Monday, August 11, 2008

Horse Thieves, Skeletons and Black Sheep in the Family

My mother does genealogy. She has dozens of binders full of notes about our ancestors—some date back to 450 AD but most lineages can't be traced back much before 1500. It's fun to find out about your ancestors and about the history that they lived.

Sometimes there are surprises. Some of our ancestors were United Empire Loyalists who left New Jersey for Prince Edward Island after the American Revolution. We are descended from Isabella Robins, daughter of Richard Robins of Monmouth Co. in New Jersey (b. 1746). Richard's father was Benjamin Robins (b. 1686) and Benjamin's father (Richard's grandfather) was Daniel Robins who was born in Scotland in 1627 and sent to Connecticut in 1652 as an indentured servant after being captured by Cromwell's army following the battles of Dunbar and Wocester. (Our relatives were frequently on the losing side!)

After serving his eight years as an indentured servant, Daniel Robins married Hope Potter in New Haven Conn. in 1641. Now here's the interesting part. Hope Potter's father was William Potter (b. 1608) who first came to New England in 1635. When searching for information about William Potter, my mother came across this opening paragraph on a listserve.
Every amateur genealogist has in the back of his or her mind that someday an ancestral skeleton will appear, perhaps the legendary "horse thief". For those who are descendants of William Potter, the skeleton has appeared, but he did not steal the horses.
Hmmm ....

Turns out that William Potter, my great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- grandfather, is pretty well known to genealogists. He had lots of descendants but that's not the only reason he's so famous. He was an animal lover.

William Potter was hung in 1662 for bestiality. By his own admission he had a fondness for horses, dogs, cows, sheep and pigs. His wife and children, having caught him in the act, laid charges before the Court of Magistrates in Newhaven (New Haven) [William Potter's Crime].
The Court haveing considered the case p'ceeded to sentence, & first read the law to him, & then the Governor asked him if he had anything to say why the court should not p'ceede to judge him according to the law.

He answered noe, but his great matter was betweene God & his soule, to desire him to give him repentance.

The Governor then declared, that seeing it is soe, they could doe noe otherwise, and he therefore in the name of the court did declare to William Potter that the law read was the sentence of the court, to be executed upon him, viz: that he be hanged on the gallowes till he be dead, & then cut downe & buried, & the creatures with whome he hath thus sinfully acted to be put to death before his eyes.
Twelve generations ago, I have about 4000 direct ancestors. William Potter was only one of them. All the others, I'm sure, were fine god-fearing, outstanding, citizens and a credit to their communities. Especially the ones that weren't Americans.


5 comments :

  1. That's pretty interesting! So far, my Gran has only been able to trace my family back to the mid 19th century and it doesn't look promising for going back any further. I think we were just too poor and unimportant to merit a mention in records. I do seem to come from a fairly Dickensian background though, judging by the sheer volume of relatives who died in workhouses.

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  2. ...that he be hanged on the gallowes till he be dead, & then cut downe & buried, & the creatures with whome he hath thus sinfully acted to be put to death before his eyes.

    The last part of the sentence is a) pointless unless it is enacted before the first part and b) unnecessarily cruel to the animals.

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  3. The poor animals got raped, and then put to death for it! Sounds almost biblical...

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  4. Hmmm, genealogy. My mother-in-law has been researching both her own and my father-in-law's family trees for several years. Her "prize" find was a pay record of an ancestor who served in the U.S. Civil War (on the Northern side). She hasn't found much further back than that. Most lines peter out at immigration to the U.S., with occasional references to obscure European villages that mostly seem to have been renamed, swallowed up by modern cities, or so badly misspelled that they're untraceable.

    The fact that I'm adopted, with no information about my birth family, drives her crazy. If she could, she'd be researching my family tree as well, and undoubtedly deflating my cherished myth that I'm descended from Vikings. (My adoptive dad was Norwegian, I've got the right hair/skin/eyes, and hey, everybody has a right to dream, don't they? :-)

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  5. My own genealogy peters out somewhere in a peat bog in County Cork about 4 generations ago. So I am very impressed.

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