Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ancestors, Indentured Servitude, and the Salem Witch Trials

Even though I am a trained historian with a PhD in History I have never been very interested in genealogy.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t consider my family all that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I associate genealogical curiosity with retired women or popular history buffs searching for an illustrious ancestor or mastering a conventional hobby. In a vague sense I always knew my ancestors were English or Irish emigrants and that my immediate family (at least going back a couple of generations) resided in New Jersey and Maine. History was always something I discovered about other places and other people’s lives.

Of course growing up in Massachusetts I was surrounded by history. In grade school I lived in a house built in 1760 and was conscious of its age because of the number affixed to the left siding by the front door. The number continually reminded me that generations upon generations of families had lived there. Old Deerfield (or what is now called Historic Deerfield), with its history of early Native American-colonist skirmishes, was less than 20 miles away. There were many family and school trips to the Boston area to visit the Freedom Trail, the Plimoth Plantation, and the Mayflower II.

D.G. Beers & Co. map of Salisbury Mass. with Ring's Island (1872).

D.G. Beers & Co. map of Salisbury Mass. with Ring’s Island (1872).

Recently I learned, much to my surprise, that my ancestors not only can be traced back to the earliest years of Massachusetts but that some of these individuals played a prominent role in key events in the seventeenth century. My eighth great grandfather Robert Ring was born in 1614 in Marlborough, Wiltshire, England and traveled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 as an indentured servant on the ship the “Confidence.” That same year English colonists traded enslaved Pequot Indians they had defeated in war for the first cargo of African slaves brought to Massachusetts. Unlike the group of slaves arriving from the West Indies, Ring’s period of servitude was not for life. Indeed his contract was remarkably short compared to the typical indentured servant who served 7 years in exchange for passage to the New World.  In 1640, just two years later at the age of 28, Ring became a freeman. After acquiring head right land in Salisbury, Mass. he returned to England for a period of 8 years and then came back to the colony. Upon his return he initiated and won a suit against Essex County which had tried to reclaim his land while he was absent. He established a fishing business on what came to be known as Ring’s Island and also was a cooper and a planter.

Two of Robert Ring’s seven children with his wife Elizabeth Jarvis played a role in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Jarvis Ring (b. 1657) and Joseph Ring (b. 1664) provided testimony against widow Susannah Martin (convicted and later executed). Joseph also testified against Thomas Hardy whom he accused of consorting with Martin in the spirit world. The testimony against Hardy, a fellow soldier, might be linked to an encounter Joseph had with Hardy when their militia traveled to Fort Loyal at Casco Bay, Maine in May of 1690. The French and the Wabanaki Confederacy (roughly 300 men) had taken control of the fort and Ring and Hardy’s militia made an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the English settlers, all of whom were either murdered or taken as prisoners as it burned to the ground. Before arriving at Fort Loyal the militia stopped at a tavern where Hardy loaned Ring two shillings so they could gamble at shuffleboard. Ring lost the game and acquired a debt to Hardy. When he gave his deposition exactly two years later in May 1692 to Robert Pike, Assistant to the General Court, Ring’s fanciful tales involved plenty of colorful incriminating detail about Hardy.

Deposition:  Joseph Ring v. Susannah Martin and Thomas Hardy, May 16, 1692.

Deposition: Joseph Ring v. Susannah Martin and Thomas Hardy, May 16, 1692.

Joseph Ring described encounters with Thomas Hardy, Susannah Martin, a coven of unnamed witches, and even Satan. Joseph reported that he and his brother Jarvis were cutting wood in the forest but it was not until Jarvis left that Joseph encountered Hardy who whisked him away to a deserted house. There he found Martin and another woman “where they had a good fire & drink.” At the end of the night Martin “turned into the shape of a blak hogg and went away.” Another time Joseph Ring traveled between Sandy Beach and Hampton and came across Hardy with another group. Hardy demanded his shillings back. Ring reported they appeared in the form of a fireball and “with the dreadfull noyse and hidious shapes of these creatures” he “was almost frited out of his witts.” Hardy proved to be a hard man to please and appeared yet again to ask for his two shillings and if Joseph refused he “thretened to tear him in peeces.” Joseph continued to suffer from his confrontations with the witches. He saw groups of them partying and dancing in addition to “many strange sights.” He told Pike that he was made mute and could not speak from August 1691 to April 1692. He described a man who asked Ring to sign a book in blood repeatedly but when he refused he was met with the “most dreadfull shapes noyses & screching.” Susannah Martin also appeared one night at his bedside and pinched him.

Deposition: Jarvis Ring v. Susannah Martin, May 16, 1692.

Deposition: Jarvis Ring v. Susannah Martin, May 16, 1692.

