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  • Essay: Keeping an Open Mind

    Rev. Robert J. Goode, Jr.

    Published Date : August 1985
    Lee Kugler’s column on the Book of Corrections recently brought to light a curious document which most descendants of Austin Bearse sooner or later run across.  It has fascinated me for years.  I refer to Who Our Forefathers Really Were, by Franklyn Bearce, a descendant (of Austin Bearse) with a considerable Indian background.  The chief feature of this document is that it makes seemingly preposterous claims.  Among these are that Austin Bearse was a gypsy, that he married a granddaughter of the Sachem. Hyanno, that Mary Hyanno had flaming red hair, and that Gabriel Wheldon jumped ship and married an Indian girl. Central to these claims is that Austin’s grandson, Josiah, had children by an Indian woman, Mary Sissel, which were accepted by his wife, Zerviah Newcomb, a native of Edgartown, Massachusetts.

    The eminent D. L. Jacobus attacked this document in an article in The American Genealogist, Volume 15.  In the accepted scholarly fashion, Mr. Jacobus rejected the claims because they are based largely on a supposed diary of Zerviah Newcomb which has not come to light.  He proposes several other good reasons why some of this material is inaccurate or probably false.  However, some of his arguments against the manuscript are rather tortuous.  He proposes that both Otis and an original record at Barnstable are in error without offering proof.  He shows a reluctance to believe that such alliances were really possible for upstanding Puritans.  He displays a weariness with yet another Indian princess.  Lastly, he makes an appeal to observations of what was generally true about white and Indian alliances.

    Now most of us who enjoy the hobby of genealogy are amateurs.  We tend to take the word of those who have rightly earned a position as unassailable as Jacobus’s.  Yet there are mysteries like this one which continue to haunt us and remain unresolved. They require that we make our own decisions.


    Several things about the manuscript give me pause.  The interior evidence of the document shows that it is the work of someone who is semiliterate and inarticulate.  It is difficult to believe that Franklyn Bearce made all this up.  He is at least repeating something told to him as a young man, so the material is at least as old as the middle of the nineteenth century.  Wampanoag women did prize red hair as a mark of beauty.  This may have been the result of contacts with Europeans fishing the Grand Banks, but it is a fact that they did powder their hair red.

    Many of the Indian connections mentioned by Bearse, such as the ones at Penfield, New York, can be confirmed.  The Warnpanoags did have a caste system and something approaching the European reverence for royalty.  By the time of King Philip, the Grand Sachem was sophisticated enough to claim a parity with Charles II. Mary Sissel really did exist and was in fact a descendant of Massasoit through his daughter Amy, since Mary was a great-granddaughter of Tuspuqum.

    This much can be ascertained by Pearce’s Indian History and Genealogy an obscure book.  Even more obscure are Dubuque’s Fall River Indian Reservation, (1907), and Earle’s Indians of the Commonwealth, (1861).  Both of these contain references to the legal battle waged successfully by Zerviah Mitchell who sought to claim lots at the Fall River plantation on the basis of descent from a brother-in-law of Isaac Sissel.  Lastly, as Jacobus admits, there are various examples of white and Indian intermarriage or “half-breed” issue, especially on Martha’s Vineyard.

    I can make a few general observations of my own.  As an Anglican priest, and as one who has actually been a pastor in an Indian community, I can testify to the incredibly complex and involved entanglements to which the human condition is heir.  Many of these never see the light of day, even within the family, let alone the civil records.  Those of us who dote on our tidy genealogies, certain that we are the scions of those whose names appear on the birth certificates and baptismal records, should spend a few months hearing confessions.

    It may well be that the first three generations claimed by Franklyn Bearce are ficticious or seriously inaccurate. But there is enough in this manuscript which is factual or which rings true to make me want to see a serious search for Zerviah Newcomb’s diary, which if it exists at all, may well be somewhere on the Northwest coast.  Franklyn Bearce’s branch of the family lives today in Illinois and has not for some time married into the Indian community. I have established contact with some of them as part of keeping this fascinating quest alive.  I, for one, want to keep an open mind for a little while longer.

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