Category Archives: Genealogy

No, guys, THIS is a witch hunt!

Illustration of a Salem witch trial.

Illustration of a Salem witch trial.

Warning: This is another family tree post! Although it’s about my wife’s tree, not mine…

Yesterday, our self-absorbed president Tweeted:

Back here in South Carolina, Rep. Rick Quinn said:

Indicted Republican lawmaker Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, vowed Tuesday to fight charges against him, deemed the allegations “very weak” and said special prosecutor David Pascoe, a Democrat, is on “a partisan witch hunt.”…

No, guys. Neither of these is a witch hunt. I’ll tell you about a witch hunt.

It involves my wife’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Elspeth Craich.  She was born in Scotland in 1631, and died there sometime after 1656.

We know she lived at least that long, because in that year, when she was 25, she was detained as “a confessing witch.” But the Culross Council failed to bring her to trial, and the charges were consequently dismissed. I’m still not sure why. I doubt that she put a spell on them or anything.

This is on my mind because this very week, I found more about her case from this site:

“23 June 1656.

“In presence of the said bailleis and counsell, compeared personallie Master Robert Edmonstoun, minister at Culrois, and declared the last weik befor the last wek, he being in Edinburgh anent the adhering to the call of Master Matthew Fleyming to the work of the ministrie of this congregatione, and having maid diligent tryall at the clerk of the criminail court and others what course might be taken with Elspethe Craiche, presentlie lying within the tolbuthe of Culrois as ane witche voluntarlie confesst be herself, he declared that except murder or malison could be provin against such persons, thair was no putting of thame to deathe; yet the said Maister Robert being most desyrous that one of the foresaid number of the counsell sould goe over to Edinburgh, and tak over the said Elspethe her declaration and confessions, and to cause pen ane petitione in relatione therof, and the said mater being taken to consideratione, and being ryplie advysit therwith, the saids bailleis and counsell be pluralitie of voices have electit and chosen William Drys-daill to goe over to Edinburgh against Twysday come eight dayes, being the first day of July, being ane criminall court day, to present the supplication befor the judges there for granting of ane commission to put the said witche to the knowledge of ane assyse, and to report his diligence theranent.”

“30 June 1656.

“The qlk day, in presence of the said bailleis and counsell, conforme to the commissione grantit to him the last counsell day anent the petitioning for ane commissione to put Elspethe Craiche, witche, to the knowledge of an assyse, maid report, that he being unsatisfied with the clerk of the criminall court his answer to him anent the procuring of the said commission, he therefter went to the right Honorable Generali George Monk; who having related to him the poore condition of this burghe, how that they war not abill to transport the said witche over to Edinburgh, and to be at the great expense that they behovit to be at in attending upone her there, the said Generali desyred the said William to draw up ane petitione, and present the samyne befor the counsell of estait upone Twysday next; who accordinglie drew up ane supplicatione at Alexr. Bruce his directione, and left the samyne with George Mitchell, to be written over be him; and becaus the said Wm. had brought over the said Elspethe her confessions, the samyne was appoyntit to be send over, to the effect bothe they and the supplication may be presentit befor the said counsell of estait against the morrow.”

It would appear that the application of the Culross minister and magistrates had been ineffectual to procure any assistance from the Council of State in Edinburgh towards either getting Elspeth Craich tried and condemned in Culross, or transporting her for that purpose to Edinburgh. Cromwell’s government was not favourable to religious persecution of any kind, whether as regards heresy or sorcery. The following entry is almost ludicrous, from the woe-begone demonstration made therein by the town council, who have no other resource left than to get rid of their expensive prisoner as speedily as possible. It is satisfactory to find that the poor woman had at least been tolerably well supplied with meat and drink, whatever other sufferings she may have undergone :—

“25 August 1656.

“The said day the saids bailleis and counsell, taking to consideratione the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir furthe of the [tom away] upone her finding of cautione to present her to prissone whenever [torn away] sail be requyred, under the pane of 500 merkis: Thairfor, in presence [tom away] the said Elspethe Craiche . . . to be dismist . . . tolbuthe, and befor that tyme … to be presentit befor the kirk-sessione of Culrois.” [The latter part of this entry is in a sadly dilapidated state in the minute-book.]

Well, I’m glad to know that during her ordeal, she was at least “tolerably well supplied with meat and drink.” In fact, she seems to have been eating and drinking so much that the local authorities couldn’t afford to hold her any longer.

