By Bill Miller

When you start digging up your family roots you will soon find some really good people, and some really bad ones, saints and sinners. However, most of those you meet are a fascinating blend of both, just like us. Even the best people are vulnerable to bad choices and hurtful actions. It is just part of our human DNA. I have found it far back in my family.

I was enjoying the research on my Pilgrim ancestors when I was suddenly shocked to discover that these religious Pilgrims and Puritans were not perfect. In fact, my 9th great-grandparents, Captain John Gorham and Desire Howland, were in a real mess in the 1650s. They were both from very religious families. Desire’s parents, John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. had come over on the Mayflower as young people. They got married in 1623. Their firstborn child was a daughter named Desire, the first of 10 children. About the age of 17 or 18, on November 6, 1644, Desire married a Puritan immigrant, John Gorham, who had come over in 1637 with the great Puritan migration. They soon had a daughter, also named Desire, and moved a short distance from Plymouth to Marshfield. There John tanned hides and they produced 10 more children, one every two years.

John was apparently a good Puritan and a community servant. In four years he was named Constable and by 1651 he was a distinguished member of The Grand Inquest of the County, a special jury of freeman “which would hear charges of suspected criminal conduct” and present them to the appropriate court. Three years later they moved the family and his tannery to Yarmouth, MA, a town first settled by another great-grandfather, Thomas Hawes. In fact, a few years later their oldest daughter, Desire, married Thomas Hawes’ son, John Hawes, and they became my 9th great-grandparents. I was proud of that family.

King Phillips War 12-19-1675
By James Clayton Sattel

By 1656 they had 3 daughters and 3 sons, and they were expecting another. Everything was going great, until John made the headlines. Seems that John was now standing before the Grand Inquest to be examined. “In March 1656 John Gorum was fined forty shillings for unseemly carriage (adultery) towards Blanche Hull at an unseasonable time, being in the night.” Blanche was fined 50 shillings for not crying out when she was assaulted by John. They were both married, but apparently rank did have some privilege. But what kind of crumb is this to run out on his pregnant wife? Desire had her own justice system. Just to help him remember his transgression, Desire named their 7th child “Jabez” which means “I gave birth to him in my pain!” John tarnished his good reputation and embarrassed his family, but she must have let him back in the house, because two years later a daughter arrived. Can you guess why she called this child “Mercy?”

John returned to his tannery, opened a new grist mill and was elected Selectman. He was back on track. In 1675, John Gorham, the tanner and miller, joined the Yarmouth Militia with the rank of Captain. It was a time of growing conflict between the settlers and the local Indian tribes. On December 19 John led the Yarmouth Militia to victory in the decisive Swamp Fight against the Pequot Indians in King Philip’s War. Seventy of their militia were killed and 150 wounded in that battle. John survived the battle and became a hero, but he was among the wounded when his powder horn exploded. He died of the resulting fever a few months later. By the time this conflict ended 1.5% of the colonists and 15% natives were killed, and more than half of New England’s towns had been attacked. Proportionately, it was one of the bloodiest and most costly wars in American history. Captain John Gorham was remembered as a hero of that war, and for a bad night! Maybe he’s a reminder that nobody is perfect.

Great Swamp Battle historical marker

To learn more about the saints, sinners and in betweeners in your family, come to the monthly meetings of Lake Lure Genealogy Club in Mountains Branch Library.