Cutting loose

Elbridge Gerry. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums via Wikipedia

Reading Chris Child’s last post inspired me to look at some of my own patriotic connections among ye olde branches. Unfortunately, most of what I find are the same mythic characters and stories I’ve looked at before, and those contain little to no proof. I tend to discover individuals and/or “stories” that (only) might connect my family to patriotic acts or kinfolk. As with any aspect of genealogy, discerning what’s real (patriotic or otherwise) or that which boils down to wishful thinking can be tough. Because of this, I figured it might be a good time to attempt some of what I like to call family history “myth-busting.”

One of those connections (and potential myths) is a naming tradition found in my Clark family. If the myth “holds true,” it’s a connection that links those lines to the fifth vice president of the United States, Elbridge Gerry.[1]. Discerning the truth here though may take some heavy “gerrymandering” to find what’s really behind this family legend.[2]

In the Clark family, the name “Elbridge Gerry” has been a popular one. Indeed, naming babies after this vice-president and governor of Massachusetts was a popular choice for not only the Clarks but for many other early nineteenth-century families. By rough estimate, at least 10 “Clark” baby boys were named some variation of “Elbridge G. Clark” between the years 1800 to 1820 in the state of Massachusetts alone.[3] My particular Clark line contains at least two early nineteenth-century native sons named “Elbridge Gerry Clark.”[4]

Distinguishing between the different men called “Elbridge Gerry Clark” among the various Clark branches is also a challenge. Massachusetts birth records even show (what looks to be) two “Elbridge Gerry Clarks” born the same day, March 10, 1810. However, the possibility of my Clark family connection to the father of gerrymandering isn’t limited to distinguishing the persons saddled with some ill-defined nomenclature among the Clark men. My problem has been unraveling just how “my” particular “Elbridge Gerry Clark”[5] came to be called so in the first place.

I first encountered Elbridge Gerry Clark in the Patten genealogy.[6] “Elbridge Clark” was the third son of my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, John Clark and Prudence (Merritt) Clark. His birth is recorded in Spencer, Worcester County, Massachusetts on March 10, 1810, where his parents are named.[7] This record is consistent with the information on the family in the Patten genealogy and elsewhere. While not the best source for citations, the Patten genealogy is a decent compilation of anecdotal Clark family history and lore. Written in 1990, it relates the tale about why “Elbridge was named Elbridge,” but can read as if it were written alongside those flattering genealogical tomes of the 1880s. While providing some clues, the statements made about the naming of Elbridge Gerry Clark really just don’t seem to go anywhere:

Using a broad paint stroke for proof, it’s clear that “an in-law of the Merritt family” means just about anyone who ever married a Gerry, Clark, or Merritt. A look at the generations surrounding these families led to no clear connection between the father of gerrymandering and my own “Uncle Elbridge.” It’s also difficult to discern “which Elbridge was which” among the entirety of the Clark clan. With two men named “Elbridge Gerry Clark” born on the same day in Massachusetts, it’s conceivable that the author of Patten genealogy mixed up our Uncle Elbridge with someone else’s. While the Patten genealogy is specific in that he was “an in-law of the Merritt family,” I think it’s safe to say I’m gonna need a whole lot more proof.

The next mention of my “Uncle Elbridge” is found in History of LaSalle County, Illinois and is almost as cryptic as the last.[8] In this next passage, the relationship is narrowed down a bit further. This particular “Elbridge” story loses any family surname connecting the Gerry family to the Clarks. It is, however, filled with other interesting clues that might solve (or debunk) the myth of Elbridge. Most notably it refers to the vice president as “the uncle” of Elbridge Gerry Clark, but the relationship is still not clear:

The phrase “Elbridge Gerry Clark was named after his uncle Elbridge Gerry” doesn’t indicate which generation “that uncle” came from. While it is easy to assume that this uncle was possibly his mother’s brother-in-law, it’s just as easy to consider that “his uncle, Elbridge Gerry” was a relationship connected to a senior member of his father John Clark’s family and not his mother’s relative at all. Further, Elbridge Gerry Clark may have been named after someone who only “served” like an uncle and simply had the same name.

The clues in this county’s history may only reflect ardent family hearsay. For instance, while it is true that there was an “Elbridge Clark who was the son of John Clark who was in turn the son of another John Clark,” the biography claims without references that this latter John Clark came from England in 1732. (All other indicators show that my Elbridge’s ancestor had been here long before.) There are also claims that Elbridge Gerry Clark’s father John fought at Bunker Hill. Again, so far nothing has come to light indicating that “our” John Clark was ever at Bunker Hill. There is also no mention of Elbridge Gerry Clark’s mother, or her family (the Merritts), which compounds resolving the myth or aligning it with the Patten genealogy.

It seems reasonable that the man in the county biography is likely the same man in the Patten genealogy.