Joseph’s brother Jarvis, however, had far less encounters with the witches. Jarvis signed a brief oath stating that “seven or eight years ago he had ben several times aflicted in the night by som body or som thing coming up upon him when he was in bed and did sorely afflict him by Lying upon him and he coould neither move nor speake while it was upon him.” Early on he could not identify the figure clearly but one night he discerned Susannah Martin who then “took him by the hand and bitt him [by the fin] ger.” Robert Pike wrote that he could see a scar of the bite on the little finger of Jarvis’s right hand and the accuser insisted it had taken a long time to heal.

The depositions provided by Joseph and Jarvis Ring as well as other colonists against Susannah Martin led to her execution on July 19, 1692. A year later Cotton Mather, the influential Puritan minister who played an important role in this social crisis, published The Wonders of the Invisible World. Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England in which he defended the court testimony and executions and wrote that the witches were part of Satan’s bigger plot to overthrow Puritanism. Not surprisingly the Ring brothers make an appearance in Mather’s book. Mather described “the most wonderful Account” of Joseph Ring who was forced to attend “hellish Randezvouzes” and contend with Thomas Hardy who had trapped Ring in a “snare of Devillism.”

"Wonders of the Invisible World" (1693) by Cotton Mather

“Wonders of the Invisible World” (1693) by Cotton Mather

It is rather ironic that twenty years after beginning my PhD program in American history I discovered this history of my family. I certainly never learned anything about it growing up or attending college in Massachusetts. I confess to feeling uneasy about Jarvis and Joseph Ring’s testimony which contributed to the execution of an innocent woman. There is more to be told about Joseph who came of age during King Phillip’s War. He married Mary Brackett, a woman whose entire family had been captured by Native Americans during the war. The family escaped not too long after but later Mary’s brother was killed at Fort Loyal (which Joseph Ring and Thomas Hardy witnessed) and her father and grandparents were killed by Abenaki in two separate incidents. In 1704 Joseph himself was captured by Native Americans seeking revenge for the death of their comrades which happened during their unsuccessful effort to seize Andrew Neal’s Garrison. This group then burned Joseph alive at the stake. Again, irony abounds. However, I should point out that all of the accused witches in Salem were hung (with the exception of one man who was crushed by rocks). In Europe some women were burned at the stake for witchcraft between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries but in the New World colonists chose hanging as the distinctive punishment.

What I would give to be a creative writer and turn this story into gripping historical fiction! In the meantime, I’ll get back to southern history and Angola Prison in Louisiana.


Filed under Cotton Mather, Jarvis Ring, Joseph Ring, Salem Witch Trials, Susannah Martin, Thomas Hardy

Jim Crow Memorabilia on Display in 2014

Recently I discovered a house listing in Dallas, Texas accompanied by a startling photo.  You can view it here on one of the largest real estate networks on the web or on the realtor’s site here or see below. The property is described as “family owned since 1931.” The kitchen contains a gorgeous gas stove that any cook with a fondness for authentic appliances would embrace with excitement.  Yet look closely at the wall to the left of the stove.  Yes, that it is a Mammy paper towel dispenser mounted in full Jim Crow glory. Clearly it never occurred to the real estate agent, the photographer, or the “home stager” that it might be problematic to decorate a house for sale with what has been referred to as “Black Memorabilia” or “Black Americana.”

Mammy towel paper holder (on wall to the left).

Mammy towel paper dispenser (on wall to the left).

From the 1880s-1950s tens of thousands of these consumer items were marketed and sold in the United States; this included everything from cookie jars, table clothes, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, dishes, glassware, lamps, children’s toys and games, greeting cards, books, sheet music, fishing lures, lawn jockeys, and postcards. Just about any item you might think of was designed with grotesque caricatured images of African Americans. These images often portrayed black men and women as dark-skinned with exaggerated noses, lips, and teeth as well as stupid, frightened, childlike, or lazy. “Sambo,” “Mammy,” Uncle Mose,” “Uncle Remus,” “Uncle Ben,” “Rastus,” and “Zip Coon” were ubiquitous in American popular culture.  Just type any of these terms into the eBay search engine.  As of today a search for “Black Americana” pulled up 25,380 results.

If you’re interested in learning more about these collectibles a plethora of examples can be viewed at the digital Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  The 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions also provides an excellent history of the ways in which these dehumanizing images circulated in American popular culture for decades. Produced by California Newsreel the film can be viewed on YouTube here. Alice Walker, acclaimed writer and author of The Color Purple, once described her anguished feelings about this racist memorabilia: “These caricatures and stereotypes were really intended as prisons. Prisons without the traditional bars, but prisons of image. Inside each desperately grinning ‘Sambo’ and each placid 300-pound ‘mammy’ lamp there is imprisoned a real person, someone we know. If you look at hard at the collection and don’t panic…you will begin to really see, the eyes and then the hearts of these despised relatives of ours, who have been forced to lock their true spirits away from themselves and away from us…” It is time to shelve these prisons permanently. In 1931 (and even in 2014?) I am certain these homeowners viewed this Mammy kitchen item as familiar and banal, but it has no place today even in a historical home for sale.



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