Our Wolcott Family Ancestors
I spent a few minutes on the internet during my research of the Wolcotts hoping to learn the derivation of the surname “Wolcott”. After opening more than two dozen websites on the subject, I gave up having learned almost nothing. Most the websites were trying to sell books on the subject of etymology, or the subject of the origin of names and surnames. I did learn that the use of surnames did not come into use in England until around the year 1000 or about the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Many English surnames have obvious derivations. For example, occupational names were adopted such as Baker, Carpenter or Farmer, or places of residence were selected such as Hill, Brook, or Cornwell after an area in south-west England. Robert of (de) Cornwell became Robert Cornwell. Even animal references such as Fox, Wolfe, or Byrd, or titles such as King, Abbott or Prince, and even color such as White, Brown, or Black were commonly adopted as last names. Other surnames such as Long and Short describing a person’s physical attributes or Poor or Wise describing a person’s status in the community were put to use as surnames. Most likely one’s neighbors initiated the use of a surname to more accurately identify a person or a family such as referring to your neighbor down the road as John the Baker which eventually became shortened to simply John Baker. Unfortunately these rather simple and obvious derivations did not help me much to understand the surname Wolcott. I did learn from the internet that +cot at the end of a name meant cottage or shelter. From my research of the Wolcott family in 16th century England I knew that they were all in the woolen industry. I immediately reached the obvious conclusion that the combination of “wool” and “cottage” yielded the old English name of Wolcott or Woolcott. In Medieval England the weaving of cloth was a “cottage industry” meaning that all members of a family living in a small cottage combined their efforts to spin and weave wool to produce cloth. Unfortunately the Oxford Dictionary of Surnames which I found at our public library did not agree with my “obvious” conclusion. According to these experts the name Woolcot (and Wolcott) originated in the County of Somerset, England (home of our ancestors) and was derived from the Middle English word “woll” meaning spring or stream. Our ancestor Thomas Wolcott would have been called in Medieval England as our neighbor “Thomas at the cottage by the stream.” Frankly I liked my explanation better and as a matter of fact the production of woolen cloth as it developed in early English history usually took place alongside a stream or river since water was necessary to power the “fulling” mills used to produce the finished product. I will discuss this in more detail in subsequent paragraphs.
Before I narrate the story of our Wolcott ancestors I need to relate where the Wolcott family fits into our family tree. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was Eugene Hutchinson Ferree (1866-1952). His grandmother on his mother’s side was Elizabeth Boardman Hall (1801-1877). Her great grandmother on her father’s side was Abiah Chauncy (Hall) (1699-1700). Abiah Chauncy’s mother was Sarah Wolcott (Chauncy), the first of our Wolcott ancestors. In other words, Sarah Wolcott is my great (x7) grandmother and she was born in 1675 in Fairfield, Connecticut. The Wolcott family has been traced back to Thomas Wolcott who was born in the Parish of Tolland in the County of Somerset, England around the year 1500. Thomas was Sarah Wolcott’s great (x4) grandfather and my great (x13) grandfather. Incidentally, Sarah Wolcott married Charles Chauncy, the grandson of Charles Chauncy, the second president of Harvard and the subject of Chapter 3 in our Family’s history.
According to old church records, Thomas Wolcott’s occupation was that of a “tucker.” Tucking which is also called “fulling” or “walking” is a step in woolen cloth manufacturing which involves the cleansing of wool cloth to get rid of the natural sheep oils, dirt, and other impurities, and then milling the wool to thicken it or fulling it which matts the wool fibers together to give it strength. In the early 1500s when our Thomas Wolcott was a tucker he operated a water powered fulling mill in the Parish of Tolland in the County of Somerset in south-west England. In the fulling mill the cloth was beaten with wooden hammers known as fulling stocks, that were powered by a water mill and soaked in water and a clay material containing hydrous aluminum silicate that both thickened and cleansed the fibers. It is extremely likely that Thomas Wolcott’s ancestors had been in the wool industry for many generations.
It is believed that sheep were first introduced to Britain from the Continent as early as 5,000 B.C. The sheep initially were a source of food and their skins were used as clothing. However, it is known that by the year 1,900 B.C., the start of the Bronze Age, that the inhabitants of Britain had discovered that that when the sheep shed their fleece it could be spun and woven to make cloth. The Romans when they invaded the isles in 55 B.C. found a well developed wool industry and it is said that “Roman emperors cherished British woolen cloth.” By the time, that the Normans had invaded England in the late 11nd century water mills had been invented and were in common use and cloth making was widespread. Fulling mills came into use in the 13th century and while the exporting of raw wool far outnumbered the export of the finished cloth material, the cloth industry was growing rapidly. In Medieval times from the 10th through the mid-14th century the wool industry was pretty much a local industry with each small village consisting of only 100 to 150 inhabitants, producing their own cloth. Typically entire families (fathers, mothers, and children) like the Wolcotts were engaged in the production of cloth. Before the invention of the fulling mills their cottages were located along streams where the wool cloth could be beaten on the rocks and washed in the water (and in urine believe it or not) to clean and thicken the wool. The social structure in the middle ages was not really conducive to the mass production of woolen cloth which helps to explain why the shipment of the raw wool to Flemish and Italian textile industries was more common. In Medieval England all of the land was owned by the Norman nobility or by the Church. Everyone else was dependant on the landowner for their survival. The land was farmed by either serfs which acted almost in the capacity of the landowner’s slaves, or by freemen who leased the land from the nobility or the Church and owed either labor or produce as their rent payments. Even the villages were not owned by the common people and the merchants such as the Wolcotts were required to pay a portion of their earnings or a portion of their final product back to the landowner. Before the mid-1300s most of the land was reserved for agriculture and not for the raising of sheep. In any case, the sheep were owned by the landowners and what fleece was removed was sold to families like the Wolcotts for the weaving of the cloth. When the fulling mills were constructed in the 13th century they were mostly owned by the nobility or the Church and the cloth makers were compelled to use only the landowner’s mill to produce their finish product, again at a cost. There was almost no private industry as we know it today and almost everyone except for the privileged few and the clergy lived in poverty. This was not an environment conductive to the growth of a large woolen industry. Despite this environment, the British crown in 1258 ordered that the country’s wool should be worked in England and not sold for processing abroad. Again in 1326, the King, Edward II in this case, ordered that “. . no cloth which was manufactured outside England could be bought in this country.” Neither of these royal edicts accomplished the goal as did the event that followed in the year 1338.
Everything changed, albeit slowly, following the arrival in England of the Black Plaque in 1338 which killed upwards of 30-50% of the population before it finally abated. What resulted was a drastically reduced workforce. Many of the serfs or farmers that had worked the land occupied by generations of their ancestors, abandoned their homes and went to work for other landowners who were forced to pay higher wages in a vain attempt to solve their labor shortage problems. While driving up wages, this did not solve the labor shortage problem and much of the agricultural land was left uncultivated. The solution ultimately was that more land was set aside for the raising of sheep which was not a labor intensive operation. More sheep and the invention of the fulling mills in the 1400s stimulated more cloth production and more international trade of the finished cloth product. The Kings of England always in need of money particularly to pay for their endless wars, quickly learned that taxing the woolen industry was an easy way to raise capital. The cloth industry as well as other industries during this period exploded in growth resulting in the rise for the first time in English history of a wealthy middle class of merchants. This was the scene in England when our Thomas Wolcott first appeared in the church records of Tolland Parish in the County of Somerset in the year 1525.
Generation #1: Thomas Wolcott (Abt 1500-1525)
The County of Somerset where Thomas Wolcott was born was ideally suited for the woolen industry. This was also true of the other counties in southwest England, Devonshire and Cornwell, as well as the area known as the Cotswolds located northeast of Somerset. The temperate and moist climate in these areas of England was conducive to growth of green pastured lands suitable for the raising of sheep. Even better was the abundance of fast moving streams of “soft” water that were needed to run the mills that processed the cloth. It is no wonder that England became in the 15th and 16th centuries a major manufacturer and exporter of cloth and by the end of the 16th century England was “largely a nation of sheep farmers and cloth manufacturers.” Fortunately, Thomas Wolcott “the Tucker” was born in the right place and at the right time which enabled Thomas and his family to gain wealth in the industry of the day.
