Sunday, October 2, 2016

Centennial: An unlikely influence on lives and books

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

Alf Wight on the moors
overlooking the Dales.
If I hadn’t read Alf Wight’s autobiographical books about his life and career as a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales, there might not have been a William and Mary Dyer website with a third of a million page views, nor the books* I’ve written about them and their world.

Alf Wight wrote under the pseudonym of James Herriot. Ah! You recognize that name.  When I was a teenager, reading and rereading his books from All Creatures Great and Small to his Yorkshire travelogues shaped my expectations of and propelled my determination to visit the UK. My first visit there came 30 years after reading the first volume, but I’ve been there five times now, on research and sightseeing trips.

On the first trip, I was with a university study group, and as we rolled past the directional sign to Thirsk, where Wight had his vet practice, I may have left a face-print on the tour bus window, reminiscent of the Munch painting, The Scream.

But on my next trip, I had a rental car, and Thirsk was on my itinerary for months before my plane left LAX. My stop was in the Yorkshire Dales, a series of valleys across north Yorkshire. Though they’re populated with farms, the Dales are a national park, with recreation sites and trails throughout the area. I was close to the town of Masham, the home of one branch of ancestors, and I stopped the car on the side of a shady road to get my bearings on the atlas (cars didn’t have GPS at that point). I was parked by a stone wall when I stepped out into damp grass and wildflowers, next to a brilliant-green field of fat, woolly sheep. The sweet scent of new-mown hay, flowers, and trees wet from a shower wafted to me, and I inhaled deeply. It was exactly as Wight had described his Yorkshire. I hadn’t read the books in 25 years and hadn’t expected it. But my first breath of the Dales was right out of James Herriot.

In Thirsk: the Herriot museum and the veterinary surgery
When I visited Thirsk, a small market town holding a weekly market day in its square (which I used in a Dyer book), I went into the James Herriot museum and shop, and though the beloved author had passed away, his son was there in the shop. I bought his biography of his father, The Real James Herriot, and had him sign it.

While in the northern county of Durham, I visited Raby Castle, the home of Henry Vane (which I used in a Dyer book). And in the Midlands near Bicester, my friend and I had supper in a small country pub that traced its history back to at least the 13th century. Its fireplace and low ceiling made it into one of my books.

On other visits to the UK, I visited abbeys, cathedrals, parish churches, large cities, and tiny villages. On the “tiny village” side of it, I drove through William Dyer’s boyhood neighborhood of Kirkby LaThorpe (which I used in a Dyer book), Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens (which I used in a Dyer book), and a farm with 16th-century house and barns (which I used in a Dyer book). On the big city end, St. Martin’s Lane in London (which I used in a Dyer book), and the area where William Dyer’s master, Walter Blackborne, and the Dyers themselves had lived (which I used in a Dyer book) became part of my memories and part of this website.

If you remember the delightful "All Creatures" books, Wight/Herriot described his disastrous dates with his future wife, at a hotel restaurant in Harrowgate. I drink their brand of tea, Yorkshire Gold. And I visited Bolton Castle, where he proposed to her. I only wish I could get the fabulous Wensleydale cheese in Arizona. Alas...
Bolton Castle

On October 3, 2016, Alf Wight (aka James Herriot) would have been 100 years old. He was a Scot who qualified as a veterinarian in 1939, just as Europe plunged into World War II. Stationed in Great Britain, he worked as a horse vet during the war, so he was able to visit his adopted home shire when he was on leave. After the war, he practiced on the Dales farms, as well as at his surgery in Thirsk. He was recovering from depression in the 1960s when he began writing about Yorkshire as he’d known it before large-scale agriculture and commercial cattle farms changed the business. The first of his books was published in 1969, and they exploded worldwide in 1972. He passed away in 1995, and his son Jim, also a veterinary surgeon, has carried on the business.

One of the writing techniques I learned from the veterinarian was to pace a conversation or scene by using an animal's familiar mannerisms. In my books, I used dogs, cats, and even Canada geese to do that. Another device was humor, and in the dark and frightening days of England before the Great Migration, I made a young Puritan minister, Rev. Isaak Johnson, into a ray of sunshine who was a light to the dour, preachy John Winthrop. I was sorry to kill him off when the timeline said I must.

As touching and as comedic as Wight wrote his stories of Yorkshire life, some of the people uneducated and grouchy, some of them who risked their lives for their flocks and herds, Alf Wight didn’t make fun of the real people. (His son wrote that Alf changed names, dates, and locations, and denied that the stories were from real life because he was afraid the characters would recognize themselves and be hurt or angry. Yet one Yorkshireman was angry because he thought he'd been left out--he hadn't been depicted in the books!) Alf Wight's superpower was making himself the butt of the joke, and lifting up his friends, family, and clients, often with humor, but always with love.

Happy birthday, James Alfred Wight. You changed my life. I hope that in turn, I’ve illuminated others’ lives.

Christy K Robinson is the author of this award-winning blog and books on the notable people of 17th century England and New England. Click the links to find the books.