Did she beat the rap because of Cromwell's policies?

Did she beat the rap because of Cromwell’s policies?

But was it that, or did she get off because of the politics of the moment, as “Cromwell’s government was not favourable to religious persecution of any kind, whether as regards heresy or sorcery?” (Which surprises me a bit, what little I know of Cromwell.)

Doug would probably say it’s because of the expense, because he says it’s always about the money. And they certainly mention it a lot.

But her acquittal must remain a mystery, the latter part of the record being “in a sadly dilapidated state in the minute-book.”

It may have simply been that, according to Matthew Fleyming, “except murder or malison could be provin against such persons, thair was no putting of thame to deathe.” And if you can’t burn a witch, what’s the point, right?

Anyway, that is a witch hunt, although an unsuccessful one — even though she was “ane witche voluntarlie confesst be herself,” which you would think would have made the hunt a lot easier.

That’s all. My mind’s just been on “witch hunts” this week…

How long is a generation? Longer than I thought…

Coronation of Charlemagne

Coronation of Charlemagne

We hear a lot of silly generalizations about demographic cohorts that we refer to as “generations,” which become particularly absurd when you look at how they are defined. For instance, the only really cool generation, the Baby Boom, supposedly includes people born in 1964.

Which is ridiculous. How can you possibly be a Boomer if you can’t remember JFK’s assassination, the arrival of the Beatles or the introduction of the Ford Mustang? It’s obvious; you can’t — if the Baby Boom has any cultural meaning.

But there’s another problem: Even with that overbroad definition, the “generation” only lasts from 1946 to 1964 — 18 years.

That’s not a generation.

So what is a generation? Not having made a study of it, I’ve tended to think it was in the 20- to 25-year range.

That made particularly good sense to me, since my wife and I had our first and second children at ages 23 and 25. Yes, I’m aware that most people of our generation were a bit slower than that, but I figured that in earlier times, people married and had kids even earlier than we did, so historically, 20 to 25 years made sense.

But today, it struck me to use my family tree to find out how it works in reality — and I was surprised at the result.

I decided to go back as far as I reliably could — to Charlemagne, from whom I (and every other person of mostly European descent) am directly descended. He was, calculated the way I first discovered the connection, my 38th-great grandfather (I’ve since discovered quite a few paths back to Charlemagne, which is a mathematical certainty when you go back that far).

So that means he’s exactly 40 generations back.

Charlemagne was born in 742. I was born in 1953. I subtract one from the other and get 1,211 years. Divide that by 40, and the average generation is 30.275 years.

Even going back through the Middle Ages, when life was supposedly so nasty, brutish and short! And maybe it was, for poor people. And no doubt, most of my ancestors in the 8th century were peasants. Unfortunately, I can’t trace back to them; the records don’t exist.

So I’m stuck with 30 and a quarter years. And it would seem reasonable that the more recent generations were even longer.

And they were, slightly. Let’s go back just 10 generations, to about the time my ancestors were moving to this country. Let’s consider some of my 8th-great grandfathers:

  • Walter Chiles II, born March 20, 1630 in Middlesex, England. (Died in Jamestown, Va.)
  • Capt. Luke Gardiner, born Jan. 11, 1622 in Oxfordshire, England. (Died in Maryland.)
  • Sir Ambrose Crowley III, born Feb. 1, 1658, in Staffordshire, England. (Died in England, but his daughter emigrated.)
  • Richard Pace II, born about 1636, Charles City, Virginia. (Grandson of the famous Richard Pace who saved Jamestown.)

The average length of a generation going back to them is, respectively, 32.3, 33.1, 29.5 and 31.7 years.

So, an average of 31.65 years per generation.

Yes, these are all great-grandfathers; the mothers were usually younger, which might reduce the average if there were more female links in the chains (I later checked, and found those were mostly male connections). I just went with male ancestors for the one-to-one comparison. (Also, when you go back that far, there tends to be a bit more information available about them.)

It just seems to defy reason. Yeah, my notions may seem skewed by having had a child at 23, but our youngest was born when we were 35 — and by the time she started school, when we went to PTA meetings all the other parents seemed way younger than we were. Which argued that most of them didn’t have their kids at 35.

Anyway, that’s what I find. As Bryan likes to say, your mileage may vary…

Talkin' about my generation -- the only cool one, of course.

Talkin’ about my generation — the only cool one, of course.

