by C.A. Baker
[The building known since 1990 as the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center was completed and opened in 1894 as the Center School – then renamed Governor Thomas Welles School in
1933. Following is the story of Governor Thomas Welles after his arrival in America – excerpted from “The Baker Family Tree”. The entire story is available online at http://bakerfamilytree.blogspot.com/2012/01/thomas-welles-1590-1660.html
Please click on photos to enlarge them]
Thomas Welles and his family set sail for America in the late summer of 1635 sometime after August 20th when he signed the deed transferring the ownership of his English property. The family no doubt arrived in the Boston area by mid-fall of the same year.
No known ship’s manifest survives that records their passage, however based on Welles’ financial position it is likely that his family, some of their servants (most of whom were likely indentured servants), and a large quantity of their household furnishings as well as food for the trip occupied a large portion of the ship.
It is also likely that Thomas Welles made arrangements before he left England for someone to meet him when they arrived and take the family and their possessions and servants to temporary housing.
The first colonial record of Thomas Welles in America was a listing that included his name as the head of a household in Newton (or “Newe Towne” and now Cambridge) Massachusetts dated February 1636. Thomas Welles probably joined the congregation of the First Parish Church in Newton then under the leadership of the Rev. Thomas Hooker almost immediately upon his arrival in America. It is not clear whether Welles had meet Thomas Hooker in England prior to Hooker’s departure to America in 1633 although he must have been aware of the notorious Thomas Hooker, who was a prominent spokesman for Puritanism in England and a target of William Laud’s. Hooker had escaped to Holland to avoid being arrested by the Anglican authorities prior to his leaving for America. Thomas Welles, himself a prominent Puritan back in England, was probably among old friends in Hooker’s Newton congregation.
The Rev. Thomas Hooker was not happy with conditions in Newton, an opinion probably shared by many if not by most of the members of his congregation including Thomas Welles. The soil in the area was not good for farming nor were there large plots available for purchase in the rapidly growing community. Furthermore and more importantly, he found himself incompatible with the thinking of the other religious leaders in
Massachusetts particularly over the issue of their rigid requirements for joining the Church such that one had to be a “freeman” to be eligible for membership. The Reverent Hooker believed in universal suffrage meaning that membership in the church should not be limited to the select few in the community who were acceptable to the church leadership. By 1635, Thomas Hooker had determined that he must lead his congregation out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the new lands being settled along the great river in Connecticut.
Before the arrival of the first white settlers in Connecticut in the first half of the 17th century, the land was a place of gently sloping hills and valleys that were largely covered by forests and inhabited by abundant species of animals including numerous tribes of Native American Indians. With few exceptions especially when compared with the wars and pestilence that were to follow the arrival of the white man, these Native Americans lived in relative peace and harmony with their surroundings. The Indians of Connecticut were a resourceful people living largely off the land as hunters, fishermen, and agriculturists. These Native Americans gave the state its name as Connecticut comes from an Indian word “Quinatucquet” which means “Beside the Long Tidal River.” The long tidal river referred to by these Native Americans is the Connecticut River which runs through the center of the state. It was the fertile lands along the Connecticut River that first attracted the white man.
The first European of record to explore the Connecticut River was Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer who sailed along the Connecticut coast and up the Connecticut River in 1614 and claimed the area for the Dutch. By the 1620s, the Dutch who already had settlements in New York had pressed their claims to the land and established trading posts along the Connecticut coastline and along the Connecticut River for a few miles inland. In 1633, they purchased a parcel of land from the Indians and build a fort and trading post on the east bank of the Connecticut River in what is now the present site of the City of Hartford. Unfortunately for the Dutch their interests in Connecticut were primarily in the commerce of fur trading and when the land hungry Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony migrated westward into Connecticut in search of new farmland, the Dutch claims to the area were quickly dissipated. In fact, in early 1633 the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam was presumptuously notified by letter that the King of England had granted his loyal subjects the river and the country of Connecticut. It is no wonder that the Dutch referred to the English settlers of New England as “Jankes” which in the Dutch language means robbers or pirates. The term Jankes quickly became anglicized to become “Yankees”.
In the year 1632 the Indian tribes living along the Connecticut River invited the English of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to send settlers to their area. Ostensibly they hoped that the white settlers would bring peace to the area as their superior weapons would dissipate the constant threats from their warrior neighbors, the Pequot Indians to their east and the Iroquois and Mohawk Indians to their west. The governor of the Plymouth Colony, Edward Winslow, made a personal overland exploratory trip to Connecticut to the area that was later to be named Windsor located about fifty miles north of the mouth of the Connecticut River at Long Island Sound.
Governor Winslow liked what he saw in Connecticut and the following year in 1633, he sent a team of men under the leadership of William Holmes to set up a fort and trading post at Windsor (then called Matianuck by the Indians) located only seven miles north of the Dutch trading post that had been built only a few months earlier. Needless to say, the Dutch were not happy about the competition for the fur trade and so they sent men north of the new English fort to try and win the friendship of the Indians.