Friday, September 23, 2016

1644 land deed sheds light on families of early Newport

© 2016 Christy K Robinson
Newport Historical Society:
Molly Bruce Patterson, right, scanned or photographed
several documents, including the 1644 deed here.
When in Newport, Rhode Island in July 2016, I had an appointment to meet an archivist at the Newport Historical Society, to view documents in William Dyer’s handwriting. Most of the records that William wrote, I was informed, are in Providence, the state capitol.

But they brought out a land deed from December 1644, and it has the signature of his wife, Mary Dyer! Further, under Mary’s name is the mark and first-name signature of their eldest son, Samuel. He would have been nine years old at the time, so it’s interesting that a child would be a witness to a legal transaction. By this time, Samuel had two younger brothers, William, about 4, and Maher, 1 year old.

The town of Newport was only five years old, and Robert Applegate had sold two pieces of land (that I know of so far) to William Dyer. William may have given part of it as a gift to his little boy, who had been baptized in December 1635 in Boston. And this land sale was made in December 1644, so it may have been connected to Samuel’s birthday. Did Samuel receive money or barter (sheep, a cow) from this sale? We’ll never know, but Samuel’s signature does mark a very human event for these families that we study, 370 years later.   

William bought 30 acres adjacent to his 87-acre farm on Newport’s west coast on May 5, 1644, from Thomas Applegate. But he also owned other parcels around the island, including land at the southernmost part of Aquidneck Island, and it appears that he bought 15 acres from Applegate on this rocky piece of land (with fantastic views) at the bottom of the island. In October 1644, he resold 10 acres of it to George Gardner, and again in December 1644, he sold four acres to Gardner.

Maybe Applegate drove a bargain that Dyer could buy the 30 acres to add to his northern property, if he'd also buy the 15 acres south of town. It appears that Dyer only owned the southern property from May to October, 1644, and then "flipped" 10 acres of it to Gardner. The four-plus acres in this deed were added on the 20th of December, 1644. Why the delay? In the fall, there were fattened animals and crops to trade. Gardner may not have had the resources to purchase the 15 acres the previous May, while Dyer appeared to be well-to-do.
We don't know the dimensions of the farm William Dyer resold
to George Gardner, but this is what a 15-acre parcel would
look like. William, in addition to other skills, was a surveyor,
so he knew geometry and could calculate an area. I used an
online calculator.

Who was Thomas Applegate? He’d been born in England in 1604, and emigrated to Boston in 1635. He was given the job of ferryman from Wessagusset (Weymouth) to Mt. Wollaston (Quincy), but he overloaded his boat and it capsized, drowning three people, so by court order, he was fined and his boat staved in. His wife Elizabeth was 'censured to stand with her tongue in a cleft stick for swearing, reviling, and railing' (Boston Court, Sept. 6, 1636). They moved to Newport in 1640, where Thomas was a weaver and owned several pieces of real estate. After he sold the southern-Newport farm to William Dyer in May 1644, Thomas and Elizabeth moved to Flushing, Long Island. There, he purchased land. In a court where his accusers had conflicts of interest, he was convicted of slander with a sentence of having his tongue bored with a red-hot poker; but he confessed his guilt and begged for mercy. He was pardoned. He died sometime between 1656 and 1662.

Tall native grasses and Queen Anne's
Lace grow in the place William Dyer
describes in the deed, land that became
George Gardner's farm.

By the landmark descriptions, this part of Newport is now occupied by large, expensive homes with manicured grounds. When my friend Valerie drove me through the area on a tour, I noticed tall wild grasses (possibly spartina alterniflora, smooth cordgrass) with Queen Anne’s Lace and other flowers blooming along private drives. The native cordgrass would have been useful for thatching roofs. The soil is rocky, having been scraped by glaciers thousands of years ago. To the north is lovely green farmland with verdant trees. To the west is the estuary of Narragansett Bay. To the east is the Sakonnet River (actually a saltwater tidal body). And to the south is the Atlantic Ocean.
View of a pond to the right, and the Atlantic Ocean straight on,
from the guest room of my friend's home. This is less than a
mile from the land described in the deed. If you click to
enlarge the image, you'll see a wild rabbit by the fountain,
and frogs clinging to the wall underwater.

The transcription of the deed comes from my dear friend Jo Ann Butler, author of the historical fiction trilogy, Rebel Puritan. George Gardner and Herodias Long are Jo Ann’s ancestors. When I saw George’s name on the deed, I had to share it with her. To learn more about George and Herodias, visit the Rebel Puritan link and purchase Jo Ann's excellent books.

I've purposely made the deed blurry
to protect the interests of the
Newport Historical Society, which
charges a fee to scan documents.
But you can click to enlarge.

This prsent deed or writing made in the
[twentieth] yeare of the Raigne of Ye Soverigne
Lord Charles by the grace of God of England
Scotland ffrance & Ireland King wittnesseth yt
I William Dyre of Nuport in the Ile of Rhodes
having bought & purchased of Thomas Applegate
All ye singular the Land granted by the colonie
aforsd unto him for his accommodation of his granted Lott
and whereas ther was a neck of Land lying on the
South side of the sd Iland bounded on the South by
the present Ocean & on the East & North by a [Cone]
or pond & on the West by the Comon (towards Mr
Fosters farme) wch prcell of Land containing the
Number of four acres more or Less the said [will]
wch said neck was granted & Laid forth to the sd
Thomas as pt of his accommodation, & wch sd neck
of Land so butted & bounded the sd William hath
and doth by this presents for ever & sell unto Georg
Gardiner of Nuport aforsd for a valeuable consideration
given & [bargained] by on & th other upon wth
& the unsealling herof the sd Wiliam doth for him
self his heirs & executors administrators & assigns
surrender up to the sd George his heirs & exctors
administrators & assigns all right tittle & futour
that he did or might have enjoyed therein to the worlds
end for witness whereof the said William Dyre in
hath sett to his hand & Seale this present XX  day
of December Ano Domy 1644:
William Dyre

Sealed signed & [notice the darker paper by William's signature where the seal was]
Wthin the prsenc
mary dire
Samuell X Dyre  [William Dyer signed Samuel's surname]

Speaking of sealed, there’s a waxy, oily spot on the paper where a seal would have been before the deed was unsealed later, for George Gardner to sell the land. Seals are about the size of a dime. I would love to know what William’s seal looked like. Jo Ann Butler and I think that it was a D for Dyer, because of the reverse impression it made on the flap of paper next to the place where the seal was.
Two engraved seals and a
silver pendant of an anchor seal
by Suegray Jewelry of Newport.
At this time, several men shared seals, and Roger Williams and Benedict Arnold were known to use the image of an anchor to seal documents. Three years later, in 1648, William Dyer presented the Rhode Island assembly, for which he was Recorder and then Secretary of State, with an ivory-handled seal that had an anchor on it. See my article at  The anchor logo is still the symbol of the state of Rhode Island. 

The paper was a yellowed "laid" paper, with texture lines rolled onto the paper when it was made. The paper was made of linen rags, and imported from England. There were no paper mills or factories in America until 1690.

Christy K Robinson is the author of this Dyer website and three five-star-reviewed books on the Dyers, available by clicking these links.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Shine on Harvest Moon

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

William Dyer, in addition to being the first Attorney General in America, a haberdasher and shipping investor, a cofounder of Newport, Rhode Island, a militia captain, surveyor, admiralty court judge, and Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Seas, was a farmer. He was the son of a farmer in Lincolnshire, and his sons were farmers and husbandmen (animal breeders).

Mary Dyer, his wife, would have been occupied during the years for which we have no record, with managing their household and farm, and probably their financial accounting (as other women were known to do). She witnessed a property transfer, and she had a well-practiced hand at cursive and italic writing, so she might have carried on business correspondence or matters relating to the Dyers’ enterprises.

In household inventories taken for probate in England and New England, the books that many people owned were a family Bible (the Geneva Bible was preferred by Puritans) and an “herball.” The herbal book identified edible and medicinal plants and gave recipes for preparing them as remedies for injury and illness.

Early Acadia (Maine and eastern
Canada), by Claude Picard,
mid-17th century
Our New England ancestors had large home lots, sometimes two or three acres even in the towns, in order to plant gardens and orchards to supply the needs of their large households of children and servants. Many also held tracts of land in forest, marsh, and meadow, to provide for their sustenance, building materials, hunting, and crops.

To judge by the woodcut images of the 16th and 17th centuries, the home gardens were often planted in raised beds with walkways between them, something we’ve noticed making a comeback in cities where backyard gardeners cultivate tomatoes and salsa or salad veggies.

They had fruit and nut orchards, blackberry brambles, the raised beds for cultivated vegetables and legumes, and even shelves with round pots for herbs, as I saw in a woodcut. The formal gardens were laid out not only for ornamental delight, but to facilitate irrigation in droughts. The gardeners preferred fences made of wood, stone, and hedge, but not of earth because it held excess water to drown or mildew the plants.

Wheat, rye, barley and Indian corn, squash, melons, beans, peas, and other crops were grown in the larger fields. We’ve often heard that potatoes didn’t come on the scene for another century or two, but letters from the 1630s indicate that John Winthrop Jr., in Connecticut, had a plentiful supply of Virginia potatoes, shipped in from Bermuda, and one of his correspondents who lived in Saybrook, on Long Island Sound, grew potatoes.

Gov. John Winthrop Sr. journaled on March 8, 1636 that the ship Rebecka, coming from Bermuda, brought a great store of oranges and limes (which prevented and cured scurvy in the winter), and "thirty thousand weight of potatoes... Potatoes were bought there for two shillings and eight pence the bushel, and sold here for two pence the pound." A skilled carpenter earned about 3 shillings (36 pence) for a 12-hour day's work, or about 3 pence per hour. If you figure a Boston base wage in 2013 of, say, $43 per hour, that's expensive for potatoes--about $13 per pound. We can extract from that "two pence the pound" that food was scarce and expensive in late winter, when last summer's crops were nearly used up and the first fruits and vegetables wouldn't be ready for four or five months. This is the time when Rev. Hugh Peter was organizing the fishing industry and sending the salt fish to New England towns rather than to Africa or the Caribbean plantations.

