Brenton Simons Builds Bridges Across the Atlantic
By Lynn Betlock
Published October 20, 2022
“We are proud to be opening so many new doors for so many people at the Society –– through our Historic Catholic Records Project, our Jewish Heritage Center, and a major new study project in African American family history to be announced next year, and other interests. We are committed to serving diverse audiences and all age groups,” says Brenton Simons, President and CEO of American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society. Decades of this work has not slowed him down. Simons’s 29th anniversary of joining the staff at will occur in December 2022. While this feature focusses on topics close to his heart — and is reflective of his own heritage in and work related to the United Kingdom— a future article in this series will explore innovations by Simons and the institution in serving internationally and ethnically diverse audiences. “We will be making a vast network of resources available for those whose families come from Brazil, China, India, Japan, and Mexico, to name a few, on AmericanAncestors.org and in our new Discovery Center when it is built,” says Simons.
When asked what in particular inspired his heritage involvements in the United Kingdom, Simons acknowledges his college studies in London, his internships at the Architectural Press there, and his UK ancestry. The Simons family hails from the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire and environs, and his maternal ancestors, the Fitches, are an old armigerous family in Essex from which colonial immigrants to Connecticut sprang, he explained. He continues to make the Anglo-English relationship a priority in his work — he will have hosted or attended multiple events in the UK in 2022.
For almost thirty years, Simons has developed and fostered a wide range of connections between the United Kingdom and United States. These initiatives range from groundbreaking scholarship, educational programming, and free searchable databases on English history and genealogy to international commemorations involving a former UK Prime Minister other famous Britons, and supporting a chorister scholarship at Windsor Castle where the late Queen was recently laid to rest. “We study, in depth, the period of our colonial history when our ancestors were British subjects. This is not just American history, it is British history, too,” says Simons, “I remind people of that fact on both sides of the Atlantic. It always leads to new perspectives and stronger connections.”
Simons says he is especially proud of this work because the efforts have resonated widely and because they are meaningful to so many people: “English heritage is the #1 interest of our more than 415,000 members in 139 countries, which include the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.” He indicated his advocacy and passion for building these bridges extends well beyond his role as the chief executive of American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society. He actively volunteers with other nonprofits that support UK interests in a variety of ways.
One of the roles Simons says he enjoys most is being a goodwill ambassador between Americans and their British counterparts in fostering cross cultural communication and making valuable connections between individuals and institutions that bring people together. This collaborative spirit was realized during the 400th anniversary commemorations of the Mayflower landing and the founding of New England —an international series of events, programs, publications, and exhibitions in the United Kingdom, United States, The Netherlands, and in association with the Wampanoag Nation. The commemorations advanced the story of the Pilgrims — highlighting their mostly humble roots, the causes of Separatism in England, arrival on the shores of New England, and the formation of the Mayflower Compact, a document many historians regard as inspirational to our democracy. Work on the international commemorations began several years prior to 2020 and continued until 2021. Simons was appointed Vice Chair of the State Commission for the commemorations by Massachusetts Governor Charles D. Baker. He represented the Commonwealth at numerous events in the United Kingdom, where he was frequently interviewed on radio shows and where he attended commemorative activities with fellow members of the Plymouth 400 board and the UK-based group Mayflower 400. In London, he sparked the interest of Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson, US Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s by revealing to him his descent from a Mayflower Pilgrim. “I wanted to show people on both sides of the Atlantic how many surprising interconnections there are in this great story.” This work can be revealing and Simons cites the recent discovery that Winston Churchill has a Mayflower line; this is shown in a DNA study recently published in the Society’s journal The Mayflower Descendant.
In addition to making frequent trips to the UK for commemorative planning, Simons ultimately developed the signature ceremonial event of the quadricentennial: a virtual gala on April 22, 2021, honoring former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major with a lifetime achievement award in public service. Simons presented him with a detailed family history that presented not only his English ancestry but the American experiences of his father and grandparents in Pennsylvania. The event evolved through conversations between Simons and Harriet Cross, the British Consul to New England, and later, her successor in that role, Dr. Peter Abbott OBE, who interviewed the former Prime Minister at the gala. British Ambassador Dame Karen Pierce and Governor Charles Baker both recorded congratulatory messages for the event. Major was generous in his assessment of the role played by Simons and New England Historic Genealogical Society as stewards of English history:
"I think you, Brenton, and your colleagues, can be immensely proud of what you’ve built at the Society. Over its long life, it has gathered together the largest collection of original materials about the British people of North America. Its Great Migration study, a continuing study, has also published the most authoritative record of, quite literally, the tens of thousands of British subjects who helped found New England. So, your contributions are unique. And something of which everyone who is a part of it can, legitimately, be very proud of. Human stories of our collective past are at the heart of your work, and I’d like to thank you for helping to keep those stories alive. It is our emotional DNA. And immensely valuable for this generation and our successors." -Sir John Major, KG CH
Even COVID did not stop most of the 400th anniversary commemorative plans from being carried out, although a strong shift occurred towards online programming and, as Simons observes, “The pandemic had a silver lining. It made us place a greater emphasis on educational outreach through free online programming and the publication of new scholarship on the Pilgrims and Native peoples.” One of these efforts was realized in the publication produced by American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society in association with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts of the 400th anniversary edition of Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford, the first history written by an Englishman in America. “This edition was special because it also featured a foreword written by Paula Peters, a member of the Wampanoag Nation. She added important and overlooked perspectives that needed to be heard,” Simons said. He later arranged for copies of this first history written in America to be presented to The Queen and the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, “so that they could share in these important Anglo-American commemorations while in isolation under pandemic restrictions. This is not just American history, it is British history, too. History that changed the world.” says Simons.
