Stories from the Stones: In the King’s Service

Wolcott table stones in Palisado Cemetery, c1896. WHS collections 1954.2.8.6, photo by Katherine Barker Drake.

Chest tombs and table stones were the most expensive grave markers of Windsor’s colonial era. Several table and chest stones belonging to the Wolcotts, a family at the pinnacle of Windsor’s social order, can be found towards the rear of the cemetery. The inscription on Roger and Sarah Wolcott’s table stone reads,

Here lyeth the Body of the Hon’ble Roger Wolcott Esq’r of Windsor who for several Years was GOVERNOUR of the Coloney of Connecticutt; And died May 17th Anno AEtatis 89, Salutis 1767. Earth’s highest station ends in “Here he lies”: and “Dust to Dust” concludes her noblest Song. In Memory of Sarah Drake wife of Ho’ble Roger Wolcott born AD 1684 Died AD 1747.

Roger Wolcott, born in 1679, was the youngest son of Simon and Martha (Pitkin) Wolcott. The family had moved from Windsor to settle Simsbury only to have their farmlands and home burned during King Philip’s War of 1670. In 1680, the family was one of the first to settle on their lands on the east side of the Connecticut River, in what we know today as South Windsor. In his journal Roger Wolcott recalled, “Few families were settled there. We had neither Minister nor school, by which it hath come to pass that I never was a Scholar in any school a day in my life; my parents took care and pains to learn their children….”

In 1702, Wolcott married Sarah Drake, built a home, and started farming his own land. Life was strenuous for the young family, “yet we lived joyfully together,” Wolcott noted. “Our mutual affection made everything easie and delightfull; in a few years my buildings were up and my farm made profitable.” His home in South Windsor was built in 1704, the same year of the Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, an attack that sent shock waves rippling through Connecticut River Valley towns. Roger Wolcott commissioned a painting of that scene to cover the walls of his front parlor – not surprising in that King Philip’s war had figured prominently in his parents’ lives.

Roger Wolcott’s political trajectory upwards began in 1707 with his election as a town selectman. Two years later he was chosen Windsor’s representative to the Connecticut General Assembly. In 1710, he was appointed to the Bench of Justices, and in 1732 he became a Judge of the Superior Court.  In 1741, Wolcott was elected Deputy Governor of the Colony and Chief Judge of the Superior Court. In 1744, Britain and France declared war. After years of conflict over fishing rights in the waters off New England and Nova Scotia, New England forces backed by a British Royal Navy Squadron mounted a successful siege and takeover of the fortified town of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia in 1745. Wolcott commanded Connecticut troops and was second in command of the colonial forces.  He was then 67, the second oldest man fighting, and returned to Connecticut a war hero. He was elected Governor of Connecticut in 1750, the highest station ending in “here he lies” commemorated on his gravestone.

Roger and Sarah Wolcott’s oldest daughter Elizabeth married Captain Roger Newberry, a Windsor merchant who served as deputy to the General Assembly and then took up a commission with the colonial army serving as lieutenant, then captain.  Captain Newberry is commemorated on his own daughter Elizabeth’s stone as follows:

Elizabeth Newberry Bissell’s stone, 1740s, Palisado Cemetery, Windsor. Photo by Christine Ermenc.

Also In Memory of Her Father. Capt. Roger Neubary Who Died in the KING’s Servis In the Spanish Westenges. May the 6th 1741. Aged in ye 35th Year.

What was going on in the Spanish West Indies at this time? Britain was at war with Spain over control of the lucrative gold and slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. The campaign by the British was an attempt to seize control of four major Spanish ports and their strategy depended on quick and decisive victories. The Spanish commander’s strategy was to delay British forces until the April rains started and tropical diseases set in.  The Spanish commander was successful in his delaying tactics, and the British were forced to retreat with 50 ships lost and 18,000 casualties, over half of them from disease. The campaign was a complete disaster.

According to family tradition, on the return voyage from Cartagena in Colombia, Captain Newberry was confined to his berth with what was probably yellow fever when the ship ran into a terrible storm. The ship’s captain and sailors, figuring that all was lost, proceeded to dull their fears by getting drunk. Captain Newberry left his sickbed to command the ship. He compelled those that were still capable to navigate the ship, and administered discipline to those that were too incapacitated to be of any use. He remained on deck for 48 hours until the storm calmed then went below and died. Yellow fever is often marked by a respite in the middle of its course so the story is possible.

Historian Henry Stiles, while researching his 1891 History of Ancient Windsor obtained “ancient manuscripts in an old garret in South Windsor” containing an obituary notice for Captain Newberry which ended, “He hath Left…his own Widdow with seven small Children, one att her Breast, a Family to mourne under this heavy Bereavement and Combat with the Difficulties of an unquiet World.” Roger and Sarah Wolcott would have supported their widowed daughter as best they could, but clearly there was no money for an expensive table stone to commemorate Captain Roger Newberry’s life or even a simpler cenotaph (a memorial marker for someone whose remains are elsewhere).

Roger and Elizabeth Newberry’s oldest daughter Elizabeth was almost thirteen years of age when her father died. In February of 1746/7, she married Daniel Bissell who ran the ferry which ran back and forth across the Connecticut River between the east and west banks of Windsor. As her stone notes, Elizabeth died on June 9, 1749, in the 21st year of her age. Genealogical records note that she died two days after giving birth to Newberry Bissell, named for her father’s family.  The memorial marker we see today in Palisado Cemetery commemorates both Elizabeth’s short life and that of her father who had died eight years previously “in the KING’s Servis”.

By Christine Ermenc, Executive Director, 2009