TRURO — In June 1872, John Fairfield Rich, a journalist living in Ware, in central Mass., realized the fulfillment of a dream he had had a decade earlier, when he began preparing a complete genealogy for the Richard Rich family. One newspaper reported that he had traced over 400 families; another noted that he had collected 14,000 names. With publication of his two-volume work said to be imminent, John F. Rich was the inspiration for the first Rich family gathering, attended by 2,000 “cousins” in their ancestral town: Truro.
The Gloucester Telegraph noted, “Among recent family reunions elsewhere, none has been on a more extensive scale or of a more pleasant and successful character than the gathering of the Rich family at Truro on the 26th and 27th days of June.” And so, the Rich Family Association (RFA) took root, though not until 1965 was it formally organized. Its members have gathered every year since, until the coronavirus derailed plans for the 2020 reunion.
Versed in Rich family lore, John F. was asked to deliver the historical address at the 1872 reunion. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1841, he was one of nine children of cabinetmaker Samuel Snow Rich (1809-1883) and his wife, Sarah. It was John’s great-great-grandfather, Lemuel Rich, born in Truro in 1711, who had moved the family to Maine. In his address, John noted that “Our ancestors were a plain and hardy race. The current of their lives never expanded into notoriety or noise. Frugal, peaceful, obliged to labor, industrious and religious, the seed of the sowers ripened into a grand harvest of noble sons and daughters. Born of an ancestry like this, our family inherits its peculiar traits, and go where you may, we have yet to find one of our kin whose unwarped nature is not warm, generous and ambitious.”
The origins of the Truro Riches begin with mariner Richard Rich, who settled first at Dover Neck, N.H. Married to Sarah Roberts, the daughter of Thomas Roberts, a pioneer settler and colonial governor, Richard and Sarah had arrived in Eastham by 1681 and died there in 1692. Rich descendant and historian Shebnah Rich (1824-1907) writes in his Truro — Cape Cod, or Land Marks and Sea Marks (1883) of the Rich family, “though not the first in town, they early became the most populous.”
Indeed, the cemeteries in Truro — Congregational, Methodist, Snow, Pine Grove, and Old North — are rich with Rich headstones. Shebnah Rich goes on to say that “it is almost impossible to locate the family lines, or trace the lineal branches, without making a complete family history.” Anyone who undertakes to trace their Rich family genealogy immediately encounters what Shebnah Rich alluded to: intermarriages and the duplication of Christian names that make the task of dipping into the Rich genealogy mind-boggling. The line of Richard Rich (1674-1743), one of seven children born to Richard and Sarah, seems to be the best defined, notes Shebnah.
A number of Rich family members played prominent roles in the 1872 reunion, among them Matthias Rich (1820-1914), the son of Capt. Matthias and Delia (Pike) Rich, who was honored as chairman of the gathering, and Hiram Rich (1832-1901), who contributed a closing poem, The Parting Word. Born in Gloucester, Hiram was a banker but also a widely published poet. The son of Capt. Stephen Rich (1809-1841) and Nancy Adams, Hiram was left fatherless at age nine when Stephen, commanding the Gloucester mackerel schooner Forest, was lost at sea with seven other crew members during the October Gale of 1841.
About that violent storm, Salem historian Sidney Perley wrote, “The ocean roared as though with an unbridled madness” and, as it lashed New England, few places felt its fury more than Truro, where 57 men and boys — neighbors, friends, and family — were lost aboard seven vessels frantically attempting to return to the Highlands from George’s Bank as the storm intensified. Twenty-seven Truro women were left widowed, 55 children fatherless. A monument in the Congregational Cemetery pays tribute to the drowned fishermen, few of whose bodies were ever recovered. Among the names are six members of the Rich family, including brothers Elisha, Joseph, and William.
Miraculously, two Truro vessels, the Garnet and the Water Witch, survived the storm. One wonders, since there seems to be no mention of it in accounts of the 1872 reunion, if those in attendance were aware that Matthias Rich, the gentleman from Boston who was chairman of the gathering, had been captain of the Water Witch in 1841. Then only 21, Matthias had gone to sea at 11 as a cook and by 19 was captain of the mackerel schooner Sarah. It had always been his intention to become a teacher, and toward that goal he fished each summer and studied during the winter. He taught school in Truro and Provincetown, and five years after surviving the October Gale he gave up the sea for good, went to Boston with his family — he had married Sally Ann Knowles in April 1841 — and opened a successful wholesale grocery business. Immersing himself in city politics, he served on the school committee and the common council, was an active freemason, and a member of the Universalist Church.
John Fairfield Rich would, no doubt, be gratified to know that his genealogical efforts have now burgeoned into a family association numbering in the tens of thousands from 44 states and Canada. The association now welcomes other Rich families, including those of Nicholas Rich, Michael deRich, and Johannes Reich. The RFA has initiated projects to record the inscriptions on Truro and Wellfleet headstones, publishes a quarterly newsletter, Kinfolk, and offers scholarships to students whose parents are current members.
John did not live to see his genealogy published. He died at 35, just months after the family reunion, from a throat ulcer. But his exhaustive work formed the basis for a genealogy, Descendants of Richard Rich of Cape Cod, that was finally published in 1929 and 1930 in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) under the name of Evelyn Rich (1848-1940), the daughter of Shebnah Rich.
Author’s note: the Rich Family Association maintains a website at richfamilyassociation.org.