Marine vet traces his Lawrence roots … all the way back to the Revolutionary War

JEFF EDELSTEIN: Marine vet traces his Lawrence roots … all the way back to the Revolutionary War

Former Lawrence resident Tom O'Neil during his Afghanistan days.
Former Lawrence resident Tom O’Neil during his Afghanistan days.

His whole life, Thomas O’Neil III heard stories about some relative of his who was on the boat with George Washington as he crossed the Delaware. “Sounded like bull****,” O’Neil told me the other day from his home in Florida.But the former Lawrence resident, star quarterback at Lawrence High, and decorated Marine decided to investigate the claim in recent weeks.

Why?

“I had fallen out of love with my country.”

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O’Neil joined the Marines in June of 2000 and before he left in 2005, he saw … well, who can describe what he saw. He was fighting in Iraq from the first day of the war, his unit was part of the crew that captured Baghdad, his unit then occupied the city of Karbala, where O’Neil led human intelligence and security operations, basically becoming the “mayor” of the historic city. After nine months, he was then deployed to Al Anbar province, where he survived a failed assassination attempt by Al Qaeda while he was negotiating with tribal leaders in an area now held by ISIS.

After leaving the Marines, O’Neil stayed in Afghanistan. He started his own consultancy business, working closely with the Department of Defense, and acted as a top CIA and FBI informant.

He came back home to the United States this past September to care for his elderly mother.

And he didn’t like what he came home to.

“All this stuff going on, I couldn’t believe how divided the country is,” he said. “Everyone is angry. So I was angry as well.”

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While caring for him mom, O’Neil got it in his mind to come back to Lawrence and investigate this “ancestor in a boat” story. He reconnected with an uncle, who provided a family tree, and that ancestor — Ezekiel Anderson — was actually O’Neil’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

And … there was no proof he was “on” the boat. They did find proof, however, that Anderson was a guide for Washington, and helped him not only cross the Delaware, but win the Battle of Princeton.

As it turns out, Anderson was one of three locals who was interviewed by Washington about the British positions in Princeton and if he could help lead the Continental Army through the backroads of Maidenhead (now Lawrence) in order to not run into British troops who were marching up what would be Rt. 206.

Plenty of books on the subject, plenty of experts O’Neil spoke with during his time in Mercer last week.

Plenty of spiritual moments, as well, as O’Neil walked the same lands Anderson walked … which were, as it turns out, many. Anderson’s father, Capt. John Anderson, was one of the major landowners in the region.

And O’Neil found his gravesite, at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, which Anderson helped found.

“I lived my whole life in Lawrence and I had no idea about this stuff,” O’Neil said. “I’d eat pizza across the street and the founding member of church, my ancestor, is buried there. Kind of surreal.”

And all of this has had quite the effect on O’Neil.

“Throughout this research, I fell back in love with my country,” he said. “I never knew about any of this, and I’m glad I didn’t because this is exactly what I need in my life right now. After 10 years of war and coming home jaded and disillusioned and then being able to have this incredible experience … just unreal.”

Jeff Edelstein is a columnist for The Trentonian. He can be reached at jedelstein@trentonian.com, facebook.com/jeffreyedelstein and @jeffedelstein on Twitter.