‘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
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