it will shrink back to just two – Mr and Mrs Crusoe.

Such an expansion and contraction in ancestor numbers is a phenomenon well known to breeders of pedigree dogs and horses. The shorter life span of these animals, plus the fact that breeders must keep detailed records, often enables them to clearly plot such pedigree collapses. Indeed these collapses often happen more than once. The main problem with applying this analogy to humans is that animal breeders are consciously trying to breed ‘pedigree’ animals; they are artificially and deliberately restricting the opportunities for dogs or horses to breed outside a very restricted group. Just as, in a similar way, the inhabitants of our hypothetical Crusoe Island have also been restricted in their breeding – by geographic separation.

Migration and outbreeding

So it is because humans historically have bred with people with whom they have multiple relationships that pedigree collapse happens. For any person or any country, when exactly the reversal in numbers happened is thus in the first instance determined by the level of inbreeding – how quickly the number of duplicate ancestors outweighs generational doubling. In England this reversal happened in the High Middle Ages, probably in the 1200s; for individuals or in other countries the timing can be different. But humans generally try to avoid incest or inbreeding. The extent that they can do so will mostly be determined by another factor: the available breeding pool. The people with whom our ancestors could breed was not limited to all those living in their village or even in their country. People moved; they migrated. Every time one of your ancestors moved into or out of one of their ‘ancestral’ areas, whether a few miles or hundreds or thousands of miles, they brought or took with them an untold number of ancestors of their own. These ancestors have become your own. If people hadn’t moved at all we would all be able to trace our lineage to one ‘Adam and Eve’ founder couple in the not too distant past, just like in the Robinson Crusoe example. The more your ancestors moved the further back in time your own pedigree collapse will be pushed.

What’s the answer?

So how many direct ancestors do you have? The answer, I’m afraid, is that you will never be able to calculate precise numbers. Reliable records just don’t go far back enough. The number might be more than you imagined, as the seemingly relentless doubling goes on. Yet we know that sooner or later their number will start to decline. It might be, though it is extremely unlikely in the time frames we have been considering, that your ancestry goes back to only one locale at a certain point in history or even to one ‘founder’ couple. But remember this: it has been shown that the human race went through at least one population bottleneck during its history. At certain times it appears that humankind almost went extinct. Scientists have suggested that around 70,000 years ago the total world population dwindled to only a few thousand Africans – the so-called Toba catastrophe. They are the ancestors of all of us.

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This article appeared in the September issue of Family tree magazine (see end)

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Genealogy is a fascinating thing. Trying to uncover all our ancestral lines can be a labour of love taking many years, even decades. It’s an endeavour that might never end and certainly we’ll likely never be able to solve all those little mysteries nor be able to be completely certain about each link in our family tree. The advent of the internet has helped a lot. Not only can we now quickly discover things online that previously would have necessitated repeated visits to local and national archives, but the internet can also link us with others with the same family interests – people with whom we can share research and information.

For some filling in the pieces of our family tree jigsaw-puzzle is enough in itself. Yet most of us soon start to become enthralled by the social and economic history of our family, even if we previously had no interest in ‘history’ as we might have been taught it at school. What was life like for one of our ancestors, or his/her family, at a particular time and in a particular place? Why did one of our ancestors emigrate? Why did so many children die young? We literally want to put some flesh on our forebears. We want in some small way to bring some of them back to life, perhaps for the first time in centuries.

How can we do this? How can we move from genealogy to family and social history? And, importantly, how can we communicate and share what we discover? As my old boss used to tell me: ‘There are many ways to skin a cat.’ What I‘d like to do is simply offer a few suggestions derived from my own efforts in researching and communicating the social history of parts of my own family. Some of the results can be found on my family history blog https://grisdalefamily.wordpress.com/.

First we need to make choices. We can only tell our family story in bite-size chunks. It’s simply not possible to tell the full story all in one go. All we’d end up with is a litany of births, marriages, children and deaths, i.e. a repetition of our ‘tree’. Or we’d spend a life-time trying to write the definitive book. Don’t agonize about these choices too much; go with your feelings. If you’re most fascinated by those of your ancestors bearing your own name then start there. On the other hand if you’re more interested in certain places where some of your ancestors lived then research that. Or perhaps start with just one person you’d most like to bring back to life.

How much flesh we can put on the lives of particular ancestors or families will of course vary. If they were rich or famous, if they emigrated, joined the church or accomplished heroic deeds then the records of their lives will likely be more extensive. But even if some or most of your ancestors left little trace of their lives, besides a few events and dates, you can still tell an interesting story.

A good starting point is to research geography. Physically what was the environment in which your ancestors lived? Was it a remote mountain community where people tended sheep? Was it a maritime port heaving with merchants, sailors and fishermen? Or perhaps it was an industrial town full of ‘dark satanic mills’? Try to find out what the physical environment was and how it changed and evolved, and why. Try to be precise. Where exactly was Douthwaite Head Farm in Cumberland? What did it look like? What surrounded it? What was a particular Lancashire cotton mill really like? How had the surrounding environment changed? Understanding the places goes a long way to understanding the lives of our ancestors.

Geography links to my second suggestion. Research what your ancestors did to make a living. The records might reveal that someone was a ‘Waller’, a ‘Chalker’ or a ‘Cotton Bleacher’. What did these occupations really involve day to day – in terms of travel, health, income and the precariousness of existence? Mariners by definition travelled far and wide, as did Wallers (though more locally), whereas ‘Yeoman’ farmers usually stayed put. You might have no personal records of your ‘Waller’ ancestor but you can still start to reconstruct their life from what is known of the lives of others with the same job.

The next thing to consider is the important fact of class. All societies at all times have been stratified. The rich and powerful try to hold on to their privileges and extend them wherever they can. The poor try to survive. The ‘middling-sort’ tries to move up or arrest a decline of their family. A family’s class and economic position and its dealings with other classes in the vicinity can tell us much about their likely lives, their hopes and their decisions. Were your ancestors forced to quit the land because of the centuries-long rapacious land enclosures in England, or the brutal highland clearances in Scotland? Who exactly was doing the enclosing or clearing and why? What were the consequences for your ancestors? Once you understand this you can often make sense of why, to use an example from my own family, a family moved from rural Cumberland to the Bolton cotton mills, emigrated to Canada or joined the military. People tend to make such big moves only when they have to. What pushed them to it?

All of these things: geography, work, class and economics play out at the local level. But it’s also interesting to try to place these events in a wider national or international context. One of my own family members became an army officer and died in Minorca in 1801. What in heaven’s name was the British army doing in Minorca? It turns out to be a very interesting story. Another joined thousands of other British people in the Australian gold rush in the 1850s. What was that all about? Yet another family member started life as a cotton bleacher in Bolton in Lancashire, became a missionary in India and ended up a bishop in the Canadian prairies. Researching this opened up the fascinating history not only of Britain and its empire but also the history of the Canadian West.

