My earlier discussion of genealogical uncertainty focused on uncertain genealogical connections. This discussion will explore uncertainty in biographical information about ancestors or relatives.
Years ago, when I started exploring the ancestry of my father’s great-grandmother, Hannah Maria (Salisbury) Olmsted (1829–1887), I fairly soon found an abundance of information in Richard LeBaron Bowen’s four-volume Early Rehoboth: Documented Historical Studies. In particular, I learned the gruesome details of the death of my Salisbury immigrant ancestor William and his oldest son, John, brother of my ancestor Samuel Salisbury, in the contentious time at the beginning of King Philip’s War. Because of tense relations with the natives, most English colonists had left their homes and gathered in fortified garrisons. Here is the contemporary account written by John Easton, then Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, as quoted by Bowen:
In this Time sum Indians fell a pilfering sum Houses yt the English had left and an old Man and a Lad going to one of these Houses did see three Indians run out thereof. The old Man bid the young Man shoot; so he did, and a Indian fell doune, but got away againe. It is reported yt sum Indians came to the Garesan, asked why they shot the Indian. Thay asked whether he was dead. The Indians said yea. English Lad saied it was no matter. The men indevered to inform them it was but an idell Lads Words but the Indians in haste went away and did not hearken to them. The next day the Lad that shot the Indian, and his father, and fief Englishmen were killed so the war began with [King] Philip.
The Indian shot by the young man on 23 June is considered the first fatality of King Philip’s War. Bowen then reports:
The Swansea records show that the only father and son slain at Swansea on 24 June 1675 were William Salisbury and his son John. So by simply putting together two source records, which have been readily available for two hundred and seventy-three years, we are able to state here for the first time that King Philip’s War was started by John Salisbury, a young man twenty years of age, when on the 23rd of June 1675 his father, old William Salisbury, a third rank inhabitant of Swansea, ordered him to shoot one of three Indians seen running out of his own empty house which he had previously abandoned when he and his family fled to Rhode Island.
Well, not so fast, Mr. Bowen. Here is the list of nine men killed by Indians at Swansea on 24 June 1675, presented in alphabetical order:
Nehemiah Allen [or Allin]
William Lohun [should be Cohun or Cohoun or Cahoon]
John Fall [or Full]
There are two father-son pairs in this list, William and John Salisbury, aged approximately 53 and 17, respectively, and Robert and John Jones, aged 49 (approximately) and 22 (almost 23). Bowen quotes a letter from a Boston merchant to his friend in London, written shortly after the Indian War broke out, which tells that the father, mother, and son went on 23 June to fetch corn from the home that they had abandoned. This letter claims that the Indians killed not only the father and son but also the mother, but this cannot be correct, because both wives/widows/mothers are attested as alive at later dates; Susannah Salisbury returned to her former home of Dorchester by 1677, and Anne (Bibble) Jones died between 7 June 1677 and 22 September 1681.
This letter claims that the Indians killed not only the father and son but also the mother, but this cannot be correct…
The merchant’s letter gives the age of the son as “about twenty years old,” which is about as good a match for the likely age of John Salisbury (17) as for the age of John Jones (almost 23), so the Salisbury father and son are about as likely as the Jones father and son to be the ones involved in killing the looting Indian. The chance of new evidence which would tilt that balance is fairly small. (Unfortunately, many recent works follow Bowen’s attribution of the initial Indian fatality to the Salisburys.)
By way of contrast, in situations where there are two alternatives and one is much more likely than the other, there is a tendency for people to remember the more likely one, perhaps attaching the word “probably” to it. However, there is a good reason in such situations for also remembering the less likely alternative, namely, that you will then be in a better position to notice evidence that lends support to (or increases doubt about or even decisively disproves) the less likely alternative.
