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My Brick Wall: Searching for the Roots of Thomas Perkins

You know the feeling — you're on a roll, adding names, numbers and branches to your family tree and then bam! — you hit a brick wall. The trail just stops. You begin to wonder if some of your ancestors were deposited here by aliens.


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My brick wall is the family of Thomas Perkins. My search for him began with a "legend" in my husband's family: that his great-great grandfather was a "full-blooded Indian." One day my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to try and see if it was true. But where to begin? No one knew his name, where he was from, or anything about him. I did the only logical thing: I began at the beginning.

My mother-in-law had told me that her father was born in Dover, New Hampshire, so I wrote to the city clerk for his birth certificate. I was lucky to get it, because years ago there was a fire in that office, and many early records were destroyed. The birth certificate said that his mother, Susan Perkins, daughter of the alleged Indian, was also born in Dover. With all signs pointing to Dover, I went on my first genealogy field trip there.

Now I have to pause and point out the irony of this. Before my husband and I were married, I lived in Dover for three years; we were married there. My husband was from Massachusetts, and neither he nor either of his parents ever lived in Dover. But, lo and behold, I came to find that several generations of several branches of HIS family tree hailed from Dover.

So, being somewhat familiar with Dover, I knew right where to go. My first stop was at City Hall, where I was allowed to look through old record books. Pay dirt! I found the hand-written record of Susan Perkins' birth, complete with the names and birthplaces of both of her parents. It said that Thomas Perkins, her father, was born in Rome, Maine, and his wife, Mary Conley, was from Canada. On a hunch, I made a stop at the Pine Hill Cemetery, a large, historic cemetery in Dover, and asked the caretaker if they had any record of a Thomas Perkins buried there. The genealogy gods were smiling on me that day — they did, indeed have a record — of the whole family burial plot, in fact! I got a copy of the interment card, listing the names, death dates, and ages of everyone buried there. I compared the information to what I already had, including Thomas' wife's name and confirmed it was the right family.

Armed with the information from the interment card, I made another visit to Dover City Hall, where I had a field day gathering records. As I searched through the records, I found that, back in the mid-to-late-1800's, it was common for not only birth records, but also marriage and death records to list the names and birthplaces of the parents of the people in the primary record.

I found the names of Thomas' parents: James Perkins and Susan Downes, both born in Rochester, New Hampshire. Thomas' death record, like his daughter Susan's birth record, said he was born in Rome, Maine. But other records I found made me realize I had a mystery on my hands. The death record of Thomas' daughter Mabel said Thomas was born in Lebanon, Maine, and his wife in Boston. A son's death record said Thomas was born in Old Town, Maine. This seemed to be a clue about a Native connection, as Old Town is the home of the Penobscot Indian Nation. However, during follow-up research, I found that none of the three locations listed as his birth place had any record of his birth, and the Penobscot Nation had no record of him.

Records I found on his father, James, were just as confusing. One said he was born in Rochester, New Hampshire; others listed three Maine towns as his birthplace — Lebanon, Augusta, and Hallowell. And, as with his son, none of those places had any record of his birth.

Online searches were no help. Although there were many, many Perkins families documented in online pedigrees, there was no sign of this particular family. I would venture to say I am the first person to try to piece together this family tree.

In my search for the roots of this Perkins family, I've come to know a lot about them. Copies of directories from Dover; birth, death, and marriage records from the Bureau of Vital Records in Concord, New Hampshire, and census records helped me put together this picture:

James Perkins and Susan Downes were married in Rochester, New Hampshire in 1825. They had eight children that I can document, including Thomas. James was a farmer and a shoe cutter in Dover. His wife died before 1853 and he remarried, to a widow named Alice Hartford, with whom he had at least two children, possibly twins.

Thomas, who was born (somewhere!) in 1831, married Mary Conley, most likely in Boston, before 1856. He had eight children that I can document, including my husband's great-grandmother, Susan. Thomas was a fish dealer in Dover, and later continued that trade when he moved to Lebanon, Maine, apparently following his father and one brother, whom he lived near in that town.

