Drunkards & Lunatics: The Case for Original Records & Research
I cut my teeth in genealogy back in the early 1970’s when I spent many a day in the Prothonotary’s Office of Cameron County Pennsylvania in Emporium. Emporium is the county seat and its population has averaged between 2,000-3,000 for most of its last 150 years. So not a very big place and when I was visiting the courthouse back in the day—I very rarely shared the room, where all the records were kept, with anyone. There were row after row of MARRIAGE, DEATHS, BIRTHS, DEEDS and ORPHANS COURT Dockets. But there was one Docket that always piqued my interest: the LUNATICS and DRUNKARDS Docket. After several months visiting regularly I got up my courage to ask the Prothonotary the purpose of the LUNATICS and DRUNKARDS Docket. Ah she says, “the only way you could get a divorce, back in the day, was if your spouse was a LUNATIC or a DRUNKARD.” So that is how I learned about the DIVORCE docket. I also eventually ventured down into the musty basement where old tax lists and naturalizations resided. You never know unless you ask.
Sometimes the best research is just sticking your nose wherever you can. I am currently doing some research on King Philip’s War and my research into several Massachusetts and Rhode Island towns is informing my research in a way that is somewhat surprising even to me. In 1899 , Carolyn Hazard in her monograph The Narragansett Friends’ meeting in the xviii century, with a chapter on Quaker beginnings in Rhode Island wrote about the Friends Meeting House located on the ridge of Tower Hill on the Old Pequot Trail in present day South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Furthermore she states it was destroyed in December 1675 and many were killed inside when it was attacked by the Narragansett natives. Then in 1902 in The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History Vol I we read: “On the 15th of December 1675, the garrison house of Jireh Bull…was attacked and fifteen persons killed, the house was destroyed and only two of the inmates succeeded in escaping.” Ms Hazard states “It was the destruction of this house which was the actual incitement to the Great Swamp Fight, which practically exterminated the Indians, putting an end to King Philip’s War.” And yet in two thesis papers and 6 books I read on King Philip’s War published in the past 25 years, none mentioned this at all. And while not justification for the slaughter of the Narragansett that ensued it is an important part of the story. I do wish to recommend two books with original sourced scholarship. Richard Le Baron Bowen’s 4 Vol Early Rehoboth published in 1948 and Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks from 2018. Ms. Brooks adds one more piece to the puzzle. Three months before the Narragansett attack of the meeting house its owner Jeriah Bull was encouraging settlement in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase. This was the native answer to the ever increasing English takeover of Narragansett lands. The original records matter more than a thousand recitations of the victor’s justification for the way things turned out and a wholesale whitewashed of history. [Pun intended.]
Which brings me to another deep dive and observation. There are records, never published, that reside in courthouses and archives that add much to the personal stories of our ancestors. In my brief visit to the South Kingstown, Rhode Island Town Records Office I turned up a list of sheep marks and brands beginning in 1697. There are a total of 84 listed for the period from 1697-1722. Most are simply the initials of the recorder. One of the persons that interested me is for John SHELDEN. Here is the listing for his marke.
“John SHELDEN his Marke is a Slit in the Right Eare and a Crop on the Left Eare and A for Gad in the Same Eare his brand is JS on the neare Buttuck.” What immediately stood out to me was the Fleur-de-lis at the top of the J. [Please note the Capital “I” with a cross hatch is actually a “J”]. I only took a photo of the whole page and this closeup but it really struck me that this was how unusual this was. So I decided to take a longer look at all the registrations so I visited my local Family Search Library affiliate and copied all the pages of brands.
John SHELDEN is the first to be recorded with the initials “JS” so the Fleur-de-lis does not appear to be an embellishment to distinguish his brand from John SMITH [but it effectively does] as seen above whose brand is on the neare Buttuck. Or from John SEGER who brand was on the Left Buttuck. You will also note that most of the brands including those on these two pages are simple initials. We have a couple more creative ones.
William BROWN combines his B on top of the W. Robert KNOWLES uses a backwards R with a K and finally William Mumford has a circle with a cross. But no other has a Fleur-de-lis or the intricacy of John SHELDEN’s brand. I will have a future blog post on the possible meaning or implications, but this bit of detail is lost if you do not look at the original records. And as I have previously mentioned the color photo I took in person is far more appealing than the black and white images. And if you are so inclined try doing a Google search on Animal Branding in the colonies—someone wanting to do a book could significantly add to what is out there…
My point is that unless you look at records in person or chase down every possible angle of a historical event or family history you will miss so much of the story, your ancestors invite you to tell. Looking at the records from the viewpoint of the Narragansett, the Wampanoag and the Sakonnet as well as that from the residents of the towns of Seekonk, Little Compton, Providence, Swansea, Rehoboth, Kingstown, Newport and Portsmouth and from the various religious perspectives: Quakers, Puritans, Congregationalists, Baptists etc. gives a much fuller picture of the context of our ancestors lives. Do not assume that everything that can be discovered or written has already been done. It hasn’t and you can do it.
Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All RIghts Reserved.