‘I’m re­lated through mar­riage to an Amer­i­can icon’

As an aca­demic who taught pol­i­tics at univer­sity, Dr David Mervin’s link to a fa­mous Amer­i­can was a thrilling dis­cov­ery. Matt Ford finds out more

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - READER STORY -

emark­able coin­ci­dences are com­mon in fam­ily his­tory, but for Dr David Mervin – an Emer­i­tus Reader in Pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of War­wick – to find out he was re­lated to one of Amer­ica’s most iconic fig­ures through his wife must rank as one of the most as­ton­ish­ing.

“It’s funny, al­though I started off re­search­ing my own fam­ily, in many ways the real dis­cov­er­ies came when I set out to find my wife’s an­ces­tors.”

David’s in­ter­est in fam­ily his­tory be­gan soon af­ter his father’s death in 1998. Just be­fore he died, David’s father had com­pleted a mem­oir of his life and, as David read through it, he found an un­usual omis­sion. “The doc­u­ment raised a very sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion for me be­cause it turned out that my father didn’t know who his father’s an­ces­tors were,” says David. “He’d writ­ten: ‘Our father’s back­ground was al­ways some­thing of a mys­tery to me.’

“It turned out that my father had no knowl­edge of his own father’s back­ground. None of the six chil­dren, of whom my father was one, knew any­thing of their father’s ori­gins, where he had been born, or who his par­ents were.

“This trig­gered my in­ter­est in ge­neal­ogy and I de­cided to find out who my grand­fa­ther was – that’s where my in­ter­est in ge­neal­ogy came from. I was able to dis­cover that my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther had, in fact, been il­le­git­i­mate, and it was the whole scan­dal around that which led to all the se­crecy and mys­tery. Ob­vi­ously this was some time ago when th­ese things were seen very dif­fer­ently and that’s why it was all hushed up.

“I also dis­cov­ered that my grand­fa­ther’s father was a warder on a prison ship in Portsmouth Har­bour in the 1840s.

“Along the way, I had got the bug for ge­neal­ogy. I’d en­joyed my bit of de­tec­tive work so I de­cided to take on my wife’s fam­ily his­tory. But while there was scan­dal on my side, it turns out my wife’s fam­ily were far more dis­tin­guished.” knew that my wife’s fam­ily were Amer­i­can so I knew the process would be a bit dif­fer­ent to do­ing re­search on Bri­tish an­ces­tors,” says David. “For this rea­son, I started with fam­i­lysearch.org, be­cause it is such an ex­ten­sive re­source and found this a real help. Slowly, I was able to piece to­gether names and dates and grad­u­ally move back­wards.

“The real hook into it all, the ma­jor con­nec­tion for me, was look­ing at the fam­ily tree I was putting to­gether us­ing Ances­try’s Fam­ily Tree Maker, which has been of great value to me. I’ve not done a lot through Ances­try but its fam­ily tree soft­ware is very good and I have used it ex­ten­sively. The re­la­tion­ship cal­cu­la­tor in par­tic­u­lar is very use­ful for mak­ing con­nec­tions.”

Af­ter some re­search, David was de­lighted to dis­cover that his wife and chil­dren were di­rectly de­scended from one of the orig­i­nal Pil­grims who crossed the At­lantic from Eng­land to Amer­ica on the Mayflower in 1620. “This man, an 8x great grand­fa­ther of Kath­leen’s, had the slightly odd name of De­gory Priest,” says David.

“His birth­place is un­cer­tain but it may have been Hart­land in Devon.”

Once this fact was es­tab­lished, things re­ally opened up as David was able to ben­e­fit from sec­ondary ma­te­rial – the set­tle­ment of Amer­ica is a well re­searched his­tor­i­cal topic – and he quickly filled in some fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail. Of par­tic­u­lar value was a se­ries of pub­lished re­search vol­umes about the Mayflower fam­i­lies printed in the United States by the Gen­eral So­ci­ety of Mayflower De­scen­dents. “Th­ese are in­cred­i­bly use­ful,” says David. “They con­tain a huge amount of de­tail on the ge­neal­ogy and the fam­ily and I was able to draw ex­ten­sively on this re­search. It seems Priest be­came a sep­a­ratist, or a religious dis­senter who left Eng­land in 1608 with oth­ers from Scrooby, Not­ting­hamshire, to take up res­i­dence in Lei­den, Hol­land. While in the Nether­lands, Priest, a hat­ter by trade, mar­ried Sarah Vin­cent and they had two daugh­ters, Sarah and Mary.”

Un­for­tu­nately, De­gory was one of the many pas­sen­gers on the Mayflower who died dur­ing the first dread­ful win­ter af­ter they ar­rived.

How­ever, his wife back in Hol­land soon re­mar­ried and in 1623 fol­lowed him and crossed the At­lantic on the Anne with her new hus­band, their son and her two daugh­ters by De­gory. “One of th­ese, Mary, was then 10 years old,” says David. “Seven years later she mar­ried Phineas Pratt, a

David dis­cov­ered his wife and chil­dren were di­rectly de­scended from one of the orig­i­nal Pil­grims who crossed the At­lantic

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