All hail Donaeld the Unready, King of Mercia!

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy, in building my family tree, finding ancestors with fun nicknames, such as “Strongbow,” and “Horse-Swapping Billy Smith” and “Shaggy-Breeches.”

The very best sobriquets are the medieval ones — just the best, terrific, believe me. They’re just so… direct. For instance, I am descended from the following: Charles the FatCharles the BaldCharles the HammerCharles the Beloved and Charles the Wise. And that’s just the Charleses. (All are direct ancestors except the Fat, who is just a cousin, but I couldn’t leave him out.)

Take that current obsession and combine it with my enjoyment of such TV shows as “Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom,” and you just know that I would love this Twitter parody, “Donaeld the Unready“:

Donaeld

As you can see, Donaeld is “The best early medieval King out there. I’m just great. I’m the bretwalda. The bestwalda. I’ve got great swords, everyone says so. Make Mercia Great Again.”

Some of his recent Tweets:

Enjoy.

What’s in a name: ‘Horse-Swapping Billy Smith’

My ancestor was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

My ancestor, I take it, was sort of an Eastern version of a Pony Express rider.

Made a lot of progress on the family tree over the weekend. I started on a trove of material on my son-in-law’s family that my daughter brought back from Tulsa over the holidays, and added more than 70 of his kin to the tree — thereby giving my twin granddaughters a nice start on knowing that side of their heritage.

I spent the rest of my time filling in recent gaps in my own side of the family. No delving back into the Middle Ages — no Strongbow or Ragnar or Charlemagne; I stuck to the realm of great and great-great grandparents. I even added a few people who are still alive (which I find are much harder to get basic information on than dead people — although Facebook has made it easier to find photos of them). Recently I’ve discovered that, since I now know a lot more about searching the Web for clues, I’m often able to quickly identify connections that eluded me in the past.

Also, I finally gave in and paid for a six-month membership to Ancestry.com, so I was pretty much drinking data from a firehose with regard to the last century or two. (I only signed up for the U.S. data, so I don’t get anything about ancestors before they crossed the Pond.)

Here’s my favorite discovery of the weekend: My great-great-great grandfather William Burns Smith, who was born in 1803 in North Carolina, and died in Marion County, SC, in 1897. He was my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father.

I had already known who he was, and he had already been on my tree. But over the weekend I discovered the fun part: He was known as “Horse-swapping Billy Smith.”

I love finding an ancestor with a catchy sobriquet, such as “Strongbow” or “Shaggy-Breeches.” This one came with a fun anecdote. Horse-Swapping Billy delivered the mail by horseback between Marion and Bennettsville (the town where I was born). The local postmaster was sufficiently impressed by the job he did that he bothered to record this story:

“There is another family of Smiths, below Marion, which I understand is in no way related to those hereinabove noticed – I refer to the late William B. Smith and his family. He, as it is said, came when young from North Carolina, and settled below Reedy Creek Baptist Church, on an apparently poor place; he was called “Horse-swapping Billy Smith” — he was a great horse trader, and in that respect his mantle has fallen upon his sons, Nat. P. and Henry…

William B. Smith, away back in the 50’s, carried the mail on horseback from Marion to Bennettsville, by way of Catfish, Reedy Creek, Harlleesville, Selkirk, Brownesville and Clio to Bennettsville, and back the same route, once a week — at which time the writer was postmaster at Reedy Creek; he went up one day and came back the next; sometimes one of his boys, James or Nat, would carry it.

The writer remembers on one occasion, the old gentleman went up; his horse sickened and died at Bennettsville, and the next day Mr. Smith came back, walking and carrying the mail bags on his shoulders, and went on to Marion that evening. I suppose he was then fifty years of age, and the distance traveled on his zig-zag route was at least sixty miles. One of the men of the present day, much younger than Mr. Smith, would not think of such a trip. Mr. Smith had much of the “get up” in him, and whatever he undertook to do, he did it, and if he failed it was no fault of his; he was accustomed to labor and hardship, hence it did not hurt him….

I love it! There was no keeping Horse-Swapping Billy down! He was just full of the “get up!” And it he failed at anything, don’t blame him, because you know he gave it 110 percent!

