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A Case of Truth Proving Stranger than Fiction

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

First off, I want to apologize for getting this newsletter out late this month. The past three weeks have been very busy for me personally. Work on book three, At the Mercy of the Sea is resuming. It has been a long time coming, but I am introducing a new voice and some literary techniques in this story that apparently can’t be rushed. I hope the wait will be well worth it, and you will all be happy with the results.

There was a great turnout at the Tucson Festival of Books. Many thanks to those of you who came out! I had a great time reconnecting with my writer friends, Theoden Humphrey and Lisa Watson. We had a great time talking with those who stopped by.

I have been spending considerable time delving into the family genealogies this past couple of months preparing for a scene in book three which I’ve been building. In the process have uncovered more information on a known family rogue from the 17th century which I would like to share with you.

The First White Man to Establish a Residence in Vineyard Haven

8 October 1660 – “In the case of Francis Usselton v. Thomas Jones, the court finds in favor of Thomas Jones. The court finds no evidence that the allegations of Mr. Jones are untrue and made solely to harm Mr. Usselton. In the second case, of James Pease v. Francis Usselton, the court finds in favor of Mr. Pease. The court finds there is sufficient evidence to show that Mr. Usselton did belie [falsely represent] Mr. Pease’s wife, based on the eyewitness testimony of Mr. Jones and Mrs. Pease. Mr. Usselton is ordered to pay a fine of 7£ to Mr. Pease. The court further orders that Francis Usselton will not come within 20 yards of Mrs. Pease or be subject to arrest and further judgment.”

The words still echoed in his ears. Well, they could keep their verdicts, Francis thought. He would not let them humiliate him!

Leaving Essex County was easy enough for him, though not so easy for his family. The money he’d received from Thomas Layton and Peter Tallman had come at a most opportune time. Serving as their agent, he had used the money to purchase forty acres from the Indians at Homes Hole Neck on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. He would hold the land until they came to take possession of it, which could be several years from now. The deal was easy enough to negotiate, though as the only white man in the area, his family would be largely on their own. That, too, was fine with him.

When they arrived on the island there was no house, no town, no dock and no civilization at all, just oak and pine woods, wild grape vines, flat lands for grazing, and quiet. His wife, Sarah, was pregnant with their fourth child, and was due any time now. Because of this, he intended to leave her and the children in Essex to stay with his brother, Charles. After all, Mary was just five years old, John was four, and Susannah was three. But Sarah insisted upon going with him. You need me, Francis, she’d said. This is not my first child. He feared delivering the child alone in the wilderness, but in the end, he relented.

The first task was to build a house. He had hoped to build a framed house with split wood or shingled siding, as was typical in Salem or Boston, but the task was daunting and squaring the timber with the long axe took a great deal longer than he hoped it would. In the end he settled for building a wigwam styled house like those inhabited by the local natives. It would be a temporary shelter to get them through the winter. Then he would start on the main house in the spring. Once the temporary house was built, he set to clearing fields before the snow arrived in preparation for the spring planting.

With his axe, he cut a wide strip of bark from around the base of a large oak tree. It would be left to dry out. When the tree was dead, the area around its base would be cleared and a small fire would be set to burn up the tree. This was another efficient technique the natives had taught him.

“Francis! It is time!”

He looked up from his work to see Sarah stumbling toward him from across the field. She was panting and clutching her swollen belly. This was just what he had feared bringing her to this isolated place, yet he knew it must happen sometime. Dropping the axe, he hurried to her side.

“Please, Francis, help me to the house. This one is coming much quicker than the other three.” She let out deep, labored groan and clutched his arm with shocking strength.

“What’s the matter with Mama?” Susannah asked, running over with her sister and brother on her heals.

“Your new brother or sister is coming,” Francis answered, patting his youngest daughter on the head with his free hand. “Mary, take your brother and sister out to pick grapes. Take the pails with you and pick only the dark purple ones. Fill the large barrel in the root cellar to the top.”

“But, Papa, that will take all afternoon!”

“Yes, it will. But we will need those grapes with winter coming,” Francis said, sternly.

“Can’t we do it tomorrow? I want to see the baby come,” Mary asked, pleadingly.

Sarah stopped walking and let out a low groan and doubled over to vomit in the grass. Francis took Mary by the shoulders and knelt to look into her eyes.

“Mary, it is not easy to birth a child and it will scare your brother and sister. I need you to take them away. Gather the grapes and don’t let them wander off alone.”

“Yes, Papa,” she said, pouting and took John and Susannah each by the hand and led them off.

Francis knelt to help Sarah to her feet. Half carrying her, he led her into the house and helped her onto the bed. The labor was hard, and Francis felt helpless as he paced the one-room, bark-shingled house. The fire smoldering in the stone fireplace at the end of the room provided little warmth. He stopped to add more wood and stoke the fire back to life.

Sarah lay on a mattress stuffed with wild grasses laid over a crudely made bedframe. The shadows visible through the doorway lengthened. Francis could see that his wife was exhausted, but still the child was not born. He mopped her head and encouraged her to keep on. Slowly, the child’s head crowned.

“I can see the head, my love. Just a few more pushes.”

Sarah leaned forward and grunted, before collapsing back onto the bed with a groan.

“Please, my love, just one more.”

Sarah moaned softly. She was losing her strength.

Francis kissed her sweaty forehead and stroked her hair. She shuttered.

