In Search of First Settlers
Of the four founders of the town of Stonington, Connecticut, I am descended from three of them: Thomas Minor, Walter Palmer and Thomas Stanton. The fourth founder was William Chesebrough. The following article appeared in Historical Footnotes, a publication of the Stonington Historical Society that has been issued quarterly since November 1963. Historical Footnotes is devoted to publishing research and documents on local and regional history. In addition, it reports major activities of the Stonington Historical Society. The Society is supported by membership dues, and information is available from the Society at P.O. Box 103, Stonington, Connecticut 06378.
IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST SETTLERS
By Geraldine A. Coon
(From Historical Footnotes, November 1999)
Geraldine A. Coon of Pawcatuck is a retired teacher with strong interests in genealogy and local history. This article is based on the lecture she delivered at the Road Church on July 20, 1999.
Stonington was founded by four men of spirit, courage, intelligence, and vision. This is the story of how they converged on this tiny spot in the wilderness and laid the foundation of a future town. Their names were William Chesebrough, Thomas Stanton, Thomas Minor, and Walter Palmer.
The Mayflower had sailed into Plymouth Harbor in 1620; none of our founding fathers was on it. They weren’t on the second boat either. They came in the great migration of the 1630’s, from different shires in England, from different backgrounds, at different ages, some married with children and some single.
After a miserable ocean voyage, each of our immigrants moved several times before settling in Stonington. There were reasons for this: some places were occupied by just a few families living in huts and tents with no local government, some places were suffering from widespread illness making them poor places to locate a family, and finally some settlers simply needed more land for their cattle or farms.
Walter Palmer, his birthplace possibly Yetminster, Dorsetshire, was born about 1589 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The English had fought the Spanish Armada the year before. The name of Walter’s first wife, by whom he had five children, is no longer known. Taking passage to Salem in 1629, he quickly traveled through the wilderness to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he was one of the first inhabitants. Not much later he married his second wife, Rebecca Short, of whom little is known.
In 1630 he was tried for the death of Austen Bratcher “at Mr. Craddock’s plantation,” it being alleged that “the strokes given by Walter Palmer were occasionally the means of death of Austen Bratcher & so to be manslaughter.” Palmer was found not guilty of manslaughter by the trial jury which, interestingly enough, contained a juror named William Chesebrough. The details of this affair are not known; possibly Bratcher was a servant who had been sentenced to a whipping and Walter Palmer, a huge man who stood over 6-4 by all accounts, had been delegated to administer “the strokes.”
These proceedings did not affect the great esteem in which his fellow citizens always held Walter Palmer. In Charlestown he was soon made selectman and constable. By constant acquisitions he was able to increase his land holdings from 2 acres to more than 150. After his removal south to Rehoboth, he served as deputy to the Plymouth General Court, and later Rehoboth surveyor of highways and constable. He spent 22 years in Charlestown and Rehoboth before removing to Stonington at the age of 64.
Thomas Minor was born in 1608 in Chew Magna, Somersetshire, the son of Clement Minor. As a young man he sailed on the Lyons Whelp and landed at Salem. After several moves he settled in Charlestown, where he became a founding member of the First Church in 1632. He married Grace Palmer, daughter of Walter Palmer, and they soon moved to Hingham, where they raised five children. After 14 years in Massachusetts the family joined John Winthrop, Jr., in the settlement of Pequot (New London) in 1646. There he held important offices, most for several terms: assistant magistrate, sergeant in the New London Train Band, New London deputy to the Connecticut Court, and judge.
William Chesebrough was born about 1595 in Boston, Lincolnshire, and took up the trade of blacksmith and gunsmith. He married Anna Stevenson in 1620. He came to New England with the Winthrop Fleet of 1630 and settled first in Boston. He resided in Boston and later Braintree for 13 years, holding many offices, which gave him the experience to deal later with similar problems in Stonington. Among the more important were: Boston deputy to the General Court, several committees to set the bounds between towns, Boston assessor, committee to allocate land, Braintree deputy to the General Court, committee for Braintree in the discussions for making Braintree a separate town from Boston. It was like taking a course, “How to manage the affairs of a small town.”