My frustration, though, is that the chronicler doesn’t bother to explain fully why he was known as “Horse-Swapping Billy.” In what way was he “a great horse-trader?” Did he have a side business in horse-trading, or was he into it as a hobby? Or was it a broader metaphor, as in he was a guy good at making deals, whether they literally had to do with horses or not? Or, like the Pony Express riders of about that time, did he swap horses at various points on his mail route? If so, he should have made a swap before he got to Bennettsville that one time.

It’s a small thing to give me such delight, but it’s stuff like this that keeps me going with this hobby…

When I discovered this, I called my uncle (who lives in Bennettsville) to share, but to my disappointment he already knew about Horse-Swapping Billy. But we got onto other family matters, and he told me that he’d always heard that the Browns way back on his mother’s side of the family were at some point connected to the Browns on his father’s side.

And… here’s the good part… ultimately they’re supposedly all related to the legendary “Cut-Face” Brown.

I spent an hour or so digging around, but didn’t arrive. I’ll look again when I have time. I’ve just got to find out how I’m related to a guy with a name like that

Weak links in the family tree: The problem of Betty Crowley

OK, here’s another post in which I’m indulging private obsessions, what with this being a slow news week. Most of you will likely be uninterested, but I’m hoping Lynn Teague or someone else — preferably someone as besotted by genealogy as I currently am — will have useful advice, or at least be able to commiserate.

In recent months, I’ve made some pretty exciting (to me) breakthroughs in researching the family tree, some of which I’ve mentioned here. Most branches on the tree peter out when you get back to the Old Country, if you can get even that far. For instance, I can get back to the last Warthen — or as it was spelled then, Wathen — to live and die in England. He was Sir Charles Wathen, my 9th-great grandfather, who died in Bristol in about 1658.

There the line ends, which is anomalous. Most of my family tree, like everyone’s, is pretty common. But if I can get back to a Sir So-and-So or a Lady Whatever, I usually start a streak that can in some cases go back at least a few centuries. Which is fun. As I race through the centuries on one of those, I feel a rush that I suppose gamblers feel on a lucky streak in Vegas.

By the way, I don’t see having lords and ladies in my background as any reason to put on airs (although pictures of their castles on Wikipedia might make me slightly wistful). Pretty much anyone of European extraction will get there if they have the diligence and luck to go back far enough. For instance, I was excited when I first traced a line back to Charlemagne (38th-great grandfather, calculated one way). Then I read that, if you’re European, you’re definitely descended from Charlemagne, and through multiple lines:

If you’re vaguely of European extraction, you are also the fruits of Charlemagne’s prodigious loins. A fecund ruler, he sired at least 18 children by motley wives and concubines, including Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, and not forgetting Hugh.

This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back, and become less arboreal, and more web-like. In 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh. Quel dommage….

So I decided that if all Europeans are descended from Charlemagne (and from pretty much everyone else alive at the time), the point of the genealogy game was to figure out how. And I did, so I win. My next great accomplishment was to discover double, triple, and more grandparents. You see, if you get back that far, you are descended from some people several ways, because if you keep exponentially increasing ancestors — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, and so on — after a few centuries you have more ancestors than there were people on the planet. So your branches start intertwining, collapsing onto one another; the same people keep popping up.

I was excited when I found my first double ancestor. Now, it’s routine. I think I’m now descended from Charlemagne about eight ways — just as you probably are.

So I know I’m not special, but I get a kick out of making the connections. The thing is… if you’re a commoner like me, you have to get back to the people who were prominent enough in history to have their own Wikipedia pages. And that almost always entails getting through some people who did not leave such definite tracks in history. That means there is almost always at least one weak link you can never be sure of.

An example: A couple of weeks back, I got on yet another exciting streak. I made a couple of breakthroughs on the Benton line. My great-great grandfather, Nathan Benton Warthen, got his middle name from his mother’s family. Once I’d gotten the Bentons back to the first generation in this country, I made a leap that got me to such fun discoveries as:

  • De Clare coat of arms

    De Clare coat of arms

    Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, (1130–1176). I wrote something about this 24th-great grandfather last week. He was the first of the Normans who would conquer Ireland, which means he caused a lot of trouble that has reached to our own generation. He did so with the help of one of the Irish kings, Diarmait of Leinster — known by the dubious sobriquet “Diarmait of the Foreigners” for his ignoble role in helping start the English domination of his country — whose daughter he married, making Diarmait my ancestor as well. My wife is descended from the Irish chieftains Strongbow defeated to take Waterford, so this caused some awkwardness at my house.

  • FitzWarin coat of arms

    FitzWarin coat of arms

    Sir Fulk FitzWarin III, Marcher Lord of Whittington and Alveston — This 24th great-grandfather rebelled against King John and was forced to become an outlaw. Who does that sound like? Yep, his story seems to be one of the possible sources of the Robin Hood legend — or at least, a parallel story. Interestingly, he and John had grown up together, after Fulk was sent to King Henry II’s court as a boy. But they fell out over a childhood game of chess and never reconciled, indicating that one of them was probably a very sore loser. At least, that’s the account in the “romance” written after his death, called Fouke le Fitz Waryn.

  • Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle, MP, Baron Cobham — This one’s not a direct ancestor — his sister Alice was my 18-great grandmother — but he was a fun discovery anyway. Apparently, Uncle John was originally the inspiration for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there is evidence that he was even called by his true name in early versions of the plays, but Shakespeare had to change the name because Oldcastle had prominent descendants who had pull at the Elizabethan court, while John Fastolf did not. He’s actually a more serious character than the sometimes buffoonish Falstaff — he was a prominent practitioner of Lollardy, a pre-Reformation dissenting religious movement. Eventually he was burned for heresy and insurrection — which made him a hero in Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

Fun stuff, huh? And it was particularly exciting because all my previous forays into the Middle Ages had been through my great-great grandmother Jane Hearst Chiles Bradley, a very well connected lady. All of my paths to Charlemagne — as well as to interesting contemporaries such as my 5th cousin once removed Patty Hearst — start with her. This was a whole other branch, virgin territory, and that made it special. New vistas opened before me.

But… these enchanting Medieval romances are built upon a rickety foundation. I refer to the problem of Betty Crowley.

According to my researches of various online databases, I am about as certain as one can be about such things that one Joseph Benton (1684-1752), was my 6th-great grandfather. I only have one source for this, WikiTree, but the particulars add up logically. WikiTree tells me that his parents were John Benton and Betty Crowley.

Betty is the ancestress who gets me to all of the aforementioned romantic figures of the 1200s. Once I get to her father, Sir Ambrose Crowley III — an ironmonger who appears to have played a significant role in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution — it’s pretty smooth sailing back to the Middle Ages, with multiple sources for each generation, and lots of specifics.

For instance, I can read about Sir Ambrose himself here and here and here and here and here. So he is the kind of ancestor I love to find, because it means I’ve hit another hot streak.

But here’s the problem, or one of the problems: Only one of those five sources — again, WikiTree — acknowledges that he had a daughter named Betty. Geni.com lists a daughter named Elizabeth, so one naturally thinks, “There she is!” But this Elizabeth married John, 11th Baron St. John of Bletso, and I see no indication that she ever left England.

Worse, WikiTree shows Ambrose and wife Mary Owen as having both a daughter named Elizabeth, and our Betty. Which seems highly unlikely. I doubt these folks were illiterate, and I just can’t see them not knowing that “Betty” was a diminutive for “Elizabeth,” or deliberately giving two daughters — both of whom grew to adulthood — the same name. Maddening.

My third and final source of worry: WikiTree shows both Betty and her husband John Benton dying in Reno County, Kansas, in 1718. This is the kind of error that just makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I don’t see how anyone could have in seriousness entered such a bogus “fact” without realizing it had to be wrong. This is almost a century before the Louisiana Purchase. There were to my knowledge basically no white people in Kansas in 1718, much less a married couple from New England. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had passed through in 1541, but he hadn’t stuck around.

So, Betty Crowley presents a problem. But there’s always a problem like Betty, when you try to go back so far.

On the one hand, what does it matter? Whether I’m actually related to all of these people way back when or not, I’m having fun, and I’m learning so much more about history from studying the contexts in which they lived. And besides, even if I had in hand birth and death and marriage and baptism certificates on every one of them, there’s always the chance that one or another was a bastard and it was hushed up. People were not necessarily paragons of virtue in the past (Sir Thomas More may have been writing of my 19th great-aunt Lady Eleanor Talbot Butler, who apparently had an irregular connection with King Edward the IV after the death of her husband, when he referred to “the holiest harlot in the realm,” because she was always in church when she wasn’t in bed with the king. Or if he wasn’t referring to her, it may have been to my cousin Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was that same King Edward IV. It’s good to be the king…)

Still, I hate loose ends, and it would be cool to tidy them up. So if anyone has any hints on how to solve the problem of Betty, I’d love to hear them…