Saturday, January 26, 2013

Puritans, pirates, and witches... and my family tree?

Sometimes while reading histories I wonder if I might come across a name from my own family history. It's not impossible since one of my lines runs right back to the Mayflower and I believe another goes back to the early Jamestown colonies. Hopefully - if I found one - they would be a good or heroic person instead of a scoundrel... but I guess I'd take a scoundrel, too. But I might have found one while reading Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience by Richard Francis.

Samuel Sewall was born in England in 1652, but his parents were from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the family moved back to Massachusetts when Sam was 9 years old. He married Hannah Hull, daughter of the influential John Hull, and became one of the most respected men in Boston. But he is most remembered today for his role in the Salem Witch Trials where 24 people (I think) were executed for witchcraft between February 1692 and 1693. Sewall was part of the infamous "Court of Oyer and Terminer" where most of the convictions came from. While this is a biography of Sewall, Francis does recount the events of the trials but he doesn't go into a lot of depth. He attributes the hysteria to a combination of causes: the stress of living on the frontier with frequent Indian attacks, Puritan beliefs of America as a "Promised Land," and a local feud in Salem. The main reason Francis gives as to why Sewall went along with it was a perception that he had earlier been soft on commuting the sentence of a pirate, and his regret at that issue led him to take a hard line in the witch trials.

But the interesting thing about Sewall is that he issued a public apology a few years later. He wasn't the first to suggest that it had been a mistake and that innocent people were hanged (and squashed!), but he was the only one of those involved who took the blame for his role in the tragedy and didn't try to excuse himself by blaming others or circumstances. In fact, Francis portrays a sincere and honest man who - although he certainly had a fair-sized ego - tried to do what he thought was honest and just, both before man and God. And it's an interesting piece of history.

As for the possibility of finding one of my ancestors, it was about 1719 after Sewall's beloved Hannah had died. The Puritans didn't like loose ends and they expected widowers and widows to remarry. So, Sewall found himself courting the widow Winthrop when:

"... something odd happened.  Into the room walked Obadiah Ayers, chaplain of Castle William... Ayers hung his hat upon the hook for all the world as if he lived there, while Swewall watched, 'a little startled.'" (pg 334)

I have an Obediah Ayers in my family history from the same area in Massachusetts but he had died about 20 years earlier. However, he had a son named Obediah (born 1670 in Haverhill, Massachusetts) who would have been about the right age, although I have him listed as dying in New Jersey, and it sounds like my Ayers line might have moved to NJ earlier than this. So, while this Ayers might not be an ancestor it's possible he was related to my ancestors.  And thankfully he wasn't exactly a scoundrel!

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