Book Review: A familial peek into colonial Stonington
Book Review: A familial peek into colonial Stonington
January 10, 2015 10:50PM
“The Forgotten Chapters: My Journey into the Past”
Katherine Dimancescu was led to write the biographical vignettes in “The Forgotten Chapters: My Journey into the Past” (ISBN 978.0.9896169.0.4) by an interest beginning with a school project when she was young and continuing to the present. She knew that on her father’s side she was first generation Romanian, about the history of which she was well informed, but the local history of her mother’s side of her family was less familiar.
Dimancescu divides her time between Concord, Mass., and Westerly and was able to conduct an enlightened and robust search into local historical material evidence.
She writes, “Recognition of my ancestors prompted me to share their stories that offer a personalized lens through which to take in our nation’s history.” She describes attending Denison University and also discovering her Denison descent as she learned about captain George Denison who lived in 17th century Mystic.
In the second chapter, in an unassuming style, she cannot resist retelling the familiar story of John and Priscilla Alden. (“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?) She is descended from John and Priscilla’s tenth and youngest child, David. David’s daughter, another Priscilla, married a Chesebrough and moved to Stonington. In contrast, she next describes court actions against two other of her 17th century ancestors for drunkenness and manslaughter. Chapter 4 goes on to remember her famous ancestress, Mary Dyer, who had a farm in Newport. Mary was hanged in 1660 for being a Quaker.
The adventures of Dimancescu’s ancestors illuminate local military history. During the Pequot War of 1637, her ancestor, Thomas Stanton, was nearly killed while acting as an Algonquian language interpreter. Many of her early kin, including captain George Denison, fought in the very bloody and destructive King Philip’s War (1675-1676). At the time of this war, Denison was a grandfather in his mid 50s with previous military experience in the Pequot War and even in the English civil War at the battle of Naseby. He had been a leader at the time of the Pequot War, had fortified his house in Stonington, and participated in the final capture and gruesome death of the famous war-chief Canonchet in Stonington.
Dimancescu has four ancestors from the Groton area named William Williams, one of whom was a captain during the Revolutionary War and was wounded at the battle of White Plains. His son, Erastus Williams, participated in the Battle of Stonington in August of 1814, when the greatly outnumbered and outgunned Americans drove off a vastly superior attacking British force.
In chapter 11, the author visits the house of William Williams in Ledyard which is still a family residence, a pleasant home where I have attended a wedding. It turns out that Morton H. Thompson, the author of the best selling book and later famous film “Not As A Stranger,” relocated from Hollywood to this house in 1949. Two weeks after he died unexpectedly at the age of 50 in July, 1953, his wife shot herself fatally under the same roof.
Because of the dramatic history of the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation, we often think of the North as free and the South as a place of slavery. Dimancescu shows us that was not the case in earlier years.
In the North, the first colonies to legalize slavery were Connecticut in 1643 and Rhode Island in 1652. The 1755 will of her well-to-do ancestor captain Thomas Wheeler listed 15 slaves — men, women and children — and detailed the value of each in pounds, shillings, and pence. While a silver tankard was worth 12 pounds, the most valuable male slave was valued at 46 pounds. She describes the details of her visit to the Stanton-Davis homestead in Stonington and the chalk drawings on the walls of the attic where slaves slept in the early years of the 18th-century. Such presence and immediacy brings home for the author and the reader the reality of slavery in our community.
A similar immediacy is also created by the personal diaries of Dimancescu’s ancestors. The most voluminous of these is the 50-year compendium (1711-1758) of Joshua Hempstead, currently in print. Of great local interest is the diary kept by Thomas Minor between 1653 and 1684. He lived in Stonington where he raised a family and worried about the depredations of wolves on his farm.
“The Forgotten Chapters” is well annotated and the references are a rich source for further reading. There are a variety of illustrations of historic homesteads, historical sites and documents mixed with congenial, family-style, on-location snapshots of the author, all well arranged as she chats about the doings of her 17th- and 18th-century relatives. In a way, these individuals could be our universal predecessors, both by providing an easy access into the great affairs of our early history, but also in setting the manner of our American experience.
Perhaps it is not a far reach for me to relate the rural life of Thomas Stanton or Joshua Hempstead to the intense agricultural efforts described so well by Joseph Luzzi, as he related his parents’ story in his recently reviewed book “My Two Italies.”
The loves, successes and tragedies of distant and recent years in these two books have much to tell us about our American identity so finely wrought from both the shared and the distinctive nature of our community.
Dr. Tobias Goodman of Westerly contributes reviews of books written by local authors or that otherwise have a connection to our region.