20. Happy New Year, Whenever That Is

2015-6 logo

To end the year, here are some genealogical brain teasers. Please think of an answer for each of the following questions:

  1. When did the the year not start on January 1st?
  2. When did a month only have 7 days?
  3. When could “7ber” be used as an abbreviation for September?

The answers? It turns out these are trick questions, as the answer is the same in all three cases: From the year 1155 to 1752 — but only in England and (in the later part of that period) the rest of the British Empire [1]. For those of us tracing ancestry in the United States, and backwards in many cases to England, Ireland, or Wales, the calendar can play some elvish tricks leading up to January 1st and beyond.

The New Year

Remembering that we are considering the British Empire, within that long 600 year period the year was considered to start on the day of the church celebration of Jesus’ Incarnation. That fell on March 25th.

Contrary to what you may have learned in grade school, switching the year’s beginning from March 25th to January 1st had little to do with the Roman miscorrection of day length in the Julian calendar. That 11 minute per year miscorrection led to the astronomical calendar gradually drifting from the legal calendar, a discrepancy that by 1752 had grown to 11 days. However, when the discrepancy was corrected by abandoning the faulty Julian calendar for the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752, it was simultaneously decided to adopt January 1st as New Year’s Day.

Why January 1st? That was New Year’s in the Roman calendar. The change in 1752 took us back to the very origins of our calendar.

A Short March?

The second question in the list above is actually doubly tricky, because it involves two different ways to view the month of March in the Julian calendar. On the one hand, before 1752 there was only one March in the calendar, a month like ours of 31 days. But on the other hand, when the New Year started on March 25th, the period of March 25th through the 31st fell in a different year than the days before it. In that sense, March had only 7 days — in the new year. Of course, the new year got the remaining days back, but at the end rather than the beginning of the year!

Genealogical Confusion

To say that this situation leads to confusion in genealogical circles would be an understatement. If a writer states a date such as “1 March 1750”, what year is meant? Is it the year that in the old calendar had January, February, and most of March in 1750, but the rest of the months in 1751? Or has the writer mentally converted the date to the modern January-December yearly calendar, so that the date actually fell in 1749 in the old calendar? A brain itch to be sure.

To avoid this problem, “double dating” has been widely adopted. If the date is from the calendar being used at the time, the 1 March 1750 date becomes 1 Mar 1750/1. Otherwise it becomes 1 March 1749/50. Double dating should not be considered a complication as genealogical novices often think, but rather a clarification. Without it there may be no way to know which of two years is meant.

When dealing with primary records, there is much less confusion because the date is stated in terms of the calendar being used at the time. Thus in a church christening record, for example, 1 March 1750 means March in the old year. Nevertheless, in our era it is best practice to state such a date using double dating, becoming in this case 1 March 1750/1.

7ber, or September To You

Once when consulting eastern Pennsylvania Quaker records, I ran across a month stated as “7ber”. It didn’t take too long to realize what was meant. Because March was the 1st month of the year (even though the year didn’t get going until the 25th), the 7th month was 6 months after that, or September.

In fact it is quite common to find numbered months in primary records. Thus, for example, the 6th day of the 4rd month of the year 1730 is actually 6 June 1730. When confronted by a numbered month before 1753, the general solution is to add two to it, then convert from that number to the name of the month.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere

So much for the British Empire, but what about elsewhere? One immediate complication traces to the fact that Scotland did not become part of the British Empire until 1603. As an independent country, it made the switch from a March to a January New Year much earlier, in 1600 to be exact. This discrepancy with England remained in force until the calendar was unified in 1752 [1]. So even for those of exclusively British ancestry, there is the possibility of confusion when crossing the Scottish border. As an imaginary example, consider the befuddlement of a poor genealogist discovering that an ancestor died on 12 February 1690 in Allanton, Scotland, only to be buried 10 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, 3 days later on 15 February 1689!

In other countries the confusion can be even greater. Even leaving aside periods during which the New Year began on something other than January 1st or March 25th (e.g., September 1st in Russia, or dates tied either to Easter or the autumn equinox in France), the shift to a January 1st New Year happened in different years in different countries. It occurred in 1544 in Germany, 1559 in Sweden, 1576 in Holland, and as late as 1918 in Turkey [1].

Honor the Goal

 The goal in all of this is to state dates in a way that allows the construction of a coherent, properly ordered sequence of events in our ancestors’ lives. By consistently using an unambiguous dating system, apparent contradictions can be avoided that might otherwise prompt false conclusions. In this regard, double dating is an essential tool of the genealogist’s craft.


[1] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_calendar (2015).

Picture Attribution:

Adaptation of “Logo of the 205/2016 Public Domain Day in Poland” by Cienkamila, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_DDP_2016.svg (2015), used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


BRIEFLY NOTED: “The Pilgrims” Tuesday

I have just become aware that PBS is airing a new two-hour video on the Pilgrims Tuesday evening at 7 PM CST.   It is titled — drum roll please — The Pilgrims. Part of the American Experience history series, it is reported to be in more of a documentary style than Saints & Strangers.  It also covers more of the Saints’ Leiden experience prior to the voyage of the Mayflower.

So if you enjoyed the entry “19. Four Pilgrim Ancestors: Life, Death, and Thanksgiving for the Howland-Tilley Family at Plymouth”, you have not just one but two followup video experiences you can enjoy this Thanksgiving week.


19. Four Pilgrim Ancestors: Life, Death, and Thanksgiving for the Howland-Tilley Family at Plymouth

For the ancestry of the Howland, Tilley and Dickinson families, see The Omnibus Ancestry, available for download through Lulu. For a dramatization of the events described here, see Saints & Strangers, a National Geographic mini-series debuting on November 22nd, 2015. Vere Tindale plays John Howland, and Jessica Sutton plays Lizzie (Elizabeth) Tilley.

On 11 November 1620, the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod of what is now Massachusetts, carrying 101 passengers. That very day 41 of the men signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing both to combine into “a civil body politic” to enact laws for the general good, and to obey those laws [2]. It has been called the first written constitution in the world [3].

Among the signers were John Howland and John Tilley [2]. John Howland came as the servant of John Carver, who was shortly to become the first Governor of Plymouth Colony [3]. The son of Henry and Margaret Howland of Fenstanton, co. Huntingdon, England, he was about 28 years old, having been born in 1591/2 [1].

John Tilley (b. 1571) came with his wife Joan, daughter Elizabeth (bap. 1607), brother Edward, and Edward’s wife Ann. The extended family also included two young relatives of Ann, thereby forming a sizeable contingent of the passengers [1, 4]. The Tilleys originated at Henlow, co. Bedford, England, tracing in unbroken descent from Henry Tilly, who was born in the middle of the 15th century [1].

The Tilleys were among the “Saints” on the voyage. These were religious Separatists who had briefly settled in Leiden, Holland, before economic, religious, and cultural pressures led them to consider immigration to America. After protracted negotiations in London, a charter was issued creating the Plymouth Council for New England. Although issued several weeks after their departure on the Mayflower, it in effect permitted them to settle in New England [3, 15]. Others among the passengers were “Strangers”, or non-Separatists recruited by the London-based Merchant Adventurers for commercial reasons.

The trip to America had not been uneventful. The Leiden passengers had departed from Holland in July 1620 aboard the ship Speedwell. They met the Mayflower at Southampton, England, and initially set out on August 5th. However, problems led to a diversion to Devonshire and an abandonment of the leaky Speedwell as a companion ship. The Mayflower did not finally depart England until late in the sailing season, on September 6th [3]. Huge waves were encountered during the voyage, constantly crashing topside and fracturing a main support beam, which the passengers were obliged to help repair [6]. At one point John Howland was swept overboard, but by chance caught a trailing halyard and was saved [7, 16].

Life and Death in Plymouth

Both of the Johns, Howland and Tilley, were selected to be part of the expedition of December 6th, led by Myles Standish, that discovered Plymouth Bay and landed at what is now Plymouth on the 11th. Its members, according to tradition, were the first to step on Plymouth Rock [5, 17].

According to Gov. William Bradford, publishing in 1656 about events he had personally witnessed, the settlers built small cottages for shelter that first winter. But most were in poor condition from the voyage, “being infected with the scurvy and other diseases”. They began dying, as many as two or three a day. At the peak of illness there were only 6 or 7 healthy persons to care for the entire colony. January and February were particularly fatal months. By winter’s end, half of the settlers had died [8]. Among them were John Tilley (d. 11 January 1620/1) and his wife Joan. Their 13-year old daughter, Elizabeth, was an orphan. Nor did she any longer have an uncle and aunt in the New World, for Edward and Ann Tilley had also died [1, 4]. She was taken in by the Carvers, but only briefly; they also expired over the next few months [9].

John Howland survived. He appears to have inherited both the estate and the dependents of the Carvers, the latter including Elizabeth Tilley and four others. In 1623 John received 4 acres in a division of land, and about the same time married Elizabeth [10]. They were to have a total of 10 children [9].


After the horrifying winter of 1620/1, the Pilgrims learned from the Indians to fish for eel and to plant corn. They laid in stores of fish, fowl, and venison, and were rewarded with a generous harvest. On a fall day in 1621, probably about the end of September, they held a feast. The attendees were the 50 remaining survivors, and 90 Indian guests including their chief, Massasoit [11].

First Thanksgiving

That harvest feast can be considered the ultimate origin of the U.S. holiday, although it certainly was not regularly celebrated in that early era [11]. The festival attending the original 1621 feast was a week long, and was a time of rejoicing and pleasure. Interestingly, no religious service was described in the two accounts left by participants. In fact it has been argued, based on Separatist abhorrence of mixing recreation with religion, that none is likely to have occurred beyond the usual morning devotionals. However, in 1623 a true day of religious Thanksgiving was observed by the colonists, probably toward the end of July [12].

Later Events

John Howland rose to prominence in Plymouth. He purchased his freedom from indentured servitude in 1621, probably with proceeds from the Carvers’ estate. In 1626 he was one of a number of settlers who assumed the colony’s debt to the Merchant Adventurers of London. He helped set tax rates in 1634, and served as deputy to the General Court in 1641-55 and 1658. He also served as assistant and deputy Governor, selectman, and surveyor of highways [1].

Toward the end of his life, John moved with wife Elizabeth to Duxbury and then Kingston, Massachusetts. Following the burning of their house sometime after 1666, both lived with their son Jabez Howland in Plymouth, in what is today the only surviving house lived in by Mayflower passengers (see photo) [1, 13]. His personal estate inventory in 1672/3 showed a value of £157.8.8 and listed nearly a dozen books. He was also found to own several parcels of land in the towns of New Plymouth, Duxbury, Middleberry, and elsewhere [1].

Howland house

Jabez’ house was sold in 1680, and Elizabeth removed to the home of her daughter Lydia in Swansea, Massachusetts [1]. In her lengthy will, made in December 1686, she stated she was of “Swanzey” and gave her age as 79 [1]. By her namesake daughter Elizabeth Howland (ca 1631-1691), who married John Dickinson (ca 1622-1683/4), she was the ancestor of the numerous Dickinsons of Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York [9].

John and Elizabeth Dickinson were the great-great-great grandparents of my ancestor Samuel Dickason (ca 1757-1846, also spelled Dickison and Dickinson), who lived in North Castle, Westchester county, New York, and Duck Creek Hundred, Kent county, Delaware, before moving successively to Fayette, Butler, and Armstrong counties, Pennsylvania. He also lived briefly in Brown county, Ohio [1].

Dennis & Dad at Fort Plimouth

By means of that link, I descend from four of the Mayflower passengers: John and Elizabeth Tilley Howland, and her parents John and Joan Tilley [14]. None of this was known to my family during our only visit to Plymouth, in 1967 (see photo, taken at Plimouth Plantation). Having since applied The Genealogical Craft, I look forward to another one soon.


[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[2] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower_Compact (2015).

[3] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrim_Fathers (2015).

[4] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tilley, 2015).

[5] Jenks, T. (1905). Captain Myles Standish. New York: The Century Co.

[6] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower (2015).

[7] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howland (2015).

[8] Information retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text1/BradfordPlymouthPlantation.pdf (2015).

[9] White, E.P. (2008). John Howland of the Mayflower, Volume 4. Rockland, ME: Picton Press.

[10] They married ca 25 March 1624 (ibid), the first day of the new year under the calendar then in use. The date of the 1623 division is uncertain, but was probably in Mar 1623/4 — i.e., the same month but perhaps earlier than the 25th (information retrieved from http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/MAYFLOWER/2001-04/0987280455, 2015).

[11] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States) (2015).

[12] Love, W.D. (1895). The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co.

[13] It is operated as a museum on a part-year basis; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabez_Howland_House.

[14] The intervening generations and supporting evidence appear in Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[15] Separatists believed that the established Church of England was wrongly organized by geographical area, and that a congregation should instead be organized by common belief. Separatist congregations were therefore autonomous (information retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/Separatists, 2015).

[16] A dramatic painting of Howland’s rescue appears at http://www.mikehaywoodart.co.uk/webrescue.html.

[17] The rock is controversial, however; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Rock.

Picture attributions (in order shown):

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914). Public domain. The log cabin, as well as the Plains dress of the Indians, are historical inaccuracies (information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennie_Augusta_Brownscombe, 2015).

Swampyank at English Wikipedia, Jabez Howland House in Plymouth MA, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jabez_Howland_House_in_Plymouth_MA.jpg. Used and adapted under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  The photo was taken on Thanksgiving day, 2009.

Personal photo of my brother and father, foreground, at the fort at Plimouth Plantation, 1967.

BRIEFLY NOTED: A McQueen 300th Anniversary

Today I’ll be wearing a Scottish flag pin and quaffing a dram of Drambuie in honor of my ancestor Dugal McQueen. It is 300 years to the day since he was captured at the Battle of Preston, setting in motion the legal proceedings that resulted in his transport to America as a rebel against the King. It was a sad day for him, to be sure, but a great day for the future of his family in America. For his story, see “4. Dugal McQueen, Scottish Rebel and Gateway Ancestor to Royalty”, archived under January 2015.


