Louis Dyer.

William Dyer, a Somerset royalist in New England online

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I enclose for publication in the pages of S. &> D. N.
<§* Q. a letter of some historical interest, written under excep-
tionally pathetic circumstances by my grandfather's great-grand-
father's grandfather, William Dyre (Dyer), a Somersetshire man,
who, along with eighteen others, founded the town of Portsmouth,
Rhode Island, on March 7th, 1638, and was one of eight
Englishmen who founded Newport, Rhode Island, on April 28th,
1639, upon which day he was elected Clerk of the new Colony.

He was a Somersetshire man (1) according to a tradition
which I have traced back among his numerous descendants in
America as far as the unpublished memoirs of Joseph Chesbrough
Dyer, a great-great-great grandson of his, who was born in New
England in 1780, and whose life (most of it having been spent in
Manchester) may be found in the Dictionary of National Biography ;
(2) This family tradition is in a measure confirmed by the pecu-
liar orthography of the word soar, spelt zore in the appended
letter, where I have on that account italicized it.W

(1) The question has been raised by an expert whether an initial z for s, in
such a word as soar — which does not, like genuine dialect words, go back to an
old English original — can be evidence of the Somersetshire habit of speech. In
well attested examples of Somersetshire we have, however, such forms as zity for
city and vashion for fashion, and with these zore=soar must, I think, be classed.
The publication of the letter is postponed until the next number of the
S.&D.N. 6>Q.


4 William Dyer.

I have, in the course of several years past, looked up facts
and dates about a very large number of Englishmen who lived at
the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth
centuries, and bore the name of William Dyer. The only one
with whom it is possible to identify the writer of the appended
letter is entered in the 1623 Visitation of Somersetshire among the
Dyers of Sharpham Park, Glastonbury, as William, the eldest son
of George Dyer, of Bratton St. Maur (Seymour), near Wincanton,
and a great-nephew of the distinguished Elizabethan Judge, Sir
James Dyer. This George Dyer of Bratton was a nephew of Sir
James Dyer, and the grandfather of Sir William Swinnerton Dyer,
whose father's elder brother was, according to my identification,
the writer of the above letter. There is no mention of this
American Colonist, William Dyer, in English documents other
than Colonial, unless we identify him with his namesake, William
Dyer, stated to have been 36 years old in 1623, according to the
Somerset Visitation of that year. The only mention of the latter
upon which I have come is in the will of his grandmother,
Jane Dyer, of Bratton Seymour, widow of John Dyer, jun., of " Wyn-
caulton, Somerset" — see Brown's Somerset Wills (6th Ser., pp.60
and 58). The baptism of this William Dyer's younger brother
and sisters was recorded at Milbourne Port, but no record of his
baptism is found, so far as I know. There are some reasons for
believing that this William Dyer followed the sea to start with,
and before he emigrated to New England, but I doubt very much
whether he can be identified with the Captain Dyer who gave
evidence at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. This trial took place
in 1603, when the William Dyer of the 1623 visitation could not
have been more than about 16 years old, while the New England
colonist — who died about 1677 — can hardly have been older. In
the following sketch of William Dyer's life, I venture to take for
granted that the colonist and the son of George Dyer of Bratton
can be identified.

Whatever seafaring experiences William Dyer may be sup-
posed to have had in his earliest manhood, we find him at the
age of 40 or thereabout (1627) in London as a " milliner in the
New Exchange." There is no trace of him on the records at
Haberdashers' Hall, but something might perhaps be found in
the records of the Mercers' Company. He may perfectly well
have been a seafaring man enrolled as a member of a London
Guild. One of his father's half-brothers was Richard Dyer, "citizen
and Merchant Taylor of London," whose will was proved at St.
Dunstan's in the West on July 27th, 1586, and contains a bequest
to " my brother William," our William Dyer's youngest uncle and
putative godfather (Brown's Somerset Wills, 6 Ser., p. 59). For
the fact that he was a milliner in the New Exchange, we depend
upon two statements to that effect by no less a person than

William Dyer. 5

Governor John Winthrop made in 1637 (October) — see Colonial
Papers, Vol. IX., No. 74; and again in 1638 — see Winthrofs

