Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Mary Bliss Parsons: Accursed Name, Witch of Springfield, Massachusetts

Weave a Web of Witchcraft
In 1651 Mary and Hugh Parsons of Springfield were sent to Boston to stand trial on charges of Witchcraft, a hanging offense, long before the Salem trials. Mary died in prison shortly after her arrival. Accused of murder as well as witchcraft, her fate was sealed the minute she admitted to the crimes. Hugh fought his charges and despite being found guilty by the Court in Boston, the verdict was overturned and he was released from prison. He never returned to Springfield. You would think one witch was plenty for any small Massachusetts town, but not so for Springfield. Not only did it harbor a second witch, but her name was also Mary Parsons, what are the odds? 

Mary Bliss and Joseph Parsons
Mary, the daughter of Thomas and Margaret Bliss, was born in England around 1628. Her father was the son of Thomas Bliss of Belstone Parish in Devonshire, he immigrated to the New World and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Mary married Joseph Parsons of Springfield on 2 November, 1646. 

Joseph Parsons was an ambitious successful man. In 1646 he was elected town surveyor of Springfield, still a small town;  in 1647 he was one of only 42 taxpayers (all men of course). He continued to fulfill his civic duty with increasingly more important jobs. By 1651, he was elected a selectman of the town. In 1655 he purchased land that would become the town of Northampton, to which the family removed shortly thereafter [1]

In the narrow world of Puritan Massachusetts, petty jealousies, slights, and insults fermented just below the surface. According to some, Mary Bliss Parsons was a strong woman who spoke her mind. When the Parsons moved to their new home of Northampton they were followed by other residents of Springfield, including Sarah and James Bridgeman. What seems to have started as idle gossip on the part of Sarah soon blossomed into something much more, accusations of witchcraft.

In the earlier  witchcraft case, Mary Parsons accused the widow Mercy Marshfield of witchcraft. Mercy sued her for slander and won. Hugh Parsons was forced to pay an enormous fine to settle the case. Likewise the growing rumor that Mary Bliss Parsons was a witch began to impact her life. Reputation was everything to these people and to be falsely accused of witchcraft was not to be borne. Joseph Parsons, on behalf of his wife, accused Sarah Bridgeman of slander. 

Slander Trial
Sarah Bridgeman and her neighbors were deposed in both Springfield and Northampton. Every manner of ill luck, sickness and misfortune was laid at the feet of Mary Bliss Parsons. There was testimony about yarn, pigs, sick children and a cow that was bitten by a rattlesnake. Counter testimony was given by supporters of the Parsons; Mary was an innocent victim falsely accused by vicious neighbors happy to see her get her comeuppance. [2] 

The local magistrate found in Mary's favor and on September the 8th Sarah was arrested. She traveled to Cambridge in October to stand trial. Sarah was found guilty of slander and just like Hugh Parsons, her husband was ordered to pay damages and court costs to the tune of £17 1s. 8d., quite a sum in those days. 

Following the slander trial, life resumed its course but old wounds festered. In 1672 Robert Bartlett married Mary Bridgeman, daughter of Sarah and James. Sadly, the woman died within two years of marriage and the Bridgemans and Bartletts knew just who was at fault. The families again accused Mary Bliss Parsons of witchcraft. Once again, testimony was taken and anyone with a grudge against the Parsons had a ready tale to tell. Mary appeared before the court, ready to proclaim her innocence and face her accusers. Mary's body was searched, by her neighbors, for the mark of witch. Presumably none were found.

Mary was arrested and ordered to face trial.  In March she was sent to Boston to await her trial in prison. Her trial took place in May, before the Court of Assistants. Mary argued her own case and her testimony made a greater impact on her jury as she was freed, case dismissed. Her return to Northampton must have been bittersweet; she'd won, but she still had to live among her accusers. The stigma of her imprisonment and trial surely left a deep wound on this proud strong woman. 

