Posted by: suekenney | October 24, 2011

From Shoemaker to Shipowner

The task is monumental – sorting through decades of genealogical materials collected by my great-grandfather, my grandmother, and my mother.  Some days I can’t imagine what possessed me to agree to take it all home with me.  What used to be our spare bedroom is now mostly full of boxes and old books and notebooks.

So I’m trying to take on a little at a time, in between getting other things done around the house that need doing.  I pick up a pile of letters and start reading through them; I sort papers and photos by family; I skim through an old book just to see what’s in it.  My grandmother – who is responsible for most of this stuff – would take notes of her research on steno pads, then painstakingly transcribe them into larger notebooks and binders.  I think I have about 15 to 20 of them.  Mostly full.  And her handwriting is not the easiest in the world to read, so it takes time to decipher what she wrote.

I was recently going through one of her earlier notebooks, making a list of the contents (yes, I’m nerdy like that).  One of my ancestral families is the Bartlets, several generations ago, and since I don’t know much about them, I was reading through some of what Grandmother had copied.  I was fascinated.  The one who stuck out to me was a William Bartlet, my four-times-great-grandfather, who lived in Newburyport, MA, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  What a guy!  He started out as a humble shoemaker, and ended up making money hand over fist, donating tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities.  He owned, at various times, about a dozen trading ships.  In his will, he left, besides several other generous bequests, $20,000 to each of his grandchildren – of which he had at least 16 at the time!  All this despite losing almost $170,000 to French privateers.

William Bartlet's House in Newburyport

Well, I like money as much as the next person, but that wasn’t the only thing I liked about William Bartlet.  I am a firm Christian, and I learned that he was too. He donated much money to the Harvard Divinity School and to Andover Theological Seminary (now the Andover Newton Theological School); he helped start or was a big donor to a number of Bible and missionary societies of the day.  And he also gave to much smaller, more personal charities – for instance, a lady selling berries couldn’t get an extra penny out of him for her fruits, but at Thanksgiving he sent her a turkey.  He was a man of high ideals and standards, obviously willing to help his fellow man in a variety of venues, and equally obviously a hard worker and an ambitious man.  Certainly an ancestor that I can take some pride in.

(And no, none of that money that he left to his granddaughter Catherine, my great-great-grandmother, has come down my way – I’m thinking a lot of it got spent to keep the family afloat when Catherine’s husband, Henry, took off for California in the Gold Rush of 1849.  But that’s another story.)


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog!!

    • You’re most welcome. I’ve got family down in PA too, in and around Gettysburg – mostly cousins now that I haven’t met. Tysons, Walmers, etc.

  2. This article reminds me of my Aunt and her daughter when they were tracing the family tree. I remember how excited they got when they found some exciting information about our family heritage.

    • It can be pretty exciting, as I’m learning. There are other “exciting” parts to the search as well – looking in some very old boxes that had been left in storage for a bit too long – finding the mouse nests AND the dead mice (one skeleton, 3 very dessicated baby mice) – definitely needed the gloves for those!
      And by the way, I am really enjoying your own photographic journey, and the pictures you’ve been posting. Keep up the good work!

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