Musings about life, love and genealogy.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Search of John Brock

Genealogy is a bit like detective work. You look for evidence; you follow the clues, and hopefully, find your man (or woman). Sometimes, the clues lead to interesting discoveries, and sometimes, sadly, they lead to a dead end. 

With so much information available on line, and more added every day, sites like,, and the occasional Google search, have made it easy and convenient to add leaves to the branches of a family tree. It’s been (relatively) easy to uncover information on Jason’s early ancestors from the comfort of my couch, with so many of his early ancestors hailing from the proudly historic and well-documented state of Massachusetts.

Recently, added a new database – Massachusetts Town Vital Collections, 1620-1988, a virtual treasure trove of the original hand-written, town and clerk records – birth, marriage and death - from towns across the Bay State. Some states have more information available on line than others, but some information can only be viewed, or better, discovered, with a trip to the local archives or historical society.

To date, I have documented more than 8 grandfathers eight times removed or better for Jason, men who were the first of their name here in Massachusetts (and there are still others in Connecticut, Maine and one in Virginia), including Robert Elwell, Thomas Millett, John Eddy, Thomas Riggs, John Tucker, Nicholas Denning, the Puritan, Samuel Chapin and the Pilgrim, Richard Warren, but the person I was interested in learning more about was John Brock, the first of the Brock name.

John Brock is Jason’s sixth great-grandfather. The first documented mention I’ve been able to find of him is the 27 September 1735 marriage intention to Abigail Elwell, the daughter of Eleazer Elwell of Gloucester.  Reverend John White in Gloucester married them in Gloucester on 25 March 1736.

The next mentions are associated with the births of his children, Abigail born on 1 December 1736 and then John on 4 November 1740. The Essex Antiquarian, a quarterly periodical dedicated to the biographies, genealogies, history and antiquities of Essex County, Massachusetts, included a blurb about John Brock in Volume 12, (year), which read, “John Brock, fisherman, lived in Gloucester, 1737-1774; married Abigail Elwell of Gloucester in or before 1737; both living in Gloucester in 1774,” and cites Records as its source. But that’s it. No birth for John, Sr., no parents or siblings, no death records for he or Abigail, nothing.  It was a cold case, but a nagging one.  Given Abigail was born on 3 August 1714, I made an assumption that John was born sometime between 1710 and 1715, but the Brock name was not as uncommon at the time in Massachusetts as I’d thought. There are numerous Brocks in Nantucket and Marblehead, but none that I could connect to John. I found a birth record for a John Brock, born in 1711 in Boston to George Brock and Mary Favor, and while the dates generate excitement and possibility, I can’t find anything that documents, with certainty, he is the John.

One of the great things, genealogically speaking, about living in Massachusetts, is the proximity to the cradle of Jason’s ancestry, so I took my own advice and headed to Gloucester, a quick 45 minute drive north.

Gloucester is America’s original seaport. Despite several setbacks and difficulty with profitability, settlement continued and the General Court of Massachusetts incorporated the Town of Gloucester in 1642. Included among the town’s first prominent families and land owners were Robert Elwell and Thomas Riggs.

The early town records are housed in two places – the Town Hall and the Cape Ann Museum Library. The Town Hall is a magnificent old building, but the archives are in a small space in the basement, smaller than the living room in my house. Sarah, one of the volunteer archivists, was extremely generous with her time and knowledge, having done a little pre-research in answer to my email inquiry and in expectation of my arrival.

The Archives Room is packed with books and binders, two computers, a working table and a few chairs, but the real gems, the original documents, are hidden away in a bank-like vault down the hall, complete with combination lock. The most noted publication on Gloucester is John James Babson’s The History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: including the Town of Rockport, (1860; Proctor Brothers, Gloucester, MA) and is the first place anyone familiar with town’s history will point someone who’s inquiring. There, on page 259 in the chapter titled New Settlers is John Brock, listed among the list of settlers from 1701-1750, known to have been heads of families.

With Sarah’s help, we found some notes about John Brock in the varied indexes and abstracts lining the shelves of the room. She disappeared to the vault, returned with a gray archival box and carefully removed its tissue-papered contents. She gingerly unwrapped a wonderfully old and fragile ledger and placed it on the table in front of me. The title page, in a flourished hand and brown ink, identified the book as the Selectmen’s Records Third Book.  The subsequent pages were filled with handwritten records from 1756 to 1781, documenting the meetings and decisions of the town leaders. It was amazing to be that close to original documents that old. 

Sarah turned the pages delicately to page 116 and the first of John’s records – a notice of tax abatement of 10s Province tax and 6s Town tax on 3 November 1763. A tax abatement is a stay of paying a tax grated to a taxpayer by a taxing board. It could be granted for a short or long term, for a total or percentage of the tax. There was another abatement for 1762 and once again in 1766. John’s children were grown by then, in fact, his daughter Abigail passed away in 1764. His son, John would die 5 years later.

