Local genealogist chronicles Mitchell family

New book reviewed
Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:15pm
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Genealogist Peter Greenman’s new tome is a hefty and fascinating exploration of one of Block Island’s largest families, enlivened by 53 pages of photos.

A few facts:

• Experience Mitchell arrived in Plymouth Colony in 1623, the first Mitchell in America.

• He married Jane Cooke, the daughter of a Mayflower passenger; all Mitchells are therefore Mayflower descendants.

• All Mitchells on Block Island are descended from Experience Mitchell through his son, Thomas, who came to Block Island in the l670s and died here in 1687.

The total number of Mitchells in this book is 1,872, and all of the Mitchells are related to one another. Author Greenman has confined his research to the Block Island descendants, but speculates that there are over 1,000 Mitchells (whose families moved elsewhere) who are also descended from Experience Mitchell’s son Thomas.

The Block Island Mitchells made their impact on the island in a variety of ways. In 1775, when the Rhode Island Colony ordered that all cattle and sheep on Block Island (except “a sufficiency for the inhabitants”) be removed to the mainland, the evacuation affected eight Mitchell families. The Mitchells' holdings totaled 68 of the 1,908 sheep removed, which was 3.5 percent of the total sheep and lambs on the island.

Predictably, the Mitchells married members of many other island families. Names that occur throughout the generations of Mitchells are Rathbun, Moulton, Dodge, Mott, Littlefield, Dickens, Pocock, Rose, Sprague, Conley, Willis, Paine, Allen, Sands, Smith and Stinson, along with many names of spouses from elsewhere.

The Mitchells served in the Revolution and in the Civil War, and one was Jesse D. Mitchell, whose story is particularly sad. He enlisted in the Civil War at the age of 41, leaving his 35-year-old wife Deborah (Dodge) Mitchell and eight children behind. He joined the Rhode Island Volunteers in 1862 to serve nine months, but died of illness 143 days later, in Washington, D.C. Deborah died a month later, leaving behind their eight children. Twenty years later, one of those children, Robert, built the house on Connecticut Avenue now owned by Pat Queally.

In this volume, Greenman includes any of the Mitchell wills he could find, and they make for interesting reading. Items mentioned in the wills, in addition to land, livestock and money, included pots and pans, bolsters, blankets, pillows, combs, odd dishes, one lot of old rigging, one lot of old blocks, 11 fish, and “half of all Rails Posts and Stakes wherewith the farm which came by my first wife is now fenced.” In two early wills, people are among the property. One will includes “a negro boy” in inventory with the furniture and tools. An earlier will bequeaths “two negro women namely Mol and Zeporah” to two sons and their families, “to be equally divided” between them “according to quality.” Native American or African-American slaves were common in all of Rhode Island in those days.

Some of the given names of various Mitchells are intriguing. After Experience, family names include Freelove, Desire, Renewed and Temperance Lock (all women); and Restcome Remington, Guernsey, and Barzilla Beckwith Mitchell. Guernsey, who lived in Rochester, New York, in 1905, was a distinguished sculptor. Barzilla Beckwith Mitchell, Sr., born on Block Island in 1796, was a well-to-do farmer and fisherman who also piloted boats along the coast. In 1870, he and his son (also named Barzilla) bought the Spring House and 14 acres of land from Alfred Card for $4,000. He then sold the hotel back to Card for $2,000, promising to pay the $2,000 plus interest within six years.

Barzilla, Sr. was known to all who met him as the “Governor.” Sitting on his customary chair on the hotel’s “piazza,” he delighted summer visitors with “his pleasant face, erect form," and quaint stories of “ye olden time.” He lived to age 84.

A generation later, Delorin Alonzo Mitchell built the Highland House (in 1877) and added a tower to it in 1888. He was also at one time proprietor of the Pequot House. Each hotel accommodated 100 guests, and Delorin was known throughout the country for his resort hotel management. In 1899, the value of the Highland House was $8,500, and Delorin’s property tax was $102. He died in 1922 at age 76.