Picture Attribution: Public domain.

18. Witches, Wizards, Ghosts, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

A repost of an old favorite.  Enjoy!

Superstition and magic have no doubt played a role in society ever since there was society. By spanning many countries and several centuries, the genealogist’s craft occasionally uncovers interesting anecdotes that appeal to the modern sense of the offbeat, quirky, and downright spooky. What better time to stir them up from the bottom of a bubbling pot, than Halloween?


The most elaborate witch story in my background is that of the McQueen witch, who cast her spells around the end of the 17th century. John McQueen of Pollochaig, co. Inverness, Scotland, was a famous sportsman who went out one day hoping to kill a deer. After a long way he came across one, which went down when shot. But when John scoured the area for his prize, it couldn’t be found. He returned home empty-handed, and that night told the story at his fireside.


Certain he had killed his quarry, he returned the next morning to the spot. There he met an old woman, who said to him, “Black John son of Dougall, take the lead out of my foot which you put into it yesterday.” This he did, and when finished he asked her for a wish or blessing. She thought a moment, and replied, “Your best day will be your worst day, and your worst day will be your best day.”

Years later this prophecy became true, when John’s son was captured at the Battle of Preston and was subsequently transported overseas. It was John’s worst day for the future of his sept in Scotland.  But it was his best day for the future of his many descendants in America [1, 2].

Other ancestral lines had their witch anecdotes as well, of a much deadlier shade. In 16th century Germany, one of my direct ancestors through the Foster family was Gertrud Stuell, wife of Hans Stuell, a householder near Siegen. In 1590 she was accused of bewitching livestock, found guilty, and burned [1, 3].

Nor were family members absent from the other end of the legal system. My wife’s many-great-uncle John Emerson was one of the accusers in the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692. That year his own uncle, a minister of the same name, contributed to the witch hysteria by claiming to have witnessed a shooting of three men, who then rose up and fired a silver gun with a type of bullet never seen before. Rev. Emerson wrote:

The Devil and his Agents were the cause of all the Molestations. The Ambushments of the Good People of Glocester were caused by Daemons in the Shape of Armed Indians and Frenchmen. [1, 4]

My favorite witch story, however, had a very different ending from the horrifying ones of Siegen and Salem. My ancestor Jeremiah Collet, Sr., from whom I descend through the Withers family, was a fishmonger of Devizes, co. Wiltshire, England, who immigrated to Pennsylvania. A few months later, in Feb 1683/4, he served on a jury in Chester (now Delaware) county, and heard the case of Margaret Matson. Matson was accused of practicing witchcraft, specifically of killing livestock by bewitching it and appearing in spectral form. After hearing the case, Jeremiah and his fellow jurors returned their verdict. The accused was found guilty not of witchcraft, but of “having the common fame of a witch” — for which she merely had to post bond for good behavior!

The case is considered historically significant in reflecting hostility in the Quaker colony toward witchcraft accusations, in sharp contrast to attitudes that would be revealed in Salem a decade later. There is even a legend, possibly apocryphal, that when dismissing the charge of witchcraft against Matson, William Penn affirmed her right to ride a broomstick [1, 5, 6].


The wizards in my family were Thomas Ashton (ca 1394?- aft 1445) and Edmund Trafford (ca 1393-1457/8), ancestors through both the Snyder-Harbour and Ellis families. These co. Lancaster gentlemen claimed to have discovered an elixir that restored youth and changed base metals into gold and silver. In my opinion their major claim to wizardry, however, is that in 1446 they managed to persuade the King to override an earlier law prohibiting alchemy, and to grant them a patent to practice it [1, 7, 8]. Otherwise I presume their deaths, if not their lack of riches, tended to discredit them.


The legend of the ghost of Phillip Babb (ca 1602?-1670/1), my ancestor through the Withers-Davis families, was known to author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Phillip, a fishing master on Hogg Island in the Isles of Shoals off the coast of what is now Maine, was held to have been a crew member for the notorious pirate Capt. Kidd [1, 9]. In 1852, Hawthorne reported:

Old Babb, the ghost, has a ring around his neck, and is supposed either to have been hung or to have had his throat cut, but he steadfastly declines telling the mode of his death. There is a luminous appearance about him as he walks, and his face is pale and very dreadful. [10]

As with all good stories of the supernatural, the legend became more elaborate as time passed. In 1873, a Shoals historian named Celia Thayer reported:

There is a superstition among the islanders that Philip Babb… still haunts Appledore [another Shoals island]; and no consideration would induce the more timid to walk alone after dark over a certain shingly beach on that island, at the top of the cove bearing Babb’s name — for there the uneasy spirit is oftenest seen. He is supposed to have been so desperately wicked when alive that there is no rest for him in his grave. His dress is a coarse, striped butcher’s frock, with a leather belt, to which is attached a sheath containing a ghostly knife, sharp and glittering, which it is his delight to brandish in the face of terrified humanity. One of the Shoalers is perfectly certain that he and Babb have met, and he shudders with real horror, recalling the meeting. This is his story. It was after sunset (of course), and he was coming around the corner of a work-shop, when he saw a wild and dreadful figure advancing toward him; his first thought was that someone wished to make him the victim of a practical joke, and he called out something to the effect that he “wasn’t afraid”; but the thing came near with a ghastly face and hollow eyes, and assuming a fiendish expression, took out the knife from its belt and flourished it in the face of the Shoaler … [10]

In 1929, Oscar Laighton went still further. In his account, also set on Appledore Island, Babb had dug for treasure – presumed to be Capt. Kidd’s – making a deep pit 30 feet wide. An iron chest being discovered at the bottom, Babb and a friend broke it open, upon which smoke and red hot horseshoes flew out. From his death until the Coast Guard built a structure on the spot, Babb’s ghost persisted near the cove’s head — to which no islander would come near [10].

Things That Go Bump in the Night

I end with an anecdote concerning Elizabeth Addams Bull Rossiter (1713/4-1810), my ancestor through the Speece-Robinson familes. In a letter soon after her death, a granddaughter wrote:

. . . our respected grandmother left this world in April; her illness was very short and she was quite sensible until the last few minutes. The day before she died she mentioned to her son and daughter that she had distinctly heard three little taps on the head of her bed, and on that hour the next day she would depart, as her father had heard the same, and she believed it a token for her to be prepared. At the hour mentioned she expired. [11]

Presumably my esteemed many-great-grandmother bequeathed her ancestral death taps to a child other than the daughter who was my ancestor. In my branch of the family they have not been heard this many a generation. But with October 31st fast approaching, one never knows. Happy Halloween!


[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[2] The story is traditional, but I am endebted to Donna Hechler Porter (http://theflyingshuttle.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) for suggesting which day was the worst and the best, a point left vague in the traditional telling. It’s about as perfect an ending to the story as one could wish.

[3] Boles, H.W., & Boles, D.B. (1990). Foster Ancestors: Some Europeans, Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers. Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co. Available through Lulu.

[4] Information retrieved from http://suite101.com/article/ebenezer-babson-and-the-1692-gloucester-massachusetts-mystery-a328784 (2015).

[5] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (1998). Withers-Davis Ancestry. Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co. Available through Lulu.

[6] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Matson (2015).

[7] Boles, D.B. (2005). Snyder-Harbour Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[8] Boles, H.W., & Boles, D.B. (1994). Ellis Ancestors: Some Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers. Kalamazoo, Mich: Private print. Available through Lulu.

[9] Which however was certainly untrue, in that Kidd’s piracy did not occur until a generation after Phillip’s death (Withers-Davis Ancestry, op. cit., available through Lulu).

[10] Rutledge, L.V. (1965). The Isles of Shoals in Lore and Legend. Barre, Mass: Barre Publishers.

[11] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (1997). Speece-Robinson Ancestry. Ozark, Mo: Dogwood Printing. Available through Lulu.

Picture attribution:

“A Visit to the Witch” by Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1882). Public domain.

17. The Power of Convergence, Part 1: Francis Drake

According to my father I began the genealogical craft at age 14. I had accompanied Dad to the burgeoning collection of the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, temporarily housed in the warehouse-like Purdue building, and pitched in locating materials related to our families of interest. The next year, I believe, we took our first original research trip, visiting Pennsylvania courthouses and cemeteries.

From that point I was well and truly hooked. Besides helping Dad type and correct his first book of ancestry, published in 1970, I carried on a continual correspondence with family genealogists who wrote queries in the monthly publication The Genealogical Helper.

One of those exchanges provided me with a mystery that endured for decades, and was only recently solved. It concerns the Drake family of New Hampshire and New Jersey, and their possible relationship to the Drakes of West Meath, Ireland.

In 1646 my ancestor Francis Drake (ca 1615?-1687) was of Portsmouth, Rockingham county, New Hampshire, when he was one of a group of men agreeing to have land laid out. However, he sold his land in 1668 and moved to New Jersey, probably because his family was identified with the Baptists, a sect poorly tolerated in New Hampshire at the time. In 1673 he was licensed to keep a tavern in Piscataway, New Jersey. From 1673 to 1685 he was Captain and first commander of “The New Jersey Blues”, a militia company [4, 5].

Was Francis Drake from Ireland?

