Family associations

My grandfather in Topsfield with his sister Margaret and son Charles, December 1953.

Here I don’t mean surname associations or descendant groups — I mean a family’s association with a place. This concept is on my mind as my father prepares to sell his house, built 27 years ago on land that his parents had bought back in the 1920s. For that matter, my paternal grandfather[1] was born in a house his parents built and on a piece of land that had (already, in 1898) been in the Steward family for about 150 years.

Sad to say that neither my great-grandparents’ house nor the older John Steward Homestead still exist. Both outlived their perceived usefulness, and the land on which they stood (in Goshen, New York) was developed into a highway exit almost 60 years ago. Stewards had lived on the Goshen place for 220 years at that point; the first were my grandfather’s great-great-great-grandparents John Steward (1715?-1770) and his wife Elizabeth Bradner. While a later John Steward left Goshen for New York City about 200 years ago, the country property remained in the family for another 140 years — my grandfather was born there, and his father,[2] paternal grandmother,[3] and paternal great-grandmother[4] all died there, despite their usual residence in Manhattan.

The John Steward Homestead in Goshen.

My grandfather came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard, and, having married a Boston girl, he stayed. His siblings scattered, to California, to Manhattan, to the diplomatic corps, and to Italy. By the time the Steward houses in Goshen were facing demolition, he was well-established in Topsfield, on the North Shore of Boston. Indeed, during the last years of the Goshen houses, my grandparents, parents, and uncle and aunt each had a house on the property my Steward grandparents bought following their wedding in 1927. Even if bidding on the Goshen land had been a possibility, their new roots in Massachusetts were already well-established.

The Steward family in Goshen, December 1928. My grandfather stands at far right.

I was born in Boston, but for the first nine years of my life we lived in Topsfield. (Even when my parents separated, my father moved into a former garage building belonging to his brother, originally a part of my Ayer great-grandparents’ property in nearby Hamilton.) Later, my father moved to Manchester, on the coast, until, following my grandfather’s death, he inherited my grandparents’ house in Topsfield.

My grandparents' stable land, where my father built his new house.

He decided not to move into his parents’ house, and sold it, reserving several acres next door on which to build a new house. If my grandparents’ house was where we spent most Christmases between 1962 and 1990, my father’s new house next door was the locale for Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings from 1994 until 2019, the last year we could all gather before the pandemic. So, again, for much of my life, two houses on Asbury Street have been family centers, where my father’s two brothers and three stepbrothers — and their growing families — could be expected during the holiday.

This year, for the usual reasons — and those unique to this pandemic time — we won’t gather at my father’s house for a family meal. (We will, however, be preparing to vacate the house — a different sort of festivity!) I still can’t quite believe it, that I won’t get in the car with bags of presents to drive the familiar route to Topsfield. I wonder how my grandfather felt, the first time he didn’t make the trip to Goshen, or later, when his parents’ house sold, or later still, when it was demolished. There is a void, with the loss of this collection of bricks and mortar, and while I am fortunate to have many photos of these houses, both at Christmas and at other times, the physical loss of those rooms where we all once gathered makes an absence in fact and in spirit.

It is a coincidence that this festive time of year will be marked by the end of one chapter in my family’s life. There is a lot to celebrate, and memory can do much. The loss is a bit like a phantom limb, though, and I hope that the balance at Christmas will trend toward joyous memory rather than sad reminiscence. We have had about 280 years in just two (main) places, and one day soon all those associations will reside firmly in the past.

I think that’s worth a toast.


[1] Gilbert Livingston Steward (1898-1991) was married to Anne Beekman Ayer 1927-47 and to Victoria Tytus Coolidge in 1951.

[2] Campbell Steward (1852-1936) married Margaret Atherton Beeckman in 1885.

[3] Catharine Elizabeth White (1818-1867) married John Steward in 1841.

[4] Martha Jackson (1787-1820) married John Steward in 1811.

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward