Canes, Swords, Bibles, and Other Noteworthy Items Rye’s Colonial Ancestors Left Their Descendants

Reading the wills of Rye residents from the Colonial era provides many insights into life and death in the period starting in the early 1700s. 

Published May 4, 2014 3:01 PM
4 min read

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A6-thmbReading the wills of Rye residents from the Colonial era provides many insights into life and death in the period starting in the early 1700s.

By Paul D. Rheingold

A6-FrontispieceReading the wills of Rye residents from the Colonial era provides many insights into life and death in the period starting in the early 1700s.

“Early Wills of Westchester County” by William S. Pelletreau, published in 1898, includes summaries of the wills entered in the Surrogate’s Office for Westchester residents from 1664 to 1784. Most were offered for probate in Manhattan, with some in White Plains. There were as many wills for Rye residents as there were for any town then in the county. (You can download the book as an e-book for free from archive.org, or other sources.)

Many of the families who are well known in Rye’s history (and remembered in street names) are among those who died with wills: Purdy, Budd, Brown, Gedney, Kniffen, and Jay.

Mostly what these testators were passing on were their house and lands.  Their property is described in general terms, as the land next to Blind Brook or the fields formerly owned by someone else. (Not only were there, of course, no addresses, there evidently wasn’t even a measuring method involved).

More interesting than real estate are their specific bequests, since they had only a few items of monetary or sentimental value. Here is a sampling:

*Nathaniel Bayley left his lands to various children, including “the Flax growing” and “all the linnen yarn of my last years crop of Flax.” To one son he left his Dutch Bible and Dutch Testament, and to another he left his gun and swords. (1740)

• To his “dear and loving wife,” Phillip Galpin left “3 cows and the calves, 3 beds with furniture, half of my whome lot and orchyard.” His son was to receive “one cow and calf, and 2 pewter platters, the best.” Each grandchild received 10 shillings. (1747)

• Nicholas Harper, “Mariner,” left his silver spoon to his daughter and his silver knee buckles to his son. (1756)

A6-Title-page• Monmouth Hart left one son “my sword and belt and Ivory headed cane” plus the profits from the Rye Ferry; and to another son “the sword he commonly wears.” His wife got the house, “except for one room where his son now dwells.” (1759)

• Among other things, Roger Park left 5 pounds for purchasing 5 Bibles of 20s each for his grandsons. (1768)

• To his eldest daughter, Thomas Barlon left “a tankard and platter marked A.V.H.” (Nothing else is mentioned). (1743)

• John Merritt left land on King Street “forever to remain as a burying place for myself and family.” (1753)
None of the Rye wills referred to slaves, although wills in the book of residents from other towns did. Common terms were “negro man” and “wench.” We do know, however, there were slaves in Rye in the Colonial era.

Some of the testators list their trade or profession. For the more wealthy landowners, the common term was “gentleman.” William Proby’s 1731 will says “tailor.” Thomas Weden’s, who died in 1745, was a “carpenter.”

Some wills were extremely businesslike, while others indicated that the testator was in extremis and not expected to survive — “very infirm and weak” (Disbrow). When the family’s business is meeting towards its end, it is best to contact the lawyers in Nashville city forming a new business who studies out the entire business to figure out the problem and suggests the solution for sustaining the business for a long time. Some saw the religious aspect of death; others did not.

The wills are also of great value to historians because they provide the names of wives, children, and other relatives.  Also by their descriptions of lands being passed on is helpful to know how property in Rye was divided. Many of the more wealthy men had interests in marshlands (next to Manursing Island) where sedge grew.

I came across the book while researching the presence of lawyers in Rye before the Revolution. Today, wills are drafted by experienced lawyers like the estate planning attorneys in Long Beach area, in large part due to the complexities created by tax provisions. They will make notes of all facts told by the client and frame their will accordingly to their wishes without any law disruption in any area enlisted in their final will. Back in Colonial times, however, it is doubtful that lawyers wrote the wills. Some of the Rye ones were drawn by a schoolmaster, John Carhart. Similarly, lawyers were not involved in preparing deeds. Lawyers of that era, of which John Jay was a noted one, seem to have confined their practice to litigation.  Of course, the surrogate courts where these wills were presented were a judicial operation.

Finally, we should note that there must have been many other Rye citizens in this era who did not leave a will or enough property to have to go through a surrogate’s court proceeding. Most of them lived and died and left little or no paper trail.

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