Contributors to this book include Edith Littlefield Blane, an 11th generation Mitchell descendant, and Everett Russell Littlefield, Sr., a 12th generation descendant. Edith Blane’s remembrances span three generations. The first one concerns her grandfather, Jeremiah Minor Littlefield, Jr., who is, in Greenman’s words, a “legendary Mitchell descendant.” He and his brother, Edgar Littlefield (grandfather of Charon, John and Albert Littlefield and Cindy Littlefield Deane) were two of the eight crew members of the fishing vessel Elsie, which in February 1907, went to the aid of the sinking motor vessel Larchmont. All eight men aboard were, in fact, Mitchell descendants.

In freezing temperatures, heavy winds and hampered by ice, the crew found and rescued, with l5-foot Cape Ann dories, eight survivors. Other boats went to the aid of the Larchmont as well, but Elsie was the only one to find survivors. All eight crew members were hailed as heroes and four medals were struck in their honor. One was from the U.S. Life Saving Service, one from the Rhode Island General Assembly, one from the U.S. Congress and the fourth was the Carnegie Gold Medal. The medals were awarded to each crew member in 1911. Crew members of the other rescue boats were also awarded medals for heroism.

As Edith points out: “These quiet fishermen were a bit embarrassed by all the fanfare, having done what all seafaring folk do — giving assistance to those in peril by the sea.” In Jeremiah Littlefield’s own words, “We went out to save folks, we didn’t need a medal. We would have done it for anyone in such dire straits.”

Everett Littlefield’s anecdotes, excerpted from his engaging memoir, “Block Island Turkey and Toby Roe?” offer remembrances of Block Island in “much better times, albeit with a lot less in monetary riches.” Glorious family picnics, the family’s move to the Old Town Road house built by Everett’s grandfather, details of taking care of their chickens, cows and pigs, and hauling freight by hand for his father’s trucking business, come to life in these accounts. Of his father, Lester Leroy Littlefield, Everett writes, “He hated the water” and was “the world’s worst sailor,” good reasons to leave fishing and go into trucking. Everett recounts his mother, Ethel’s, first visit to the island, when she saw a man standing in the back of a truck without a shirt on and, turning to her mother, declared, “Mom, some day I’m going to marry that guy!” Within a year, she did.

There are many lively characters in this real-life story of a large family. Readers may be entertained by the story of Noel A. Mitchell, born on Block Island in 1874. He gained fame in the 1890s by selling a new product, Salt Water Taffy, at his Old Harbor shop and at other resorts, including Atlantic City, where he was an amusement park operator.

In 1904 he went to St. Petersburg, where he speculated in real estate and promoted sport fishing. He developed Mitchell Beach, and was the first to place green benches throughout the city, with his advertising on them. He was reported to have lost $1,000,000 when the Florida boom went bust.

In 1920, Mitchell ran for mayor of St. Petersburg, and won: the only Block Islander ever to become a mayor. A year later he was thrown out by a recall vote, “following a wild liquor party in the Mayor’s office, which happened to be next door to the police department.” Prohibition had been instituted the year before. Not daunted, he ran again for mayor, but lost. Some years later, he was a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the Florida primary. He did not get the nomination, but he was the only Block Islander to come that close to it.

He did win recognition as the nation’s number one airline patron in 1935, in a contest sponsored by a northern aviation group. This adventurer’s love of flying began in 1914 and included two chartered flights on the first airline route in the country, when airplanes were built for just a pilot and one passenger.

Noel Mitchell died at the age of 63 from pneumonia, following a trip to Block Island to visit family.

Greenman has funded all expenses of the book, including publication. He makes nothing from his labor except the love of doing it, and will sell copies to recoup his costs. Anyone interested in purchasing the book may contact him at (401) 466-2950, or P.O. Box 1242, Block Island, R.I. 02807.