Such research will take you down paths you might otherwise never have ventured. The social, political and economic histories you discover will start to have a real relevance because they involved and affected specific people you know and care about. You don’t need vast libraries and certainly not historical training to do any of this; you can find most of what you need on the internet.

Let’s turn to communicating our family stories. Pure genealogical facts are only likely to be of interest to others with the same family interests. But, at least in my experience, if you research, write and communicate family and social history stories, these will find a much wider audience. Others will have ancestors who fought at Waterloo, became Australian gold-diggers or ended up in the mills. Writing and communicating your stories will also pretty invariably elicit responses from remote relatives all over the world, people who are often able to add to your knowledge of your own family.

What is the best way to communicate such stories? Again the internet comes to our aid. My suggestion is create a family history blog. My own choice was to use wordpress.com because it’s easy to create and use, but there are others. If you want your stories to resonate with a wider audience then craft them, don’t just write little snippets however fascinating they are for you. Weave together a narrative from what you know about the subject of your story and what you have discovered about geography, occupations and economic and political forces. If you have letters, military records or emigration/immigration information use these too. Pictures and quotes will help as well. Don’t get too hung up with having to ‘prove’ every statement you make. I wouldn’t want to recommend the old journalistic adage: ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’, but you are writing a story not defending a Ph.D. thesis. The English language is replete with ways to express the conditional, the uncertain and the conjectural. Finally, while some genealogical facts will no doubt need to be included, don’t clutter up your stories with too many of these at any one time. If you do you’ll soon lose the interest of many readers and, after all, you can always write another story!

When I started to research and write stories about my own family, not only did it open up vast areas of social and political history I had never thought about before, but it also elicited many unexpected, illuminating and often touching responses from all over the world. I am sure it will do the same for you.

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A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

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But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

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How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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As throughout much of its history, Britain at the end of the Napoleonic Wars was an unforgiving and brutal place for ordinary people trying to make a living.  Quite a number chose to emigrate to the New World, to find a better life. The life they found wasn’t always easy, it was often hard in the extreme, but their courage and fortitude often paid off, at least for their descendants. This is the story of one Matterdale man and his family who did just this: Wilfred Grisdale.

The area of North Monaghan in Ontario as Wilfred Grisdale might have first seen it

In the early nineteenth century much of Upper Canada was still a land of virgin forest and lakes. Of course there were natives Indians but in much of Ontario, for example, many of the forests had no settlements. When there was any path at all it was just, as early pioneer Charles Fothergill put it in 1817, “a windy way through the forest made by the Indians”.

One small piece of this vast land became the Township of North Monaghan, which is situated in the southwest corner of what is now known as Peterborough County.

The latest history of the township, published in 1990 by the North Monaghan Historical Research Committee and titled A History and Story of North Monaghan Township 1817-1989, says this:

Prior to 1817,  few humans had set foot on the Township soil or gazed from the Otanabee river at its heavily forested shores.

Although “a few tracks were testimony to the presence of Indian hunting parties in the past”.

But in 1817 the surveyor Samuel Wilmot had already completed the first survey of the area, the land being divided into lots to which early settlers would stakes claims. One of the very first 11 settlers in North Monaghan was a certain Wilfred Grisdale. In 1817, he staked a claim to Lot 4 (East ½) of concession number twelve.

Wilfred and his family are the founders of a veritable Grisdale dynasty in Canada and the United States.

Jenny Hill Farm, Matterdale. Wilfred Grisdale was (probably) born and raised here

Wilfred Grisdale was born in Matterdale in Cumberland in 1782, probably at Jenny Hill Farm. He was the fourth child of the old blacksmith in Dockray, Matterdale: also called Wilfred Grisdale, and his second wife Ruth Slee. Wilfred Senior had been born in 1711 to Joseph Grisdale and Agnes Dockray. He had married Ann Brownrigg in 1733 but the couple had no children. But when Ann died in 1775, Wilfred wasted no time in marrying again. He married a young Ruth Slee (48 years his junior) in 1776, at the age of 65. But children soon followed, six in all: Gideon, Charlotte, Bilhah, Wilfred, Joseph and William. It is this second Wilfred that is the centre of this story.

Wilfred was to marry Jane Bell in the village church of Hutton in the Forest near Carlisle, the Cumberland county town, on the 6th November 1803, aged 21. The family settled in Carlisle itself and seven children followed, all baptized in Saint Mary’s Church, Carlisle: Gideon (1804), Ann (1805), Wilfred (1807), Ruth (1809), James (1812), Jane (1810) and Joseph (1816).

I wrote about Wilfred’s brother Gideon and his ballet dancer daughter in my last article. For parochial interest, his brother William was my 3rd great grandfather.

In 1816, or in early 1817, Wilfred emigrated with his whole family to Canada to start a new life.

We don’t know the precise reasons for the family’s decision or which ship they travelled on to the “New World”, but the Carlisle newspapers of the time were full of advertisements trying to attract people to move to North America offering the prospect of land grants and assistance with the passage. Perhaps Wilfred was attracted by one of these?

Whatever the truth, Wilfred and his family arrived in North Monaghan in Upper Canada in 1817, perhaps following the route taken in 1825 by Peter Robinson who brought many Irish settlers to the area. Robinson had “sailed from Liverpool to New York and proceeded from thence to Toronto by way of Niagara”. Only later were more direct and less “roundabout” routes to Toronto available.

The settlers from the “Old Country” came by boat as far as Cobourg. From there some found their way by ox cart to Rice Lake and then by smaller boats to spots along the Otanabee River. Others walked, carrying their possessions, north through the forest by way of Port Hope.

Once there, there were two methods of staking a land claim:

By lot or by following the surveyors trails until a lot of land which pleased them was found. Taking note of the number and concession from the marked posts of the surveyors, they returned to Port Hope to make the required application to the land agent in order to secure their lot. During this expedition visit, one or more nights had to be spent in the forest.

Where having kindled a fire, they lay down to sleep beneath the branches of a group of trees, wearied and fatigued, and worse, perhaps wet and torn with the mishaps of the journey.

A Pioneer Settler House in Canada

Wilfred had to stake his claim. “The first requisite to procure land in those days was to take an oath of allegiance, on which a certificate was issued as evidence of the fact.” Usually no payment was needed due to the unsettled nature of the area. Once he had staked his claim in North Monaghan in 1817, the hard work began for Wilfred and his wife and young family: clearing the forest, building a rude wooden hut or “shanty” before the onset of winter and trying to grow or procure enough to survive.

We are lucky to have a book written by a Peterborough County man in 1867, called A Sketch of The Early Settlement and Subsequent Progress of the Town of Peterborough and Each Township in the County of Peterborough. This man was Dr Thomas W Poole and he had both experienced much of what he described or, for the very early settlement years, he had relied on first-hand accounts from the surviving first settlers. He writes:

The first settlers… encountered difficulties and privations of which we, in after time, can have but a faint conception. Unaccustomed as many of them were to the new scenes in which they found themselves placed; with scant provisions, and separated by long wastes of wood water from their fellow-kind, their situation, with their wives and little ones must have been at times appalling; and by less indomitable spirits, would have been relinquished in despair.

