Know Your History

Sometimes we think we have the knowledge we need to research in a location. But beware the hidden surprises lurking in history that can cause problems in your research. One example of this is the history of Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

Those researching their Massachusetts ancestors know that Norfolk County was created in 1793 from Suffolk County. So what happens when you find a reference to your ancestor living in Norfolk County . . . in 1670?

In 1643, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was split into four shires:1

  • Suffolk: Boston, Braintree, Dedham, Dorchester, Hingham, Nantasket, Roxbury, and Weymouth
  • Middlesex: Cambridge, Charlestown, Concord, Lynn Village (today Reading), Medford, Sudbury, Watertown, and Woburn
  • Norfolk: Dover, Exeter, Haverill, Hampton, Salisbury, and Strawberry Bank (today Portsmouth, N.H.)
  • Essex: Cochichawick (today Andover), Enon (today Wenham), Glocester, Ipswich, Lynn, Newbury, Rowley, and Salem

This county was in existence for more than 35 years. It gained an additional town in in 1668 when the town of Amesbury was formed from Salisbury.

On 22 January 1679/80 New Hampshire became a royal province. The four northern settlements, Dover, Exeter, Hampton, and Strawberry Bank, became part of that colony.2 This left only three towns in Norfolk County, all north of the Merrimack River. In the session of 4 February 1679/80, the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) passed the following act:

This Court, being sencible of the great inconvenienc & charge that it will be to Salisbury, Hauerill, & Amesbury to continue their County Court, now some of the tounes of Norfolke are taken of, and consideringthat those tounes did formerly belong to Essex county, and attended at Essex Courts, doe order, tht those tounes that are left to be againe joyned to Essex, and attend publick buriness at Essex Courts, there to implead and be impleaded as occasion shallbe; their records of lands being still to be kept in some one of their oune tounes on the north of Merrimack; and all persons, according to course of law, are to attend in Essex county.3

For an excellent review of the county’s records, see David Curtis Dearborn “The Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Genealogist 3 (1983): 194–96.

From this point on, Norfolk County effectively ceased to exist. The name, however, was resurrected more than a century later. In January 1792, the General Court ceded all towns in Suffolk County outside of Boston and Chelsea to the new county of Norfolk, with Dedham as the shire town “till otherwise ordered by the General Court.” 236 years later, Dedham is still the shire town.

 

  1. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1853) 2:38.
  2. “Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Antiquarian 1 (1897):20.
  3. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1854) 5:264.

NBC’s Timeless Ignores History

.I understand that television requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief when it comes to facts and the real world. But when a show revolves around history, it should take extra precautions to be accurate with the historical facts, even if the drama around them might be a bit loose. While I enjoy the NBC television show Timeless, the historical inaccuracies that creep in  are disappointing and problematic. Last week’s episode revolving around the Salem Witch Trials and Abiah (Folger) Franklin, for example, was full of problems, some of which could have been avoided with a simple search on Google.

 

As the heroic trio arrives at Salem on 22 September 1692, they bump into a young woman and ask who she is. She responds “Abby here. Who asks?” As a genealogist well-versed in colonial New England, I can say that Abby is a fairly common nickname. In those times it was used as a familiar form of Abigail, and occasionally Tabitha. It is not, however, a nickname for Abiah. I have spent many years researching Benjamin Franklin’s family, and I have never seen a document that refers to her as anything but Abiah. Modern families may use it as such, but this was not the case in 1692.

The response to “Abby’s” inquiry is “My name is Lucy and this is Rufus. We’re in from Boston.” Followed by “. . . my husband and I are from the Old South Church in Boston. Reverend Willard Sent us.” Reverend Samuel Willard served as pastor of the congregation from 1678 to his death in 1707. But in 1692, the congregation was the Third Church of Boston, and occasionally the South Church (because it was in the south end of the town), which gathered at the Cedar Meeting House. It did not become known as the Old South Church until 25 years after the witch trials, when the descriptor was added to differentiate it from the New South Church which had just started.

Even more egregious, however, is this simple fact: Josiah Franklin had been a part of the Third Church since arriving in Boston about 1684. Five of his children were baptized there. And when he married Abiah Folger on 25 November 1689, the Rev. Samuel Willard was the minister who married them. Curious then, that it does not even brook a notice of concern from “Abby” that she has never seen these people who claim to be from her congregation.

The subplot around Samuel Sewall is also a bit strange. There is no mention of the fact that Samuel, another congregant of the Third Church, was good friends with Josiah Franklin. One of the judges stands by and says nothing at all while his friend’s wife is accused of witchcraft? This does not seem likely. It is also odd that there is no discussion of the impact that the death of Samuel Sewall would have on history. He was the only one of the Salem judges that later publicly repented and apologized for his participation. He wrote an early treatise against slavery, and served as chief justice of the highest court of the commonwealth for many years, ruling in countless cases. Yet when he dies in the episode, it is all about Rufus.

When visiting “Abby’s” sister Bathsheba, her husband says to them: “Boston’s fifteen miles away. It must have taken you two all day.”  The first error is minor, but still irritating especially for those of us who live in Massachusetts. It is true that the modern city of Salem is 15 miles from the city of Boston. However, the events of 1692 did not take place in that location. They took place in Salem Village, which today is the city of Danvers, Massachusetts. Salem Village was 20 miles away from Boston, not 15 — a 33% error in the distance travelled.

Another error is in the second part of the sentence: “It must have taken you two all day.” Had the company been journeying overland, this might be the case. But in 17th-century Massachusetts Bay, they would never have travelled that distance overland. They would have taken a boat. Right out of Boston Harbor, up the coast to Cape Ann and into Salem Harbor. A much shorter journey than overland.

Perhaps the most egregious error, however, is this: Abiah would never have gone to Salem in late September 1692. Indeed, she would never even have left Boston. In September 1692 she was raising five stepchildren ranging in age from six to fifteen, as well as her own baby son John, only twenty months old. It is hardly likely she would leave these children alone. But there is an even bigger reason she would not have left Boston in late September: because at that time she was seven months pregnant. She gave birth to her second child, Peter Franklin, on 22 November 1692. The show portrays her as thin, hardly the look of a woman in her final trimester. And with a sister and good friend there, nothing is said about her pregnancy while she is being manhandled and thrown in prison?

I understand the need to create drama for good television. But there are ways to do it without blatantly trampling all over the very premise that the show is founded on. Historians and genealogists could easily advise the writers on how to avoid major pitfalls like the ones above, yet still maintain the integrity of the storyline. In this episode, for example, the major issue of Abiah’s pregnancy could be avoided by moving it earlier in the year. And the director and producers could have been informed of the importance of not leaving the impact of Sewall’s death on the cutting room floor. And other issues, like the travel, are throwaway lines that could easily be rewritten. If Timeless is renewed for a third season (and I certainly hope it is), I hope the producers take head of these issues and bring on some consultants to ensure the integrity of  all episodes.