Unfortunately, one of their men carried smallpox which quickly infected the Indians and by the time the plague had run its course by early 1634, three-quarters of the River Indian population were dead. Obviously this situation did serious harm to the relationship of the white men and the Indians not to mention the harm done to the fur trading business. The town of Windsor was to remain populated by Puritans from Plymouth Colony until 1635 at which time a group of settlers from Dorchester, Massachusetts arrived under the leadership of the Reverent John Warham.
In the summer of 1634, a group of “Ten Adventurers” led by a Captain John Oldham, a merchant and Indian trader from Watertown, Massachusetts, travelled through the wilderness of western Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut along an old In
dian trail referred to by historians as the Old Connecticut Path. The 100 mile trek of these Adventurers and their families along the old Indian trail from Watertown to their new home on the banks of the Connecticut River, took them at least two weeks of hard travelling.
Their new settlement that they were later to name Wethersfield was located in a deep bend of the Connecticut River where the rich alluvial soil along the river was perfect for farming and the surrounding forests would provide the needed lumber for building houses.
The town of Hartford (initially named Newtown) was the third of the original major settlements along the Connecticut River founded by Puritans from Massachusetts. The new settlement of Hartford was located about midway between the Windsor settlement to the north and the Wethersfield settlement to the south. It was to this site of the future town of Hartford that some 25 men, some with families and their supplies travelling under the direction or at least under the inspiration of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, set forth from Newton, Massachusetts in October of 1635.
Their goal was to lay claim to the land on the west side of the Connecticut River directly across the river from where the Dutch had established a fort a few years earlier. Their trek along the old Indian trail took about ten days, however by the time they arrived into this wilderness area very cold weather had set in and they struggled to build shelters consisting of not much more than “dug-outs” or caves dug in the sides of the hills. Despite the lack of food and the hard conditions they managed to survive the winter. Of the original 25 settlers of Hartford, now known as the “Adventurers”, five of them were my great grandfathers: William Goodwin, William Kelsey, Thomas Scott, Timothy Stanley, and Edward Stebbins.
It was Thomas Hooker’s plan to send out this vanguard group of men in late 1635 to establish their claim to the land (which actually was dubious since the land had not been clearly purchased from the local Indians), layout the lots, and then once he received formal approval of the new settlement from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he would follow in early 1636 with the remainder and the majority of the members of his Newton congregation. Within this later group were Thomas Welles and his family.
The second wagon train set out on the trail in late May of 1636. The group consisted of one hundred members of the congregation with their families, their servants, farm animals, wagons, and so forth all as necessary to begin a new life. The scene of such a large group of the Newton citizens moving west must have amazing sight for the residents of the area. Thomas Welles was around 45 years old when he began his new life in Hartford, Connecticut.
There are two old maps available that show the division of the lands in Hartford and the names of the lot owners. The map above shows the ownership of the land in Harford as it appeared in 1640. The individuals whose names appear on this map are considered to be the original “Founders” of Hartford. There is also an earlier map showing the layout of the lots as they appeared in 1636 after the arrival of the first two groups from Newton. Both maps are very revealing for they show that the original settlers were not only well organized but they appeared to have cooperated with one another with respect to the land distribution.
There are no records that I could find that describe disputes between the members of the congregation over the land selections. This is probably due in large part to the efforts of the Rev. Thomas Hooker. Most of the lots are of similar size, the town is organized around a meeting house (which also served as their “church”), and while it is not obvious from the maps, the history of Hartford tells us that the land around the town identified as “meadow(s)” and “pasture” were set aside areas for all members of the community to use for grazing their farm animals and growing their crops.
However, in the earlier 1636 map, the “South Meadows” is identified with the following notation: “Large upland, meadow and swamp lots of Andrew Warner, George Wyllys, Thomas Welles, John Webster, William Whiting, and John Haynes.” This notation on the map suggests that some of the wealthier citizens in early Harford were able to set aside (they purchased) some of the surrounding meadow land area for their own exclusive use.
The Thomas Welles family was one of these wealthier families. It is also significant to note that the home lots immediately west (above on the map) of the South Meadow is where four of the six families listed above had built their homes. The road facing their home lots was later named “Governor Street” for a reason that will be obvious.
The first governor of the Colony of Connecticut took office in 1639 and per the “Fundamental Orders”, the colony’s constitution that was written and adopted in 1639, governors were to be elected for 12 month terms but expressly prohibited from serving consecutive terms. In the first twenty years of the colony, George Wyllys served one term, Edward Hopkins served seven terms, our Thomas Welles served two terms (one in 1655 and one in 1658), and John Webster served one term. In total, in the first twenty terms of the office of governor, a resident of Governor Street filled the seat on 11 occasions.
It is not apparent from looking at the lots on Governor Street what made them more valuable although apparently this must have been the case. The greater value was perhaps due to a richer soil, heavily wooded lands (trees for building houses) or the property was sited at higher elevations above the flood plain of the Connecticut River, or simply the properties’ proximity to the South Meadow, but whatever the reasons many of the top leaders in colonial Harford chose to live on this street including my great grandfather, Thomas Welles.