By 1679 Mary had borne twelve children, most of whom survived to adulthood. She and her family survived the devastating (1675-76) King Philip's War, which all but drove the English from their American Colonies. 45 of Springfield's 60 houses were burned to the ground and many residents killed. Scary times for nervous, superstitious, witch believing, devil behind every bush kind of people. Joseph purchased land in Springfield, after the war and moved the family back to Springfield. 

Joseph died in 1683. Mary lived a good long life dying in 1712. I wonder what her thoughts were on the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials, which resulted in the deaths of many innocent men and women. Did she feel sympathy for them? Did she believe for one minute that they might be guilty? Did she think on the witchcraft accusations of her namesake, Mary Parsons and wonder if she too might have been innocent? I hope so. 

Not a portrait of Mary Bliss Parsons

The Portrait
Apparently some folks have come to believe that the accompanying portrait is of Mary Bliss Parsons. This does not appear to be the case. See this blog for an explanation. 

More on Mary Bliss Parsons
See this excellent website from UMASS on Mary Parsons and her life and trial.  Includes digital copies of testimony, photos of her descendants homes, genealogies, etc. 


[1] Henry Parsons, Parsons Family; Descendants of Coronet Joseph Parson Springfield 1636...Northampton 1655, (New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1912), Internet Archives (https://archive.org/details/parsonsfamilyde00parsgoog/page/n48 : accessed 1 January 2019).

[2] James Russell Trumbell, History of Northampton, Massachusetts Vol. 1, (Published in Northampton: 1898). Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=GNo_AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=mary+bliss+parsons&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwic1tz368zfAhUO-6wKHaNZBi4Q6AEwA3oECAYQAg#v=onepage&q=mary%20bliss%20parsons&f=false : accessed 1 January 2019). 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary 'Molly' Brant; Hero and Villain of the American Revolution

Molly Brant and her brother Joseph were important characters in the Mohawk Valley of New York before and during the American Revolution. Today most Americans don't recognize their names, but in Canada they are remembered as heroes. Here is a little bit about her fascinating life.

Mary's parent were christian Mohawks living in the Upper Castle, Canajoharie, on the south bank of the Mohawk River. The Native American towns were heavily fortified and the English referred to them as 'Castles.' Her birth year is estimated at 1736, her mother's name was Margaret Sahetagearat Onagsakearat. Her father's name cannot be confirmed but it is possible that she shared a father with her younger brother, Joseph. His father is known to have been Peter Tehowaghwengaraghkwin. The place of her birth is also unknown but has been speculated to have been in Canajoharie. At birth, Mary's Native name was Gonwatsijayenni, which means 'someone lends her a flower.' Later in life she went by Dagonwadonti, 'she against whom rival forces contend'. [1]As the Mohawk are a matrilineal society, children belong to their mother's clan, in this case Mary and Joseph were part of the Wolf Clan.

Peter died in the 1740's leaving Margaret destitute. She had a brief marriage at the end of the 1740's to a War Chief by the name of Lykus, but he was killed in May of 1750 in a raid. In September 1753 Margaret married the man who would lend Mary and Joseph their surname; Brant Kanagaradunka. Brant was a Mohawk sachem from the Turtle Clan, and he was wealthy. [2] Some sources claim that Margaret married Nickus Brant, the son of Brant Kanagaradunka. [3] Barbara Graymont says the stepfather was named Carrihogo, News-Carrier, known to the whites as Bernard, Barnet or Brant. [4] Most source seem to agree that Brant Kanagaradunka was Mary's stepfather. [5]

According to author Peggy Dymond Leavey, Brant built a large house for Margaret in Canajoharie, complete with glass windows and middle-class European furniture. [6] From this point on, Molly and Joseph had a foot in two worlds, their native culture and that of the New York Colony. Her step father and stepbrother Nickus, who one author described as a 'Chief.' had frequent interaction with William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a frequent visitor to Canajoharie. His Native name was Warraghiyageh, "he who does much business'. [7]

middle years

In 1759, 23 year old Molly began a relationship with the much older Sir William Johnson. He his wife, Catherine, had died. It is rumored he married her on her deathbed to legitimize his children by her. There is no proof of an English marriage between William and Molly, but it is possible they had a traditional Mohawk ceremony. In any case she moved into his home, Fort Johnson, and took the running of his household. She was sometime's referred to as the 'Brown Mrs. Johnson'.

