Witches in the Family

Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr) painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble 1869

Yikes! Witches? Really?

Well, suspected and accused in court, yes!

Convicted and hanged, thankfully not!

In which I fall down the rabbit hole of finding out that one of my ancestors was accused of witchcraft in 1667 Connecticut. Click To Tweet

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The Connecticut Witch Trials

You’ve no doubt heard about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692-3 Massachusetts.

But what about the Connecticut Witch Trials that predated them by 30 years?

Yeah, me neither.

Hartford Founders Monument

The Salem trials were more numerous and better publicized, but the trials in Connecticut towns such as Hartford, Wethersfield, Old Saybrook, and Old Lyme were equally tragic to those involved.

I knew from my genealogy research that I had ancestors who lived “up there”, and “back then”, but nothing that connected them directly to Salem in 1692-3.

I even visited the area, 30 years ago, to research some of my ancestors (surnames Ingersoll, Kibbe, Cooke, Kelsey, Pratt, Lord) and see where they had lived and died. My mom, aunt, and a family friend were on the lookout for fall foliage, gravestones, and statues with our ancestors’ names on them.

Who knew that I would later discover that my 10th great-grandmother, Anna Wolcott Griswold, was accused of witchcraft in 1667 in nearby Old Lyme? (Or, as it was known then, just Lyme.)

To be fair, I didn’t even know I had a 10th great-grandmother named Anna Wolcott Griswold until now.

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How did I, all of a sudden, learn about Anna Wolcott Griswold?

It started with Maureen Taylor sending me an email with the subject line: “Are You Related to The Photo Detective?” (OK, she sent it to her entire newsletter mailing list.)

Maureen was one of the trusted experts featured in my book What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy. She helped me figure out the story behind the book’s cover image of my namesake bathing beauty grandmother. Maureen, like most genealogists (both amateur and professional) is preparing for RootsTech, the largest annual genealogy conference in the world, coming up later this month. The link she posted in her newsletter is one of my favorite features: Relatives at RootsTech. I have written about it before and posted my own links on Facebook. (Scroll down to see my link in this post.)

The idea is that if you have built your family tree back far enough (often only a couple of generations will do it) it will connect to the world family tree in FamilySearch and their computer will be able to calculate how you are related to others who have done the same. Granted, it could be quite a distant relationship. Maureen and I are 11th cousins once removed, but the fact remains we’re related because we have common ancestors. Maureen’s 9th grandfather was my Anna’s brother George, and their parents were Henry Wolcott (1578-1655) and Elizabeth Saunders (1584-1655).

(OK, now I’m wondering how they both died in 1655. The genealogy rabbit hole never hits bottom!)

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Sidebar: What the heck is a second cousin once removed?

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How do I know we’re really related, though?

Because I did the research on my side myself.

The accuracy of the FamilySearch world tree depends entirely on its users and the documentation they have used and cited. The first thing I do when FamilySearch suggests I’m related to someone is to check my side of the match to see how far back I have already proven that line. When I get to someone I don’t “know”, I stop and think about whether it could be true and start looking for documentation to support (or refute) it. In this instance I was two generations short of our alleged common ancestors, but those two generations were easily proven.

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Click image to learn more.

Do the math

Could I have learned about my 10th great-grandmother without Maureen Taylor asking, “Are we related?” Sure! But consider this: At the 10th great-grandparent level I have 4096 ancestors. No, really! Just take a look at the “How Many Ancestors Do You Have?” chart.

RootsTech updates the number as more people join.

It’s this math that makes me believe it when FamilySearch tells me I have 13,840 relatives at RootsTech. Just think how many descendants those 4096 ancestors must have by now! (Only a fraction of them will be attending RootsTech.)

There are so many ancestors to research, and there is so much history to learn, that it’s possible I might never have returned to that particular branch of the family on my own due to having so many others to occupy my time and my imagination. So, thanks, Maureen!

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But wait, what happened to Anna Wolcott Griswold?

Records are scarce as to the details, but apparently it was her neighbor, John Tillerson, who accused her of witchcraft. Fortunately her family was well-respected and she had a supportive, level-headed husband, Matthew Griswold. They refuted that claim, accusing Tillerson, in turn, of slander, which was also taken seriously in those days. The Griswolds won the case, but Tillerson was poor and the Griswolds did not receive monetary compensation. Their reward was that the court’s opinion was published widely and Tillerson had to pay court costs: 7 shillings for the express warrant and 5 shillings for the constable.

So it could have turned out much worse for Anna. Can you imagine being accused of witchcraft in that time and place?

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The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

Full circle moment

Maybe it was in my DNA to love the Newbery-Award-winning book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, when I read it in fifth grade. Same time frame. Same location. Although the book is set in Connecticut, I didn’t remember that half a century later. Conversely, I don’t know that at age 10 I had yet learned about the Salem witch trials.