The birth date of March 16, 1810 for “Elbridge Gerry Clark” in the county history reconciles fairly well with the Spencer, Massachusetts birth record of March 10, 1810. The birth record also agrees with the county history’s account that Elbridge’s father’s name was John. The county history also follows the Patten genealogy in that Elbridge Gerry Clark also came from a succession of men named John Clark. It seems reasonable that the man in the county biography is likely the same man in the Patten genealogy.[9] (The only other “Elbridge G. Clark,” born March 10, 1810, at Grafton, Worcester Co., Mass., verifies as a completely different man.[10]) While I haven’t proven it, I am fairly comfortable that Elbridge Gerry Clark was named after a family member who was (also) likely his mother’s relative. However, this is where any comfortable assumptions stop. Naming someone after a vice president doesn’t imply any more of a close relationship than it would if my next grandson were named “Donald Trump Record.” There absolutely, positively, isn’t one.

Elbridge Gerry Clark died in 1847. The LaSalle county history was compiled in 1924 with the information compiled from the memories of his daughter Hannah, who was twelve years old at the time of her father’s death. Recounting a family’s history through a child’s memories (and hearsay) so many years after the fact makes it easy to see how dates and relationships get a little bit fuzzy. It’s also easy to see how the myth surrounding her father’s name may have grown in the intervening seventy-five years between his death and her telling the tale.

I suppose the truth here is that while I’ve examined the myth of Elbridge’s name I’ve done little more than pick apart its components. It is interesting that the 1990 Patten genealogy and in the 1924 county history have both perpetuated a narrative that can only be described as “mythical.” I think there were many families of the time who wanted to have their son grow up and be a successful statesman like Elbridge Gerry. I think that linking the name of a famous American to one’s child was just a simple accolade. The myths that grow up around these “named” characters can be formidable. It’s really quite amazing, too, that without proof, the name of Elbridge Gerry has been copied and pasted in some form or another into my family’s tree for over two hundred years now. So here’s to you, “Uncle Elbridge,” whoever you are. May the proof of our kinship come out someday, or the myth of it all finally be broken.

Notes

[1] Vice President Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814).

[2] Per Wikipedia: “The term gerrymandering is named after American politician Elbridge Gerry, Vice President of the United States at the time of his death, who, as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, signed a bill that created a partisan district in the Boston area that was compared to the shape of a mythological salamander.”

[3] As reflected in a quick search of Massachusetts birth records on Ancestry.com for that time period.

[4] Elbridge Gerry Clark (1858-1936).

[5] Elbridge Gerry Clark (1810-1847).

[6] Malcolm Clark Patten, Patten Genealogy: An Elaboration Upon One Line Descending from William Patten of Cambridge, 1635 (Newport Beach, Calif.: Powell & Taylor Publishing Company, 1990), 229.

[7] “Elbridge Clark,” in the Massachusetts, U.S., Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 on Ancestry.com.

[8] Michael Cyprian O’Byrne, History of LaSalle County, Illinois (Chicago and New York: The Lewis Publishing, Co., 1924), 3: 619-22.

[9] It should also be noted that the March 10, 1810, birth record for “Elbridge Clark” in Spencer, Worcester Co., Mass., while listing his father as “John Clark,” does not list his middle name as “Gerry” or even a middle initial of “G.” All this again leads me to wonder if I indeed do have the correct “Elbridge Gerry Clark.”

[10] Elbridge Gerry Clark (1810-1877). See FindAGrave.com memorial no. 175390195.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

18 thoughts on “Cutting loose

  1. That’s amazing that there were two Elbridge Gerry Clarks (and indeed with different parents) born on the same day in two towns in Massachusetts. Grafton and Spencer are not that far apart either! My fifth great-grandfather Dr. John Eliot Eaton (1756-1812) was born in Spencer, his father Rev. Joshua Eaton (1714-1772) was the minister of the church there for 28 years, but about a generation or so before your Clarks were there.

    1. Thanks Chris! Yes, it’s been quite a trip figuring out “who was who” in my Elbridge Gerry Clark tale. While I knew that tagging one’s progeny with a famous namesake was (and can be still) a common practice I’d forgotten that along with this went the manufacturing of an actual bloodline to go with it. Like L Pallatto said below, “Ah, the myths of our forefathers…” So true.

      I can’t tell you how many times growing we were told that we were cousins of the great bandit Jesse James. I guess it somehow lends a form of identity, albeit a false one lifting “us” up from obscurity. Sadly, like any connection to Elbridge Gerry, a connection to Jesse James is (at this point) very remote or speculative at best.

      Many thanks for the look, sir!

  2. Ah, the myths of our forefathers. I have researched the family of Monroeville, PA, Postmaster Joel Monroe, 1793-1877, born in Virginia. His descendants claimed relationship with President James Monroe, but despite obituary declarations, there is no documentary evidence to support them.

    1. Many thanks for this! Yes, the myths of our forefathers! Do we keep the faith (so to speak) and assume the truth is out there or abandon their vanities? I often wonder if it were possible for us to ask those that started these famous lines or connections just how they “knew it to be so.” Was there some other means of communication other than wishful thinking or at best hearsay? I doubt we will ever know.

