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Family history: reaching out to the descendants

In this video, descendants Carol Gardner and Dan Hamilton reflect on what the project means to them personally.
The Department of Archaeology at Durham University brought science into the equation and really helped us see what were the true conditions there at Durham and what had the Scottish soldiers endured, not just during the battle or in the aftermath of the battle but throughout most of their lives. What it revealed was that life in 17th century Scotland was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the remains told the story that I had read something about which was that it was a time of extreme weather, there were many droughts and there was quite a bit of famine.
Obviously, diseases were rampant and they didn’t have modern medicine so diseases were a much more important environmental issue than they are now in some ways. And you can see that in the remains of the Scottish soldiers in that many had suffered trauma, even before they entered the Scottish army and in fact it’s probably likely that they were lucky to have survived to adulthood because a large proportion of children did not survive. So I was thrilled to learn about this and it really helped put me in touch with what my seventh great grandfather endured.
Thomas Doughty is one of the positive examples of what happened. He endured quite a bit obviously and had lots of tribulations in his life but he did survive until the age of 75 which is pretty old for that period of time. Moreover, he was twice able to build his own livelihood. At the age of 70, after being a refugee from the eastern frontier in New England, he was able to scrape together enough money to purchase a farm in Salem, Massachusetts. And he was able to die on that farm and he was buried there. We aren’t certain but we suspect that he is.
And he passed that farm onto his eldest son so, in addition, his other children moved to the states of Connecticut and some moved back into Maine and today there are quite a few people who carry the name Doughty, not only in Connecticut and Massachusetts but across the coast of Maine. And I suspect that the vast majority of those are direct descendants of Thomas Doughty and then you have a large number of people like me who do not carry the name Doughty but are here because of him. And I think that is very moving.
To see that someone who was so resilient, who endured so much really paved the way for those of us in the 21st century to live very, very comfortable lives. I am really grateful to the team at the University of Durham. Not only for the work they did in uncovering and discovering what the remains meant but they also were very willing to share their findings with those of us from across the Atlantic. The whole team came over in fall of 2016 and Chris Gerrard and his colleagues made several presentations on what their findings were. And this was very moving because it attracted quite a good audience of descendants. There are quite a few of us here I learned.
And it was just very moving seeing that there was so many of us whose ancestors had endured the same hardships and yet here we were, in the 21st century, all of us could trace our heritage back to these 150 soldiers that came over on the ship Unity. So I’m really grateful to the University of Durham and to the Archaeology team who did the work. They’ve really brought us closer to our ancestors and without them I don’t think we’d have that feeling of knowing what they really endured and what their lives would have been like and for all of that I’m just really grateful.
I think the Soldiers Project has brought an awareness of that time and place, the experience of the soldiers, the horror of war and has brought all of this to the attention of the modern-day public and for us in the States it’s given a kind of dignity and place to our ancestries which we didn’t know much about. And hopefully that will grow and we will learn more and possibly connect to the families in the British Isles that we are part of and don’t quite know how.

Four years after the skeletons were first identified by archaeologists during construction work on Palace Green, the site of their burial is commemorated and the human remains have now been re-interred. For the archaeologists in the research team, however, this is not the end of the story.

Dunbar families keep in touch through social media, clan events and newsletters, and continue to undertake research of their own with which we collaborate. Their sense of shared heritage and Scottish identity is undimmed. As educators we all understand the power of archaeology and history to surprise and inform, and for descendants the story generates unexpected emotions as they contemplate the personal strengths needed to survive Dunbar and the cascade of events which followed.

In May 2018 the Scottish soldiers story featured on the US version of the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? Each programme traces the family history of a celebrity and, in this case, the actor Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men, Pretty in Pink) had been identified as having an ancestor, James Adams, who had survived the battle of Dunbar and events later in Durham and sailed the Atlantic in the winter of 1650. James was a founding member of the Scots Charitable Society in January 1657 and died at Concord (Middlesex), Massachusetts in 1707. Jon Cryer had no inkling either that his ancestor was Scottish or had been transported to the colonies as an indentured servant. The news came as a complete shock to him. Commenting on the programme, Jon said: ‘The resilience of my family, that spine of steel, is not something that came from nowhere’.

The Dunbar story has many threads and themes which is perhaps why so many people find inspiration there. In the video above, descendants Carol Gardner and Dan Hamilton reflect on what the project means to them personally. As one Dunbar descendant put it to us: ‘Public history is truly critical for societies to learn and grow together’. The battle between English and Scottish armies outside Dunbar in the misty early hours of 3rd September 1650 may have lasted little more than an hour but, like all conflicts, it affected the lives of many people then and through the centuries. For succeeding generations of families on both sides of the Atlantic, the hardship and banishment of the Dunbar men transcends the years.

What kind of television programme would you make to tell the story best to the wider public? Discuss in the Comments section below.

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Archaeology and the Battle of Dunbar 1650: From the Scottish Battlefield to the New World

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