The power of a mark

Petition to the Ipswich selectmen, 12 April 1686. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

History came vividly alive for me on a cold December day ten years ago in Salem, Massachusetts. For a retired historian, the Phillips Library of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum was the perfect place to enjoy a brief respite from winter’s doldrums by indulging in the quiet pleasures of archival research. Housed in an elegant, mid-nineteenth-century Italianate townhouse brimming with antiques and historical artifacts, the library’s reading room was warm, intimate, and inviting – its library tables and comfortable Windsor chairs surrounded by bookshelf walls filled with classic reference works on New England history. Above them, original portraits and busts of prominent Massachusetts Bay colonists gazed down on the reading room’s patrons – who, on the day in question, consisted of a few family history gray-beards like myself and a young doctoral candidate or two engaged in dissertation research.[1]

I had a table to myself in a far corner of the room, where I’d been immersed for several hours in the original seventeenth-century manuscript records of the Essex County Quarterly Courts, looking for references to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Grow (ca. 1642-1727), an obscure Ipswich, Massachusetts, weaver and the presumed progenitor of the Grow family in America.[2] I had almost finished leafing through a folder of documents from a 1680s court case when I suddenly came upon a one-page hand-written petition submitted to the Ipswich selectmen in April 1686 by forty local commoners asking the town government to hire a shepherd for the community’s Jeffrey’s Neck sheep commons to safeguard the sheep pastured there from attacks by wolves and other predators.[3]

One of the petitioners was John Grow. He had signed the petition with his “mark”: a scraggly, uneven capital “I” with a horizontal crossbar through the middle of the upright – the standard form for the letter “J” in seventeenth-century English writing, and in this case short for “John.” The instant I laid eyes on the mark, my mind began reeling from the realization that I had stumbled upon a remarkable family artifact: the crude “signature” that the probable founder of the Grow family in America – my direct ancestor nine generations removed – had put down on paper 326 years earlier as a resident of a Massachusetts Bay Puritan community.

Detail of the 1686 Ipswich petition.

The serendipitous discovery had an immediate and powerful impact on me, both intellectually and emotionally. It first of all confirmed what I had long suspected: that John Grow was illiterate. Signing the petition with a simple mark rather than a full signature was a strong indication that he could not write his own name – the basic test of literacy.[4] Literate colonists occasionally signed a deed or a will with a mark for the sake of convenience, a practice considered legally valid because the scribe who drafted the document had already recorded the signatory’s name on it and the signatory needed only to “initial” it with his mark in order to make it official. A petition, however, did not have the petitioner’s name recorded on it prior to being signed, and as a result a mark was of little value unless the petitioner was also identified by name. Consequently, illiterate petitioners, to legitimize their marks, customarily had a literate townsperson write their name for them next to their mark.[5] On the 1686 Ipswich petition, for example, John Grow’s mark is placed to the immediate left of the name “john grow” in cursive, which a literate fellow petitioner had likely written for him.

A petition, however, did not have the petitioner’s name recorded on it prior to being signed, and as a result a mark was of little value unless the petitioner was also identified by name.

The knowledge that my ancestor was illiterate helped me place him in a broader social context. It’s estimated that in the 1660s approximately forty percent of adult males in Essex County were unable to write their own names and that an overwhelming majority of those men belonged to the lower or lower-middle ranks of society.[6] As a result, John Grow’s use of a mark on the 1686 petition was a valuable piece of evidence that enabled me to expand the traditional description of him as an Ipswich weaver by identifying him in broader terms as an illiterate artisan in the bottom half of seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay society.

The mark’s discovery also had a surprisingly profound effect on me emotionally. It was not, genealogically speaking, a particularly significant breakthrough – revealing nothing, for example, about John Grow’s origins. And yet, as I sat staring at it, studying its details at close range, there was something about the mark that spoke to me at a deeply personal level. The piece of paper on which it was written – the piece of paper that I was now holding in my hands – wasn’t a photocopy or a reproduction; it was the original copy of the 1686 petition, the actual piece of paper that my earliest-known ancestor in America had held in his hands more than three centuries earlier as he placed his mark on it. The mark itself, moreover, had a strangely expressive quality, a physical presence that seemed to communicate something tangible about the man who made it. Its unevenly drawn lines of varying thicknesses, the small dot of ink that had dripped onto the paper as John Grow transferred the quill pen in his hand from an inkwell to the petition’s surface – together, these visual details conveyed a tactile impression of a simple, uneducated manual worker for whom the physical act of handwriting was awkward and unnatural.

