Family Reunion, Nickerson Style

Text and photography by Debra Lawless

Every year at about 9 a.m. on the Sunday after Labor Day, open-hearth cook Maureen Leavenworth lights an outdoor fire at the Nickerson Family Association’s (NFA’s) campus at 1107 Orleans Road in Chatham Port.

“The fire has to be going a number of hours before you start cooking,” says Leavenworth, who is wearing a colonial-era dress. Today she is following an old Plimoth Plantation recipe to steam mussels with sage, rosemary and lovage from the NFA’s heirloom gardens. Soon joining Leavenworth will be Nickersons who have traveled here from as far as Hawaii to join their local cousins at their 118th annual family reunion.

Last year, the first two days of the reunion were held for the first time off-Cape, in Plymouth. There, the Nickersons enjoyed a harbor cruise and toured Plimoth Plantation. But wherever the group goes, it always returns to Chatham, the mecca for all Nickersons.

This morning, many of the cousins are attending services at the First Congregational Church of Chatham, the church founded by their ancestor William Nickerson. When the Rev. T. Joseph Marchio invites the Nickersons to rise, half of the congregation stands.

William Nickerson, a weaver, and his wife, Anne Busby Nickerson, traveled from their home in Norwich, England, in 1637 with their five children. (They had five more after they arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.) After a time in Yarmouth, William purchased from Mattaquason, the Monomoyick sachem (or leader), the land that is today’s Chatham. The family established itself near Ryder’s Cove in about 1664. The site of the Nickersons’ homestead is situated down a path directly behind the NFA campus. Eventually William gave each of his children 50 acres, and the area became a village of Nickersons.

“They were sturdy people,” says Suzanna Nickerson, who is here with her mother, Jane Nickerson West. Suzanna grew up in Chatham, and now lives here part time in an 1863 Main Street house that once belonged to her great, great-grandfather.

A little over two centuries after William’s death in about 1689, one of his ninth-generation descendants, William Emery Nickerson, hosted a Nickerson reunion. On a Saturday in June 1897, more than 100 Nickersons attended a picnic not far from where the reunioners are gathering. At the same time, William Emery, with the help of his amanuensis, Anna Kingsbury, began asking Nickersons to fill out genealogy forms. The work of Kingsbury and Emery formed the backbone of the enormous genealogy project the Nickersons continue today. It is estimated that 1.5 million descendants of William and Anne Busby Nickerson now inhabit the globe.

After William Emery’s death in 1930, the association went dormant until it was revived in 1956. Today, the nonprofit association boasts more than 900 members. In recent years, Edmond Rhodes Nickerson of South Dennis suggested the annual reunion migrate from town to town and upgrade itself. “We broke away from the canned green beans, instant mashed potatoes and stringy roast beef and went to sumptuous hors d’oeuvres at top-shelf cocktail parties, catered gourmet dinners and old-fashioned cookouts and open-hearth cooking,” he says. “It’s been a smash hit for attendees ever since.”

It is unusual for a lineage society to own a campus, and here the Nickersons have two buildings. In the late 1980s, the group acquired a model home that is now the Genealogical Research Center. And in 2003, a unique opportunity arose when the 1829 Caleb Nickerson House on Stage Neck Road was going to be torn down. The Nickersons raised funds and moved the full Cape to their campus. The fully restored house is now a museum where Leavenworth gives open-hearth cooking demonstrations year round and once a year bakes in the beehive oven.

After whetting their appetites with Leavenworth’s mussels, the cousins migrate toward tables under a white tent on the lawn behind the genealogy center. Here, Morrell’s Restaurant and Catering of South Dennis serves grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken patties.
By the end of the weekend, even strangers feel like they’re kin. When Ron Nickerson retired to Chatham in 1998, he didn’t know a soul. He soon connected with the NFA, and has now served as the group’s vice president for 15 years. For Ron, the attraction is “a deep emotional connection to past generations of my family” coupled with a “strong sense of place and belonging in Chatham.”