How I got started
Now that I’ve written little bits on each of my Mayflower ancestors, I thought I’d write about how I got started in researching my family history. My paternal Grandmother, Mildred Louise (Booth) (Davis) Rollins, piqued my interest in our Cape Cod roots. I called her Nanny, but for this story I’ll use her nickname Millie.
Old wooden boxes. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. Especially ones with locks. Over the years, what type of special things did people keep in these boxes? A precious land deed, the family Bible, money, hard to procure tea, needlework, family jewels, a lock of a beloved child‘s hair? A little lock seems like it offers a false sense of security--couldn’t a thief just take the whole box and smash it open? Was the lock just to keep things private and (somewhat) safe from servants and untrustworthy family members?
One day when I was sitting by my grandmother Millie’s bed, trying to cheer her up (she was quite prone to blue moods, something they probably called melancholia in the old days), I was desperately trying to start a conversation that would steer her into a more positive frame of mind. Nothing was working and as I looked around her small, congested bedroom, I noticed two small wooden boxes that stood out amongst the clutter of perfume bottles, ceramic figures, brushes and combs on her bureau. Millie followed my gaze.
“That sweet little one belonged to Aunt Polly,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “Bring it over here and we’ll take a look.”
Polly was her mother’s half sister, a woman who lived to the age of 101. Her box was small, made of dark wood with a lovely swirling grain, and amazingly its tiny key was still nestled in the lock. Inside were some small pieces of Polly’s jewelry and other family items that Millie had added. There were tiny and very old wedding bands and my Great-grandmother Ethel (Kelley) Booth’s sewing thimble. Some things Millie had identified with slips of paper: “Al’s Air Force Wings,” “Mother’s Leaf Pin,” and so on. Also inside was a piece of lined paper, folded into a small square upon which Polly noted some family names with their birth, marriage and death dates. That got us going on a conversation about our family’s long history on Cape Cod; Nanny’s blue mood had disappeared.
Little did I know that piece of paper and the conversation with Millie would spark an obsession with tracing the family history that is still going on some 18 years later.
One of favorite ancestral characters is my fourth great grandfather Elihu Kelley. Fortunately I had purchased Nancy Thacher Reid’s impressive book on the history of Dennis[i] before my Grandmother passed away and was able to share it with her. Elihu the ferryman really gave her a chuckle.
Elihu was born 28 May 1759 in Yarmouth (an area that would become West Dennis), one of the thirteen children of Eleazer Kelley (sometimes spelled Killey or O’Killey) and Hannah Baker. Eleazer wasn’t a certified Quaker (Society of Friends), but many in his family were Quakers. He clearly leaned that way as he was fined for not attending military exercises. Quakers often declined based on their religious beliefs and for some reason the precinct paid his fine and he wasn’t jailed.
In about 1784 Elihu married a Yarmouth woman named Thankfull. They were from Quaker families and those marriages typically weren’t recorded in municipal vital records. Many people, including Eunice Kelley Randall in her 1962 Kelley genealogy, give her maiden name as Baxter, daughter of Cornelius Baxter and Joanna Marchant. This is the only Thankfull on record in the area to be the right age to be the wife of Elihu, but this is circumstantial evidence.
Thankfull Baxter is a descendant of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley of the Mayflower. When I checked with the Mayflower Society in 2005, no one at that time had a line approved through Thankfull. Without more evidence I don’t think it would be possible.
Elihu and Thankfull had nine children: Veney/Vinney, Elihu, Levina, Wilbour/Wilber, Asa, Silvia, Rebecca, Hiram, and Sukey. I descend through Hiram.
Like his father, Elihu was an attender, but not a member, of the Quaker meeting. It is possible he and Thankfull are buried at the Friends cemetery in South Yarmouth, where gravestones weren’t always commonplace.
I believe Elihu was a sea captain as I’ve seen him referred to as “captain.” He was part owner of the Schooners Eleanor and Mary, Amazon and Harriet. Among my Grandmother Millie’s photographs was an old snapshot of a vessel with “The Eleanor” written on the bottom. I believe this is same schooner Elihu owned and a family member took a photo of her years later.
In 1795 David Kelley of South Yarmouth received permission to run a ferry service from shore to shore. His cousins Elihu, Eleazer and Browning were the actual ferrymen. The vessel used was a barge, which was poled across, requiring strong muscles and good balance. The brothers Kelley lived near the river on the Dennis side and could be summoned to carry passengers by blowing a horn fashioned from a large conch shell. Fare was two cents for a foot passenger and 25 cents for a horse and carriage.
David Kelley was a prominent member of the Society of Friends. His cousins were not found on the list of certified Quakers, but they did attend meetings. Later in life Elihu's name is among the members of the newly formed Methodist Church.
