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Saturday, 28 April 2007

A forgotten Patriot remembered


Genealogy starts out with a simple question: Who were my ancestors? For some people, the answers to this question are not important, and they never venture into their family's past. But for those of us who want to get every answer possible, it becomes necessary to probe farther and farther into the past, until every line has reached the end of the historical record and ventured even further into legend or speculation. Only at that point can one's genealogy be considered complete, and I don't know of any living genealogist who claims to know he has reached it.

Having traced (entirely through the research of others) my own ancestry back to many of the first White Men to settle in New England, I have run into a fair share of sloppy work--basically speculation disguised as research. This makes it much harder to know who my ancestors were, but enough probing eventually indicates who a few of them weren't. One common problem (we ran into this with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Khalid al-Masri) is to assume that anyone with a certain first and last name (or given name and patronym) is the same person as someone of the same name, referenced elsewhere. This is a big no-no in genealogy, but it happens time after time. For the benefit of my several millions of fellow descendants of one such fellow, I'll illustrate one such instance, and a little bit about what followed in its discovery.

We start with a fellow by the name of Richard Otis, my ancestor of twelve generations removed who died in the Cochecho Massacre of 1689, along with various of his children and grandchildren. It's certain, given his age, that he had been born in England. But where, and to whom?

In an attempt to answer this important question, we begin our story with Richard Oates (or Otis) who lived in Glastonbury, Somersetshire, England. This information was gleaned from a will dated sometime in the fall of 1611; thus Richard's death dates to shortly thereafter, as people of that culture rarely finalized their wills until they were at death's door. We know from this will that Richard had sons John, Stephen, and Thomas. Of Thomas we admit to knowing nothing more, but for men named John and Stephen Otis there are records in the New World, and amateur genealogists have concluded, on no other basis, that these men were both sons of Richard and Lydia. Richard himself is thought to have been born in 1581 in Barnstable, Devonshire; but evidence does not exist to confirm this. We only know of the Otis family home being in Glastonbury, and birth records in that parish do not predate 1602.

A John Otis was buried in Scituate, Massachusetts, on May 8, 1641, who cannot otherwise be accounted for, and may have been the father--or nephew--of the John Otis next mentioned. But certain it is that he wasn't his brother, and we must look for the father of our Richard Otis elsewhere. We can be fairly sure that it was one of Richard Oates' sons, either John or Stephen.

John Otise of New World fame seems to have immigrated with his wife Margaret and their young children to the new colony of Plymouth in 1635--or was it 1630?--from Hingham, Norfolk. Others from Hingham helped settle this area, formerly called Bare Cove, but henceforth known as Hingham. This information does not endear us to the supposition that he was the John named in Richard's will, but people were on the move in those days, and it's entirely possible. John's wife Margaret died in April of 1653--or was it January of 1654?-- after which he left Hingham and moved to Weymouth, where he died on May 31, 1657–only 4 years later. His will names his children, as John, Margaret, Anna, Ann, and Alice. It also mentions Mary and Thomas Gile Jr., Mary apparently being the heir of a son who predeceased him. Evidence points to this being one Richard Otis, born in February 1616 in Glastonbury. It is this Richard, son of John, who found himself listed on the LDS database as being killed at Cocheco--a simple case of mistaken idententity a la Zerubbabel.

John Jr., John's other son, born in Barnstable, Devonshire on Jan. 14, 1621, married Mary Jacobs in 1652, and moved with her to Scituate in 1661. They moved on to the town of Barnstable in 1678, before returning to Scituate where he eventually died in 1727. His children, as named in his will, were Mary, Elizabeth, John, Hannah, Stephen, James, Joseph, and Job. Inasmuch as he was a man of note in the province, many details on his children are available, but the question is, was he actually the nephew of one Stephen Otis, who died in Scituate in 1637? A Stephen Otis who could well stand in the missing generation linking the two Richards? Proof is hard to come by, but amateur genealogists use a principal here that can be put into play when all the names of a person's children are known; that is, Family Names Tend to be Passed Down. We note the preponderance of the names John, James, and Joseph among early Otises in New England. At the same time we note the presence of a Stephen (with the same name as John Sr's grandson), and, among this Stephen's children, a son named Richard. So we tend to draw the conclusion that all these Otises were in fact related, and that the two Richard Otises were first cousins, named after their grandfather. Even that is tentative, as the Stephen Otis who died in 1637 may not have been the Stephen Otis who was known to be Richard Oates' son, and is thought to be Richard Otis' father. See how confusing this gets? Thus we leave off the uncertainties of the Richards and Stephens, and get back into the well-documented line of the Johns.

The third John Otis went on to name his son John, but there the story finally ends, as far as John Otises are concerned. For it was the last child of this prominent man of Barnstable who went on to fame as a patriot judge, colonel, and legislator in the last days of the colony. His name was James Otis, and he named his first son James as well. That man's only son was "Jemmy", or James Otis The Third, and with his death on board a British prison ship during the War of American Independence, the line of James Otises went extinct.

All three sons of James Sr. who lived to adulthood were influential American lawyers. James Jr. himself is not nearly as well known as two of his courtroom quotations: "A man's home is his castle"* and "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Yet he gave these quotations in the process of fighting in the courts for what later became known as the Constitutional Rights of Americans; he was a proto-Patriot during the infancy of the American Struggle for Independence.

So why doesn't anyone remember James Otis, Jr? Because by the time of the American Revolution proper, he had gone insane. Brief moments of clarity allowed him, for instance, to sneak off with a borrowed rifle to join the ranks of rebels at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but for the most part he spent the rest of the Revolution as a raving lunatic. Just weeks before it finally ended, he died in exactly the manner he had desired, being struck in the doorway of his house by a solitary bolt of lightning that caused no other damage whatsoever.

What was the cause of James Otis' insanity? Perhaps I am not qualified to say, but based on the fact that he married into a staunch Loyalist family not long before Loyalists and Patriots began to hate each other's guts, it is apparent that the division of his own family into opposing factions of the war took a toll on his already violent temper and drove him over the edge. Once insane, he was finally free of the violent outbursts of temper for which he was famous (the event that caused him to crack mentally was a barroom brawl with political opponents in which his head was cracked physically); thus his insanity seems to have been a subconscious effort to tame his fury, which succeeded when nothing else would.

Nowadays when a person goes insane his first violent act is sometimes to kill as many people as he can before he dies in the attempt. James Otis could be said to have tried to do the same, but he nonetheless emerged unscathed from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Nowadays, a certified lunatic isn't allowed to join or stay in the military, and the controls over the entrance of one-day volunteers into the battlefield are much more stringent then they were in 1775.

But it's interesting that in the eighteenth century, a man with a fractured family life and a history of violence, having been certified a lunatic by the courts, was still allowed to bear arms--and killed no civilians while doing so. Apparently his most violent incident of lunacy, with a most common weapon, was recorded in the following anecdote:

Men and boys, heartless and thoughtless, would sometimes make themselves merry at his expense when he was seen in the streets afflicted with lunacy. On one occasion he was passing a crockery store, when a young man, who had a knowledge of Latin, sprinkled some water upon him from a sprinkling-pot with which he was wetting the floor of the second story, at the same time saying, Pluit tantum, nescio quantum, Scis ne tu? "It rains so much, I know not how much. Don't you know?" Otis immediately picked up a missile, and, hurling it through the window of the crockery store, it smashing every thing in its way, exclaimed, Fregi tôt, nescio quot, Scis ne tu? "I have broken so many, I know not how many. Don't you know?"

So much for the efficacy of background checks.

James Otis died honorably, having lived honorably enough that his mental deficiencies, both pre- and post- the cracking of his skull, were overlooked in his obituary. After his death, Thomas Dawes said of the departed:

Yes, when the glorious work which he begun
Shall stand the most complete beneath the sun –
When peace shall come to crown the grand design,
His eyes shall live to see the work divine –
The heavens shall then his generous spirit claim,
In storms as loud as his immortal fame.
Hark! the deep thunders echo round the skies!
On wings of flame the eternal errand flies;
One chosen, charitable bolt is sped,
And Otis mingles with the glorious dead.

So whence the origin of my interest in the Forgotten Patriot? Well, it all started because one of my ancestors, Richard Otis, entered the history books by being killed in the Cocheco Massacre of June 27, 1689. Richard has been thought to have been a son of the original John Otis, but my research has shown him to more likely have been a son of John's alleged brother Stephen. John himself had a son Richard, whose sole claim to fame is having been confused with the other Richard Otis. In an effort to sort it all out, I followed John's line all the way down to its termination in James Otis, Jr, the Forgotten Patriot.

I learned an important lesson or two from studying the life of this sixth cousin seven times removed.

First, be careful whom you marry; family ties last a long time. James Otis Jr. died twenty-three years into the Revolution he helped start, with his wife and half his surviving children still supporting the other side.

Secondly, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Overcome anger, or it will overcome you.

*This expression, however, was not original to Otis, but part of English common law, having been cited as far back as the judicial decisions of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634).


  1. Is it possible to research your family members and not "give heed to endless genealogies"? What is the difference?

  2. There is a danger, and I recognized it once I got into my ancestry deep enough. I've chosen to keep the focus of my research on the previous 14 generations--i.e., my American ancestors. So I don't dwell on the likelihood (and this far removed, that's the most I can say) that I'm descended from European, Muslim, or Jewish royalty.

    Furthermore, I don't dwell on the fact that I'm a Mayflower descendant. Virtually everyone descended from New England stock is, and is a Son or Daughter of the Revolution to boot. No big deal.

    I try not to get excited when I figure out someone is my sixth or more distant cousin; tens of thousands of people are.

    So, after tracing out hundreds of American ancestors, I've quit spending much time on the hobby. Yes its endless in the sense that there are still ancestors--and cousins--to discover. But the great discoveries HAVE come to an end; at least my time spent looking for them has.


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