“You mustn’t give up, my love. Once more, you can do it.,” he said, softly.

“No. I can’t do this anymore.”

“Yes. Yes, you can, my love. Once more, for me.”

She trembled and gave one more great push, and the child slipped out into his waiting hands. It was a boy, born with his hand clutching his cheek. Francis unwound the cord from his neck and tied it in a knot before cutting it. He held him close and rubbed his back. Breathe! You must breathe! The child looked blue. Please, live!

Francis was born in what would become Essex County, Massachusetts in 1632. His parents, Francis Hesseldine and Elizabeth Calthorpe, were among the first settlers to the Massachusetts Bay Colony arriving with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630. Francis had never known a comfortable life.

His father had died before he was born of disease and starvation that first winter after the fleet had landed. His mother and he survived, and she had likely remarried. We don’t know how well he got on with his stepfather. There are records showing that in 1651, At the age of nineteen, Francis was apprenticed to Henry Jacques, a well-respected house-wright. That had turned out to be a disaster. During that time, Francis was hauled into court three times – twice for cursing and using the Lord’s name profanely (in January and again in April of 1651) and once for fornication (September 1655). Each time he was fined and whipped.

Francis married Sarah Barnes on the 25th of November 1655. I was unable to find the name of woman with whom he had had premarital relations, but it could very well have been with Sarah. Their first child, Mary, was born on the 17th of August, 1656, nine months after they were married. A plot of land in Ipswich was registered to him on January 28, 1657, with the comment that “it was later granted to Topsfield.” This is unusual. There is no record that the property was sold, rather it seems to have been taken away by the township, for reasons that may become clear as we learn more or the man. A son, John, was born to the couple on September 20, 1657, and then a daughter, Susannah, in 1658.

Between 1658 and 1660, Francis seems to have worked rather unsuccessfully at various jobs around the region. He was hauled into court twelve more times within those three years for various criminal and civil matters including: cursing a swine of Henry Haggett and getting into a scuffle with Haggett’s wife, Ann (July 1657); owing three pounds to the estate of George Buncker (March 1658); an altercation with John Godfrey, in which the latter was awarded costs (September 1658); a servant of Francis then ran away in November 1658; Francis then sued John Godfrey for “non-performance of work, for which he had received partial pay” (April 1659) and again for a “debt of 5 pounds for five months’ service” (October 1659); Francis sued John Tod for a debt to be paid to Mr. Batter (in September 1659); Francis was then sued for debt payment by Thomas Joanes (November 1659) and then by Henry Bartholomew (September 1660).

I will pause here to infer that Francis was likely trying to build his own business, perhaps that for which he’d been trained, but kept running into problems with his hired workers and with paying his debts.

Then in September 1660, Francis was a witness to Evan Morice’s trial, in which Morice was fined 40 shillings and imprisoned for drunkenness, quarreling and railing speeches against Francis Usselton and Edmund Bridges, who he had accused of being “cheating rogues, baud-birds, etc.” Francis was also filed a complaint against Daniel Clarke for “selling strong liquors and wine without a license and charging excessive prices for the same and for selling liquors to Indians, for breach of the peace, and for neglect of his duties in his office of constable and for disorder in his house.”

In next month, Francis sued Thomas Jones for defamation, and James Pease sued Francis for “belying his wife” or “giving a false impression of his wife.” Both these cases were entered at one session of the court and may be related to one matter. A picture is forming of contentious rivalries between these men.

Despite all of Francis Usselton’s litigiousness, we can infer that he was unable to read or write, since we have only his mark on legal documents, rather than an actual signature.

We next see Francis Usselton moving to Martha’s Vineyard with his family in late 1660 or early 1661, where he “is therefore to be reckoned as the first white man to establish a residence in the present limits of Vineyard Haven.” We know from other documents and a subsequent trial, that Francis was hired as the representative of Peter Tallman and Thomas Layton to purchase forty acres of land from the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard and to occupy it on their behalf through the protection of Dutch land grants. Francis and Sarah’s son, Benjamin, was born while they resided at Holmes Hole Neck on Martha’s Vineyard.

I am wondering what relationship Francis had with the Native Americans of the region. In one incident he is apparently interfering with trade between Daniel Clark and the natives in the sale/purchase of liquor – was this to protect the Native Americans, or because he had to deal with unruly, drunken Indians? – and then shortly after that he is apparently successfully negotiating with the tribe of Martha’s Vineyard.

All is quiet until June 18, 1667, when Francis is evicted from his squatter’s rights in Holmes Hole Neck when his patrons Layton and Tallman are sued “for trespass on the part of their agent (Usselton).” Apparently, in the intervening years, the English had taken control of the island and granted it to Thomas Mayhew, who then delegated Richard Sarson, John Eddy, John Gee, and brothers James and John Pease “to go to the Neck and dispossess, forcibly or otherwise, Tallman’s and Lyton’s representative (Usselton).” As a reward for their services, Holmes Hole Neck was deeded to these five men. One may presume that James Pease may have jumped at this chance to exact revenge on Francis for their former civil dispute.

As a teaser, I will tell you that Francis and his family will make an appearance in At the Mercy of the Sea while they are living in Holmes Holm Neck. After that, he and his family move to Rhode Island, but as this newsletter is already getting too long, I will pick up that part of the story next month.

If you missed my February newsletter, you may find it here. Take care of yourselves until we connect again, next month!

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