When Thomas Brownell died on
24 September 1664, he did not leave a will or any directions
as to how his estate should be handled. Today when someone dies
without a will, the courts determine, according to state laws,
how the estate is to be divided. The same procedure was used
in the case of Thomas Brownell except that the power to do so
was vested in the Town Council of Portsmouth rather than the
Therefore on 16 September 1665
the Town Council determined how the estate should be divided.
Anne Brownell was appointed executrix of the estate and was
directed to carry out the terms of the settlement. Prior to his
death, Thomas had agreed to an exchange of lands with William
Brenton. The Council directed that Anne honor that agreement
and the transaction was completed in November of 1665.
As customary at that time, the bulk of the estate was to go
to the eldest son, George. Because George was then only about
nineteen years old, Anne was to retain the "use, benefit
and profit" of all the housings and lands that belonged
to Thomas. At the time of his marriage or when he reached the
age of twenty-one, George was to receive one-half of the land.
Which half was left to Anne to determine. After Anne's death,
George was to inherit the remaining half of his father's property.
A provision was made that should George die before Anne, the
property would go to George's heirs, if any. If not, the property
would go the the second eldest son, Robert.
Legacies were also given to the other eight children, with the
stipulation that if Anne should die before those legacies were
carried out, George, or whoever inherited the land and housings
of Thomas, was to carry out those legacies. The three younger
sons--Robert, William and Thomas--were each to receive £20
when they reached the age of twenty-one. The two eldest daughters--Mary
and Sarah--both of whom were married at the time of their father's
death, were each to receive ten shillings. The other three daughters--Martha,
Anne and Susanna--were to be paid £20 each at the time
of their marriage.
Finally, if any of the eight younger children of Thomas were
to die before they had received their bequests, the amount due
them was to be divided among those still living.
This settlement reflects the
custom of primogeniture--the right of the eldest son to inherit
the entire estate of his parents--which was still followed in
New England as it had been for many centuries in England. Many
parents made gifts of money or land before their death to their
younger children as a means of providing for their future and
for a more equal distribution of the family's assets. Because
Thomas died unexpectedly with no will and with six of his nine
children under the age of twenty-one, no such provisions had
The legacies which the three younger sons and the three unmarried
daughters received were not small amounts. Twenty pounds was
a good dowry, and probably similar to that received by Mary and
Sarah when they were married. Without such a dowry, the girls
would have had a difficult time finding a husband. For Robert,
William and Thomas, £20 would allow them to buy property
of their own when they came of age. That Mary and Sarah received
only ten shillings indicates that they had already received their
dowry at the time of their marriages.
As executrix of her husband's estate, Anne was required to post
a bond of £200 to assure that she would carry out the provisions
of the settlement. Should she fail to do so, the bond would be
This settlement of the estate of Thomas Brownell raises several
interesting questions. First, why did it take almost one year
after his death for the Town Council to settle the estate? And
second, why was an inventory of the estate not done? Usually
an inventory was conducted immediately following a death, detailing
all the possessions from property and livestock to household
furnishings and clothing that belonged to the deceased. If such
an inventory was done, it has been lost.
Could it be that the Council was forced to make this will because
of disputes over the estate? And why was Anne required to post
a bond to ensure that the bequests were carried out? It seems
that the Town Council did not trust Anne and thus forced her
to divide the estate according to law and customary practices
of that time.
This decree is also an important genealogical document, as it
clarifies several mistakes that have been made regarding the
children of Thomas and Anne Brownell. Many sources have noted
only eight children, while the will clearly states that there
were nine. The youngest, Susanna, is not mentioned in Austin's
Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island, in George Grant Brownell's
Genealogical Record of the Descendents of Thomas Brownell or
in Little Compton Families. In the few sources that do mention
her, she is said to have died in 1655, the same year she is said
to have been born. Susanna was, however, still living when the
estate was settled in 1665, but no further record of her has
Another discrepancy appears in the order of birth of Thomas and
Anne's children. In all other sources, the order is given as
follows: Mary, Sarah, Martha, George, William, Thomas, Robert,
Anne and Susanna (if she is listed at all). The decree made by
the Town Council of Portsmouth lists the sons' order of birth
as George, Robert, William and Thomas. In the absence of actual
birth records (and I know of none that exist) this decree is
the definitive primary source for information about the nine
children of Thomas and Anne Brownell, especially since the original
document, as opposed to transcripts, still exists.
Because a will established inheritance and ownership of property,
it was the one most important legal document a person at that
time could have. The order of birth of the sons was of great
importance because the eldest living son would inherit the parents'
estates. Thus those who made the will and those who approved
it would not have made mistakes in that regard.
Several transcripts of this document are incomplete because of
the condition of the original. The document had been folded in
half twice and the words at each fold are rather difficult to
make out. By enlarging a photocopy of the document, the wording
becomes more clear and thus we are able to get a complete and
accurate transcript of the document. The original is on file
at the Portsmouth town hall.