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William Phelps (c1599 - July 14, 1672) was an Puritan Englishman who emigrated in 1630 to the American Colonies. He was one of the founders of both Dorchester, Massachusettsmarker and Windsor, Connecticutmarker, foreman of the first grand jury in New England, served most of his life in early colonial government, and played a key role in establishing the first democratic town government in the American colonies.

Origin of William Phelps

Oliver Seymour Phelps and his son-in-law, Andrew T. Servin, authors of The Phelps Family in America, erred in concluding that William Phelps and a brother, George Phelps, both emigrated from Tewkesburymarker, Gloucestershiremarker, Englandmarker in 1630 to the New World. Their identification of the origin of William Phelps of Dorchester, Massachusetts was based solely on an estimate of his birth date, derived from his known age of 72 at death on July 14, 1672. Oliver Phelps located a William Phelps who was baptized in Tewkesbury on August 19, 1599, and thus identified him as the original immigrant. He also believed that George Phelps of Windsor, Connecticut, was William’s brother, despite the fact that they could not locate any records for a George Phelps in Tewkesbury. Recent genetic research has shown no biological relationship between the descendents of William and George Phelps.

Additionally, the will of William Phelps’ mother Dorothy in Tewkesbury, probated on May 5, 1617, mentioned a brother-in-law, Edward Phelps. His will in turn, probated on July 1, 1637, named as overseer of his estate his nephew, William Phelps, likely placing William Phelps of Tewkesbury in England and not across the Atlantic in the Massachusetts Bay.

More recent expert research has identified William Phelps of Crewkernemarker, Somersetshiremarker, Englandmarker as the probable immigrant. He had two wives: (1) Mary (surname unknown), buried in England in 1626, and (2) Anne Dover, who probably accompanied him and children from both marriages to Dorchestermarker, Massaschusetts, a town later subsumed as a neighborhood of Boston. The names and birthdates of his children correspond to the records later found in the American colony.

Marriage to Mary

William Phelps of Crewkernemarker, England is estimated to have married his first wife Mary sometime between 1615-1618, as their first child William was baptized at Crewkerne on September 9, 1618. Mary and William had four children, all baptized before 1625 at Crewkerne: William, Samuel, an unnamed infant who died young, and Nathaniel. Mary was buried at Crewkerne on August 13, 1626.

Marriage to Ann Dover

Three months after Mary's death, William married Ann Dover at Crewkerne, on November 14, 1626. They had four children in Engalnd: Cornelius, Joseph and Mary (twins), and another child named Mary. Researchers can not find further records of Cornelius or either of the two girls named Mary, and presume they all died young. After arriving in the Colonies, Ann and William had three more children: Sarah, Timothy, and a third Mary. Records in the Colonies have been found for the children named Joseph, Sarah, Timothy and the last Mary, corresponding to records from the International Genealogical Index in Somerset listing the names of William Phelps' children from both wives.

Emigration to New England

King Charles I of England had succeeded his father King James I of England in 1625, and continued his father's strong opposition to the Puritan movement, who opposed many of the Anglican Church's doctrines as retaining too much of its Roman Catholic roots. After the Puritans assumed control of Parliament, they began to pose a serious threat to the King's authority. In January 1629, in a move to neutralize his opponents, Charles dissolved Parliament entirely. The religious and political climate became so difficult for Puritans that many began to make arrangements to leave the country.

William Phelps was among them. A member of Reverend John Warham's church, they were organized on March 19, 1630 as the West Country Company at Plymouth. England, the day before leaving England. Warham had been a minister since 1614, but was relieved of his ministerial duties in 1627 because of his “strong Puritan leanings.”

Led by the Reverend John White, the group met on March 20, 1630 at New Hospital, Plymouth, England. White has been called “the father of the Massachusetts Colony,” despite remaining in England his entire life, because of his influence in establishing this settlement. They fasted, prayed and prepared themselves for their perilous long voyage. White preached sermons in the morning and afternoon; then, with his blessing, the group departed for the New World aboard the Mary and John.

Unlike many who fled England for Canadamarker, Irelandmarker, and the Caribbeanmarker during this time, the Puritans who migrated to the New World were on the whole better educated and tended to leave relatively prosperous lives to establish a new society of pious family values. They were not leaving for religious freedom, per se, as they believed their faith to be the only true religion, and they disrespected all other faiths, especially Quakers.

