Flooding at the end of North Meadow Road in April 2019. Frances would have experienced an even higher flood in 1638/9, when she lived about a quarter of a mile north of this spot. | WHS collections 2019.16.21. Photo by Michelle Tom.
Frances (unknown) (Clark) (Dewey) Phelps is one of the few women included on the Descendants of the Founders of Ancient Windsor’s founders list, which only includes heads of household. As yet, her maiden name and the name of her first husband have not been determined, so her origin story is murky.
As was true of most Windsor founders, Frances settled in Dorchester before arriving in Windsor at some point prior to her second marriage. Many genealogists believe that her first marriage was to a Clark because her second husband’s estate documents mentioned a daughter, Mary Clark, whose age at that time indicates she would have been born about 1636. Earlier genealogists believed Joseph Clark (another Windsor founder) was a likely candidate as her first husband, but we know that his wife died in 1639, and he did not pass away until 1641, several years after our Frances’s second marriage. The records of Dorchester and Windsor are littered with mentions of various other Clark men, many of whom appear only once in land records or passenger lists and never again. Details are scarce and it is impossible to say which one might have been Frances’s first husband.
Frances’s second marriage occurred under dramatic, challenging circumstances. We know from Windsor founder and documentarian Matthew Grant’s record that a great flood, which inundated many houses in the new settlement, began on March 5, 1638/9. On March 14th, “2 youths drwned being in a conno one ye flood gathring up of palles swimming on ye flood against Thomas Deweys hows.”1 Nonetheless, just eight short days later, Frances and Thomas Dewey were married.2 As Grant wrote, “One ye 22 day at night [the flood] was well fallen & yet it was as hoye as ye hoyest flood we had knowen before.”3 The floodwaters may have begun to recede, but Windsor’s recovery from this natural disaster had only just begun.
One wonders where Frances and Thomas spent their wedding night, considering his house had recently flooded. Their marriage would have commenced with grief over the loss of their two neighbor boys’ lives, a move to higher ground, and the tremendous work it would take the entire community to rebuild all that the flood waters had swept away.
Women in Frances’s era rarely show up in official records, but their circumstances can be partially deduced from their husband’s records. Thomas’s estate documents prove that the couple thrived in their marriage, in spite of its inauspicious beginnings. Together, Frances and Thomas had five children: Thomas, Josiah, Anna, Israel, and Jedediah Dewey, all born between 1639/40 and 1647. Thomas appears to have been a farmer, with 12 acres of corn planted at the time of his death. He also owned oxen, horses, cows, pigs, and bees. He died in April of 1648, following ten years of marriage to Frances. His estate inventory totaled £213, with £118 of that being real estate including a house, barn, and homelot of just over an acre, plus significant landholdings elsewhere, mostly in the Great Meadow (land between the Palisado and the Connecticut River).
Frances’s life can be glimpsed through this inventory. She would have spun the hemp and flax it lists, prepared meals in the brass and iron kettles, and ridden upon the pillion behind Thomas’s saddle. She would have been proud of the trappings of success which furnished their home. They owned pewter, a chest, a box, tables, and a “cubberd.”4
In November of 1648, roughly seven months after Dewey’s death, Frances married again. This time, she wed George Phelps. He was also a farmer, a prosperous one, who had been married previously to Philura Randall. Philura had died just two days after Thomas Dewey on April 29, 1648, so it is fitting that George and Frances, both newly widowed, married each other.
Maintaining a household and livelihood in 17th-century New England was hard work. Nothing was mechanized, everything had to be done by hand, and it was nearly impossible to manage the physically demanding domestic chores, the raising of many young children, and the labor of maintaining fields and livestock, alone. Therefore, people typically remarried very quickly, usually within months of a spouse’s death. George had five children from his first marriage, who were followed by three more sons, Jacob, John, and Nathaniel, born to Frances between 1649/50 and 1654.
At some point before 1672, Frances and her family moved to Westfield, Massachusetts.5 George is listed on deeds there as early as 1667, the same year he and another man were tasked with laying out a highway through the settlement.6 Was Frances excited about the prospects ahead of them in this new community? Did she dread the challenges of settling yet another new town? We’ll never know how she felt, but we do know that Frances and George’s hard work paid off. By the time of his death on May 8, 1687, he estimated his landholdings in Westfield at 80 acres, and he also retained some Windsor landholdings.
In his will, George spoke lovingly of Frances, conveying his respect for her opinions and his hope that their children would take good care of her. In flowery language unusual for a will at this time, he wrote,
Concerning my Dear wife, I exhort my children to be careful & tender of her, Loving & dutiful towards her in all things, that she want nothing that may be necessary to her comfortable subsistence to hearken & attend to her Counsel from time to time.
George gave her control of a wing of their house in Westfield, a home she would share with her son Jacob. He also left her his bedding and other possessions.7 These considerations, along with the cash, grain, farmland, and the share in the orchard George allotted, would have provided for her comfortable existence for the rest of her life. In 1672, when Jacob married Dorothy Ingersoll, Frances would have had to adjust to having a new mistress in charge of her house, but she might have also welcomed the help with household chores, particularly in her later years. Dorothy and the grandchildren would have cared for Frances at the end of her life, after Jacob passed away in 1689.
Frances herself passed away in Westfield on September 27, 1690. She must have been about 80 years of age. Before her death, she would have witnessed the births of six grandchildren, born to Jacob and Dorothy during her lifetime in the home they all shared. She would have seen her other children grow up, marry, have children, and become prosperous. Some followed her and George to Westfield, others settled Lebanon and Northampton, some stayed in Windsor.
Through her perseverance, she helped to settle Windsor, building a community here that thrives to this day. She also settled Westfield, another thriving New England community. Though Frances outlived several of them, her children all seem to have survived to marriageable age, which must have resulted in thousands of descendants who are alive today. From her uncertain beginning aboard whatever ship brought her to New England, Frances survived, thrived, and provided a solid foundation for later generations of Americans to build upon.
By Kristen Wands, curator, 2019
- Some Early Records and Documents of and Relating to the Town of Windsor Connecticut 1639-1703. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1930, p. 78. Hereinafter referred to as Grant’s Record.
- Robert Charles Anderson. The Great Migration Begins, Vol I. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995, p. 539.
- Grant’s Record, 79.
- Adelbert Marinus Dewey, et al., Life of George Dewey, Rear Admiral, USN and Dewey Family History. Westfield, MA: Dewey Publishing Company, 1898, p. 225.
- Robert Charles Anderson. The Great Migration, Vol. V, Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2007, p. 445-449.
- Lockwood, John H. Westfield and its historic influences, 1669-1919. Westfield, MA: John H. Lockwood, 1922, p. 80.
- Probate Records, 1660-1916; Index, 1660-1971; Author: Massachusetts. Probate Court (Hampshire County); Probate Place: Hampshire, Massachusetts accessed via Ancestry.com 8/2/2019.