No, I am not related to Nathaniel Hawthorne*

*At least not in a very meaningful way.

When I was a child I and my sister and my cousins were told that we were related to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the eminent 19th-century American novelist. This must be true, we were told, because our grandmother, Cora Belle Hawthorne, was, well, a Hawthorne.

The story may have been part of Hawthorne family lore for generations before we all came along, but it was put down on paper in a seminal family history document circulated at a family reunion in 1973. In “THE HAWTHORNES” (dedicated to Georgia J. Hawthorne [1889-1994]—aka “Granny Georgie”—who had just turned 84), an origin story of the family is offered: “The Hawthornes were Puritans,” the text begins, and continues:

men for the most part of a strong physique, and robust health, impatient of all central authority; but rigidly obedient to their self imposed laws and regulations. … In the early stages of New England the Hawthornes were prosperous, but their property gradually declined … Many of the family wandered away from the ancestral homeland at Salem [Massachusetts], and went to other parts of the country.

The document names a few notable ancestors, including one Daniel, “who commanded a privateer in the Revolution”; a sea captain (and father of the author Nathaniel) who engaged in “combat on the high seas in which he came to the aid of an English vessel against the French, and beat the latter off”; and, of course, the illustrious author himself who (it is true) added a “w” to his surname to distinguish himself from his forebears.

That much of this history of various Hawthorne men and their character may have some validity is given by a source note in the document itself, which also suggests the document’s author: “The above was taken from a very old book on the Hawthorne family; given to Bonnie Boland in 1962 by Mrs W.T. Sims, of Jefferson, Texas, who said her father’s mother was a Hawthorne”). Bonnie Boland was one of Cora’s sisters, so, my great aunt.

The author of “The Hawthornes” continued: “Possibly some of the Hawthorns who ‘wandered away from the ancestrial [sic] homeland at Salem,’ as the writer from Salem said, went to Virginia; for in Virginia, which is now West Virginia, Joseph Frederick was born. This was in the late 1700s. Joseph Frederick grew up there and married a woman whose maiden name was Bolden.”

The word “possibly” in that sentence reveals much about how the step-children of Granny Georgie thought of their relation to Nathaniel and the Hawthornes of Salem. The implication is that their earliest known ancestor–this Joseph Frederick Hawthorn–came from the same Salem line that produced Nathaniel. But, he did not, nor was he likely born in the western part of Virginia. Nor is it likely that he and his immediate forebears were Puritans. Instead, “Joseph Frederick” (there is no recorded evidence of his first name being Joseph) was likely born in Brunswick County, Virginia, to Peter Hawthorn and Susannah Hines. Peter was from nearby Sussex County; his grandfather John may have been the immigrant ancestor for this branch of the family. They were likely members of the Church of England, or, Episcopalians.

But there does seem to be a distant connection between two branches of the Hawthorne family tree, the one that produced my grandmother and the one that produced the famous author.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, and died at the age of 59 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He was the fifth generation of Ha(w)thorn men to be born in Salem, starting with his great-great-grandfather John Hathorne, born in 1641. John became a magistrate and was one of the leading judges of the Salem witch trials.

“This scene, set in the Salem Village meeting house, shows Judge John Hathorne and the Rev. Cotton Mather interrogating Martha Corey, who stands in the dock with her hands raised in prayer, with Mary Walcott, her accuser, sitting in a chair.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in The Poetical Works of Longfellow. Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1902. Artist, S. S. Kilburn, 1880, p. 747.)

Judge Hathorne’s father was William Hathorne (1606-1681), the immigrant Hathorne of Nathaniel’s line, who ventured from Berkshire in England to New England on the Arbella (or at least in the Puritan fleet led by that ship) in 1630. The leader of this expedition was John Winthrop; this company of Puritans would found the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

William Hathorne the immigrant was perhaps the son of William Hathorne (1575-1650) and Sarah Lawrence (1580-1655) of Berkshire, England. Many other people have worked on the family tree of William and Sarah, so I will not recapitulate that here (see FamilySearch.org). But it seems that William and Sarah had another son, named Robert, born in 1618. One of his grandsons, also John (1665-1720), is the immigrant Hawthorn ancestor of the line that descends to my grandmother. John’s grandson Peter (Jr.) is the father of (Joseph) Frederick Hawthorn, and grandfather (I think) of Frederick Hawthorne (1814-1900), who we know left Virginia and ended up in Louisiana.

There is, I must say, a bit of an evidence gap between Frederick Hawthorne who left Virginia and his father, grandfather, etc. But I’m fairly confident his grandfather was the Peter (Jr.) mentioned above.

By these descending lines, therefore, (Joseph) Frederick Hawthorn (born about 1785, I believe), and Nathaniel Hawthorne would be classified as 5th cousins. Going down (Joseph) Frederick’s line of descent to my grandmother takes four more generations, making her a 5th cousin 4 times removed from the great author.

It’s a family relationship, to be sure, but a distant one. So, not to the degree that my older relatives believed and conveyed to my generation decades ago. I doubt they thought about it too much, rather they just connected the family names and read about the New England origins of the Hawthornes in that document and said, “yes, that’s us, too!” And so there was a sense that we could claim kinship to the most famous Hawthorne yet produced in a quite familial way. Maybe a great-great-great-etc. uncle. We could bask, just a little therefore, in the light of his eminence, and believe ourselves a part of it.

But alas, the connection is quite weak. They are two branches of a family that share a common ancestor born in 1575, more than 400 years ago.

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