Part 1 - Thomas Holcombe in the New World
It is unclear exactly when Thomas Holcombe arrived in New England. It could have been as early as 1630 on the Ship Mary & John or as late as 1633 on the Ship Thunder. As passenger lists for many of the Puritan voyages did not exist, the actual date that he first stepped foot on New England soil will probably never be known. Regardless, his arrive about 20 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth puts him in the company of the first few hundred or few thousand white men to live in North America.
|Drawing of the Mary and John. While it is unclear if Thomas Holcombe came|
to the New World on this particular ship, it represents the type of vessel that
was plying the Atlantic Ocean between England and America in the 1630's.
Also unclear and in dispute, is the ancestry of Thomas Holcombe and even his birth date. He was born sometime between 1601 and 1610. The earliest genealogists, working in the first half of the 20th century and long before the information age, placed him as the son of Gilbert Holcombe and Ann Courtney. They resided at Hole House in Branscombe, along the cost, in the "west country" of Devon. Hole House, which still stands, was at one time a minor "manor house" and the Holcombe clan had some connections to royalty and some say, to the Crusades and as far back as Charlemagne. There is evidence, however, that Thomas was not the son of Gilbert as an 1887 publication (J.L. Vivian's Visitations of Devon) notes that Gilbert and Ann had no children and that, according to Gilbert's will, his possessions were left to his brother-in-law. So for now, despite what you might read in Holcombe genealogy books or find on the web, the ancestry of Thomas Holcombe remains a mystery. It does seem likely that Thomas was from the west country area and probably somewhere in Devon as that was the launching point for the Puritan invasion that would send a couple dozen ships to the future Boston Harbor in the 1630s.
Thomas's ancestry and the circumstances that lead him to America remain unknown but on May 4, 1634, his existence and status were confirmed. On that date, he and about 58 other men took the "Freeman's Oath" and he was recorded as a resident of Dorchester. The oath would mean he could own land and vote, something reserved for only the most privileged white men of the day. By December of 1634, Thomas would be granted and eight acre "Great Lot" and other acreage in the town's meadowlands.
|This scene is a good representation of very early colonial life in America about|
the time that Thomas Holcombe lived on his eight acres at Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Thomas was married to a women named Elizabeth. She is often referred to as Elizabeth Ferguson but it seems unlikely that her last name was actually Ferguson and their marriage date is unknown. They had their first child, daughter Elizabeth in 1634 which has lead genealogist to estimate her birth date around 1617 and to speculation that they were married about 1633 or earlier. Depending on when Thomas actually arrived in America, it is possible that they were married in England or in New England but no New England records have been found.
Puritan New England was a society in which civil life and religion where entwined. As such, each town around the Boston Bay and the Charles River had a meeting house (church) which was the prime gathering place and focal point of village life. The members of the congregation (the town residents) could be a tight-knit group and often acted in concert with each other. By 1635, there seemed to some disputes arising between some at Dorchester and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A large group of these residents, let by the Reverend John Wareham would sell their landholdings at Dorchester and head west into the wilderness to Connecticut.
The first group left in the summer of 1635 for a place on the Connecticut River where the Plymouth Colony had setup an Indian trading post. In August of that year, Thomas would sell his lands and begin preparations to go west. He would be part of the second group, which arrived in the spring of 1636. Just a few years after his adventure to the new world had begun, Thomas was once again, on the move, this time to a new and untamed wilderness.
Connecticut is divided in half by the Connecticut River, then known as "The Great River." Connecticut, in Mohegan means "the long river" (originally quonehtacut, quinnehtukguet, or connittetuck). To the west lies the Hudson River and Housatonic River valleys inhabited by the Mohawk and Iroquois. To the east lies the Thames River valley inhabited by Pequot. Four main tribes made up the "River Indians" in the Connecticut River valley. They were the Podunk on the east shore and Poquonock, Saukiog and Tunxis on the west shore.
The initial party of settlers suffered greatly in the first winter at Windsor. Some headed back to Dorchester and some ventured down the river for refuge on a ship but most remained. The next summer, 1636, with the arrival of the balance of the Dorchester group, the fate of the town seamed sealed. They had originally been discourage by Colonial leaders to make the trek but seemed resolved to make their own way in the new world. Soon after their arrival, the Pilgrim trading post was abandoned and Windsor was officially established as the first town in Connecticut. Still, times would be hard for the first few seasons. The river gave the settlers access to the coast and supplies, but it was far from the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies and defined the edge of the civilized frontier.
|Windsor Connecticut from 1635-1650, annotated. In the far upper left, is the Thomas Holcombe|
homestead at Poquonock. A drawing from The History of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut.
