Human nature writ large

Alicia Crane WilliamsFor me, the whole point of genealogy is the challenge of reconstructing families and providing them with context.  Not just names, dates and places, but the real lives people led. That’s why I’m enjoying my job with the Early New England Families Study Project so much. Every family has a story – and it might surprise many people how much of that story can still be ferreted out from ancient, dusty records.

This week I’ve been living with the family of John Norman of Salem and Manchester, Massachusetts. John came to New England by 1628 when he was about 21 years old with his father, Richard Norman, from Dorset. Not part of the Puritan religious movement, the Normans were with a group sponsored by a merchant company that came for profit.

John Norman was granted land by the town of Salem at a place called “Jeffrey’s Creek,” which later became the town of Manchester. In 1650 John got permission to open a “house of entertainment” in Manchester to sell wine and beer and provide accommodations and provisions for men and horses. John’s work as a carpenter seems to have been competent, but his time and resource management was challenged in 1659 when he failed to finish a house for the town minister on time. John excused himself, saying that he didn’t have enough nails and that some boards and joists for the job had been stolen.

When you look at the court records for this family, however, the picture becomes much more colorful. The Normans were familiar figures in the Salem court for all the wrong reasons. In July 1652, John reported Robert Edwards for wearing silver lace, and silver and gold buttons, all of which were against the sumptuary laws. A year later, John was fined for hitting Nathaniel Masterson with the heft of an ax. In November 1656, Annis Chubb, her daughter Deliverance, and Abraham Whitheare’s daughter Elizabeth beat up one of John’s daughters, with the Chubbs calling for an ax to kill her. In 1657, John’s wife Arabella was fined for hitting the wife of Nicholas Vinson, and in 1660 John and his son, John, Jr., got into a brawl with John Pickworth and his three sons.

The lives these court records document – turbulent, not to say raucous – suggest that while standards of behavior might have changed in the last 350 years, human nature has not!

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.View all posts by Alicia Crane Williams