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a case for why you should avoid my family altogether

old family reunion photo
i've recently succumbed to the glitzy allure of an account on ancestry.com, which is kind of like crack, if crack was made up of little green leaves and ended up giving carpal tunnel syndrome from using it all the time. come to think of it, crack would have a better reputation if it did that, although i have a feeling that dropping it after a month or two of free access is likely to require some serious detox.

i feel kind of bad, because i took some pride in the fact that i had found out so much about my family without ever spending a nickel to do so, and now i've given in to the most commercial vehicle for peddling your dead ancestors on the planet. that feeling is somewhat mollified by the fact that i've accomplished in less than a week about six times what i was able to accomplish on my own and have found out that, contrary to what i previously believed, i have some pretty illustrious, albeit very distant, progenitors. i also have some pretty questionable ones, but that's a story for another time.

as dazzled as i am by how far back i've been able to dig [once you've located a relative who was nobility of any sort, you've hit genealogical paydirt, by the way], my favourite part of this exercise is some of the weird stories i've been able to find about the strange things these people actually did with their lives, like defeating a french invasion with an unholy army.

ok, maybe it wasn't exactly an unholy army, but it does make me realise that it's a minor miracle that anyone in my family turned out even marginally sane, because it's clear that we didn't get off to a great start.

welcome to our humble home
the story involves a fairly distant relative by the name of john earle. he was born in poole, dorset, england around 1678, but emigrated at a young age to the english colony of newfoundland. the colony was still a pretty wild place, and a man who came from the commoner class could establish himself as a landowner there pretty much by picking a place he liked and constructing something on it. hence, large parts of my family are comprised of poor people from the southwest of england who figured that living in the colony sounded pretty swell when compared to living in poverty in the home country. of course, no one told them about the winters, or that it was comparatively expensive to get stuff there, because there were about eight people in any given area and they hadn't quite figured out the whole farming thing because newfoundland is known to get snowfall as late as may.

nonetheless, young john was determined and plunked himself down on a cute little island [later] named little bell island with his new wife some time in the mid-90s. 1690s, that is. john wasn't entirely thrilled with his new home: there are historical records about how he complained about the prices of staples there. most people are not noted in history books for their whinging. people put up with this, i'm guessing, because john earle had repelled the french navy at the age of eighteen, which is the sort of thing that earns you the right to bitch.

in 1696-7, the french, eager to extend their empire from the adjacent province [colony] of quebec [new france] and to get their paws on newfoundland's considerable booty [meaning the lucrative fishing and fur resources], staged an assault on the island with two barges full of soldiers. two boats might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that the area they were invading was inhabited solely by poor englishmen trying not to starve to death in winter or die of the plague, it's clear that two boats would have been more than enough.

john apparently liked his new home enough to fight for it, but he didn't have the means to push back two boats full of professional soldiers. in fact, he and his wife had the tiny island all to themselves, which was great when they wanted to get crazy drunk and sing traditional songs into the wee hours, but not so great when it came to doing battle. john did have a cannon, which was clearly useful and some imagination.

come be our friend, forever...
when the french arrived [no, i don't know who told him they were coming, but let's just leave that aside for now], the were fired on by the cannon, which struck and sank one of the boats before it could inflict any damage. when the survivors and those in the accompanying boat looked up, they were faced with john's disturbing creation: an army of scarecrows standing on the crest of a hill, ready to do battle.

at that point, historical sources say that the french were fooled into thinking that, contrary to their pre-invasion intelligence, the british had forces there to defend the area and they quickly headed back where they came from. i would like to put forth, however, that it's equally likely that the french saw a gang of scarecrows staring out at them with their dead eyes and firing a cannon and decided that whatever the fuck lived on that island was something they wanted nothing to do with. that seems like a completely reasonable decision to me.

the rest of newfoundland didn't fare so well: the french used another approach and completely leveled the city of st. john's in 1697, killing everyone and burning the place to the ground, but continuing to avoid the nutjob with his island of scarecrows. eventually, the english sent their soldiers over and rebuilt the fort around which st. john's had formed, since there wasn't anything left to defend. john lived a long life on little bell island and, as far as i can tell, his family remained the only inhabitants there until after his death around 1750. both his sons moved to the mainland, probably to get away from the scarecrows.

wait, come back! i only want to hug you and will totally not suck your soul through your eyeballs!

Comments

Subway Dreaming said…
Very interesting! I love genealogy.

My mom's family is from Newfoundland and they came from Poole too (many generations ago). I haven't done ancestry.ca but I have thought about it. My grandfather preserved a lot of oral history and I documented some of our family tree before he passed away. I can go back to the late 1700s, but I would be interested in going further back.
Kate MacDonald said…
That's about as far as I was able to get back on the Newfoundland part of my family as well. It's actually remarkable how well preserved many records from the area are and how much is available for free online. Happy searching!

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