Monday, August 22, 2016

The Portsmouth Parsons Family: A Reluctant Wife

The two decades of the Great Migration (1620-1640) have passed and England is in the midst of their English Civil War, a clash between the tyrant Charles I and his parliament, when the last of our Portsmouth families crossed the Pond - the Parsons in the mid-1640’s and the Baileys in the 1650’s.

Hugh Parsons (1613-1684) was born in Great Torrington, Devonshire, England in 1613 and has an unknown immigration date.  An arrival date of about 1645-46 would have coincided with roiling times in Great Torrington related to the English Civil war. If so, Hugh would have been about mid-30’s.

Hugh first showed up in Portsmouth records in 1658 when he was on jury duty, and later in 1662 as constable, 1663 as a freeman, 1667 enlisting in a troop of horse, and 1673 testifying in the Thomas Cornell murder trial. 

There is a great deal of confusion around when Hugh married and with whom he had daughters, Grace and Hannah. There were three Hugh Parsons in the New England area at the same time, one of whom was tried in Boston for witchcraft in 1652. At least one historian has speculated the witchcraft and Portsmouth Hugh Parsons are the same, but they have different death dates.  

The usually reliable Torrey New England Marriages for the Portsmouth Hugh Parsons is totally confusing. It lists Hugh’s marriage to Elizabeth England, widow of Wm, about 1635-1640 or after 1641, Portsmouth but no note what the Portsmouth location means. We know Hugh was not in Portsmouth this early or he would have shown up in some town records. Another alternative interpretation is that he married an Elizabeth in England, and this Elizabeth is the mother of his two children.

By 1662, Hugh married second wife, also Elizabeth (1613-after 1684), widow of John Wood living on land adjoining Hugh’s in Portsmouth. John Wood had died in 1655, so it makes sense that the widower Hugh married the widow Elizabeth, and that Hugh’s two daughters, Grace and Hannah, were born to a previous wife. Second wife Elizabeth helped prepare the corpse of Rebecca Briggs Cornell  (the Killed Strangely lady) for burial. Both she and Hugh testified at the Thomas Cornell’s murder trial in 1673. 

Hugh died in 1684 at age 70. His burial unknown, likely on his land. With only two daughters, this was the end of the Portsmouth male Parsons line. Hugh's will left his land and buildings to grandson, Hugh Bailey.

Daughter Hannah married first Henry Matteson in 1670  and they had two children, Henry and Hannah - that had to be confusing around the dinner table. Secondly, she married Charles Hazleton of Kings  Town, RI, in 1693, no children from the second marriage. She died the year after her father, Hugh.

Daughter Grace Parsons (1634/44-1677), the earlier birth year based on her marriage year in 1653 when she would have been age 18, was most likely born in America. She married William Bailey, Jr (1634-1670) from an adjoining Portsmouth farm in about 1653 and they had five children, all sons. 

In 1661, husband William and a neighbor, Thomas Lawton, agreed that William would have 60 acres of Lawton’s farm in a hunting swamp lying on one side of the farm on which Hugh Parsons lived. We know, then, that Parsons, Lawton, and Bailey were all in the same neighborhood. The agreement goes on to say that William would have the land for his lifetime and if his wife Grace kept herself a widow after her husband’s death, then she was also to have it for the full term of Thomas Lawton’s life and three years afterward. It appears to be an odd arrangement in which Lawton sells the land to Bailey, but with conditions which also included upkeep of the property and that William was not allowed to resell the land, so this wasn’t just a lease. More of this in a minute.

Grace was about 35 years old when William died in 1670 and she married, secondly, Thomas Lawton from an adjoining farm who had sold/leased land to William. Thomas was about the same age as Grace’s father, around 60 years old.  
George Lawton Farmstead in Lawton's Valley, Portsmouth
Thomas Lawton and his brother George were signers of the Portsmouth Compact in 1638 and early settlers in Portsmouth so they both had substantial land from grants. Thomas and George had land adjoining each other in Portsmouth, now known as Lawton’s Valley, and George's original historic farm house is still standing. George was an overseer of Hugh's will in 1684. 

Was Grace forced into an arrangement with the elderly Thomas Lawton in order to save the property for which William made conditional arrangements in 1661? Was her still living neighbor and father, Hugh,  complicit in the arrangement?

Things were clearly not going well for Grace at this point. 

In June 1674 Thomas Lawton drew up his will which starts out with “I do hereby declare that although Grace have not behaved herself towards me as a wife ought to do towards a husband, yet for the manifestation of my care of her, I do hereby give, bequeath unto her all the goods that are yet remaining in my custody of those that were hers when I married her and also one good feather bed and bolster; also 12 pounds per annum for life in lieu of all right she has.”

In June 1676 town records show that Grace “having presented her many grievances to the town often, and to the Assembly several times, for due and sufficient maintenance, she being much neglected in her husband’s absence; it was therefore ordered by the Assembly that 6 shillings per week in silver be paid her or her order during her life, or until her said husband Thomas Lawton shall come himself, or maintain her. During his absence or neglect, the said sum of 6 shillings per week shall be paid by his agent Daniel Lawton (Thomas’ 22 year old son), and an Inventory of moveable goods in her custody be taken, which inventory Daniel Lawton shall have. Grace to have the privilege of chamber she is now possessed of, and use of necessary movables, and the rights of her or any of her children now or in the future to any estate are not cut off.

In April 1677 town records show Thomas Lawton made agreement with 23 year old stepson John Bailey whereby Grace, “the present wife of Thomas Lawton,” should receive 10 pounds per year from John Bailey, and Elizabeth Shearman, daughter of Thomas Lawton, should have 3 pounds/year. In consideration of these, John Bailey was to have lease of the dwelling house, land, and orchard for term of time Grace lived without changing her name by marriage. The term of tenancy not to expire until one year after death or marriage of Grace. On the same date, he sold John Bailey all his household goods except a bedstead, chairs, etc.

Grace died the same year at age 42. We can only speculate on the cause of death. Her burial is unknown.

Grace and William’s second son, John Bailey (1653-1736) continued our ancestry in the Bailey line.

Hugh Parsons was our 11th great-grandmother and Grace our 10th great-grandmother.


Sheila B said...

The house you show in a picture as the George Lawton house is now owned by my family. I lived there the first half of my childhood. My cousin owns it now.

Brent said...

The following is very pertinent to your discussion:

Acquitals rooted in legal technicalities appear in five other Rhode Island secual misconduct trials. Grace Bailey Lawton committed adultery in 1670 with Thomas Lawton, while still married to William Bailey. Bailey appears to have then divorced his wife as Grace married Lawton while Bailey was still alive, although therre is no record of the divorce. Grace married Thomas early in 1671 and was tried for adultery on October 18, 1671. Circumstanial evidence did not play in Grace's favor, particularly since she was now married to the man with whom she was accused of having an adulterous affair. Unsurprisingly, both jury and justices found her guilty. However, her attorney "declar[ed] that there was a failer in the Testimony" and the court ordered her acquitted. The other four trials were all fornication trials. . . . None of the Rhode Island court records preserve the details of these trials and it is impossible to know exactly how these acquitals were accomplished.

Chandler, Abby, _Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750_, (New York, 2015), p. 134