Thomas Gunn on Three Frontiers, New England 1635-1681

Article Covers
Surnames
Gunn
Ensign
Sheldon
Thrall
Ashley
Places
Connecticut, United States
Massachusetts, United States
Year range
1635 - 1681

When we first catch sight of Thomas Gunn, on February 10, 1635, he’s the owner of a lot in the heart of the five-year-old Massachusetts Bay Colony village of Dorchester. Later that spring he joined the Congregational Church of Dorchester and was admitted as a freeman of Massachusetts Bay later that spring, on May 6, giving him a formal say in both church and state.

Perhaps he’d just arrived, or perhaps he’d just emerged from a term as indentured servant. Nobody knows. Some Gunns are Scottish, many are English. The record’s silence suggests that Thomas was born in England — Scotsmen in those days were noted as exotic foreigners — but no one has yet found a credible connection between him and any family. As in the even more puzzling case of his daughter’s father-in-law William Thrall, his name doesn’t appear on the surviving ship lists.

Thomas probably had a trade — in the middle 1660s he had an apprentice — but we don’t know what it was. It probably didn’t require extensive literacy, as he signed his will with a mark rather than his name.

Gunn was barely settled in Dorchester when almost everyone in town began making plans to uproot themselves and the church and move to the Connecticut River Valley. Residents coveted the rock-free floodplain farmland along the big river, and some of the town’s leaders were at odds with the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

He soon joined the exodus, and by the end of 1640 he had married and owned land in the new settlement of Windsor, Connecticut. (For reasons unrecorded, a stream called “Gunn’s Brook” flowed north of town.) His home lot was a four- or five-acre strip, perhaps 55 yards wide, running from the west bank of the Connecticut River into the uplands. He had another strip north of town, between Gunn’s Brook and William Thrall’s quarry.

If Thomas made waves during the following quarter-century, they didn’t reach the record books. He seems to have lived a quiet and respectable life in Windsor. Between 1644 and 1661 he spent far more time in court as a juror than as plaintiff or defendant. The cases he sat on dealt with small civil and criminal matters, like a five-pound fine for “abuseing the Constable and excesse in drinkeing.”

Like other Puritans, the residents of Windsor were ever alert that people living alone might get into mischief, lead others into temptation, and call down God’s wrath on the entire community. Single men were often exhorted or compelled to live with families. Another sign of Gunn’s respectability was that, over the winter of 1659-1660, the town authorized the family to host a Captain Thomas in their home, and Isaac Holt for three months.

Meanwhile their nest began to empty out. In the fall of 1659, their 17-year-old daughter Deborah married Timothy Thrall, the son of local stoneworker William Thrall. Four years later 19-year-old Mehitable married David Ensign in nearby Hartford.

Thomas began to show signs of restlessness. In the spring of 1665, he bought some land in Westfield, Massachusetts, a newly settled area a few miles up the Connecticut River. He was there when house lots were assigned March 16, 1667, and eventually his land included about 40 acres. His Windsor homestead he gave to Timothy and Deborah.

Well over 60 — “an old man to brave the hardships of a new settlement” according to one Westfield chronicler – Thomas had moved to the frontier for a third time, along with his wife and their 20-year-old son John.

They probably hadn’t bargained on what came next. In June 1675 King Philip’s War broke out, and a series of Indian attacks that fall left the Connecticut River frontier in a shambles. Westfield had a house and a barn burned and lost a man in a skirmish.

The townspeople faced a choice. They could each plant their own fields, risking death by tomahawk, or they could spend the growing season in forted-up buildings and risk death by starvation when they ran out of food the next winter. On March 26 ten men signed an agreement to establish a kind of emergency war communism:

   “The town considering that the hand of God is upon us in
   having or letting loose the heathen upon us so that now
   wee cannot carry on our occasion for lively hood as
   formerly & considering that it is not a time now to advans
   our estates but to deny ourselves of our former advantages
   that so wee may carry on something together for the good
   of the whole . . . .
   “We agree to carry on as followeth — We agree to fence
   only the northeast field and . . . to plow and sow and carry
   on the improvement of this land in general, that is such as
   shall agree thereunto . . . it shall be ordered by some men
   we shall appoint, who shall go out to work and who shall
   tarry at home from day to day, and . . . each man shall
   receive an equal proporson according to his family.”

They appointed “[David] Ashly Senr & goodman Gun” to organize the affair.

Meanwhile the Massachusetts legislature ordered Westfield residents to move to Springfield so they could be better protected. When they refused, they were left largely to fend for themselves, and lucked out. As the war progressed, Westfield was never overrun, and fared better than many settlements that far west.

In the summer of 1678, Thomas was one of 42 male inhabitants of Westfield aged sixteen or more to take the oath of allegiance to King Charles II. During that year he started making concessions to old age, and asked to be excused from military training. The court agreed. His wife – whose name appears in no record — died that fall, about 73 years old.

Life was slowing down even as the townspeople honored him. When the Congregational Church in Westfield was formally organized in 1679, he was one of seven or eight “nominated for a foundation man.” But he declined the honor. According to a note appended to the founding documents, “He was so much decayed by age that it would be a hard thing” to recall and recount his conversion experience. Nevertheless the church admitted him as a member that fall, because “he was a man of approved piety & was recommended to us by Windsor church.”

Many Puritans showed a remarkable ability to die within days of writing a will, but not Thomas Gunn. He wrote his in November 1679, and lasted more than a year after that. His estate was valued at £349, a respectable amount, of which £254 was land and improvements.

Person:Thomas Gunn (1)

born around 1605 Great Britain

married late 1630s

died 26 February 1681 Westfield, Massachusetts

ANCESTORS: Unknown.

COUSINS: No siblings known.

DESCENDANTS: His three surviving children had 23 children among them (surnames Gunn, Thrall, Ensign, and Sheldon).

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