It is well attested that the Dyers in Somersetshire were on
the losing side in the struggle between Charles I. and the
Roundheads. Accordingly, the falling fortunes of his people
might be assigned as William Dyer's reason for emigrating to the
Massachusetts Bay. He appears in Boston, having married, pre-
sumably after he emigrated. However that may be, he and Mary
his wife joined the Church of the Reverend Mr. Wilson at Boston
in 1635 (December), and on the 20th of the same month their
first son and child, Samuel, was there baptized. He married,
then, at the age of 47. It has been conjectured — on what grounds
I know not — that Mary, his wife, was of the same family (a
Somerset family ?) with Odias (Herodias) Longe, mentioned in
the will of John Ayshford (Ashford), of Devon, a planter in Bar-
badoes — Brown's Somerset Wills (4th Ser., p. 58).

However sincerely a man of Somersetshire Royalist stock
might conceive himself to adhere to the views of a congregation
chiefly composed of East Anglian Puritans, the essential antago-
nism between the West and the East could not fail to manifest
itself in the long run. Scarcely a year passed between William
Dyer's reception into Mr. Wilson's Church and his signature, on
March 15th, 1637, °f a remonstrance affirming the innocence of
Mr. Wheelwright, and that the Court had condemned " the truth
of Christ." For this he was disfranchised just eight months
afterwards. The galling and unnatural intimacy with people
naturally antagonistic to him to which William Dyer and his wife
during these eight months were forced to submit, is vividly shown
by a curious paper now at the Public Record Office, London,
stamped as of the Conway papers {Colonial Papers, IX., 74), and
signed by " John Wenthropp, Gent, of the Mattachusetts." It is
entitled : ** A monstrous berth brought forth att Boston in New
England, October, 1637." Here Governor Winthrop sets forth
that " One Mary Dyer, wife of William Dyer, sometime milliner
in the New Exchange, London, being both young and very
comely persons, was delivered of a woman - child still - borne
(having life a few howers before) two months before the time, yet
as large as ordinary children are." Its "ears were like an ape's,
. . the nose grew hookeing upwardes, . . itt had noe fore-
head, but in the place therof were fower perfect homes " ; . .
it was "full of scales and sharpe prickes, like a thornbacke . .
instead of toes itt had on each foot three clawes with sharpe
talents like a fowle." And then the courtly Governor Winthrop,
who might have been recording in the above fantastic and grue-
some minutiae some old-wives' tale current in the colony, is at

6 William Dyer.

pains to declare in closing this discreditable document : " I saw
this monster and doe affirme this relacon to be true." How came
it that so sensible a man could think he had reason to vouch for
such a monstrous absurdity ? The answer appears in the same
Governor Winthrop's own diary, edited by the acute Mr. Savage.
There Winthrop says that none but Mrs. Hutchinson and the
midwife, "one Hawkins' wife, a rank familist also, and another
woman had a glimpse of it, who not being able to keep counsel
as the other two did, some rumor began to spread that the child
was a monster." When Mrs. Hutchinson, for theological views
akin to Mr. Wheelwright's, was expelled from the congregation,
her friend Mrs. Dyer walked out of the Church with her. " For
Mrs. Dyer going forth with her," says Winthrop, " a stranger
asked what woman it was. The others answered it was the
woman which had the monster." An elder taxed Mrs. Hutchin-
son with having concealed the event, and she declared that she
had acted by advice of Mr. Cotton, the well-known divine.
Winthrop then sent for Mr. Cotton, having first interviewed the
midwife, whom he regarded seriously as a witch. The descrip-
tion quoted above is a verbatim reproduction of the statement
made to him by this woman. He had the infant exhumed " with
advice of some other of the magistrates and of the elders of
Boston, and though it were much corrupted, yet most of those
things were to be seen, as the homes and claws, the scales, &c."
After this the excellent Winthrop adds that there were alarming
noises and shakings that accompanied the birth of this child.
Winthrop seems to have spent a great deal of time in dissemi-
nating accounts of this visitation of God upon the unorthodox.
Roger Williams at Providence had all particulars from him, and
writes back, " I also thank you for that sad relation of the
monster, &c. The Lord speaks once and twice : He be pleased
to open all our ears to His discipline." Governor Bradford
of Plymouth also writes to Winthrop : " I thank you for your
letter touching Mrs. Hutchinson. I heard since of a mon-
strous and prodigious birth which she should disown amongst
you." Even the father of the child had to take his part of blame
for this family misfortune — made into a crime by theological
hatred. As Winthrop piously relates : V The father of this
monster . . was, the next Lord's Day, questioned in the
Church for divers monstrous errors, as for denying all inherent
righteousness, &c, which he maintained, and was for the same
admonished." Plainly Winthrop agreed with the godly Welde,
of the same Colony, in thinking here was a case of God " testify-
ing His displeasure against their opinions and practices as clearly
as if He had pointed with His finger, in causing the two foment-
ing women, in time of the height of their opinions, to produce
out of their wombs, as before they had out of their brains, such
monstrous births. . ." Mr. Savage, Winthrop's editor, rightly

