Thursday, March 21, 2013

hanging my genes

DNA is not destiny.

At least, I hope not.  Considering some of my ancestors.  But it is certainly one of life's signposts of who we are.

Several years ago, my mother joined the Daughters of American Revolution.  Yup.  The DAR.  Forever destined to bear the cross of Marion Anderson's glory. 

But the great contralto had no bearing on my mother's membership.  She was there to feed her genealogical jones.  I was a bit surprised because I have never seen her as one of the bluenosed set.

She called me to tell me about her first meeting.  A long-time DAR member sat down and welcomed her to the group.  In the social dance of trying to place my mother on the appropriate rung of the social ladder, she asked how Mom was qualified to be a DAR member.

Mom responded: "Well, I have four Mayflower ancestors."  Her interlocutor smiled and leaned in closer.

"And my husband has five Mayflower ancestors."  She leaned in a bit closer.

Mom then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level.  "But that is not our most interesting family heritage."  Now, the woman was close enough to hear a whisper.

And whisper Mom did: "We have a first.  One of my husband's Mayflower ancestors was the first Englishman hanged in Plymouth colony."

The DAR dame nearly fell over backward in her attempt to distance herself from Mom.

About two days later, my boss and I were sharing tales about our mothers.  He told me that his mother had called him about this "terrible" woman she had just met at DAR.  It was, of course, Mom.

The relative in question (John Billington) was a real piece of work -- "terrible," as far as his fellow colonists were concerned.  The year after the colony was established, he was punished for challenging the orders of The Great Myles Standish.  He would challenge additional orders of the leadership.  And he would be punished.

He was even accused of leading a revolt against the Plymouth church leadership.  Being one of the first people to challenge the conformity that had theoretically brought the pilgrims to the New World.

If that had been his life crimes, he would have been hailed as a martyr to liberty (as were Roger Williams and Anne Hathaway).  But his non-conformity took another road to martyrdom.

This is how Nathan Philbrick described the action in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War:

In the summer of 1630, the profane John Billington fell into an argument with his English neighbor John Newcomen.  A few days later, while hunting for deer, Billington happened upon Newcomen and shot him down in cold blood.
What Philbrick leaves out is that Newcomen attempted to hide behind some trees, and Billington purposely searched him out and shot him in the shoulder -- a wound that led to a painful and lingering death.

And did my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather confess guilt and ask for forgiveness?  Never.  He argued that he should not be executed because the governor lacked the authority to kill him and the colony needed colonists (like him) to keep it alive. 

The governor decided he did have the power to execute Billington and that the colony could live on very well without him.  Hang he did.  And entered into family legend.

So, there you have it.  A man with a libertarian streak, a large dose of hubris, and an almost complete lack of self-awareness.  I will leave the dot connection for you.

But he certainly makes for good stories.

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