One morning in 1957, I was slipping into the dream cycle of sleep—complete with quiet snoring—when I sensed an ominous presence hovering alongside me. It was my tenth grade history teacher, who had delivered the boring oral tranquilizer that had put me into this sedated state. He was somewhat sympathetic with my anesthetized condition, and my complete lack of interest in American History and, to be honest, I think he found the class just as interesting as I did.
Looking into the lives of my ancestors has awakened my interest in history. I was fascinated by my Italian ancestry, and started on my English ancestors with the fear that it would be as dull as Mr. Closson’s tenth grade class. If he had told me that a boy my own age—fourteen at the time—came to America from England in a dangerous boat half the size of the Mayflower in 1634, I might have been more interested. If he had added that Samuel Sherman was an ancestor that I shared with Roger Sherman, who later signed the Declaration of Independence, and William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general, I might have raised my head from the desk. If he had mentioned that at nineteen Samuel Sherman was fighting the most feared tribe of Indians on the New England Coast, I might have awakened completely and reconsidered my conclusion that history was boring.
I always feared I might be related to the infamous General Sherman, and now it’s confirmed. Samuel Sherman is the ancestor I share with the proficient but detested William Tecumseh Sherman, who coined the phrase “War is Hell’, and who is blamed for a lot of the fire that made it so. As a consolation, the distinguished and honorable Roger Sherman, is also a shared ancestor. Roger Sherman, one of the founding fathers of this country, is the only person to have signed all four great state papers of the United States: The Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
The first of many Shermans from Dedham to arrive in New England, John Sherman’s name is found on the passenger list of a small 100 ton ship named “Elizabeth.” It carried 100 passengers and left Ipswich, England on April 10th, 1634 and arrived at Watertown, Massachusetts in June of that year. The “Elizabeth” made a subsequent, undocumented trip in 1634 that brought John’s brother, Samuel Sherman, his father Edmund, and five other Sherman family members. I try to imagine what 14 year old Samuel must have been thinking as he waved from the deck of the “Elizabeth” at the receding cluster of friends and family on the Ipswich dock.
I was 14 when my widowed mother re-married, and my new stepfather wanted to re-locate the family from our suburban home in Independence to a remote and isolated farm near the Salt River, several hours away. I was excited--ecstatic even--since the river joined the farm. My younger, more sensible, sister threw a rare tizzy, and that was that. That’s not much of an analogy to what Samuel might have been thinking, other than 14 year old boys have little regard for the consequences of their actions. Some of the Dedham emigrants, disappointed with the wild and unsettled conditions in New England, returned to the established village of Dedham. Samuel, however, when he arrived, pulled on his breeches and boots, shouldered his musket, disembarked from the “Elizabeth”, and apparently never regretted stepping onto the shores of this yet unsettled country.
Flipping through digital pages from the Boston Public Library, I ran across a transcript of an after dinner speech given by General Sherman after the Civil War to an alcohol fueled audience who hung on his every word. I don’t know where this speech was given, but I’m guessing they were a group of men encouraging General Sherman to run for President. Sherman had apparently just discovered his genealogical roots and some of what he says is inaccurate. Here are some snippets from that speech:
“I learned from books alone, that in 1634, fourteen years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock, three persons by the name of Sherman reached the Boston coast.” (applause) “Samuel Sherman, a young man, about 14 years of age, and adventurous, emigrated to Connecticut. Samuel Sherman was the ancestor of my branch of the family, and settled at Stratford, Connecticut, and lived there fifty years after reaching his home. He married and had children, and his second son, John Sherman adopted the legal profession (laughter). That John Sherman had another son John, who had a son Daniel Sherman, a man of note in his day.”
It is at this point that General Sherman’s ancestors and my ancestors’ part company. I am a descendant of another of John’s sons born in 1682, named Samuel after his father. General Sherman goes on about his lineage and ends his speech this way, speaking of his father. There’s some inappropriate laughter:
“I was the sixth child. Our father died and left us all bare, (laughter). But friends came and assisted us, and we all reached maturity, and we all married, and the number of children we had I really cannot keep on counting. (Cheers and laughter). Gentlemen, the Shermans are a numerous family, and I may safely assert that they all obeyed the Divine Commandment – they went forth, increased, and multiplied (laughter), and I hope they have done their share toward replenishing the earth.” (Laughter and cheers.)
Historians differ from General Sherman’s account that Stratford was Samuels’s first place of residence. They report that Samuel and his family first lived in Wethersfield, sixty miles inland from the coast. Wethersfield is arguably the oldest town in Connecticut, depending on one’s interpretation of when a remote settlement qualifies as a “town”. The town was established by ten Puritan families in 1634, the very year that Samuel and his family arrived. It may have proven too remote and too dangerous.
On April 23, 1637, Pequot Indians attacked the town, killing six men and three women, a number of cattle and horses, and taking two young girls captive. The girls were later ransomed by Dutch traders. Edmund, Samuel, and the rest of the Sherman’s then moved to Stratford, Connecticut on the coast.
Like Wethersfield, Stratford was started by a small number of Puritan families who had recently arrived from England. I was able to find a map of the original layout of the town showing where the 35 original families had property. It’s important to remember that Wethersfield and Stratford were two of many towns on the New England coast populated by Puritans. All of them were seeking freedom to practice their brand of religion free of interference from kings, bishops, parliament, or any other secular authority. Complete political and judicial power was vested in those that professed the Puritan faith; a later wit said “they substituted the tyranny of the brethren for the tyranny of the bishops!”
Like other Puritan towns, early Stratford was a place where church leadership and town leadership were under the pastor of the church. Samuel was declared a “freeman” after undergoing an examination of his faith. A ‘freeman” does not mean a former serf. In the colonies an eye was kept on new settlers to see if they were free from ideas heretical to the Puritans. Men declared “freed from watching” were legally termed “freemen” and only then could bear arms, vote, and hold office. We know that Samuel Sherman was declared a “freeman” and became a conspicuous member of the church and a member of the General Court there.
Stratford, like Wethersfield, was not free from Indian attacks. From the outset of the town’s founding, Indians were constant threats. The Pequot Indians were especially brutal, greatly feared by the other New England tribes. In 1639, in Stratford’s very first year of existence, Samuel Sherman was on the committee that declared war on the Pequot Indians, the same tribe that committed the murders in Wethersfield in 1637.
In the next blog, I’ll deal with the Pequot War, the incursions of the Dutch who controlled New York, and why the Puritans persecuted the Quakers.