Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Signature of Captain John Underhill Who Led Thomas Pell and Others During the Massacre of Pequots at Mystic on May 26, 1637

It is well established that Thomas Pell was among those who settled Fort Saybrook in the 1630s. It is also well established that Pell served as the "Chirugeon" (surgeon) who traveled with Captain John Underhill and his militia when they sailed away from Fort Saybrook and attacked a fortified Native American settlement near Mystic on May 26, 1637 during the so-called Pequot War.

It seems clear that Pell refused to leave the ship when it arrived ferrying militia members on the way to the massacre. Indeed, at least one leader of the attack complained bitterly that Pell refused to accompany the soldiers, led by Captain John Underhill, after they disembarked from the vessel and began their overland march to the fortified settlement where they massacred an unknown number of men, women and children. There is evidence to suggest that Pell acted not from some principled disagreement with the nature of the venture but, rather, out of fear that the venture was ill-fated and would lead to the deaths of those who planned to attack the Native American village.

Now I may have uncovered an actual autograph of Captain John Underhill (1597 - 1672). About six years ago I purchased both volumes of the second edition of Robert Bolton's History of Westchester published in 1881. I focused on portions of those volumes dealing with towns and villages that arose from the original Manor of Pelham founded by Thomas Pell (e.g., West Chester, Pelham, East Chester, New Rochelle, etc.).

Recently I have been researching the backgrounds of the English settlers and Native Americans who signed Thomas Pell's so-called "treaty" by which he acquired the lands that became the Manor of Pelham on June 27, 1654. As part of that research I have been surveying primary and secondary sources that reference "deeds" or "treaties" signed by Native Americans in the area known today as lower Westchester County. While going through Bolton's 1881 volumes I reached a page I had not seen before containing a brief biography of Captain John Underhill. Pasted to the top of the page is what appears to be a piece of parchment cut from a larger document with a signature that reads "John Underhill". Written above that in an entirely different ink is "1664" (presumably a reference to a year). It seems to me at least possible that this is the signature of John Underhill cut from some larger document at some point.

An image of the page appears below. I have superimposed onto that image an enlarged and digitally enhanced copy of the item pasted to the top of the page reflecting what appears to be Underhill's signature. I am in the process of attempting to have the signature authenticated.

Underhill was born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England in about 1597. His father was a military man in the Dutch service.

Underhill married Helena de Hooch while serving as a Cadet in the guard of the Prince of Orange. In 1630 he left Europe for Boston. The Colony of Massachusetts Bay appointed him a Co-Captain of its militia. According to one biography of Underhill:

"When Indian troubles arose, Underhill helped in avenging Oldham's death at Block Island (August 1636). Lent to Saybrook Plantation in April 1637, he cooperated with Mason's Connecticut forces in destroying Mystic Fort and scattering the Pequots. He might have returned to Massachusetts a hero, had it not been for the bitter theological controversy going on there. Underhill had allied himself with the Antinomians and signed the petition in behalf of the Rev. John Wheelwright [q.v.]; the orthodox party was now in control, and Underhill was received as a seditious person. He made the situation worse for himself by imprudent words (Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 4 ser., vol. VII, 1865, pp. 170-74), and was disfranchised, discharged from military service (Nov. 15, 1637), and disarmed (Nov. 20, 1637). Humiliated, he spent the winter of 1637-38 in England and published in 1638 Nevves from America (reprinted Ibid., 3 ser., vol. VI, 1837), now a classical account of the Pequot troubles. Returning to Boston, he was accused of making contemptuous speeches and was brought before the General Court which, for "his gross & palpable dissimulation & equivocation," banished him (Sept. 6, 1638). He fled to Dover (N. H.) just in time to escape a church trial for adultery."

Source: "John Underhill", Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936 (Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2006 http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC).

Underhill later represented Stamford in the New Haven Court and was employed by the Dutch to fight Indians. According to the biography quoted above, "he acquitted himself well, moved to Long Island, and later became [a] member of the Council for New Amsterdam and schout of Flushing. After the Anglo-Dutch war began, he narrowly escaped imprisonment for seditiion, because in May 1653 he denounced Stuyvesant's 'iniquitous government' for its dealings with the Indians, unjust taxation, and other oppressive measures toward the English."

Underhill broke with New Amsterdam and became a privateer who precipitated a major dispute between the Dutch and Hartford when he seized Dutch West India Company property at Hartford on June 27, 1653.

Underhill's first wife died in 1658. He then married Elizabeth Feake, "probably became a Quaker, and moved to Oyster Bay". He died at his Oyster Bay estate, Killingsworth, on March 14, 1666/7. According to his biographer he was "survived b at least two daughters and one son by his first wife and three daughters and two sons by the second".

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At 1:46 PM, Blogger charvey279 said...

I am researching my family history and believe that Sarah Underhill who was Captain John's great grandaughter is on of my great-great-great grandmothers. I have very much enjoyed your writings. Thank you for them and I will try to let you know what I find out about this family line.

At 10:56 PM, OpenID annecthread said...

I was recently researching info. re: Capt. John Underhill, of whom I'm directly descended (10th generation), anyway, I read an article from a Greenwich, Conn. publication from the 1920's re: The Pequot War and massacre subsequent squirmishes in and around Stamford, Cos Cob and Greenwich, I believe the article mentions your relative Thomas Pell as well as Anne Hutchinson. If you are not familiar with this article please inform and I can find exact source.
Also, I was born in Yonkers, Westchester County
small world.
Enjoyed reading your article.
Thanks for the historical documentation.


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