Friday, March 10, 2017

Top Ten Genealogy "Close Calls"

What’s a “Genealogy Close Call”?  It happens when I research an ancestor and realize that if fate didn’t intervene I wouldn’t be here today.  Some of our ancestors narrowly escaped disasters, only to live on and produce a descendant that led to YOU!   Read down the list, and you’ll instantly know what I mean.  I’m sure there are many “close calls” in your family tree, too.  Why don’t you tell me about some of these bits of serendipity in the comments?

Close Call No. 1:
John Howland (1592 – 1673) is my 9th great grandfather on both my mother’s side, and my father’s side of the family.  He had a very close call on his way to Massachusetts on board the ship Mayflower in 1620. Halfway across the Atlantic the Pilgrims encountered a great storm. For some unknown reason, the passenger John Howland was on deck instead of below with the other Pilgrims.  He fell overboard, but miraculously grabbed a rope that was hanging over the side of the ship, and he was hauled to safety.  Young John was described in William Bradford’s journal “though he was somewhat ill with it, yet he lived many years after.”  He later married Elizabeth Tilley, another passenger, and had many children, including the two daughters, Hope and Desire, from whom I descend.  If not for that rope, I wouldn’t be here today.

Close Call No. 2:
I have many ancestors who were involved in the 1692 Witchcraft Hysteria that hit Salem, Massachusetts. Three were hanged, many others were imprisoned, brought to trial, accused and otherwise abused.  The ones who were hanged (Bridget Bishop, John Proctor and George Jacobs) were past their prime, with grown children, so their deaths did not mean that my lineage never occurred.  However, I had one ancestress, Elizabeth Collston (b. 1676), my 7th great grandmother, who was arrested and imprisoned with her mother and grandmother.  At some point 16 year old Elizabeth Collston escaped.  And she escaped a second time weeks later!  Considering that she could have been brought to trial and hanged like the three ancestors mentioned above, she also could have died in jail because the conditions were appalling.  Lucky Elizabeth escaped, married in 1703, and had a daughter, Mary Collston, who was my 6th great grandmother.  Thank you Elizabeth!

Close Call No. 3:
My 7th great grandfather, William Munroe (1625 – 1718) was a Scots warrior in the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.  The Scots lost the battle, and survivors were rounded up and marched without food to London to be shipped on board the John and Sarah to Boston to be sold into servitude.  If you read about the Scots prisoners of war, there were not many survivors of this bloody battle.  There were not many survivors of this forced march to London.  Some died on board the ship on their way to the New World. Somehow young William survived all this to be sold on the docks into servitude.  The Scots were not welcome in Puritan Boston, but most of these men survived and married and left many descendants.  William married in 1665 to Martha George and had four children, including my 6th great grandfather, George Munroe (about 1672 – 1747), and remarried twice more and had ten more children!  There are many descendants who feel quite grateful that William was a survivor!

Close Call No. 4:   
My 4th great grandfather, Johann Daniel Bollman (about 1751 – 1833) was born in Hammersleben, Saxony, Germany.  He was a surgeon, and a Hessian officer during the American Revolutionary War.  He served with Baron de Riedesel’s Brunswick Regiment.  They fought at the Battle of Bennington in August 1777 where about 200 Hessians were killed and 700 were captured.  Then they fought in September at the Battle of Saratoga where my ancestor was captured.  Most of the Germans were marched to prison camps near Boston.  However, since he was a doctor, he was one of the first men to be included in a prisoner exchange and sent to Halifax.  He settled in the town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia – not far from Halifax.  He survived two bloody battles and being captured.  Dr. Bollman became a politician, as well as the town doctor.  He was a member of the House of Assembly and represented Lunenburg from 1793 - 1809.   He was a physician for 54 years and died at age 82.   Click this link to learn more about this ancestor:  

Close Call No. 5:
My 5th great grandfather, Levi Younger (1756 – 1806) served in the Revolutionary War as a seaman.  This wasn’t unusual because he was a mariner from Gloucester, Massachusetts.  However, what was unusual was that he was captured and sent to the prison ship “Favorite” in New York harbor.  If you read or Google what the conditions were like on those British prison ships you will wonder how Levi Younger survived this ordeal.  Then he was brought to Forten Prison at Gosport near Portsmouth in England.  Googling the story of Forten Prison will make your hair stand on end. Somehow young Levi survived all this, returned to Gloucester, and married in 1784.  He had five children, including Levi, Jr. (1786 – 1858), my 4th great grandfather.

Close Call No. 6:
Levi Younger, Jr. (1786 – 1858) is my 4th great grandfather.  His father  (see above) was captured as a seaman during the Revolutionary War.  Levi, Jr., was also a mariner, and when the War of 1812 occurred, he stepped in to serve his country in defense of the New England coast.  You guessed it – Levi was one of the many American sailors “impressed” into the British navy during the War of 1812.  He was listed as “refusing to do so service [and] have been punished”.  Like father like son.  He also survived his ordeal and was married in 1816 in Boston and had five children, including my 4th great grandmother, Mary Esther (Younger) Emerson described below.

Close Call No. 7:
This one is quite a story!  James Stilson, my 7th great grandfather, was born about 1680 in Maine near the Pemaquid River.  He was captured in 1689, along with his mother, two sisters and a brother, and taken by the Indians to Quebec, Canada.  His mother was redeemed after a few years, but James was not ransomed for 12 years.  He heard that a New England woman was still being held prisoner, and he went back to see her, and liked what he saw.  Her name was Hannah Odiorne, the widow of John Batson of Cape Porpoise, Maine.  He ransomed and married her in the Roman Catholic church of Notre Dame in Montreal.  They had both been baptized Roman Catholic during their captivity.  Their first child, Marie Anne Stilson dit Dutilly Odiorne was baptized Roman Catholic on 8 March 1707.  They were remarried in Boston upon returning to New England.   The baby baptized in Montreal is my 6th great grandmother, Hannah (AKA Marie Anne) who married Thomas Mead on 2 May 1725 in New Castle, New Hampshire.

