Genealogical surprises: Colonial Virginia roots

US_flag_13_stars_–_Betsy_Ross.svgWith the arrival of Independence Day this year, I decided to look more closely at ancestors living in America when that fateful declaration of independence was made. Adam Darnell, for one, was a Revolutionary War soldier, born in Virginia.

It’s taken me a while to adjust to these more southerly roots. History ties one part my paternal grandmother’s ancestry firmly to Virginia from the 1600s, but I am a child of the Midwest Plains and Southwest and have always identified most strongly with these regions … almost as if my family had sprung directly from the soil of Iowa. I’ve always known better, of course. My Dutch ancestors obviously came from the Netherlands, others from Scandinavia, and the English line migrated westward from multiple eastern regions — Virginia being but one — to arrive in the Midwest. Still, Iowa has always felt like the center around which my extended family rotated. It’s where everyone converged to create American Laura. In short, I’ve considered myself Midwestern … or Southwestern … but never Southern. As a result, I’ve had to adjust to my Virginians … and have been trying to get to know Mr. Darnell.

Don’t get me wrong … it’s not at all personal, just new.  In the five years I lived in Washington, D.C., I loved visiting Virginia and felt comfortable and happy there. Driving through the state’s green rural hills to Harper’s Ferry, wandering the wonderful grounds of Mount Vernon, or slipping ’round to see Monticello on a day trip to Charlottesville was a comfortable and gentle respite from the denser life of D.C. … but I didn’t know much about my Virginia forebears then.

colonialvirginiaI have always known that I had a line of ancestors who, in my grandmother’s words, had been in America for “a very long time.” One reason I’ve not gotten overly  attached to some of my pre-19th-century American ancestors, especially in Virginia, is because I’ve lacked sufficient documentation to confirm certain ties. Ancestry DNA matches have now tentatively tied me to other descendants of Adam Darnell’s daughter Elizabeth, born about 1789, also in Virginia, and a more tenuous match ties me to his wife Catherine. I still have a lot of research to do on this line, so I’ll hold my understanding loosely for now and welcome input from those with more knowledge.

Adam Darnell was born in Virginia in 1754 and married Catherine Riley. He is said to have had a 17th-century ancestor who, at the urging of Maryland authorities, left Maryland for Virginia after his marriage to a Quaker. Records indicate that Adam himself was a private in the 3rd and 7th Virginia Regiments, and he is believed to have participated with many other regiments in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, as well as various skirmishes. Adam died in Kentucky, leading me to wonder if, like others, he took advantage of an offer of land there after the war, but he may well have arrived there later. Descendants of this family eventually made their way to eastern Iowa, and Adam’s granddaughter Louisa is buried in Clinton County. The next generation, still moving west, settled in Central Iowa, where my knowledge of this family is most firmly rooted … and where my own grandmother, their descendant, was eventually born.

revsoldierAll of this sorting of ancestors has gotten me thinking more deeply about what was going on in the minds of those Revolutionary Americans. The Revolutionary War was, in many ways, a family feud. With our ties to Great Britain in the 21st century now strong and restored, it is hard to imagine the environment of those times … and the potential for conflict between those with revolutionary fervor and those who still felt tied to the crown. It was a violent conflict. Ultimately, I suppose, the loyalty of revolutionary soldiers was to freedom, and thank God for that. While some have urged us to reframe our national past, including our founding, to focus on our national sins, which were plenty, it is helpful to try to look at it with 18th-century, rather than 21st-century, eyes.

As for me, I have always been fully American. While the British part of my DNA is fairly substantial, it’s also old and complicated, as part of it seems to have stretched across the water to Western Europe. Many in Mr. Darnell’s line and times, however, came directly from England. Their ties were recent. I’m grateful they persevered, in spite of this, to turn those colonies into an independent nation … and when all is said and done, yes … an exceptional one … so that later generations from around the globe could eventually root themselves freely in places like Iowa … or South Dakota … or California … or New Mexico … or Texas. The New World would eventually step up to serve alongside the Old World in important, world-saving conflicts in the 20th century. Providence, it turns out, has a hand in everything. Happy Independence Day.


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