Our American Story

Hastings family

Genealogy, Geography & Mobility

By Scott Billigmeier

Authors Note: This is and can only hope to be a modest primer. If it is successful it will give the reader a taste for more information and some insight in to what we’ve learned – guideposts if you will – that are useful to interested in the confluence of history and genealogy.  This retrospective is dedicated to my late aunt, M. Ruth (Hastings) Hanson (1915-2011), for whom none of this would have been possible.


It is trite but true that ours is the story of America; all the aspects are here – arrival on unknown shores, community building, religion, agriculture, battles with the natives, taming the frontier, venturing into that frontier by small steps then great leaps west with the advent of modern transportation, war, education, industrialization, self-improvement, movement out of agriculture and so forth.

Watertown was a well situated community and so it took our ancestors several decades to start moving away. When they did, it was for usual, predictable reasons; they wanted land of their own and the freedom to create their own destinies away from parents, customary strictures and eventually, when the west was fully open to the Pacific, the climate.  With few exceptions, our people stayed well above the Mason-Dixon line.  In the earliest days, they went where their feet or horses could take them in a reasonable time.  They used the Indian trails that often became the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first roads and hewed close to water sources where possible.  Like their neighbors, our ancestors would have used the Boston Post Road when going west or south into Connecticut.  If heading west, the Charles River would have been on their mind if not always in view.

In the 1790s, the first covered wagon left Massachusetts.  Wars, treaties (and treaties broken), the Erie Canal, rail transport, the Gold Rush, the clarion call of land speculators, the Homestead Acts, or pursuit of an ever-elusive paradise on earth all fed the out-migration from New England.  The Mormons were a peculiarly New England invention and they took more than their fair share of her sons and daughters; our family was among those swept up in the fervor.  Especially through the female lines and surnames such as Snow, we are well represented in Utah and other western LDS enclaves today.  In the early 19th century, religious zeal was also carried to far-away Hawaii where we are well represented by the locally prominent surname of Judd.

Those New Englanders who traversed the entire continent by wagon train endured a long, arduous and often fatal trip.  Our own Lansford Hastings lives in history for his association with the ill-fated Donner Party in California.  As transportation improved, the arc of migration of our New England ancestors began to fan south.  People moving west from the southern U.S. followed a similar if inverted pattern; I think in terms of convergence states where those from states associated today with the Confederacy came face to face with Yankees.  Of course Kansas and John Brown come to mind and from that we might imagine a state of perpetual antagonism existed whenever the two regions co-mingled.  While there was undoubtedly tension and some difference in values, it is at the core a story of successful collaboration.  We can see the lasting legacy of New England (its passion for education and entrepreneurship being but two examples) in convergence states such as Iowa (the founding of Grinnell College by Rev. Josiah Grinnell) and much later, the George Bush family of Texas.  It is this lasting and positive legacy left by our Yankee ancestors that separates a convergence state from the others.

With many years of study and research, one can quickly look at the broad expanse of American history and do a mental sort as it relates to our New England family.  Many of these are rules of thumb and hold true for other New England families as well.  With a healthy mix of experience and deductive reasoning, here are some that we can use to flag information as potentially relevant (or not) for the descendants of Thomas Hastings prior to the 20th century and the makings of mass culture.