One cash crop New Englanders planted that we usually connect with the American South is tobacco. But tobacco quickly robbed the soil of nutrients, and subsequent food crops failed, so famine was rampant. Combined with Little Ice Age late frosts, wet springs, and summer droughts, the meager fields weren’t always sufficient to feed families for a year. In early Newport, food supplies were inventoried household by household, and grain rations were redistributed in the lean winter months so no one would starve.

Wampanoag garden at Plimoth Plantation, July 2016.
When the Plymouth colonists were planting their first crops in 1621, they were doing so in poor, sandy soil. The native Wamapanoags taught them what to plant and how to plant most effectively, and to “manure” (as the English called it) the seed hills with decomposing fish. The decomposition process both fertilized the soil and warmed it, a desirable outcome in the Little Ice Age. The “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, were planted together so that the bean vines climbed the corn stalks and returned nitrogen to the soil. 

Some New England colonists’ food was foraged in forest and field: groundnuts and purslane (the latter is a common weed rich in omega fatty acids), wild berries, grapes, tree nuts, and other plants. Though purslane was popular as a salad ingredient in Europe, Native Americans considered it an inedible weed.

They ate bears?
In addition to domestic animals and seafood, colonists ate wild game and fowl. William Dyer was sent with other men to trade goods with the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, for their venison. That was considered a more efficient way of obtaining venison than hunting, because of the risk of injury, getting lost in the forests, or musket accidents. They also ate animals that make us shudder in horror: squirrel, muskrat, raccoon, bear, and other creatures. (My northern Minnesota grandparents and their siblings ate bear, walleye pike, and venison during the Great Depression and World War II, to supplement their ration card foods.)

Back in Olde England, unless they were gentry, their diets had been mostly vegetarian with a bit of rabbit or chicken, or possibly fish for special occasions. Beef, venison, pork, and turkey were for the privileged class. Peas and beans were their staple diet, and "pease porridge in the pot nine days old" wasn't just a nursery rhyme--it was every meal for the common man. Dried peas were also a staple for ships' passengers and crew.

But in America, that was turned on its head. “Flesh” foods saved their lives when crops repeatedly failed. Giant lobsters caught off Maine and Massachusetts were disdained as food for servants, slaves, and dogs. In the late 1630s and 1640s, it was forbidden to butcher sheep or lambs for meat because they were still scarce, the colony needed to develop the wool industry, and they weren’t getting textiles from England during its civil wars. But they slaughtered wildlife by thousands and millions, according to William Wood's 1634 book, New-Englands Prospect.

Although I’ve seen second-hand references to almanacs that taught when to plant and harvest, by the phase of the moon, or the equinox or solstice, it’s been more difficult to find primary sources of that information, perhaps because modern agricultural practices are based on observed science and not religion-based (including pagan) views of astrology. See the examples from 17th-century herbal encyclopedias that I’ve reproduced at the end of this article.

Some lore suggests that the moon phases affecting bodies of water also affect animals and plants. Humans are more than 75 percent water-based, and our words lunatic and loony derive from centuries-old beliefs that erratic or insane behavior is heightened at the full or new moon because of our water content. From time immemorial, women have measured their menstrual cycles and fertility by the 28-day moon phases.

Traditional beliefs were that during a waxing (increasing) moon, it was the perfect time to plant seeds, and sow fields; but during the waning period beginning at the full moon, it was time for harvest, pruning, weeding, and drying of herbs or garden produce.

There are names assigned to the full moon in every month of the year, but the Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest the autumn equinox. It’s named so because the Harvest Moon occurs at the climax of the harvest season, so farmers can work late into the night by the moon's light.
Illustration from Gerard's Herball, 1633.
Click to enlarge.

There are also traditions about planting certain crops or garden foods in the winter or spring, by the moon phases. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, and other root plants that produce below the ground were planted during new moon because of the lower ground moisture that increased with the waxing of the moon and its tides.

Following are excerpts from some of the 17th-century herbal encyclopedias available online.

A new orchard and garden:
or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good, for a rich orchard: particularly in the North and generally for the whole kingdom of England. With The country housewifes garden for herbes of common use, as also the husbandry of bees, all being the experience of 48. yeeres labour, and now the third time corrected and much enlarged
by William Lawson, 1618

“Garden flowers shall suffer some disgrace, if among them you intermingle Onions, Parsnips, &c.”

Of gathering and keeping Fruit.
Although it be an easie matter, when God shall send it, to gather and keepe fruit, yet are they  certaine things worthy your regard. You must gather your fruit when it is ripe, and not before, else will it wither and be tough and sower. All fruit generally are ripe, when they begin to fall. For Trees Doe as all other bearers Doe, when their yong ones are ripe, they will waine [wean] them. The Dove her pigeons, the Cony her Rabbets, and women their children. Some fruit tree sometimes getting a taint in the setting with a frost or evill winde, will cast his fruit untimely, but not before he leave giving them sap, or they leave growing. Except from this foresaid rule, Cherries, Damsons, and Bullies. The Cherry is ripe when he is swelled wholly red, and sweet: Damsons and Bullies not before the first frost. Apples are knowne to be ripe, partly by their colour, growing towards a yellow, except the Leather-coat and some peares and Greenings.
Timely summer fruit will be ready, some at Midsummer, most at Lammas [Aug. 2] for present Use; but generally no keeping fruit before Michaeltide [Sept. 29]. Ward Winter fruit and Wardens longer. Gather at the full of the Moone for keeping, gather Dry, for feare of rotting. Gather the stalkes withall: for a little wound in fruit, is deadly; but Not the stumpe, that must bear the next fruit, nor leaves, for moisture putrifies.  

