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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Writing My Ancestors Home

Coffin Ship: Irish Examiner
Coffin Ship: Irish Examiner

I have been up to my chin in history for as long as I can remember. It's the same with genealogy. It may have been what got me started.

Going back to my childhood, I often sat near the elders to listen to their stories. The good ones are imprinted on my heart. Because of the repetition, it wasn't hard. I learned at a very young age to pay attention to the various styles of storytellers. Good listeners will know at a point when embellishments emerge.

Tending to my ancestors and living relatives has been a great, unintended resource. As we mature, if all is balanced and well, we may learn to appreciate this. I did. I have inherited many positive traits along with the customary darker legacies passed down from those who walked before us. I have a collection of their mementos displayed in a well-lit corner hutch. We tend to forget how to honor and acknowledge our ancestors in our haste. You don't need to go all out as I do. But you might find great satisfaction in knowing the basics. For instance, I just discovered last night that all this time, my family thought that my great-grandfather's middle name was Charles. No, it was Cyrus. The C. stood for something else all along. We were wrong. This is an example of how effortless it is to manipulate, falsify, and spread information throughout the land and time. Also, it is common for details and facts on multiple levels to be omitted entirely.

Recently, my years of research and family history collided. The collision is still in progress, so I can only share a bit at a time. Oh, I was wearing a seatbelt, but it was not fastened correctly, causing a tumble, but it's okay. I'm grateful to have opened this new door and entered. I had seen it there with all the others and poked my head in. I have discovered that I am an unintentional tour guide. Soon, I will record and share this experience in a separate book (there is that much here). I did not expect this outcome, but that is the best part, unknowingly penning your family history. Here's an example of how we can misunderstand facts. I am aware of my ancestors' connection to the maritime trade. What I did not know was very simple and changed everything.

Maritime Trade is an exchange of goods and commodities through seaways between two countries. Humans are utilizing the waterways around the globe for many centuries as a crucial way of trade and transport. Modern time's maritime trade operates through advanced, durable, and bigger ships (1).

In The Angels' Lament (Book Two), the narrative follows the Quinn family, spanning generations, reaching back to the shores of Ireland during the Great Hunger—mass starvation and exile—a catastrophic historical event, systematically deemphasized and misunderstood. The harrowing world left behind followed these immigrants as they boarded coffin ships, embarking on a perilous transatlantic voyage to a world that did anything but embrace them.

Researching this was heavy. We are led to believe that it's all about potatoes. Please know that there is much more to this part of our not-so-distant past. The buried lead is in there. So how did I get my paternal grandmother all wrong? The term coal schooner, for me, was lost in translation. Yes, it is a sailing vessel of two or more masts, all fore-and-aft rigged. However, I focused on coal as a commodity rather than how the schooner was powered. When I looked at my very old notes, everything shifted. I went through ships' passenger lists, and there was a ship that my great-grandfather was listed as a crew member. ALERT: New old information.

Edward C. Wood
Edward C.Wood

Only he was not transporting coal. I am just beginning here, but the document listed pauper ships, immigrant ships, and orphan ships. I have been confirming this at every turn. It is possible that other ancestors held roles in this mass movement of people. I do not know. But I learned about the horrific experience on such a ship, referred to as a coffin ship, to make the long trek across the Atlantic to Grosse Île, Canada, to the fever shacks.

I studied each aspect of this harrowing journey, carrying it with me, unaware that my ancestors were on these ships. I suspected I would discover them there in some manner, maybe as immigrants. (It's not over yet.)

I have detailed genealogical information on both sides of my family. I am fortunate, but I worked hard to pull it together. After my uncle's memorial service a few years ago, my cousin handed me a large box filled with family photos and letters. They date back to the mid-nineteenth century. I sit with this box from time to time. I must properly absorb the information from my ancestral time capsule. It is incredible to write a collection of stories within a series based on intense and accurate research and later learn that the characters you have been writing about intimately are your ancestors. This is multi-layered. Remember Nanatasis, Nellie? She is my great-grandmother of Abenaki descent. Did they guide me? I found them in places connected to my previous work, not one or two, but many. It's as if they all showed up. Yes, what I wrote was not only accurate, but they were literally at the helm. In The Angels' Lament, I openly mentioned my maternal family. I based an essential part of the plot on true family history. But I knew about it. I intentionally incorporated their story into the series. This is the acknowledgment I continue practicing in my work and daily life. There is more unfolding. The connections are deep and wide, as my son is a sailor of schooners and tall ships and was stationed on the USS Constitution.

What can you do to honor those who came before you? Tend to your history. Tend to your ancestors. Tend to your elders. Bother to hear their stories and look at photos (preferably with them present and alive to explain and document for future generations). Keep track of your own story and the stories of your living relatives. Share all of it with your children. Knowing who you are, where you came from, and in some cases, why; provides a solid foundation for us collectively and individually. We are lost if we are cut off from our past and roots and do not know our true identities. Our ancestors have endured much. Learning about them is enriching and meaningful.


Feb 24, 2023

A very thought provoking piece . As you know the history was compiled from the interested parties, the shipowners and politicians placed theirs above others . At least by your researches

some distortions can be corrected . This will aid future researchers when they read your accounts .

Feb 24, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your response. The journey has been filled with unexpected twists and turns. I am getting better at absorbing the truth, even when it's hard to take.

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