Dover city directories told me streets the family had lived on, and I could even pinpoint the locations on a map. But I couldn't find actual birth records for Thomas or his father James anywhere. Nor could I find a death record for James, though I did find his grave in Rochester, New Hampshire, thanks to information I found on an Internet link on the USGenweb site ( The stone was broken in half and so badly pitted with age, I couldn't read anything on it except his name and the year of his death, 1877. I suspect he may have died in Lebanon, but Lebanon had no record of his death and neither did Rochester. (My cemetery investigation in Rochester was not as fruitful as my first one in Dover. Rochester does not have records on those handy interment cards that the Pine Hill Cemetery had.)

So what about the Native connection? If the family legend was true, that Thomas was a "full-blooded Indian," that would mean both of his parents — James Perkins and Susan Downes — were Native. My mother-in-law and her brother had always described Susan Perkins Brownell as being very dark-skinned, with long, straight black hair. Those looks came from somewhere, as did the family legend. But the surname Perkins is an old English name with very deep roots in New England, particularly along the coast of southern New Hampshire. It is unlikely that Grandma Brownell's looks came from an old English family. I think one or both of Thomas' parents may have been "mixed-bloods." If the family had Native blood, where did it come from? How did they end up with the name Perkins? I found that a Perkins man from Rochester, New Hampshire had been captured by the Indians in the late 1700's. Was there a connection?

I discovered that one of Thomas' brothers, James F. Perkins, served in the Civil War and that the government had a pension record on file for him. Knowing that old military records sometimes include physical descriptions, along with other often unexpected information, I ordered a copy of the file from the National Archives. I found a lot of interesting information about James, including his wife's name and details about his military service, but no physical description and no juicy tidbits about his heritage.

Internet research led me to a web site for Abenaki genealogy in New England (, and I made contact with the person in charge, Nancy Lecompte, who gave me some insights into Native life in the 1800s, as well as the surnames of some families known by her organization to be Native. Two of those names were Guppy and Drew. During subsequent research at the Strafford County Registry of Deeds in Dover, I found land records showing that a parcel in Rochester was sold to a family named Guppy by Thomas and Mary Perkins, and another was sold by Susan Guppy to Mary Perkins. Coincidence? Thomas' brother Timothy was married to a woman named Cynthia Drew. Coincidence?

Nancy said that, by the early 1800s, Natives in New England, particularly New Hampshire and Maine, had been nearly decimated — killed, chased to Canada, or sold as slaves. Those who remained hid out as best they could in white society and tried to remove any traces of their Native heritage, sometimes supporting each other in "sub-communities."

From a probate record at the Strafford County courthouse in Dover, I found a connection between the Perkins and Downes families — a Joseph Perkins had been named as an administrator in the estate of Abigail Downes, in Rochester. Although I feel certain that this Perkins family was the one James belonged to, I can't find just where he fits in. Were these families part of a Native sub-community in the Rochester-Dover area? How would I ever know?

I found other circumstantial evidence pointing to a possible Native connection. I found at least three death records in this family stating the cause of death as alcohol abuse. Thomas Perkins died of Bright's disease, an ailment of the kidneys. Both of these conditions are frequently found in the Native population. But certainly not exclusively so. Coincidence?

Nancy told me it was common for Native families to be somewhat transient, migrating to various locations along familiar routes. The towns mentioned in the assorted records I had come across — Rome, Lebanon, Hallowell, Augusta, Rochester — could have been along a migration route the family had between Old Town and coastal New Hampshire. Certainly those town names had some meaning to the people who provided the information I found on all those records.

Serendipity seems to have followed much of my research. Clues have popped up that I never expected; I've developed "hunches" that have turned into more clues leading me along an ancient trail. I sometimes wonder if our ancestors, wanting to be found, help place those clues in our path. But they must want us to really work for the big rewards, because all of a sudden the clues will dry up. I have a theory that, when they are ready to be found, I will find them.

But for now, the elusive family of Thomas Perkins seems to have succeeded at hiding out, leaving behind them few clues about their heritage. I am at a loss to find where James came from. How can I prove or disprove any of my theories about their heritage? Ladies and gentlemen — I give you my brick wall.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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