The next entry was in April 1774, “At a meeting of the Select Men of Glocester [Apr?] 15 An Order was Drawn on the Town Treasurer to Pay Docter Thomas Sargent or Order the Sum of Two Pounds five Shillings and six pence it Beaing for Mediences and Attendance on John Brocks wife as pr his Acct Render in 2..5..6  [spellings as written]. 

I inquired as to why the Selectmen would order a doctor bill paid on John’s behalf. Sarah told me that they (Selectmen) would support the town’s poor, and this entry was indicative of John’s financial status.

By 1774, both of John’s children had died, and judging from the doctor bill, his wife, Abigail, was not well. There were no additional records about Abigail, so I don’t know if recovered from her illness or if she died too.

John’s status in town did not improve, and there was another entry the next year. “The Poor were Lat out to the following Persons from March the 25/1775 to March 25/1776  viz......John Brock to be alow'd 2/5d pr weak till further Orders.”  The final entry found in the book came on page 491 in  1780,  “At a Meetting of the Selectmen Feb'ry 15th 1780 An Order was Drawn on ye Town Treas'r or Succes'r To Pay unto Deac Nathan'l Kinsman or Order Twenty Pound being in full for making a Coffin for John Brock one of ye Town Poor.

John Brock died a pauper, and potentially alone, at approximately 70 years of age.  This was the first indication I’d found of his death, as it had not been noted in the Town’s vital records. The life of fishermen in early Gloucester was hard, and from all accounts, John had not been financially successful at his trade.  Sarah said that he would have been buried in a pauper’s grave in the First Parish cemetery, but most certainly, his final resting place would not have been marked.

I was taken aback by the somberness of it all, and the sad life of this first Brock ancestor. The Brock name, however, would persevere, in John’s son, John, who died in 1771, leaving his wife, Martha with three young children, the fourth born posthumously; to John III, born in 1766 and the last of this line in Gloucester. He would move to Maine, where he and his wife Susannah would raise 9 children. Their son, David, was married first to Judith Farrar, and secondly to Livonia Coburn. Their son, Alvan Dinsmore Brock, would go on to represent Maine in the Civil War, would marry twice, and lead a colorful, if not somewhat eccentric life until he was killed by an electric car in 1900. Alvan’s son, Fenelon was a patent attorney in Washington, DC, and with his wife, Lilian Burritt Brock, a woman of distinguished heritage herself, raised 5 children, including Walter Burritt Brock. Walter, a Presbyterian minister and sometimes inventor, like Alvan, was a bit different in his thinking, and perhaps a bit like John the first, was often down on his luck.  My late father-in-law, Richard Warren Brock followed, and now, the name rests with Jason and his three sons, Harry, Makenzie and Mitchell.

The chapter on the first John Brock isn’t closed just yet. Despite the absence of his life story, save a few sentences in town records, I know there’s more to learn about him. I’ll just keep looking. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fear of Flying (Things)

We all have our fears and phobias. Some have more than others. While I’m a big animal lover, I’m not a fan of small, scurrying rodents. That’s why I have a cat. When they were younger, my kids were not allowed to have pet gerbils. It’s something about the tail. I did, however, concede to a succession of hamsters, all named Petey. No tail.

I’m terrified of bats. They are horrendous mice with wings.  That’s why I have a husband, a good friend named Dean, and a tennis racket. Dean will gladly and with enthusiastic animation, tell anyone who will listen about the phone calls he‘s received from Jason, calling from Massachusetts, to dispatch him to our house because I’d locked myself in the bathroom, hiding from a circling and swooping bat.

While my encounters with mice and bats have left me mentally scarred [read:overdramatic], they pale in comparison to my fear of birds. I can’t tell you specifically about the first mouse or bat that sent me screaming, but I can certainly tell you about the first bird. It started with a duck.

Growing up, I remember the stories of children who would find a real bunny, chick or duckling, in addition to the chocolate variety, in their Easter basket. My friend, Angelo, who lived around the corner, was one of them.  I was 11. It was June, school was out, and I had gone to his house to play in the yard (we still played in backyards when I was 11).  And there it was…. a larger than life, oranged billed white duck, its webbed feet tucked beneath it, sleeping in a corner of his yard. “Want to see it?” he asked. I don’t remember answering, but I do remember a blur of white feathers running at me, honking, flapping and chasing me around his yard. I ran home, screaming and swearing 11-year old vengeance, which I don’t think I ever exacted.  Despite the duck incident, Angelo and I are still friends.  The duck, however, was never seen again.

A decade later, my late father-in-law, Bill thought it would be fun to release my mother-in-law’s cockatiel from its cage and let it fly around the house.  The more I shrieked, the more he laughed. We didn’t visit for a while after that.

