BY GEORGE A. BICKNELL.
E are told that America is the oldest of the continents; that being first fit for human habitation, it was first inhabited by races long ago extinct. We are told also that the physical influences of this country have been fatal to every race that has occupied it; that as a people, we ourselves are degenerating, losing our productive vigor, and that without continued accessions of new blood from abroad, we should speedily wear out and pass away, like the races which have preceded us "in this new world which is the old."
But this gathering suggests that one family, at least, has not shared in this alleged universal degeneracy, but exhibits to-day, after the lapse of eight generations, as much physical vigor, as much sound sense, and as much moral force as belonged to its representatives, two hundred and fifty years ago.
Christianity teaches that all mankind are descended from a single pair, yet the philosophers assert that certain regions produce distinct forms of animal and vegetable life, not found elsewhere, and they say that distinct races of men flourish in peculiar districts, indigenous there, and capable of prevailing there in the great struggle for existence, so that, as far as human records or human traditions go, the white, the yellow, the black and the red races have always occupied in force their own climates and have made no thorough development elsewhere.
Whatever may be true as to the origin of man and his diverse races, it cannot be denied that all the conquests and migrations and interminglings of nations have hitherto failed to produce a new race of men.
The teaching of History is that Nature abhors a mongrel; a nation of mulattoes is an impossibility, for whenever different races are compelled in violation of their natural instincts, to dwell together in large bodies, whether on terms of legal and social equality, or otherwise, one of them invariably destroys or absorbs the others, so that all the distinctive features of the latter are at last completely obliterated.
In this country we have destroyed the red man, we shall destroy or absorb the black man.
In England, the Norman and the Saxon could readily mingle; they were varieties of the same stock; but the Englishman of today is not the Englishman of Cressy and Poictiers; the England of to-day is not the England of Cromwell or of Pitt; the Norman type is wearing out, the more numerous Saxon is prevailing; the Norman pluck and vigor which leavened the heavy Saxon masses and made England the arbitress of Europe for centuries, are gone, and the old glory of England has gone with them.
The Normans were the highest type of manhood that Europe ever saw. Less intellectual than the Greeks, more intellectual than the Romans, superior to both in physical endurance, in personal prowess, and in practical achievements with small means, the blood of that band of heroes runs in the veins of every monarchy in Europe. That Norman blood, my kinsmen and kinswomen, is our blood.
This country has been chiefly settled by the best varieties of the white races. The great Scandinavian or Teutonic and the Celtic families are kindred stock; the Latin nations of Europe which in a less degree have contributed to our population are also, more remotely, our kinsmen; undoubtedly, one of these types will predominate here, and will absorb the others; then, and not until then, shall we be a homogeneous people; then, and not until then, shall we produce in this country, that purely American literature and American poetry and American art, of which hitherto we have had Iv feeble premonitions.
I believe that individual greatness arises commonly in blood to certain extent homogeneous. The ancestors of Franklin for many generations were small mechanics in a remote English village; in such a community, by frequent inter-marriages, the whole population, at length, becomes akin, and the blood, thus becoming to a certain extent homogeneous, it is presently illustrated, by a great man.
So it was with Lord Thurlow and with Sir Walter Scott, they both inherited homogeneous blood; they and Franklin were all great, in their different lines, but they all married out of the charmed circle, and their greatness died with them, "no son of theirs succeeding." Although the maxim, "Like produces like," has its exceptions, it is not less true of mankind than of other animals, and that maxim is the foundation of all such gatherings as this; the presumption is that the common ancestor has transmitted to all of us something of the same kind, and that something is the common bond of union and equality among us; without it, the descendants of Zachary Bicknell would be no more to us, than the descendants of any body else.
This power of transmitting to remote descendants peculiar traits of form and feature and temperament and moral character, thus reproducing indefinitely your own body and your own soul, is one of the wonders of physiology.
We know that every man has ancestors innumerable; we know that, if for twenty preceding generations, none of our lineal ancestors were consanguineous, each of us would have at the distance of twenty generations, more than a million of ancestors, to wit, two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, in rapidly increasing progression.
Yet, notwithstanding this union of so many strains of blood, we often behold one of them predominating over all the others, and impressing its own peculiarities upon generation after generation as long as the family endures.
We all remember the thick lip of the House of Austria and the peculiar physiognomy of the Bourbons, and we know that in an adjacent State, where a bad woman was confined in jail for crime, two hundred of her descendants, in the course of a few generations, were the inmates of the State's prison or the jail.
I know the corrective power of education, but it is a limited power; when "the fathers have eaten sour grapes the childrens teeth are set on edge ;" no training will "gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles."
I say this power of hereditary transmission is one of the worlds wonders; it is the foundation of all family pride and family self-respect, it is a potent incentive to virtuous conduct; without it, it would be entirely immaterial whether we have a long line of honorable ancestry, or whether
"Our ancient but ignoble blood
Has crept through scoundrels ever since the flood."