Culpeper’s complete herbal:
consisting of a comprehensive description of nearly all herbs with their medicinal properties and directions for compounding the medicines extracted from them
By Nicholas Culpeper, physician (1616-1654)

ADDER'S TONGUE—(Ophiogloetum Vulgatum.)
Descrip,—This herb hath but one leaf, which grows with the stalk a finger's length above the ground, being flat and of a fresh green colour; broad like water plantain, but less, without any rib in it; from the bottom of which leaf on the inside riseth up, ordinarily, one, sometimes two or three slender stalks, the upper part whereof is somewhat bigger, and dented with small dents of a yellowish green colour, like the tongue of an adder serpent, (only this is as useful as they are formidable). The roots continue all the year.
Place,—It grows in moist meadows, and in such like moist places.
Times,—It is to be found in May or April, for it quickly perisheth with a little heat.
Movement and Virtues,—It is an herb under the dominion of the Moon and Cancer, and therefore, if the weakness of the retentive faculty be caused by an evil influence in any part of the body governed by the moon, or under the dominion of Cancer, this herb cures it by sympathy. It cures these diseases after specified, in any part of the body under the influence of Saturn, by antipathy. It is temperate in respect of heat, but dry in the second degree. The juice of the leaves drank with the distilled water of horse-tail, is a singular remedy of all manner of wounds in the breasts, bowels, or other parts of the body, and is given with good success unto those that are troubled with casting, vomiting, or bleeding at the mouth and nose, or otherwards downwards. The said juice given in the distilled water of oaken buds, is very good for women who have their usual courses, or whites flowing down too abundantly. It helps sore eyes. Of the leaves infused or boiled in oil, omphacine, or unripe olives, set in the sun for certain days, or the green leaves sufficiently boiled in the said oil, is made an excellent green balsam, not only for green and fresh wounds, but also for old and inveterate ulcers, especially if a little fine clear turpentine be dissolved therein. It also stayeth and refresheth all inflammations that arise upon pains by hurts and wounds

Other books on 17th-century herbs, fruits, and vegetables:
The English Housewife, by Gervase Markham
The English Husbandman, by Gervase Markham
Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine, by Ann Leighton

Christy K Robinson is the author of five books and two history sites, three of the books revolving around the titans of New England. Click their titles to read the five-star reviews and purchase the paperback or Kindle editions.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Life sketch of Sampson Dyer, 1773-1843

and the naming of the “other” Dyer(s) Island

© 2016 Christy K Robinson
Top: Prudence Island
Middle: Dyer Island
Bottom: Aquidneck Island with the town of Portsmouth

Photo by Christy K Robinson, July 26, 2016

 A few weeks ago, I was half-listening to a nature program on TV, when I heard the words “Shark Alley” and “Dyer Island.”

There’s a Dyer Island in Narragansett Bay, named after William Dyer, 1609-1677, a cofounder of Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island. He was granted the island in 1638, and several men wrote affidavits in 1669 that it was William’s possession. In August 1670 (possibly on his son’s birthday), he gave it to his second-eldest son, William. The island is only 28 acres in size, and is an uninhabited bird sanctuary acquired for preservation and incorporation into the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve using state and NOAA funds.

William Dyre to William Dyre.
I, William Dyre of Newport, Gent., Do Give my Sonn William Dyre, my Island, Called Dyres Island lying and being scittuated in Narrogansett Bay upon the Northern side of Rhode-Island over against Prudence Island.
fifth day of August, One Thowsand six hundred and seventie.
Wit. William Dyre
Daniell King
Though great white sharks are well known in Long Island Sound and off the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the few sharks in Narragansett Bay (actually not a bay, but a river estuary) are dogfish sharks. There's no Shark Alley in Narragansett Bay!

Though I’d missed the narrator’s location of Dyer’s Island, it was rather easy to do a search, and find a Dyer Island off Cape Town, South Africa. Shark Alley lies between Dyer and Geyser islands. Being curious about how it was named, I learned it was the property of one Sampson Dyer of Newport, Rhode Island. And if you know this website or my books at all, you know that “Dyer” and “Newport” used together make my heart beat faster.

Dyer Island (with the Google map pin) and Geyser Rock
at the bottom. Shark Alley is the bit of water
between the islands. Click to enlarge.
Dyer Island was inhabited by African penguins and covered with their guano (droppings), which Sampson Dyer sold on the mainland for fertilizer. Geyser Rock was home to hundreds of thousands of fur seals, which he killed for their pelts. The water between the two volcanic seamounts is Shark Alley, where great white sharks hunt for seals, and eco-tourism companies take brave/insane divers to be submerged in shark cages for the joy of, well, I honestly don’t know.

