Fun With Genealogy

Guest blogger Chuck Dennis plumbs genealogy in this week’s edition of the regular Friday blog.

This piece is a real departure from the normal Ken Rodgers blog entry. No descriptions of austere American deserts or green forests and mountains, and no birds or endless skies. No cowboys or soldiers or bad but interesting old times drinking and fighting. Nothing resembling Ken Kesey and “On The Road.” But there will be a bushwhacking.

Let’s start with me. I just turned 65 (read: geezer). The leading edge of the Baby Boom. In my 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, I had little interest in genealogy. However, back in my teens I met an old, Parkinson’s Disease-riddled uncle, who, probably because he had no children of his own, gave me a lifetime membership in the Mayflower Society. Since you have to prove you’re descended from someone on the Mayflower to get that membership, I was pretty sure that, in the words of the “X Files,” the truth (of that part of my genealogy) is out there. My Aunt Virginia, Ken’s wife Betty’s mother (Betty is my cousin), also gave me some of the research she had done on her line, including the name of John Billington, who was on the Mayflower. As I approached my “golden years,” I also found that I had a little more interest in my ancestry. So off I went in search of ancestors.

Now, 30 or 40 years ago, you really had to be devoted to do genealogical research. You spent years going through musty old files, wandering through old courthouses, and creeping through graveyards reading tombstones. Aunt Virginia did a lot of that in Massachusetts and Maine in the late ‘70’s (ask Betty). Today, however, you jump on the Internet. Using sites such as and building on the work of others, you do in a couple of days what it took an earlier generation years to do. I even crept (online) through graveyards reading tombstones (and lists of tombstone names).

So what did I find? Turns out, the Pilgrims were a varied group, as you might expect, and John Billington was a piece of work. Seems he had an “enemy” by the name of John Newcomen. One day, he bushwhacked Newcomen along the road. So in 1630 he became the first Englishman – perhaps the first European – tried, convicted, and hanged for murder in the New World.

His family as a whole is described on the Mayflower History web site as, “Plymouth Colony’s troublemakers.” His son Francis almost blew up the Mayflower. He shot off his father’s musket in a cabin one day, starting a fire that was put out before it got to the open barrel of gunpowder in the room. Another day, Francis and a friend were wandering around near Plymouth when he climbed a tree and found what he thought was a new ocean. Turns out it was a large pond, named (perhaps facetiously) “Billington Sea”, a name it retains to this day.

Then there was the mother, Eleanor. She was sentenced to be put in stocks and whipped for slander. John Billington himself was sentenced in 1621 to have his neck and heels tied together for “contempt of the Captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches” (that would be Captain Myles Standish). He was forgiven for that, and later talked his way out of a charge that he was implicated in a revolt against the Plymouth Church. Finally, there was John, Jr. – not quite so accomplished, but he did wander off one day, got lost, and had to be brought back by the Nauset Indians.

Fortunately for me — and for Betty, who is one of the truly good people in this world — there’s been a lot of refinement of the genetic mix since then. Even on the Mayflower, we are related to at least 8 people in 4 families, including the colony’s doctor, its first elected Assistant Governor, and a carpenter, as well as the Billingtons.

So two “takeaways” to finish up this piece. First, genealogical research is much easier than it once was, and can even be interesting. Second, the attitude of most Americans toward “pedigree” is probably on target. We’re all related to the good, the bad, and the ugly, and even a supposedly good “pedigree” may not stand closer scrutiny. You are what you do, not who your relations are or were.

So now I go on to my father’s side of the family. It turns out that my great grandfather’s first name was Lumpkin. But I think I have a line on lineage going back to Virginia in the 1600’s. So I soldier on.

Chuck Dennis and his wife Donna are retired now and live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Both were born and raised in California. For years, Chuck headed strategic planning at the FAA, and he once served brief stints in the White House and on the United States Senate staff. These days, Chuck and Donna enjoy travel and photography. They’ve been to many interesting places, from Timbuktu to Katmandu, and from Prince Edward Island to Patagonia. Iceland is next up. Chuck, by the way, is Betty Rodgers’ cousin. Ken just puts up with him.