In re-reading it, I think the “witch”, elderly widow Hannah Tupper, got off easy. She had been persecuted as a Quaker in Massachusetts and driven away to live as an outcast in predominantly Puritan Weathersfield, Connecticut. (I had no idea at age 10 that I was descended from a long line of Quakers on my dad’s side!)  The protagonist, 16 year old Kit Tyler, an English girl who had been raised in Barbados, was also accused of practicing witchcraft. She was a non-practicing Catholic who could read, and — gasp — swim! Remember, it was thought that only witches floated; the innocent sank in water and often drowned while proving their innocence. Kit’s biggest sin, however, was that she befriended Hannah. They were both were blamed for a wave of sickness in town and suffered the wrath of the community, at least to the extent that a fifth grader can handle. One source says it is inaccurate that a Quaker would have been persecuted in Connecticut (and it is a work of fiction, after all), but I don’t know — based on my research, I think they doth protest too much.

This book was one of my earliest exposures to injustice — along with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — and to how hateful and unfair people can be towards someone who is different than they are.

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My ancestors are all immigrants, and yours probably are too

Nearly all of the branches of my family (that I have researched) arrived in America during the 1600’s. So I have not gotten to do any Ellis Island research for myself, and very little across-the-pond research, either. But make no mistake — they were ALL immigrants. (Well, except for one woman whom cousins claim was Native American, but without any satisfactory proof.) Although I do qualify, I’ve never been tempted to join the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), largely because of their hoity-toity reputation. It’s possible that over time they have redeemed themselves with modern day attitudes and good works, I don’t really know.

Click image to find out!

I am, however, at least a little bit tempted to join the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches, a hereditary/lineage society for female direct descendants of the victims of the colonial witchcraft trials. They list Anna Wolcott Griswold as a qualifying member.

Do you have any (falsely accused) witches in your family tree?

Are you planning to attend RootsTech?

What is your favorite RootsTech tool or feature?

Please share with us in the comments below.

And…are we related? Click here to find out!

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14 Comments

  1. Seana Turner on February 16, 2024 at 9:55 am

    Fun to see your connection to my neck of the world. I also didn’t really realize that the whole witch thing happened here. Seems like most of the activity was at the other end of the state. Glad to hear that Anna was given a reprieve.

    I remember that book as well. Eye opening, right?

    In some ways, I feel that we are getting back into that culture of accusing people of things and then exacting a swift consequence upon them in unfair circumstances. I think this is sad. I’m not really a “zero tolerance” person. I believe in second chances, learning, honesty, and redemption. We rarely have full information about another person’s journey, so we should be very slow to even consider judgment!

    • Hazel Thornton on February 19, 2024 at 8:20 am

      You made me think of the country radio station in Oklahoma that didn’t agree to play Beyonce’s new uncharacteristically-country song right away. They were widely and loudly (on social media) accused of racism when the fact was they didn’t even know about her new song and didn’t have it yet to play!

  2. Janet Barclay on February 16, 2024 at 12:32 pm

    This is so interesting! You always inspire me to continue my own research.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 19, 2024 at 8:16 am

      Thanks, Janet!

  3. Julie Bestry on February 16, 2024 at 6:12 pm

    LOL, my “ancestors” (my grandfather and my great grandparents) immigrated between the 1890s and WWI, and we have zero information on any part of our family farther back than my parents’ grandparents. If there were any witches in my background, those secrets are lost to the “old country.”

    That said, I’m always fascinated by your personal genealogical tales, and I love how you tied in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. But I want to know what prompted John Tillerson to make his accusations. Lover spurned? Cranky neighbor? True wackadoodle? Religious zealot? Until we learn how to time travel, I guess we’ll never know.

    Thanks for sharing the intriguing info!

    • Hazel Thornton on February 19, 2024 at 8:23 am

      I, too, want more specifics! If I find any you can be sure I’ll update my post.

  4. Jane Marie Severance on February 18, 2024 at 10:50 am

    So interesting! I read a book about Salem Village and its premise was that the accusations had to do with wealth and property lines. I thought of it when you talked about a poor neighbor accusing a rich neighbor. Also appreciated the revisitation of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Reserving it at the library!

    • Hazel Thornton on February 19, 2024 at 8:33 am

      As much as I love Newbery medal books, if I haven’t read it in 50 years it’s like reading a completely new book. Enjoy!

  5. Jill Katz on February 19, 2024 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing your fascinating ancestry. My lineage goes back to the old country (Hungary and Romania) but maybe some of my ancestors called up demons or golems. I recommend the book, “The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 26, 2024 at 11:26 am

      Yes, who knows? Thanks for the book suggestion, Jill!

  6. Linda Samuels on February 19, 2024 at 3:13 pm

    I’m so impressed by your dedication to your lineage, the research you continue to do, and all that you’ve discovered so far.

    Years ago, when my dad was still alive, he began doing the family tree research. But I don’t think he got very far. I think he hoped I’d take on the project one day. I have some documents and notes, but not very much. I don’t have the bandwidth to do the digging.

    I admire you for all that you’re doing to locate your relatives and discover fascinating stories.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 26, 2024 at 11:29 am

      Thanks, Linda! If you get interested and don’t want to do the research yourself, I can make a good referral for you! (I love to research for others, but am not taking on any new projects at this time.)

  7. Janet Schiesl on February 20, 2024 at 5:59 am

    So fascinating, I’m very impressed by this interesting story.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 26, 2024 at 11:24 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Janet!

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