Jane Dummer Sewall, 1626–1701
Much of what I know about Jane Dummer, who was my 9th great-grandmother and one of the first settlers of Newbury, Massachusetts, comes from the writings of her son Samuel Sewall. He was a prolific diarist, Salem witch trial judge (oops), and early advocate of abolition and women’s rights.
It is frustrating to always come back to reading men’s accounts of women’s lives, but in this case at least it seems that Samuel was a relatively decent sort. (I mean OK, he did a little light witch-judging, but – for the purposes of this post, anyway – let’s just gloss right over that in a breezy manner. After all, he was the only one to examine his conscience, put up his hands and publicly apologize afterwards. And he then went on to argue against slavery in his tract The Selling of Joseph, and against theologians who denied the resurrection of women in the essay “Talitha Cumi”, which made people so jumpy that nobody would publish it until 1873.)
So: Jane Dummer. She was born in Bishopstoke, Hampshire on March 17, 1626, a daughter of Alice Archer and Stephen Dummer. In 1638, when Jane was about eleven, her family came under the scrutiny of the royalist authorities, who suspected that they were planning to embark on a crossing to America. Their home was searched for contraband to no avail (although apparently lots of provisions for their journey were noted), and they duly sailed from Southhampton on the ship Bevis of Hampton, which belonged to Jane’s uncle Richard Dummer. They were accompanied by Richard, his own family, servants, and wards. So it appears we are looking at someone with a relatively privileged background; but even with servants on hand the crossing from England to America was not an easy one, particularly for children.
The Dummers settled in Newbury, Massachusetts, where Jane married Henry Sewall shortly after her 20th birthday in 1646. The young couple were apparently given 500 acres of land back in Coventry as a wedding gift from the Sewall family. The following year, for reasons I am struggling a bit to pin down (the excuse was that the climate didn’t agree with them, but it seems that nobody really believes that), Jane and Henry returned to England along with Jane’s parents and settled back in Bishopstoke, where they started a family.
Henry went again to Massachusetts in 1659 to settle his father’s estate, but political changes – specifically, Charles II’s imminent return to the throne – led to his deciding to remain there. In 1661 he sent word to Jane to summon her back across the Atlantic again, this time with five small children and two servants in tow. Samuel, who was nine at the time, later recalled their journey on the Prudent Mary in a letter to his own son:
My Father sent for my Mother to come to him to New-England. I remember being at Bishop Stoke and Badesly, April 23, 1661, the day of the Coronation of K. Charles the 2d, the Thunder and Lightening of it. Quickly after my Mother went to Winchester with small Children, Hannah, Samuel, John, Stephen and Jane; and John Nash and Mary Hobs her Servants; there to be in a readiness for the Pool Waggons. At this place her near Relations, especially my very worthy and pious Uncle Mr. Stephen Dummer took Leave with Tears. Capt. Dummer of Swathling treated us with Raisins and Almonds. My Mother lodged in Pump-yard, London, waiting for the going of the Ship, the Prudent Mary, Capt. Isaac Woodgreen, Commander, went by water to Graves-End where the Ship lay. Took in Sheep at Dover. Passengers in the Ship at the same time were Major Brown, a young brisk Merchant and a considerable Freighter; Mr. Gilbert and his wife, He was Minister at Topsfield; Madam Bradstreet (then Gardener); Mrs. Martha, Mr. Pitkins Sister, who died lately at Windsor, and many others. We were about Eight Weeks at Sea, where we had nothing to see but Water and the Sky; so that I began to fear I should never get to Shoar again; only I thought the Capt. and Mariners would not have ventured themselves if they had not hopes of getting to Land again. Capt. Woodgreen arrived here on Satterday. I was overjoyed to see Land again, especially being so near it as in the Narrows. ‘Twas so late by that time we got to the Castle, that our men held a discourse with them whether they should Fire or no, and reckoned ‘t was agreed not to doe it. But presently after the Castle Fired; which much displeased the Ship’s Company; and then they Fired. On the Lord’s day my Mother kept aboard; but I went ashoar, the Boat grounded, and I was carried out in arms July 6, 1661. My Mother lodg’d at Mr. Richard Collucott’s. This Week there was a publick Thanksgiving. My Father hastened to Boston and carried his Family to Newbury by Water in Mr. Lewis. Brother Tappan has told me our arrival there was upon Lecture-day which was Wednesday. Mr. Ordway carryed me ashore in his Canoe.