In 1643 Chesebrough removed to Rehoboth, seeking more pasture for his cattle. Several years later Chesebrough, who was a gunsmith as well as a blacksmith, was accused of an affray with the Indian Ussamequine and some of his men, of mending guns for the Indians (a serious offense), of leaving Plymouth and flying to a foreign government. The last may refer to a stay with Roger Williams in Providence while he was waiting for things to cool down. He was ordered imprisoned for 14 days and fined 6 pounds. Chesebrough felt that he had had enough of Plymouth Colony and determined to leave Rehoboth.
While three of our founders were busily engaged in Massachusetts, our fourth settler, Thomas Stanton, had sailed to Virginia on the Bonaventura in 1635 and had made his way to Hartford via Boston by 1637, in time to become one of the original proprietors and earn a listing on the founders’ monument. He was born about 1609 in Wolverton, Warwickshire, the son of Thomas Stanton and Katherine Washington, a family of landed gentry with the means to lead a comfortable life. In Hartford he met Anna Lord, the daughter of Thomas and Dorothy Lord. Stanton immediately fell in love with her. They were married and produced ten children.
Thomas acquired a knowledge of the Algonquian language and the governor, John Winthrop, Jr., immediately sent him to Saybrook to parley with the Indians. In 1638 he was appointed Indian Interpreter for Connecticut. For years he attended nearly all the negotiations with the Indians concerning trade, boundaries, peace, and land acquisitions. What a strenuous, nerve-wracking job this must have been in days when contacts between the Indians and settlers were frequent and often dangerous. In 1649 Winthrop and Thomas Stanton met with Ninigret at Wequatucket to discuss boundaries and trade. Possibly this is when Stanton discovered Wequetequock, met William Chesebrough, and noticed an Indian trail that went from Wequetequock to Pawcatuck Rock.
In 1633 Windsor was settled and soon thereafter Wethersfield, Hartford, and Saybrook. Along the Connecticut River attacks by the Indians became more frequent and brutal. In 1637 the English, with help from Indian allies, destroyed the Pequot fort at Mystic. During the next two years the Pequot tribe was all but eradicated.
The defeat of the Pequots opened the territory between the Thames and the Pawcatuck to the colonists. In 1646 John Winthrop, Jr., and others were engaged in laying out Naumeag, the Indian name for New London. He wrote to William Chesebrough, inviting him to join his company at New London, offering him land on the Thames. Chesebrough, wishing to leave Rehoboth, came down to examine the settlement but decided not to locate there. He started back to Rehoboth and on the way discovered Wequetequock, with its little brook running into a cove and opening on the Sound. It offered good planting for his crops, an excellent menu of seafood, birds, and animals, and an abundance of hay for his cattle. He returned to Rehoboth and in 1649 came back overland with his family, goods, and cattle. There were only Indian trails, ungraded and circling around giant trees and boulders, no trail signs, and innumerable brooks and rivers to ford. Yet Wequetequock was worth all the tribulations, and he became our first settler.
To visualize Wequetequock as it appeared then, it is necessary to remove Route 1 with its stoplight; Greenhaven and Palmer Neck roads; the bridge over Anguilla Brook; the telephone poles and power lines; the stone walls; the present-day houses; the burying ground; the remnants of the trolley trestle; the railroad bridge at the end of the Cove. Add some stepping stones at Anguilla Brook, probably part of an Indian path. And add a backdrop of majestic trees, which had stood for centuries. It was a scene of remarkable beauty.
Chesebrough, now 54 years old, was not alone in the wilderness. With him came his wife, Anna, and four sons: Samuel, 22; Nathaniel, 19; John, 17; and Elisha, 12–a lot of manpower. No description of their house, the first in Stonington, remains. It was built on a knoll on the west bank of Wequetequock Cove near the present intersection of Route 1 and Greenhaven Road, but exactly where is not known.
They did not have time to sit down and enjoy the scenery with a glass of milk in hand and a few snacks of nuts and berries. Providing for the winter was a backbreaking job: clearing the land, plowing, planting, and harvesting vegetables and herbs, gathering seafood from the cove, hunting animals and drying their meat and preserving their hides, cutting and splitting trees for firewood, mowing and storing hay for the cattle, and a thousand incidentals. All of this urgently required for their survival.
