2016: The 8th Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge

Oil Painting: Old woman in apron and shawl, c1876-1909; Otto Henry Bacher; Library of Congress.

Oil Painting: Old woman in apron and shawl, c1876-1909; Otto Henry Bacher; Library of Congress.

Each year for the past seven, genealogist bloggers have been invited to post a bit of poetry about a region, historical event, legend, or a person related to one of their ancestors. If you would like to participate, you can read more about the challenge on Bill West’s blog, “West in New England.”

Although National Poetry MONTH in the United States is in April, today (October 6th) is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom [per another friend Heather Wilkinson Rojo] I am posting my poetry submission today in honor of poetry and poets everywhere.

Here is the West In New England wrap up post with all the folks who participated in the challenge. Always fun to read them!

Sketch: Cottage from Isles of Shoals An Historical Sketch by John Scribner Jenness, 1888.

Sketch: Cottage from Isles of Shoals An Historical Sketch by John Scribner Jenness, 1888.

(From “Among the Isles of Shoals,” by Celia Laighton Thaxter, pp 68-70

Now no longer the little fleet goes forth; for the greater part of the islanders have stout schooners, and go trawling with profit, if not with pleasure. A few solitaries fish in small dories and earn a slender livelihood thereby.

The sea helps these poor people by bringing fuel to their very doors; the waves continually deposit driftwood in every fissure of the rocks. But sad, anxious lives they have led, especially the women, many of whom have grown old before their time with hard work and bitter cares, with hewing of wood and drawing of water, turning of fish on the flakes to dry in the sun, endless household work, and the cares of maternity, while their lords lounged about the rocks in their scarlet shirts in the sun or “held up the walls of the meeting-house,” as one expressed it, with their brawny shoulders. I never saw such wrecks of humanity as some of the old women of Star Island, who have long since gone to their rest. In my childhood I caught glimpses of them occasionally, their lean brown shapes crouching over the fire, with black pipes in their sunken mouths, and hollow eyes, “of no use now but to gather brine,” and rough, gray, straggling locks: despoiled and hopeless visions, it seemed as if youth and joy could never have been theirs.

Isles of Shoals, 1844

Over the embers she sits,
Close at the end of the grave,
With her hollow eyes like pits,
And her mouth like a sunken cave.

Her short black pipe held tight
Her withered lips between,
She rocks in the flickering light
Her figure bent and lean.

She turns the fish no more
That dry on the flakes in the sun;
No wood she drags to the door,
Nor water,– her labor is done.

She cares not for oath or blow,
She is past all hope or fear;
There is nothing she cares to know,
There is nothing hateful or dear.

Deep wrong have the bitter years
Wrought her, both body and soul.
Life has been seasoned with tears;
But saw not God the whole?

O wreck in woman’s shape!
Were you ever gracious and sweet?
Did youth’s enchantment drape
This horror, from head to feet?

Have dewy eyes looked out
From these hollow pits forlorn?
Played smiles the mouth about
Of shy, still rapture born?

Yea, once. But long ago
Has evil ground away
All beauty. The salt winds blow
On no sorrier sight to-day.

Trodden utterly out
Is every spark of hope.
There is only left her, a doubt,
A gesture, half-conscious, a grope

In the awful dark for a Touch
That never yet failed a soul.
Is not God tender to such?
Hath he not seen the whole?

Map, Isles of Shoals, by Edmund M. Blunt, 1837; Library of Congress

Map, Isles of Shoals, by Edmund M. Blunt, 1837; Library of Congress


She was known only as Elinor, this brave, ancient woman of New Hampshire. She had been born in England about 1624. By 1646 she was living near what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire, married to a fisherman named William Urin/Vrin. She had four children by him, and lived with her mate on that desolate ‘heape of rocks,” known as the Isles of Shoals. Her existence would have been hard. The Celia Thaxter poem reminded me of  her, as I sometimes wonder how terrible it must have been to live and raise children where she did.

A lifetime was often short in those days, and when William died at the age of 39 she still had children to raise.  The Shoalers were known for their drinking and swearing, including the women. The then “Widow Urin” was engaged in selling spirituous liquors on Star Island to residents and transient fishermen. “Large numbers among the fishermen were arraigned and convicted of being drunk, cursing and swearing; and among that number are, naturally, enrolled the names of those hapless husbands, whose wives had been punished as ‘notorious and common scolds.’  Was Elinor one of those hard drinking, swearing, tough old women?

Elinor married a second time, to Richard Wellcomb, another Shoaler fisherman, and she bore him two children. Elinor died in September 1699 at the age of 75 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was my 8th great-grandmother.

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11 Responses to 2016: The 8th Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge

  1. June Saxon says:

    Elinor was your 8th great-grandmother Janice? I have always been intrigued by the stories that came out of the Isles of Shoals and have a few books on them. This was another interesting read by you! June

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you June. Yes Elinor was my 8th great-grandmother. I am a direct descendant of Elinor and William Urin’s son John Urin. The name evolved a few generations later to Uran. My son is descended from Shoalers on both sides of his family, through his father from Robert Mace of Gosport, Isles of Shoals. And I agree, there are some amazing stories about those hardy, irreverent sailors and fishermen and women.

      • June Saxon says:

        That is so interesting about your son being descended from Shoalers. I have a book written by John W. Downs called “Sprays of Salt” that I received from my daughter as a Christmas present. It was published in 1944.

        • Janice Brown says:

          Yes June! He is a double descendant because he has a direct Shoaler ancestor from both me and his dad. I am not sure what benefits there are to that, but he doesn’t seem to get sea sick.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Janice, nice post! I have yet to venture out to the Shoals but have read about them. Maybe a visit next summer! You story made me think about my 8th great grandmother Susannah Martin North, who was one of the poor ladies of Salem who were hung as a witch in Salem. I should write a little story about her, even though not a lot of history is not known other than the transcripts of her trial. How amazing these generation of ladies were!! Marilyn

    • Janice Brown says:

      Marilyn, I have been to the Shoals many times. It is a rough and rocky place still. You and I are cousins apparently. Susannah North who married George Martin and died 19 July 1692, murdered as a reputed ‘witch’ is my 9th great-grandmother. I am descended from their son, Richard Martin and his wife, Mary Hoyt.

      • June Saxon says:

        I have been fortunate to visit Star Island back in 2009 and take pictures of Smuttynose since I was so interested in the murder back in 1873 of the girls from Norway by Louis Wagner (supposedly) but I believe he is the murderer. I descend from some Hoyts too so need to brush up on that search. Will look into it further! Thanks for these comments!

  3. Michelle says:

    Thank you…I love your stories

  4. billwest says:

    Great post, Janice! I’ve read some of Ms. Thaxter’s other poems but hadn’t run across this one yet. Great physical description of the old woman. Thanks for taking part in the Challenge!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Several of my direct ancestors lived on Star Island and so Celia Thaxter could easily have been writing about one of them! Always happy to participate in your poetry challenge.

  5. Pingback: 2018: The 10th Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge | Cow Hampshire

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