I like this evocative account very much; it gives a real sense of the combined excitement and anxiety that must have preceded the embarkation. The little detail about the treat of raisins and almonds – just the kind of tiny thing that children remember – and the rushing around to shepherd everyone into “Pool Waggons”, followed by a spell in unfamiliar lodgings and then eight slow weeks at sea with sundry animals; it’s so vivid. For Jane, this journey would have meant guiding her children through an experience she herself must have recalled from her own childhood, as well as anticipating her reunion with the husband she had not seen for so long. Their youngest child, also called Jane, was only eighteen months old, so it appears likely (although I don’t know the exact date of Henry’s 1659 crossing) that Henry had never seen her.
Jane and Henry went on to have three more children after settling in Newbury once more. I haven’t got a copy of Samuel Sewall’s diaries or any other biographical material, so I really don’t know much about Jane’s life in the years that followed. Henry died in 1700 at the age of 86, and Jane the following year at 74. The epitaph on the stone marking their grave concentrates on Henry, referring to Jane as “his fruitfull vine”:
Mr. Henry Sewall, sent by Mr. Henry Sewall his father in ye ship Elsabeth & Dorcas (Capt. Watts Commander) arrived at Boston 1634, winter’d at Ipswich, help’d begin this plantation 1635, furnishing English servants, neat cattel, & provisions. Married Mrs. Jane Dummer, March ye 25, 1646. Died May ye 16, 1700, Etat 86. His fruitfull vine, being thus disjoin’d, fell to the ground January ye 13 following, Etat 74. Psal. 27, 10.
Jane had outlived her eldest child Hannah, my direct ancestor. But Samuel was alive to mourn his mother, and once again we have a record of his thoughts, this time in the form of his elegy at her burial.
Jany. 4th, 1700-1…. Nathan Bricket taking in hand to fill the grave, I said, Forbear a little, and suffer me to say that amidst our bereaving sorrows we have the comfort of beholding this saint put into the rightful possession of that happiness of living desir’d and dying lamented. She liv’d commendably four and fifty years with her dear husband, and my dear father: and she could not well brook the being divided from him at her death; which is the cause of our taking leave of her in this place. She was a true and constant lover of God’s Word, worship and saints: and she always with a patient cheerfulness, submitted to the divine decree of providing bread for her self and others in the sweat of her brows. And now … my honored and beloved Friends and Neighbors! My dear mother never thought much of doing the most frequent and homely offices of love for me: and lavished away many thousands of words upon me, before I could return one word in answer. And therefore I ask and hope that none will be offended that I have now ventured to speak one word in her behalf; when she herself has now become speechless.
Laurel Ulrich in Good Wives cites the penultimate sentence of this speech, which I’ve underlined above, in her chapter on the childbearing years of colonial women. Her point is that, whatever Jane’s other virtues, Sewall’s emotion at the loss of his mother seems to have been focused primarily on her care of him in infancy. (Sewall himself had by this time become, as discussed in Judith Graham’s book Puritan Family Life, a far from stereotypical Puritan father; he and his wife Hannah were by all accounts affectionate, understanding parents to their many children.)
Jane Dummer therefore goes down in history not as an anonymous early New England settler, but as a devoted mother – one whose love for her children apparently stayed with them and, in Samuel’s case anyway, influenced their own family lives. She must have played many other roles throughout her long and eventful life, and I wish I could learn more about her character, her opinions on the years of political turmoil she witnessed, her three ocean crossings, and her part in the founding of a colony. For now, though, I can’t.
I will be done with Good Wives soon, and I’m still deciding what to read next. It is tempting to stay with the Sewalls and order Puritan Family Life; then again, I’m also itching to read something by Jill Lepore, possibly her book on King Philip’s War.