From their first arrival aboard the Mayflower in 1620, until 1629, only about 300 Puritans had survived in New England, scattered in small and isolated settlements. In 1630, their population was significantly increased when the ship Mary and John arrived in New England carrying 140 passengers from the English West Country counties of Dorsetmarker, Somersetmarker, Devonmarker and Cornwallmarker. These included William Phelps along with Roger Ludlowe, John Mason, Samuel Maverick, Nicholas Upsall, Henry Wolcott and other men who would become prominent in the founding of a new nation.

It was the first of the ships later called the Winthrop Fleet to land in Massachusetts. While the passenger lists for this voyage are not well documented, researchers from the Mary and John Clearing House concluded that it is highly likely that William Phelps, his wife Ann Dover, and their sons William, Samuel, Nathanial and Joseph were aboard ship. These names support the conclusion that William Phelps was from Crewkerne and not Tewkesbury.

Early colonial life

The emigrants founded the town of Dorchester in 1630, at what is now the intersection of Columbia Road and Massachusetts Avenue in South Boston. The Puritan settlers landed at Columbia Point, which the Native Americans called "Mattaponnock".

The emigrants founded the First Parish Church of Dorchester in 1631, which exists today as the Unitarian-Universalist church on Meetinghouse Hill, being the oldest religious organization in present-day Boston. The first church building was a simple log cabin with a thatched roof. The settlers held their first town meeting at the church, and they set their laws in open and frequent discussion. In all of this they were inspired by the ideal of the Kingdom of Godon earth and the attempt to realize this in Englandmarker in the time of the Rev. John White. The church is referred to as a 'Foundation Stone of the Nation".

The new settlers also founded in 1639 the first elementary school in the New World supported by public money, the Mather Schoolmarker. The school is the oldest elementary school in America. (Dorchester was annexed by the City of Bostonmarker in 1970.)

Foreman of first grand jury

Phelps served continually in varying governing capacities for many years. He was a member of the first General Court held in the colony in 1636, a member of the Court of Magistrates from 1637 to 1643, and was foreman of the first Grand Jury in 1643.

Early service in government

Phelps name was spelled in the Massachusetts Colonial Records variously as Felps, Phelips and Phelps. He was made constable, assigned to serve on committees given authority to settle land and boundary disputes, and given other key responsibilities in administering the affairs of the new town, including serving on the “General Court,” or general meeting, at which individuals were tried for offenses including absence from church, forgery, fornication, and “bastardy.”

Phelps remained in Dorchester until 1635 when he and a large number of other families relocated to a new site inland which they named Windsor.

Founding of Windsor

Plan of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut circa 1640-1654, showing the names and locations of settlers' homes, the Palisade, and various geographic features.
1633 the Plymouth Trading Company established the first Connecticut settlement, a trading post at what would become Windsor, Connecticutmarker, in territory the Dutch claimed and in which they maintained a fort and trading post, about seven miles downriver in what was later Hartford, Connecticutmarker. In 1635, Puritan and Congregationalist members of Reverend Warham’s and Reverend Maverick's congregation, including William Phelps, John Mason, Roger Ludlow, Henry Wolcott, and others, all prominent settlers, were dissatisfied with the rate of Anglican reforms. They sought permission from the Massachusetts General Court to establish a new ecclesiastical society subject to their own rules and regulations. About 60 individuals, totaling 23 heads of households, undertook a two-week's journey about 100 miles to the east. They founded a new town they initially also named Dorchester. Two years later in 1637, the colony's General Court changed the name of the settlement from Dorchester to Windsor, believed to be named after the city of Windsor, Englandmarker on the River Thames. The new town was the first English settlement in the state. Under pressure from continued English settlement, the Dutch abandoned their post in 1654.

First town government in colonies

Windsor was supposed to be under the control of the Massachusetts Company, and William Phelps was one of eight commissioners appointed by the Colony of Massachusetts Bay to govern the Colony of Connecticut. The terms of their government was spelled out in a commission recorded on March 3, 1636, setting out how differences were to be resolved, fines and imprisonment imposed, trading, planting, building, lots, military discipline, defense in war, and the people to be self-governed in their new town. All meetings were to meet in a legal and open manner. Eight men were given "full power and authority" to lead the new colony: "Roger Ludlowe, Esqr., William Pinchon, Esq., John Steele, William Swaine, Henry Smythe, William Phelpes, William Westwood & Andrew Warde."

Roger Ludlow later wrote a book on the democratic procedures of Connecticut which furnished the outline of the Constitution of the United States.

