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, January 15, 2015

The Man For Whom The Town of Pelham Is Named

How did the Town of Pelham get its name?  No record yet has been discovered detailing the precise origin of the name.  Neither Thomas Pell, who acquired the lands from local Native Americans in 1654, nor his nephew and principal legatee, John Pell, left any record that sheds any light on the origin of the Town's name. 

For many years, local historians who considered the matter concluded that the name “Pelham” derived from an early English phrase meaning “home of the Pells”.  Lockwood Barr, who published a history of Pelham in 1946, wrote that “The word ham was early English for home – so Pelham came to mean the home of the Pells”.

Barr apparently based his conclusions on the work of earlier historians, including the work of Robert Bolton, Jr. who first published a two-volume history of Westchester County in 1848.  That work included a chapter on the Town of Pelham.  Bolton wrote in 1848 that “The name itself is of Saxon origin, and compounded of the two words Pel (remote) and Ham (mansion.)  The former, being the ancient surname of the manorial proprietors, affords us a very good reason for its adoption in connection with the last.”

Monumental work by Pell family genealogists over the last 55 years has shed more light on the question.  It turns out that after both of Thomas Pell's parents died when he was quite young, Thomas, his brother (John Pell), and a stepmother were taken in by a man named Pelham Burton.  

 Who was Pelham Burton?  Some have described him as Thomas Pell’s “tutor”.  Burton, however, was far more than a tutor.  He was Thomas Pell’s family friend, benefactor, legal guardian and surrogate father.

Pelham Burton seems to have been the single most important figure in the life of young Thomas.  Thomas Pell’s mother, Mary, died in February, 1614/15.  His father remarried to Joanne Gravette, but died a short time later on April 14, 1616/17.  According to PELLIANA, a genealogical publication about the Pell family:

“The boys were orphaned when Mary, first, and then John, their father, died and were raised and educated by their stepmother Joanne Gravett Pell and John’s ‘Trustees’ or Executors, Pelham Burton and the Reverend Richard Vernon, Rector of Eastbourne.”  

Source:  Pell, Robert T., PELLIANA:  PELL OF PELHAM - THOMAS PELL First Lord of the Manor of Pelham Westchester Co., New York, pp. 4-5 (Privately Printed by Robert T. Pell, 1962) (digital copy available for check out via Internet Archive).

Just as Pelham Burton cannot be described merely as Thomas Pell’s tutor, he likewise cannot be described as a mere “Executor” of the will of Thomas Pell’s father.  Rather, Pelham Burton became, in effect, a surrogate father to Thomas.  As long ago as 1962, Pell family genealogist Robert T. Pell stated "there is reason to believe that Thomas named Pelham in Westchester, New York, after him [Pelham Burton]."  Id., p 5.  

As the “Overseer” of John Pell’s will, Pelham Burton served as legal guardian of Thomas and his brother, John.  According to PELLIANA, Burton “took in the boys and their widowed stepmother, made them a home at Compton Place and directed their education”.  He sent them to the local “Free School” where the boys received a classic Latin education designed to prepare them to “read” for matriculation into Oxford or Cambridge.  Id., p. 6.  

18th Century Engraving Showing Compton Place, Built By
Pelham Burton, in Eastbourne, U.K.  Some Believe Pelham
Burton Took In Thomas Pell and His Brother, John, and
Their Stepmother Joanne Gravett Pell and that the Pells Lived
in Compton Place While Thomas Pell and His Brother
Attended School.

Pelham Burton was a member of the local gentry and an honorable and respected member of the Southwyk community.  According to genealogical research by the Pell family, Pelham Burton “took a prominent part” in the affairs of the Sussex area in England in the early 17th century.  In addition, he built Compton Place, the estate where he brought the boys and their stepmother upon the death of the boys’ father.  Id., p. 5.  That magnificent estate later became one of the residences of the Duke of Devonshire.  It still stands.

Genealogists believe that Pelham Burton was born before March 1, 1567/8 in Eastbourne, Sussex, England.  It was on that date that he was christened at St. Mary's Church, according to Parish records, in Eastbourne.  He is believed to have been the son of John Burton and Grace Capell of Eastbourne.  

Burton married Alice Poyntz on April 1, 1602.  See Sussex Record Society Founded for the Publication of Records and Documents Relating to the County, Vol. XVIII, p. 21 (Worthing:  W. J. C. Long, The Canton Printery, 1913).  Within a year, the couple had their first child, Winefrid Burton, who was christened on May 29, 1603.  Id., p. 22.  Although research has not yet revealed what happened to Alice Poyntz Burton, it appears that Pelham Burton remarried at least once more.

Pelham Burton later married Alice Branwayt.  (Some have suggested that Alice Poyntz and Alice Branwayt were one and the same, although they seem to have been different women.)  The couple had at least five children:  (1) Ales Burton (b. Bef. Apr. 4, 1616, Eastbourne, Sussex, England); (2) Elizabeth Burton (b. Bef. Dec. 7, 1606, Eastbourne, Sussex, England); (3) Richard Burton (b. Bef. Oct. 9, 1608, Eastbourne, Sussex, England); (4) John Burton (b. Bef. Feb. 18, 1609/10, Eastbourne, Sussex, England); and (5) Grace Burton (b. Bef. Jul. 12, 1612, Eastbourne, Sussex, England).  Pelham Burton is known to have at least one additional daughter named Susan.  This is known because that daughter married into the Pell family in Sussex, England.  Susan Burton of Eastbourne and James Pell of Eastbourne received a Sussex marriage license on April 10, 1624.  See Sussex Record Society Founded for the Publication of Records and Documents Relating to the County, Vol. I, p. 141 (Published by the Society, 1902).  James Pell was an uncle of Thomas Pell who founded Pelham.  James Pell was a brother of Thomas Pell's father, John Pell, who died when Thomas was young.

On August 24, 1639, less than two years before he died, Pelham Burton of Eastbourne and Magdalene Wood, a widow from Wilmington, England, received a Sussex marriage license.  Once again, it is not known what happened to Alice Branwayt who, of course, most likely was deceased at the time.  See Sussex Record Society Founded for the Publication of Records and Documents Relating to the County, Vol. I, p. 257 (Published by the Society, 1902).  

Pelham Burton died before January 9, 1641/2.    

Admittedly, there is no known documentary evidence that would prove that Pelham derives its name from Thomas Pell’s legal guardian and surrogate father, Pelham Burton.  But, documentary evidence strongly suggests that Pelham Burton was an extraordinarily strong positive influence on young Thomas Pell. 

It certainly seems that later in his adult life, Thomas Pell paid homage to the only “father” he had ever known – Pelham Burton – and named the lands he purchased from the Native Americans 361 years ago “Pelham”.

To read more about this topic, see Bell, Blake A., Pelham History:  How Did Pelham Get Its Name?, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Jan. 2, 2004, p. 9, col. 1.

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