At AmericanAncestors.org, Simons made Great Migration series data on the English origins of the Pilgrims available for free to the public online. He also initiated a collaboration with the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and FamilySearch to digitize applications of Mayflower Society members and make them available online in the largest database of its kind in the world. “I hoped,” Simons said, “that this would aid students on both sides of the Atlantic studying this moment in history.”
In addition to the virtual event for Sir John Major, Simons has long overseen events honoring other famous Britons, including actor Dame Angela Lansbury, Downton Abbey and Gilded Age creator Julian Fellowes, and ground-breaking geneticist Dr. Bryan Sykes of Oxford University. Julian Fellowes was recognized in Newport in July 2022 and as part of that event Simons arranged for a brief Platinum Jubilee ceremony in honor of the Queen; he presented British Ambassador Dame Karen Pierce with a proclamation of congratulations “on a glorious and historic reign” scrivened on vellum on behalf of the Society’s members.
“The most important scholarship on the British people, culture, and public affairs in colonial North America is being generated by our Society,” says Simons in reference to the Great Migration Study Project, covering the period of 1620 to 1640, and The Early American Families Study Project, which focuses on the later colonial period through the beginning of the provincial era, 1641 to 1700. “Our scholarship in this key period is being heavily consulted by authors, historians, students, and the public, both here and in the UK,” he asserts. Other English genealogical studies published during Simons’s tenure include a genealogy of Catherine Middleton, the new Princess of Wales, and a book on the ancestry of her late mother-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales. “These volumes and others add to the story of the royal family as it continues to evolve and include new segments of British and American society,” Simons said. “Prince William has considerable roots in New England, which presents a wonderful historical tie between our countries.”
Educational opportunities at the organization extend across the Atlantic in other ways as well. For many years, the Society has hosted Saltire Scholars, students selected from Entrepreneurial Scotland’s Saltire Programmes, who work within the organization as interns. “We are fortunate to have such outstanding students work with us and gain meaningful professional experiences before returning to Scotland, and the support of a generous friend who enables this good work for talented young people to continue every year here,” says Simons. The goal of the initiative is to “find, fuel & spark the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders” in Scotland; Simons feels strongly that the interns he has worked with are “innovators and future leaders” and the experience will provide lifelong benefits.
In addition to his leadership position at American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society, Simons has aided other cultural, historical, and educational organizations involved in the UK. He was recently elected President of the American Friends of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle and the Descendants of the Knights of the Garter, an organization for which he has been an officer for several years. During COVID, Simons launched a successful fundraising campaign to fund the tuition of a student in the centuries-old Chorister program at St. George’s Chapel. That scholarship was critical, Simons says, “because the St. George’s community — like educational communities everywhere — needed urgent support for its students while everything was turned upside down by COVID.” This work puts Simons and his fellow St George’s members in occasional proximity to the royal family, including, prior to her death in September, the Queen, and now the new sovereign, King Charles III. “I was greatly honored to be present in 2019 the last Order of the Garter Service at St. George’s Chapel attended by Her Majesty. You could see very clearly in her eyes how much being there meant to her.” Simons also works with a range of other organizations in the UK or in support of UK-related institutions, including the Honourable Company of Freemen of the City of London in North America, and, recently, he joined the board of directors of the College of Arms Foundation USA, which supports the work of the College of Arms in London ,and in 2020 was appointed a member of The Most Venerable Order of St. John. “There are so many natural crossovers with these organizations,“ says Simons, “it is exciting to enlist support for them and to create educational programming opportunities.”
Heritage travel to the United Kingdom has been high on Simons’s list of priorities over the years. “We are uniquely well placed to bring Americans back to their places of origin in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland —as well as in the Republic of Ireland —with an authenticity and an accuracy few others can deliver.” These tours, initially led most frequently by Great Migration authority Robert Charles Anderson, proved to be exceptionally popular. Simons then began to collaborate with another luminary in the world of heritage travel: Curt DiCamillo, immediate past Executive Director of the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA and creator of the DiCamillo Companion, a website that strives to record the history of “every country house built in Britain or Ireland, standing or demolished.” Today, the Society’s UK heritage tours are so popular that some are even being repeated within the same year.
As his 29th anniversary at the Society approaches, Simons is proud of his work related to the United Kingdom and elsewhere looks forward to continuing these activities among a panoply of other initiatives and activities.
Lynn Betlock is Managing Editor of American Ancestors magazine.