Wilfred Grisdale was one of these settlers and was, indeed, with his wife and “little ones”. Dr Poole continues the story:

During the first few years, great difficulties were often felt in procuring the necessary provisions with which to support life. These had to be brought all the way from Port Hope or Cobourg, in the most laborious manner, and in the total absence of even the most ordinary roads; the only guide being the “blaze” upon the trees through the interminable forest, in which they seems entombed. Under these circumstances, it is not to be wondered at that whole families were often for weeks without tasting bread, and that the herbs and succulent roots of the rich woods were often called into requisition to lengthen out their scanty fare.

But as Dr Poole tells us from the testimony of the settlers themselves:

Gradually the blue smoke from the settler’s shanty, and the tiny opening in the forest, began to appear here and there, at intervals, often of miles between… But the number of shanty fires gradually grew larger, as giant trunk and tender sapling groaned and fell beneath the sturdy strokes of the settler’s axe, then the huge heaps appeared, rolled together by united effort. The flames crackled and roared.

Far away into the gloom of the dark forest shot the gleam of the evening fires, which told that a conqueror had come, and that civilization and the luxuries of comfort and refinement were on the way to cheer and enliven these rude fastnesses of nature, and bid them smile with a new growth and a more prolific harvest. The first rude shanty gave way to a substantial and comfortable mansion. Flocks and herds increased; and as time progressed and the population grew, the rude wilderness became a comparative garden.

Mercifully during the first hard years in Canada all of the Grisdale children survived. Wilfred and Jane even had one more child called Maria born in North Monaghan in about 1822 – the first Grisdale of this family to be born on North American soil.

We can only hope that Wilfred and his wife were able to enjoy the fruits of their labour in the manner evoked by Dr Poole:

Well may the veteran pioneer pause now in the evening of his days and look around on the wonders wrought by time and industry. Proudly may he point to the spot where he first reclined beneath the spreading trees, wet with the morning dew, during that first visit to his future farm, and contrast the scene with the present, with its broad acres and cultivated fields, its neat farm houses and thriftly barns, which he expects soon to leave a rich heritage to his children.

I hope so.

The Grave of Maria Grisdale in Thorold, Ontario. Maria was the first and only Canadian born child of Wilfred Grisdale

We don’t know when Wilfred and his wife Jane died but we do know that his children soon started to move to, and settle in, other parts of Ontario (Upper Canada) as well as across the border into Michigan.

I won’t go into the marriages and children of Wilfred and Jane’s own children here because it would involve writing a book. For those who are interested, please refer to my own family tree on ancestry.com, mentioned in the “About” page of this blog.

What, however, is clear is that there are alive today in Canada and the United States literally hundreds and probably thousands of Grisdales (and others) who owe their existence to the decision of Wilfred and his wife Jane to leave Cumberland, where the family had lived for centuries, and to make the hazardous voyage to Canada to start a new life.

I hope some of Wilfred and Jane’s Canadian or American descendants will write some of the fascinating stories of their children.

Sources

North Monaghan Historical Research Committee, 1990,  A History and Story of North Monaghan Township 1817-1989.

http://www.ourroots.ca/e/page.aspx?id=911774

Thomas W. Poole M.D, Peterborough Review, Peterborough, 1867, A Sketch of The Early Settlement and Subsequent Progress of the Town of Peterborough and Each Township in the County of Peterborough.

http://books.google.fr/books/about/A_sketch_of_the_early_settlement_and_sub.html?id=orMNAAAAQAAJ&redir_esc=y

 

Robert Grisdale was born in 1664 (or possibly in 1667) in Matterdale in Cumberland; I will return to his family connections later. He was the founder of Matterdale School. The Trust deeds of the School were established in 1716 and the School itself opened for business in 1722 was a yearly endowment of £200 provided by Robert. By this time Robert had for many years been a clergyman at the church of Saint Martin in the Fields in London. How did he get there? What was his story? I can’t reconstruct it all, but at least a little of his life can be told.

In those days, as indeed is still the case today, you couldn’t just jump from a simple rural family, as the Matterdale Grisdales were, to the dizzying heights of being a clergyman in one of London’s most illustrious churches. You needed an education and a bit of luck.

Queen’s College Oxford in 1675

Robert entered Queen’s College in Oxford University in 1683, aged supposedly nineteen. In March 1689 he received his BA and by 1692 his MA. He later became a Fellow of the college and received his Doctorate in Divinity. It seems pretty clear that he must have attended the Free Grammar School in the nearby village of Barton in Westmorland. The school had been established by 1649 by Dr. Lancelot Dawes and Dr. Gerard Langbaine  and had many links with Queen’s College, Oxford – Dawes and Langbaine was both born in Barton and had both studied at Queen’s.

Rev Dr William Lancaster

The reason why I think it is pretty certain that Robert attended this school is because of his close association with Dr William Lancaster. William was born in 1650 the son of William Lancaster of Stockbridge in Barton. He had also attended Queen’s College and later on was to become its Provost and Vice Chancellor of the University. But for now the important thing to know is that for some time he was a school master of Barton Free Grammar School – a note in the Barton registers says that in 1669 William Lancaster “schoolmaster” became a Church Warden. A mean competitor was later to jibe that he had once been “a little petty schoolmaster in Westmorland”. Not only that, but when Robert entered Queen’s College in 1683 William Lancaster was teaching there. “In college, he became celebrated as tutor. From the beginning of 1686 till 1 August he was junior bursar, for the next four years he held the post of senior bursar.” Finally, William became Vicar of Saint Martin’s in the Field Church in London in 1692, and low and behold Robert Grisdale became a ‘clerk’  and curate there, a post he held until his death in 1723 (William died in 1717). I think it not unreasonable to summise the Robert was taught by William Lancaster at both Barton School and Oxford University and that it was William who gave him his post at Saint Martin’s in the Field. There are in fact many records in London linking the two men.

Robert married Phoebe King on the 29 October 1697 at Saint Martin’s Church in London. They had four children all born in London and baptised at Robert’s church: Elizabeth (1698) John (1700) Luke King Grisdale (1702), and Robert (1703). It seems that only Elizabeth survived. She gave a collection of theological books to Matterdale School in 1723 and is the only child named by Robert in his will in 1722. It seems she never married, so I think Robert’s line died out.

There is much more information available about Robert but one thing that has remained a mystery to those interested in Matterdale and the Grisdale family is: What is the connection of Robert to the other Grisdales of Matterdale in the seventeenth century? The problem is that there are large gaps in the Matterdale records around the time of his birth. Remember this is the time of the Civil War and the troubles afterwards. So there is absolutely no record of a birth of a Robert Grisdale in or about 1664 in Matterdale or elsewhere. This has led people to conjecture other birth dates and different parents. But I think several things can get us nearer an answer.

