One of the wealthiest portions of Lancashire is confined in the area bounded thus: Beginning at Liverpool, the southwest boundary of Lancashire, and following the coast line of the Irish Sea twenty miles north, we reach the river Ribble; from there going eastward fifteen miles, thence south to Manchester and down the river to Liverpool. This section is rich in coal-mines, quarries of useful stones, iron-works, and is the wealthiest cotton-manufacturing district in the world. Through the centre of this territory the Athertons for nearly one thousand years have had immense possessions, which were increased by marrying heiresses, until it became one of the richest families of the great commoners of England. In their manorial estate the town of Atherton lies ten miles northwest of Manchester; here the family originated, and Robert de Atherton (1) lived (1199-1216) as the shreve (high sheriff) of the county under King John, and held the manor of Atherton of the barons of Warrington. William de Atherton, his son, held the manors of Atherton and Pennington (1251). (By intermarriage with the Derby family the title is now vested in that line.) William Atherton (3), of Atherton (1312), had wife Agnes (1339), whose son Henry Atherton (4), of Atherton (1316-30), married Agnes (1387), and had for second son Sir William Atherton (5), of Atherton (1351), knight. He married, first, Jane, daughter of William and sister of Sir Ralphe Moberly, knight; married, second, Margerie, a widow (1396). In the private chapel of the Athertons, in the parish church of Leigh, is a family vault, and the arms of the family hang there. As entered in the Visitation of Sir William Dugdale Norrey, King of Arms (1664-65), they are : Gules, three sparrowhawks, argent crest; a swan, argent, another crest; on a perch a hawk billed, proper. By first wife, William Atherton (5) had Sir William Atherton (6), knight; born 1381; died 1416 ; his wife was Agnes, sole daughter and heiress of Ralphe Vernon, Baron of Shipbroke. Their third child, Sir William Atherton (7), knight, married, first, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Pilkinton, knight; by her had Margaret and Sir William Atherton (8), who married Margaret, daughter of Sir John Byron, knight, and died in 1441. Among their children was John Atherton (9), whose son George (10), born 1487, by first wife, Anne Ashton, had Sir John Atherton (11), knight, born 1514; died 1513; married, first, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Alexander Ratcliffe, knight. This marriage was recorded in the Visitation of 1533, where the arms were also entered; he married, second, Margaret, daughter of Thomas Caterall. He was high sheriff under three sovereigns, in 1551, 1555, and 1561, and commander of the Military Hundred in 1553. Among his children was John (12), Esq., born 1556; high sheriff 1583, who was twice married ; first, to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Byron, knight; second, to Katherine, daughter and co-heiress of John, Lord Conyers, of Hornby Castle. By each wife he had a son John; the first John (13), of Atherton, who had John (14), died in 1646 ; married Eleanor, daughter of Sir Thomas Ireland, of Beansey, Knight. They had numerous children ; one John Atherton (15), high sheriff, died in 1655; the second, John Atherton, of Skelton, was heir to his mother's large estate and title. We have thus far followed the line of heirship, the scions, all worthy representatives of the name, being found in different parts of the country. As the American branch deflected at this period, we have no need of further tracing the English family.
In 1613, Edmund Atherton did in Wigan, Lancashire, his son and next heir, Humphrey, being at this time four years old, thus giving his birth in 1608. This Humphrey is referred to by Mr. Brown in an article on "The Atherton family in England," "New England Historical and Genealogical Register," January, 1881, as perhaps being the identical Humphrey Atherton, major-general of Dorchester, progenitor of the American line. That they are different persons is clearly shown by the fact that Gen. Atherton was killed in 1661, when only thirty-six years old. The other Humphrey would have been fifty-three years old at this time. Humphrey Atherton, born in Lancashire, perhaps son of above, married Mary Wales, probably daughter of John Wales, of Idle, England, and, with three children, Jonathan, Isabel (married Nathaniel Wales, Jr.), and Elizabeth came in the ship "James" from Bristol to America in 1635. Rev. Richard Mather, in his journal of the voyage, names but few of the one hundred passengers, among them Nathaniel Wales, whose will was witnessed by Humphrey Atherton who was styled in it "loving brother-in-law." They settled in Dorchester. Humphrey was married when an infant. His first child was born when he was fourteen years old, and his wife thirteen. They had twelve children, those mentioned above and the following nine born in Dorchester: Consider, Mary, Margaret, Rest, Increase, Thankful, Hope, Watching, and Patience. Appleton's "American Encyclopaedia" says this of him, "Atherton, Humphrey, a military officer whose name is mentioned with much honor in the early annals of Massachusetts. He came from England about 1636, when he signed the covenant of the church of Dorchester. He was admitted as a freeman in 1638, and was deputy in the General Court from Dorchester for that year, and also in 1639-41, and in 1653, from Springfield, when he was chosen Speaker. The next year he was chosen assistant and soon after Major-General. He was much employed in negotiations with the Indians, and made use of his influence with them in a great purchase in the colony of Rhode Island. He died by a fall from his house, at Boston, Sept. 17, 1661. The manner of his death is made matter of comment by Hubbard as one of the judgments of God." His wife died in 1672. In the old Dorchester cemetery is this epitaph:
"Here lies our Captain & Major of Suffolk was withall; A godly magistrate was he, and Major General; Two troop horse with him here comes, such worth his love did crave. Ten companies of foot also mourning march to his grave, Let all that read be sure to keep the faith as he has done With Christ he lives now around his name was Humphrey Atherton."
