Putnam Hill in Chemung, better known as Putt Hill, sits at an imposing elevation of 1700 feet. Located in the north east corner of the town, it is part of the Allegheny Plateau Region of the vast Appalachian Mountain Range, well known for its hard wood forests, ridges, hills, valleys, streams and haunting folklore.
The raw beauty of the land is equally matched by the wild elements of nature. Those who inhabit this area face hardships and challenges when winter casts a spell over the mountain; turning it frozen and barren. The reward in spring and summer is the lush green foliage that reaches up to the blue sky and white clouds. However, in autumn the artist’s palette of reds and yellows that over come the hills soon turn to warm golden brown; and the fall sky turns to gray. Daylight grows short. The air is crisp. The forest floor is covered in the rustling of fallen leaves and the stirrings in the woods are amplified, with shadows darting from the corner of the eye. It’s the autumn equinox, when hauntings are prevalent in the minds of many. Were there spirits in the forest at night haunting those who entered or were they folklore tails of long ago?
Thomas Putnam a brave pioneer settler to the mountain was born August 12, 1789 in Charlestown, New Hampshire to Thomas and Polly (Young) Putnam. Lucy Bowman Morse and Thomas were married in Vermont in the year 1813. Lucy was born in Concord, Vermont on March 10, 1792. Thomas, a veteran of the War of 1812 was well aware of life in the mountains, learning as a young child the privations of the forest. He and Lucy came to Chemung with their three children between the years of 1830 and 1840. Little is known of their two children Eleanor and Charles. That is not the case for George Washington Putnam who lived next door to his parents in the 1840 census with his young bride. George W. Putnam and Eleanor Jackson were wed November 14, 1839 in Chemung, NY by the Rev. J. Piersall. Eleven children would be blessed to their household: Dean, Mahala, Wilson, Martha, Lucy, Freelove, Jahiel, Hattie, Mary Elizabeth, Clarissa (Clara), Frances (Frankie); a household of thirteen.
It was sometime between 1840 and 1850 that George Washington Putnam changed his name, becoming George Putnam West. His children and wife all carry the name of West as evidenced by their sacred family bible. The family bible also lists George’s parents as Thomas and Lucy (Bowman) Putnam. So why would a young man with a large family change his name to West, yet keeping his family name as a middle name so as not to lose his identity? The home of G.P. West is notated on Putnam Hill in the 1869 map of the Town of Chemung. The land was farmed for many years by the Putnam family in the wilds of the mountain. It was here, the family faced strife and joys.
Nonetheless a secret was buried deep within the roots of this family. Thomas Putnam carried his namesake throughout his life: a name that passed back through time to England in the 15th century. But it was Thomas’s second great grandfather who defiled their name in Salem Village in the year 1692.
The Salem Witch Trials were well known for their accusations, trials, and executions. During the course of the year in 1692 more than a dozen persons claimed to be afflicted by spells of black magic and sorcery, allegedly cast by men and women who had enlisted the supernatural powers of the devil. The outbreak of witchcraft hysteria took place in Salem Village. In harsh reality, the Salem witch craze was largely fueled by personal differences between two families; the Putnams and the Porters.
As the story goes, Thomas Putnam Jr. was known as a significant accuser in the 1692 witch trials. Earlier in life he was excluded from major inheritances by both his father and father-in-law and became a bitter and jealous man. Putnam, his wife and one of his daughters, Ann Putnam, Jr. all levied accusations of witchcraft; many of them against extended members of the Porter family, and testified at the trials.
An interfamily rivalry began in 1672 when a dam and sawmill run by the Porters flooded the Putnam farms, resulting in a lawsuit. A few years later the Putnam’s petitioned the town in an effort to obtain political independence for the village, and the Porters opposed them. The arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris in 1689 intensified the Putnam-Porter conflict.
Twenty-six villagers, who included eleven Putnams, voted to give Parris a parsonage, a barn, and two acres of land. Some villagers claimed these gifts were too generous. In October 1691 a faction of Parris-Putnam supporters were ousted from the village committee and replaced by individuals who were openly hostile to the reverend; including members of the Porter family and Joseph Hutchinson, one of the sawmill operators responsible for flooding the Putnam’s farms and Francis Nurse, a village farmer who had been involved in a bitter boundary dispute with Nathaniel Putnam. The new committee quickly voted down a tax levy that would have raised revenue to pay the salary of Reverend Parris.
It is no coincidence that the witchcraft afflictions and accusations originated in the Parris household. In February 1692 the reverend returned home from his congregation one evening to discover his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Parris, her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, and their 12-year-old friend, Ann Putnam, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Putnam, Sr. gathered around the kitchen table with the Parris family slave, Tituba, who was helping the girls experiment in fortune telling. Realizing that they had been caught attempting to conjure up evil spirits, the girls soon became afflicted by strange fits that temporarily deprived them of their ability to hear, speak, and see. During these episodes of sensory deprivation, the girls suffered from violent convulsions that twisted their bodies into what observers called impossible positions. When the girls regained control of their senses, they complained of being bitten, pinched, kicked, and tormented by apparitions that would visit them in the night. These ghostly visions, the afflicted girls said, pricked their necks and backs and contorted their arms and legs like pretzels. Witnesses reported seeing the girls extend their tongues to extraordinary lengths. After examining the afflicted girls, Dr. William Griggs, the village physician, pronounced them under an evil hand.
Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem during the summer of 1692. Twenty accused witches were executed, fifteen women and five men. Nineteen were hanged following conviction and one was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Four prisoners, three women and a man, died in jail. The trials began in June and continued for four months; the final executions taking place on September 22.
Ann Putnam, Jr. played a crucial role in the witchcraft trials of 1692. In her socially prominent family, her mother was also afflicted and her father and many other Putnam’s gave testimony against the accused during the trials. When attempting to make a judgment on Ann, perhaps we should remember that she was very young and impressionable and thus easily influenced by her parents and other adults. Fourteen years later she admitted that she had lied, deluded by the Devil.
Historians claim to have identified a pattern of accusations that strongly suggests the afflicted girls singled out social deviants, outcasts, outsiders, merchants, tradesman, and others who threatened traditional Puritan values and or threatened the Parris and Putnam families, by claiming the spirits of the accused visited them at night and tormented them.
Was it the multitude of chains created by the family over 100 years ago that pulled at Thomas’s feet as he plowed his fields? Was it with a heavy heart that he lived his life? Perhaps, this is the reason his son George broke the chains and scars, freeing his family of the dark shroud of guilt and humiliation cast upon them. The name Putnam forever remains in the wilds of the mountain, where the darkness of the forest hides the whispering of the winds.
Disclaimer: Several on-line genealogy sites were used in researching the Putnam family. Without verifying the on line trees, there is a posibility of an error in the family tree, depicted in this story. For more information on the Putnam family: http://historicalechoes.weebly.com/thomas-putnam--west-family.html
Mary Ellen Kunst is the historian for the Town Of Chemung. To see more information, visit her site, https://historicalechoes.weebly.com