A special relationship

Do you have a special attachment to one ancestor? I do, and she was a source of curiosity and amusement even before I started investigating my family history in earnest.

During a move ten years ago, I uncovered a (mostly correct) pedigree chart for my father’s side of the family. It sat for a while on my dresser, and in flipping through it with my husband one evening, the name “Hephzibah” caught our eyes. This Hephzibah[1] (also spelled Hepsibah or even Hepsibeth in her later years) was a granddaughter of two other Hephzibahs, each born in Massachusetts by 1700.

My husband found my deep New England roots to be somewhat revelatory, and several useful but Puritanical traits were quickly blamed on Hepsibah. When I wavered about whether or not to indulge in something fun, we would say, “Time to tie up Hepsibah!” as if she were truly holding me back.

Then in February 2013, I heard Martha’s Vineyard mystery writer Cynthia Riggs telling an autobiographical tale on Public Radio. She prefaced it by stating that she’s descended from Athearns and Mayhews … two of the oldest English families on the island. I thought to myself, “I’m descended from Athearns and Mayhews, too!” and that was the spark that set everything in motion.

Can you imagine my thrill when I discovered Cynthia is also descended from Hepsibah … and that she lives in Hepsibah’s eighteenth-century house? Even more amazing, she runs it as a casual bed and breakfast. My husband and I had plenty of expenses, with one son in college and another getting ready to start, but I could not forego the chance to sleep in my ancestors’ house! So in the end, we had to “tie up Hepsibah” in order to fly across the country and walk in her footsteps.

I have come to cherish Hepsibah, whose name appropriately means “my delight is in her” in Hebrew, and now consider her my alter ego. I was so excited to read in her father’s will that she was given a set of leather-bottomed chairs in addition to her general portion of the estate; her windfall seemed like mine! But I’ve also uncovered a lot of misinformation about her.

When I got my hands on a copy of my great-grandfather’s memoirs, I found some confusion about her in the genealogical appendix. She was listed as “the daughter of Christopher Hussey of Hampton, Mass. (The maiden name of Hepsibah’s mother is not known. This seems strange as Hepsibah had three sisters and two brothers of whom there is no record on Martha’s Vineyard.) The marriage took place September 10, 1778. Hepsibah was born December 13, 1761, and she died March 2, 1842, in her 81st year.”

Those of us who use published vital records for New England towns should remember that not everyone listed was born, married, and died in the named locality.

The dates were all correct, and her father was indeed named Christopher Hussey … but of Nantucket.[2] His great-grandfather was Christopher Hussey[3] of Hampton, Massachusetts (later New Hampshire). Oops! Only three generations and 150 miles off! Neither Christopher Hussey ever lived on Martha’s Vineyard, which would explain why no record of Hepsibah’s three sisters and four brothers could be found on that island.

Those of us who use published vital records for New England towns should remember that not everyone listed was born, married, and died in the named locality. Hepsibah and all of her children are included in the vital records of Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, but she was born and married on Nantucket, and spent most of her childbearing years in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

I can assure you that Hepsibah was extremely excited to learn through coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement that she descends from the 1st (and only) Baron Hussey of Sleaford! This man served as canopy bearer at the christening of Elizabeth I, though like the infant’s mother he was soon after beheaded by order of Henry VIII. Sadly, her friends at NEHGS had to inform her that this is an unproven claim. Like the antecedents of many immigrants to New England, those of Christopher Hussey, resident of Lynn and Hampton, are officially obscure … no matter what one might read in British newspapers.

It appears that the link between Christopher Hussey and Meghan Markle still stands, however, making her my 10th cousin … and all through my beloved Hepsibah! Especially since my husband and I met in London two weeks after Meghan’s fiancé was born, I’m sure she’ll want her “Right Trusty and Well-Beloved Cousin” (that’s official royal-speak) at her wedding next spring. Thank goodness my passport is current!


[1] Hephzibah Hussey (1761–1842), daughter of Christopher Hussey and Mary Coffin, and wife of George Athearn (1754–1837).

[2] Christopher Hussey (1724–1785), son of Silvanus Hussey and Hephzibah Starbuck.

[3] Christopher Hussey (1598–1685), immigrant from Dorking, Surrey, England.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

14 thoughts on “A special relationship

  1. Lovely story! My favorite ancestor is a “petty-fogging shyster” of a lawyer who found temperance in his old age. The shyster comment is from a history of 19th century Illinois lawyers and the temperance comment from his obituary in the “dry” Republican county seat newspaper. Charles Falvey (1803-1883) is my 3rd great-grandfather. He was a Democrat and Irishman who farmed and practiced law in Bureau County, Illinois. He was extremely secretive about his life as we have his family Bible in his handwriting where he writes about politics and his wife and daughter, but not a word about his life before the age of 30 or his family of origin. I do at least have a photograph.

  2. What fun to stay in your ancestral home on MV! I have read all of Cynthia Riggs’ mysteries as they were published, all named after wildflowers. An amazing woman, just like Hepzibah.

  3. I have a Cinderella on my father’s side and for a long time could not find her family. In the last year or so I’ve made some headway on that, but I just love that I have a 3x great-gmo with her name!

  4. My husband and I live on Nantucket, and my husband is twice descended from Christopher Hussey. He jokingly told a friend that as a distant cousin of the bride, he was expecting an invitation to the Royal Wedding. His astute friend replied that to include all the descendants of Christopher Hussey, they would have to invite half the population of the Island. You have many distant cousins here.

    1. Don’t I know it! So as not to get too far afield, I left out the fact that Hepsibah’s sister Lydia is also an ancestor of mine; their children married one another! That was another thing that caught my eye a decade ago: Christopher Hussey and Mary Coffin showed up twice very near themselves on the pedigree chart! Then a grandson (Edward Hussey Barker) of one of their brothers married their mutual granddaughter, Lydia Cary Athearn. It’s a wonder all of the folks on Nantucket weren’t walking encyclopedias of genetic anomalies!

  5. Early on in my research, I found my 6th great grandfather, Lt. Charles Spooner of Newport, RI (1738-1779). He was the son of Wing Spooner and Deborah Church. No one online, or in print, seemed to know where Charles was buried. It became my mission to find his resting place. Long story short, a trip was made to Newport and a helpful librarian found a burial record. Next stop was the Common Burying Ground and we found his grave. He had been interred with his first wife, Patience Allen. We had a plaque placed and a ceremony honoring him. Hands down, one of the most meaningful moments of my life.

  6. Love this! I also descend from the Mayhew family of Martha’s Vineyard and my kinship to Meghan Markle is through George and Phebe (Leete) Parkhurst of Watertown.

    1. I think they’re going to need to move the wedding to St. Paul’s to hold all of the cousins! Hee, hee.

  7. I have a pair of Hepzibahs (mother and daughter) on my family tree. Hepzibah COLE (1649-1712), daughter of Daniel COLE, and her daughter (my 9th great-aunt), Hepzibah DOANE, daughter of Deacon Daniel DOANE. As a daughter named for her mother, I always smile when I think of the two Hepzibahs. At one point in their lives, they were both Hepzibah DOANE.

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