From Witch Trials to Praying Indians to Old Ship Church

“To All Christian People to whome this present instrument shall come Greeting,” this deed in our archives opens magisterially.  The date at the bottom is equally impressive:   July 4, 1690, “Anno Regni & Regina Guilielmi & Maria Secundi” (in the second year of the reign of King William and Queen Mary).  The deed is executed by William Stoughton, “of Dorchester in the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England,” and conveys several parcels of land in the vicinity of Broad Cove to Thomas Thaxter “of Hingham in the Colony aforesaid, yeoman.”  Stoughton is acting on behalf of “the Governor and Company established & residing in the Kingdome of England for the propagation of the Gospel to the Indians in New England &c.”

William Stoughton

William Stoughton

In addition to his service as a judge during the Salem witch trials (see our prior post about this document, “William Stoughton’s Seal”), and later service as first Chief Justice of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, Stoughton was Lieutenant Governor of the Colony in the 1680’s and early 1690’s.  Among his many other public positions was Commissioner, and later Treasurer to the Commissioners, of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America, a company chartered by Parliament in 1649 to support the conversion of New England’s native people.  The Company originally made investments in England and sent the income to the colonies, to be used to support conversion efforts, including John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Old Testament into the Massachusett language, the creation of settlements for the so-called “Praying Indians” (including present-day Stoughton, Mass.), and other missionary activities such as the creation of a short-lived “Indian College” at Harvard College.  (These efforts may be familiar to readers of the recent historical novel Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks.)

Eliot_BiblePoor returns on investments in England (including losses owing to the Great Fire in London) led the New England Company to start to send capital for investment in the colonies.  The task of finding suitable investments fell to Stoughton.  Two such investments, made in 1683, were loans of £50 each to Simon and Joshua Hobart of Hingham, sons of Captain Joshua Hobart, nephews of the Rev. Peter Hobart, and both identified as “mariners.”  The loans were secured by real estate in Hingham and, according to the legal structure of the day, evidenced by deeds conveying the parcels to Stoughton, upon the condition that if the greater sum of £66 was repaid four years hence, in 1687, the sale would be null and void.

It is not clear what happened to the younger Joshua Hobart’s land but, on July 4, 1690, Stoughton sold the land he had “purchased” from Simon Hobart to Thomas Thaxter, for the inappropriately small sum of £4.  In all likelihood, this sale to Thaxter was part of some larger transaction, of which we know nothing.

N__367777355How did Stoughton come to loan the New England Company’s funds to the Hobart brothers?  Stoughton had reason to be familiar with Hingham real estate in the early 1680’s.  In 1681, Hingham needed a new church, but a dispute arose about where to locate it.  The decision where to build what would become Old Ship Church was elevated to the General Court, which appointed an oversight committee, on which Stoughton served.  The Committee determined that the Church would be located on property purchased from Captain Joshua Hobart, adjacent to the parcels involved in the New England Company financing two years later.

From the Salem witch trials to the Praying Indians and back to Old Ship Church, this one old deed shows just what a small world 17th century Massachusetts Bay was.

William Stoughton’s Seal

Many of the documents in our archives bear the author or signer’s personal wax seal.  William Stoughton placed his personal seal at the bottom of a deed from 1690, by which he conveyed several parcels of land in Hingham to Thomas Thaxter.  The deed was witnessed by Thomas Mawdesley, who signed his name, and Peter Hicks, who placed his mark on the deed.  Two years later, Stoughton executed an acknowledgement at the bottom of the document that the document reflected his true act and deed, likely to prepare it for recording with the Suffolk Registry of Deeds.  Stoughton’s acknowledgement was witnessed by Samuel Sewall on July 30, 1692.


William Stoughton’s seal

Stoughton and Sewall were two of the seven judges whom Governor Phipps appointed to the infamous Court of Oyer and Terminer.  Between June and September 1692, this Court convicted 27 men and women in and around Salem of witchcraft and executed 20 of them.  Stoughton was chief justice, and he is remembered for his defense of the Court’s reliance on spectral evidence (a witness’ testimony that the accused’s specter had appeared and tormented him or her) to prove a demonic pact.  Sewall sat as the clerk of the court, and history remembers him more charitably because, in 1697, he acknowledged his responsibility and asked public forgiveness for his role in the witch trials.

The appearance of the signatures of both of these Salem judges on the deed in our archives makes it a curiosity, as does Stoughton’s wax seal–the very same seal which Stoughton placed on the death warrants of the condemned witches..  However, the date of Sewall’s acknowledgement, July 30, 1692, is what really makes the document intriguing.  The Court of Oyer and Terminer was appointed in May 1692 and started sitting in June of that year.  The first to be tried for witchcraft was Bridget Bishop; she was convicted and hanged on June 10.   On June 29 and 30, 1692, five women—Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes—were tried and convicted; they were hanged on July 19.   Four men and one woman—George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Jacobs, Sr., and John Proctor—were convicted on August 5, 1692, and this group was hanged on August 19.  Stoughton acknowledged the conveyance of property to Thaxter and had Sewall witness it right in the midst of all this terrible activity.

Two men in public life took a few minutes to tend to their other, more mundane responsibilities during an extraordinary period in their lives and our history.  The document in our archives is not “important” and does not teach us about the Salem witch trials.  It is affecting because it forces us to think of these severe, black-clad Salem judges as individuals.

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

William Stoughton

William Stoughton