Both Massachusetts and Connecticut claimed the old Pequot territory because each contributed to the defeat of the Pequot fort at Mystic. Chesebrough believed that he was living in Wequetequock, Massachusetts, and was surprised to receive a summons from the General Court in Hartford to report to one of the magistrates on the Connecticut River and give an account of his proceedings. Why is he living alone in a remote area? Being a gunsmith, is he trading in firearms with the Indians? He is to cease such activities at once and report or he is to depart the place.
Chesebrough delayed his response to this summons, confused about the authority of Connecticut over a residence in Massachusetts and guided by his own independence. Finally, urged by friends to make an end of the matter, he appeared before the Court and made a masterly rebuttal of the charges against him: His original aim had been to join Pequot Plantation but that did not turn out to be in agreement with his expectations for the future. He could not mend guns since he had left all of his tools behind in Rehoboth. In response to the charge that he had withdrawn from public ordinances and Christian society, he stated that he would soon secure a competent company of desirable men for the planting of the place. The Court ordered Chesebrough to post a bond of £100 and to find a considerable company who would move to Pawcatuck before winter. He agreed.
In February 1649, the General Court of Connecticut granted Thomas Stanton the liberty to erect a trading post at Pawcatuck Rock, with six acres of planting ground and exclusive rights to trade on the Pawcatuck River for the following three years. The rock had steep sides so that canoes and sailboats could easily pull up and unload their furs in exchange for beads, metal tools, nails, cloth, and suchlike.
The trading post was built in 1651. Here we have the first commercial enterprise in Stonington and also the first monopoly. Soon he was granted 300 acres adjacent to the previous grant. At this time Stanton moved from Hartford to New London and stayed in Pawcatuck summers to carry on the trading. He resided in New London until he built a saltbox house near Pawcatuck Rock in 1657 and moved his family there.
In 1651 Chesebrough was back at the Connecticut Court, trying to obtain legal title to the land that he occupied. New London’s eastern boundary now extended to the Pawcatuck River so that Chesebrough’s land lay within the jurisdiction of New London. Accepting a proposal by John Winthrop, Jr., that he consider himself a resident of New London, all of his lands–about 300 acres–were granted to him in January 1652. New London confirmed to him all of the land between Wadawanuck (later Stonington) Point and Wequetequock Cove. This was enlarged to more than 2,000 acres bounded on the west by Stony Brook, north by old Pequot Trail, east by Anguilla Brook down to Little Narragansett Bay.
Still faced with the problem of finding more settlers for Wequetequock, Chesebrough thought of his friends in Massachusetts and, in particular, of Thomas Minor, who had been living in New London for several years, and Walter Palmer, who was still in Rehoboth. Thomas Minor moved from New London to Wequetequock in 1652 and built a house on the east side of the cove, probably across the road from the burying ground.
At this same time Walter Palmer, persuaded by Chesebrough to join him in the new settlement, bought from Governor Haynes 300 acres of land lying on the east side of Wequetequock Cove. This tract was found to include the lands and dwelling of his son-in-law Thomas Minor. An amicable agreement was reached–Walter moved into Thomas’s house in Wequetequock and Thomas built a house in Quiambaug. New London granted Thomas Minor 200 acres at Taugwonk. Here Thomas built a barn, farmed the land, and put his cattle to graze. Later he erected a house which was left to his son Ephraim.
In 1652 New London granted 200 acres to each of several other inhabitants: George Denison in Pequotsepos; where he later built a small palisaded house; John Gallop, Jr., on the Mystic River, where the present Mystic Seaport stands; Robert Park, who built a house on the west slope of Quoketaug Hill; James Morgan, Mrs. Margaret Lake, and the Rev. Richard Blinnman, 260 acres at the head of the Mystic River.
Stonington was now settled, albeit somewhat sparsely. Stanton was on the Pawcatuck River, Walter Palmer on the east side of Wequetequock Cove, Chesebrough in Wequetequock and Stonington Point, Amos Richardson at Quanaduck, Hugh Calkins owning Wamphassuc Point, Isaac Willey owning Lord’s Point, Minor in Quiambaug, John Mason owning Mason’s Island and adjoining mainland up to Pequotsepos Brook, Denison in Pequotsepos, Gallop on the Mystic River, and Park in Mystic. Nearly all of the waterfront was taken, showing the keen interest of the settlers in seafood, salt marsh hay, and trading.
