Walt Whitman

“One’s self I sing, a simple separate person

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Walt Whitman, “One’s Self I Sing” from Leaves of Grass

The great poet of democracy, the voice of America speaks to us of his origins, of his emotions about his ancestry. He does so at the insistence of a friend, who wishes to know more about him, in order to better understand “Leaves of Grass”, Whitman’s great book of poetry. It was first published at his own cost in 1855, and then revised and republished six more times in his lifetime, each time with many new editions, until the final copy had swelled to several times the size of the 1855 edition, and Whitman’s fame had grown likewise. He speaks of his ancestry first in factual, almost mundane detail; he soon moves on to a profound mediation on the role of our forefather’s in our existence, drawing subtle parallels with the natural world.

Before quoting this appropriate selection from “Specimen Days” a brief examination of the poet’s connection to us, and the evidence available for tracing his origins is in order.

Walt himself states that his family is descended from Joseph Whitman, the son of Zachariah Whitman, brother of John, known in Farnham’s book as “the Ancestor”. There is record of Zachariah, his wife Sara, and son Zachariah, age 2 1/2, coming over in the “Truelove” from England on September 19, 1635. There is no further mention of the child; when Zachariah died in 1666, he left his property to his nephew, the third son of John Whitman, and the Whitman from whom the Nova Scotia Whitmans are descended.

In Farnham’s book, he states that a certain “Joseph Whitman of Huntingdon, Long Island, was made a freeman of the New Haven Colony” (Farnham, page xv). He further states that the Long Island Whitmans, from whom Walt sprung, are all descendants of this Joseph Whitman. As far as can be determined, Joseph Whitman is not a descendent of either John or Zachariah Whitman. If Walt is correct, we are all related to him; if Farnham’s source is correct, Walt is from a different Whitman family, perhaps related in England. Whichever side of this issue we choose to take, Walt Whitman has some charming and enlightening words on the subject of the search for one’s ancestors:

Answer to an Insisting Friend

“You ask for items, details of my early life - of genealogy and heritage, particularly of the women of my ancestry, and of its far back Netherlands stock on the maternal side - of the region where I was born and raised, and my father and mother before me, and theirs before them, with a word about Brooklyn and New York Cities, the time I lived there as a lad and young man. You say you want to get at these details mainly as to the go-befores and embryons of “Leaves of Grass”. Very good; you shall have at least some specimens of them all. I have often thought of the meaning of such things - that one can only encompass and complete matters of that kind by exploring behind, perhaps very far behind, themselves directly, and so into their genesis, antecedent and cumulative stages. Then, as luck will have it, I lately whiled away the tedium of a week’s half - sickness and confinement, by collating these very items for another (yet unfulfilled, probably abandoned) purpose; and if you will be satisfied with them, authentic in date - occurrence and fact simply, and told my own way, garrulous - like, here they are. I shall not hesitate to make extracts, for I catch at anything to save labor, but those will be the best versions of what I want to convey.

Genealogy - Van Velsor and Whitman

The later years of the last century found the Van Velsor family, my mother’s side, living on their own farm at Cold Spring, Long Island, New York State, near the eastern edge of Queen’s County about a mile from the harbor. My father’s side, probably the fifth generation from the first English arrivals in New England, were at the same time farmers on the own land, two or three miles off, at West Hills, Suffolk County. The Whitman in the Eastern States, and so branching west and south, starts undoubtedly from one John Whitman, born in 1602 in old England, where he grew up, married, and his eldest son was born in 1629. He came over in the “True Love” in 1640 to America to live in Weymouth, Mass., which place became the mother - hive of the New Englanders of the name; he died in 1692. His brother, Rev. Zachariah Whitman, also came over in the “True Love”, either at the same time or soon after and lived at Milford Conn. A son of this Zachariah, named Joseph, migrated to Huntington, Long Island, and permanently settled there. Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary, Vol IV, page 524, gets the Whitmans firmly established at Huntington per this Joseph before 1664. It is quite certain that from that beginning, and from Joseph, the West Hill Whitmans, and all others in Suffolk County, have since radiated, myself among the number. John and Zachariah both went to England diverse times; they had large families and several of their children were born in the old country. We hear of the father of John and Zachariah, Abijah Whitman, who goes over into the 1500s, but we know little about him, except that he also was for some time in America.

This old pedigree reminiscence come up to me vividly from a visit I made not long since (in my sixty third year) to West Hills, and to the burial grounds of my ancestry, both sides... After more than forty years absence...went down Long Island on a week’s jaunt to the place where I was born, thirty miles from New York City. Rode around the old familiar spots, viewing and pondering and dwelling long upon them, everything coming back to me. Went to the old Whitman homestead and the upland and took a view eastward, inclining south, over the broad and beautiful farm lands of my grandfather (1780) and my father. There was the new house (1810) the big oak a hundred and fifty or two hundred years old; there the well, the sloping kitchen garden, and a little way off even the well kept remains of the dwelling of my great grandfather (1750-60) still standing with its mighty timbers and low ceiling. Near by a stately grove of tall vigorous black walnuts, beautiful, Apollo-like, the sons or grandsons, no doubt of black walnuts during or before 1776. On the other side of the road spread the famous apple orchard, over twenty acres, the trees planted by hands long mouldering in the grave (my uncle Jesse’s) but quite many of them evidently capable of throwing out their annual blossoms and fruit yet.

I now write these lines seated on an old grave (doubtless of a century since at least) on the burial hill of the Whitmans of many generations. Fifty and more graves are quite plainly traceable and as many more decay’d out of all form - depress’d mounds, crumbled and broken stones, cover’d with moss - the gray and sterile hill, the clumps of chestnuts outside, the silence, just varied by the soughing wind. There is always the deepest eloquence of sermon or poem in any of these ancient graveyards of which Long Island has so many; so what must this one have been to me? My whole family history with its successions of links, from the first settlements down to date, told here - three centuries concentrated on this sterile acre.” (Specimen Days, pages 4 - 7)

The Editor of Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days adds this footnote:

“The tradition connecting Whitman’s ancestry and the Rev. Zachariah Whitman who emigrated from England in 1635 is not dependable. The Rev. Zachariah Whitman left no children.

Authored by Brian Whitman, a columnist and book review writer from Ontario;
Copyright 1999; all rights reserved.