William Dyer. 7

calls attention to the fact that the persecutions instituted against
Mrs. Dyer and Mrs. Hutchinson were the cause of these physical
disasters so fantastically misrepresented by Winthrop, Welde, and
others, acting as "proxies or attornies for the Most High, to Whose
displeasure they scrupled not in attributing the cross accidents
that befel their opponents." From Mr. Cotton, who had advised
the hushing up of the whole misfortune, the congregation required
and received a handsome and public apology.

The exasperation of William Dyer, who was disfranchised,
on November 15th, 1637, within a month of his theological
admonition and of so gross an outrage upon his family life, can
only have been increased when, on November 20th, five days
afterwards, he and others were disarmed " because the opinions
and revelations of Mr. Wheelwright and Mrs. Hutchinson have
seduced and led into dangerous errors many of the people here in
New England." More than ever, he and his wife might pass
with Winthrop for " very censorious and troublesome," as indeed
he describes them. It is accordingly not a surprise to find that
these two much outraged persons left the Massachusetts as soon
as they might. In March, 1638, William Dyer joined in founding
Portsmouth, R.I., and in April, 1639, he figures among the
founders of Newport, R.I. Indeed, his motives for abandoning
the Massachusetts Bay Colony are set forth in the preamble of
the Charter of Rhode Island as subsequently granted to him among
others by Charles II. in 1663. The grantees, it is there stated,
" did not only, with the encouragement of His Majesty's pro-
genitors, transport themselves into America, but not being able
to bear in those parts their different apprehensions in religious
concernments, again left their desirable habitations, and trans-
planted themselves into the midst of the most potent Indian
people of that country. . ."

So much remains to be said of the career of William Dyer in
Rhode Island — of the trial, condemnation, and execution of his
wife, and of the experiences of their second son, William Dyer, jun.,
Surveyor-General of Customs in North America for Charles II.
and James II., that I reserve these topics for a second communi-

Louis Dyer.
68, Banbury Road, Oxford.




My narrative left William Dyer resolved to emigrate by way
of rescuing himself and his wife and son from the intolerable posi-
tion made for them in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was
late in 1637. F° r similar reasons, Roger Williams had already
planted Providence at the head of Narragansett Bay. South-east-
ward of Providence, between the " West Passage" and the " East
Passage," lies a group of islands in the narrows or " roads "com-
manding the entrances of the Bay. The largest of these, called by
the Narragansetts " Aquidneck," is the " Island of the Straits y% par
excellence. Thence, after it was colonized, the name Rhode
Island seems to have invented itself (1) to take the place of the
more outlandish Aquidneck. This island and those adjoining
were purchased of the Narragansetts by William Coddington and
his friends early in 1637, and thither went William Dyer in
Coddington's company, — all of them more or less definitely out-
lawed by the oligarchical theocracy which governed Massachu-
sets so sternly, and exercised a sort of theological suzerainty
over the elder colony at Plymouth.

This " outcast people, formerly from our mother nations," —
England, Scotland and Wales are apparently meant, — " in the
Bishops daies, and since from the rest of the new English over
zealous Colonys " (2) numbered about 50 men. They landed
near the north-eastern end of Aquidneck Island, and nineteen of
their number, acting for the whole body, signed a compact "in
the presence of Jehovah " incorporating themselves into a " Body
Politick." Of this Body Politick William Coddington was named
judge, and William Dyer clerk. This happened on March 17,
1638. In a short time the wiser heads among the Colonists dis-
covered, apparently, that this first place of settlement was ill—

(1) The earliest use of Rhode Island for Aquidneck which I have discovered
is in a deposition made by Coddington, dated April 14, 1652.