The inhabitants now faced difficulties: being accepted as a town by either Connecticut or Massachusetts, settling the old boundary disputes, deciding how to treat the remnants of the defeated Indian tribes, and providing for their own religious needs.
The settlers of Stonington, who had received various grants from Connecticut and New London, had no government and had resolved their affairs by discussions among themselves. They wanted a body of laws to guide them in their decisions and they also felt that the community needed the protection of a colony. Under the leadership of Chesebrough, who had been New London deputy to the Connecticut Court for several years, they petitioned the Court to be recognized as a township and also to permit them to establish a separate church. It was defeated, largely because of the opposition of New London, which wanted the town to extend eastward to the Pawcatuck. A second petition was likewise defeated.
Thwarted in their ambitions by Connecticut, the inhabitants of Mystic and Pawcatuck petitioned Massachusetts for the privilege of a township, twenty families now being settled in this place. This petition was backed by Captain George Denison, who had influential friends in Boston. This also failed. A second application was made and denied, with the suggestion that the matter be referred to the Commissioners of the United Colonies and that in the meantime they manage their own affairs. In 1658 the Massachusetts General Court resolved that the territory between the Mystic River and the Pawcatuck River be named Southertown and belong to Suffolk County, Massachusetts. The plantation was to extend into the interior eight miles from the mouth of the Mystic River. Captain George Denison and five others were appointed to manage prudential affairs; Captain Denison, William Chesebrough, and Thomas Minor were appointed commissioners to handle small causes. Walter Palmer was appointed constable.
In 1662 Governor John Winthrop, Jr., obtained a new charter for Connecticut from Charles II. It set the eastern boundary of Connecticut at the Pawcatuck River, putting Southertown back in Connecticut. William Chesebrough was elected the first deputy from Stonington to the Connecticut General Court. The name Southertown was changed to Mystic and shortly thereafter to Stonington. The old boundary dispute was finally settled; future disputes would arise between Connecticut and Rhode Island.
It was natural that the settlers, who faced countless chores in their daily lives, should look for mechanical help. A group of settlers put up a bond of £20 “to build a grist mill at Wequetequock upon the river that runs by Goodman Chesebrough’s between this and Michaelmas next. . .” They pledged to run the mill as a cooperative venture. Furthermore Chesebrough and Elihu Palmer offered free use of the land necessary for the construction and operation of the mill and mill house as long as the mill continued in use. A dam, situated on Anguilla Brook at the west end of Chesebrough Pond, was constructed to furnish power for the mill.
The mill was built in 1662 and a year later sold to Luke Bromley. It is believed that the mill continued in operation for more than two hundred years, occasionally undergoing changes in its structure. John F. Chesebrough acquired the property in 1880 for the purpose of harvesting and selling ice from the pond.
In 1988 a tract of 12 acres, including 10 acres of Chesebrough Pond and 2 adjacent acres, was offered for sale to the Town of Stonington. The Board of Selectmen voted not to bring the matter to a town meeting. Two state archeologists surveyed the site. They declared that it was well worth preserving because of its integrity and the presence of original stones. Since funds had not been approved at a town meeting, the idea of a town purchase was dropped. Today the level of the pond has been lowered and water no longer flows over the dam. Some ancient artifacts have been removed and this earliest relic of our past appears to be headed toward oblivion.
In the beginning Wequetequock consisted of four families engaged in farming and trading. They raised cattle, sheep, horses, hogs, and goats. Walter Palmer left to his son John, among other things, a yoke of three old steers and a horse; and to Gershom a mare with her foal, two oxen and a pair of three-year-old steers, four cows, and a musket.
At one time William Chesebrough, who was primarily interested in cattle-raising, owned 67 cattle, most of them probably cows. Imagine milking 50 cows by hand! And how much milk can you drink? Much of it went to the making of butter and cheese. Some of the cattle broke loose from the fenced pastures, giving rise to disputes about their ownership, and cattle-rustling added further problems. Occasionally the settlers gathered for a drive on marauding wolves that were attacking the cattle.
The General Court appointed Minor the brander of horses, and in 1672 Minor marked eight horses with a halfpenny on the fore side of an ear and branded them with a K on the near shoulder and T/M on the near buttock.
There were occasional problems with the Indians about hogs. In response to an outbreak of hog stealing, two men were appointed to investigate the sale of any hog by an Indian and if it bore the mark of a resident the Indian was to be fined £30 for each purloined hog.