Close Call No. 8:
Mary Esther Younger (1826 -1913) was my 3rd great grandmother. Her father was a mariner from Gloucester who lived in Boston.  Her mother died very young, leaving Esther motherless, and two little brothers also died at the same time.  Her father remarried, but there must be more to the story because Esther was adopted by her father’s sister and her husband, David Harris.  She was raised by the David Harris family (this was another longer story on how I puzzled out her real parents).   What kind of dreadful disease or accident took the mother and brothers? Was Mary Esther lucky to have survived?

Close Call No. 9:
George Emerson (1817 – 1890) was my 3rd great grandfather.  He was a young husband with a wife (Mary Esther Younger, above) and two small children when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mills in California in 1848.  On February 4, 1849 George was one of the 100 members of the New England and California Trading and Mining Company that left Boston on board the ship Leonore for San Francisco.  Yes, he was “49er”!  They arrived 150 days later via Cape Horn in San Francisco Bay.  There are a few surviving diaries from other members of this group of gold miners, and one describes George Emerson as sick and dying, left by the side of a California creek to write his will.   Somehow George survived, and made his way home to Boston where he had six more children.  One was Mary Katharine Emerson, my great great grandmother.  She wouldn’t have been born if he had died in California, like many other 49ers.  Click this link to learn more about my '49er ancestor:  

Close Call No. 10:
My great great grandfather, Abijah Franklin Hitchings (1841 – 1910) served twice in the Civil War. His second enlistment brought him with Company H, 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry to the Battle of Fredricksburg where he was shot in the leg on 13 December 1862.  He was discharge for his wounds on 25 July 1863 at Boston.  His leg wound was horrific, but he refused to let them amputate.  He suffered for the rest of his life from terrible diseases like necrosis.  I have a 100 page pension report with lots of pages of medical reports from his annual trips to the medical facilities at the Old Soldier’s Home in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  He walked with a cane for the rest of his life.  Fortunately, he was well enough to marry on 22 September 1864 and had two children, including my great grandfather, Arthur Treadwell Hitchings (1868 – 1937).   Personally, I think this is quite a miracle since we all know how terrible the medical attention was during the Civil War battles (not just from TV, but from historical accounts), and he lived through infections and necrosis in the years before antibiotics became available.  Look up necrosis – it’s quite nasty.   Click this link to learn more about A. F. Hitchings:   

The image above is from the journal Blast from the Ram's Horn, 1902, page 249


Alona Tester, an Australian genealogy blogger, was inspired by this blog post and wrote her own about her Australian ancestors and their "Close Calls".  You can read these stories at this link:


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Top Ten Genealogy "Close Calls", Nutfield Genealogy, posted March 10, 2017, ( accessed [access date]). 


  1. Heather, you are not only a talented genealogist but also a true story teller. I was spellbound by these "close call" narratives! You've inspired me to dig deeper into my family tree. I do know that my husband's tree has some doozies, like the Larimer ancestor who was shipwrecked enroute from Northern Ireland to America, rescued (the only survivor of that ship, supposedly), and then worked years to pay off his rescuer. And he has 4 Mayflower ancestors, 2 of whom survived to the first Thanksgiving--another close call. Thanks for the inspiration and opportunity for gratitude.

    1. Thanks for the story, Marian! Surviving a shipwreck is certainly a very "close call"!

  2. My husbands great grandfather (Robert Stephens) was carrying a shell box from Virginia to Pennsylvania. He developed a hernia, as large as a hernia, and that July Morning in Gettysburg, was sent to a military hospital in Washington DC. Information was found in his Civil War Pension file.

  3. Very interesting post! My 2nd great grandfather was born into a Welsh family who held the concession for the pony carts in the mine in Merthyr Tydfil. When he was 11, an accident with the pony cart caused him to lose his leg. Fortunately his mother tended him well and he recovered to eventually have 6 children and bring his family to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio.

  4. Hi! This isn't my personal close call, but in researching a message in a bottle from 1930, I discovered another family's close call and was enthralled by the man's life. He survived getting hit by a train, two weeks after witnessing a separate train accident! Here's my post about it all if you're interested:

  5. I'm also a descendant of two American colonists children taken to Quebec. I guess i have tons of Indian raids in my background. Possible Howland descendant too. Survivor of a forced Native removal. One ancestor spent his entire Civil War service in a hospital ill with dysentery, malaria and typhoid... never fired a shot!

  6. Wow! I love the stories! It's terrific how we know so many details from the lives of ancestors so long ago. Thank you each and every one of you!

  7. John Howland is my close call, too.

  8. Those are amazing stories of close calls!!! Mine from a newspaper article Saved By A Match about Captain Edward Wallace Shackford & his crew aboard the Johanna Swan in 1898.

  9. If you needed it, these close calls would surely give you a new appreciation for life. Just one slip in these plot lines and the entire narrative would be different. Great read!

  10. What incredible stories! (And, I want some New England ancestors!) It is amazing that all the choices and "close calls" that our ancestors took part in led to us being born!


    1. Ron, did you have an ancestor survive "The Children's Blizzard" of 1888?