Before 1539 all of the land surrounding the birthplace of Thomas Wolcott in the Parish of Tolland in the County of Somerset in south-west England was owned by the Catholic Church and was known as the Priory of Taunton named after the Village of Taunton located about nine miles from the Village of Tolland. The Priory owned the land, all of the estates and manors, and all of the fulling mills including the one in which Thomas worked at the Manor of Gauldon. In 1539, King Henry VIII expelled the Catholic Church from England ostensibly so that he could divorce his wife, and by doing so the Priory of Taunton (and all other monasteries in England) was forced to surrender to the Crown all of their lands, including the Manor of Gauldon, and the fulling mill where Thomas Wolcott was employed. King Henry VIII had made himself head of the new Church of England which in turn gave him ownership of all of the huge Church estates. Eventually this land was subdivided and privately sold and a portion of the land of the former Priory of Taunton was leased to a John Selleck who in turn subleased the fulling mill and the adjacent house and property to Thomas Wolcott. Exactly what year Thomas first leased the mill and his home is not known although it is believed that Thomas’ sons, grandsons, and possibly some of his great grandsons were born on the property. The family for the next three generations was to build a dynasty in the wool industry. Photographs of Thomas’ home which still exists today, can be viewed (as of December 2007) on the Web at address www.wolcottfamily.com/england-sites.html. The exact date of Thomas’ birth is not known although it is believed to be approximately 1500. He married Elizabeth (maiden name unknown) around 1524 and together they had four sons Thomas, John, Henry, and Roger. Their second son, John who was born around 1528, is our great (x12) grandfather. Elizabeth died in 1565 following the death of her husband Thomas, who died in 1555 at the age of 55. Thomas no doubt willed to his sons, substantial wealth and a successful business.
Generation #2: John Wolcott (Sr.) (after 1525-Abt 1571)
We do know much about the life of Thomas Wolcott’s second son, John. His birth date is unclear although it would be after the birth of his older brother who was born in 1525 and his death date based on his will appears to be in December of 1571. His occupation was listed as a miller so he clearly continued with his brothers to operate his father’s cloth business. Church records show he married Agnes Butler in Tolland around 1547 and together they had at least one son, John our great (x11) grandfather, and two daughters Alice and Mary. Agnes died in 1606 and both husband and wife are buried in Tolland.
Under the stewardship of John Wolcott and his brother’s Thomas, Henry, and Roger the woolen business expanded greatly. It was no longer just the operation of a fulling mill. During this second generation more land was purchased for raising families and sheep. The spinning and weaving operations were probably farmed out to small family run operations in the area. The Wolcott family no doubt supplied the raw wool and agreed to buy the cloth material back from the smaller spinning and weaving businesses that they had helped get established. New fulling mills were built and the cloth was processed and dyed. Finally, the full service “clothier” business was established as factories were built to manufacture and sell finished products such as clothes and blankets. As English woolen goods became famous worldwide, small fortunes were being made and the Wolcotts were part of this new wealth.
Generation #3: John Wolcott (Jr.) (1547-Aft 1623)
One of the genealogical sites I reviewed on the Internet made reference to John Wolcott (Jr.) as Sir John Wolcott. I doubt that John Wolcott, our great (x10) grandfather, was ever knighted although his wealth and the worth of his property probably equaled that of many of the noble families in England. The coat of arms that appears at the beginning of this chapter may not in fact be a coat of arms of our branch of the Wolcott family. It is common practice for Americans to want to be related to English nobility although it is pure fantasy to believe that every English, Irish, and Scottish surname has a coat of arms. Stores that sell coat of arms are preying on our weakness to want to be related to aristocracy. Perhaps, if we considered the wealth of the entire Wolcott family in the late 16th century including all of the brothers, sisters, and cousins, they may have been more like a Walton family of the County of Somerset than like a land-poor noble family with its own coat of arms.
John Wolcott (Jr.) was born in 1547 in Tolland Parish in the County of Somerset probably in the home originally owned by his grandfather, Thomas Wolcott. John married Agnes Crosse in 1578 and to the best of our knowledge they had three sons, Henry, our great (x9) grandfather who was born in 1578, John who was born in 1580, and Christopher who was born in 1583. Both Agnes and John (Jr.) died in 1623 only one month apart. John was 76 when he died. During the period of John’s life the family continued to prosper in the woolen industry.
Generation #4: Henry Wolcott (1578-1655)
Henry Wolcott is perhaps our most important Wolcott ancestor for it was Henry who moved his family to America in the year 1630. Were it not for Henry, my Wolcott genes might today be riding around in a body on a sheep farm in southern England rather than in my present body here in a condo in warm and sunny Florida. For moving Henry, I thank you.
There is a little confusion as to the location of Henry’s birth. It is generally believed that he was born at his father and mother’s home in Tolland. What is confusing is that he was baptized in a church in Lydiard St. Lawrence, a parish adjacent to Tolland Parish which has led some historians to conclude that he was born in the village he was baptized. This I believe is incorrect. When Henry was 17 years old, his great uncle, Henry Wolcott, a wealthy clothier, died and left Henry his estate in the Manor of Brompton Ralph located a few miles to the west of Tolland. Henry moved into the home that he inherited when he turned twenty-one, when he “came of age.” Henry married Elizabeth Saunders in a small church in Lydiard St. Lawrence in 1606. All of their children consisting of four boys and two girls were born between 1607 and 1628, two years before the family departed for America in 1630. Henry’s second son, Henry Wolcott (Jr.), our great (x8) grandfather, was born in 1610. The children, like their parents, were baptized in the church in Lydiard St. Lawrence although they were all probably born at their parents’ home in the Manor of Brompton Ralph. Incidentally, the spelling of Lydiard has changed through the years and on current maps of England it is spelled as Lydeard St Lawrence.
Henry’s name appears in the Parish records along with his brother John and their father several times after 1603 and we assume that Henry, who was listed as a “Miller,” continued to help his father and brother operate the Tolland Mill. In 1623 or shortly thereafter, Henry’s father John died and apparently Henry as the oldest son inherited his father’s land and the Tolland mill. As you will learn later, this property remained in our branch of the Wolcott family until it was finally sold at the death of Henry Wolcott (III) in 1709, six generations after the land and the mill were occupied by Thomas Wolcott in the early 1500s.
Henry Wolcott was not totally satisfied with his life as a miller and a cloth merchant. As he became deeply involved in the Puritan movement and “impelled by religious motives” he determined that in order to achieve the religious freedom he so desired he had to give up his easy life on his estate and emigrate to America. In 1630 he sold his home and turned over the management of his business in Tolland to an overseer named Simon Venn. Simon was the brother of John Venn of London one of the partners in the Massachusetts Bay Company and the sponsor of the new colony in America. John Venn was probably responsible for arranging for Henry Walcott and his family to embark on the first ship to the new colony, the ship Mary and John which departed England on March 20, 1630. This ship and its passengers were to begin the major population growth period in New England referred to by historians as “The Great Migration.”
Henry and Elizabeth travelled on the Mary and John with only three of their seven two children, Henry, George, and Christopher. Their two young daughters, Anna and Mary, along with their youngest son Simon who would have been only five years old when the ship sailed, sailed on a later ship sometime after 1631. The Wolcotts settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts where Henry was registered on the first list of freemen dated October 19, 1630. In 1636 the family moved to Windsor, Connecticut. Henry was one of the first twelve men elected to the lower house of Connecticut’s first General Assembly in 1637, and in 1643, he was elected to the Magistrates, the upper house of that assembly where he was a member until his death on May 30, 1665 (or 277 years to the day before I was born). One other interesting side note is that in 1639, nine years after their arrival in America, Henry Wolcott inherited from his younger brother Christopher his large estate back in England valued according to records at 8,000 pounds sterling, an absolute fortune in the mid-1600s. While life in America was certainly not to the comfort level that Henry might have enjoyed had he stayed in England, the proceeds from the sale of his own estate which he deposed of before he left England, plus his inheritance from his brother, must have left Henry and his family in a relatively comfortable position in America for the remainder of their lives. There is one other fact that might be of interest. The youngest son of Henry and Elizabeth was Simon Wolcott (1625-1687). Simon’s son Roger Wolcott, was a governor of the Colony of Connecticut (and is listed as a “clothier” when he was younger), and Simon’s grandson, Oliver Wolcott, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a Brigadier General during the American Revolution, a member of the first Continental Congress, and a governor of the State of Connecticut. This famous Wolcott is my second cousin, 9x removed.