Molly gave birth to at least eight children. Sir William eventually built a larger house to show off his status and accommodate his large, and growing family. [8] Together they entertained the leaders of both the Iroquois Confederacy the English Colonies, political, military as well as businessmen. Her home was open to any and all and she and Sir William entertained constantly. In 1763 they moved into the larger, grander Johnson Hall. John Johnson, Sir Williams legitimate son and heir took over Fort Johnson. 

Sir William passed away in 1774. In a way, his death symbolized the death knell of English rule in America.  Already the seeds of revolution were germinating in the thirteen colonies. Molly relinquished control of Johnson's estate to his eldest son and heir, Sir John Johnson and moved with her children to Canajoharie.

american revolution
The American Revolution brought an end to the thousand year old Iroquois Confederacy, splintering the tribes. The Mohawks choose the side of the King. From her home in Canajoharie, Molly kept an eye on the rebel movements. In October 1777 she gave warning to the British of the approach of an American force resulting in the Battle of Oriskany. A band of Oneida's, burnt her house to the ground in retribution. She fled for the safety of the Cayugas, eventually making her way to Fort Niagara. [9]
Molly supported the efforts of her brother Joseph, who lead a group of white Tories and Mohawks. She eventually landed at Carleton Island for the duration of the war, trying to broker peace between unhappy Mohawks and the English.

After the war she was awarded a pension from the crown and settled in Kingston, Ontario, on the mainland. Today, Carleton Island is part of the United States. Five of her daughters married Canadians. She had one son who survived, George, who worked for the Indian Department.

Molly lived in Kingston for the rest of her life. She died in 1796. Sir William's heir attempted to reclaim their lost American property, to no avail.

Blood in the Valley
Blood in the Valley is my next book, in it's final editing stages, it should be available Spring 2019. Molly and her brother feature in this novel set before and during the American Revolution. 


[1] Peggy Dymond Leavey, Molly Brant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat, (Toronto: Dundurn, 2015).

[2] Isabel Thompson Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

[3] Marshall, George L, Jr., Chief Joseph Brant: Mohawk, Loyalist, and Freemason: http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/1998/brant.html

[4] Barbara Graymont, “THAYENDANEGEA,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Universit√© Laval, 2003–, accessed December 13 2018.

[5] James Taylor Carson, "Molly Brant, From Clan Mother to Loyalist Chief," Sifters: Native American Women's Lives, 

[6] Peggy Dymond Leavey, Molly Brant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat, (Toronto: Dundurn, 2015).

[7] Leavey, Molly Brant.

[8] The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Mary Brant", Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Brant : accessed 13 December 2018).

[9] Carson, Molly Brant.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wikitree Scan-a-Thon January 2019

Calling all hoarders of genealogy docs, old photos, ephemera Wikitree has issued a challenge. Let's get that stuff scanned and uploaded to the cloud and preserve it for future generations. 

the details
Beginning January 11th thru the 14th, that's 72 hours in case you're counting, Wikitree is challenging everyone, to scan and upload their stash of genealogy docs, etc.Volunteers can participate during the 72-hour period by scanning photos and documents in their collection and uploading them to the Internet. Members of WikiTree can register here. Non-WikiTreers can sign up here

There will be live chats to keep everyone encouraged. 

We live in an disposable age, everything gets tossed. What will future generations know about us, who we were, how we lived, what we thought? Let's preserve our past for their future. Scan old letters, post cards, school awards, ticket stubs, photos, anything you have that says this is who I am, who my parents are and who my ancestors were! 

Yes, it's a chore. I spent an entire summer scanning thousands of photos that were my mothers and it was worth every minute. They are all safe in the cloud and even better my family all has access to them at anytime. 

January is a slow month; the frenetic rush of the Christmas holidays is behind us, dreams of distant summer just beginning to form. Take a few hours to contribute to the future of genealogy and family history, it will be worth it.

Have a great day!