Our ancestor Zachary Bicknell came here in 1635. He came with a band of Puritans who brought their church and their minister. What they sought in this wilderness was freedom to worship God! They were not deluded by dreams of empire; they were not stimulated by the feverish excitement of mercantile adventure; they were following none of the phantoms of pleasure; they were plain, earnest, God-fearing men; they came to plant their church in the desert, that "the wilderness and the solitary place might be glad for them." This place of their settlement then bore its Indian name of Wessagussett; it had been settled before under less favorable conditions, that settlement had melted away, the ground was vacant again, our colony took it and flourished and has never ceased to flourish.
It has sent out swarm after swarm of hardy emigrants, until the descendants of the first settlers of Wessaguscus, now called Weymouth, are found everywhere, from Maine to Georgia and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In the list of that colony our ancestors are thus recorded:
Zachary Bicknell, aged 45; Agnes, his wife, aged 27; John, his son, aged 11, and John Kitchin, his servant, aged 23." This is the entire record.
Twenty acres of ground were assigned to him as a place for his mansion; he built it in Middle street; we shall visit its site to-day.
His English home was near Weymouth, in Dorsetshire, on the southern coast of England, a place noted for salubrity in the old Roman times.
Accustomed to ease and comfort, in that wild region he soon yielded to the rigor of our harsh climate and to the hardships of a new settlement, and he died in 1637, at the early age of forty-seven years.
There is a tradition in my branch of the family, that he was a captain in the British Navy, retired on half pay, but his title in the colony was Zachary Bicknell, gentleman. He left a competent fortune to his only son, John, who became one of the solid men of Weymouth, but he, too, died young ; the family had not yet become acclimated, yet it was beginning to reassert its vigor. John had three sons and seven daughters, and from these three grandsons of the original settler, all who bear our name in this country are believed to be descended. The names of these grandsons were John and Zachary and Thomas. The descendants of John, the first grandson, remained, generally, in Weymouth, where, I am told, they number now about twenty voters.
The descendants of Zachary, the second grandson, migrated first to Barrington and thence to Mansfield and to Ashford in Connecticut, and their representatives may be found in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Kentucky and on the Pacific coast.
The descendants of Thomas, the third grandson, settled in Attleboro, where they remained for several generations, but within the present century they have found homes in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Iowa, Texas and California.
Since its acclimation in this country our family has been vigorous, healthy, long-lived and prolific.
We have not taken a very active part in public affairs.
John, the son of the first settler, was a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts. In the line of John, the first grandson, we find several members of the Legislature ; and in the line of Zachary, the second grandson, we find a Judge of the Supreme Court of Rho~le Island, and a member of Congress from New York.
In the line of Thomas, the third grandson, we find a Circuit Judge of Indiana, a member of Congress from Indiana, a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, and the rector of an Episcopal church.
We have had several clergymen among us, some merchants and manufacturers, many mechanics, very few lawyers, no doctors that I know of, and, I believe, none of those wily intriguers sometimes called politicians.
Prior to 1824, the Bicknells were generally Federalists, since then they have not commonly acted with the Democrats.
Until the beginning of the present century the principal representatives of the family were engaged almost exclusively in agriculture.
"Along the cool. sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way."
Hence our virtues, our faults and our eccentricities have been those of a rural peopleindependent owners of the soil. Accustomed for generations to the seclusion of the farm, we have been somewhat exclusive in our associations; having been much alone for generations, we have become secretive and reticent, with too little regard, perhaps, for public opinion, or the opinions of others; used to the absolute rule of our own farms, we have become impatient of opposition.
Such a people have few temptations to crime. Their freedom from temptation coupled with favorable tendencies in the blood, and aided by favorable moral surroundings under Puritan influences, has produced one remarkable result. I allude to the absence of crime in the annals of this family since its settlement in America. Our American genealogy covers nine or ten generations, including the first settler, yet, it is asserted by those who claim to know, that in the last two hundred and fifty years, not one of the blood of Zachary Bicknell, bearing his surname has ever stood convicted in any court, of any crime, or misdemeanor, or fraud. If this be so, we have the noblest of all pedigrees.
But who was Zachary Bicknell? Whence did he come? What were his antecedents?
Undoubtedly he was of Scandinavian origin. He belonged to that great northern stock which regenerated the staguation of the Middle Ages, and gave tone to the civilization of modern Europe.
His name is Swedish. The name Becknill in Swedish is equivalent to Brookhill in English; it was the name of the spot occupied by the family and with which they became identified.
I know of no records giving the date of the migration from that ancient seat to the British Islands, but there is a tradition in my branch of the family, that long ago, before the introduction of Christianity into Britain, and while the country north and south of the Tweed for many miles was an independent heathen kingdom, our ancestor brought his forces in ships and landed north of the Tweed, in what is now southeastern Scotland, and there maintained himself by force of arms until he was recognized as a vassal by the ruler of the kingdom. The story goes that, the site of the stronghold he occupied there took the name afterwards of Bicknell hill and still retains that name, and that from that spot the family dispersed itself throughout England and into Ireland and Wales. This is only a tradition, it may go for its worth, but the name is conclusive evidence of Scandinavian origin.