All of the settlers raised vegetables–peas, Indian corn, English corn, turnips, beans squash, parsnips, oats, and wheat, which served as food both in summer and winter. In addition, some of the produce was bartered with their neighbors for other necessities and used in New London to pay for clothing. They plowed the fields with horses or oxen and harvested with scythes. Every farm boasted an orchard of apples, pears, and other fruit.
Settlers on the waterfront did business with the coastal traders who sailed along the shore from Maine to Saybrook and sometimes much farther. Occasionally William Chesebrough went to Long Island to trade with the settlers and Indians there. Early on, Thomas Stanton recognized that this commerce could be expanded beyond the banks of the Pawcatuck with considerable profit. Stanton and his sons engaged in extensive trading with Boston and Plymouth Colony. By 1670 they had developed a successful commerce in the West Indies, particularly Barbados, and Daniel Stanton went there to live in order to manage their business affairs more effectively. They exchanged salt fish, corn, and flour, food for the big sugar plantations, for sugar, molasses, and rum. In 1680 Daniel Stanton and others had a 41-foot sloop, the Alexander and Martha, built on the Pawcatuck River. The Stantons remained active in the West Indian trade for more than a century.
In addition to their farming and trading, the settlers were dedicated to the church, performed their family responsibilities, and undertook a surprising number of civic duties. Walter Palmer served as constable of Southertown and three terms as selectman until his death in 1661 at the age of 72. Although he lived only eight years in Wequetequock, his long experience in the affairs of Charlestown and Rehoboth made him a valuable counselor for his younger compatriots. In his short life in Stonington he did well in the acquisition of land: the original purchase of 300 acres from Governor Haynes, a grant of 100 acres nearby, another grant of 500 acres, and more, until he had accrued 1,190 acres. His house was the scene of the first religious service in Stonington.
Although little is known about his background and education, Chesebrough showed considerable talent for leadership, which was enhanced by the power of persuasion and an abundance of political savvy. He was deputy for every town in which he resided with the exception of Rehoboth: twice from Boston, twice from Braintree, five times from New London, once from Stonington. From 1658 to 1667, the year of his death, he served as selectman every year. In 1653 Chesebrough assisted in drawing up the first grand list for New London. When people were traveling from New London to Providence, the house of William Chesebrough was a convenient stopover. He was a friend of Roger Williams and John Winthrop, Jr., who held a grant to settle New London and later became governor of Connecticut.
The diary of Thomas Minor is a lasting memorial. Although the entries are terse and never give details, they do give us a glimpse into his daily life and community activities. He records many births, marriages, and deaths among his neighbors. He meticulously records the day of the week, the number of days in the month and the year, for no doubt this served as his only calendar. He entered the date when a field was planted and its yield, for this would guide him in his planting the following year; unusual weather conditions such as “a great snow” or “bitter cold” made his diary truly his farmer’s almanac. The death of his 21-year-old son is reported in simple and unemotional language, though it must have caused him considerable pain. He makes brief notes of some of his financial transactions. It is a great treasure.
He was elected Stonington deputy to the General Court four times, town clerk twice, and selectman nine times. He was often asked to participate in Indian negotiations and was constantly required to lay out boundaries for land grants. In his diary he wrote:
The 24th of Aprill, 1669, I Thomas Minor am by my accounts sixtie one yeares ould I was by the towne and this year Chosen to be a select man the Townes Treasurer The Townes Recorder The brander of horses by the General Courte Recorded the head officer of the Traine band by the same Courte one the ffoure that have the charge of the milishcia of the whole Countie and Chosen and the sworne Commissioner and one to assist in keeping the Countie Courte.
He was the chief military officer and in 1676, when King Philip’s War started, Lieutenant Thomas Minor, then 68 years old, picked up his musket and marched off to battle accompanied by several of his sons.
Minor lived in Stonington thirty-eight years, much longer than any other early settler, dying in 1690 at the age of 83. Two hundred years after his death Grace Wheeler visited the site of the Minor homestead and found a little hollow in the ground, a few old stone steps, and a row of lilacs which could have been planted by Thomas himself. Those lilacs would be a fitting memorial for a man who dearly loved his orchard and his plantings.
At the other end of town Thomas Stanton was busily engaged in fur trading with the Indians on the Pawcatuck River. His services to the colony were many and varied, starting with his appointment as Indian Interpreter for Connecticut in 1638. Five years later he was made Interpreter General of New England, placing him in charge of all the Indian interpreters. As interpreter he was present at many important negotiations: to witness the land purchase by the Yorkshire colonists of Quinnipiac (New Haven) from the Indians; to witness the deed of land of East Hampton, Long Island, from the Indians; to go among the Indians and locate any who had killed Englishmen before the Pequot War; to demand £40 of Ninigret for a mare that had been killed by the Indians; to assist an elder of the Church to prepare a catechism in the Narragansett or Pequot language; with Captain George Denison, to apportion 8,000 acres land to the Pawcatuck Indians.
Only a master negotiator could have kept such bitter adversaries as the English and Indians from continual warfare while enjoying the respect and admiration of both. The Indians trusted him because of his honesty and his straightforward dealing with them. The English relied on him because he carried out his assignments and kept the Indians at peace most of the time. Through his efforts the Niantics and Narragansetts joined the English and performed heroically in King Philip’s War.
Along with his work among the Indians, Stanton held important offices for extended periods: selectman of Southertown, selectman of Mystic, selectman of Stonington, and representative for Stonington. Stanton was not a paragon of independence and often incurred the displeasure of the General Court. In 1657 he was ordered to appear before the Court to explain his criticism of the colony’s treatment of Uncas. He was occasionally absent from his duties and did not appear before the Court when summoned. Because of his unique value, the Court could not inflict severe punishment and had to be satisfied with imposing fines.
Stanton died on December 2, 1677, at the age of 61. At one time his land holdings were probably in excess of 20,000 acres–from grants, gifts, and purchases. His will disposed of his property primarily to his sons: “Where I now live is to be equally divided betwixt my two sons Robert and Samuel . . . .” Also: “The other house and northern orchard and nursery of young trees and garden I give to my loving wife during her life . . .” He made Anna Stanton sole executor.
The original will of Thomas Stanton, which should have been filed in the probate records of New London, was lost for more than 300 years. In 1984 Bernard Stanton, who was doing research in the State Library in Hartford, came across a roll of microfilm entitled “Private Controversy Collections” and behold!–there was the will of Thomas Stanton. Clearly he owned two houses in lower Pawcatuck: “where I now live” is the house near the trading post and “the other house” is the so-called Stanton homestead, which must have been built before 1677, when Stanton made his will. Previous estimates had placed the construction of this house about 1680.
Some of his land transactions involved serious difficulties. An Indian sachem gave Quonochontaug to Stanton, but did the chief really own all of this land? A Stanton tract might overlap a tract claimed by another settler. Land was often sold and then resold several times without any purchaser bothering to obtain clear title to the property. Often such transactions resulted in lengthy and costly litigation. Questions about the ownership of some of Stanton’s land and ambiguities in the will led to years of family and legal wrangling. Anna died 11 years later, the estate still unsettled. The controversy dragged on more than 40 years before the will was accepted and recorded.
Although women are rarely mentioned in documents of the time, they certainly contributed greatly to the founding of Stonington. Their domain was the kitchen, pantry, cellar, garden, and barnyard from which they were expected to gather the raw ingredients and process them into food on difficult cooking arrangements. They grew herbs and prepared concoctions to deal with various forms of illness. They made candles from bayberries and mattresses and pillows from goosedown. Gathering eggs, feeding the pigs, and milking the cows were often chores for the women. In their spare time they spun cloth and repaired clothing. The daily care of the children was their responsibility.
Certainly Anna Chesebrough was not as important as William in the founding of the town, but her contribution deserves greater notice than it usually gets. In his diary Thomas Minor mentions only her death “friday .29. I harrowed the wheate ground & ould mrs Cheesebrough departed this world.” She was aged 75. William, who had died six years earlier, had left a will leaving “to my loving wife all my housing and the pasture by the house to dispose of as she shall please.” Anna also left a will and served as executor.
In a farming community where much physical work was required, a good wife bore children almost like clockwork. Anna Chesebrough’s first three children, born in England, did not survive two months after birth. How devastating that must have been! Of her twelve children, five died in infancy and there is no record of three others, leaving Samuel, Nathaniel, John, and Elisha, the four who came to Wequetequock with William and Anna.