One might think that the invention of a time machine at some point in the future might enable researchers to go back to events for which the evidence is scanty and directly observe what happened. However, Stephen Hawking in his essay “Chronology Protection: Making the World Safe for Historians” and in Chapter 5 of his book The Universe in a Nutshell explains that time travel, while not impossible, is possible only on an extremely small scale or against extremely strong odds; there is little hope that a human can be sent back in time to observe (or alter) events.
To summarize the Jones/Salisbury situation, people who are descended from both the Joneses and the Salisburys will have to concede that, one way or the other, their relatives were involved in the start of the war. Descendants of Robert Jones but not William Salisbury can say “My family may have been involved in starting King Philip’s War, but it could have been the Salisburys,” and William Salisbury descendants (like me) can similarly say “My family may have been involved in starting King Philip’s War, but it could have been the Joneses.”
 Richard LeBaron Bowen, Early Rehoboth: Documented Historical Studies of Families and Events in This Plymouth Colony Township, 4 vols. (Rehoboth, Mass., 1948).
 A little before (as well as on) Wednesday 23 June 1675.
 Thursday, 24 June, declared as a fast day in view of the worsening relations between the English and the Indians.
 Bowen, Early Rehoboth, 3: 10.
 Third rank: not a character judgment but rather a taxation category.
 H. L. Peter Rounds, trans., Vital Records of Swansea, Massachusetts, to 1850 (Boston: NEHGS, 1992), 409, Appendix A – from Plymouth Colony Records. This information was supplied by Nicholas Tanner, Swansea town clerk, who said that these nine men were buried on 24 June. However, Benjamin Church’s Diary of King Philip’s War 1675-76, edited by Alan and Mary Simpson (Chester, Conn.: Published by the Little Compton Historical Society/Pequot Press, 1975), includes Church’s description of a march of English troops on 30 June: “They marched until they came to the narrow of the neck [Metapoiset Neck, now called Gardners Neck], at a place called Keekkamuit, where they took down the heads of eight Englishmen that were killed at the head of Metapoiset Neck and set upon poles, after the barbarous manner of the savages.” Consequently, Eugene A. Stratton doubts that the burials took place on the same day that these nine men were killed, saying (in Plymouth Colony: Its History & People, 1620-1691 [Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1986], 120–21, note 9), “it would seem that the bodies Church saw on 30 June were of the men said to have been buried on 24 June.”
 Lida Haven Weir, “William Salisbury, 1612-1675, to Cynthia Salisbury, ca. 1816-1896: with 32 related families,” 1988, typewritten family history in the library at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, p. 22. (Cynthia Salisbury is the sister of my ancestor Hannah Maria Salisbury.) John’s approximate birth date of late 1657 or early 1658 is inferred from the spacing of the births of the next three children in the family.
 The Jones family is covered in John Insley Coddington’s article “Sybil (Tincknell) (Bibble) (Nutt) Doolittle and her Family,” The American Genealogist 31 : 96–98, and in part of Ethel Farrington Smith’s article “Seventeenth Century Hull, Massachusetts, and her People,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 143 : 121–24.
 Bowen, Early Rehoboth, 3: 10–11.
 For example, King Philip’s War by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias (Woodstock, Vt.: The Countryman Press, 1999), 2, 101; the paperback version of this book was reprinted in 2017.
 In Hawking et al., The Future of Spacetime (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), with an introduction by my Cornell classmate Richard Price.
 Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell (New York: Bantam Books, 2001).
6 thoughts on “Keeping up with the Joneses”
Don, thank you for this excellent example about the interpretation of historical events and the value of keeping evidence about alternative explanations.
I checked in Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book _Mayflower_ for his account of this incident. On p. 237, he has a paragraph about the incident, including the boy’s reply “it was no matter” which infuriated the Indians. Philbrick does not state the name of the boy or his father. He concludes, “But the truth of the matter was that the boy had given the warriors exactly what they wanted: the go-ahead to kill.” Philbrick states on the next page that reports differ about the events of the day of fasting in Swansea (June 24), but that at least ten people, including the boy and his father, were killed by the Indians. Regarding the family of three who went to collect corn at their home, Philbrick states that the father was killed and that the boy and the mother were scalped and that they survived the scalping but died from loss of blood. Philbrick does not suggest that the family of three was the same family as that of that of the lad who earlier shot the Indian.
Perhaps the extant evidence concerning the ages of the Jones and Salisbury sons is not precise or complete, but wouldn’t it be more likely that a 17 year old boy would be referred to as a lad than that the term lad would be used for a 22, almost 23, year old man?
Here is another possibility to consider. The list of men killed may not include the name of the lad who shot the Indian if he was considered a boy rather than a man.
Janet, thanks for your useful additional analysis. Yes, I’ll agree that when weighing the Salisbury vs. Jones alternatives, the balance is slightly tilted toward Salisbury by the fact that John Salisbury was younger than John Jones and thus slightly more likely to be the “lad” in John Easton’s account.
For those who want to explore the beginning of King Philip’s War further, the most comprehensive and detailed reporting I have found is in the 1836 work _The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts_ by Leonard Bliss, Jr., pp. 80ff, https://books.google.com/books?id=T5qZBD5qK2EC&printsec=frontcover, but of course modern works should also be consulted for possible recent insights.
Thanks. I enjoyed your example of preceise wording and documentation as applied to family history. You have set a standard that I hope to imitate.
Some additional information re the start of King Phillips War. We could have used CNN back in those days, where “history” is largely stories handed down through families and communities. My ancestor, William Cahoon (born 1633) from Scotland, is shown as being the first victim of King Phillips War on the 23 June, 1675. Here is the story courtesy of “Find-A-Grave” – William Cahoon:
“In June of 1675, hostilities broke out between the Native Americans and the Colonist. As a group of settlers headed home from a “Solemn Day of Humiliation Before the Lord” ( A Day of Prayer ) at the Baptist Meeting House, they were attacked by Indians. Some were killed immediately and others were seriously wounded. They took refuge in Rev. John Myles’ Garrison house, which was constructed with stone walls, hoping to treat their wounded and protect themselves from further harm. After a while it became apparent that others were going to die without the help of a physician. William (Cahoon), who was in the house with his wife Deliverance and their seven children; Samuel, Joseph, Mary, William, James, Nathaniel & John, volunteered to make the very dangerous journey from Swansea to Rehobeth Mass. to bring back a doctor.
William was ambushed by Indians very near Palmer River Cemetery. He was killed and mutilated. His body was discovered the next day by three men; Thomas Savage, James Oliver & Thomas Brattle, who were sent from Boston, in hopes of negotiating a peace with the Indians. William’s remains were found at what is now the corner of Lake Street and Wheeler Street. Less than a mile from this cemetery. He was not brought home until two days after his death. There was never a formal Christian burial for his remains. It is, however, reasonable to assume that his remains could have been interred in this cemetery. There is also some supposition that his butchered body may have been buried near his home. This attack was the beginning of “The King Philip’s War” which saw almost every building in Swansea burned to the ground.”
The situation was so dangerous that people did not venture outside their forts, so it’s hard to know for sure all that happened. I am content in the knowledge that our William did a very brave thing and got an ‘honourable mention’ in the King Phillips War story.
E. Dreiling email@example.com 10 generations removed from Scotland’s William Cahoon, known in Luss, Scotland as William Colquhoun.
I apologize for this late response to your interesting and excellent article regarding the King Phillip War. William Salisbury is my 8th great grandfather so I also am very interested in this story. I am wondering if you have read the very interesting account of the history leading up to the King Phillip War and the war itself, “In A Place Called Swansea” by John Raymond Hall? The “focus of this book has been narrowed to the events associated with the establishment of Swansea and to the experiences of its inhabitants prior to the outbreak of King Phillips War in 1675.” It mentions many of the resources you list plus others. Thank you for your article. Brenda Boyd
Hello, cousin Brenda,
Thanks for telling me about “In a Place Called Swansea,” which I didn’t know about before. It looks like a valuable resource.