First there is Robert’s will. In his will his main concern is with his daughter Elizabeth but he also leaves money to Edward “my brother” and to his sister Mararget Judson and to the children of his sister Mary Judson. Now a Mary Grisdale married John Judson “of Askham” in Matterdale Church in 1699. They went to live in Askham and had several children. Mary died there in 1720. I think this Mary can only be the one baptized in Barton in 1677 – the daughter of  Thomas Grisdale – there is no other Mary Grisdale. Thus I think Robert’s father was a Thomas who had moved temporarily to Barton to be close to his son Robert in the Free School there.

Regarding Margaret Judson, I can find no record of a Margaret Grisdale marrying a Judson (but obviously she did). I think this Margaret was the one baptized in Matterdale in 1667  the daughter of Thomas Grisdale of Troutbeck.

Next there is Edward Grisdale, Robert’s brother. I can find no Edward Grisdale son of Thomas in Matterdale, however he was certainly Robert’s brother because not only is he stated as such in Robert’s will but an Edward Grisdale (of Douthwaite) is noted as being a brother in the 1716 Deed of Trustees of Matterdale School. So Edward remains a bit of a mystery? Although two of his children did move to London and had connections with Saint Martin’s in the Field!

Also added to the list of Matterdale Trustees is the note that William Wilson (Trustee) was the “nephew in law” of Robert. I take this to mean he was the husband of Robert’s niece. Now William Wilson married an Elizabeth Grisdale in 1722 in Matterdale. The only Elizabeth this could be is the one born to a Thomas Grisdale in 1699, again in Matterdale. If this is so it implies that Robert also had a brother called Thomas and if Robert’s father was Thomas as well then the brother Thomas was either born of a father Thomas in 1666 or 1672 (there are two listed in the Parish records). Perhaps Elizabeth’s father Thomas had died before Robert made his will in 1722?

Finally, in support of the idea that Robert’s father was a Thomas Grisdale is the entry in the much later record of Oxford University Alumni:

Robert Grisdale: Son of Thomas, of “Crostormount in Barton,” Westmorland, pp. Queen’s Coll., matric. 23 May, 1683, aged 19; B.A. 22 March, 1688-9, M.A. 1692; of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, clerk; licenced 29 Oct., 1697, to marry Phœbe King of same, spinster.

See London Marriage Licences, ed. Foster.

This clearly states that at the time of his marriage (maybe) Robert’s father was a Thomas. Crostormont is actually Cross Dormant, a farm in Barton! The fact that “Crostormont in Barton” is in quotation marks implies I think copying from Robert’s college entrance records.

But still there is no record of either a Robert or an Edward being born with a father Thomas at about the right date!

One other point is worth mentioning. The entry in the list of Oxford Alumni gives Robert as being 19 when he “matriculated” (i.e. entered) in 1783, implying a date of birth in about 1664. But this seems a bit old given the customs at the time. And in fact in one copy of Robert’s marriage records in 1697 his age is given as 30! This implies a birth year of 1667 not 1664. Maybe the “19” could have been “16”? Of course sometime approximate ages were given but his new wife Phoebe King was said to be 19 (exactly) so maybe Robert was actually 30.

So if Robert’s father was a Thomas as I am tending to believe, then who was his mother? Naming patterns are important. Robert named his only daughter Elizabeth and if he had a brother called Thomas (as I am suggesting) then this Thomas also named a daughter Elizabeth. So was Robert’s mother called Elizabeth?

One possibility is that the Thomas Grisdale who married an Elizabeth Atkinson in 1657 in Matterdale. But then again maybe this couple were the parents of Wilfred Grisdale the Brewer I discussed in an earlier article in this blog?

I would welcome other ideas.

Many of us are interested in where our families come from as well as who our ancestors were. What and where are our ‘roots’? Some of you might even have researched your genealogy or family history. Yet have you ever seriously considered how many direct ancestors you really have? Obviously it’s a lot, but how many? You might have even heard statements to the effect that all Europeans are descendants of Charlemagne in the eighth century or that all people of English ancestry are descended from 86% of the people living in England at the time of William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago. If you live in North America and have English or European ancestors the same questions apply. Indeed wherever you live and whatever your ethnic ancestry the questions of descent and ancestry are the same. This short article attempts, in a non-mathematical way, to answer or at least elucidate some of these issues.

Exponential growth – an explosion of ancestors?

On the surface the question of how many ancestors you have might seem simple to answer. After all you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents do you not? The number of your ancestors doubles every generation. Surely you just need to do a simple mathematical calculation to work out the number of your direct ancestors who were living and breeding so many generations ago? The numbers surely just double in each generation: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. They would a form a pyramid – with you at the top of course!

After 10 generations you ‘should have had’ 1,024 ninth great grandparents. When was ten generations ago? Throughout this paper I will assume that you were born in 1947 (such a date has been used extensively in population studies) and that the average length of a generation is 30 years (this is an average inter-generational length not the age at which our ancestors had their first child – which is lower). So ten generations prior to 1947 takes us back to the mid seventeenth century – to around the time of the English Civil War and to the early days of British settlement in North America.

You might also be interested in working out how many direct ancestors you might have had in total between a certain date in the past and now. You can just add up the numbers for each generation. For instance from the time of your great great grandparents you could have had 30 direct ancestors in total: 2+4+8+16=30. Going back ten generations the total is 2,046 direct ancestors.

If you have ever had an interest in family history and genealogy you will very likely have quickly discovered how the number of your own direct ancestors does seem to explode the further back you look. You might even, as I did, have had to buy a software package to keep track! So 1,024 direct ancestors going back ten generations might not seem too many.

Given the available records, being able to trace our family back ten generations, down every line, would for most of us be a notable achievement. But let’s extend our calculation yet further back – to twenty and thirty generations – a mere blip in our genealogical and genetic history. Twenty generations ago, in the mid-fourteenth century at around the time of the Black Death in Europe and about 150 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ America, a simple doubling of the number of your direct ancestors in each generation would imply that you had 1,048,576 nineteenth great grandparents at the time. In Britain at that time the total population was probably no more than three million – and that even before the Black Death reduced the population by a third or more. This suggests that if your ancestor numbers always doubled in each generation by the mid-fourteenth century they would account for one third of the total British population. A lot but not inconceivable.

