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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.