Time Capsule

Time Capsule

The host of NPR's "All Things Considered" travels back in time to his ancestral town.

I’ve spent long afternoons in the Ashe County Library, looking in vain for evidence that some of my family might have settled here. In past research I’ve placed my father’s forebears — Arthur and Peggy Adams — in eastern Kentucky. They show up on the 1850 state census. My mother’s family name is Wellman, and I was having trouble tracing them back out of Kentucky. Then late one night it occurred to me to try the Internet. I searched for the name and within seconds opened the Wellman Family History Page. Albert Wellman, a distant cousin in North Carolina, had collected the genealogy and was adding to it as fast as Wellmans around the world happened onto the site. I had no idea that all these kinfolk existed, including my far-off cousin.

It was Thomas Wellman most of us were looking for, the man who had come to Massachusetts from England in about 1645, beginning the American family line that can be followed to Maryland, to North Carolina, into Kentucky, and to my mother: Edith Lona Well-man. I phoned Albert down in Durham; he told me that no one he knew of had been to Ilminster, Thomas’s birthplace. And so after the cold weather came and I had left the New River, I flew to London, then took a train from Paddington Station out to the West Country to Somerset County.

Ilminster is a comfortable place with cottages and row houses, a narrow shopping street with the bank and the butcher’s and a bakery. And the Minster itself, the grand honey-colored stone church built around 1450.

Fifteen minutes after I arrived in town I was talking with Barry Wellman. We were both surprised. There were only a few Wellmans listed in the Somerset County phone books but the hotel desk clerk said, “Sure I know one, right down the street.” To be sure, here was a relative come from the States, but it was the resemblance that had us laughing. Barry was about 40, and he had light brown hair and blue eyes, a complexion with hints of red and a familiar long, thin nose. That describes several million Englishmen but he sure looked like the Wellman pictures I’d grown up seeing.

The archives had mention of Wellmans paying tithes to the Ilminster church. And on a Sunday night I sat in a back pew at Evensong service, trying to place Thomas there beside me. The voices of the choir rose under the high ceilings; even a breath seemed to echo. It would have been much darker in the church, long ago, with only the smoky candles for light.

It’s known that Thomas volunteered in the English Civil War, to help Parliament chase down the rebels who were demanding religious freedom. It’s said he fought alongside a young friend who’d already been to Massachusetts and that after the war they left to go back there together.

“But,” I asked at the local pub, the Crown, “how would Thomas Wellman, this young man from Ilminster, probably from a family of tradesmen, decide to go off to such a wild place as America?”

“Ah, but the lads loved the countryside. Even now there’s lots of hunting around — though it’s mostly not legal.” This happened to be the butcher speaking and I’d seen venison, boar and partridge in his shop window. He said, “Sometimes here in the pub you’ll see money change hands for a bin bag of pheasants under the table.”

Ilminster slept that night under the deepest blue sky with a scrim of fog and coal smoke above the homes in the valley. And I wondered how long the knowledge of this place remained with the Wellmans of America. Did Thomas tell his children stories of England? Did Bennett Wellman, Thomas’s great-grandson, crossing the Appalachian range into Kentucky, ever have the slightest thought of Ilminster?

From the February 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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