Why was Sampson Dyer so far from his birthplace of Newport, and his wife and children at home on Nantucket? Let’s back up and learn a bit more about him.

Sampson was the son of James and Elizabeth Dyer, but I can find no background on them. He was a freeman of mixed race, African and Wampanoag (Native American tribe in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island).

Some of the Rhode Island Dyer descendants were employed in the slave trade: the colony’s ports were the apex of a triangle trade which started with distilling rum, which was traded for African slaves, who were transported to grow and harvest sugarcane in the South and Caribbean, and shipped the sugar/molasses to Rhode Island to be made into rum.

English owners generally didn't bestow their surname on slaves, similar to the way that you don't give farm animals a surname. Slaves generally only had one given name, and usually they were the names of slaves or servants or strong people in the Bible: Sampson was such a name, as was his first wife, Patience. How was Sampson a freeman? Perhaps his father or grandfather was freed when the Quakers rejected lifetime servitude.
Sampson Dyer, about 1802-1804, a
painting by the Chinese artist Spoilum.
The Nantucket Historical Association
purchased the portrait from an island family.
The hand-in-waistcoat pose denoted
calm leadership, good humor, and
suitably elevated character.

There are several possibilities for the Dyer surname:
1. His father or grandfather was an African slave, and took the name of Dyer from his owner after he was freed, and his mother or grandmother was a Wampanoag;
2. His father or grandfather was a Dyer descendant who married a woman of mixed race.

The portrait of Sampson Dyer shows a 30-year-old man with short black hair, no facial hair, and medium-tone brown skin.

In 1792, at age 19, he married Patience Allen (she had a surname, so she was probably mixed-race and free), also of Newport, and they moved to New Guinea, a town on Nantucket where people of color lived. Nantucket, thanks to the efforts of the Quakers, had outlawed slavery in 1773. Even though free, perhaps Sampson and Patience had been mistaken for slaves and harassed in Newport.

Sampson was employed as a harpooner on a whaling ship, and eventually became a ship’s steward in the China trade. A side business of whaling was the slaughter of fur seals for their pelts and oil. He was the commander of a sealing expedition to the Juan Fernandez Islands off Valparaiso, Chile, and sat for a portrait by a Chinese artist in about 1804. He also worked for a South African firm, preparing seal skins on what became known as Dyer Island and Geyser Rock.

By 1810, he and Patience were the parents of Charles, Trilonia who married a Pompey, Charlotte, Harriet, and Sampson Dyer Jr., none of whom I can find genealogical information for. The oldest child might have been 17 by then. But the last time Sampson sailed into Nantucket harbor, Patience was pregnant with another man’s baby. At the age of 37, Sampson left Nantucket, never to return, and sailed back to Cape Town on another sealing expedition.

Without benefit of divorce, perhaps because he thought Patience’s infidelity annulled their 20-year marriage, he married a Dutch woman, Margaretha Engel, in 1812. Sampson’s brother James went to visit or stay with his brother in 1814, and died there. The news that came back to Nantucket said that Sampson had died, and Patience thought she was free to marry her lover, Samuel Harris. Harris was a successful businessman who owned several properties.

Sampson Dyer sought and won British citizenship in 1813, and wrote to the British governor that he’d prepared 24,000 sealskins in four seasons. Sealing and guano sales made him a wealthy man. He owned farms on the mainland near Overberg. In 1824, when he was 51, he was called “a most extraordinary man of uncommon industry, honesty and sobriety." Sampson and Margaretha Dyer had several children:
3 daughters (for whom I couldn't find names),
James Lucas Dyer (possibly Jan Johannes Albertus Dyer) b. 4 Aug 1813,
Samson Washington Dyer b. 6 Nov 1817  (father paying tribute to America’s George Washington)
Michiel Johannes Dyer b. 7 Mar 1820

Sampson was baptized and died in 1843, when he was 70 years old. His descendants in South Africa changed their name to Dyers, and if you look for his genealogy, you’ll find it as “<private> Dyers, SV/PROG.” The letters stand for "StamVader," meaning the first ancestor by that surname in the country or, as in this case, "progenitor" = PROG. Perhaps the South African descendants didn’t want to trace their ancestry from a man of mixed race.

The two Dyer Islands, connected by Sampson Dyer of Newport, RI.
Both tiny islands are bird sanctuaries.
Click to enlarge.
As for the “other” Dyer Island, after countless thousands of fur seals were slaughtered there, and the bird guano was removed, the African penguin population declined precipitously. The penguin eggs had been laid in tunnels in the guano, but when the guano was removed, there was only bare volcanic rock, and eggs and chicks were preyed upon by gulls and other birds. Eggs were also a delicacy for humans, and thousands were harvested. And don’t forget the sharks that preyed upon the remaining seals (40,000) and penguins (5,000). The islands were declared a nature reserve, and only biologists and scientists are allowed to land at the islands today, though there are adventure boat excursions from Danger Point. To, you know, flirt with and torment hungry sharks.  

