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Getting Under the Skin of My Ancestors

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

by Steve Isham

If John Isham had not shown up in Plymouth Colony around 1670 I would not have a Mayflower ancestor, or at least not Edward Fuller. As it happened, John's grandson married a Rebecca Fuller and that's how way down the track I, as an AUSMD member, ended up writing this for our newsletter.

We don't know where John came from. Many American Ishams have tried for decades to discover that and my favorite supposition has him arriving from Virginia on a runaway boat with James Percival. Possibly John was part of the crew. James could not have navigated those waters and that distance by himself. Virginia wanted to extradite Percival back to Jamestown but the authorities at Plymouth let him stay -- and keep the boat too I presume! That James settled near to John adds plausiblity to their association.

The English Ishams are possibly the oldest family in Northamptonshire with representation in the Domesday Book. One branch established Lamport Hall in Tudor times and it remains to the present with all the original art, library, and furnishings, owned by a private trust and nowadays hosting events such as weddings. Richard Isham is heir to the Baronetcy associated with Lamport Hall. He is currently a lawyer living in London. A mutual friend organized a yDNA test for us both at 111 markers with Family Tree DNA. It turns out we are genetically separated by a distance of ‘one step’. That was a very exciting discovery. It confirmed what many long believed, that however John Isham ended up in Plymouth Colony in the 1670s, he was a close cousin of contemporary Northamptonshire Ishams back in England.

The Plymouth that John arrived in was of course a nest of Puritan Separatists. They held to those tenets of faith that put the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in the first place. They applauded when news arrived that Puritan Cromwell had come to power in England. Meanwhile back at Lamport Hall Baronet Justinian Isham was imprisoned 3 times for his support for King Charles I and the traditional English church. The Northamptonshire Ishams were definitely not Puritans. So I would love to know what beliefs John brought with him to Plymouth Colony. Was he a non-Puritan that Plymouth somehow tolerated? But maybe he brought his own Puritan convictions acquired earlier back in England. How did that come about I wonder? A lot of my ancestry interest orbits around trying to get some sense of what my forebears thought and believed. What values did they have? What spirit animated them and impelled them to do the things they did?

There is a striking physical juxtaposition. While John Isham and wife Jane were humbly cobbling their own shoes and weaving their own cloth in the house they built in Barnstable, Plymouth Colony, John’s gad-about Royalist cousin Thomas Isham was on the ‘Grand Tour’ in Rome collecting large paintings and lavish furnishings for Lamport Hall.

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