But the number of people alive at any one time didn’t just consist of one generation. Depending on your own age you are likely to have parents and grandparents who are still alive and/or children and grandchildren of your own. So in any individual’s ancestry the number of his or her direct ancestors, in any generation, alive at a particular time is only a fraction of the total number of direct ancestors alive at that time. The precise fraction will vary from location to location and through time. It will also vary somewhat between different individuals’ ancestry. Overall for Britain over the last thousand years it has been estimated that the fraction of the total population comprising ‘one’ generation has been, in percentage terms, somewhere around 40%. Putting this another way, this means that on average in any individual’s ancestry there are about 2.5 ‘generations’ alive at any one time. I will use this assumption. But you should be aware that within reason the analysis that will follow would still be valid if we were to use even quite different assumptions. Looking back 20 generations to the mid-fourteenth century, if the maximum population of Britain at that time was, as mentioned, about three million, this means that there were only roughly 40% of this number, i.e. about 1.2 million people who could in fact have been your direct ancestors – compared to the 1,048,576 we theoretically need – still credible but only just.

So let’s see what the doubling of our ancestors leads to after 30 generations, i.e. going back to around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. After thirty generations we would seem to have needed 1.1 billion direct and distinct ancestors! Yes more than one thousand million direct ancestors at the time of William the Conqueror! Obviously this is impossible as the total world population in the eleventh century has been estimated to have been only about 250 to 300 million.

So the number of our ancestors can’t really have kept on doubling in an exponential manner as we go further and further back. Consider just one additional fact: it has been shown that the human race, homo sapiens, went through at least one population bottleneck during our history. At certain times it appears that humankind almost went extinct. Around 70,000 years ago scientists have suggested that the total world population dwindled to only a few thousand – the so-called Toba catastrophe. So sooner or later the number of your ancestors must have stopped exploding and had to have started to shrink, and shrink fast.

Such a phenomenon is called ‘Pedigree Collapse’, a phrase coined by Robert C. Gunderson. The mathematics of this are quite complex; I will attempt to explain what it all means without using maths. Essentially there are two interrelated reasons why the number of your direct ancestors does not keep on exploding and why their number will sooner or later start to contract. The first has to do with ‘cousin marriage’. When you look back at your ancestry you will find that again and again your ancestors married, or better said, bred with their ‘cousins’. This is not a conjecture, this is a fact. Although there will be much to say on the level of cousin marriage. Second, we need to understand the nature of the available ‘breeding pool’ that our ancestors had; and this means considering issues of migration.

The first factor, cousin marriage or inbreeding if you like, can help us explain why the number of your ancestors first grows and then will eventually shrink. The second factor, migration or ‘outbreeding’, helps us to understand why the onset of this narrowing and shrinkage is sometimes pushed farther back in time.

Inbreeding with your cousins

Nowadays we rarely marry or breed with a close relation. In some societies it is either illegal or societally unacceptable. In England since the time of Henry VIII there has been no law restricting who you can marry (remember he wanted to marry Catherine Howard and thus abolished religious consanguinity restrictions so that he could), but this is not the same everywhere in the world. In England today cousin marriage is very rare indeed, yet as we will see this was decidedly not the case in the past. In fact not only was ‘some form’ of cousin marriage likely, it had to have been extremely prevalent. Without it we couldn’t even attempt to make sense of the development of human numbers over the centuries and millennia.

The first effect of cousin marriage is to reduce the rate of growth of the actual number of our ancestors, as compared to the theoretical maximum.

Before we look at a simple example let me explain a little of the genealogical nomenclature involved. When you think of your cousin you are usually thinking of your so-called ‘first cousin’. This means that you and your cousin are related because one of your parents and one of your cousin’s parents are or were siblings. And that means that you share one common pair of grandparents. A second cousin just pushes the relationship back another generation. You and your second cousin share a common pair of great grandparents.  And so on through third, fourth and fifth cousins. In terms of relationships, we can even quite easily take into account such relationships as a ‘third cousin once removed’ or even various types of ‘half cousins’ or even, God forbid, intergenerational marriages with nieces and grandnieces etc. Mathematically and genealogically these relations can be expressed as the equivalent of first, second or more cousins. For example a third cousin once removed is mathematically equivalent to a fourth cousin.

So what happens to the number of your ancestors when cousins marry or breed? Let me build this up one step at a time. The first steps will no doubt be obvious, subsequent steps perhaps less so.

In the unlikely event that your own parents were first cousins we know this means that they shared a common pair of grandparents – this in turn means some of your ancestors are ‘duplicates’. Think about your own family for a minute.  Rather than your parents having the maximum of 8 grandparents they would in fact have had only 6! This is a 25% reduction in their grandparental ancestry – i.e. 6 is 25% lower than the maximum of 8. Now even if that were the only case of cousin marriage in your entire ancestry it would start to reduce the number of your distinct or non-duplicated ancestors. Starting from your great grandparents (‘Generation 3’ in the terminology I am using) your ancestors would double in every generation back from there. This means for you that you would have 6 great grandparents, 12 great great grandparents and so on. You can quickly see that the number of your ancestors decreases by 25% in each and every generation back from there. Note that for you this reduction, stemming from one unique first cousin marriage of your parents, only starts with the generation of your great grandparents. You still would have two distinct parents and four distinct grandparents but only 6 great grandparents.

On the other hand, if your parents were only second cousins the reduction in the rate of increase in the number of your ancestors would start one generation earlier and would be less severe. They would have a common pair of great grandparents. This means that you would have two parents, four grandparents and eight great grandparents, but only 14 rather than 16 great great grandparents. This is only a one eighth or 12.5% reduction. Such a one eighth reduction would then continue throughout your own ancestor line. Are you still with me?

But still the relentless doubling of the number of your ancestors would proceed apace, even if the start of the doubling is pushed back a generation or two. If your parents were first cousins then you would still theoretically have about 802 million distinct direct ancestors 30 generations ago, or 936 million if they were second cousins. Still far too many for it to be true. So I guess it’s pretty clear that the occasional marriage of cousins can’t explain the problem of ‘missing ancestors’.

Let’s take the next step and, perhaps rather extremely, assume that every single one of your ancestors married a second cousin. This seems extreme because historically the level of second cousin marriage was nowhere near as high. What would such 100% second cousin marriage mean for the number of your ancestors? Could this explain our conundrum of having too few ancestors? It turns out that it can’t. Remember than if your parents were second cousins this would lower the number of your distinct ancestors by one eighth in each generation – so you would have 14 great great grandparents rather than 16 and so on. Now if all your grandparents were also second cousins then rather than you having 28 great great great grandparents (i.e. 14 great great grandparents x 2) you would have only 24, that is one eighth lower than 28. Each generation reduces the number of your ancestors by one eighth and these reductions cumulate as we go back. Once we look back thirty generations to around the time of the Norman Conquest, although 100% second cousin marriage reduces the actual number of your direct ancestors by a staggering 96% from the theoretical maximum of over about 1.1 billion, it would still mean that you should have had about 4,356,616 distinct direct ancestors (from one generation) alive at the time! Still well more than the estimated total British population – even without taking account of the fraction of the population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people alive at the time who had no descendants or whose descendant line died out.

