Monday, July 27, 2009

What IS a Family? (Part 1)

In tracing the Jenner side of my family back to its immigrant ancestor, I discovered that young Samuel Jenner I arrived in America as an infant around 1650 in the company of his mother, Hannah (Barrett) Jenner. His father, Richard Jenner, had died around the time of his birth. The widow Jenner left her two oldest children in England and ventured off to the New World to live in the care of her brother, Samuel Barrett. While it may seem inconceivable in our time that a women would leave two of her own children behind and cross the Atlantic Ocean to stay with her brother, it must be understood in its historical context.

The newborn Samuel Jenner was probably still nursing at the time Hannah was widowed. She was a Puritan and being persecuted for her faith. She and her children were in constant danger in England. Her brother, Samuel Barrett, on the other hand, appears to have been well established in the New World, where she would be accepted and nurtured along with her newborn son.

Not long after arriving in America, Hannah met and married a John Coe. She had two more children by John: Andrew Coe in 1654, and Hannah Coe in 1655 or 1656. At first, I filed this remarriage away as an interesting factoid. After all, this John Coe and his descendents were not ancestors of mine, so they were merely a footnote at the time I learned about them. It was only later, as I began to prepare and view Hannah's and Samuel's lives in narrative form, that it occurred to me that they were still family.

Although not his biological father, it was clearly John Coe who actually helped raise young Samuel Jenner. It would have been John and Hannah who instilled in Samuel the strength of character that propelled him to be one of the founders of ancient Woodbury township, where he is buried. It would have been John who taught him how to work, and the skills he would need to build a life for his family in the American frontier. It would have been John who served as his model for what a father should be -- and apparently it was a good model, since Samuel sired eight children, six of whom lived long and productive lives, while two died in infancy.

I now doubt that it was merely coincidence that I learned of both Samuel's biological and adoptive parents through personal contact with Carl Robert Coe. Carl was extremely generous with his time and information about the Jenner and Coe families, and even though I'm not actually a descendent of the Coes he has invited me to take part in Coe family reunions and other events. In short, he has treated me like family!

Subsequent research has led me to two more step-parents in the Jenner line. My grandmother's Jenner family Bible lists only Diantha (Carly/Cady) Jenner as the mother of Moses German Jenner and his sister Diantha. But she died in 1837, no more than two years after giving birth to the daughter who received her name. The widower, Moses Johnson Jenner, remarried 11 months later, so it was his second wife, Irena (Osborne) Jenner, who raised little Moses and Diantha. Similarly, Moses German Jenner's first three children, including my great-grandfather, Almond Lewis Jenner, lost their mother less than a year after Almond's birth. So they were raised by their step-mother, Mary (Epp/Upp) Jenner.

As if to underscore the important of step-parents in a family, it was probably Mary -- the step-mother -- who recorded most of the information in my grandmother's Bible. It is not my grandmother's writing, and it couldn't have been written by anyone who predeceased Mary. The handwriting seems too feminine to have been Moses Jenner's, which leaves Mary as the most likely. So most of what I know of my Jenner ancestors was probably passed down to me by the kindness of a woman who was not a biological ancestor.

Care, concern, and love are the building blocks of a true family; not merely biology. One of the many lessons our Jenner ancestors have passed down to our current generation is that our family consists of the people who love and nurture us; not just those who gave birth to us.

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