Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 29 (C.C. Denny)

Denny, C.C.
Denny: Genealogy in
England & America


This book is a family heirloom. It belongs to my mother, but I hold onto it for safekeeping. It traces her family history on her father's side back to Combes, Suffolk, England in 1439.

Reading this book as an adult had the effect of altering my perception of my family, especially as it related to American history. My father came from Brooklyn, a first generation Irish (Catholic) American. He ruled the roost when he was alive and so we all grew up with an understanding that our portion of the American story was the classic immigrant tale: our grandparents left an impoverished Ireland in the 20's, arrived in New York via Ellis Island, and went straight to work having kids and trying to make ends meet, raising their kids to believe that education was the key to success. (Note: "they" is strong, it was my grandmother who raised them. My grandfather was a deadbeat alcoholic who left around the time my father was 5). The children of the first generation worked hard, went to college and made their way to the middle and upper middle class within the span of their lives.

My mother has some Irish blood, and she was raised Catholic in Detroit and so was able to easily subsume her history under my father's in the name of family unity. But her history, it turns out, is almost the complete opposite of my father's. She recently visited and asked to see this book, so I did some research in order to be able to tell her family's story. Turns out they're (gasp) WASPS!

I discovered that this book is actually searchable in Google Books and that there is a fair amount of information about the Denny family online. They arrived in America in 1715 and became some of the earliest settlers of Leicester, MA. Several fought in the American Revolution and one was a delegate at the constitutional convention. For most of two centuries the Dennys were prominent farmers and mill owners in Leicester. There is a place in Leicester called "Denny Hill," which is named after them. I even found a painting on the Worcester Historical Museum site called, "Looking East From Denny Hill," painted by Ralph Earl in 1800. My direct relative, Theodore Vernon Denny, was a pioneer who left the homestead in 1825 or so and became an early settler of Indianapolis, IN. His daughter married one John Wade Thompson, who gave my mother and her father their surname.

For years, my mother thought that her great aunt, Kate Thompson, had authored this book, but she didn't. It was authored by Christopher Columbus Denny and published in 1886. It turns out this was Kate's copy of the book. It contains extensive notes she made to herself, and to my grandfather, to whom she handed it down. In the course of my research I discovered that she was indeed trying to write a book, but died before finishing. Her papers are collected at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. I also discovered that some other relative, Sith Thompson, who was apparently an important folklorist, wrote a book based on her research that was published in the early 1960s. It's not online yet, but they have it at Cornell, so I am hoping to head there some day to check it out.

It seems the impetus to her research was to establish a family connection to the mother of Abraham Lincoln, which apparently she did. If I have it correctly, Abraham Lincoln's mother was my great great great great grandmother's cousin, which, I think, makes honest Abe my fourth cousin, once removed.

The book itself contains some interesting documents, including deeds, wills, and several letters sent from England by the mother of the original settlers to her sons in America. It also contains one depressing and horrible fact: the Dennys were, at least for a time, slave owners. There is a will in the book that deeds a "negro boy" from one brother to another in the mid-eighteenth century. I presume this state of affairs didn't last too long, given that they remained in New England, but it's not a very heartening thing to discover in one's family history, and it certainly mars whatever glorious past one hopes to discover there.

from a letter by Grace Denny to her son, Daniel, Feb. 18, 1723 (or 4)

Deare Sonn Daniell,

Yrs of the 25 Nob(r) came to my hand on the day of the date of this. it came to me by the way of bury from yarmouth where madam Lorkin now lives I understand by a letter from madam that mr lorkin would have seen me and sonn Thomas but time being short and something else in the way have prevented out seeing him indeed madam was so kind as to lett sonn Thomas know that her sonn would be at Ipswich on the 19 instant in the evening at the kings head in his Return to London but alass the small poxx have Raged soe much there that I dard not advise him to hoe upon noe account soe that I must content my selfe with hearing from you only by letters some of which have come very slow....

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