George Wightman (1632-1722)

George Wightman

 

George Wightman was born June 4, 1632 in London, England1, and died January 7, 1721/22 in Quidnessett, Washington Co., RI colony1. He was the son of John Wightman. He married Elizabeth Updyke 1663 in Kingstown, RI colony1, daughter of Gysbert Opdycke and Catherine Smith. She was born July 27, 1644 in New Amsterdam, New Netherlands colony1, and died April 26, 1716 in Quidnessett, Washington Co., RI colony1.

There exists some confusion over George's birth month. I have chosen June, instead of November, 1632, since that is the month claimed in George's bible. George grew up, probably in London, England, during the chaotic reign of Charles I, which ended with the King's beheading on January 30, 1649 and the establishment of Cromwell's republic. In England, George was apparently apprenticed as a tailor, and thus gained some skills that were common in the English Wightman family. Although there is no record of George's immigration, he almost certainly arrived at Richard Smith's trading post in Wickford (via Boston and Newport) in 1654 with his father (whose immigration is noted for that year) and brothers at the age of about 22. I have given some speculation on the Wightman's motivations for immigrating under the entry for George's father, John. George and his family arrived with considerable means; they were not fleeing poverty in England. When George arrived on the western shore of the Narragansett Bay, he came to an area that mostly undeveloped wilderness, lightly inhabited by the Narragansett tribe, with which his brother Valentine was already on good terms. Upon his arrival at Wickford, he almost certainly had dealings with Richard Smith, Jr., who was running the Smith Trading Post at that time. He may even have met Richard's ten year-old niece, Elizabeth Updyke, a sometime visitor to Wickford, who would later become George's bride.

George himself was already a fairly successful young man and quickly went about the business of buying land-- a process for which he appears to have had a good eye. Presumably, his brother Valentine aided in transactions with the Narragansetts. Very little is known about George's early time in Rhode Island. He acquired some plots of land and began the hard work of farming, probably in Wickford. By this time, some sense of the difficulties of frontier life in the colonies had reached England, so George might have had some clue as to what was in store for him: long hours of hard work, inadequate shelter, the threat of starvation, hostile Natives, and brutally cold winters (in comparison to relatively mild England). Moreover, like most other settlers, George probably had no experience farming. He was trained as a tailor, not in agriculture. Like most settlers, he learned the hard way; the first years must have been quite a test of physical and emotional strength.

In 1659, the Humphrey Atherton Land Company was organized, which consisted of land speculators from Massachusetts including Major Atherton and John Winthrop, Jr., as well as Richard Smith, Sr. and Jr. In the summer of 1659, the Atherton Company purchased a huge tract of land north of Wickford and laid out the community of Quidnessett, and area of about six miles north-south by three miles east-west. The northernmost portion of the tract was bounded by the Potowomut River, and it is this area that was purchased by George's brother, Valentine, in 1660. In 1662, however, Connecticut's John Winthrop, Jr. obtained a royal charter for the land all the way east to the "Narragansett River", which Connecticut interpreted to mean the Bay. In 1665, a royal commission visited the disputed territory and ruled in favor of Rhode Island, in large part due to the efforts of Dr. John Clarke, the Baptist minister of Newport, nominally settling the border at the Pawcatuck River.

Elizabeth Updyke of New Amsterdam met George Wightman, a relatively recent arrival from England, during her family's visits from their home in New Amsterdam and her maternal grandfather's property in Wickford, RI colony, which was run mostly by Elizabeth's uncle, Richard Smith, Jr. Their property, originally the early trading post opened by their grandfather, Richard Smith, Sr., was located a few miles from George's property in Quidnessett. Elizabeth's father, Gysbert Opdyck, came from Wesel, Duchy of Cleves (now Germany). The Opdyck ancestry in Wesel is known back to about 1300.

In 1663, George married the 18 year-old Elizabeth and they began raising a family. There are no land records that establish exactly where George was at any given time. Mary Ross Whitman takes the view that all George's children were born at Quidnessett, which would suggest that he had settled there by 1664. This is certainly possible; however the deed conveying the major Quidnessett tract from Valentine to George is dated May 1682. Documentary evidence from early Narragansett court records do show George Wightman among 21 individuals listed as living in Quidnessett in May 1671. Among the others are George R. Wightman's ancestor Robert Westcott, and this George's brothers-in-law Lodowick and Richard Updike.

About this time, the new King in England (Charles II) sealed the Rhode Island charter in favor of Roger Williams, finally resolving conflicting charters for Newport and (in principle) Connecticut. This should have resolved the issue; however, in 1669 George Wightman and many other residents of Warwick were arrested and taken to Hartford, CT because they had signed an oath of allegiance to Rhode Island. George and others were jailed in Hartford for "some time." In 1671, George signed another "oath of allegiance" to Rhode Island-- there can be no doubt on where he stood on the issue. Certainly, his devotion to the Baptist faith was no small factor.

On May 6, 1673, George was elected freeman of Kingstown (the township that included both Wickford and Quidnessett from 1673-1723) by the RI assembly in Newport. From 1723 on, the town would be known as North Kingstown, which was incorporated into Washington Co. in 1781. After its founding, George and Elizabeth were members of the Quidnessett Baptist Church, which is interesting given her Anglican background.

George and Elizabeth lived during King Philip's War (1675) between the formerly peaceful Narragansett tribe and the European settlers. Narragansett warriors burned Warwick, to the north of their home, and Wickford, just south of their home, and killed colonists elsewhere. There is no record of what transpired in Quidnessett, but it was certainly a terrifying time to be a settler in this part of New England.

In 1679, George and other Kingstown settlers petitioned the King to end the political squabbling between Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. John Greene and Randall Holden of Warwick were sent to England and succeeded in obtaining the King's final resolution to the dispute.

In 1686, George was elected Constable of Kingstown. About this time trouble again brewed in the New England colonies. The King decided to attempt the consolidation of the New England colonies and sent the despised Sir Edmund Andros to take control of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The founding charters were subverted, and Andros assumed absolute and arrogant control over the business and life of the colonies. However, in England, the "glorious revolution" occurred in 1688, which resulted in the exile of King James II and the adoption of a Bill of Rights in England. Upon hearing the news of the King's exile, Bostonians rose up and overthrew Andros, imprisoning him in 1689. Rhode Island's charter was again restored, and the colonies entered a period of relative stability (although Rhode Island would not finally settle her borders with Connecticut until well into the 18th century).

At the height of George's land acquisition he owned over 2000 acres of some of the best land in the township of Kingstown. On May 17, 1710, he was listed among several men who were granted 7000 acres on the Squamicut jurisdiction. By 1718, George had sold off many of the parcels of land he had originally owned. A February 1717/18 map showing the ownership plots of Quidnessett does not have George's plot explicitly labeled, but some of the land was owned by other families associated with the Wightman line, including John Greene Sr. and Jr. (151 acres), John Sayles (151 acres) and Robert Westcott (unlabeled, but similar acreage). A portion of a farm house that was still standing in the year 1990 is believed to be part of the original structure of George's homestead. This land was passed down to Wightman descendents until nearly 1900. The land remained committed to agricultural use (a testament to George's choice) until it was sold to housing developers in 1986. I am not sure what stands on George's farm today, but the best bet is that it has finally succumbed to sprawl.

At his death, George's material possessions were inventoried, and this list has been recovered. He owned oxen, cattle, sheep, horses, and goats, and bequeathed his gun and Bible (which may have originally been purchased in England by Edward the Heretic) to his grandson George.

Children of George Wightman and Elizabeth Updyke are:

 

Sources

1. Whitman, Mary Ross , George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

2. Anonymous, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900, (2004, Yates Publishing).

3. White, Dorothy Higson, Descendants of Roger Williams III: Sayles Line Through Mary Williams, (2002, Roger Williams Family Association).

4. Avery, Elroy M. and Avery, Catherine H., The Groton Avery Clan, (1912; Cleveland).

 

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