Francis was clearly the immigrant ancestor of his line, but where did he originate? In 1969 I received a tantalizing letter from a correspondent, that had been written to her by another party in 1964. That person had referenced work by a Col. Kephart claiming to have Francis’ signature from a 1653 power of attorney in Ireland, empowering one Thomas Temple to draw £600. It was witnessed by a Richard Saunders. Drake, the account continued, was of co. Westmeath, Ireland, and the claim (whether made by Kephart or someone interpreting Kephart) was that he used the £600 to finance his immigration.

The astute reader will have already recognized something fishy with this account, because Francis was documented in New Hampshire a full 7 years before the power of attorney in Ireland. Still, the reference nagged at me for years on end. Col. Kephart had claimed to have his signature. Might it match some unknown signature of Francis in America? Could the drawing of £600 have occurred while Francis was in New Hampshire, perhaps an advance on an Irish estate to further his American interests?

The reference given for the information was vague, namely to Irish State Papers dated 1642-1660. It was not clear whether this was a reference to a publication or a manuscript, or where it was obtained. A few half-hearted attempts to locate the reference turned up nothing. But that was long before computer systems linked library catalogs to allow worldwide searches by title, and longer still before they allowed content searches.

The Irish Francis Found

Earlier this year while reviewing some of my Drake materials, I relocated my old correspondence and realized that the time might be ripe to locate, once and for all, the Irish power of attorney. The search term “Irish State Papers 1642 1660” seemed to get me a reference to holdings of the British National Archives, but no useful content. But it was then that I hit on using the names mentioned in the correspondence: “Francis Drake Thomas Temple Richard Saunders”.

And so it was that the Convergent Power of the Web finally located the long-sought record. Entering the search terms allowed the Google engine to converge quickly on the unique piece of world wide web content that concerned them all, located precisely at the address https://books.google.com/books?id=T1gMAQAAIAAJ.   Better yet, the content was in a book that Google had scanned and made freely available. It was all right there before me, on the printed page. The reference, however, was only vaguely related to that given to me in 1969 [1].

My relief in finally locating the record was palpable, but this was a genealogical success story only in the sense of all but demolishing a claim. A close reading of the record revealed its full context, showing that it could not plausibly have concerned the immigrant. The “draw”, as it turned out, was a lottery drawing for land. The land was located in the barony of Kilkenny West, co. Westmeath, and the power of attorney was needed for Thomas Temple to make the drawing in Francis’ absence. Furthermore, the £600 had been paid as a partnership between John Hamond, Sir Matthew Brand, and Francis Drake as long ago as 1642, and represented the total investment of all three men. In one of the relevant records, dated March 1651/2, Francis was designated “Esq.”, a term that in rank-conscious Great Britain meant he was considered something more than a gentleman, but less than a knight. It was a designation often applied to barristers or to office holders such as justices of the peace.


The term “the Irish adventure” was applied in some of the records, indicating that the drawing was connected to the Puritan “Adventurers for Ireland”, a mercenary group authorized by Parliament in 1642 to fight the Irish. The group was empowered to seize property, to be sold to citizens at the rate of 1000 acres per £200 investment. Over a tenth of the entire area of Ireland was set aside for the purpose [2, 3]. Apparently, then, with an investment of £600, Francis Drake and his partners hoped to purchase 3000 acres, the specific location of which would be awarded them by lot.


It seems very unlikely that this Francis Drake was the immigrant, not only because of concerns over chronology but because of the size of the enterprise and the use of “Esq.” with his name, suggesting a high social rank and fortune. At his death in 1687, my ancestor the immigrant left personal property worth £67.7 [5], contrasting with the £200 in cash that each partner presumably put forward for “the Irish adventure”.

Still, a diehard might find something to keep the Irish spark alive. It is true that the investment was made in 1642, four years before the immigrant appeared in New Hampshire. Perhaps, unable to simply withdraw the money, Francis was forced to wait out long-developing events until the land drawing in 1653, even after immigrating to America. A researcher wanting to investigate this possibility would surely want to find out whether, as Col. Kephart reportedly claimed, an original signature is available from the 1653 power of attorney. It would also be necessary to see if a signature is available from a document involving the immigrant, perhaps from the inventory Francis helped make of the estate of William Meeker in 1675 [5]. If any such signatures match, it would be an original and much appreciated discovery, one that has eluded generations of Drake descendants.

For me and for now, that possibility is too distant a long shot to be worth pursuing, so this story ends in the disappointment of not learning Francis Drake’s origins [6]. But also for me, the episode is a “signature” one that beautifully illustrates the convergent power of the web. We truly live in wondrous times, having tools that were undreamed of only a few years ago.

Sometime soon, in Part 2, I will offer a more positive outcome of the web’s convergent power. I promise!


[1] Specifically, the reference is: Mahaffy, R.P. (1908). Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Ireland Preserved in The Public Record Office. Adventurers for Land, 1647-1660. London: Mackie and Co.

