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A merry chase through local history

This adventure started when I was researching William Lay, a Saybrook man who was on the whaler Globe during a mutiny and was subsequently trapped on an isolated Pacific island. I wanted to connect him with some of the Lays who founded Saybrook, but that goal led me on a merry chase.

The genealogical websites I usually consult didn’t provide a link, so I bought “The Founders of Saybrook Colony and Their Descendants 1635-1985,” a book published in 1985 to commemorate the town’s 350th birthday. (Actually, several towns celebrated because Saybrook Colony included Essex, Lyme, Chester, Deep River, Ivoryton, Westbrook, and Centerbrook.)

Although it didn’t answer my question, the book has rich biographical information about the colony’s founding fathers including William Lay’s probable ancestors, the brothers Robert, Edward, and John Lay.

Robert was the second permanent resident of Essex. He helped George Fenwick, the governor of Fort Saybrook, with several projects including developing Fenwick’s property on Nott Island in the Connecticut River. (Today the island is a wildlife refuge.) Robert engaged in the West Indies trade, exporting local produce and importing sugar and molasses. When in home port, his ketch, the Diligence, was moored with other vessels at Lay’s Wharf on Potapoug Point in Essex.

There were fewer details about Edward and John, but the next person who caught my attention on the list of early settlers was Anne Bingham — probably because I’ve written about the Binghams, and also because it’s nice to see a founding mother recognized.

Anne and Thomas Bingham left England in 1659 with their 14-year-old son, Thomas, Jr. The Binghams had six other children, at least three of whom died young. If there were any other surviving offspring, they didn’t accompany their parents.

Despite the couple’s brave hopes for a new beginning, Anne’s husband fell fatally ill during the Atlantic passage and was buried at sea. When Anne arrived in Saybrook, she was a middle-aged widow with a teenager, far from home. In 1660, she married William Backus, another settler who’d lost his spouse, and moved to Norwich. Anne died in 1670 and lies in the Founders Cemetery in Norwich, making her a founding mother of two towns and the matriarch of a long line of distinguished Americans.

In 1666, Anne’s son, Thomas, married Mary Rudd. When their son, Joseph, grew up, he married William Backus’ daughter Hannah by his first marriage. If you’re confused (I certainly was), William Backus was Joseph’s step-grandfather, making Joseph’s wife his step-aunt.

Mary Rudd was the daughter of Jonathan Rudd, another Saybrook Colony founder. Jonathan came first to New Haven as a farmer and leatherworker. He served in the militia but was brought up on charges for keeping a dirty gun and drinking while on guard duty, serious crimes in a community in survival mode. A few years later, Jonathan moved to Saybrook where he seems to have been a more responsible citizen. He became a selectman and helped build the Saybrook fort.

Jonathan also played a starring role in a local legend. In the winter of 1646-47, he wanted to get married, but heavy snows prevented the magistrate authorized to perform weddings from reaching the couple. They asked John Winthrop if he would officiate instead. Although Winthrop’s authority wasn’t recognized in Saybrook, the problem was famously solved by his standing on the New London bank of the brook, while Jonathan and his bride stood on the Saybrook side (today’s East Lyme). This romantic story has captivated people’s imaginations ever since. According to several sources, the Bride Brook wedding was even reenacted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair!

The complicated inter-relationships among early colonial families are always an entertaining challenge to unravel. Even if you never find the answer to your original question, it really doesn’t matter. The journey is so much fun.

Thanks to the Essex, Old Saybrook, and East Lyme historical societies for their gracious help with this column.



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