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 Brownells Move To Portsmouth

Two years after arriving in America and making their home in Braintree, MA, Thomas and Anne Brownell sold their house and land there and, with their one-year-old daughter, Mary, moved again. This time they chose the recently settled town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Portsmouth had been established in 1638 by supporters of Anne Hutchinson who had been banished from Boston after being found guilty of heresy and excommunicated from the Boston Church. With the help of Roger Williams the Island of Aquidneck was purchased from the Indians and a settlement was established at an area called Pocasset. The name was changed to Portsmouth the following year. (The founding of Rhode Island and Portsmouth will be covered in more detail in a later article.

It was among these "heretics" that Thomas and Anne chose to make their permanent home in America. While there are no records which state that the Brownells moved to Portsmouth in 1640, the record of the sale of their house in Braintree in 1640 would make that a logical conclusion. Furthermore, the remaining eight of their nine children are said to have been born in Portsmouth although, as in Braintree, there are no records to substantiate this.

The first written record of Thomas Brownell in Portsmouth is in 1647 when he was a witness to the will of his neighbor, John Walker, on 18 March 1647 O.S.[1] Through this will and from depositions taken in 1721 for a court case involving Walker's land, the location of the Brownell farm has been determined. It was on the western side of the northwestern end of Rhode Island. (The island, formerly known as Aquidneck Island, which is now Newport County and on which both Portsmouth and Newport are located is officially known as Rhode Island.) The farm, comprised of forty acres, extended down to the water and looked out on Narragansett Bay.[2] There is still today a road named "Brownell Lane" at this location.

Thomas Brownell held a number of public offices for the town of Portsmouth. This was not unusual-because of the large number of offices to be filled and the limited number of Freemen to fill those offices, many were elected to one office or another almost every year. Finding someone who would accept an office was often difficult. Portsmouth, as well as other towns in Rhode Island, imposed fines not only on those Freemen who didn't attend town meetings, but also on those who refused to accept the office to which they were elected.

On 10 July 1648 Thomas was chosen at the town meeting for the post of "water bailey," a position which gave him jurisdiction over fisheries and other maritime matters.
[3] He was often chosen to serve on various juries, as were most of the Freemen of Portsmouth.

Thomas is said to have been made a Freeman of Portsmouth in 1655,[4] but it is more likely that his name appeared on a list of Freemen for that year.[5] He had probably been a Freeman since shortly after moving to Portsmouth and at the latest by 1648. It is unlikely that he would have been elected to an office such as water bailey had he not been a Freeman, i.e. able to vote and to participate in the local government. Church membership was not a prerequisite for being a Freeman in Portsmouth as it had been in Braintree.

Thomas was chosen on 5 May 1655 to be of six Commissioners to represent Portsmouth at the General Court in Providence.[6] The General Court served as a kind of legislative body for the colony, which at that time consisted of the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, Providence and Warwick. The location of the Court's meetings alternated among the four towns.

Later in the same year, on 4 June 1655, Thomas was elected one of three constables for the town of Portsmouth.[7] On 29 September 1662 he was again chosen as a Commissioner to the General Court which was to be held in Warwick and was also chosen to be on the Grand Jury for the Court of Trials in Warwick.[8] Thomas was chosen once again on 27 April 1664 as a Commissioner to the General Court to be held at Newport.[9]

At the General Court of Trials held at Warwick, Rhode Island, on 11 March 1655 O.S. a jury heard a case between the state and Caleb Carr about a sheep that Thomas Brownell "Challengeth." The verdict of the jury was that Caleb Carr was "cleere" or not guilty.[10] At the same session of the General Court, Thomas accused John Coggeshall "uppon suspition of Felonie of an Ewe sheepe." He was ordered to post a bond of £100 to prosecute Coggeshall, who was ordered to post the same bond to answer the charge at the General Court of Trials at Providence.[11] A jury heard the case on 24 June 1656 and found the charges against Coggeshall to be not true. The case was ended by the consents of both parties in open court and Thomas was released from his £100 bond.[12]

Thomas was involved in a more significant controversy in 1661. A dispute had arisen between Thomas and John Porter over a small parcel of land. At the town meeting on 11 May 1661 a committee of five men was established to settle the dispute which concerned the boundary between the two men's properties. Since these kinds of disputes were constantly arising, the town meeting further ordered that this same committee would hear all similar disputes and report their results to the town meeting.[13]

This case was cited as a precedence in a similar dispute in 1673 between Sarah Smiton (probably the mother of the Sarah Smiton who married Thomas Brownell's son William in 1672) and Thomas Jennings. Three of the five original committee members were still alive and, with two more added, their power to make decisions in boundary disputes was confirmed by the town meeting.[14]

The resolution of the dispute between Thomas Brownell and John Porter was reported to the town meeting on 1 October 1661. The result established the boundary line between the two properties. Without an understanding of the area at that time, however, it is impossible to determine which party was the winner in this dispute.[15]

[1] The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth, Ed. by The Rhode Island Historical Society (Providence, E. L. Freeman & Sons, 1901), pp. 421-422. (Hereinafter Early Records of Portsmouth).

[2] George Grant Brownell, Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Thomas Brownell, (Jamestown, NY, 1910), pp. 11-14. (Hereinafter, G. G. Brownell).

[3] Early Records of Portsmouth, pp. 37-38.

[4] John O. Austin, Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1978), p. 29.

[5] Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, 1636 to 1663, Vol.1, ed. by John Russell Bartlett (Providence: A. Crawford Greene & Brothers, 1856), p. 300.

[6] Early Records of Portsmouth, pp. 66-67.

[7] Ibid., pp 67-68.

[8] Ibid., pp. 112-113.

[9] Ibid., pp. 124-125.

[10] Rhode Island Court Records, Vol. 1, (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1920), p. 15.

[11] Ibid., p. 16.

[12] Ibid., p. 22.

[13] Early Records of Portsmouth, p. 104.

[14] Ibid., pp. 177-178.

[15] Ibid., pp. 104-105.



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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell