Ed’s ancestors come from lots of places including England, Scotland, Germany and Ireland. But, in tracing his roots, Ed notes that with each generation the number of direct ancestors double while those using a particular name are cut in half.
“Looking back only four generations,” he says, “less than 10% of my genes come from a Skinner. It really isn’t fair to trace just that one line.
“Besides, genealogy accumulates a lot of facts about a person. Birth date, location, and given name are just the beginning. There’s also where they went to school, who they married, the kid’s names, which one is adopted, what were the family struggles and, when they moved from one place to another, what was happening to drive them out, and what propelled them toward the next place.
“A lot of times it’s really helpful to know all the different places someone lived, like when you’re trying to track down something to show that person’s character, like what they did in life, were they active in the community or was the guy a scoundrel and a crook?
“And the way the number of relatives goes way up with each generation, it’s more than just a simple doubling with each generation. For example, my parents each had only a single sibling; my Dad had a sister, and my Mom had a brother. But if I start there and look at their children-my first cousins-when I add in their families along with my sisters and their kids, that makes five nieces, five first cousins, an aunt, an uncle, Mom and Dad and two sisters. That’s sixteen people within only two generations, mine and my parents!
“If you go back another generation, there’s about sixty individuals in my family. And since my kids get half their genes from their mother’s family in addition to mine, if my kids want to know who they are related to, then I’ve got to do my wife’s family as well as mine. For those same two generations, there are well over a hundred and fifty people in the list!”
So far, Ed has traced back all his lines of inheritance at least three generations, and, in some cases, as many as nine.
“We connected up with the Follands in England and go back to the 1600s now. Someday, I’ll have enough time to carry all the lines back equally. For now, I tend to follow the path [line] of least resistance, or the line of most luck, like the Follands.”
“The Housers, back through my mother’s father, have been traced back quite a ways. Peter Houser was born about 1700 in Wonderburg, Germany. Other than his children and where he lived, that’s all we know about Herr Houser.
“One of his sons, Abraham-senior, it turns out, but that came later-was a Dunker preacher, so called because they practiced triune immersion, that is, one dunking for each of the Holy Trinity. The members of the Church of the Brethren left Germany in two groups, one in 1719 and the next in 1729 and emigrated to Pennsylvania. My Housers were among them,” Ed concludes.
The Skinner ancestors came from the county of Devonshire in England. You can get a lot of contemporary information about the area because it’s a favorite vacation area for Londoners. There’s all sorts of stuff available on the Web.
“Several years ago we were planning a trip to Devon. One afternoon, my wife and I went to a Phoenix book store and browsed through a book on Bed and Breakfasts in the Barnstaple (Devon, England) area. One of the places, Ashelford, looked very interesting. They had an Email address which made the reservations easy to make so we decided to give it a try. We absolutely loved the place and, it turns out, it used to be owned by someone named Skinner!”
Devonshire is at the top of the jointed toe of England that sticks out into the Atlantic. Imagine a square with the north and west sides on the coastline, that’s Devon, right at the knuckle where the toe bends. Up on the north edge are a bunch of resort towns and also the Exmoor National Park where the story of Lorna Doone took place.
“All the towns up there face onto the Bristol Channel and, if you sail due north from there, you’ll run into the bottom of Wales.
“Conversely, if you put on your hiking boots and strike due south all the way across, you’ll be in Plymouth.
“And, finally, the Tarka Line railway passes through the area where the nature story, Tarka, the Otter, is placed, but I don’t think I’ve ever read that one.
“Regardless, it’s a beautiful country, most of it very green and lush.
“But I also liked the moors,” Ed says. “Even though parts of it had few trees or bushes and much of it was only rough, anemic-looking grasses on rolling hills – the moors, you know – for someone who lives in the Arizona Sonoran desert, I felt right at home with all the open space.”
Thinking of Devon as a square again, Barnstaple and Pilton are mid-way down the west side, on the River Taw, a couple of miles inland from where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Barnstaple was great,” Ed says. “The place is vibrant and thriving. There are some very good restaurants, live theater, busy libraries, traffic jams and groceries, an open-air market, community bus services, young people, affluent middle class, retired folks, and like most places, some poor and disadvantaged. By and large, however, it seemed a safe and very interesting place.
“In Barnstaple, twice every day the Taw river flows out with the tide. It almost completely disappears. Boats are tied with long ropes and, at low tide, they’re all sitting in the mud. Then, the river comes back in, slowly at first but, within an hour, it’s really moving. I can see why ships had to sail with the tide, not against it.
“One of my favorite spots was the open-air market. It reminded me a lot of markets in the states, but they’ve become pretty hard to find there. We have a couple around Phoenix and they’re a lot like the Pannier Market in Barnstaple. There’s fresh produce, flowers, junky tools and plastic shoes from foreign manufacturers, and tons of crafts by local people. You can buy CDs and tapes, teddy bears in suits, and dolls dressed like the queen. It’s all there.
“In the evenings I went to various pubs and restaurants. I found a little Italian place I really liked; I think it was on Southport Street, on the right-hand side as you walk up from the river and just after the Victoria Theater. There, for desert, I had something with clotted cream which sounds disgusting but is actually wonderful. It’s basically a very rich, very thick cream, so thick that it sits on top of a desert like whipped cream, but even richer. The owner of the restaurant told me it was a specialty of the area and I haven’t found it anywhere else. No doubt I’ll carry it on the insides of my arteries for the rest of my life!”
Ed goes on, “The earliest Skinner I know for certain is my great, great grandfather, Hugh. He was born in 1808 in Marwood, a few miles north of Barnstaple. We think his father was named Robert but, at the moment, we haven’t connected our Skinners with any of the other, well-documented, lines. Someday, probably through the [Skinner Family Association,] we may be able to connect everyone together.
“Hugh’s family came from Marwood. The church at Marwood has several Skinners in the graveyard. I carefully copied down the details-some of the markers were very heavily worn and hard to read-and hope to make sense of everyone eventually. Marwood itself can’t be more than a dozen houses on top of a steep hill.
“The village is accessible only by one of those tiny little single lane roads the Brits zoom around on. Someone told me the logic of going 80 miles an hour down a single-lane, curving road with six foot hedges on both sides. They claimed that the longer you’re on the road, the higher your probability of ramming head-on into another car. Therefore, the quicker you get off that road, the better your chances. Hence, the high speed many drivers use on these terrifying roads!
“Personally, I tried a more reasonable speed, but it still scared the Hell out of both myself and my wife when we rounded a sharp corner going steeply uphill and met a milk truck charging down. Both the truck and we braked hard, sat there and stared at each other for a moment, and then the truck-er, make that “lorry”-driver shook his head. He wasn’t going to try backing up the hill to make way for us. Resolutely, I could see him shifting into first gear and preparing to continue down the hill and, if I read his determination correctly, he would drive right over us if necessary. There was nothing to do but put our rental car into reverse and drive backwards, down the sharply winding, steep road, and find a break in the hedge where we could tuck ourselves in-elbows tucked inside-to let the lorry pass. Phew!”
When tracking down distant relatives, two general sources of information are very helpful. First, official records of births, deaths and marriages kept by the state or church, and then, second, printed books, pamphlets, and so forth-the things in any public library-are very helpful in putting the pieces of history and individual lives together. In Barnstaple, many of the books of interest to genealogists are stored in a special research room, upstairs from the main library.
The librarians won’t do the actual research, of course. “But they were extremely helpful once they heard my accent. When I found the microfilmed marriage record for Hugh Skinner and Catherine Folland (5-May-1831), they pushed my copy request ahead
of several others to accommodate my travel schedule. And when I mentioned that I was next going to the record office for official copies of some birth records, one gentleman led me over to the window and pointed out the government record office a block away as well as a good place for lunch.
“Hugh and Catherine were married in Pilton, right next to Barnstaple and “down the lane” from Marwood. Barnstaple is on the East side of the River Yeo-a small stream actually-and Pilton is on the West. (And Marwood is to the North, but not on any river.)
“Getting to the Pilton church where Hugh and Catherine were married in 1831 is an easy walk from the Barnstaple library which is near where the Yeo and Taw rivers meet. Take the Pilton Causeway, turn left onto Pilton Quay (and over the Yeo) and then immediately right onto Pilton Street and you’ll be headed up a hill. At the top of the hill is the church.
“My Dad’s middle name is Folland,” Ed says, “but before discovering that Hugh married Catherine Folland, we didn’t know where the name came from. Traipsing around Marwood and the nearby farms, we came across the Blake family name: my grandfather’s full name was Edward Blake Skinner so I’m guessing there is a Skinner-Blake marriage somewhere in the family, too.”
“Back in the 1860s, one of the Skinners owned a hotel in England. We think this was Benjamin but we’re not sure if he was Hugh’s brother, first cousin, uncle, or son.
Instow is on the east bank of the Torridge which flows north into the Taw which is headed west just before it empties into the ocean. Instow, at the juncture of the two rivers and their common mouth, looks out into the Atlantic, and is a popular beach resort in the summer.
“We visited the hotel’s former location. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1972 and an apartment complex sits there now.
“Regardless, we have this neat photograph of the old Marine Hotel!”
In the official record of their marriage, Catherine is listed as being of the Pilton parish while Hugh was in the parish. His “profession” is given as Sojourner which indicated not his work, but rather that he was from somewhere else and only in the area temporarily.
“We’re not yet sure where they took up residence at first, but we do know they had a bunch of kids,” Ed says.
“Referring to Hugh and Catherine’s lives twenty years later, one family historian (Greta Shutt) left a note in one of her workbooks that Hugh had a successful business in Barnstaple as a Glazier in the 1850s. Greta wondered why he would uproot his family and business, move to Canada, and basically start all over again.
“That mystery aside, I also have the problem of figuring out what happened to all the kids. It looks like Hugh and Catherine had at least a dozen children but not all of whom survived infancy. There are two Georges, for example, the first of whom lived less than a year. Ten months later, they had my great grandfather, George Henry Skinner.
Around 1856, Hugh and Catherine decided to move the family to Canada, to Guelph in Ontario for unknown reasons.
So many people were emigrating to North America that the British government gave up on trying to keep track of who was leaving on which ship. Many of the shipping companies kept logs but many others didn’t, or they’ve been lost over the years. Hugh and Catherine’s crossing, as well as the reason for going, is a mystery.
But once they arrived in Guelph, things start happening.
“Guelph is where my ancestry gets real busy,” Ed says. “George marries Elizabeth Bessie Watson and, from there, it ultimately leads to me.”
Bessie’s parents, James Watson and Margaret Clarke, had similarly moved their family the year before. They came from the Meigle and Glamis area in Perthshire, Scotland, from a farm estate called Lang Logie that’s on the south side of highway A94, northeast of Perth.
“It’s marked on the Ordnance map as langlogie about two miles east of Meigle. To the northwest are the Grampian Mountains. There are few trees or bushes and, in December, you can stand outside the barn and see the snow drifting down on the Highlands. Like the moors down in Devon and the desert back home in Phoenix, the open Highlands exert a strong pull. I wanted to just start walking to see what was up there,” Ed said.
After a moment, he continues. “Back in the middle of the 1800s, I guess the Watsons felt the same wanderlust, but for even more pressing reasons. First of all, Cholera epidemics had killed thousands of Scots in 1832, again in 1848 and then a third time, in 1854, the year before they left.
The Highland Clearances
Scotland and England battled back and forth for hundreds of years. In the 1700s, however, the English pretty much took over. They wrote laws to break up the Scottish clans which they saw as the source of the long-running disagreements.
The London government’s strategy was simple. First, swords and wearing the tartan were outlawed. Second, the former clan chiefs were made into land-owners, and then they were taxed. A lot.
To pay the taxes, the land-owners had to have crops to sell and, to do that, they needed workers so they hired their former clan-members who were already living on and working the land.
Everyone was doing what they’d done before; leaders led and workers worked,
but it was different: what was a flat society with clan-chiefs holding rank only with the tribe’s agreement and support, had become a hierarchy with land-owners over tenants. This was what the English wanted.
The English crown continued increasing the taxes on the land-owners, higher and higher. To make ends meet, many land-owners abandoned farming and converted the land
to raising sheep. They needed far fewer workers for that and it turned a better profit. Over time (and lots of taxes), “clan loyalty” gave way to “tenant versus land-owner” and the families that worked the land were evicted. This “cleared” the Highlands of what Ebenezer Scrooge would refer to in “A Christmas Carol” as “the excess population.”
Back to the Watsons
“Second, the Irish potato famine was only six years back (1848) and it had pushed many Irish into Scotland where things were only marginally better.
“Third, this was the age of the Industrial Revolution and fewer workers were needed as mechanization grew. People were out of work, there was no land to till
and no place to stay. Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century was a pretty bleak place.
“Now, I’m only guessing,” Ed warns, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Watsons who had worked the farm and lived at Lang Logie for some time-James Watson, Bessie’s Dad, was born about 1808 at the toll house which we’ve recently learned is a hundred yards west of the main house-were competing against other farm workers who had been pushed out of the Highlands in their search for survival. Lang Logie’s owners in the 1840s and 1850s, under pressure of increasing taxes, probably hired the cheaper labor to try and make their financial ends meet. But whatever the reasons, we know that about 1854, the Watsons picked up everything they owned, moved to Liverpool and, within a year, sailed for Canada.
“Coming over, they struggled with Smallpox and a mid-Atlantic fire on the Shepherd (or Shepherdess) sailing ship before being quarantined temporarily at Grosse Ile., near present day Quebec City. From there they moved furthur up the St. Lawrence and across Lake Ontario before going inland, probably through Hamilton, to Guelph which had been recently founded by John Galt where the Eramosa and Speed Rivers join.
“We probably won’t ever know for sure how George Skinner and Bessie Watson met but perhaps they shopped at the same farmer’s market or dry goods store, passed each other on the boardwalk one afternoon, or made eye contact across the sanctuary one Sunday morning. Regardless, George and Bessie married not too long after each of their families arrived and they raised six very successful kids, one of whom is my grandad, Edward Blake Skinner, who I mentioned before.”
“My grandad said he was born on the kitchen table at Braeside on the coldest day of the year, him and his fraternal twin, Arthur Frederick Skinner.”
“George and Bessie would have a total of six children, three boys and three girls
who would each have families of their own. Along with their aunts and uncles, many stayed in or near Guelph but a few, like my grandad, eventually moved. A lot of that was brought about through the Great Depression.”
Ed leans back in his chair.
“I could really go on in even greater detail from there, but I guess that should really go in a book or something. Let me tie up a couple of loose thoughts before we end this.”
“Now, in every family there are stories that are passed on and everyone enjoys, but nobody knows for sure if its really true. In my family, I’ve been told we’re related to Edwin M. Stanton but, so far, I haven’t been able to prove it.
“Stanton was Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln and, from what I’ve read, he wasn’t what you’d call cooperative. Lincoln wanted to help the South rebuild after the Civil War but Stanton wanted to punish them. And after Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton really got into it with the next president, Andrew Johnson, who finally threw him out of office. But Stanton knew his rights and went to the US Senate, got their concurrence that what the President had done was illegal, and Stanton moved right back in. The whole ruckus almost got Andrew Johnson impeached but, when that failed, Stanton resigned.
“It seems a little odd doesn’t it that, after all that fight, Stanton would quit? But that’s all the history books have to say in the matter. There are two biographies of Stanton-I’ve got them listed in my notes somewhere-and, when I get around to it, maybe I’ll find out what really happened.
“But for the moment, I’m still trying to figure out if he’s related and the only Stanton I’ve found in my family tree is someone named Rhuanna Stanton. She lived in Baltimore about the same time but she’s not a wife or sister of Edwin. Maybe she’s a cousin.
“But whether that fellow is related or not, I sure admire his spunk.”
Other family names in Ed’s ancestry include Draper, Clarke, Folland, Large, Love, Rohrer and Stanton.
“I show the Draper family in Indiana in the middle 1800s, the Large group in Ontario, and the Clarkes in both Scotland and in Ontario.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do to try and keep this balanced. You see, I’m not really a Scot, or a Brit, or any other single nationality,” Ed explains.
“I’ve been reading a lot of history along the way and I’ve learned that, if you look at any one particular location, people come and go and, if you look back far enough, everybody comes from somewhere else.
“People seem to be in motion every couple of generations,” he adds. “I guess one place just gets too much history with one name and the new generation just wants to go somewhere and start with a clean slate. But that’s just one reason. There’s also famine, war, and the greener pasture syndrome.
“To show you what I mean, Scot-land was named for a group of Celts, the Scots from Northern Ireland. Before that, the land had been known as Alba or Alban. One of the main groups on Alban were the Picts who, according to some authorities, had come earlier from Europe.
“And the English whom I think of as living in the southern part of the continent, are largely descended from Angles and Saxons who crossed the channel from northern Europe and pushed the earlier inhabitants into Wales.
“The Romans were there for a long time also and they tended to push everybody around quite a lot. In their time, they inter-married and raised families in these same areas.
“Also, the vikings from Scandinavia sailed over from time to time as did the Danes who sometimes commanded most of the North Sea. All of these invaders wrestled with the inhabitants-on the battlefield and elsewhere-and spread their culture as well as their chromosomes.”
“I could be as Norwegian and Italian as I am British, Irish and Scottish,” Ed concludes. “Maybe that’s why I tend to like just about every kind of food-everything except pickled herring, that is. (Maybe I’m not very Scandinavian after all.)
“But I must confess I have an irresistible interest, definitely out of proportion to their genetic contribution, to those who share my last name. Even though I know that the way we pass names from one generation to the next by using only the father’s family name is an arbitrary choice, there’s simply no denying the thrill of finding someone named Skinner in my family tree.”