To recap so far: I have tried to demonstrate without using any complicated mathematics that the number of your direct ancestors does not double every generation. This is because they tended to marry, or at least breed with, their own relatives. Visualize if you can your own ancestor pyramid. One or a few marriages of cousins (of whatever degree) will have the effect, from a particular point on, of narrowing the pyramid of the number of your ancestors. It will not however stop the inextricable increase in their number. The pyramid starts to become narrower, more pointed, but it’s still a pyramid. Not only that, even though the growth in the number of your ancestors can slow down very fast, for example if all your ancestors married second cousins, it still wouldn’t go into reverse.

So no matter how much individual cousin marriage there was in your ancestry this doesn’t on its own seem to be able to explain why, when you go back far enough, you always seem to need more ancestors than there were people in the country, on the planet or even more than the number of people who have ever lived! Yet we know that sooner or later the number of your ancestors needs to start to stop increasingly, even at a slower pace, and needs to go into reverse and start (quickly) declining. At some point in history the number of your ancestors absolutely must contract.

The reason why the pyramid becomes a diamond is that when your ancestors married or bred with a cousin (of whatever degree) they also very often had more than one cousin relationship with their spouse – sometimes many more.

Let’s use a very simple hypothetical example to elucidate this. Imagine again that your parents were first cousins, so they share a common pair of grandparents. But they could also be second cousins as well, in which case they would also share a common pair of great grandparents. As we have seen, the first cousin relationship would reduce the number of your ancestors in Generation 3 from 8 to 6 and in Generation 4 from 16 to 12. The addition of the second cousin relationship between them would reduce the number in Generation 4 further – from 12 to 10. As we go back in time such multiple relationships between spouses proliferate. Spouses might be second cousins twice over and third cousins and fourth cousins three times over for example. Such multiple relationships have an additive effect on the reduction in the number of your ancestors. The further we go back into your history the more likely you will find that this has been the case – in fact it is absolutely inevitable. At least intuitively for now I hope you can see that with enough multiple relationships, with if you like enough inbreeding, the cumulative effect of removing duplicate ancestors will at some point eventually outweigh the doubling-effect and the number of your discreet ancestors will start to shrink. The pyramid will at some point become a diamond.

Again without using mathematics, one way to illustrate the effect of such inbreeding on the number of your ancestors is to stop thinking about going back in time and consider a hypothetical example moving forward.

Imagine a Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe abandoned on a remote desert island many centuries ago. (You could name them Adam and Eve if you want). This might seem a very unlikely example, but history and genetics is riddled with such so-called ‘founder events’. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe enjoyed their new environment and happily produced several healthy children. Let’s imagine they produce four children who live to sexual maturity, two girls and two boys. Of course, unless these children want to mate with one of their parents (which is not out of the question) they will need to pair up with each other – possibly (though not necessarily) monogamously – one boy with one girl. All these children’s children will now be first cousins. They will share the same grandparents. Subsequent generations will all be second, third and fourth cousins and so on.  Not only that but as time passes they (the breeding couples) will all be related to each other in multiple ways. Ignoring for the moment the fact that such an inbred family would after some generations quickly start to show genetic degeneration, similar to various Royal families, Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe could have thousands upon thousands of descendants – indeed theoretically they could have millions of descendants after 30 generations. Take any one of these descendants and you would find that his or her ancestry would, by mathematical logic, have at first expanded and then contracted to only two – Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe themselves. This is an unavoidable fact and is, as we have seen, due to the cumulative effects of inbreeding. I think that you might also notice from this illustrative example that the expansion and subsequent contraction in ancestor numbers can even happen more than once. All Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe’s thousands if not millions of descendants would be able to prove that the number of their direct ancestors first increased and then fell to just two. But as the ‘founder’ couple themselves had many ancestors of their own (unless you literally believe in Adam and Eve) then the numbers would start growing again; before reversing yet again as the effects of multiple inbreeding kicked in again, and so on. But that would take us further back in time than I can consider in this short essay.

In the real history of Britain there were certainly many founder effects similar to the Robinson Crusoe example, but most of them happened thousands of years ago in the period after the end of the last Ice Age when Britain started to be repopulated from a number of Ice Age refuges. Once a decent size British population was again established such genealogical (as opposed to older genetic) founder effects were rare.

Given the many gaps in the available genealogical records, and the fact that in Britain systematic records of births, marriages and deaths only started in the sixteen century and only achieved a reasonably full coverage a century or so later, it would be extremely hard, and in most cases impossible, to demonstrate for your ancestors or mine when exactly your ancestor ‘pyramid’ reversed to become a ‘diamond’. As I suggested earlier, accurately tracing your ancestry back to the middle of the seventeenth century (i.e. 10 generations from 1947) following only some of your lines is itself a major achievement. Doing it with any certainly along all your lines is for most of us impossible. To the extent that you have managed to do so you will have undoubtedly found that some families keep marrying each other. But can you precisely identify all the cousin relationships? More importantly, can you always spot when some of your ancestors in a particular generation were the same people? To the extent that you can then you could also probably show how the rate of increase in the number of your direct ancestors had already started to slow down somewhat over the last three hundred years, but it is very unlikely that you could demonstrate an actual shrinkage in ancestor numbers over such a period – although it is theoretically conceivable that there was one. The major problem is that 10 generations isn’t very long in genealogical terms and it’s only a blink of the eye in genetic terms.

Over a longer generational time-span we can illustrate how inbreeding will lead to pedigree collapse by considering the case of breeders of pedigree horses and dogs. Because both horses and dogs both live much shorter lives than humans and start to breed at a much earlier age, breeders of ‘pedigree’ animals often have detailed ‘stud books’ recording parentage – sometimes going back thirty generations or more. They are therefore often able to definitively and graphically demonstrate how pedigree collapse has played out. Not only how ancestor numbers first expanded and then contracted but also how this can happen more than once. Such studies demonstrate unequivocally that inbreeding on its own, if severe enough, can and will lead to pedigree collapse.

The main problem with applying this analogy to humans is that animal breeders are usually consciously trying to breed pedigree animals; they are artificially and deliberately restricting the opportunities for dogs or horses to breed outside a very restricted group. Just as in a similar way how the inhabitants of our hypothetical Robinson Island have also been restricted in their breeding – by geographic separation.

Migration and outbreeding

How could this narrowing of the ancestral base have been attenuated? To put it another way, how could the available ancestor pool have been increased between the present day person and Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe, so that their descendant alive today has more than just two ancestors thirty generations back? Here we have to address the issue of the available ‘breeding pool’ at different points in the past – and how migration leads to outbreeding.

Perhaps some time over the past few hundred years another man or woman arrived by canoe on Robinson Island and bred with one or more of the people there. Or perhaps a Viking came and raped someone. The immediate effect would have been to expand the number of actual ancestors represented in the Robinson Island population. Every time this happened the number of ancestors for the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe would have increased significantly. If an immigrant came from Africa or a Viking from Scandinavia he or she would inject the genealogical inheritance of countless people in Africa or Scandinavia. Every such immigrant or migrant adds considerably to the pool of collective ancestor diversity and the numbers of possible ancestors of future generations.