Like any historical artifact, John Grow’s mark was a material link to the past – in this case, a tangible link to a seventeenth-century ancestor whose DNA I shared. As I looked at the mark, touching it with my fingertips — touching something that he had produced with his own hand – I felt a vague, almost indefinable sense of physical connection to the man who made it. It was as if by touching what he had touched I was experiencing a form of indirect personal contact with him across the three centuries and nine generations of family history that separated us. A small, nondescript mark on a long-forgotten document had brought history personally alive for me in a way that perhaps only passionately engaged family historians would fully understand.


[1] Sadly but understandably, the Phillips Library’s manuscript collections and reading room were moved to a modern, climate-controlled collections center in Rowley, Massachusetts, in 2017.

[2] Michael Grow, John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context from the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020), 9-36; Michael Grow, “John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts: An Update,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 167 [2013]: 199-203; George W. Davis, John Grow of Ipswich/John (Groo) Grow of Oxford (Washington, D.C.: privately printed by the Carnahan Press, 1913; repr. Salem, Mass.: Higginson Book Company, n.d.), 5-15.

[3] Petition to the Ipswich, Massachusetts, selectmen, 12 April 1686, “Records of the Essex County Quarterly Courts, 1636-1694,” Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum Collection Center, Rowley, Mass., box 46, folder 69. The petition is reproduced in Grow, John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Appendix B.

[4] It is possible, of course, that John Grow could read but not write. According to historian David D. Hall, in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religion in Early New England (New York: Knopf, 1989), 32, “when defined as the skill of reading English, literacy was almost universal in Puritan New England,” largely “because reading had such a high importance in the religious system.” Puritanism placed great emphasis on the ability to read “the Word,” and as a result, Hall writes, even “ordinary people … were comfortably acquainted with the language of their Bibles.” “Wealth and occupation were significant in sorting out mere readers from those who learned to write as well: every minister in New England possessed both skills, as did merchants and magistrates. But in trades where writing did not play a major role” – such as weaving, John Grow’s livelihood – “people often stopped with learning how to read.”

[5] Alison I. Vannah, “‘Crochets of Division’: Ipswich in New England, 1633-1679” (Ph.D. dissertation: Brandeis University, 1999), 435-37.

[6] Kenneth Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 22; Vannah, “‘Crochets of Division’: Ipswich in New England, 1633-1679,” 436; David Cressy, Coming Over: Migration and Communication between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 217. During the same period, two-thirds of Essex County women were illiterate, according to Lockridge (p. 38).

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).

15 thoughts on “The power of a mark

  1. Another memory stirred, re the reading room! Visited in the early 1970s for a research trip and, though I should have gone back for more of the odd papers on that subject, Maine Historical was closer and just as old-style user friendly and had more than I needed.

    Holding an artifact, especially a written one is, I’ve found, always transporting, be it a Roger Williams letter on Native American relations with some personal details (Mass. Historical), or Tom Danforth’s notes on interrogating suspected murderers (Mass Archive under Leo when at the State House) or an original will only signed by the ancestor but clearly written as dictated by him (will dated 1723, Ralph Pain, File Papers dated 1727, Bristol County, now at the Mass. State Archives, Columbia Point).

    Language used in the will presents an ultimate genealogical challenge. Ralph makes explicit legal protection of the family graveyard and access to it, while he divides his land among his 4 children. He goes out of his way in describing that land as “whar there be graves alredy.” Doing so demonstrates how much emotional value–love–Ralph had for his lost ones. The challenge to the future–me–is that there are no known burials until Ralph’s own in early fall 1727.

    So, who’s there from before 1727? Excepting a possible known child of his daughter (as in “n.f.r.”), I’ve no clue. I may be at “I never will”, but that genealogical question remains on my to-do list as any answers may themselves hold clues to Ralph’s origins before he appears as a freeman of Rhode Island.