Thomas was granted a plot of land north of the fortified Palisado along a road that paralleled the river. This included land across the road in a large meadow that stretched to the river bank. He would stay in this location for only about three years. In 1639, he sold the lands and the family moved to a place known as Poquonock. It was north of established Windsor along the Farmington River (then known as the Rivulet). The Griswold and Bartlett families had also come to Poquonock and although it was only a couple of miles from the main town, these families were isolated and on their own for the first few years.
The description of the Thomas Holcombe land holdings from the History of Ancient Windsor . . . Distribution of Home Lots of the first settlers of Ancient Windsor . . . HOLCOMB (Holcombe, Holcom, Holkom), Thomas, 1635, or soon after (D.), lot gr. 14-1/2 r. wide, abt. opp. the old Lemuel Welch ho. and garden, E. line 3-1/2 r. N. of S. line of Welch garden; sold to Josiah Hull and rem. 1639 to Poq., where he had lot next N. of Ed. Griswold, " from the brook before his house to the Rivulet." His son Joshua had the homestead.The risk the settlers at Poquonock were taking was recognized in Hartford and they were given some leeway in their expected military training and duties at Windsor (as recorded in the proceedings from the General Court)
From Colonial Connecticut Public Records, 1636-1776 . . . This Courte taking into consideration the many dangers that the familyes of Thomas Holcombe, Edward Grisswold, John Bartlitt, Francis Grisswold and George Grisswold, all of Wyndsor, are in and exposed unto, by reason the their remoate living from neighbors and neareness to the Indians, in case they should all leave theire families together without any guard, doth free one souldger of the forementoned families from training upon every training day, each family aforesaid to share herein according to the number of souldgers that are in them, provided that man which tarryes at home stands about the aforesaid howses upon his sentinell posture . . .
|A drawing of the Thomas Holcombe house made in the early 1800's.|
Thomas in not mentioned that often in public records and so not that much "official information" about him exists. He was known to be a delegate to Hartford in 1639 when Connecticut adopted the "Fundamental Orders" which is often considered the first constitution in America. We also know from his will that he acquired a considerable amount of land which would equate to a certain level of wealth and respect in New England society. He lived during the Pequot War, the first major armed conflict with the Indians but we do not know if he served in any capacity in that conflict. His death in 1657 (in his late 40's or 50's) would leave Elizabeth a widow with a number of young children still at home and she would soon remarry.
The landholdings of Thomas Holcombe as recorded in his will, from the Holcombe Website . . . eleven acres in home lot with housing and orchard (£50); four acres and a half adjoining to the home lot (£6); ten acres and a half of meadow (£10-10s.); in the fourth meadow twelve acres (£15); twenty-five acres of woodland over the brook against the house (£3); forty-eight acres of woodland (£7-10s.); ten acres of woodland (10s.); and his part in that called Tinker's Farm, eighty acres and a barn (£3).After his death, Elizabeth would marry James Eno (Enno), also of Windsor. She was James third wife out of a total of four. He is said to be descendant of Belgian (or French) Huguenots from Valenciennes, a protestant center, in what is now northern France. His family went to London to escape religious persecution from the Catholics and it is claimed that he was born in London. He was not a Puritan and as such was not always accepted by the closed Puritan society but even so, he still managed to become a prominent citizen of Windsor, served in various public capacities and was successful land owner. James and some children from his previous marriages moved into the Holcombe house at Poquonock. Later they would move to the “Scotland” section on the east bank of the Farmington nearer to Simsbury. Elizabeth would live another 20 years and died in 1679.
The Children of Thomas and Elizabeth
Thomas and Elizabeth would have at least 10 children. Some would head into the wilderness and some would stay in Windsor. The three boys who survived to adulthood would each have large families of their own (as was the custom of the day) and their descendants would spread across New England and follow America's expansion west.
- Daughter Elizabeth Holcombe (b.1634, d.1712) was probably born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She married Sergeant Josiah Ellsworth (b.1629, d.1689), the son of John Ellsworth and Lucia Bower in 1654 at Windsor. They first settled at Windsor, south of the Farmington River near the “old mill” and later moved to what became known as Elmwood, which stayed in the family until the early 20th Century. The current house dates form the 1780s and is now a museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Elizabeth and Josiah had nine children.