Consider (2 American gen.), son of Humphrey, married Anne Annably, Dec. 14, 1671. His son Humphrey (3), had a son John (4), who became "deacon," and whose son John (5), married Mary, daughter of Rev. Jedediah Adams, the first settled pastor of Stoughton, where he ministered with great acceptability for many years (see "History of First Parish," on another page). They had nine children, John, Jedediah, Humphrey, Mary, Rachel, Elijah, Samuel, Mary, and Nathan. Samuel (6), born Sept. 19, 1784, was a man much esteemed, possessing good sterling qualities. He was a farmer, owning about eighty acres of the homestead of his father near Stoughton Centre, on which he was born and lived his long life of over ninety-two years. He married Feb. 28, 1811, Abigail, daughter of Ralph and Abigail (Soran) Pope, of Stoughton. She came of an old New England family of repute, the first American ancestor, John Pope, coming about 1633 from the neighborhood of London, England, and settling in 1640 in "Dorchester New Grant," now Stoughton, the line being John (1), John (2), Ralph (3), Ralph (4) (a physician of great kindness and benevolence), Col. Frederick (5) (he was a justice, colonel, serving in 1756 with his regiment on the Canada frontier in the French and Indian war; was State representative from Stoughton. In the Revolution, when the summons came to take the field he was plowing. Taking the harness from his horse he at once made ready, and with his two eldest sons, Ralph and Samuel Ward, joined the army. He served in several campaigns, his sons acting as his aids. His third son, Alexander, then but sixteen, fulfilled faithfully the task of carrying on the farm and supporting the family), Ralph (6) (he was born in Stoughton, 1759, and died 1797. He served through the Revolution; married Abigail, daughter of Maj. Robert and Rachel (Draper) Swan, born 1761, died 1852, aged ninety-one. Their daughter, Abigail (7), who married Samuel Atherton, was born in Stoughton, Mass., Dec. 5, 1785, dying March 19, 1868, aged eighty-two years, three and a half months). Samuel Atherton was of energetic temperament, cheerful disposition, eminently social, enjoying humor, and always ready with some bright remark, pointed with fun. He was honest, straightforward, prudent, saving, and perfectly just in all the relations of life. He had musical tastes, was a great singer, and when prevented sometimes from talking by an impediment (stammering) which afflicted him, he would sing clearly the words he wished to speak. He and his brother Nathan were among the originators of the "Stoughton Musical Society." He was selectman in his younger days, and held other positions of trust. Although a great sufferer from rheumatism in his later years, he continued cheerful even to the time of his death. He was very fond of his brother, Nathan, four years his junior; they lived all their lives a few rods apart; both attained great age, and died within three months of each other; Nathan's death occurring Nov. 13, 1876, at eighty-eight. A short time previous to his death, Nathan walked to and from church for morning service, a distance of two and a quarter miles.
Samuel was a successful farmer, and at one time the largest land-holder in town. He voted at every election from 1805 till 1876, when his last vote was cast for the Hayes electoral ticket. The children of Samuel and Abigail Atherton were six, -Mary (Mrs. William Belcher), Vashti (Mrs. James Swan), Samuel, Abigail (Mrs. Joseph Swan), James, and William. James Atherton (7) - Humphrey (1), Consider (2), Humphrey (3), John (4), John (5), Samuel (6) -was born on the homestead mentioned above May 6, 1819. He had common-school and academic education ; remained with his father on the farm until he was of age, teaching, however, several terms of winter schools. He married, first, May 5, 1853, Phebe, daughter of John and Phebe Reed, born in Boston, Feb. 9, 1831, died March 11, 1868. Her father was a civil officer of Boston for many years, and was strong, fearless, and uncompromising in the discharge of duty. His ancestors trace their origin through early New England to one of England's most honored families, dating from a period anteceding the Norman conquest by over a century, and which has, in each successive -generation, held places high in the counsels of royalty. After marriage, Mr. Atherton continued on the old place, and there began the manufacture of boots with his brother William, under the firm title of J. & W. Atherton. This firm continued in business some years, and was prosperous. It was finally merged with the firm of Atherton, Stetson & Co., a solid Boston house, the Athertons being Samuel, James, and William. James' health not being robust, after his business energies had been rewarded with a sufficient competency, he retired from active labor. This was in 1867, his connection with Atherton, Stetson & Co. ceasing in 1861. About 1838 he removed to : the house now occupied by his sons. His children, all by his first wife, are James (8), born July 26, 1854; William (8), April 30, 1859; and Walter (8), March 18, 1863. Mr. Atherton married, second, Mary B. Marshall, of Boston, June 1, 1869. She died Feb. 5, 1880. Always in delicate health, Mr. Atherton was a man of energy, and accomplished much. In early life he was fond of discussions, and took an active part in debating societies. He was a quick and ready speaker, a clear logician, and there showed the sound judgment which distinguished him in later life. He was a great reader, and kept abreast of the current of the world's affairs, and always liked to discuss matters of thought and moment. He engaged but little in public life, devoted himself wholly to his business, which rewarded his attention with a liberal competency. This was not obtained by any of the fraudulent devices so common in business life, but the motto, dated 1855, which, worn by long use, was found in his pocket-book after his death, furnishes the motive which actuated him through all life's changes, and is a better delineation of his character than any words of ours: "Do unto others as you would that others should do to you under like circumstances." He sympathized with the Universalist creed, attended its services, and was active and liberal in all church matters. He was systematic and orderly in all things. A good citizen, aiding much in building up the interests of Stoughton, his counsel was often sought in critical and important affairs. He was Whig and Republican in politics.