(2) See the Acts and Orders of the General Assembly at Newport, convened
May 17, 1658, which adopted a letter to Richard Cromwell, from which the
above words are taken.

chosen ; moreover an eccentric person, Samuel Gorton, from
Lancashire, seems to have turned the heads of the more illiterate
settlers. At all events the whole constituted government of the
incipient town, which had been named Portsmouth, met together
on April 28th, 1639, and signed a new compact " to propagate a
plantation in the midst of the island or elsewheres," and to "bear
equal charge answerable to our estates in common." William
Dyer signed this as clerk and Coddington as judge, there were
seven other signatures. Two days later, on April 30th, those who
chose to stay behind at Portsmouth with Samuel Gorton, 28 in all,
signed or affixed their marks to a third compact acknowledging
themselves "the legal subjects of his Majesty King Charles " and
" in his name " binding themselves into a " civil body politick,
unto his laws according to matters of justice. '' Among the 29 who
signed this embryo constitution, sixteen were unable to write their
own names. Plainly the nine who signed the agreement to settle
elsewhere were the picked and intelligent men of the community.
One other West of England man among these besides William Dyer
was Nicholas Easton of Lymington, Hampshire, and it is there-
fore not an accident that the first settlement was called Ports-
mouth, and the second took its name from near by, — Newport in
the Isle of Wight. Indeed the gradually accepted name of Rhode
Island may be connected with the currency in the West of
England of " road " in the sense exemplified by " Cowes Road "
off Portsmouth. ( 1 ) The New England Newport which these picked
colonists finally chose to plant is the one pre-eminently desiiable
harbour in the whole of Aquidneck Island. The Settlement
there was made in the course of the summer of 1639, and as the
intending settlers sailed southward along the west coast of
Aqudneck, they passed a small island not far from the entrance
to Newport Harbour and "William Dyer desiring a spot of land
of us as we passed by it, we did grant him our right in the said
island and named it Dyer's Island.'. (2) This islet still bears its
original name.

A very turbulent member of the new colony at Newport was
Randall Holden of Salisbury, but he managed to make his peace
with the self-constituted authorities, thereby devoting himself to
planting a settlement on the mainland, south of Roger Williams
Providence Plantation. He named the new town where settle-
ment was begun in January, 1643, Warwick, not without obvious

(1) My friend, Dr. Wright, Editor of the English Dialect Dictionary informs
me that the use of ' Road,' in the sense of a safe refuge for ships, has never
been local in England, but belongs to the language in all parts.

(2) See William Coddington's deposition dated Oct. 18th, 1669. Confirmed
by the concurrent testimony of Randall Holden from Salisbury, Wilts. Here is,
then, another Wessex man to be counted among the original planters of New-
port, although he was not one of the nine who signed the compact to settle at

reference to negotiations then in progress for a regular charter to
be given by Charles I , through Earl Warwick, then the Lord
High Admiral. Roger Williams had been sent to England from
Providence in 1 642 for the especial purpose of getting a charter,
which he duly obtained on March 17, 1643. Lord Warwick's
charter, — a copy of which is recorded among the Colonial papers
under date of March 14, 1644 (1), — is addressed to the inhabi-
tants of "the towns of Providence, Portsmouth and Newport."
It grants them " a free and absolute Charter of incorporation
to be known by the name of Providence Plantation in the
Narragansett Bay in New England," and reserves the right to
dispose of the general government " as it stands in reference to
the rest of the plantations in America." How very vague were
the grantors' notions as to this last reservation, and as to the
relations between the New England Colonies is shown by another
grant made by them on Dec. 10, 1643, which conveyed the whole
mainland of the Narragansett Bay, ■— covering Providence and
also Warwick, to the governor and assistants of Massachussetts
Bay Colony, " with reservation of all lands heretofore granted
and possessed by the Kings Protestant subjects." Under this
last grant, the men of Massachusetts nearly broke up Randall
Holden's new settlement at Warwick, and imprisoned Holden
himself at Boston for a time. He was finally released, and a
loose conglomeration of all plantations in the Narragansett Bay
country, including Warwick as well as the three towns named in
Lord Warwick's first charter, — Providence, Portsmouth and
Newport, — was organized under that Charter in 1647 (2).