Was Sampson Dyer descended from William and Mary Dyer? Or were his forbears owned by Dyer descendants? Surely, being from Newport, he was well aware of Dyer Island in Narragansett Bay. There are two Dyer Islands, and Sampson is the connection, but we’ll probably never find what happened in the missing 100 years or the details of family relationships. It seems that Sampson didn't want it known.

Sampson Dyer, Portrait of a Nantucket Mariner, by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Nantucket Historical Association, Vol. 63, No. 2, Fall 2013, p. 19

Christy K Robinson is the author of five books available in paperback and Kindle at these links:

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Dyer books: real people, real events, in a story

Available in paperback and Kindle ebook editions
For yourself. For gifts.

The research is not only on Mary and William Dyer, but on John Cotton, John Wilson, Henry Vane, John and Margaret Winthrop, Anne and William Hutchinson, Edward Hutchinson, Richard and Catherine Scott, Nathaniel Sylvester, John Endecott, John Clarke, and many others, as well as the founding of Boston and Newport. If you have ancestors among that lot, you should read these books to put them in context.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Life sketch of Rev. Hugh Peter

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

Hugh Peter, a Puritan minister who did good things for New England, was one of the accusers of Anne Hutchinson at her 1637 and 1638 trials and pushed for her banishment. He would have been aware of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous” miscarriage.

His grandfather carried the name of a manor in Norfolk, England, called Dyckwoode, and it seems that for a time in the 16th century, the family lived in the Netherlands but moved to England for reasons of religious freedom. Hugh Peter (the surname his father changed from Dyckwoode) was born in Cornwall in 1598. He earned his MA at Cambridge University, which was favored by Puritans, and indeed, preaching became his career.

In 1625, he married a widow, Elizabeth Cooke Reade, who was 30 years older than Hugh and had adult children, one of whom married John Winthrop Jr. Elizabeth died in England in 1637.
Rev. Hugh Peter, portrait by

Gustavus Ellinthorpe Sintzenich

Hugh criticized Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of Charles I, lost his preaching license, went back to the Netherlands for a few years and was a military chaplain, then (when he was trying to slide past the English military that were looking for him) was persuaded by friends to go to New England. It’s interesting that he mentions The Book of Sports, written by King James I and reissued by Charles I. Sports required the Puritans to play and enjoy themselves on Sunday afternoons, rather than sit in hours-long church services for the entire day. In other words, they had to break the sacredness of their Sabbath to do secular activities. Hugh said of his decision to emigrate, “And truly my reason for myself and others to go, was merely, not to offend Authority [King Charles I] in the difference of Judgment; and had not the Book for Encouragement of Sports on the Sabbath come forth, many [would have] staid [in England].”  (If you click the Book of Sports link, you'll see why 35,000 people moved to New England in the 1630s.)

So in 1635, Hugh emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony and was appointed minister of the church in Salem, which was a more religiously fundamental town than Boston or most other towns. He was admitted as a freeman at the same time as Henry Vane and William Dyer. He excommunicated Roger Williams and banished him—during the vicious winter—so that Williams had to flee to the Narragansett Indians, where he founded Providence Plantation (Rhode Island). As the stepfather of John Winthrop, Jr.'s wife, he helped to make Connecticut a colony through his connections with the Winthrops and Rev. Thomas Hooker, whom he'd known in England.Winthrop Junior was the Connecticut governor or deputy governor for many years.

While in the Bay Colony, he was placed on a commission to develop the fishing industry from a gaggle of independent fisherman sending cargoes of fish to Europe or the Caribbean at great expense, into a confederation of fishermen, with coordinated cargoes, canneries for preserving, coastal stations for resupplying the fishing fleet with tackle and rigging, and regulations for what to do with fish: valuable cod, bass, and halibut were not to be spread as “manure” on crops, but preserved for sale abroad. Gov. Winthrop mentioned Hugh Peter’s work as being helpful in the lean winters and springs before the crops came in: they had salt fish to keep them alive, and that Hugh organized funding to build a 150-ton ship to send Massachusetts goods to foreign markets.

In 1636, preaching at Boston, Rev. Peter urged several things of the church. Among them was that they would "take order for employment of people, (especially women and children, in winter time;) for he feared that idleness would be the ruin both of church and commonwealth." Winthrop's Journal, May 1636. (Remember this when in the 1640s he is involved in child trafficking from English slums.)
Mr. Peter was harshly critical of Anne Hutchinson's religious teaching and as one of her inquisitors, persuaded the General Court to banish her; he and other ministers visited Hutchinson while she was incarcerated at Joseph Weld's home and preached to her, tried to get her to recant, and took her answers as evidences against her in her excommunication trial. He was also one of the founding board members of Harvard College in 1638.

Two years after his much-older wife died in 1637, he married Deliverance Sheffield--unwillingly--because it seems that members of the Boston and Salem churches didn't like having a single man as their minister, and they considered the marriage arranged! Hugh wrote to Governor Winthrop, "If you shall amongst you advise mee to write to her, I shall forthwith, our towne lookes upon mee contracted, and soe I have sayd my selfe." Mrs. Deliverance Peter gave birth to Hugh's only daughter between 1639 and 1641, but it became evident that she was mentally ill. (With hindsight, one could see her scattered thoughts in her letters written before they married.) He left her in the colony when he moved back to England, and wrote from the old country, "Bee sure you never let my wife come away from thence without my leave [if] you love mee." 