It was changed in Great Britain from Becknill to Bicknell; it has maintained the latter form with great persistency, has undergone some variations; here in Weymouth, many years ago, one of the family wrote his name Bucknell; in Barrington some of the descendants of the second grandson called themselves Bicknall; in England there have been other corruptions, such as Bucknill, Bucknall, Buckner, Bicknor, Bignall, Bagnall and Bagenal.
Sometimes such changes occur when the offshoots of a family sink into ignorance; sometimes they are due to the different dialects of different parts of England; sometimes, like the changes made by our Weymouth and Barrington kinsmen, they are purely whimsical.
Mental peculiarities of families may be often traced to the influence of laws and customs prevailing at a very remote period among the races to which they belong.
Certain social institutions of the early northern nations of Europe are reflected in opinions and feelings which have been inherent in our family in all its vicissitudes and which are still in force among us, although they are contrary to the leading thought of this country, and cannot be logically defended.
I allude to the general impression amongst us that we belong to a superior stock. Since we have been in this country we have never had extravagant wealth, we have never exercised great power, we have never sought public distinction, yet I have never met one of the name, high or low, rich or poor, enlightened or ignorant, who was not persuaded that he had an inheritance as one of us, more precious than rubies.
I find the origin of this feeling in the twilight of history. It is not the growth of this country, nor of its institutions. But, among our Scandinavian ancestors, there was a clear legal distinction, so old that its beginning can not be traced, between the man who was merely free, and the man who was not only free but also noble.
They had three classes only of society, the earl, who was gentle, the churl, who was simple, and the thrall, who was a slave.
The earl, born gentle, seems to have had, originally, no peculiar privileges, certainly no oppressive ones, but he was entitled by his blood to special respect and honor, which the churl, born simple, might win, but never inherited.
These distinctions were the essential elements of primeval Teutonic Society; they were so ground into its framework, that the early legends represented the three classes, the earl, the churl, and the thrall, as the separate creations of the gods.
I apprehend that this shadowy claim of ours to some special advantage that cannot be defined by ourselves, nor recognized by our neighbors, is the result of these ancient institutions, operating still after the lapse of ages; its existence shows the power and permanence of ideas, accepted and grafted into the heart of a people. It is the dim traditional remembrance of an ancient worth, which we would fain hope may be perpetual.
When our ancestors landed at Wessagussett, Charles the first of England was preparing the way for the long Parliament and the Revolution; the thirty years war was raging on the continent of Europe; Gustavus Adolphus had lately fallen at Lützen; Cardinal Richelieu was ruling the destinies of France; the age of Cromwell and Mazarin and Louis the fourteenth was yet to come.
In this country, the entire possessions of England were a few scanty and scattered settlements along the Atlantic; the Spaniards had St. Augustine, the Dutch had the island of Manhattan; the Swedes had not yet made their settlement on the Delaware.
Our people are now nearly fifty millions. We are the only truly grand Republic that the world ever saw; we have filled the American continent, from Canada to Mexico, and from ocean to ocean with a hardy, industrious, intelligent and Christian people.
At first glance it would seem that all the essential advancement of humanity in the useful arts and inventions, in science, in manufactures, in the general diffusion of knowledge, in the recognition of human rights and in the establishment of civil liberty, has been accomplished in the last two hundred and fifty years.
Perhaps no other equal period of time has exhibited such amazing results.
And here the question arises, have we as a family borne our part in this great progression? If not, we have been false to ourselves, and unworthy of our descent. If not, let us do more hereafter; if we can do little ourselves, let us give to our issue such moral training and education as may help them to do more; for we may be sure that without some practical demonstration of excellence, all our pride in our ancestry will be but "as sounding brass or tinkling cymbals."
The lineal descendants of the celebrated Confucius are living now in China, exercising honorable offices of public trust; their ancestors, for seventy successive generations, have illustrated the enduring excellence of that strain of blood; their essential nobility has survived all the chances and the changes of more than twenty centuries.
No such examples are possible in this western world; it is the design of our institutions to exalt the body-politic, and not to exalt individual families.
In this country acquired honors are not inherited; death scatters accumulated wealth; families, commonly, fade away and are forgotten in a few generations; the exceptions that are permanent enjoy rare physical vigor and distinguished purity of morals.
We, as a family, number ten generations here, eight of them American born; few of us may attain the factitious respectability that goes with large possessions; few of us may enjoy the distinction of public honors; but every one of us can maintain and is bound to maintain the ancient honor, the upright integrity, and the sound morality of this family; these are our best inheritance, let us transmit them unimpaired and brightened to those who shall follow us. Let us remember that
"Only the ashes of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust."
Let us remember that
"One sad losel soils a name for aye
However glorious in the olden time;
Not all that heralds rake from coffind clay
Nor florid prose, nor honeyed words in rhyme
Can blazon of evil deeds, or consecrate a crime."
If such be our ruling spirit, then when another hundred years shall have passed away and the Bicknells of future generations shall meet, on this consecrated spot of their American origin, to unroll the record of the past, and revive ancestral memories, they shall be more exalted than we, and shall illustrate with more honor the ancient worth of the race.