In the years since, I’ve been chased by a Canadian goose, attacked [read: overdramatic…again] by seagulls at the rest area on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and have had innumerous close encounters with swooping fowl, including a falcon with a 4 foot wingspan while on the back of my husband’s Harley.

Living in Massachusetts, my new nemesis is the Turkey. They roam wild and freely in our neighborhood, a band of feathered adversaries who chase squirrels from bird feeders and parade down the middle of our quiet road with defiance and arrogance. For one who fears the feathered, these are not foes to be taken lightly.  Some of these birds are the size of small children.

Last week, Jason and I were sitting on our front porch, enjoying the first rain-free day in a week, when I spied them, five of them, striding out of the woods, their wattles wattling, to feast at the bird feeder across the street. There was clearly a pecking order (no pun intended) as the biggest and proudest led the way.  A rustling in the distance caused him to puff and unfurl his feathers, a circular display of plumage that had him nearly double in size.

I decided that I needed a picture of this posturing, grabbed my camera and headed gingerly off the porch.

They were on the move, and I naively followed, like the ingĂ©nue in those campy teen horror movies, who ignores the dramatic music and with wide-eyed wonder heads into the dark basement.  He puffed once, twice, and stood stoically still, daring me to come closer.  I didn’t. They moved on, and I followed, getting within 5 feet before he turned, stared coldly at me with those beady eyes on that skeletal-like head and displayed every feather…right before he charged.  It was the duck all over again. I screamed and dashed back to the porch.  The only thing louder than my heavy erratic breathing was Jason’s laughter as the bird disappeared into the woods, entourage in tow.
I can hear them in the mornings when I’m out walking Ajax, that frenetic gobbling taunting me from the depths of the wooded glen that surrounds our complex.  A quick tug on the leash, and we pick up the pace. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll stay out of his, and harm’s way, but he should be warned - had this been another day and time, and well, century, that bird would have been blinded by the sun bouncing off the shiny brass buckles of Jason’s ancestors’ shoes, staring down the barrel of a wheel lock gun, not the lens of my Canon XTi.  And then he’d be dinner.

Will my fear of things with wings ever subside? When pigs fly.

But that will probably result in an entirely new phobia.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

(Sheet) Rock and Roll

I realize that it's been quite some time since I posted, but I just couldn't fathom writing about electrical wiring, gas lines or insulation with any eloquence. But sheet rock, well that's a different story!

Sheet rock in our otherwise empty shell of a kitchen was a milestone. It gave us walls were there were none. It was a blank canvas to paint. On Sheet Rock Day, as it has come to be known, Jason and I arrived at the house at 7:30 with anxious anticipation. We would no longer have to look at wires threaded through ceiling beams or copper pipes where my new cook top and pot filler will be. It meant the  floors could be installed, then the cabinets, island and the shiny new appliances soon after. It was the tangible start of the count down to moving into our new house.

The crew arrived early, much to our surprise. The van pulled down our driveway, the side and back doors flew open and in short order, the crew piled out.  It was like watching clowns pile out of a Volkswagon bug, without the floppy shoes and red noses.With scant instructions to the crew chief, Jason and I climbed back into his truck and headed off in search of more coffee. He sighed contently and smiled,"Well, by the end of the day, we'll have a sheet rocked kitchen." I looked at him with wonder and amazement. One day? Really? I remember laborious days of sheet rock installation in our old house, the taping, spackling and sanding. I remember the man maneuvering about on some stilt-like legs (there really is more of a connection to circus clowns than I realized!) to reach our 10 foot ceilings. There was plastic taped to every doorway and a fine white powder on every surface (or so it seemed) when it was done. But, this was going to be complete in one day? It seemed impossible.

Impossible, I learned, was possible. They were using "blueboard", a very thick, very heavy board that goes up with ease and is skim-coated with a thin layer of veneer plaster. No taping, no stilt-walker. While the do-it-yourselfer can install drywall, usually with much fuss, mess and expletives, the blue boards is best left to the professionals. The plastering, more than the installation itself, is not for the faint of heart. And when it's all said and done, the veneer plaster makes the walls moisture and abuse resistant.

In between benign errands, we stopped back to check on progress. At 10:00, the walls were nearly complete, at 12:45, the process of plastering was underway, and at 3:15, they were gone. We stood and surveyed the room, which could truly be called a room now. It had walls. It had a ceiling. It was easy to visualize where my shiny new appliances will be installed.

In the weeks since, we've had the kitchen painted and the new floors have been installed, sanded, stained and sealed. The fiberboard ceiling tiles in the eating area were replaced with bead board and it, along with the exposed beams, were primed and painted. There's still a lot more to do, but it's coming together quite nicely.