Saturday, March 10, 2007


I don’t know about other folks tracing their genealogy
but I have some favorites on the West side of the family.
It’s a bit unfair, I know, because there’s so much about
the Whites and McFarlands that I’ve yet to discover.
The majority of Dad’s ancestors were “salt of the earth”
people, ordinary folks dealing with the daily struggle to
survive. But there are a few rare souls who stand out
for one reason or another. Among these are some who
did things that made me (and probably their friends
and neighbors) wonder “What WAS he thinking?”

Case in point: John Barnes of 17th century Plymouth,

I found John while researching backgrounds of Mayflower
ancestors a few Thanksgivings back at The Plymouth
Colony Archive Project website. I discovered other later
ancestors listed there and John was among them.

He lived between 1633 and 1671, apparently a prosperous
merchant and citizen most of that time. All that seemed
to changed in 1651 when his first wife Mary Plummer
died. By 1653 John had married a woman whose name is
recorded only as Joan and began a long spiral down from
respectability, most of which is attributed to drunkenness.

In May 1648 he was granted permission to brew and sell
his own beer in Plymouth. There were a few incidents of
fines for public drunkenness during the next few years
but they were much more frequent after he married Joan
who was herself quite a contentious woman (and from
whom the Barnes line is descended). The details can be
read at the Plymouth Colony Archive Project, along with
John’s will and other information about his life.

It wasn’t the sad story of John’s trouble with alcohol that
struck me when I first read his story. It was the manner
of his death.

John lost his license to brew and serve beer and in 1661
the General Court forbade any one from selling or
serving him beer or liquor at all. This seemed to help
because he had only one recorded drunken incident after
the Court took that drastic measure. Judging from the
inventory of his estate at his death he was still fairly well
off by March of 1671.

This is where the “WHAT was he thinking?” comes into
the story. One day in early March, 1671, according to
the Plymouth Court Records, John Barnes stood at his
barn door and stroked his bull. The bull took exception
to that, turned, and gored John Barnes, giving him a
wound which caused his death approximately a day and
a half later.

Among those on the coroner’s jury who ruled on his death
was another ancestor of mine, Samuel Dunham.

Dad had passed away long before I first read the story
of John Barnes’ death but I I had no trouble imagining
what a Maine country boy like him would have said
about it:

“Damn idiot. That’s what happens when you pet a bull!”

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