Hex Marks in New England

I visited the Fairbanks House for the first time today in Dedham, MA. It is the oldest timber frame house in North America, built around 1637.

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The home was continually inhabited by members of the Fairbanks family until the early 1900s, when it became a museum. We learned about early American architecture, woodwork and Puritans, but the most fascinating part to me was this little mark (the X) near the fireplace:

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Known as a witch mark, or a hex mark, it was a protection against witches in a time when everyone thought that they existed. The chimney was thought to be the easiest access point for witches, so the mark placed here would help keep them from entering the home through the fireplace.

I had heard of these in England, but had no idea any existed in New England. While rare, this house is not the only house in North America with this protection. Shoes were also found hidden near the chimney. According to the curator, foot odor was thought to be the essence of humans. If old, smelly shoes were hidden in the chimney, witches would be distracted and not enter the home.

History repeats itself

Today the Hartwell Tavern, typically associated with the Patriots in Lexington and Concord, invited two Loyalist regiment re-enactor corps, to educate the public about Loyalists. I spent time with members of the McAlpin and Parker regiments, learning more about the social history of the Loyalists.

This is the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga. Both corps supported Burgoyne’s campaign, which ended in disaster in September, 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga. Rather than re-enacting any battles this year, the corps are focusing on the social history of the Loyalist refugees.One of the rooms was set up as to mimic what conditions may have been like.

Throughout the war, Loyalists found themselves stripped of their land or in fear for their safety. Many fled to Canada in severe conditions. They recounted the story of 5 women and almost 30 children who arrived in November with just one pair of shoes between them. My ancestor lost everything and blamed the death of his wife on the rebels for driving them out of their home.

According to the re-enactors, the British government and military weren’t  all that happy with the influx of Loyalists, who expected the British would help them get back their land and property in return for their loyalty. Refugee camps were set up, but no one know how to deal with them all as it was the first American refugee crisis. Since then there have been many: French Acadians, Native Americans, 19th century Mormons and others. What we are seeing today with the Syrian refugees is not new.

We may think of human shields as a relatively new invention, but it is not. Many male Loyalists fled, thinking their families would be safer if he was not there. The opposite turned out to be true in many cases. The rebels (Patriots)–pick your favorite term depending on which side you are on–would make it very difficult for the family left behind to leave. They had to get permission, and to quote the woman re-enactor, they were “very mean” when deciding what the Loyalist women and children could take with them. Often a mattress was permitted, while blankets were not. They thought that by keeping the wives and children of Loyalists in town would prevent the husbands and fathers from burning the town. Human shields.

The American Revolution was a civil war. Family member fought against family member. Both sides committed atrocities.

Meeting with the Loyalist re-enactors today was a somber reminder that history repeats itself again and again. As we focus on our family history, understanding the social history surrounding our ancestors will help us better understand them.

You can learn more about these re-enactors at:
Peters Corps

McAlpin’s Corps

When words matter

A few days ago, the Royall House and Slave Quarters posted this on their Facebook page: “Language matters…we very intentionally avoid certain terms — master, slave, owned — that we believe falsely describe these people and their relationships. Mastery can be earned, but it can’t be bought. Enslavement is a condition forced upon people, not one that defines them.”

I have thought about this a lot since I first saw the post. What terms do we use that force our ancestors into certain categories? Do we use derogatory terms, without or without know they were offensive, when describing our ancestors?

When I first started researching my Loyalist ancestor Thomas Sumner I posted something on Facebook about my Tory ancestor. While I vaguely knew the term was derogatory, I didn’t really think much about it until one of my Facebook friends firmly but nicely corrected me and told me how proud she was of all her Loyalist ancestors and how in Canada they are heroes. I have never used the term Tory to describe him since then because he deserves so much better than that. He deserves to be described in positive terms.

What terms do you use, or you have used in the past, that should be replaced with more accurate descriptions?

 

Channeling my Loyalist ancestor

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I attended the re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party on Dec 16. We were each given a program with a blue or yellow slip of paper. I later found out that the blue papers represented Loyalist views and the yellow papers represented Patriot views. I had been thinking of my Loyalist ancestor Thomas Sumner, so was happy to have a blue piece of paper.

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The first part of the re-enactment was dialogue between actors about how to handle the tea on the ships. If you agreed you shouted “hear, hear” or “huzzah”. If you disagreed, you shouted “fie, fie” or “boo”. Most of the people around me were Patriots, but I stuck to my Loyalist part and, all in good fun and with lots of smiles, always shouted the opposite of my pew mates.

I was trying to put on Thomas’s shoes and try to think what he would have though. It certainly wouldn’t have been in good fun for him to be in opposition to his neighbors. As far as I know, he wasn’t in Boston, but he and his family were driven out of their home in Vermont and lost all their property to the Patriots. His views would have been sincere. He was a judge, and perhaps the oaths he had taken and  his occupation that involved upholding the law every day influenced his decisions. I doubt that it was an easy thought process though. Many Loyalists saw many problems with the king and Parliament, but in spite of that, retained their loyalty. All these thoughts crossed my mind as I shouted “fie, fie” or “hear, hear”.

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When the floor was opened up to us, I was the very first person at the mic to say my part. “Like all Englishmen we are universally represented in Parliament. The Patriots must stop complaining that we do not have a voice in England.” I wanted to do this to honor Thomas, who is not well known in my family, compared to our Patriot ancestors. Throughout the night I posted on Facebook as if I was a Loyalist.

As we left the meetinghouse and marched to the harbor behind a fife and drum corps (fun but not authentic), I continued thinking of what Thomas would have thought if he had been there. Would he have even gone to the harbor? Would he have tried to stop the ship raid? Since he wasn’t there, what did he think when he heard the news?

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As I watched the Patriots throwing the tea into the harbor, the part of me that was channeling Thomas thought “you bloody fools!”. While perhaps nobody could know what would happen only 15 months later in Lexington and Concord, many feared that this would happen. Thomas may have been among those.

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This was such a wonderful experience for me to put myself into an ancestors shoes. While I certainly don’t know what he was thinking and feeling, I could make some educated guesses that helped me see a historical event from a different perspective than I had ever seen it before. I am so glad I received that blue paper!

Pictures Inspire a Personal History

My mom sent me two CDs this week with pictures of my sister and me when we were young. As I was looking at them, I realized there are a lot of stories there that I could write down, and other stories that I need to learn from others, and the importance of writing my personal history.

 

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This is a picture I can write a story about: My sister, two cousins and I are getting ready for a quadruple date. We were visiting in Arizona (where we had lived previously) so my sister and I invited boys we knew from a few years before. I asked Lafe because I had a crush on him when I was in junior high. I later found out he was dating one of my best friends from Arizona (who I apparently hadn’t kept in touch with), and they later married. I remember that detail, but don’t remember what we did for our date.

While this scene with my cousins only occurred once, countless similar scenes played out with my 5 sisters and me at home. I am the oldest, so it was usually me and the sister dressed in blue who were getting ready, while the younger sisters watched and/or helped. Our bathroom at home was tiny, but there was such excitement was we got ready for dances and dates. [Thinking further about this could lead to stories about sharing the bathroom when 3 of us had to get ready for early morning seminary, to some of the boys that we dated, church dances we attended, etc]. These stories would be improved if I solicited my sisters and parents to share their memories too, so there is a more well-rounded and well-remembered story, since we will remember different details.

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This is a picture where I need help telling a story. This is the same sister and me, this time with my grandmother, picking poppies by the side of the road in southwest New Mexico. My grandmother died when I was only 11 and since we lived far away, I don’t remember her as well as I would like. I have questions about why she loved poppies and why she went out with foam rollers in her hair. Not that I care, but most women wouldn’t want to be seen in public with curlers in their hair. I asked my mom and, while she doesn’t know the exact details of when this picture was taken, she guessed “that it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, my mom saw the flowers, stopped the car and took her little granddaughters poppy- picking . She was great at making impromptu, fun memories.” I have several aunts and uncles that I can ask, just to get their guess and their perspective, again making a well-rounded, detailed story, or in this case, a potential story.

Both of these pictures reminded me that I need to write my own personal history, and seek out the memories of others to bring in all the details and perspectives. The best time to do this is now, while my parents, aunts and uncles are still alive.

Too often, we focus on fleshing out our ancestor’s lives, but forget that we too will someday be somebody’s ancestor and we can help them by leaving them our life story.

My homework assignment is to ask my aunts and uncles about what they can contribute to what was going on in the picture with my grandmother, as the first piece of my personal history.

What is your homework assignment?

The effect of political events and religious controversies on your ancestors

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Photo credit: Raphaël Thiémard from Belgique (Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event led to expanded freedoms for millions of people in Eastern European countries that had been under Soviet Communist rule. Yet, embracing these freedoms did not come easily to many who had lived most of their lives under Communist rule. My sister served a mission for our church in Latvia in 2003-2005. She said that many of the older generation had lost hope, even though they had obtained their freedom in the early 1990s. They had lost the ability to make choices–even when offered choices—because they had been told all their lives where to work, what to eat and where to worship. When she first told me this several years ago, I was struck by how a government should yield such power over people that they could not change once that government was removed. This is perhaps an extreme example, but we know that political events and religious strife inevitable affected our ancestors–just as they affect us and our families today.

Let’s think about some political events that may have affected our ancestors. Changes in government are powerful political events. Think of England–going back and forth between staunch Protestants, at least one Catholic, and Protestants in name who leaned towards Catholicism, and for a few years, a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Your ancestor’s fortunes could easily go from bad to good or vice versa depending on their political and religious leanings.

During the 1620s through late 1630s, thousands of Puritans came to Massachusetts to escape what they called the Popish religion of King James and King Charles and to worship as they wished. When the Civil War started and things were looking good for the Puritans the mass migration stopped and people remained in England, and many from the colonies returned to England. Migrating to a new continent with unfamiliar plants and animals, and recreating the culture they had known in England was a major undertaking.

Boundary changes, new laws, social policies, rebellions such as the Revolutionary War in the US, internal conflict that led to the US Civil War, and world wars are other examples that definitely affected our ancestors in one way or another.

Religious conflict is another source of external conditions that can wreak havoc on a family. Think of the witch trials (not just the Salem witch trials), the banishment of women and men such as Anne Hutchinson and William Rogers, and the many persecutions and wars that have been fought and continue to be fought in the name of religion.

While here in the US we celebrate our veterans on Tuesday and remember our many blessings later this month, spend some time thinking about your ancestors and how political and/or religious events positively or negatively impacted them. Please share here some of the events that you come up with.

 

Indian depredations claims Part I

The National Archives in DC very quickly turned around my request for a copy of the file that Levi submitted with details about his Indian depredation claims. I first looked to see what he claimed and what he was awarded.

His original claims, and the documents presented to the court don’t exactly match, but they are close.

Claimed Levi’s Claimed value Court records
13 cows $30 each ($390) $450
1 calf $10 $10
6 yearling cattle $11 each ($66) $66
9 2 year olds $16 each ($144) $162
Yoke of oxen $50 each ($100) Not mentioned
19 young steers $28 each ($532) $532
2 horses $75 each ($150) $150
Carriage & saddle horse $200 $200
20 acres of land with improvements $600 $600
30 acres of land with improvements $725 $725
Fort with a house $600 $500
Corral $100 Not mentioned
Crops $300 $300
Total $3917 $3695

The petition includes a notarized deposition by Levi Savage and two witnesses, a response by somebody in the government or court system which concludes the entire petition is based on unsupported evidence and testimony (incompetent is a favorite word), and the final court judgment (a lower value for the lifestock, no award for any of the land, improvements or crops).

The deposition is several typed pages and goes into a fair amount of detail, which will be discussed in more depth in the next post.