    Also, nice to see Lockridge and Cressy get nods in the footnotes. I’d like to also spotlight David Grayson Allen, In English Ways: The Movement of Societies and the Transferal of English Local Law and Customs to Massachusetts Bay in the Seventeenth Century (U of North Carolina, 1981; W. W. Norton TPB, 1982). Unfortunately, the academic index barely scratches the wealth of North Shore Massachusetts names, such as for Ipswich, that actually appear in the book. Plus, most of his specialized bibliographic references appear in his footnotes; see especially the appendices of the settlers of Rowley, Hingham, Newbury, Ipswich and Watertown. I don’t believe that anyone named in that section is indexed! Nonetheless, essential for personal detail and historical context.

    Finally, thanks for the plug on your John Grow book, Michael. I’ll be tracking it down for purchase. A “new model” genealogy? Context is all.

    1. Thanks, Robert. I heartily endorse your shout-out to Allen’s IN ENGLISH WAYS, which — along with Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s 1991 book NEW ENGLAND’S GENERATION: THE GREAT MIGRATION AND THE FORMATION OF SOCIETY AND CULTURE IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Cambridge University.Press) — tops my personal list of the best scholarly analyses of New England’s social-cultural foundations.
      And we’re definitely on the same wave-length regarding context. My new book on John Grow doesn’t claim to be a “‘new model’ genealogy,” (was it Plato who said there’s nothing new under the sun?), but it does show how one professional academic historian went about placing nine generations of his middle-class ancestors in a contextually accurate historical framework.

  2. Michael,
    What a mesmerizing story. It is interesting to me that the word ‘mark’ evolved into a grander phrase: to leave one’s mark, implying something noteworthy, not a substitute for a signature.
    I appreciate the distinction between the ability to read versus write. Also, the deep roots reading had to Protestant religions’ belief that all have both the right and need to read the Bible.

  3. Is it possible that John could read and write but at this time in his life could no longer see well enough to do either?

  4. This is a wonderful essay, Professor Grow. It reminds me why so many 19th century “antiquarians” collected and published the signatures of ancestors in their books. Your feeling about John Grow’s mark is certainly similar to the reason I like to bury my nose in a coverlet woven out of hemp and flax grown on her farm on Shelter Island by my 5 greats grandmother, Nancy Cartwright Chester. Thank you for putting what we feel about our ancestors so well.

  5. What wonderful feeling and how well you expressed it, to touch a document that your ancestor touched and where he wrote his initial!
    Sadly, though my ancestors immigrated in 1635, I have not had the privilege to have such an experience beyond my parents possessions.
    Great article!

  6. Thank you, Michael, for this beautifully written memory. It brought back to me a twenty-year-ago moment, in the Windsor, CT, Historical Society,where I was allowed to read and even touch the diaries kept by the young Augustine Hayden when he went off to fight in the French and Indian War – especially seeing that in the second copy book, he had scratched out the name of a brother (name now forgotten). You had to wonder if his brother gave it to him – or did Augustine grab it as he packed, having no time or maybe money to buy a new one – and what the conversation was when Augustine came home.

  7. I just finished your book. I’m your 4th cousin that contacted you in the 90s and have been waiting for it. Much more interesting than I expected. Couldn’t put it down.

    1. Hey, Maggie — great to here from you, and thanks for the endorsement of my runaway best-seller. Send me an email at and I’ll get back to you with a full update.

  8. Wanted to thank you for your book John Grow of Ipswich … John is not an ancestor of mine, but I have many early settlers of Newbury who moved through Ipswich spending a winter or several years there before establishing themselves in Newbury. So I greatly appreciated your portrayal of social and economic life in 17th century Essex County. I’ve read quite a bit about this over time, but found your depiction of John’s life the fullest. I’m just about to read your chapter on Thomas because I have a number of Newbury early settlers who moved on to Andover in search of more land.

    Many, many thanks,

    Nanny Almquist

  9. Aaron Grow here (John, Thomas, James,…). Michael, thank you so much for these articles and your book. You have inspired me to get the Y-DNA test at FamilyTreeDNA. I thought you might find the results interesting when they come in July. I will post pertinent results here as soon as they are received. Cheers.

    1. Hello, Aaron. How nice to make contact with you. I’m eager to hear the results of your DNA test. Feel free to contact me anytime at my personal email address:

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