Updating “My ancestor was born … where?!”

Saint Helena map 1906
Map of Saint Helena, 1906. Courtesy of britishempire.co.uk

In September of 2014, I wrote a blog posted entitled “My ancestor was born … where?!” about my family’s unexpected ties to Saint Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean. My great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte (Sears) Legg, was born on the island of Saint Helena in 1808. She married Henry William Legg, and after his death, settled on Martha’s Vineyard with her children. This discovery fascinated me, and since then, I have resolved to learn more about Charlotte and her family. But ultimately, I hoped to learn why my ancestors had settled in such a far-flung locale. Were they soldiers of the British military or members of the East India Company? Sailors who tired of the sea? Or did they simply settle here seeking a better life?

Because of its remote location, I had low expectations for records pertaining to Saint Helena. But I was pleasantly surprised: a varied collection of records has survived, which includes a collection of Saint Helena church records from 1767 until 1835. These records are available on Findmypast and the British Library has also transcribed miscellaneous records as a part of their India Office Records collection.

Charlotte Sears baptism
Courtesy of Findmypast. Click on image to expand it

Between these two sources, I was able to uncover more about these ancestors. I learned that Charlotte was born 13 December 1808 and baptized at Saint Helena 8 September 1816. She was listed as the illegitimate daughter of Gabriel Sears and Elizabeth Day, and she married Henry William Legg at Saint Helena 27 August 1822. I was surprised to learn that she was listed as illegitimate, but shocked to discover that she had married at the age of thirteen.

The India Office Records collection also included information on Charlotte’s husband. Henry William Legg was born at Saint Helena 5 November 1799 to John and Emily Legg. The Leggs proved a little easier to trace, as I was able to learn that John Legg and Amelia Knipe had married at Saint Helena 17 January 1799. Years later, at the time of John Legg’s death in 1829, he was listed as a publican or tavern keeper.

Though these records have shed a little more light on Charlotte and others, they only provide a few details about their lives. The ultimate question – Why were they at Saint Helena in the first place? – is still elusive and will require some more digging. Fortunately, there are more records that might provide answers. But, for now, these Saint Helena ancestors remain a tantalizing part of my family tree, and another item on my lengthy genealogy to-do list.

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

10 thoughts on “Updating “My ancestor was born … where?!”

  1. Wow. What a tantalizing mystery! I’m at one of those points of frustration in my own research, so I love hearing about other people’s challenges and how they are dealing with them. Looking forward to installment #3! I know I’ll learn something– if only how to extend persistence.

  2. How about the birth entry just above Charlotte’s? It reads, as well as I can decipher it, “Richard Thomas Son of Thos Churtey (sp?) & Maria Slave to Mr Canole (sp?) Illeg’te.” I have never seen such a birth so openly recorded in American records, have you?

  3. Quite interesting and a good find, Saint Helena is definitely beyond the usual research locations. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Legg surname study at the Guild of One Name Studies, but the name is fairly common in England, (I’m researching Legg ancestors in Surrey, and there is a notation of Samuel Legg’s tomb at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston). Well done.

  4. I have that problem with my Great Grandmother. My family is in the Capital District of New York and she was born in the Southern Tier of NY for no reason that I have ever found. One thing that I do know is that a lot of Italians came to NY when the Capitol was being built because there was a need for stone carvers. So one needs to know what was going on in the “foreign” area at the time that might have drawn the prospective mother (and family) there.

  5. What a super find. I am, as are many, looking for that one spot in our ancestry that will release its clues. Congratulations. I can almost feel the excitement in your soul!

  6. ON why your g-g-g-grandmother resettled in Massachusetts from St. Helena, any possible connection with whaling? The whaling ships of New England circled the globe in the early and mid-1800s. Perhaps there is some connection to her emigrating to Martha’s Vineyard.

  7. As to US records being so open about illegitimacy, in some times and places, they were. My ggg grandmother in Schenectady listed in her New Testament, which I have, the 1798 birth of a daughter, with no surname. I knew she’d married in 1803, and I knew all the children of that marriage. I wondered if perhaps she’d been previously widowed and I just didn’t know it. So I posted a query on the Rootsweb Dutch-Colonies list, since the family were Dutch in background. Someone on that list had access to Dutch Reform Church baptismal records. With the date of birth I provided, and the first name, they found a baptismal record including the mother’s name, the child’s name, sponsors’ names–and a father’s name. The father’s name was listed upside down. I was told that during that time period, the Dutch Reform Church used that as a “code” to denote an illegitimate birth. The person who found this record for me also had access to an 1800 list of adult residents of Schenectady. There were several men with the same name as the listed father. Only one had a mother whose name was that of the baptized child. During this time period, the tradition of naming first born daughters after the paternal grandmother was still very strong. So the person who’d researched this for me, a highly respected registered genealogist, concluded she’d found the father of this particular illegitimate child. Once I learned to find such records for myself in a genealogy library, I saw additional baptismal records with the father’s name upside down. Not many, but enough to convince me that the custom did exist. At the time, New York didn’t keep civil records of births, so church records of baptisms are the best substitute we have.

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