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!

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.

7 thoughts on “Human nature writ large

  1. The stories to be found in early documents are quite interesting. My 8th G Grandmother Bethiah (Hawes) Seward, who in 1658 at age 17 was found to be pregnant and accused John Baldwin of Milford, CT., of being the father. Baldwin did confess, and was fined 40 shillings, “and for Bethiah, they look upon her as a loose, vain wench, who hath been found to be with child, the sentence therefore concerning her was that she be severely whipped, so as may suit her sex, which is to be done at Milford, that it may be a warning to any that have had sinful familiarity with her.” She had the child, named Elizabeth Hawes, who eventually married Nathaniel Potter, and had many children. Bethiah married Obadiah Seward in 1660, and their son Obadiah Jr. was born in 1661 at Milford. I guess Obadiah Sr. didn’t have a problem with “sinful familiarity”. Good thing, as his many descendants included Secy. of State, William Henry Seward.

    The lengthy court documents with numerous witnesses were found here, and provide more detail about the attitudes at the time. [Charles J. Hoadly, Records of the colony of jurisdiction of New Haven: from May, 1653, to the union: together with the New Haven code of 1656, Hartford, Conn.: Printed by Case, Lockwood and Co., 1858, Court sessions 1658 – pages 263-268.

    1. Carole,
      Thanks for posting your story of Bethiah (Hawes) Seward and her daughter Elizabeth Hawes, who married Nathaniel Potter. I was not aware of this story; they are my 8th great grandparents through son Daniel. Coupled with the history of Nathaniel’s father, William, they provide quite the ‘interesting’ progenitors of one of my colonial lines.

  2. This is great to see. John Norman of Salem was my 9th great grandfather, and Arabella my 9th great grandmother. For the sake of family honor, I suppose I should propose that Nathaniel Masterson, the wife of Nicholas Vinson, and John Pickworth and his three sons all got exactly what they deserved. 🙂

    Any chance you have information on Richard Bishop, the father-in-law to John Norman’s daughter Lydia, and my other 9th great grandfather from Salem?

    1. Hi Brant, Richard Bishop has already been done in The Great Migration project. Also check out my Early New England Families sketch on John Norman, both available on

      1. Thank you Alicia. I just read the Richard Bishop write-up in the GM. Very interesting. I wish I could find any indication of where he might have originated. Is there a place that lists the ships that brought people to the colony in 1635? (Apologies if these seem like terribly elementary questions. I am certainly not a professional historian nor experienced in this area.)

        1. Brant, no problem, that’s what NEHGS is for. Suggest you might want to subscribe to Robert Charles Anderson’s “Great Migration Newsletter” – subscription includes access to back issues (also available in a collected version for volumes 1-20 in the NEHGS bookstore). Go to and check it out.

  3. Alicia , Avis Chubb was a many times grandmother. From some of the articles I have read , she was something else along with her spouse and children . Do wish I could find more on her son John . I did find out he was a ” coaster = sailor in a book I am reading . ” Young Men and the Sea – Yankee Seafarers In The Age Of Sail ” , by Daniel Vickers with Vince Walsh . A rowdy bunch they were…..

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