How Far Back?

When I was a child in the 1970’s, long before the days of the Wikipedia, multi-player online gaming, NetFlix, or even Google and Facebook, instead of spending too much time watching syndicated Brady Bunch reruns after school, I spent time with my grandmother listening to her tell stories.

My grandmother was born in 1907. Her father was born ten years after the Civil War concluded, but before Reconstruction even thought about giving way. Her grandfather was named after a famous French Revolutionary war general who was an ally to the rebellious colonists in the battle for American Independence. And his grandfather (her Great-great) had fought alongside that famous French general in multiple battles from Charleston (against Cornwallis) to Yorktown; his name was Lafayette. (Go ahead, Google him.)

My grandmother was a student of early American history (among being a student of many things.) She made the past come alive for me through her stories and her indirect “education”. She wanted to instill in me a sense of who I am and who and where I came from. But instead of beating me over the head with a textbook, instead she turned it into a game.

Almost everyone has heard of the old college drinking game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The premise of the game is to come up with some random Hollywood actor/personality, and then in less than six connections, link that person to Kevin Bacon.
It goes something like this:

Choose a random Hollywood Actor who you would think has never had any connection Kevin Bacon; for instance:

1] Dame Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith was in “Curtain Call” in 1998,

2] With Frank Whaley,
who was in “JFK”, in 1991,

with Kevin Bacon.

That’s just TWO degrees of separation between one of the most lauded, awarded, British screen and stage actors, and one of the most ubiquitous brat pack character actors, whose career (mostly) came and went in the 1980’s.

Before Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was ever conceived, actually, before Kevin Bacon was even a teen idol gracing the pull-out centerfold of Tiger Beat magazine (yes, he did, and I had a few of them), my grandmother conceived a similar game based on our familial connections to essentially every major event in American or post-Reformation English history.

She called the game “How Far Back?” and how it was played was simple; I would name an event in history, or a person in history, and then she would – with me – trace our ancestral connection to that person, place or event. The goal was to make a clear known connection that was substantiated and recorded in the histories, rather than just surmising and going for “wishful thinking”.

Sometimes we’d spend days trying to establish the connection. Some day’s we couldn’t because she didn’t have access to the tools we take for granted today. But most of the time she could piece together the connections in her head and spit them out to me in moments, usually requiring a spare piece of paper to diagram the connections so I could see them with dates and names and geographical locations.

The world of the past was a far smaller world than the one we know today. Everyone knew everyone in a manner of speaking, and a lot of “the everyone’s” were blood kin. The connections were easier to make than they are today in an era when we don’t keep up with family and we care less about history (to our detriment.)

We’re all still just as related as we were then (say three hundred years ago), we just don’t know it. We’re too distracted by NetFlix, multi-player online gaming, and who got killed off on the Good Wife on Tee-Vee. Tragic.

So here was one of my favorite connections from “How Far Back?””

Thomas Harriot; the famed, post-Renaissance ethnographer, linguist, scientist, and astronomer who was indispensable in helping Galileo get his telescopes and star charts in order…

1] Harriot served under the patronage of Sir Walter Raleigh,

2] who, after the failure of the Lost Colony at Manteo, clandestinely advised the Virginia Company and specifically Captain John Smith on how to prepare for a second attempt at colonization in the Chesapeake region.

3] Captain Smith, upon landing in Chesapeake, selected “ten worthy men” to explore the interior of Virginia with him. Those men were the only ones who survived the “starving times” at Jamestown, the Indian massacres, and the infighting the nearly killed the new colony. One of those men was Robert Beheathland. Beheathland was one of only two original colonists who survived to have descendants in the New World.

4] Robert Beheathland’s daughter, Dorothy, married a man named Randall Crew (whose descendants were implicated in Bacon’s Rebellion, BTW – as a proud aside.) Dorothy and Randall are my 11th generation great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

And so you see, “How Far Back?” can take you places you may never have imagined. In my family’s case, it takes us all the way back to the original founding of the nation that would become the USA, to First Contact with the Powhatan Nation, and to the reorganizing of the entire world map, and world political view.

Through that connection my blood kin touch Elizabeth I, and even King Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Frances Bacon, Sir Walsingham (bastard!) and the greatest minds and players of the age. It might be stretch but if I worked at it, I suspect I could directly connect Shakespeare himself into this mix, which might be fun.

It’s a great game. And it helps me explain why my family is so complicated and mixed up and obsessive. We have a very long history.

But then so does every family – if they bothered to figure out their own connections.

While this may seem boring trivia to most folks, I promise, it makes great cocktail party banter and goes a long way towards explaining why half the books in my library have a strange, Medieval looking bookplate with a Griffon on it and the phrase “Truth Against the World” as its motto.

My grandmother died in 1990. I’ve had no one to play “How Far Back?” with since. Anyone game?

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