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 Thomas Brownell's Estate

Settled by Town Council


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 courts.

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 been made.

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 forfeited.

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 been found.

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.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell