“Remember your ancestors”

Brunton Front Cover-smaller“Remember your ancestors.”

So read the words atop a family record engraved by Richard Brunton in the early 1800s. It is that admonition, which speaks directly to the NEHGS purpose, that led us to have an interest in Brunton – now the subject of a new book written by art historian Deborah M. Child: Soldier, Engraver, Forger: Richard Brunton’s Life on the Fringe in America’s New Republic.

Over the centuries, families have kept records of their history: in pen and ink, in needlework, and now in printed books and in electronic media. Families have kept these “documents” not just as cherished mementos of loved ones, past and present, but also as the “central repository” for the vital records of the family and its members. Richard Brunton – an English soldier who deserted during the American Revolution and made his home in New England – was a trained engraver. During the years when he was traveling throughout New England practicing his craft – sometimes even in the production of counterfeit bank notes – he was, in his own way, at the vanguard of the business of producing family register forms, something that would only increase and become more commercially viable in the following decades.

Angus Nickelson register
Richard Brunton (1749–1832), Angus Nickelson Family Register, circa 1790. Inscribed rlc “R. Brunton, sculp.” Brass, sight 14½ × 11¼ inches. Charles McKew Parr Collection in the Archives of the Magnus Wahlstrom Library, University of Bridgeport, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Photograph by Michael Fredericks.

Families for whom Brunton provided registers – as well as memento mori and engraved medallions with names and dates – benefited from having their family information recorded, and genealogists of today benefit from being able to glean information from the artworks he left behind. They provide a view into how our ancestors recorded the vital records of their own families and the importance they placed on “remembering ancestors.” Such artworks give us a legible and tangible record of our loved ones’ existence. If you are lucky enough to have possession of one or more such pieces, you have an intimate window into your ancestors’ lives that censuses, court documents, and other records do not provide.

Brunton himself, ironically, left no record of his own family; he was a man living on the fringe in a young country. In her expert biography of Brunton, Deborah Child has brought an art historian’s skill and a genealogist’s eye to the evidence about him – and, in so doing, gives us a picture of New England life in the early Republic.


This blog post is adapted from the foreword to Deborah M. Child’s Soldier, Engraver, Forger, written by D. Brenton Simons and Penelope L. Stratton. For more information about Richard Brunton, see “Cherished Mementos: Engraving by Richard Brunton from the Earliest Years of the American Republic,” by Deborah Child, American Ancestors 15 (2015): 45–48, available to NEHGS members online. NEHGS will hold a book launch, free and open to the public, and featuring a talk by the author, on Wednesday, June 17, at 6 pm. Registration requested.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

6 thoughts on ““Remember your ancestors”

  1. It was very interesting to me to see the photo of Richard Brunton’s Angus Nickelson Family Register, circa 1790 as it came from the library of Charles McKew Parr. My mother, Lyle C. Watrous cataloged his extensive library in the mid 1950s.

  2. Now at the Saco Museum, Saco, Maine, is a fascinating exhibit on Samplers done by young women educated in local “female academies in both southern Maine and New Hampshire. Those that trace family lineages are not only works of great needle ship but valuable genealogical sources, too. A sample of their work —-http://www.sacomuseum.org/sampler-cover-large.jpg

    1. Viola, thank you for mentioning the Saco Museum exhibit! It would be fun to see.

      You might be interested in looking at the database of family tree samplers we have at NEHGS, from the collection of Dan & Marty Campanelli: http://www.americanancestors.org/databases/family-tree-samplers/image/

      We also have images of some of them in our Flickr album, https://www.flickr.com/photos/110664726@N08/sets/72157641266541014

      The samplers were the topic of two articles in American Ancestors magazine, which you might have seen.

  3. I’m not lucky enough to have an old family register, or a sampler. But I do treasure the oldest family piece that has come down to me. My ggg grandmother, Neeltje Schermerhorn, born in Schenectady in 1781, had a Dutch New Testament printed in Amsterdam in 1743. This was thus already a family heirloom when it came to her. In it, she listed her nine children–including the daughter I was later able to learn was born out of wedlock when she was seventeen, and the one who died the day “the very same day.” Having this document, in its mixture of English and Dutch, makes me feel very close to her. I have no record of her past the birth of her last child, so it’s possible that she died as a result of that birth. But at least she lived long enough to record the birth, as the handwriting is the same.

    1. Doris, you have described your heirloom Dutch New Testament in such lovely, heartwarming words. You’ve explained, very well, how close you feel to your ggg grandmother Neeltje because her simple list of her children conveyed so much of her world.

      You remind me that I have also inherited a tiny family New Testament. In about 1860, my gg grandmother, Jerusha (Webster) Champlin Spencer Jones, gave it to her 5-year-old daughter Adela Champlin, as described in a neat inscription. A second inscription in the larger hand of Jerusha’s brother George Webster notes that “Miss Adela Champlin” presented the tiny book to him as he left to fight in the Civil War in September 1861 — an inscription which explains the dark dried blood stains on several of the pages. George survived the War, but young Adela did not; visiting her tombstone with its carved lamb on top and sad wording was heartbreaking. Nearly five decades later, George Webster gave the New Testament to his young great nephew also named George, who, after some seven decades in his possession, passed it on to his grateful granddaughter (me).

  4. What a pity that Richard Brunton, a resourceful man living catch-as-catch-can on the margins of a changing world, left no family record himself. I was hoping that this man, who first appears in a Birmingham apprentice record, might bear some relation to my RIchard Brunton, but no.

    Capt. Richard Brunton (ca. 1795-1846), second of three husbands of my childless great-great-great-aunt Elizabeth Anne (Thomas) (Wallace) (Brunton) Downes (1794-1882) of Bath, Somerset, came from a large, Norwich-based family; he was the youngest son of John Brunton, Esq. (d. 1822) and his wife Elizabeth Friend of Norwich. A brother was John Brunton (d. 1836), so no matches here for that lovely medallion. Capt. Brunton’s much older sister was the actress Anne (Brunton) (Merry) (Bignell) Warren (1769-1808) of Drury Lane, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. After her arrival from India in 1876, I’m sure my grandmother Hilda Margaret Rose (Thomas) Otto (1869-1952), who was brought up at Bristol by her grandmother (Elizabeth Anne Thomas’s sister-in-law) would have met her great-aunt at least once, but by then Capt. Brunton was long dead. Elizabeth Anne had married him at Madras in 1829, her first husband having been shot dead while on parade some years before, by a sepoy of his regiment. Such rackety tales would not have been considered proper for youthful ears; certainly not the actress, if any of the adults even knew of her.

    None of these people bears any connection, more’s the pity, to Mary (Balfour) Brunton (1778-1818, wife of Rev, Alexander Brunton, also Scottish), Her novels Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814) were reprinted by the British publisher Pandora in the 1980s, in their wonderful series of early novels by women. While Jane Austen found Mrs. Brunton’s novels implausible, I enjoyed them; the first concerns a woman pursued for years by an implacable suitor/stalker. Who could imagine such a thing?

    I look forward to reading more of Deborah Child’s book!

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