Friday, January 18, 2008

The Wild, Wild East

They had to settle and build towns from scratch. There was nothing but wilderness and Native Americans, both of which could be inviting or could be hostile. 200 years later this landscape would be the wild, wild West but in 1634, when 10-year-old Edward Raynor sailed to America with a group of English settlers that included his uncle, his aunt, and his cousins, he was greeted by the wild, wild East.

Edward Raynor was the reason I became interested in genealogy. I remember seeing the actual family tree drawn out by Gerald Van Sise Raynor and other family historians, showing each branch through the years, from Edward's grandfather, all the way down to where my mother's name was scribbled. I remember having to do a family tree project in school and being told we should consider ourselves lucky to be able to get all our grandparents names and possibly any of their parents and thinking to myself that I wished I could go back further than 15 generations.

Anyway, Edward. My direct ancestor, the man who started it all. He was orphaned before he was 10, and sailed to America with his uncle Thurston and Thurston's family on the Elizabeth, landing in probably the Boston area. The European settlement of America was still very, very new. Jamestown had been founded only 27 years earlier, it had been only 14 years since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth on the Mayflower, and only 13 years since the first Thanksgiving. Thurston appears to have been a leader among his group, and like the wagon trains and prospectors who 200 years later would migrate west across the continent, Edward and his uncle spent the next 10 years migrating south, helping to found, build, and settle towns such as Wetherfield and Stamford, Connecticut, along the way. Sometimes I tend to romanticize it the way life in the Wild West is often romanticized, but I can't imagine it was an easy life - Thurston's first wife apparently died somewhere along the way and he remarried, water mills washed out and had to be rebuilt, lawlessness had to be dealt with, and Indian attacks occurred, such as during the 1636-1638 Pequot Indian War. Around 1644, now 20 years old, Edward was uprooted again when Thurston was among a group of English settlers who were granted land in the middle of Dutch territory on Long Island (present-day Suffolk County was English land, but Nassau County, which is where the group settled, was part of the Dutch colony). They settled what is now Hempstead, where they farmed, fished, and raised animals that grazed on the Hempstead Plains, the only prairie east of the Mississippi River. Thurston eventually got itchy feet again and moved his family east to Southampton, while Edward elected to remain behind, settling the Great South Woods on the South Shore of Long Island where he founded what would become known as Raynortown and eventually Freeport, which is where my family still lives today.

Edward Raynor was where it all started. But as I began to become a more savvy genealogist, realizing I could take other's work as a place to start but shouldn't rely on it as fact unless I could back it up, I realized there was still a lot of work to do. Primary sources needed to be found. The Raynor family had done a great job of tracing the Raynor family name, but what about the mothers? My name is Gorry but I am just as much a Raynor as I am a Gorry - to me, the female lines were equally as important. And I had three other grandparents whose genealogy I knew little to nothing about.

But I often still think about Edward, who had lost both his parents, spent three months on a ship crossing the Atlantic, then spent the next 10 years continually starting over, struggling to survive, exploring virgin territory, learning and creating and not even realizing that he was changing the landscape of history. I often think that those Europeans who came to America for whatever reason possessed a more adventurous spirit than those who stayed behind, and following that logic, that those Americans who headed West were more adventurous than those who remained on the East Coast. But at least in the case of the Raynors and those like them, there was no civilization to escape...the East was wild enough.

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