Pennsbury Manor, the Pennsylvania home of William and Hannah Penn. Photo courtesy Pennsbury Manor

CONNECTIONS: Family history

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

This column is called Connections, and does, when it can, connect historic events to current events to enhance understanding. It is rare that anything — declaring war, passing a law, trying a case — is happening for the first time. Looking back and learning what happened the last time can be helpful.

Connections has always focused on national events, not personal matters. Yet it is true that our own past illuminates our present, and even may help shape it.

Our ancestry may affect our views and our self-image. My young grandson is interested in our ancestry. In 2017, an aunt gave him a subscription to Ancestry.com. At a family event, I told him about people from whom he is descended, including William Penn.

William Penn. Image courtesy Pennsbury Manor

Who’s that?

He went to his school library and began to research his ancestor. “William Penn was the founder of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania translates to ‘woodlands of Penn,’” he wrote.

He began to study what he now calls “the family.” He became more involved in searching our ancestors when it struck him that they illuminated who he is.

“I am proud to be descended from William Penn,” he wrote.

He found that he was equally proud of the women in the family.

“His [Penn’s] second wife, my 9th great grandmother, Hannah Margaret Callowhill Penn. They had a 27-year age difference. When ‘Billy Penn,’ as my father calls him, died in 1718, she was in full control of the entire colony and fortune. He was worth about $11,000,000, which in today’s money is $690,070,000. At that time, women were mainly supposed to get married and give birth and be good wives. Hannah Margaret Penn had almost $700,000,000! More than Beyonce has, more than Elton John has, and way more than Ringo Starr has. Until her death, she effectively administered the Province of Pennsylvania.”

His history is somewhat wishful, polished up like the heirloom silver. Actually, William Penn died in London in 1718 penniless. I have often mused on how my progenitor was granted Pennsylvania and died a pauper. We consider these things just as my grandson places his finger on the scale of history. We are simultaneously studying our history and considering how our ancestral past will shape our individual future.

On the strength of his research, my grandson joined the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution). “Because of my work, I have been called a sleuth, and I don’t know what that means. I sure hope it’s a compliment,” he says.

William Penn’s wife, Hannah Penn. Image courtesy Pennsbury Manor

Even if it is not a compliment, he forges ahead. “When I want to do genealogy … [I do] … I would rather be a geek than somebody who doesn’t know the people that they come from.”

Interesting that. To what extent are we pre-formed out of the genes and experiences of those who preceded us, and to what extent are we inventing ourselves?

My grandson reflects: “My Grandmother’s whole family was remarkable. Penns, Pioneers, Vikings, Norwegians, Quakers, Lutherans, Episcopals, Catholics, Jews, Englishmen, Soldiers, Models, Mothers, Fathers, and more. The experience has been crazy. I have learned so much about from whence I came.” Evidently, he learned that both the nation and his family are melting pots.

His values are made manifest as he selects from the potpourri of the past. “My great great grandmother, Ruth Lillian was a ‘Viking.’ My father met her in 1970. The meeting was photographed. My father, just 4 years old, has a cute blonde bob cut and is wearing a sport’s coat with a white handkerchief. He is holding her hand. She [Ruth Lillian] is in a light pink dress with a flower bouquet on her right side. She was remarkable, I think. She seemed to have been so kind, and I have NEVER heard an unkind thing about her in my life. ‘Cute as a button’ my Grandma always says of her. In another photo I believe to have been taken in 1917, Ruth stands in a cap and gown. Women didn’t graduate from university at that time, but my great great grandmother did.”

The way he decorated his bedroom wall also reflects his past and his values. He explains that he has photographs of descendants, including one he believes to be an image of William and Margaret Penn holding hands on their wedding day.

“I am proud to have a picture of them holding hands.”

Genetically, from whom we are descended matters. How long they lived and how they died are predictive as are hair color, eye color, height and intellectual ability. Is it also true of personality and character? Can it predict life experience? Do we search and search and search and in the end find ourselves?

My grandson thinks so: “All in all, my goal is to discover who I am through the people who made me, and the people who made them, so on and so forth … personally, I think we are our ancestors in essence. That is the gratification.”