Sunday, September 24, 2023

A Family History Journey to Cornwall

Sometime during the year spanning May 1849 and June 1850, a 30-year-old miner and his growing family left their home in Cornwall, England and sailed west. Henry and Sarah (Kitto) Stephens said goodbye to everything they knew in search of opportunity.

The Stephenses, my fourth great-grandparents, joined the exodus of emigrants seeking work amid southern England's 19th century economic downturn. As Cornwall's tin and copper mines declined, skilled miners like Henry sought employment overseas.

By mid-1850, Henry had found work as a miner in Grant County, Wisconsin where iron ore was in great supply. He and Sarah were enumerated in the U.S. census with their three young children - all born in Cornwall - including my third great-grandfather Thomas K. Stephens. 

They weren't entirely alone. The neighboring household included Sarah's parents - John and Mary (Wearne) Kitto - and siblings. Their migration had been a family affair.

1850 US Census excerpt detailing the Stephens and Kitto
families in Grant County, Wisconsin

Eventually, Thomas K. Stephens (also spelled Stevens) would marry, move to Colorado, and continue the mining tradition in the Rocky Mountains. It was from here that I began to uncover my Cornish roots.

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to southern England and decided to retrace my ancestors' footsteps in Cornwall. 

Finding my ancestors' whereabouts

A friend recently toured England with her family. Before her trip, she worked with a British genealogist to identify where her ancestors had lived. The researcher found sites relevant to her family's history and produced a report that guided her journey. 

She pointed me to the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), where I was able to filter my needs down to a researcher specializing in Cornish genealogy. This is how I was connected with the wonderful Dr. Lesley Trotter - a historian specializing in Cornish studies who shares her expertise online at Humble History.

Dr. Trotter took what I knew about my Cornish ancestry and delved deeper into my family's history, searching for locations where I could visit. That culminated in a detailed report that shaped an incredibly memorable experience.

Following my ancestors' footsteps

With Dr. Trotter's report in hand, I worked with a fantastic local guide, Becky Frost, who owns and operates Penelewey Tours, to design a tailored family history day trip.

From my hotel in Penzance, we set out for our first stop, the Church of St. Germoe in the village of Germoe. The building has Norman origins dating to 1100 AD and replaced an earlier Saxon church. 

St. Germoe

It was within these stone walls at this baptismal font pre-dating the Norman Conquest, that Henry Stephens was baptized on April 30, 1820. In fact, Henry's parents, Henry and Elizabeth (Pope) Stephens (my fifth great-grandparents), were baptized here in 1795 and 1797 respectively. 

St. Germoe's baptismal font

Henry and Elizabeth were also married here in front of this altar in July 1819. 

St. Germoe's altar

Elizabeth died in 1838 and was buried in Germoe on September 20th, although I didn't find a gravestone for her in the surrounding churchyard. 

St. Germoe churchyard with a view of the church's tower

Home Along the Beach

From Germoe, we drove to nearby Pengersick Castle as my family were likely tenants of the manor home. Today, the building is a wedding venue and I wasn't able to visit the grounds (probably due to someone's pesky nuptials taking precedence).

Next stop was a stroll along Praa Sands - a beautiful stretch of beach running alongside Prah Green, a grassy hillside where my Kitto family lived in small cottages (sadly, the originals no longer survive). The sun was warm and brought out many shades of blue in the sea. 

It was an idyllic view, yet I wondered if my ancestors had mixed feelings about living alongside the sea. Becky shared that Cornwall's winters could be dreary with gray, cold, windy, wet weather blowing off the coast.

At Praa Sands with Prah Green (site of Kitto cottages)
on the hillside

St. Breaca Church

After a pub lunch at the Lion & Lamb, we spent the afternoon at three different churches. A highlight was our visit to St. Breaca Church in the village of Breage. The current granite structure was dedicated in 1456, replacing an older Norman building. 

St. Breaca

My third great-grandfather Thomas K. Stephens was baptized here on November 21, 1845. His mother, Sarah (Kitto) Stephens, was also baptized here in February 1822. 

St. Breaca's baptismal font

Sarah Kitto married Henry Stephens before this altar on April 20, 1844.

St. Breaca's altar

During a Victorian era restoration, centuries of whitewash were removed and revealed medieval paintings survived on the church's walls. Painted over in the 16th century during the reformation of Edward VI (who ordered the destruction of idolatrous figures countrywide which included paintings and stained glass windows), the illustrations depict a number of characters who may represent St. Christopher, Christ, King Henry VI, and St. Thomas Becket.

A modern sculpture of St. Breaca with St. Christopher
painting on the wall

The churchyard included the graves for several men who shared my family surnames, including a John Kitto, William Kitto, Richard Stephens, and William Stephens (who had great real estate with his grave right outside the church's doorway). While I'm sure we're family, I don't presently know the exact relationship to these men.

John Kitto died May 12, 1865 aged 52 years

William Kitto died May 28, 1878 aged 81 years

Richard Stephens died 1834 and was a son of
William and Mary (according to a census of burials)

William Stephens died 1834 and his wife Philippa died 1838

Wheal Trewavas

The last great highlight of my family history road trip was to a site where my ancestors may have worked. Mining dominated Cornwall's economy throughout the 18th and early 19th century. Its mark still dots the Cornish landscape. Today, the ruins of engine houses (used to house the mechanics that ferried men into and out of the mine shafts and pumped out water) with their towering smokestacks are telltale signs of the area's recent history.

Near Prah Green, we hiked a trail from the Rinsey headlands that snaked along the coast atop a cliffside with breathtaking views of the sea below and on out to the distant horizon. A determined wind blew off the sea at a persistent clip. A 15-minute hike brought us to a promontory at the Trewavas headland.

From Trewavas Head looking back at Rinsey Head

Operating while my ancestors were still in Cornwall, Wheal Trewavas opened in about 1834 with men exploiting copper lodes that ran out under the sea. The mine closed in 1850 when the sea flooded the tunnels displacing a workforce of 161.

Wheal Trewavas engine house ruins

It was a moving experience to imagine my ancestors at work carving out their livings (literally). After generations of dangerous backbreaking work, it must have been heart wrenching to watch the local mining industry collapse and leave them feeling they had no choice but to emigrate. I admire the guts it took to leave everything familiar and known and move a world away to something uncertain and with no guarantee of success. 

Posing with Wheal Trewavas ruins

Their move west put them on a collision course with my other ancestral lines. They would meet, marry, and create new generations. It never ceases to boggle my mind how their decisions (some small and others big with seismic ramifications) all led to each of us existing. A different step or a choice not taken and the whole slate of history would change. 

I'm invested in learning about my ancestors' journeys - many of them arduous - that led to me and my place in the world. I'm grateful I had the privilege to visit Cornwall and gain some understanding of what their lives were like. Tremendous thanks to Dr. Trotter and Becky for their roles in making this experience happen. 


  1. What a fantastic trip! You really did your homework and got some great help over there. Awesome.

    1. Doing my homework and working with the professional researcher and guide really helped me get the most out of the experience. I'm grateful I was able to do it. Thanks for reading and commenting, Laura. I appreciate it!