Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ten Things to Know About Researching a Witch in Your Family Tree



It is almost time for Halloween, and this is the time of the year that many folks want to know if there is a witch in the family tree.  In keeping with my recent tradition of a “Top Ten” list on the 10th of the month, here is my list for researching “witches” in your genealogy.

PS  This list and post is limited to New England genealogical research.  However, some of the hints I give may be applicable to researching “witches” anywhere else.

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#1:  Your ancestor was not a real witch.  All of the accused witches I know of in New England were not “Wiccan”, nor were they devil worshipers.  They were Christians, mostly Puritan, and most have been exonerated by the state governments and declared innocent.

#2:  Women and men were both accused in almost equal numbers.  Don’t forget to research the men in your family tree, too.  Nor were just the poor and disenfranchised members of the community accused of witchcraft.  Accusations and arrests reached all levels of social status.

#3:  Salem was not the only community affected by the 1692 witchcraft hysteria.  Men and women from all over the settled areas of New England (and outside New England) both before and after 1692 were accused of witchcraft.  Examine town histories and records, court records and state records carefully.   

#4:  Try to read primary source material first, before reading reference books on the subject.  These are two good books:

               1. Salem Village Witchcraft:  A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England,  edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, 1972 .  Available to read online at Google Book Search, but the index is missing.    This book includes five witch trials and all their relevant documents (the five cases with the most extensive documentation are Sara Good, Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, John Willard and George Burroughs).   I love that the document transcriptions are included. I had to read Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed book in college, which is their explanation of the events of 1692.  But I fell in love with this book because the documents speak for themselves.   It was the first time I had read the actual primary source material from the witch hysteria in 1692.

                  2. Records of the Salem Witch Hunt, edited by Bernard Rosenthal, 2013.  This newer book contains a record of all the legal documents of the Salem witch trials, including many documents discovered since the Boyer and Nissenbaum book (above) was published.  There is also a good narrative timeline of the events of 1692 -3.  This is a HUGE book with over 1000 pages and weighing more than 2 ¼ pounds in paperback.  I don’t own a copy of this book, but it available in most libraries and genealogical society archives.

#5: There are many good reference books on the subject of witchcraft in New England. In each one the author presents a different theory on why / how/ causes / etc. and each author tries to disprove the theories of previous authors.  Dozens and dozens of books have been written.  I would suggest you start with the latest books, read reviews, work backwards through some of the earlier books, and try to draw your own conclusions.  We don’t know which author was correct because none of us are time travelers and none of us can place ourselves in the shoes of people in 17th century New England to understand how they were thinking.  We can only make our best guesses based on the evidence. 

#6:  There are many good online archives of primary source material (here are just a few):

      1. University of Virginia Archive and Transcription Project

       2. University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Law- Famous American Trials   

       3.  Wonders of the Invisible World, by Rev. Cotton Mather, 1693 (online version) 

       4. Check the links at Margo Burns’ 17th Century Colonial New England website:
         http://www.17thc.us/


#6:  For every accused witch, there were also accusers, witnesses, jailors, jurors, judges, magistrates, ministers, and a string of other community members recorded in the trial documents.  It is interesting to peruse the records for ancestors and relatives who might have testified or signed oaths or documents.  Dozens and dozens of people were accused in 1692, although only 19 were hanged.  Considering that the population of Massachusetts was very small, if you have colonial ancestors in Massachusetts in that time period the chances are very good that they were involved one way or another.  Especially if they lived in Essex or Middlesex County.

#7:  If you can place your ancestors in a town where accusations and arrests happened, you will want to read up on the town history and the court records.  Even if the documents don’t name your ancestors, check the maps of the time period. They may have been neighbors, and thus they were witnesses to the events of the witch hysteria.  By learning and reading about your ancestor’s neighbors, you will learn more about your family’s life and experiences during this time period.

#8:  Don’t forget basic genealogical practices while researching your witch era ancestor.  You need to start with yourself and work back to the 17th century.  Just because surnames match, or the town and time period match, doesn’t mean you are a descendant.  Take your time to prove your conclusions.
 
#9:  There are a lot of genealogies of the accused witch families out there in books and online.  Use this information as “clues”, not fact.  I’ve seen genealogy errors even in books by famous historians. Prove your own lineage using primary source materials.

#10: Don’t feel badly, or guilty, or ashamed of having a black sheep ancestor accused of witchcraft.  Also, don’t be ashamed of having an ancestor who accused their neighbor of witchcraft.  First of all, your “witch” ancestor was innocent of being a real witch, and your accusing relative might have been desperate to protect their own family.  Second, no family tree is complete without a few nuts, bad apples or rotten limbs.  If you feel the need to vent, cry, celebrate, or to find a discussion group, there are many bulletin boards, social media groups, and also the IBSSG (International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists http://ibssg.org/blacksheep/ ).   There are also groups like ADEAW (The Associated Daughters of Early American Witches- a lineage society not a coven of wiccans)  http://www.adeaw.us/ .

PS:  I am a descendant of Bridget Bishop, George Jacobs, and John Proctor- all hanged in 1692 for the crime of witchcraft. 

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Published under a Creative Commons License
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Ten Things to Know About Researching a Witch in Your Family Tree", Nutfield Genealogy, posted October 10, 2015 (  http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2015/10/ten-things-to-know-about-researching.html : accessed [access date]). 

11 comments:

  1. Ipswich ministers opposed the trials and testified in the favor the accused, but the Ipswich jails were where many were held. Here are some of their stories: https://ipswich.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/ipswich-and-the-salem-witchcraft-trials/

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  2. Heather, just wanted to mention your Felton ancestors, who were known as "reasonable people." Nathaniel Felton, Sr. wrote and signed the proclamation speaking out in support of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Nathaniel Felton, Jr. also signed the proclamation, which stated that the Proctors were godly people, not witches. Other neighbors also signed the proclamation. Fortunately, their daring act didn't result in them being accused. Unfortunately, as we all know, it didn't save John Proctor.

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    1. Thanks, Mary Kay, for reminding everyone of the bravery of the Feltons and the other neighbors who signed the petition. If anyone would like to see a photo and a transcriptions it is at this blog post from 24 July 2015: http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2015/07/felton-family-reunion-2015-peabody.html

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  3. Nicely done Heather! Thank you for all the great information.

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  4. I am a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, the old sweet lady hung for the crime witchcraft

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  5. Heather,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/10/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-october-16.html

    Have a great weekend!

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  6. Don't forget Connecticut where America's first witch hysteria broke out - 40 years before Salem. I joined Associated Daughters of Early American Witches (ADEAW) based on a male ancestor hung for witchcraft in Hartford.

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  7. Excellent article! Thank you for all of your work.

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  8. Great Halloween time article to share for genealogists! Thanks!

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