Founding Mothers

Founding Mothers

Having led their flock to a shared new haven in 1638, the minister John Davenport and the merchant Theophilus Eaton are considered New Haven’s founding fathers. But the men, women and children who helped them establish 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 at the time, but if you look closely at the records produced by the fledgling colony—sometimes you have to squint—as well as later histories, you can find details and accounts that speak to the lives of some of New Haven’s founding mothers. For instance, among the 123 residential plots identified on pioneering city planner John Brockett’s 1641 map of New Haven, nine women are listed as independent property holders, although, 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, a Widow Williams.

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Women appear in the municipal minutes as well. Back then, “Mrs.,” short for Mistress, communicated social and financial status, not marital. So we can’t deduce from a record dated June 4, 1641, that Mrs. Stolyō—the “ō” indicates an unwritten “n”—was married. But we can infer that she was socially and financially elevated, since the entry records the colony court condemning her servant, John Seckett, “for goeing about to slaunder and reproach” her.

In 1645, it was Mrs. Stolion—the spelling of her name had evolved—doing the slandering. She was a businesswoman, selling and bartering cloth, thread, needles and possibly other goods. Unfortunately, she’d also gotten a taste for price-gouging. This put her at odds with the colony’s highly regulated economy and caused one Captain Nathaniel Turner to back out of a proposed trade of cows for cloth. A stung Stolion began speaking badly about Turner, who in turn appealed to the government 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 exorbitant prices seems a testament to her talent, especially given so much competition. According to Atwater’s History, in addition to the “house-work, dairy-work, the sewing, and the knitting,” many if not all 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 continued, 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 from some of the homes she cleaned.

Nonetheless, word of the abuse found its way to the ears of the court, who, to the Fancyes’ surprise, did believe her. They 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 fled the colony, choosing exile over the court’s justice.

Goodwife Fancye was low in the colony’s pecking order, but the highest, too, could find themselves on the wrong side of the colony’s judgment. In 1644, Anne Eaton, wife to Theophilus, New Haven’s wealthy esteemed governor—also grandmother to Elihu Yale, the namesake of Yale University—was put on trial by the church over theological disagreements with John Davenport, the colony’s spiritual leader. Atwater notes Eaton was “a Baptist” who had publicly expressed the very anti-Puritan belief that baptism rites should only be administered to willing adults. Davenport responded with an opposing sermon, during which Eaton, from her seat in the gallery, scandalously muttered, “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” (from 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 what he called “her infection” to gain wider consideration, or perhaps for the benefit of his close relationship with the governor, Davenport and mutual friends quietly visited with Eaton several times, hoping to nip her disagreement in the bud. She was not persuaded, however, and a special tribunal of the church, not the court, was convened. As prosecutor and judge, Davenport seems mostly to have attacked her character and behavior in lieu of her theological arguments, emphasizing a litany of violent acts, false accusations and blasphemies Eaton had, according to a long list of witnesses, directed at family members and servants. For these she was censured and, nine months later, excommunicated, a scarlet lettering that she would bear for the remainder of her days in New Haven.

We don’t know for certain whether or not Eaton was guilty of those allegations, though, again, many witnesses claimed she was. But we do know that, “soon after” her husband’s death in 1657, “she returned to the mother country with her children” (“Mrs. Eaton’s Trial” by Newman Smyth, Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, Volume 5, 1894). After 13 years in New Haven as both the governor’s wife and a social, civic, spiritual pariah—“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. This updated story was originally published on May 10, 2019.

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