Relics of Our Ancestors (part 2)

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry writes about relics from America’s past, focusing on a compass and watches owned by Roger Williams in the 17th century. Melissa is a genealogist who has a website,, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

Today I continue with my “Relics of Our Ancestors” series, covering some relics and lore associated with 17th century Salem, Massachusetts.

A compass once owned by Roger Williams (1603-1683) is housed at the Rhode Island Historical Society, along with many of his letters.

Photo: Roger Williams’ compass. Courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Photo: Roger Williams’ compass. Courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Williams, with his wife Mary Barnard, arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony on the ship Lyon in 1631. He was one of Salem’s early preachers who locked horns with the Puritans and was banished. He fled the colony, befriended local Indians, and purchased land from the Narragansett chiefs. He named his settlement Providence in thanks to God, where he served as governor. Read more at the Roger Williams Family Association site.

I found a write-up on his compass, giving some provenance, in the Albany Evening Journal.

An article about Roger Williams, Albany Evening Journal newspaper 24 December 1860
Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 24 December 1860, page 2

This article reported:

The compass which was used by Roger Williams in his journey when banished from Massachusetts is, or was recently, in the possession of Mrs. Harriet Brown, of Providence. It is made of brass, nearly three inches in diameter, containing the needle and a card exhibiting the points of the compass. On the top is fastened a small sun-dial. With this, Williams directed his steps through the wilderness and snows of winter in [1636].

Mrs. Harriet Brown (wife of Patrick Brown) line of descent:

  • William Thayer and Sarah Adams
  • David Thayer and Rebecca Williams
  • Roger Williams and Elizabeth Walling
  • Daniel Williams and Rebecca Rhodes
  • Roger Williams

The compass was gifted by Sophia Augusta Brown (1825–1909), daughter of Harriet and wife of John Cater Brown.

In 1898 the Philadelphia Inquirer mentioned Roger Williams’ connection to the “old witch house” in Salem, as well as the compass that guided him to his freedom and destiny.

An article about Roger Williams, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper 4 September 1898
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1898, page 24

According to this article, the house was first owned in 1635 by Williams when he was acting “teacher” and pastor. He was popular until Puritan authorities banished him back to England.

This article reported:

…The general court of Boston unseated the Salem deputies for the acts of their constituents in retaining him [Williams] and finally the magistrates sent a vessel to Salem to unceremoniously remove Mr. Williams to England. He eluded them by fleeing through wintry snows into the wilderness, to become the founder of the state of Rhode Island.

Mr. Williams was a close friend and confidential advisor of Gov. Endicott, and those who were alarmed by the impetuosity in cutting the cross in the king’s colors attributed the act to the influence of Williams.

In leaving the old house to make his way to freedom, the undaunted Williams had no guide save a pocket compass, which his descendants still preserve…

To understand that reference to “cutting the cross in the king’s colors” – and to see how the next owner of the witch house named his daughter “Truecross” in relation to the incident, see: The Story behind an Ancestor’s Unusual Name: Truecross Davenport.

Another relic – a watch owned by Roger Williams – was mentioned in the Dallas Morning News in 1896.

An article about Roger Williams, Dallas Morning News newspaper 2 August 1896
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 2 August 1896, page 10

This article reported:

The Misses Avis and Mary Jenkins, two Quaker ladies who reside at 608 Diamond Street, Hudson, N.Y., are the great granddaughters of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and they have in their possession a watch that is a relic of their historic ancestor. The ancient timepiece is over 250 years old, and it has not been in running order for a long time. It is an open face silver watch, with two dials on the face. The hours and minutes are recorded on the smaller and the seconds on the larger dial. Attached to the watch is a brass chain with a bunch of old seals fastened to the end.

The Jenkins sisters Avis and Mary were the daughters of John Jenkins and Mary Barton. I found many articles that mention the watch and the line of descent.

According to reports, Roger Williams left the watch with his daughter Mary, who married Resolved Waterman.

The Jenkins sisters descended from a long line of Quakers going back to Salem, Massachusetts. They are linked to the famous relic the James Symonds cabinet, made for Joseph Pope and Bathsheba Folger of Salem Village in 1679 and purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum for $2,422,500.

Another notable ancestor includes Nantucket’s Thomas Macy through his daughter Bethia, who married Joseph Gardiner.

There is another watch identified as one owned by Roger Williams mentioned in 1917 in May Emery Hall’s book Roger Williams.

Photo: a watch owned by Roger Williams, from May Emery Hall’s book “Roger Williams,” 1917.
Photo: a watch owned by Roger Williams, from May Emery Hall’s book “Roger Williams,” 1917.

The image of this watch in Hall’s book came courtesy of Henry Russell Drowne, who reportedly received it from a lineal descendant, William Thayer, who inherited the compass above. In 1910 the watch was on exhibit.

When Drowne acquired the watch, it was placed in the care of the Fraunces Tavern, headquarters to the Sons of the American Revolution (S.A.R.) organization. Drowne was the acting secretary.

The watch is referenced in Roger Williams, Prophet and Pioneer of Soul-Liberty, and in Foot-prints of Roger Williams: A Biography, with Sketches of Important Events in Early New England History, with Which He Was Connected (p. 281).

In 1937 the watch was among the relics on exhibit at the Rhode Island tercentenary celebration (pp. 67-68). According to the history, Henry Russell Drowne was the current owner who refused to part with the piece. No further information is found.

I’ll conclude with a little tidbit published in the New Hampshire Sentinel, sourcing letters written by Roger Williams about the green thumb magic mastered by the Indians in strawberry growing back in the day.

An article about Roger Williams, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper 24 June 1869
New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 24 June 1869, page 2

This article reported:

Roger Williams, in his letters descriptive of Narragansett, says: “Growing naturally [strawberries] in those parts, it is of itself excellent, so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say that God could have made, but God never did make, a better berry. In some parts where the natives have planted, I have seen as many as would fill a good-sized ship, within a few miles compass. The Indians bruise them [in a] mortar and mix them in meal and make strawberry bread.”

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Note on the header image: the Salem Witch House, famous for its connection to Judge Corwin and the witch trials of 1692, located at 310 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts. The lot was first occupied by Roger Williams, then Captain Richard Davenport and his wife, Elizabeth Hathorne. From “The Whole History of Grandfather’s Chair; or, True Stories from New England History, 1620-1803” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1898. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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