But Coddington was not satisfied by any such arrangement.
He was a man of great ambition and wished to be at the head of
an absolutely independent government on Aquidneck island. He
accordingly went to England in 1649, and obtained a Commis-
sion as Governor of Rhode island which superseded the charter of
Lord Warwick so far as Portsmouth and Newport were concerned.
Indignation against him ran very high among the Narragansett
colonists, since this move of his frustrated their long-cherished
hope of cementing such union among themselves as should secure
them against the intense illwill and overt attacks of the " new
English over-zealous colonies." Also Coddington was known to
be in constant correspondence with Massachusetts, where the
men of Portsmouth and Newport were still outlawed. Further-
more Coddington had been high-handed and grasping in the
matter of the distribution of lands when the colony at Newport
took shape.

The brunt of resistance to Coddington's encroachments in
the matter of land fell upon William Dyer, whose life was em-

(1) See Colonial papers 1574-1660.

(2) See Colonial papers 1574- 1660.

bittered by contentions with this wealthy, energetic and powerfully
connected East Anglian. For Coddington came from Boston in
Lincolnshire, and may count as an East Anglian. The gist of
the matters in constant controversy is set forth by an indignant
remonstrance which William Dyer made in writing against en-
croachments by Coddington upon the regularly established high-
ways of Newport. This declaration was made on February 15th,
1654, Dut the encroachments go back to 1639, when William
Dyer was appointed to apportion lands, — a duty which he
attended to more zealously than others who shared it with him.

Thus, when Coddington " went for England" in 1649, and
returned triumphant with his Commission, William Dyer and he
had been repeatedly at law, and it was only natural that the in-
dignant colonists should select Dyer as their agent to join the
agent of Providence, John Clarke, in going to England to securs
the abrogation of Coddington's Commission. In the details of a
lawsuit pending between these two enemies at the time when
William Dyerwentto England (165 1 ) nothing is more noticeable
than the bias of all Newport men against Coddington and in
Dyer's favour.

In 1653 Dyer returned with letters from the Council of State
annulling Coddington's Commission, and was appointed Com-
mander-in-Chief on the sea against the Dutch. Gradually the
consolidation of the Narragansett colonies was achieved, and the
whole situation, politically speaking, was simplified by the sub-
mission of Coddington, and finally legalized by the Charter
granted by Charles II. in 1663 to the Narragansett Bay Settle-
ments as "a body corporate and politique in ffact and name, by
the name of the Governor (1) and Company of the English Col-
lonie of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." This
charter was the Constitution of the " State of Rhode Island and
Providence Plantations" until the year 1842.

Louis Dyer.
68, Banbury Road, Oxford.

(1) Note that the Governor named in this charter is Benedict Arnold, of
Cheselbourne, Dorsetshire, the life-long fiiend of William Dyer.

♦There are additions in pencil, which are here shown by square brackets [ J.



But the last and tragic chapter in William Dyer's life con-
cerned his wife, Mary, whose inconceivable experiences at the
hands of the Massachusetts Bay authorities were detailed in my first
note on this subject. Mary Dyer sailed for England, according to a
letter from Coddington to GovernorWinthrop, in 1650, by "the first
ship with Mr. Travice." Her husband, detained by his suit
against Coddington, sailed nearly a year later. He returned to
Newport four years before his wife, who had in the meantime be-
come a Quaker, and was a minister of that faith when, in 1657,
she returned to Boston on her way to Newport. Promptly ar-
rested in Boston and there imprisoned, she was released upon
her husband's intercession, and he had leave to take her home to
Newport, but was " bound in a great penalty not to lodge her in
any town of the colony, nor to permit any to have speech with
her in the journey." Much of William Dyer's energy had lately
been expended in the building of a suitable house at Newport,
and he was permitted to have his family there during 1657-59.
But early in the latter year, his wife, filled no doubt with added
indignation against the Massachusetts government of that time
because of the wanton and superstitious cruelty with which she
had been pursued by their predecessors in 1637, insisted upon
returning to bear witness again in Boston to her faith. This re-
sulted in her condemnation to death along with Marmaduke

2 William Dyer.

Stephenson and William Robinson, on October 31st, 1659. She


Online LibraryLouis DyerWilliam Dyer, a Somerset royalist in New England → online text (page 1 of 2)