Pequot war service

The Mashantucket Pequot had lived in Southeastern Connecticut for over 10,000 years. When the colonists occupied Windsor, Connecticut, they came into contact and later conflict with the Pequot who inhabited the area. The Pequot had recently conquered the area from another tribe. In 1637, the Pequot killed two British slave raiders who had been capturing Native Americans for the slave trade. The colonists demanded that the Indians who killed the slavers be turned over for punishment. The Pequot refused. Other skirmishes and confrontations ensued, including an attack on settlers working in fields near Wethersfield. This was retribution for the confiscation of land belonging to sachem Sowheag. The English, unlike the French, considered land more important than fur trade, and they enslaved or killed most of those who survived the periodic epidemics, like the Smallpox epidemic among the Pequot during 1630-32. The new comers wanted the land for themselves, and they believed God afflicted the Pequot with Smallbox as a blessing to the settlers.

"At a General Court held May 1, 1637 in Hartford, Connecticut, William Phelps presiding, it was ordered that there shall be an offensive war against the Pequot Indians, in which war he served.” On May 26, 1637, about 90 English militia combined forces with Indians who were also enemies of the Pequot, the Narragansetts and Mohegan. They attacked the Pequot palisade or fort at Mystic. Many of the Pequot men from that village, led by their sachem Sassacus, were largely absent from the village as they prepared another raid on Hartford, Connecticutmarker.

The militia, commanded by Captain John Mason, surrounded the palisaded village at dawn and set it to fire, striving to kill any who escaped the flames. By their own estimate they killed 600 to 700 individuals, captured seven, and saw seven escape. most of whom where women and children. This was later referred to as the Mystic massacre. In the ensuring weeks the Pequot, already decimated by Smallpox, were virtually eliminated as a tribe. The remaining individuals were enslaved by neighboring enemy tribes, sold into slavery to other colonies, or enslaved by the white settlers themselves.

Later public service

William Phelps was a member of the General Court for 23 years from 1636 to 1662. He was a member of Council in 1637. In 1641, he and later Governor Thomas Welles, of Hartford, were a committee on lying, “considered a grievous fault.” That same year he served as Governor of the Windsor Colony. He was also one of the earliest Governor's Assistants and Representative from 1645 to 1657. Phelps participated in enacting laws which with others were later called the Blue Laws of Connecticut."

The law of the day was specific regarding crimes and punishment, and Phelps was cited on numerous occasions for his responsibility in administering the law.

Land purchases

His home in Windsor was “a short distance north of the Mill River Valley,” and after the Connecticut River flooded during the breaking up of ice in the spring of 1639, he moved his home further south, “about three-quarters of a mile northwest of Broad Street on the road to Poquonock, the place owned, in 1859, by Deacon Roger Phelps.”

Phelps purchased land from the Indians on more than one occasion. Eighteenth century historian Henry Reed Stiles recorded him on March 31, 1665 as paying “four trucking coats” and wampum to “Nassahegan, an Indian sachem” and his kinsmen for land he had already occupied for some time. He was unable to provide title and prove his previous payment, forcing him to buy the land again.

The Massachusetts Colonial Records contain a report from February, 1666, which reported that "whereas there are several men that have land within the limits of it (the purchase aforesaid) both meadow and up-land, besides Mr. Phelps and his sons, it was therefore concluded that each man according to his proportion of land, capable of plowing or mowing, shall pay 12 pence per acre to Mr. Phelps; and each man paying to Mr. Phelps should afterwards have a clear title to their several shares of land." Stiles reported that "In these early days the title of Mister or Mr. was only given to elderly persons of distinction, while all military titles were always used. William Phelps received this distinguished title of Mr."

Stiles further noted that William Phelps "was one of the most prominent and highly respected men in the colony. An excellent, pious, and upright man in his public and private life, and was truly a pillar in Church and State." The family historian Oliver Phelps cited William Phelps as as "one of the fathers and founders of this now ocean-bound Republic."

Death and burial

Phelps died at age 73 on July 14, 1672, and was buried the next day. His wife died three years later on November 27, 1675. A Settlement Deed for his son Timothy's marriage to Mary, daughter of Edward Griswold another pioneer founder of Windsor, was dated April 22, 1660. Phelps’ last will and testament was entered on the Windsor, Connecticut register, July 26, 1672, and signed by Matthew Grant, Register.

See also


  1. Notable Events in Massachusetts
  2. "Calf Pasture Pumping Station", Dorchester Atheneum
  3. See Historical Sketch
  4. Revd. John White - First Parish Church of Dorchester, Mass.
  5. Mather Elementary School
  6. Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Volume 1, Page 7
  7. Two volumes

Additional reading

  • Trumbull, B. Complete History of Connecticut, Civil and Ecclesiastical. 2 vols. New London, 1898.

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