Thursday, 1 August 2019

Out of Her Tree: Gladiators, Pilgrims and Pirates

There have been few family histories that I have looked in to that have contained such a variety of events as those I uncovered during research for today’s featured lgbt individual – Shelley Beattie (1967-2008). Selecting which to present in this snapshot of Shelley’s ancestry has been difficult.

Shelley Beattie’s own life was a varied as those of her ancestors. There’s action, struggles, and adventure on the high seas.

Perhaps what Shelley is best remembered for is her role as Siren in “American Gladiators” on television between 1992 and 1997. Before that she was a leading competitive bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of fitness and physique magazines.

Shelley’s success belies the fact that she was also deaf. Fortunately, she developed excellent lip-reading and speaking skills that led many to be surprised to learn she had a hearing impairment. She was a fighter all her life, not necessarily in the physical sense but in overcoming other challenges and finding her way in life. Sadly, this created mental health problems which led to her taking her own life. Her ancestry also shows the challenges and struggles thrown at previous generations of her family.

Shelley had a lot of German blood through her mother, though most of her ancestry was Celtic. The Beattie family originally came from Roxburghshire in Scotland, near the border with England. Shelley’s great-grandfather Thomas Beattie migrated with his wife and infant son, first to Alberta, Canada, in 1904, and then to the US in 1923. Both of Shelley’s parents are descended from Scottish and Irish immigrants. Her various ancestral immigrant families arrived in the US from the first days of colonial settlement up to her great-grandfather’s arrival.

The sea and sea travel appear a lot in Shelley’s ancestry. Coming from a family on the Californian coast she was never far from the sea, and her grandmother Helen was buried at sea. Shelley herself spent time on the high seas as a member of the first all-female team to compete in the Americas Cup sailing challenge in 1994 and 1995. I wonder if Shelley adopted the name Siren when she became an American Gladiator in 1992 as a conscious decision to link herself to the sea (sirens are the fabled sea-enchantresses who lure sailors to their death). But then perhaps the name was chosen by the series producers.

And this leads us on to an unexpected part of Shelley’s ancestry. Adventure on the high seas is in her blood. Through her paternal grandmother Shelley was descended from Benjamin Haxton. He was the son of Scottish immigrants and was born in Connecticut colony in 1705. By 1737 he had become a ship’s carpenter. The only ship we know for sure Benjamin served on was the “Charming Betty”. This is a well-recorded vessel and its name belies the nature of its fame. For some “Charming Betty” was far from charming.

This period in the history of the American east coast was still intimately linked with events in Europe, largely because the powers in Europe had neighbouring colonies in America, and the conflicts between them played out on both continents.

The War of the Austrian Succession (referred to by the English colonists as King George’s War) broke out in 1744. It was one of those international wars which revolved around dynastic power struggles. In the American colonies it primarily involved conflict between the English and French.

“Charming Betty” was one of several ships to which the British government gave letters of marque. This meant that these ships had the legal permission to attack any French ship, capture its cargo and ransom a prisoner. In effect, “Charming Betty” was a privateer (the polite name for a pirate ship).

In 1746 when Benjamin Haxton was the “Charming Betty” ship’s carpenter the vessel had already captured one French ship called “St. Charles” in 1744. Whether Benjamin was a crew member in 1744 isn’t certain, but he may have been on board “Charming Betty” when it fought against a French frigate in 1747. Many prisoners were taken in that skirmish and many were killed.

Benjamin survived his pirating years and went to live with his family in Greene County, New York province. Ironically, he was killed in his own home by native Americans in 1754.

Staying on the sea we encounter Mayflower Pilgrims in Shelley’s ancestry. Through her maternal great-grandmother Delna Little (1906-1995) Shelley was descended from the Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke (from the same village as my own ancestors at the time, so I wonder if they knew each other). There’s also an unproven line of descent from the Mayflower’s Samuel Fuller.

Also through Delna Little Shelley Beattie had other ancestry which links to another group of religious refugees. Delna’s own great-grandmother was Susanna Young (1795-1852), the sister of Brigham Young, the second President of the Mormon church. Delna’s grandfather (Susanna’s son) was a Mormon Patriarch, James Amasa Little. Just like the earlier Mayflower Pilgrims the Mormons were persecuted for their beliefs and sought a safe haven to worship. The Pilgrims sailed across the Atlantic to New England. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young and his family, travelled across the USA to found Salt Lake City.

Taking Shelley Beattie’s ancestry as a whole, her ancestry is dominated by the Celtic heritage of Scotland and Ireland. As with a lot of immigrant descendants there’s many stories of struggle against life’s challenges, whether it leads to the need to migrate and just survive in a new country, or the need to face personal challenges.

Finally, yes, Shelley had royal blood. Through Susannah Young Shelley was descended from King Edward I of England (1239-1307).

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