Every time that one of my or your ancestors moved, into or out of one of their ‘ancestral’ areas, whether a few miles or hundreds or thousands of miles, they brought or took with them an untold number of ancestors of their own. These ancestors have become your own. If people hadn’t moved at all we would all be able to trace our descendants to one ‘Adam and Eve’ founder couple in the not too distant past, just like in our Robinson Crusoe example.

In the British or English examples I used earlier I was implicitly assuming that the total available pool of a British person’s ancestors was limited, throughout the generations and within a particular generation, to all the people alive in Britain. Of course this is not necessarily true. It might be that the available breeding pool of your family was less than this or more than this. For any individual’s ancestry this will depend on how often and how far your ancestors tended to move from their ancestral homes. If for many centuries your ancestors really were somehow hermetically sealed within a closed community (a walled village or district similar to Robinson Island) then the narrowing of your ancestor pyramid could have been quite fast and it might be that their numbers started to shrink sometime in the last few hundred years. In reality, however, such a degree of cousin marriage, and therefore resultant inbreeding, was probably quite rare. 

I’ll try to illustrate this by referring to my own ancestry. I am English. In fact I am so English it is somewhat embarrassing. For at least 400 years that I know of, my ancestors almost all originate from very specific locales in the English counties of Shropshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Norfolk. During all this time I had no known ancestor who came from outside the British Isles – and just a few from Wales plus a couple from Scotland and Ireland. The great majority of my ancestors were born and were raised in a very limited number of specific areas – a village or a few villages. For hundreds of years most of them married others from within only a few miles radius. Generally of course couples married in the parish of the woman; but they tended to live thereafter in the husband’s home. But move they did. They had access to a breeding pool much larger than that available to the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe. In fact from time to time they moved further away. Why else would my own family (and probably yours too) originate from several places? In the 19th century my ancestors moved from Norfolk, Shropshire and Cumbria to Lancashire, to join other ancestors already settled there since at least the 17th century.

If I were able to go back another ten or twenty generations and identify all the connections, it’s pretty clear that because people moved I would find some of my ancestors from nearly everywhere in Britain (or at least England) and probably quite a lot from abroad as well. Although there is a lot more to be said on the issue of migration, I think for now it is true to say that even for an English person such as myself, having recent ancestors from only a few specific and limited locales, over say a thousand years my ancestral’ breeding pool’ did probably encompass the whole of the country and possibly some of Europe as well.

When did the reversal in ancestor numbers happen?

There is a general rule involved here, based on the mathematics of genealogy and demographics:

When and how the number of your direct ancestors stops growing and starts to shrink is determined by the  interplay of the cumulative negative effects of inbreeding and the positive effects of expanding the ‘breeding pool’ – via migration or so-called outbreeding.

How do these two opposing forces play out in reality? More particularly at what point in history did this inevitable reversal in the number of ancestors happen – in your family and in general?

Over a period of about ten generations in my family tree I can certainly notice that I had some ‘duplicate’ ancestors because of cousin marriage, and there are surely many more I haven’t spotted. Yet I think it is clear that over this ten generation time period the degree of inbreeding in my family was is no way large enough to have had a very significant effect on the dramatic increase in my direct ancestor numbers, and it certainly wasn’t enough to reverse the process. 

But let’s look at the numbers again. Depending on our assumptions regarding generational length, historic population numbers, the percentage of a population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people who have left no descendants, then at some point in Britain or England, probably in the High Middle Ages as we shall see, the cumulative effects of inbreeding must have become large enough to reverse the tendency for anyone’s ancestors to double in each generation. As I demonstrated earlier, this can be seen by the simple fact that at about this time the maximum number of an English or British person’s direct ancestors would exceed the possible pool of their ancestors in the country.

At this point I would like to highlight one of the seminal articles on this subject, called Ancestors at the Norman Conquest, published in 1980 by Kenneth W Wachter, a Berkeley statistician and demographer. Wachter assumed that ‘England’ was a closed society, with basically no international immigration. He uses the example of a hypothetical, strictly English, person born in 1947 (let’s please not open a debate on what ‘English’ means) and assumes an intergenerational length of thirty years. He then makes some assumptions about the average degree of cousin marriage based on an analysis of his own family tree – such cousin marriage being in fact quite rare. He then uses these assumptions in a mathematical model which calculates a probability distribution for the actual numbers of distinct (or unique if you like) ancestors in each generation. Such distributions obviously have an average or ‘mean’ value. He could then compare this average number with both the theoretical maximum number of any individual’s ancestors (i.e. the simple doubling in each generation) and the estimated total population in England at different points in time. The results are illuminating to say the least.

For example, even 15 generations ago in 1527 the mean calculated number of distinct ancestors is still 31,438, not much less than the theoretical maximum of 32,768, and only about 1.5% of Wachter’s estimated English population of 2.2 million at the time. To put this in another way, fully 96% of this person’s ancestors in the 15th generation are distinct people and only 4% are duplicates or ‘non-distinct’. This seems to accord quite well with my earlier observations regarding my own ancestry. But then something peculiar starts to happen.

Going back only five more generations (to Generation 20), or to about the year 1377, the number of distinct ancestors has grown enormously, to 628,576, but this is now ‘only’ 60% of the theoretical maximum of 1,048,576 – meaning that 40% of the theoretically available ancestor ‘slots’ are now duplicates or better said non-distinct. Also if the English population at the time was about 2.25 million as Wachter assumes (remember the Black Death decimated the English population starting at about this time) then this individual’s ancestors in 1377 (and only in one generation) now account for fully 28% of the total population alive at the time.

25 generations ago, in about 1227, this individual would seem to have 2,012,114 distinct ancestors; or 80% of the estimated English population of 2.5 million. Not only that but only about one sixteenth of his/her ancestors are distinct people, this rest are at least duplicates.

Going back 30 generations to around 1077, to just after the Norman Conquest, we saw earlier that the maximum number of ancestors in that one generation was just over one billion (i.e. 1,000 million). Wachter’s model calculates that this individual would have 952,279 distinct ancestors in 1077 – only around 0.09% of the maximum but representing fully 86% of the total estimated English population of 1.1 million. This is ultimately the basis for the assertion highlighted at the beginning of this essay that everyone with English ancestry today is descended from 86% of people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror.

In terms of the theme of ‘Pedigree Collapse’, the important point to notice is that between 1227 (i.e. generation 25) and 1077 (generation 30) the number of distinct ancestors more than halved, from just over two million to just under one million – and that means precisely and unequivocally that the ‘pyramid’ became a ‘diamond’! In his model the reversal point takes place somewhere around 1200. So even with an extremely modest level of historical cousin marriage this model clearly shows that such marriages of relatives will first narrow the pyramid and then put it into reverse – i.e. it clearly demonstrates the phenomenon of Pedigree Collapse.