Generation #5: Henry Wolcott (Jr.) (1610-1680)
Henry Wolcott (Jr.) was born at his parent’s home in Lydeard, St. Lawrence, Somerset, England in 1610 and at the age of 20 he emigrated with his parents to America. Incidentally, Henry’s older brother John is the only son of Henry (Sr) and Elizabeth that chose not to come to America. He was only 23 when his family left and he died at an early age of 48. There is some indication that Henry (Jr.) who was in the importing business in America returned to England on business in the spring of 1654 and he probably visited his brother John while in England. This may be the only time that John saw a member of his immediate family since their emigration to America 50 years earlier. John died one year after his brother’s visit.
We know that Henry Wolcott (Jr.) was actively engaged in public life while continuing to operate his own business. He was one of the nineteen gentlemen prominent in the Colony who were named in the Charter of Connecticut. He was elected a member of the House of Deputies in 1660 and to the House of Magistrates in 1662 and successively after that until his death in 1680.
Henry Wolcott (Jr.) married Sarah Newberry in 1641 in Windsor, Connecticut and together they had eight children including their oldest son, Henry Wolcott (III), our great (x7 ) grandfather.
Generation #6: Henry Wolcott (III) (1642-1709)
Henry Wolcott (III) was born in 1643 in Windsor, in Hartford County, Connecticut in 1643. He married Abiah Goffe in 1664 and together they had seven children including their sixth child, Sarah, our great (x6) grandmother. Henry was elected a member of the House of Deputies in 1668 and subsequently he was for many years the Town Clerk of Windsor. Here is something interesting. When Henry (III)’s father died he had left Henry his real estate holdings in the County of Somerset, England that he had inherited from his father, Henry (Sr.). This is the property that John Wolcott had owned and willed to his son Henry (Sr.) who later emigrated to America in 1630. While Henry Wolcott (Sr.) had sold his estate in Lydeard, St Lawrence before he emigrated and he later sold the estate that he inherited from his brother Christopher, he had never sold the estate that he inherited from his father that undoubted continued to generate income each year. According to English law, the oldest surviving son in each generation inherits their father’s property. Also according to English law, if there are no surviving sons, then the estate is left to the daughters or their female heirs. When Henry (III) died, he had no surviving sons, therefore by English law, the daughters or their female heirs would inherit. As is often the case, even today, when a large sum of money is involved, the heirs of Henry’s sons sued on the basis that old English law should not govern and they should be allowed to share in the estate of their grandfather. The value of the estate was 850 pounds sterling which was a huge sum of money in the early 1700s. In this case the son’s heirs lost their lawsuit and Elizabeth Wolcott, Henry’s (III) and Abiah’s daughter, and Abiah Chauncey, their granddaughter (her mother had died) split the value of the estate. Here is an early example of the importance of keeping a will up-to-date for it seems unlikely that Henry (III) would not have wanted his son’s heirs to equally share in the inheritance.
Generation #7: Sarah Wolcott (1676-1703)
Sarah Wolcott, the second youngest child of Henry (III) and Abiah Wolcott was born in 1676. She married Charles Chauncy, grandson of Charles Chauncy (the second President of Harvard) in 1698. Together they had three children. Unfortunately, a few days following the birth of her third child she died. This was in the year 1703 and Sarah was only 27 years old. Abiah Chauncy, their daughter and our great (x6) grandmother, was only four years old when her mother died.
Sarah Wolcott was the last of the Wolcotts in our family tree. It was an interesting family and it gave me a lot of pleasure researching their history. Anyone interested in learning more about the Wolcott Family can join “The Wolcott Family Society”, an organization of Wolcott descendants that has been in existence since 1906. Every year the society holds an annual reunion which this year (2007) was held in August in Dallas Texas. The current membership fee is $30.00 per year.