  • First names of Walter, Robert and Joshua are relatively rare in our family.  Walter is more closely associated with Hastings family of Cambridge, Mass. – especially in the earlier generations.  Joshua is associated with the Hastings families of Pennsylvania.  Especially prior to the 19th century, Robert is seen in both Pennsylvania and Cambridge families much more frequently than our own.
  • Religion is an important identifier.  Congregationalism which is associated with Puritanism is an important positive clue and likewise Unitarianism.  On the other hand, if Baptist this does not tend to correlate with our family.
  • Within New England, a Thomas Hastings descendant relationship is assumed where the surname appears in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.  It is a weaker correlation with Rhode Island.  In Maine, the surname is fairly evenly split between descendants of the Watertown family and the Cambridge family.
  • New York (particularly upstate) has a strong correlation.
  • Pennsylvania has a generally negative correlation and the farther south in the state one researches the more negative it becomes.
  • Northeastern Ohio (historically within the bounds of what was known as the Connecticut Western Reserve) has a strong positive correlation with New England (to include our family).
  • Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin correlate positively with our family.
  • Indiana generally does not correlate.  There are some Hastings there but they tend to descend from Pennsylvania or southern states.
  • Here are some additional “Convergence states” of note beyond those mentioned above:  California, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Washington, and Oregon.
  • There is a strong correlation between Connecticut and Hawaii (once known as the Sandwich Islands).  This is due to the twelve missionary companies send to Hawaii by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions between 1819 and 1847.
  • There is a very strong relationship between Watertown and Wethersfield, Connecticut.  Wethersfield was first settled by a small company of predominantly Watertown men in 1634 and was originally known as “New Watertown.”
  • As families tended to move together and along the same routes, surname correlations are strong and include a long litany including Bond, Cheney, Coolidge, Rice, Willard, etc.  When we see them together with a Hastings in the same locale they reinforce the probability of an ancient Watertown connection.  There is a much shorter list of names which rarely appear in our line yet are fairly common in the Cambridge family;  Cotton, Dana, Meane or Means and Worsham are among those that negatively correlate with our own family.
  • Several of our family have graduated from Harvard College so there is a strong correlation in that context.  The Hastings of Cambridge also sent many to study there but were also involved in the administration of Harvard whereas our fellow descendants generally were not.

The Yankee migration out of New England was robust before the Civil War and many towns felt the impact.  After the war, however, it exponentially increased to a point where the term de-population was heard in some rural areas.  In Vermont for example, the population peaked at 236,000 people and then more or less leveled off for the next 150 years and typically half or more of the native born Vermonters lived elsewhere by adulthood.  Such was the concern and yearning of those left behind that a phenomenon known as “Old Home Week” began in New Hampshire circa 1897 and soon took hold across New England.  Its purpose was to create a time of community celebration that would draw distant son’s and daughter’s back home every five or ten years to visit family and friends who stayed behind.  The tradition lives on today in more varied form and has taken root outside New England as well.

One of the great paradoxes of the American experiment is how we build the new often at the expense of the old.  We as a people have covered vast distances to build new homes, new identities and yet, over time, the vibrant and loving connections to our old homes have withered.  In my own family experience, it took us nearly 200 years to leave Massachusetts but, when my Hastings forebears did so, their subsequent moves were more frequent.  After a few summers of clearing rocks (oh the rocks!) and trees from their patch of the Green Mountains, they made the permanent move to farm in southern Vermont.  Land was relatively cheap and plentiful in Windham County but for good reason as the old axiom about Vermont’s weather makes clear – “nine months of winter followed by three months of damn poor sledding!”   Less than sixty years later the grandchildren of these settlers were on the move again, this time to Iowa and the fantastically fertile alluvial soils northwest of Des Moines.  The weather was marginally better but the land itself was much better suited to farming.  It was on this farm in Greene County that my mother was born with her Hastings siblings.

The “home place” was built by her grandfather and he and Grandma Hastings, who moved into town when the farm was turned over to my grandfather, were frequent visitors in her early childhood before they passed away.  They were of the generation who came to adulthood right before the Civil War and who lost friends and family in that great conflict.  As the youngest of five children, my mother missed meeting her great-grandmother by eight years.  This resilient Vermonter was born in 1816 and lived to be nearly 100.  The second half of her life, as a widow, was lived at the home place in Iowa and she lies today in Jefferson’s town cemetery with the rest of the ancestors.  Repeating the pattern, grandchildren of the first generation in Iowa moved west again, this time to California, while others remained in Iowa.

Although the time and distances are great, there is enough generational contact and continuity here to inspire confidence that the family story would be preserved.  But, were it not for one pivotal person, it may very well have been lost before it could be passed on to my generation.  This gem of a woman, for whom I’ve dedicated this piece, was the loving caretaker of our New England family bible, photos (which gratefully she labelled), memories and ephemera.  Things are lost with each generation’s passing, but she collected and preserved what she could and then passed the proverbial torch.  A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Iowa, my Aunt Ruth was a remarkable woman on many levels but this, to me, is one of the brightest parts of her legacy.  Even in this age of instant communication and access, ultimately it still comes down to primary sources.  And for that, every family needs an Aunt Ruth!





Learn More:

Holbrooke, Steward H. Yankee Exodus: an Account of Migration. N.Y.: MacMillan & Co.,1950 (ISBN 1-125-30990-3)