You might ask, as I did, how can this be so? I showed earlier that even if every single one of your direct ancestors married a second cousin this couldn’t explain the seeming lack of ancestors. By 1077, under this scheme of 100% second cousin marriage, you should still have had around 4.3 million ancestors, way more than the population at the time. So how is it that with only very limited assumed cousin marriage Wachter’s model reduces the number of distinct ancestors to just under one million over the same period? The answer is logically (and mathematically) the result of the cumulative effects over many generations of the effects of multiple cousin relationships between couples. After a few hundred years these cumulative effects really start to bite – the remorseless effect of knocking out potential ancestor ‘slots’ does actually outweigh the generational doubling. The problem with the hypothetical 100% cousin marriage example wasn’t that the assumption was unrealistic (which it was) but rather that each marriage was independent and had only one effect on the number of ancestors, whereas in fact it would likely have had many.

Just as an aside, according to anthropologist Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, in his 2011 book The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, it is in fact likely that 80% of all marriages in all of history have been between second cousins or closer. In the context of our present discussion, and for now, I take this to mean not that during the time period we have been considering (and this is important) more than 80% of couples really were second cousins or closer (which they weren’t) but that the cumulative cousin relationship effect was equivalent to this.

In a very interesting and informative series of popular articles, based partly on Kenneth Wachter’s analysis, Brain Pears, a genealogist and physicist, argued that in general ‘the number of ancestors in any generation will be little different from that obtained by our simple doubling scheme’, (mitigated only slightly by a relatively modest level of cousin marriage) back to a point, around 1300 in his analysis, at which you are descended from almost everyone alive in the country at that time. He argued that further back from there the number of your ancestors would then have followed the (declining) total population (to be strict the total population per generation). Given the evidence for the limited degree of cousin marriage in Britain or England over the course of the last few hundred years, and even allowing for the fact that it no doubt was more prevalent further back in history, this would seem a reasonable conclusion.

However, a point worth highlighting is that this ‘reversal point’, in about 1200 in Wachter’s model, can only have happened because of inbreeding, there in no other mechanism – notwithstanding periodic bouts of the Plague. Pears states: ‘I accept that every couple will be related distantly many times over but not to anything like the extent necessary to limit the number or distribution of our ancestors significantly – it would only affect the timing. As we go back through the generations the number and distribution of ancestors will always increase until they cannot increase further. That limitation occurs when the ancestry encompasses the whole population. In earlier generations we would expect the number of ancestors to follow the population size.’ But again remember that the reversal of the pyramid to a diamond can only happen due to inbreeding, indeed being ‘limited by population size’ and ‘inbreeding’ amount to exactly the same thing. In fact assuming only limited cousin marriage (as we all do) but not accepting the cumulative effects of multiple relationships would leave us, I suggest, in a tricky position. If our ancestors really did keep on ‘nearly’ doubling until a ‘population limit’ was reached, then when that limit is reached what then? Wouldn’t we need a sudden and massive change in the pattern of inbreeding from very little to enormous to put the trend in the number of our ancestors into reverse? I don’t find this credible. In fact Wachter’s model clearly showed that before the point of reversal our ancestor pyramid had already narrowed enormously. For example, by the year 1227 the width of the bottom of the pyramid after 25 generations (when the number of distinct ancestors reaches a peak) is only one sixteenth as wide as if would be if doubling or near doubling had occurred!

Conclusions and what about our descent from Charlemagne and so on?

So how many direct ancestors do you have?

The answer is I am afraid that you will never be able to calculate a precise number. On the one hand the number might be more than you imagined, as the seemingly relentless doubling goes on. Yet on the other hand we have seen that sooner or later your ancestor numbers will start to decline. It might be, though it is extremely unlikely in the time frames we have been considering, that your ancestry goes back to only one locale at a certain point in history or even to one ‘founder’ couple.

At the beginning of this article I highlighted just two of the many bold assertions that have been made about our ancestry: such as that everyone in Europe is probably descended from Charlemagne and that every person in England can trace their ancestry to 86% of the people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror. Are such claims really true? For 100% of the people presently living in either Europe or England today they are obviously not. For example many English or Europeans are very recent, or even first generation, immigrants – from Asia or Africa and elsewhere. Even though everybody’s lineage will have significantly reduced at some point in the not so distant past because of inbreeding, it is not mathematically self-evident that every English person will be descended from 86% of people in England at the time of William the Conqueror nor that not every European is descended from Charlemagne. Even if we ‘exclude’ such recent immigrants from our analysis and only consider ‘indigenous’ English or Europeans (whatever that might mean) such descent is still not completely certain in every single case, though it has to be said that it is highly probable. Such statements are about probabilities and averages not certainties!

Let’s finish by returning to the question of migration and our supposed common descent from Charlemagne. England, Britain or any other country are obviously not, nor ever were, ‘closed’ or hermetically sealed countries such as the hypothetical Robinson Island. People always moved ‘internationally’ – although the concept of ‘international’ becomes anachronistic as we go further back. At any point to the extent that international migration took place it would have had the effect for any individual we are concerned with today of increasing his or her pool of ancestors. As the whole science of ‘Small World’ networks shows us it only takes a few ‘long leaps’ to connect us in fact with the rest of the world – hence the term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. So without being able to explore this issue further here (maybe another time) because breeding across borders (i.e. migration) happened over the 1,200 years separating us from Charlemagne it is quite conceivable that the bulk of people in Europe might be able to ‘claim’ ancestry from him.

So overall and ‘on average’ it has to be maintained that both these statements are probably true! We are all much more related than we might think.

But let’s look at things another way. If you or I are indeed descended directly from Charlemagne then we are also inevitably descended from his gardener and cook as well. Maybe one of our zigzagging lines will take us back to Charlemagne, but 99.99% or more of our ancestry lines will show that we descend from countless numbers of simple, poor and exploited people – living in Europe around the year 800. People who ploughed the fields, built the ships, served in the armies or simply looked after their families. Whether we want to highlight the one or the many of our ancestors is a personal decision. For me what I find inspiring and humbling is that the vast majority of my ancestors were just simple people trying to make a living as best they could and trying to care for their families – often in the face of severe economic, social and political exploitation and repression. That they managed somehow to do so well enough so that I came into the world is, I would suggest, a testament to the greatness of human perseverance and the human spirit.

Sources

Kenneth W. Wachter, Ancestors of the Norman Conquest, in Genealogical Demography, ed. B. Dyke and W.T Morrill, Academic Press 1980; Brian Pears, Our ancestors, conceptions, misconceptions and a paradox, The ancestor paradox revisited and The ancestor paradox yet again,(available on internet); Douglas L. T. Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 2003; Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, Harvard 2011.

In an earlier article entitled ‘ Old Soldiers don’t always fade away’, I wrote about one of my own ancestors: Levi Grisdale.

See: https://grisdalefamily.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/208/

This was picked up by Who do you think you are? magazine. They interviewed me and wrote about Levi in the latest edition: