Chester Martin: Reflecting On British Ancestors

Friday, June 22, 2018 - by Chester Martin

My recent story about British Royals got me to thinking once more about the "old country" that my Martin, Young, and Harper people left - some of them approaching 400 years ago! That story surprisingly attracted the attention of people who had closer ties to Britain than do I, and I began to ponder the difficulties people had back then, of leaving all their family and friends behind - never to see them again. 300 years ago one can say pretty definitely that you would never see those good (or bad) people again, and any attempt to remain in touch would have been a futile task - where one exchange of mail might take up to six months or even longer.

A letter from mom, back in Alnwick, in the north of England, telling you that your Uncle John had passed away, could take months, and your acknowledgment of that news could take a similar amount of time. Communication is so instantaneous (and free of extra charge on the Internet) today that younger people likely cannot even begin to imagine the world as it used to be. No  cell-phones or texting were available at that time, for sure!

Today I find myself daily at my PC chatting with new friends a full 12 time zones distant - half-way around the globe - and at no charge beyond my monthly Internet fee. In my Air Force years (1956-'60) I had a friend in Central Europe whom I tried to call once or twice by phone. The price of an overseas call was high enough to seriously upset the budget of an A/2c, and the quality of the audio was very poor - sometimes totally fading away as you spoke. It was years before the first communications satellites revolutionized those possibilities, followed still more years later by the great new invention of the Internet. A child born today in 2018 will never be able to comprehend how greatly the entire world has changed since the days of his or her great grandparents.

And these musings bring me back to England once again - to where I recently learned of a relative of mine who indeed left the town of Alnwick in England - up near the Scottish border - and came to "America" in the early 1700's. The Internet site supplying that information even gave the name of the street he left from all those years ago. Curiosity got me and I had to check on Google Earth to see if that street might still be shown in the present town of Alnwick - and surely enough, there it was: 'Potter Gate', very prominently shown in the main part of town. Today the street called Potter Gate remains in the center of things, and I rather suspect the same was true in the early 1700's when my Mr. Young left his home.  England has been far more conservative than the U.S. in preserving such things as old buildings, though the present  Potter Street in Alnwick has a goodly mixture of both new and old. I personally see Alnwick as a very charming old place with a large and well-preserved castle - very much worthy of a visit. All this made me wonder further just what had motivated my early relative to make the big jump across the pond. Was it the political system? Or the religious system?  Or maybe he just wanted Adventure? Alas, I may never know exactly what brought that Many-Times-Great Grandpa Young to pack up all the stuff he could carry, say farewell to mom, dad, brothers, sisters, and friends - and make that life-changing leap.

Actually, I made this same kind of search for yet another many-times- great grandfather who migrated from the south of England - down around Surrey, or Kent, where I found charmingly narrow lanes (certainly for modern traffic), green fields, pastures, old trees arching over the narrow roads, reminiscent of a Gainsborough oil painting.  There were also many fine shiny new automobiles parked either in former carriage-houses, or beside ancient (and very picturesque) brick dwellings of at least two stories (which proved the lingering desirability of rural life in England) and which could easily have been home to my immigrant ancestor, Mr. Harper. Again, I have to ask myself what made these people leave a place they had called home all their lives, and where their families had been known and respected, probably for many generations, to go to a place totally unknown, and where YOU will be equally unknown...  But, hey, I have read in recent times that our forebears did not view the world as we view it today, as when Napoleon's armies for example went through those beautiful Alpine passes, today considered to be of great  majestic beauty.  His soldiers only saw forebodingly treacherous, deep and dangerous ravines, etc., from which they averted their eyes. So, I suppose we have to re-think how our Immigrant Ancestors might have felt about leaving their long established homes in the British Isles (and elsewhere). One of my own grandsons has just left his home in Chattanooga to take a fine new job in Seattle, which, in some ways, could be the same as leaving for another remotely different life and culture. Mobility has definitely always been part of the American Dream.

But, can you imagine the consternation my distant ancestor, Mr. Young, of 1710 probably felt when he first got off the boat in the New World? Or had he been so blinded by the publicity America had received in Britain that he refused to see the alternately muddy or dusty wilderness roads that awaited him in all directions once he left his seaport of arrival? Fact is that however he felt, and regardless of his first feelings of disgust or dismay, and "what have I done?", he was forced to be committed to the new land. I have never investigated what manner of 'Social Services' awaited Mr. Harper, Mr. Young, or Mr.Martin upon their arrival here, as they got here far in advance of Ellis Island and the advanced record-keeping done  there, long before the luxury of any governmental protection. Mr. Harper, Mr. Young, and Mr. Martin were "on their own" in the strictest sense of the word since the moment they boarded the probably rickety old ship from England, headed incomunicado into the west...  They probably carried enough Pounds Sterling (cash) to tide them over for perhaps a month, but were forced to live in the hope they could soon "find work", and thereby establish a thin line of survival until some greater prospect might arise further down the road. The Old World was best forgotten.

Yes, I'm basing much of this story on the (seemingly) charming little English town of Alnwick and the hurried tour I have taken of it thanks to Google and Wiki! I personally find that it has the right mixture of everything a tourist of our age is looking for in an English country town - ancient houses, twisting cobblestone streets, delightful quaintly decorated pubs, a cross, and a truly spectacular castle (which served as a backdrop for at least one episode of the Harry Potter series). But ages ago Alnwick saw its share of bloody warfare, and was ruled over by some very powerful noblemen - from at least two families - who might have been something like the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespearian fame, and whose continual squabbling  might have kept the townspeople forever guessing which family would win out. One CAN imagine that to have committed some "crime" - real or imaginary - against any of those powerful nobles could land you in a heap of trouble, making the prospect of 'America' seem that much better. Fed up with that dicey way of life, 'America' was the only way out.

I am certain I cannot reconstruct the lives of my Immigrant Ancestors, but they all seem to have had a good share of adventure and misadventure that is hard to follow.  Fortunately, however, I DO have some inkling as to how they all got here to our Chattanooga area, and to have survived all those depressingly hot summers and fiercely cold winters - through Civil War prison camps, muddy roads, dust storms, failed crops, yellow fever epidemics, tuberculosis, floods, and near-famines, just to make it possible for me to sit here in total 21st Century comfort to write a short story about their immigration. It will soon be our big and important American Independence Day celebration - a day I have always looked forward to and have experienced to the full. I consider myself lucky to have passed through the Cajun country of the Deep South on July 4th - on a Greyhound bus, back in the 1950's, where real ethnic Acadian people were animatedly speaking Creole French to one another as they headed in Sunday attire for their big celebration at Plaquemine, in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. And I have seen the much more up-scale celebrations at Independence Hall in Philadelphia - where they make short speeches (thankfully) and present medals before cutting the infinitely long National Birthday Cake under tents in an adjacent park. (Marching fife-and-drum bands add a nice touch of realism to this!) As the last speech is ending, a replica of the Liberty Bell is heard ringing from the belfry at Independence Hall, at the same precise moment it rang out in 1776! It was only in very recent years I have learned that my Martin and Young ancestors were on American soil well over 100 years before the Revolution. And I have also enjoyed celebrating that great day - as a kid - picking blackberries with my family here locally in Chickamauga Park. (It was a "rite of Summer" for years at our house). All have been memorable experiences, and always in great respect for that great day - events I shall forever treasure.

Thankfully for Britain their beloved monarchy slowly liberalized or otherwise the entire poor Plebeian population (like MY people!) would have sought asylum in America, leaving behind only the Patricians, who did no work. According to all the accounts I have read, Britain was a pretty miserable, cold and muddy  place  back then  - which made leaving home an easy thing to do.

I am forever grateful to my British Ancestors for their bravery in crossing the big pond!

*               *               *

The three pictures with this story are the distant grandsons of that Mr. Young who left Potter Street in Alnwick, Northumberland, England in 1710. The oldest of the three gentlemen appears to have inherited some of the traits of an English squire, and is probably very proud of his top-hat and gold watch chain, which the photographer made stand out. I am not certain of his first name, but he was definitely a Young. His son, in the Confederate uniform, only resembles his father slightly, with his broad face. The original of this is a tiny daguerrotype, only about 1.5 inches in height. For years my family believed he was wearing some kind of ruffle around his neck, perhaps as protection from cold weather, but an enlargement of the original revealed a very crudely cut beard! His name was Thomas Young who was captured in parts unknown and taken to Ft. Delaware, DE, where he died about the time the Civil War  ended. Word is that he never saw his son (my grandfather), James Lyde Young. And he (Jim Young) died of "grippe" in the year 1903, several months before the Wright Brothers' first flight in December. He left a widow, Mattie Minerva Smith Young; a son, then age 10, Chester Dean Young; and a little girl of 7 years who became my mom - Mabel Willett Young Martin. I never knew any of the above except my mom and grandma Mattie. My namesake uncle, Chester Young, has been dead 101 years!

* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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