In 1641, three men were needed to return to England to be agents for the colony: Rev. Thomas Weld (who soon after wrote the vicious introduction to Winthrop’s book about Hutchinson and Dyer), magistrate William Hibbins (whose wife would someday be hanged as a witch), and Rev. Hugh Peter. John Endecott stirred up the Salem church to deny permission for the hugely popular Hugh Peter to return to England, saying that he might never return. Charles Spencer, in Killers of the King, wrote that Rev. Peter had "extraordinarily infectious words, which could rouse men to fight with a courage reserved for those utterly confident in God's blessing."  However, he did go as an agent for the colony of Massachusetts Bay, and they were right: he never returned.

The three men were able to get Parliament to grant that the colony not pay customs or taxes on their natural resources like fish, timber, furs, or lumber. Sweet! That nifty patent stayed in effect for decades. And when another king, 140 years later, demanded customs and taxes, remember what happened? The Boston Tea Party.

Meanwhile, Rev. Weld was having less success with his efforts, so he created a Narragansett patent and took it around the Council of State and other leaders for signatures. The patent said Massachusetts Bay Colony owned the northwesterly parts of Rhode Island. His fraud was discovered, and he was recalled to Massachusetts for disciplinary action, but he never returned, having conveniently found an English parish church to preach in up north. In the 1650s, he wrote tracts refuting the Quakers' radical theology.

Weld and Peter had another lucrative business in England: they took children and teens, orphans or the fatherless, from parish poor rolls and kept them in a camp until a ship could be made ready to transport them as “servants” (or slaves) to America. An epidemic killed a large number of the camp inmates. When the children were put on ships, it was without minders or nurses—just the rough ship’s crew were in charge for eight to twelve weeks. The human trafficking enlarged as the English Civil Wars raged in the 1640s and people were separated from families by death or displacement. Peter went with the Cromwell army to Ireland, too, so it’s possible that he took part in or suggested the deportation of Irish slaves to America and the Caribbean.

Hugh Peter was the chaplain for Oliver Cromwell and the General Fairfax's army during the Civil Wars, and  he counseled the Parliamentary politicians to try and execute King Charles. Several diarists of the day wrote that Peter was theatrical, melodramatic, and absurd in the pulpit, with facial expressions and shruggings of shoulders (hmmm, reminds us of the orange-faced candidate of 2016), that Samuel Pepys called comical.

Rev. Peter was critical of the Anglo-Dutch war (in which William Dyer sought and was given the commission of Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Seas), saying to the Council of State that the two Protestant powers should work together, and not blow one another apart on the seas.

He led the procession of the king from Windsor to London for his trial. When the execution came to pass in early 1649 (meanwhile, back in Boston, Winthrop was in his final illness), rumor had it that Hugh Peter was the other man, besides the headsman and the unfortunate king, there on the platform at Charing Cross. They said they recognized his voice, though his face was obscured like the headsman’s.

At the Restoration (of Charles II to the throne) in 1660, those who took part in Charles I's execution or the conspiracy to execute were called regicides. Most of them were caught and tried. At his trial, one of his colleagues said that Rev. Peter had boasted of another reason beside colony business, that he was sent to England in 1641, and that was that the colonial agents were to stir up war against the King of England. In that, Hugh Peter and his colleagues were successful. After his trial, Hugh Peter was given the traitor’s death: hanged but taken down, emasculated, his organs drawn out while he was alive, and then dismembered, with his head set on a pike and his limbs sent around the country.

Hugh Peter was the butt of satirical songs and articles accusing him of drunkenness, adultery against his mad wife back in Massachusetts (a capital offense in the colony), embezzlement, and inappropriate jocularity against the king. He denied them; historian C.H. Firth, at the end of the 19th century, said that Hugh Peter didn’t do those things, and that on the contrary, Hugh was honest and upright. In light of the many reports we can assemble in the 21st century, I'm of the opinion that Firth was a tad optimistic about Hugh's character.
1647: Another side of Rev. Hugh Peter. 
 In the Dictionary of National Biography, the historian Burnet characterized him as "an enthusiastical buffoon preacher, though a very vicious man, who had been of great use to Cromwell, and had been very outrageous in pressing the king's death with the cruelty and rudeness of an inquisitor."
It looks like Hugh is peering through a keyhole, but one writer suggested that Hugh had a reputation for womanizing, and that in this satirical cartoon from 1647, he was reaching under the door for a key when his fingers were caught in a mousetrap. When the husband startles awake, the duplicitous wife assures him that what he heard was the mousetrap. “The Rat is catch’t,” she says. Hugh Peter mourns, “Oh, my fingers.”
The cartoon is 370 years old, and I can’t stop laughing at it.


Christy K Robinson is the author of three books on William and Mary Barrett Dyer and their culture, friends, and enemies, all meticulously researched over years. Find them here: