Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Tale of the Timeline: the Solarts of Massachusetts


The Solomon Kimball House, Wenham, Massachusetts
By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, it takes something as simple as a timeline to make sense of the stuff going on in a family. That was certainly the case when I started researching the family of my 8th Great Grandfather, John Solart of Massachusetts. I kept finding tidbits over several months from various sources concerning various family members. When I put events in order chronologically, several stories just seemed to pop out.

The first story concerned John Solart, Sr, my 8th GGfather, one of the early settlers of Wenham, Massachusetts. The earliest mention I've found concerning John, Sr. was in an interesting chapter on the historical taverns located in Wenham in Jack Hauck's book, Treasures of Wenham History.(1) John, Sr, was appointed by the General Court as "Keeper of the Tavern" in 1670, and later that year, John built another tavern, a building that still stands as a private residence on Main Street in Wenham.

John, Sr, was considered, by many sources, to be a wealthy man, implying that he was most likely an astute business man. It was surprising, however, to learn that John, Sr, died intestate, leaving no will. The story that appears over and over is that John committed suicide on 24 May 1672. Essex County Court records presented the deposition of two of his servants or employees who told of John, Sr, telling them several months before his death of his final wishes. John told the two men that he was "being often troubled with faynting Fits" and felt he "haue not long to live".(2)

In September, 1672, John's widow Elizabeth presented John's verbal will to the Essex County Court. At this September hearing, the two servants stated that John, Sr, said that his entire estate was to go to his wife Elizabeth "duering the time of her widowhood" and to be used for raising their children. Were Elizabeth to remarry, she was to receive one third of John, Sr's estate, the other two thirds to be divided among his children. Their deposition agreed with the customary division of property during that time. The estate inventory valued John, Sr's estate at 500 pounds. The record also listed the names of the seven children who were to receive a share of their father's estate when they came of age: John (Jr), Sarah, Hanah, Martha, Joseph, Abigaill (my 7th Great Grandmother), and Bethia.

Just three months later the widow Solart married Ezekiel Woodward on 20 Dec 1672.(3) According to the terms of John Solart, Sr's will, Elizabeth would not receive a portion of the estate, only money for the raising of the seven named in the court records.

Jump ahead a few years and the family composition has changed. Son John, Jr, had died and his will was proved on 28 Mar 1676.(4) Elizabeth Solart Woodward died in December of 1678.(5) The money from John, Sr's estate, however, still had not been divided among John's six children and John Jr's wife.

Less than a year after Elizabeth Solart Woodward's death, her son Joseph died. The Essex County Court in April of 1679 appointed an executor for Joseph's estate and allowed Elizabeth's daughters Abigaill and Bethia to select whom they wanted to be their legal guardians. Interestingly, none of these legal responsibilities were handed over to Ezekiel Woodward.(6) The estate money apparently had continued to be kept or used by Ezekiel Woodward.

It took further lawsuits filed by the surviving six children to attempt to get the share of their father's estate due to them. In September of 1682, all six of the surviving children, plus the husband of a deceased daughter Mary Solart Edwards, were still petitioning the Essex County Court to let one of them be named administrator of their father's estate.(7) The petition stated that Ezekiell Woodward had taken over the estate and had not paid the legacies.

By 1682, ten years after his death, the estate of John Solart, Sr, still had not been settled according to his desires. His widow had died, both of his sons were deceased, and all of his surviving daughters were now of age to receive their legacies. And, thus far, I have not come across any record that the daughters ever received the money due them by Ezekiell Woodward. For some of them, having additional money could have made a significant difference in their lives. For Sarah Solart, at least, her life might have made for a very different story.

Lessons Learned:
  • Research such as this would be much more difficult without the digitized court and church records available online, records that have survived from our country's early days.
  • When I find probate records like that for John, Sr, listing the full inventory and value of his estate as well as the names of all his family members, I remember once again just how much we can learn from wills and probate records.
  • It is hard not to judge Ezekiell Woodward by today's standards, but the early courts did not appear to punish him or penalize him for the manner in which he seemed to maintain control of the Solart family's money. Life then as well as now is not an drama that is neatly solved in a 42 minute television program. I need to remind myself to simply look at the facts as they are presented in the time in which they occurred and not as similar events might be dealt with in the twentieth-first century.

(1) Hauk, Jack E. "A History of Wenham Taverns From 1643 to 2008". Treasures of Wenham History. Wenham, Mass, self-published, 2013; accessed http://www.hwlibrary/org
(2) Dow, George. The probate records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Salem, Mass: Essex Institute, 1916-1920; accessed on www.hathitrust.org.
(3) Ancestry.com. Massachusettes Town and Vital Records 1620-1988, Wenham Vital Records Transcripts, Marriages; accessed on www.ancestry.com.
(4) Ancestry.com, Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991, Essex Probate Records, 1672-1691, estate of John Solart, Jr.; accessed on Ancestry.com.
(5) Ancestry.com. Massachusettes Town and Vital Records 1620-1988, Wenham Vital Records Transcripts, Deaths; accessed on www.ancestry.com
(6) Dow, George. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. Salem, Mass: Essex Institute, 1911; accessed on www.ancestry.com
(7) Historical Collections of the Essex Institute. Salem, Mass: Essex Institute, 1861; accessed on www.books.google.com