      1. I love this! The “myths of our forefathers,” in my case, were the myths concocted by my late (1916-2007) father. His grandmother came from a large family, and had two sisters: one married a John Sedgwick and the other married a Columbus Hampton. While each came from the same (huge) families as the respective Civil War generals, they were in fact their cousins and rough contemporaries. These facts notwithstanding, my dad gave me the Sedgwick middle name and my brother Hampton, and regularly pronounced us “direct descendants” of the two Civil War generals, John Sedgwick (Union) and Wade Hampton (Confederate). Easy enough to disprove, but he didn’t want to hear it!….This is how these things get started.

      2. My experience with family stories is that there is a grain of truth, but it may not what you think: I was told a cousin “got married, but it didn’t take.” Could never find any record of his marriage. Then discovered that his widowed mother remarried and in a few years had a very contentious divorce. That was the marriage that “didn’t take.”

        It’s quite possible, since I have found no information about Joel Monroe’s birth in Virginia, that he was a wrong-side-of-the-blanket relation of the president. Sometimes the story is true in a way you can’t verify.

  3. My cousin’s uncle was Elbridge Gerry Chadwick, born 1876, as was his grandfather, Elbrdige Gerry Chadwick, born 1833, both in Maine. My guess is that Elbridge Sr.’s father admired Vice President Elbridge Gerry, both being from Massachusetts, so he named a son after him. I, too, heard the family story about a relative connection, but I’ve never found any.

  4. Your comments about “uncle” are well taken, but in my research, that relationship led to breaking a brick wall.

    My third great grandfather, William Moyle, immigrated to the US in 1832, and appears in the 1850 census in New Jersey, married to Jane, with my 2nd great grandmother, 11 year old Nellie. All attempts to find the surname of Jane as Nellie’s mother were fruitless, until I searched for a woman, surname Rowe, based on the surname of Isaac Rowe, who was “uncle” in the household of Nellie’s husband, Henry Scudder Kelley, in 1880. It wasn’t a smashed wall, I had to take in down a section at a time, but eventually I was able to add Nellie’s correct mother, William’s first wife Alice Rowe, and more generations to the line based on that one clue. It is one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud in the 18 years I have been researching my family history.

  5. That is a mistake that a lot of “genealogists” make is to think that there can only be one person with a certain name and never check the parents etc.

    According to Famouskin Elbridge Gerry is my 4th cousin 6 X removed. His grandmother was Elizabeth Greenleaf and there are probably a million people who are descendants of Edmund Greenleaf so I’m not alone.

  6. We have three George Washington Millers on my mother’s side; however they are not direct from father to son. It seems they were named for an uncle and a great grandfather and there are multiple people in New York and Michigan with this name 🙁

  7. One of your best essays, Jeff! What amazes me is the converse situation: I’ve had to bust a few family myths but more frequently have discovered amazing connections that were lost to family memory and lore. I then think, “how is it that this fact was not handed down?!?!” More often than “busting,” I find myself doing what might be termed “myth-editing”: digging down (if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor) to the kernel of truth, fleshing out the true circumstances, and discarded the accreted mythological details.

    1. Thanks Andrew – What you have said is so true about “amazing connections that were lost to family memory.” I have to keep in mind that for as many myths as we need to edit (or in my case debunk) there’s always the true story that gets away from the collective family memory. Why is that?? So strange! It’s interesting that while many myths perpetuate true stories somehow become lost from in ever being told. Is it more natural to favor the embellished falsehood? I have to wonder!

      I appreciate your kind words, sir!

  8. This post got me thinking about my great-grandmother. She was very proud of her Putnam ancestry. Born in Ohio in 1838 she left notes showing her descent from John Putnam and how she was related to General Putnam. I am sure she learned this from her grandmother Lucy (Putnam) (Elliot) Chase. The relationship was not close but real. I just wish I could tell her some of her other interesting ancestry.

  9. Yes, myth busting is always an interesting business. My father’s side of the family had cousins who were convinced my great grandmother, Clara (Stanley) McKee was sister to the Stanley of fame who “discovered” Dr. Livingston in Africa. They claimed to have seen letters from him to Clara. This, and the also erroneous claim that my mother’s Cooper family were relatives of James Fennimore Cooper, since they came from the same county in New York, formed some of my childhood interests (I was reading Cooper’s Deerslayer by fifth grade). When I first started doing genealogy in my early 20’s, some fifty years ago, the first thing I did was to look for Henry Morton Stanley’s family. Easy to disprove this one – he was adopted after the age of 21 by a childless Stanley at the opposite end of the Mississippi River from where my Clara originated. Clara may indeed have had letters from her Stanley brothers, as she was not raised with them after her first few years, but it wasn’t the famous explorer who wrote them. It took me many years, and genealogy being available on the internet, before I found her family.

    1. Linda, You have some truly beautiful myth’s going on there. Not only that, but you have come to own them and you articulate them very well. Personally, I think they’re marvelous. I think that even our silliest of myths are always still worth the telling – but with the truth as a new twist. Stanley and Cooper are amazing “faux” connections to know, understand, and share. Kudos to you for this!

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