Editor's note: The Deseret News asked for experiences of those whose trips have helped them connect with their family roots and how families have incorporated their history into summer vacations. Here is one of the experiences. It has been edited for length and clarity.
A family heritage tour can have something for everyone — mystery, history, adventure, scenery, food, shopping, and, best of all, the opportunity to connect with family members — past and present. In 2014, our extended family incorporated all of these elements into a pilgrimage we made to Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts where one of our ancestors, Anthony Coombs, lived.
For almost a century, there were two absorbing mysteries concerning Anthony — what was his real name and where did he come from before arriving in Maine in 1684? After extensive research and DNA testing arranged by a distant cousin in the East, it was discovered that Anthony’s birth name was Antoine Comeau and that he was from Port Royal (Annapolis Royal), Nova Scotia. Anthony’s father, Pierre Comeau, allegedly arrived in Nova Scotia in 1632 with the Isaac de Razilly expedition. His mother, Rose Bayol, immigrated to Nova Scotia a few years later.
Our family originally planned to visit only Massachusetts and Maine, but when we learned of Anthony’s connection to Nova Scotia, we added it to our itinerary. We organized our family heritage tour ourselves. We made a list of our “must-sees” and then did research to provide historical context concerning them
Since members of our group lived in several parts of the country and we all had different schedules, we made an itinerary of the times and the places we would meet each day as well as a detailed narrative of what happened there. We also exchanged phone numbers so we could communicate if anyone was delayed or lost. Everyone arranged for their own transportation, lodging and meals, with the exception of several special occasions when we all dined together.
The itinerary’s flexibility allowed everyone to come and go at will and to participate in the parts of the tour that interested them. In addition to the Coombs’ sites, we also visited Plymouth and the homes of our Mayflower ancestors who married into the Coombs line — John and Abigail Adams, John and Priscilla Alden, Priscilla Mullins and Myles Standish.
For clarity, the places we visited are listed in chronological order, from Anthony’s birth in Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal), Nova Scotia, to the birth of one of his descendants, Mark Anthony Coombs, who was born in Islesboro, Maine, in 1802. We traveled by ferry across the Bay of Fundy from Maine to Port Royal, where Anthony was born about 1661. This peaceful, small town was the capital of Acadia (French Canada) for almost 150 years. It was hard to believe that at one time, it was the most fought over seaport in North America and it exchanged hands between England and France seven times.
Pierre Comeau, Anthony’s father, may have been one of the men who helped to maintain and fortify the town’s star fort, Fort Anne, which was built in 1627 and is located at the mouth of the harbor. As a young man, Anthony must have witnessed the many skirmishes among the French, British and Indians in Port Royal. There is nothing like visiting the places where historical events occurred to make those stories and the people who witnessed those events, come alive.
According to historian Henry Bruce, in his book "An Illustrated History of Nova Scotia," the town was also “the site of many North American firsts, such as the first resident surgeon, the first continuing church services, the first weekly Bible class, the first social club, the first library and the first French theatrical performance.”
While we were in Acadia, we also spent some time in the breathtaking Acadia National Park, which is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. The park’s pristine forests, rugged shoreline and wildlife were a highlight of our trip.
In 1684, Anthony, an apprentice blacksmith, left Port Royal with Louis Allain (a.k.a. Lewis Allen) and traveled to Wells, Maine, where Allain purchased 200 acres of land on both shores of the Little River, now the Merriland River, which included a sawmill and a complete ironworks. We determined the approximate site of Allen’s former property by examining land records and old maps. Oddly enough, within two years, Allain abandoned the property, leaving it, and his blacksmith’s trade, to Anthony’s care.
On Sept. 5, 1688, Anthony married Dorcas Wooden, who was from Essex County, Massachusetts. When the King William’s War broke out in the area less than a year later (1689-1697), Dorcas returned to Massachusetts, seeking safety with family members. Anthony apparently traveled back and forth between Wells and Essex County for almost a decade until 1697, when the couple finally decided to settle elsewhere.
In November 1697, the residents of Rochester, Massachusetts, offered Anthony a beautiful tract of 40 acres of land by the Sippican River if he would move to their community and serve as their blacksmith for seven years. Anthony built a home, barn, blacksmith shop and planted an orchard on the property, eventually accumulating more than 150 acres of farm land.
We located the approximate site of where Anthony and Dorcas lived by reading local histories and by studying Anthony’s deeds. After arriving in Rochester, part of our group pulled over on the side of the road to wait for the rest of us to arrive. A woman came out of her house and asked what they were doing. When they replied they were trying to locate the property of their ancestor who had lived in Rochester in the 1790s the woman said, “What’s his name?” Upon hearing the name, she exclaimed, “He was the town blacksmith for many years! I can show you exactly where his shop was because the foundation is still there.”
Anthony was active in community affairs and on Oct. 13, 1703, he and six other men established the first church in Rochester. A plaque in the town of this event, near the location of where the original church, long since gone, stood. Anthony and Dorcas spent the rest of their lives in Rochester, where they died.
Several of their sons eventually returned to Maine, where their descendants lived for several generations. In the late 1770s, some of these Coombs moved to the island of Islesboro, where they made their living as sailors and sea captains. For the second time, we boarded a ferry to travel to Islesboro.
One of these captains, our ancestor Mark Anthony Coombs, eventually left the sea and moved to Illinois. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1832 and in 1860, he crossed the plains to Utah.
After we returned home from our tour, one of my cousins sent me this message: “As I stood with the members of our trip, I felt their strength and of the strength of those ancestors who lived before me. Due to my recent divorce, it was tempting to use the ‘broken family’ expression. However, we had just finished walking on the same ground as our ancestors, and I felt the strength and love from both living and dead family members. At that moment, I knew that I was not and would never be a member of a broken family.”