Elihu was called “Uncle Elihu” by the locals. "He had a skiff for passengers and a scow for teams," said Mr. Wood, "and a conch shell was tied to a post at the landing, which was blown when the services of the ferryman were needed. The mischievous boys would often blow the conch to get the old man out." Mr. Wing has this to say of Uncle Elihu: "Although Uncle Elihu's accustomed place in the Friend's meeting, which he regularly attended though not a member, was upon the "rising seats," he was evidently averse to talking much of his religious views, for it is related of him that, when questioned upon that subject by a traveling preacher while the ferry boat was in mid-stream, the old man pretended to be very hard of hearing and replied as he poled the vigorously, "Yes, about half way across; and upon a repetition of the inquiry, he said. "Yes, yes, about half way across, half way across,' and so evaded the question." He was very much opposed to the building of a bridge, declaring that he could see no sense or reason in such a thing; but the bridge was built and the old ferryman's occupation was gone. The bridge was built in 1832 and as the old man lived until October, 1841, so he had many chances to cross it if he so wished.[ii]
|Old postcard of the Bass River Bridge|
Uncle Eleazar Kelley (Elihu’s brother) would have ferried you across at two cents a man, and for the price, you got a real piece of navigation. When the ferry failed to make it, you just went out to sea with Uncle Eleazar and hove to for the tide to turn. For you see, Bass River flows two ways - to the northeast on the flow tide, southwest on the ebb. To venture out cross-tide - come the ebb or come the flow - took the hand of a master, and sometimes - come the ebb - even Uncle Eleazar would find himself sliding broadside for Tuckernuck Island.[iii]
Increase in the need to cross the river led David Kelley to apply to the towns of Dennis and Yarmouth in 1805 for permission to build a bridge to replace his ferry. After a lot of wrangling and compromise that lasted many years, the bridge was finally approved by both towns. At one point David said he would withdraw his petition if the town would grant him permission to build a wharf across Berry Flats to accommodate his ferry. Dennis agreed to this and the ferry continued to be the only way to cross Bass River for several more years. Part of the Berry Flats is still visible today just north of the present Lower Bass River Bridge.
In 1815 David Kelley again proposed to build a bridge across Bass River and Dennis Town Meeting approved it on 8 May 1815. The newly proposed site was considerably farther up river from the ferry landing, where the first bridge was proposed to be built. Few vessels went that far up stream, so it wasn’t going to cause much inconvenience to watercraft.
|Old postcard of the Bass River Bridge|
The act that would incorporate the bridge company was to contain a provision that the tolls would remain the same for a period of 75 years and then could only be raised with permission of the legislature. The bridge would be constructed at the Second Narrows between land of Richard Sears and Josiah Nickerson. Tolls were two cents for foot passengers two cents, three cents for wheelbarrows, six cents per dozen of sheep, eight cents for a cart with one horse. No charge was permitted for people traveling to military training, religious services or funerals. Tolls were probably collected at the house of Josiah Nickerson. In 1832 another bridge was built over the Bass River, located approximately where the present bridge on Route 28 is today. It was several hundred feet north of the road which led to the old ferry site, a road still called Ferry Street.
I just love it when a street name has real history behind it! I do wonder what Elihu did to earn a living after the end of his ferry business.
Elihu Kelley died 26 October 1841 in West Dennis (MA VR Vol.1: Pg.317). He left a will dated 30 June 1835.[iv] The inventory was taken 15 Jan 1842 at West Dennis. It lists part ownership in the Schooners Harriet and Amazon, his homestead with 2 ½ acres, four acres near his homestead, a lot of land near the (Bass) River, a lot of meadow land, a lot of cedar swamp, and a share in the school house.
He left land to his sons Elihu, Wilber, Asa, Hiram, and grandson Vinney as his son of that name had died. It’s interesting that all of the land was near the son’s current homes, so they all lived in the same West Dennis neighborhood, likely on land owned by the Kelley family since the 17th century.
Elihu left his household furniture to his daughters Sylvia Crowell, Rebecca Lewis, and Susy Baker, after the death of his widow. He gave his daughter Rebecca Lewis the improvement of the west part of his house while she remained a widow. He bequeathed his home and remaining property to his wife Thankful.
[i] Reid, Nancy Thacher. 1996. Dennis, Cape Cod from Firstcomers to Newcomers, 1639 - 1993. Dennis, MA: Dennis Historical Society.
[ii] E. Lawrence Jenkins, 1915, Old Quaker Village, South Yarmouth, Mass., Pamplet No. 38 in the Library of Cape Cod History and Genealogy, Yarmouthport, MA: CW Swift Publisher.
[iii] Jeremiah Diggs, 1937, Cape Cod Pilot, Provincetown, MA: Modern Pilgrim Press.
[iv] Barnstable Co. Probate Records, Vol 15, p 414.