John Sherman: Colonial Renaissance Man

During a span of 200 years, five generations of my Sherman ancestors remained in the Suffolk area of England. If one of them had decided to move to New Zealand or board a ship to Paraguay they would have been harder to track. Strong religious belief is the primary bond that held them together so tightly. In New England, my Sherman ancestors were just as obliging. In a span of four generations, all Sherman’s in my direct lineage stayed within a tight geographic area of Connecticut. Once again, it was their religious beliefs that held them together. The Bible itself may have been the main gravitational force their lives circled around. In colonial Connecticut, my 10th great grandfather Samuel, was referred to as “The Worshipful Samuel Sherman.” His fifth son, John, becomes my ninth great grandfather and was too busy to be anything more than a deacon in the church.


John Sherman was a colonial force of nature. He must have met himself coming and going. He was the fifth son of Samuel Sherman, the Connecticut ancestor from Dedham, England, who was a major figure in Connecticut history himself. After helping to found several Connecticut towns, Samuel eventually settled in Stratford, Connecticut. He was instrumental in the initial planning and purchasing stage of establishing the town of Woodbury, but due to his advancing age, Samuel sent his son John to act in his behalf. John put down roots in Woodbury and lived there all his adult life. He wore many hats in the Puritan courts. He was Justice of the Quorum, associate county court judge for 44 years, a representative of Woodbury to the colony of Connecticut’s legislature for 17 sessions, Speaker of the Lower House, and Woodbury town clerk. He was also the first judge of probate for the District of Woodbury. Just to fill in the time between these duties and fathering eight children, he served in the militia during the Indian rebellions and fought in the Revolutionary War at Ticonderoga. Oh, he also served as a deacon in the church as I mentioned. Then there’s the six acre iron-ore mine he owned on Mine Hill in Roxbury. Beginning with the 22 acres he was allotted as one of the first citizens of Woodbury, he must have acquired significant wealth; during the Revolutionary War he gave 2,718 pounds and seven shillings to the families of soldiers who were away at war. Two of his brothers, Daniel and Matthew, also moved to Woodbury, but neither of my great uncles matched the achievements of John. One of John’s sons, who is not in my direct line, deserves a blog all of his own, though I might not get to it. His name is the Honorable Daniel Sherman (I’m not named after him), and he was a member of the 1788 Convention of Connecticut and voted yes for the ratification of the United States Constitution.

John has made it easy for me to track his whereabouts. Other than trips to the Connecticut General Assembly in Hartford, Connecticut, and trips outside Connecticut to fight in the Revolutionary War, he stayed home in Woodbury. There was an occasional 36 mile trip to Stratford to see family members.


If you want to read the complete history of the initial establishment of Woodbury, you can log in to an interactive digital book on the “History of Ancient Woodbury” beginning with the first Indian deed in 1658. In a previous blog, I noted that the first parcel of land for Woodbury was purchased for a little gunpowder, a hatchet, and a homespun gray jacket. Samuel Sherman signed off on this contract. A small number of Pootatuck tribe members placed their marks on the contract. The Indians were not happy with it and the contract was renegotiated some years later in 1685. This time, nine members of the Pootatuck Tribe made their marks. Samuel’s son, John, was in the middle of implementing this renegotiated contract. Finally, in 1706, a confirmatory purchase was made that covered all previous grants and purchases. This was signed on behalf of the residents of Woodbury by John Sherman and others. Originally, the tract of land was called the Pomperaug Plantation, but later was officially changed to Woodbury. There was a cluster of nearby towns with the “-bury” ending, Southbury, Roxbury, Westbury, Middlebury, etc. Bury is a shortening of borough or burg meaning a dwelling place. Woodbury literally means “a dwelling place in the woods”.


King Philip, aka Chief Metacom

Woodbury’s isolated location away from the more fortified coastal towns is a problem when “King Phillip’s War” breaks out in 1675. Having never set foot in Connecticut, and having neglected colonial history for 74 years of my life, I had no idea what this war was about. As it turns out, “King Phillip” is not who I imagined. He was the Indian leader of the Pokanoket Tribe within the Wampanoag Indian Federation. There is more Indian history here than I ever expected to encounter. King Phillip’s real name is Metacom, and he’s upset, to put it mildly, about the incursion of English into his ancestral lands. He gathers an alliance of other tribes with the intent of utterly removing the white race from the New England territory. The war affected all the eastern colonies, and nearly six hundred colonists were savagely killed in the war. The General Court of Connecticut put the entire colony under martial law.


Ironically, the remaining members of the Pequot tribe who weren’t massacred by colonists at Mystic, Connecticut, choose to side with the colonists and help fight King Phillip. This may have been because that, in the intervening years since the Pequot tribe was terrifying settlers and other neighboring tribes, the Indian populace had been absorbed into the community. The Puritans considered the Indians inferior as a race and treated them condescendingly, but they did make an effort to convert and educate them. Many of the Indian settlements ended up within the boundaries of the growing Puritan towns.


As a frontier town, Woodbury was fortified immediately at the onset of King Phillip’s War. Two men were sent out daily to watch for any signs that the enemy was preparing to attack. A lookout was stationed in the belfry of the meeting house in Woodbury, and one third of the citizens were required to be armed and ready to fight at any moment. All men were required to rise one hour before dawn since this was when men slept most soundly. This was well known by the Indians, who made pre dawn a favorite time to attack the villages. Fearing that some of the Indians in Woodbury would side with King Phillip’s warriors, John Sherman was ordered to forcibly take several of the Pootatuck and Wyantenuck Indian leaders and escort them to Stratford as insurance against members of the tribes joining the rebellion. The hostages remained docile and nothing came of it. At one point in the war, nearly the entire population of Woodbury moved temporarily to Stratford for their safety.


Battle of Ticonderoga

It turns out that my great grandfather was a dedicated patriot. I mentioned earlier that he contributed a large amount of his personal wealth to aid the families of Woodbury that had men serving in the Revolutionary War. He was also instrumental in making Woodbury one of the main Puritan towns supplying and stockpiling supplies and weapons to fight the British. In 1776, the town supplied  arms, saltpeter, and lead. They collected 159 pairs of shoes, 165 pairs of stockings, 144 woolen shirts, 117 overalls, 29 linen overalls, 2 great coats, etc. All this was to arm and clothe the soldiers from Woodbury. In all, it was about a half million dollars worth of supplies to help achieve our country’s independence. Initially, Woodbury soldiers at Ticonderoga came away unscathed. A common remark was that “the musket balls would not hit the Woodbury boys.” The population of Woodbury had soared over 5000 since its founding, and nearly 1000 of its men and boys served in the war. In other battles, like Washington’s retreat from New York, the Woodbury boys didn’t fare that well.


After John Sherman, who distinguished himself admirably in the colony, it will be a little harder to track my relatives. John’s son, Samuel, is my 7th great grandfather, and the last direct Sherman relative who remains in the vicinity of Connecticut. Elkaneh, my sixth great grandfather, wanders westward to the area of Ohio. A portion of what is now Ohio was called the Connecticut Reserve and was claimed by the colony of Connecticut and later by the state of Connecticut. I’m not sure what the deal was with Pennsylvania between the two areas geographically. Elkaneh dies in Kirtland Ohio, and I am looking for the reason that so many New England Puritans moved into this area.


I hope to have a short blog on my great grandmothers in New England, if I can find enough information.

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