- A notable descendant was Oliver Ellsworth (b.1745, d.1807), a lawyer and politician who was one of the drafters of the United States Constitution, the first U.S. Senator from Connecticut, the third Chief Justice of the United States, being nominated for the post by George Washington, and an envoy to Napoleon’s Court. Ellsworth was noted as an active player in the details of the drafting of the constitution (including the “Connecticut Compromise”) and the development of the Federal Judicial system.
- Daughter Mary Holcombe (b.1535, d.1708) was born at either Dorchester or Windsor. She married George Griswold (b.1633, d.1704), the son of Edward Griswold and Margaret (?) in 1655 at Windsor. George came to America with his parents and brothers and settled in Windsor. Edward Griswold and sons were founders of Windsor and neighbors to the Holcombes at the “outpost settlement” of Poquonock. George was a large landowner, engaged in trade with England and the West Indies and was known to deal honestly and fairly with the Indians. Griswold is a notable family name in Connecticut and New England. Mary and George had 10 children.
- Daughter Abigail Holcombe (b.1638, d.1688) was born at Windsor. She married Samuel Bissell (b.1636, d.1697), the son of Captain John Bissell and Mary Drake in 1658 at Windsor. John Bissell, probably a Huguenot, was one of the founders of Windsor. Abigail and Samuel had 10 children.
- Son Joshua Holcombe (b.1640, d.1690) was born at Windsor. He married Ruth Sherwood (d.1699), the daughter of Thomas Sherwood and Mary (?) of Fairfield, Connecticut in 1663 at Windsor. Thomas Sherwood, his first wife, Alice (?) and four children came to Boston in 1634 on the ship Frances. Thomas Sherwood was noted to have fought in the Pequot War. After his marriage, Joshua Holcombe took his family and his father’s movable property and headed to Windsor Center, now Simsbury, and settled on four acres that were granted to him in 1667. He was a prominent citizen of Simsbury and often found in the public records of the town. He and Ruth had 11 children. This branch of the family would continue in Simsbury for a number of generations and there are still Holcombes living there today.
- A notable descendant was four star General Thomas Holcombe (b.1879, d.1965), World War I and II veteran with a long and distinguished career culminating in his appointment as the 17th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.
- Daughter Sarah Holcombe (b.1642, d.1654) was born at Windsor. She only lived to about the age of 12.
- Son (Sergeant) Benajah Holcombe (b.1644, d.1736) was born at Windsor. He married Sarah Eno (b.1649), the daughter of James Eno and Anna (?) or possibly the daughter of Richard Bidwell who was Anna’s first husband. James Eno married Elizabeth Holcombe after the death of Thomas which meant Sarah was a stepsister to Benajah. Benajah did not follow his brothers to Simsbury and Salmon Brook but instead he stayed on at Windsor. Historians have often had a harder time tracking Benajah’s line partially because of his unusual name which was sometimes confused with Benjamin. Benajah and Sarah had nine children. There are still Holcombes in Windsor today.
- Daughter Deborah Holcombe (b.1646, d.1649) was born at Windsor. She only lived to about the age of three.
- Son Nathaniel Holcombe (I) (b.1648, d.1740) would venture into the wilderness to a place called Salmon Brook. He and his descendants are covered in detail in the next section of this report.
- Daughter Deborah Holcombe (1649/50, d.1686) was born at Windsor. She married Daniel Birge (b.1644, d.1697), the son of Richard Birge and Elizabeth Gaylord in 1668 at Windsor. Richard Birge was from Lancashire, England, was said to have been on the voyage of the Mary and John and was one of the founders of Windsor. Deborah and Daniel had six children and after the death of Deborah, Daniel remarried and had five more children.
- Son Jonathan Holcombe (b.1651/52, d.1656) was born at Windsor. He lived to about the age of three or four.
Nathaniel Holcombe, the youngest son of Thomas and Elizabeth was only about nine years old when his father died. He would grow up with James Eno as his stepfather in a house where two families lived together. When he came of age, he would continue in the ways of his father and venture into the wilderness to make his mark.
You can read about Nathaniel's story in Part 2 of the report here . . .
For additional information: One of the best on-line sources about Thomas Holcombe and the greater Holcombe family can be found at Holcombe Family Genealogy.