I and many of my immediate family members have ADHD. But a little genealogical digging found that ADHD behavior goes back much farther than just a few generations. The earliest documentation of impulsive behavior showed up in my family in the 1600s. Some positive traits of ADHD showed up, too.
In 1683, one of my direct ancestors, Edward Gove, led an early American uprising against the British. It was known as “Gove’s Rebellion.” (This was 90 years before the Boston Tea Party, to put things into perspective. People with ADHD are often ahead of their time.)
Edward was fed up that the English were charging New Hampshire citizens to use land. The English were also threatening to seize land if citizens didn’t pay. People with ADHD tend to have a strong sense of justice, and Edward Gove was no different.
In The Gove Book, a history of the family, Edward was described as “impetuous” and “frank even to bluntness.” In other words, he didn’t have a filter. It also said that he “quickly sought to avenge himself” and went to court many times for previous run-ins with the law.
Unsurprisingly, Gove’s Rebellion was poorly planned and quickly fizzled. (People with ADHD often struggle with planning and organization.) Edward was brought to court by the King of England and found guilty of treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, disemboweled and burned while still alive. He probably hadn’t thought through the possible consequences—another trait many with ADHD have.
But because Edward was so well liked in the colony and had the people’s support (I’m biased, but I think people with ADHD have great personalities), the English thought it might not be a good idea to execute him there.
Instead, he was shipped off to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for three years. The next King of England, James II, pardoned Edward. He was sent back to New Hampshire, where he lived out the rest of his life.
Despite Edward’s behavior, no one knows for certain if he had ADHD because the diagnosis didn’t exist back then. But it seems like a very strong possibility.
Edward isn’t my only ancestor from the 1600s who had ADHD traits. I’m a direct descendant of six passengers on the Mayflower voyage. Researchers have found that people who’ve done long-distance migrations are genetically inclined to seek new experiences and to be hyperactive. So there’s a chance that a higher percentage of the Mayflower passengers had ADHD traits, compared to those who stayed home. After all, the voyage was risky. Almost half of the passengers didn’t survive their first winter in New England, including almost 80 percent of the women.
Elizabeth Soule, my 9th great-grandmother, was a daughter of one of those Mayflower survivors, George Soule. Elizabeth got into a bit of trouble during her lifetime. In the 1660s, she and Nathaniel Church were fined for “committing the act of fornication” out of wedlock. She then sued him and won a partial settlement, claiming that Nathaniel broke his promise to marry her.
In 1667, she was charged again with extramarital fornication (we don’t know who the co-fornicator was). This time she was whipped at the post. People with ADHD are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and in 1600s Pilgrim life, any sex outside marriage was considered risky.
Again, we can’t know for sure if Elizabeth had ADHD. But I should mention that Elizabeth’s siblings, like her brother Nathaniel, also had their share of impulsive adventures and legal trouble.
My ancestors’ zest for life and sense of justice pushed them to seek a better life, but the flip side of that was impulsivity. I see these same traits in my relatives today. There’s nothing like seeing your own ADHD reflected in teacher comments on your grandmother’s childhood report card!
ADHD is a real medical issue, and family history is a big part of determining whether you have it. If you want to understand more about ADHD in your family, I encourage you to look at your relatives, both contemporary and past, for clues. If you don’t have access to your family records, that’s OK. There are DNA testing services and sites that will match you up with relatives. Just asking an aunt, uncle or cousin can also open doors you didn’t know existed.
Share your family history with your child’s doctor or therapist. Make sure you tell them about who in your family seemed to not work to their potential, had legal troubles or other impulsive behaviors. And if someone else in your family was diagnosed with ADHD, find out what treatment worked for them. The same might work for you or your child.
Read more about symptoms of ADHD. Hear from a father who wonders if his son inherited his ADHD. And watch a video of one family with many learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.