Walter Palmer and Rebecca Short had seven children: five boys–Elihu, Nehemiah, Moses, Benjamin, and Gershom; and two girls–Hannah and Rebecca. The children married into the Hewitt, Stanton, Gilbert, Denison, and Chesebrough families. The Minor diary says that on July 15, 1671, “Mother palmer departed this life.”
After Thomas Stanton built a dwelling house near Pawcatuck Rock and moved his family there, Thomas was away much of the time on official business. During the next 20 years, while he traveled hither and yon as Indian Interpreter, his wife Anna must have experienced deep feelings of loneliness without the comfort of her husband. After the death of Thomas, she went to live with her daughter Dorothy, who had married James Noyes, first pastor of the First Congregational Church.
Would that Grace Minor had been able to keep a diary like her husband’s, recording a woman’s view of events! In his diary Thomas mentions her occasionally: “my wife was delivered of hana”; “my wife was very sick”; “my wife had that fit of sickness with the Redspots”; “my wife was at new london”; “I and my wife were at nayanticke.” Grace could speak Algonquian, which probably helped in managing the Indian workers about the farm. Today Grace is remembered by genealogists for linking the Palmer and Minor families through her marriage to Thomas. in his will Thomas left “my beloved wife Grace Minor all that is my own moveables and unmoveables without exception during her lifetime to dispose on for her comfortable subsistence . . .”
The old Wequetequock Burying Ground on Palmer Neck Road is an enduring inheritance from the early settlers. The first burial was that of John Chesebrough, the son of William, who cut himself with a scythe and bled to death in 1650. Here lie also the remains of Walter Palmer, who died in 1661 aged 72, perhaps under the huge granite slab, a foot and a half square on the end and 8 feet long; William Chesebrough, who died in 1667 aged 73, whose grave can no longer be identified; Thomas Stanton, who died in 1677 aged 61, for whom a new gravestone was erected in 1995 in the proper location; Thomas Minor, who died in 1690 aged 83, under a large stone said to have been selected by him from a ledge at his farm. Some are buried under large wolfstones, granite slabs to protect their bodies from the ravages of wild animals. The cemetery was enclosed by a stone wall in 1828. In 1899 the cemetery association dedicated a large stone to the memory of the four settlers.
The first settlers attended church in New London and paid taxes for support of a minister there. They had to travel 15 miles and cross two large rivers, going and coming, with no ferry at first. Tradition has it that the Chesebrough family had to leave home Saturday midnight in order to arrive in time for church in New London. But the hope of their own church languished because the inhabitants first had to be recognized as a town.
After Massachusetts gave the region a local government in 1658, the inhabitants hired a minister and in 1661 built a small, unheated meeting house where they also held town meetings. The town officials provided all religious services, paid ministers from town funds, and appointed committees to examine prospective ministerial candidates.
The General Court of Connecticut gave them permission to settle themselves in church order in 1669. The building of a bigger and better meeting house was delayed by prolonged discussions about its location. Finally, through voluntary subscriptions and labor, the church was built on Agreement Hill, so called because the inhabitants had fiercely debated its location. It was organized formally on June 3, 1674, its first members being the Reverend James Noyes, members of the Stanton, Chesebrough, Minor, and Palmer families, and Thomas Wheeler. James Noyes served as pastor of the First Congregational Church for 45 years, until his death in 1719.
After fifty-five years, in 1729, this church was torn down and a new structure was erected on the enlarged foundation of the old one. In 1829, the Road Church was rebuilt near the old site. The town paid for the basement and used it as a town hall for town meetings and court. It continued as a voting place for Road District until about 1970. Genealogists are grateful that the pastors kept good records of the church: baptisms, admissions, and marriages.
Here, on this site, were held so many religious and political meetings–so many discussions, debates, and deliberations–as our ancestors labored to produce a town with a sound government and religious freedom where the inhabitants could lead peaceful and productive lives. For the bicentennial celebration of this church, in 1874, the Reverend A. G. Palmer composed a poem, of which the last stanza is this:
Then up to labor! What though life be brief,
A fleeting cloud, a shade, the morning dew,
And generations fade, as fades the leaf,
Yet life has duties, stern and joyful too;
These brave old saints gave life their highest powers,
Did their work well, LIKE THEM LET US DO OURS.