[2] Dillon, E.M. (2004). The Gender of Freedom. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

[3] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventurers%27_Act (2015).

[4] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[5] Boles, H.W., & Boles, D.B. (1990). Foster Ancestors: Some Europeans, Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers. Available through Lulu.

[6] Ibid stated that he was a son of Robert Drake (1581-1668), of Hampton, Rockingham co, NH. However, Y-DNA genetic analysis of living descendants has since indicated that these were two unrelated families (information retrieved from http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~drakerobinson/DNAPages/DrakeDNA.htm and DrakeDNA2.htm, 2011). There is also no relationship to Sir Francis Drake, the English captain of Elizabethan fame (ibid, showing Y-DNA results from descendants of his grandfather Edmund Drake, of Devonshire, Eng, under group “ENGLAND – Ra1”).

Picture Attribution: Believed to be in the public domain.

16. The Good and the Bad of Abstracted Records, and the Ugly Case of Luther Martin

Ancestral research is rewarding, but record access becomes more and more problematic as pursuit goes on. The more generations that are traced, the more likely it is that ancestors lived far away. The trip to the courthouse that sufficed for recent generations becomes prohibitively expensive for remote ones, a problem magnified by an ever increasing number of ancestral lines.

One alternative is to rent microfilms of original records through the Family History Libraries of the LDS Church. However, at several dollars a reel this can itself become pricey. As a result most researchers gladly turn to abstracted records to avoid the expense as well as time and trouble of consulting the originals.

Whether published in book form, left unpublished in manuscript form, or posted to the web, abstracts are a compact and convenient means of accessing hundreds to thousands of records that might otherwise be poorly accessible. However, with this convenience comes not only the good, but the bad and the ugly.

The Good

Abstracters are the saints of the genealogy community. They contribute hundreds of hours of their own labor to save others from a similar investment. Although some obtain compensation from sales of their volumes to libraries and individuals, it’s a safe guess that very few are able to trade their day jobs for full-time pursuit of poorly decipherable script on fading pages.

The good news is that abstracters are often local history experts, having spent many years pursuing their own research in the immediate geographical area of their abstracted material. This generally leads to greater accuracy. Local history experts know which names commonly appear in a given period of time and which do not, with the latter calling for greater scrutiny. They may also have extensive experience with the handwriting of the clerks who created the original records.

As another “good”, did I mention that abstracts save great time and expense? Throughout what follows, this needs to be remembered.

The Bad

As in any genealogical enterprise, mistakes are made during the abstraction of public records. Some errors are simple mistakes of detail, for example, a misread place name or date. Some have greater impact, as when a personal name is misread. If the given name James was abstracted as Jacob, and you are looking for James, you may discount as irrelevant a record pertaining to your ancestor. Errors in family names are even more impactful, because as a researcher you will likely miss the records completely.

Abstracts of gravestone inscriptions have these same problems, magnified by the weathering of stone. In the 1960s my father and I abstracted the gravestone of a James Bole in Freeport, Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, as indicating that he died in 1854, age 78. Decades later it was discovered that the age was actually 73, as reported in an abstract that had been made in 1903 when the stone was less weathered. Furthermore the younger age was backed by a contemporary merchant’s diary in 1854 stating that James had just died, age 73 [2]. In my experience, and certainly in this one, the digits “8” and “3” are frequently confused. So are “1”, “4”, and “7”, and “5” and “6”. Weathering easily obscures short segments of numbers and letters, making one resemble another.

Another high-impact error is the complete omission of records. This can happen in a moment of inattention during the abstraction of text, or when two pages are turned instead of one.

How bad can it get? Occasionally, an earlier volume of abstracts is so riddled with errors that an entirely new effort is undertaken. One example with which I am familiar is C.G. Chamberlayne’s 1937 volume, The Vestry Book and Register of St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, Virginia, 1684-1786. One of the motivations for its publication was specifically to correct numerous errors in a 1904 publication, The Parish Register of St. Peter’s, New Kent County, Virginia, from 1680 to 1787.

The Ugly

I reserve the term “ugly” for abstraction errors so bad that they actually change the course of genealogical research. Fortunately these are rare.

486px-LutherMartinBigUnfortunately one of them concerns my wife’s putative near-descent from Luther Martin (1748-1826), a member of the Continental Congress and U.S. Constitutional Convention, as well as counsel for the defense in the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr. Through the Hickey and Robinson lines, my wife descends from a Washington county, Pennsylvania, settler named Zephaniah Martin, widely claimed on web pages to have been Luther’s brother. Both were certainly from New Jersey. In Zephaniah’s case he moved to Pennsylvania about the year 1786, coming from Mendham township, Morris county, New Jersey [2, 3].

Zephaniah’s relationship to Luther seems proved by a will abstract appearing in the New Jersey Archives, partially reproduced here:

1755, July 1. Martin, Benjamin, of Piscataway, Middlesex Co.; will of. Wife, Philerato. Sons — Benjamin, Nathanael, Peter. Daughter, Zerviah, wife of Jeremiah Blackford. Grandchildren– Athanasius, James, and Luther; Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Ruben, sons of Benjamin; Mary, Isaiah and Benjamin, children of John and Hannah Blackford; Benjamin and Nehemiah, children of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Bonham; Zerviah, daughter of Zedekiah and Anna Bonham…. [1]

From this, family historian Louise Martin Mohler quite reasonably concluded that my wife’s ancestor Zephaniah was a son of Benjamin Martin; a grandson of testator Benjamin Martin and his wife Philoretta; and a brother of the famous Luther Martin. She published an influential book stating exactly that, namely The Martin Family of America, first released in 1983 and then revised in 1987.

However, something about the abstract bothered me. In the intervening years I have forgotten what, but it may have been simply the semi-colon between Luther and Jeremiah. I wrote to Louise, questioning the Luther Martin relationship.

She then did something remarkable. She ordered a copy of the original will — and when the results turned out catastrophic for the Luther Martin relationship, she passed a copy along to me and admitted that an error had been made. Here is the corresponding section of the original will, with all details except the names and relationships removed for clarity:

… I Benjamin Martin of Pisataway in the County of Middlesex and Eastern Division of the province of New Jersey … unto my True and well beloved wife Philerata Martin … son Benjamin Martin … to his son Nathanael Martin … son Peter Martin … Athanasius Martin son of my said son Benjamin … [unreadable] him to Jeremiah Blackford son of John And Hannah Blackford … Grandson James Martin son of my said son Benjamin … Grandson Zephaniah Blackford son of John and Hannah Blackford … my grandson Reuben Blackford son of said John and hannah Blackford … Daughter Zerviah Blackford wife of Jeremiah Blackford … Grandson Benjamin Bonham son of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Bonham … grandson Hezekiah Bonham son of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Bonham … Grand Daughter Zerviah Bonham Daughter of Zedekiah and Anna Bonham … grand Daughter Mary Blackford Daughter of John and hannah Blackford … Grandson Luther Martin son of My said son Benjamin … Grandson Isaiah Blackford son of John and Hannah Blackford … Benjamin Blackford son of John and Hannah Blackford … [4]

Some of the heirs were renamed later in the document. But despite the presence of a few unreadable words, one thing that is crystal clear is that Zephaniah Martin was not named in the will. It is equally clear that the fundamental error in the New Jersey Archives abstract was that “Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Ruben, sons of Benjamin” were actually Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Reuben, sons of John and Hannah Blackford. But there was another error as well: “Benjamin and Nehemiah, children of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Bonham”, were actually Benjamin and Hezekiah, children of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Bonham.

As it happened the loss of the connection between my wife’s ancestor Zephaniah Martin and Luther Martin was not completely catastrophic, although that was not known to me in the 1980s. Eventually they did prove to be related. In fact recently acquired records, covered in [2], have allowed the conclusion that Zephaniah Martin was the son of a James Martin of Middlesex and Morris counties, New Jersey. James was himself a great-grandson of immigrant John Martin (ca 1618-1687), who initially settled at Dover, New Hampshire, before moving to New Jersey. Zephaniah Martin and Luther Martin were 3rd cousins, not brothers.

Lessons Learned

Without question, abstracts are valuable resources in genealogical research. They make records available that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive and troublesome to collect. In my experience they are far more likely to be correct than incorrect.

The problem is that introducing human intervention between an original and its abstract unavoidably increases the chance of error. An additional factor is that the state of the original itself may be such that readings are ambiguous. That is hinted at by the unreadable words in the Benjamin Martin will, and more definitely by the weathered James Bole gravestone. Ambiguity can likewise lead to error.

As genealogists, the way we should respond is to always maintain a healthy skepticism about abstracted sources. A misplaced semi-colon; a contradiction of other records; an implausibility as to name, time, or place; all of these may be reasons to doubt an abstract.

In such cases we should be willing to go the extra mile, and spend the extra dollar, to seek the original record and determine for ourselves what it truly says. If the original is itself problematic, then perhaps earlier abstracts or other evidence will resolve the problem. For if genealogy is a massive, interlocking, and endlessly fascinating puzzle, we should make sure we’re assembling the right pieces.


[1] New Jersey Archives, 1st series, v. 32, p. 216.

[2] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available for download through Lulu.

[3] Boles, D.B. (1993). Barth-Hickey Ancestry. Troy, NY: Private print. Available from Bolesbooks.

[4] Original signed will, Middlesex co, NJ.

Picture attribution: Public domain.