There is one other very fascinating observation to be made about Thomas Welles and his neighbors on Governor Street. Thomas Welles is an ancestor of mine on my mother’s side of my family. John Marsh and his family who lived immediately next door to the Welles family are ancestors of mine on my father’s side of the family. John Marsh is the great grandfather of my 7th great grandfather, Timothy Baker. There is more.
Across the street from the Welles family lived the James Cole family. James Cole is my 10th great grandfather also on my mother’s side of the family. Of the names of the original proprietors listed on the “Founders Monument” in downtown Hartford, 24 of the men and one woman listed are my direct ancestors from multiple branches of my family tree. This was a remarkable coincidence and to think that I have never been to Hartford.
In January 1639, the leaders of the three Connecticut towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield met, drafted and approved a document known as the Fundamental Orders which basically outlined the individual rights of the
citizens in the Colony of Connecticut.
This document is considered by many historians to be the first constitution writing in the Americas and it was to serve as a guideline during the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Its importance is emphasized by the State of Connecticut who proudly call itself the “Constitution State.” Thomas Welles’ importance as a public servant in the government of the Colony of Connecticut cannot be understated. As Secretary of the Colony from 1640 to 1649, it was he who transcribed the Fundamental Orders into the official colonial records (in his own handwriting). His other offices include the following and it is worth noting that he is the only man in Connecticut’s history to hold all four top offices: governor, deputy governor, treasurer and secretary.
Member, Court of Magistrates 1637-1654
Deputy Governor of the Colony of Connecticut 1654, 1656, 1657, 1659
Treasure of the Colony of Connecticut 1639
Secretary of the Colony of Connecticut 1640-1649
Commissioner of the United Colonies 1649
Governor of the Colony of Connecticut 1666, 1658
What we learn here is that Thomas Welles’ upbringing and schooling in England was of the highest quality. Not only did he come from an apparently wealthy family but he was also highly educated and could read and write. Obviously he would not have been appointed Secretary of the Colony if his writing ability was poor. We also see in Thomas Welles a talent to lead. He was elected to the office of Deputy Governor or Governor on six different occasions and he served on the Court of Magistrates for eighteen years.
Many of our elected legislators in the United States today serve for multiple years in public service but in their case they are paid for their services and somehow manage to earn major dollars beyond just their government salary. On the other hand, Thomas Welles served continuously without pay in various governmental positions from 1637 to 1658, only two years before his death on January 14, 1660. His name appears on almost every page of the Connecticut Colony Records during this entire period.
One of the more interesting positions that he was asked to perform as a member of the Court of Magistrates was to serve as one of the judges in the witchcraft trials of Mary Johnson, Joan and John Carrington, and Lydia Gilbert in the years 1648, 1651, 1654. Thomas Welles may have been highly educated and devote but apparently he had no qualms about the verdict when the jurors found each of these individuals guilty of witchcraft and ordered their executions. Obviously we must be willing to judge historical individuals like Thomas Welles and slave owner George Washington based on the morals in place during their period of history rather than on our own morals of today.
Thomas Welles’ wife Alice Tomes Welles died of unknown causes sometime on or before 1646. It is an unfortunate truth that women in earlier history are often ignored in the colonial records and the actual year of Alice’s death and the location of her burial are unknown. What is known is that in 1646 Thomas Welles married for the second time the 56 year old Elizabeth Deming Foote, widow of Nathaniel Foote of Wethersfield who had died two years earlier in 1644.
While both Thomas Welles and his new wife were in their 50s and both still had young children living at home, Thomas Welles made the unusual decision especially in the 1600s to leave his home in Hartford and move into Elizabeth’s home in Wethersfield. Thomas Welles remained in public service after his marriage to Elizabeth and his move to Wethersfield and both of his terms of office as Government of the Colony of Connecticut occurred after his move to Wethersfield.
The remarkable coincidence about the marriage of Thomas Welles to Elizabeth Deming Foote is that both individuals are my 10th great grandparents. I am descended from Elizabeth Foote, the daughter of Nathaniel Foote and Elizabeth Deming and the wife of Josiah Churchill, and I am descended on a separate family branch, from Ann Welles, the daughter of Thomas Welles and Ann Tomes and the husband of Thomas Thompson. Nathaniel Foote and his wife are among the original settlers of Wethersfield and Nathaniel’s name is included in the list of the “Ten Adventurers” who settled Wethersfield in 1635.
The burial location of Thomas Welles is unknown but in all likelihood it is in Wethersfield. The site of Thomas Welles home on Governor Street in Hartford, later renamed Popieluszko Court, is now a rather rundown industrial area of Harford. Some of the original land owned by Nathaniel Foote in the 1600s in Wethersfield is now the site of a Connecticut State prison. Despite these dismal changes to our landscape, Thomas Welles remains one of the important historical figures in American history.
[The Connecticut State Prison closed in 1963 and was moved to Enfield, CT. The Connecticut Motor Vehicles Department now occupies the site.]
About the Author: C.A. Baker