Founding Mothers

Founding Mothers

The minister John Davenport and the merchant Theophilus Eaton are considered New Haven’s founding fathers, having led their flock to a shared new haven in 1638. But the men, women and children who helped them launch the Puritan colony—numbering “considerably” higher than 250, according to Edward E. Atwater’s History of the Colony of New Haven (1881)—are founders in their own right.

Women didn’t get much ink in those days, but if you look closely at the records produced by the fledgling colony—sometimes you literally have to squint—as well as authoritative later histories, you can find details and accounts that illuminate the lives of some of New Haven’s founding mothers. Pioneering city planner John Brockett’s 1641 map of New Haven, kindly if diminutively reproduced in select histories and on handouts photocopied by the New Haven Museum, identifies 123 residential plots in or near New Haven’s original nine squares. Averaging just one per square, nine women are listed as property holders, and unlike most of the men, their first names aren’t recorded. There’s a Widow Baldwin, a Mrs. Constable, a Mrs. Eaton, a Mrs. Eldred, a Widow Greene, a Mrs. Higginson, a Widow Potter, a Widow Sherman and a Widow Williams.

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“Widow”’s meaning has remained fairly constant across the intervening centuries, but contrary to more recent interpretations, the title “Mrs.,” short for Mistress, communicated social and financial status, not marital. So we can’t deduce from an entry dated June 4, 1641, that a Mrs. Stolyon—written here as “Stolyō,” with the “ō” indicating an unwritten “n”—was married. But we can infer that she enjoyed some social esteem and wealth, not least because the entry records the colony government, or “court,” condemning her servant, John Seckett, “for goeing about to slaunder and reproach his said Mrs.”

In 1645, it was Mrs. Stolion—the spelling of her name had evolved—doing the slandering. By then, she had become a businesswoman, selling and bartering cloth, thread, needles and possibly other goods. Unfortunately, she’d also gotten a taste for price-gouging, putting her at odds with the colony’s highly regulated economy—and causing one Captain Nathaniel Turner, who’d wanted to trade cows for cloth, to back out of a negotiation. A stung Stolion began speaking ill of Turner, who in turn appealed to the court for relief. At first, the court was sympathetic to the Mrs., but after hearing accounts from the primary parties—as well as 10 more from various witnesses who testified that she’d also charged them unfair prices—Stolion was ominously referred to the magistrate, a.k.a. the colony’s governor Theophilus Eaton, for judgment.

The fact that many other townsfolk had previously paid Stolion’s high prices seems a testament to her talent, especially because there appears to have been plenty of competition. In addition to the “house-work, dairy-work, the sewing, and the knitting,” Atwater writes that many of New Haven’s “generally frugal and industrious” early women were skilled clothiers: “… there was everywhere spinning, and in some houses weaving… Every farmer raised flax, which his wife caused to be wrought into linen; and wherever sheep were kept, wool was spun into yarn for the knitting-needles and the loom. A young woman who could spin, between sunrise and sunset, more than thirty knots of warp or forty of filling, was in high estimation among sagacious neighbors having marriageable sons.”

Courtship was tightly regulated by law and custom, but that didn’t much help Goodwife Fancye, a housekeeper who endured many dark trials before finding herself the subject of a literal one in 1646. In a series of events taking place over the course of more than a year, she was repeatedly propositioned and assaulted by an employer’s husband, Thomas Robinson. She was later sexually harassed or assaulted by two other men, including one Marke Meggs. Fancye had kept her own husband apprised of it all, and even as the abusive behavior kept coming, they decided not to bring it to the attention of the court for fear of being disbelieved—a fear grounded in the fact that, in 1643, Goodwife Fancye had confessed to stealing household items from some of her employers.

Nonetheless, word of the abuse found its way to the court, which actually did believe her. It sentenced Meggs to be “sevearly whipped”—and then, for their “concealmt of the forementioned vylenous & lustfull attempts,” passed the same sentence upon the Fancyes, applying an extra demerit to Goodman Fancye for failing to be an adequate “ptector” of his wife. As for Robinson, he had fled the colony, choosing exile over the court’s justice.

Goodwife Fancye was low in the colony’s pecking order, but even the highest could find themselves on the wrong side of the colony’s judgment. In 1644, Anne Eaton, wife to the wealthy and esteemed governor, Theophilus—also grandmother to Elihu Yale, who would become the namesake of Yale University—was put on trial by the church over theological disagreements with the colony’s religious leader, John Davenport. As Atwater summarizes her, Eaton was “a Baptist,” having publicly expressed her belief that baptism rites should only be administered to willing adults. Davenport hit back with a sermon opposing that belief, during which Eaton scandalously muttered from the gallery, “It is not so.” Meanwhile, she had adopted the conspicuous habit of exiting the church in protest during infant baptisms and the Eucharist.

As Harry S. Stout and Catherine Brekus observe in their essay “A New England Congregation: Center Church, New Haven, 1638-1989,” published in the 1994 anthology American Congregations Volume 1: Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities, “Eaton clearly posed a threat to Davenport’s authority.” Perhaps because he didn’t want her heresy—“her infection,” he would call it—to spread, or perhaps for the benefit of his close relationship with the governor, Davenport and mutual friends quietly visited with Eaton several times, hoping to correct her course in private. She was not persuaded, however, and during her consequent trial before the church, Davenport mostly sidestepped the theological debate, emphasizing her obstinacy instead. His words were followed by a reading of violent acts, false accusations and vulgar statements Eaton had allegedly directed at her family and servants—items that would seem more at home in a municipal hearing. Nonetheless, for these she was censured and, nine months later, excommunicated from the church, a sort of scarlet lettering that she would bear for the remainder of her days in New Haven.

We can’t know for certain whether Eaton was guilty of those allegations, which were apparently corroborated by various witnesses. But we do know that, “soon after” her husband’s death in 1657, “she returned to the mother country with her children,” according to “Mrs. Eaton’s Trial,” submitted by Newman Smyth to Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, Volume 5 (1894). After 13 years as a social outcast—“she was not even allowed to enter the meeting-house,” notes Charles H. Levermore’s The Republic of New Haven (1886)—founding mother Anne Eaton was going home.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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