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THE DISBROWS

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                    THE DISBROWS

Wednesday, April 17th, 1667.

     "Up and with the two Sir Williams (Penn and Batten)
by coach to the Duke of York who is come to St. James,
the first we have attended him there this year.  On our
way, in Tower Street, we saw Desborough walking on foot;
who is now no more a prisoner, and looks well, and just
as he used to do heretofore."

                    * * *

     Had Mr. Pepys alighted from his coach and greeted
his old acquaintance, now so fallen, and inquired as to
the health and whereabouts of Sir John Desborough's vari-
ous relatives, particularly those in the new lands across
the Western Ocean, he might have solved a mystery which
has worried certain local antiquarians of a later day;
for most of the Disbrow clan sincerely believe with
quiet pride that they are descended from this Sir John
Desborough and his wife Jane Cromwell, sister to the fam-
ous Oliver, and hence that in their veins courses that
same blood - somewhat diluted, of course.  Some enthus-
iasts, working back from John's father, James Desborough 
of Eltisley in Cambridgeshire, even trace our ancestry
back to ancient Troy and doubtless still further; but 
with such as these let us have no traffic.
     John Desborough, Desbrough, or Disbrow(e), the sec-
ond son of old James, to whom the worthy Mr. Pepys refers,
was a major general under Oliver Cromwell in the Great
Rebellion and one of the seven major generals who, under
Cromwell ruled Great Britain during the days of the Com-
monwealth.  On June 3rd, 1636 he married Jane, sixth
daughter of Robert Cromwell of Huntingdon, and sister of
Oliver.  Following the Restoration he passed through sev-
eral adventures, including a sojourn in Jamaica and a
brief visit to New England and was imprisoned in the
Tower, but, after a judicial examination in 1667, he was

                        4
THE DISBROWS set at liberty and appears to have been allowed to reside quietly in England for the rest of his life. He died at Hackney in 1690. So far as I can discover, though frankly I haven't given the matter the attention it may deserve, any direct connection between our family and the children of this union is quite impossible as we shall later see. Such thoughts are surely based upon nothing sounder than wish- ful thinking. A perfect example of this sort of thing appears on the page facing this. This genealogical table was made by a cousin, Dr. Harold Disbrow, after two trips to Eng- land and long browsings in the reading room of the British Museum. It shows Major General (Sir) John Desborough and his wife Jane to have had five sons - Valentine, Peter, Henry, Samuel, and Benjamin. Looking closely, you will see that Peter and Henry are bracketed with the notation "emigrated to America about 1660." So far as I know, John and Jane had only three sons - Valentine, Samuel, and Benjamin - where did Harold get Peter and Henry? I don't know where he got them but I do know why he wanted them there. Our Disbrow line runs clear and straight from a Henry Desborough who turns up in Mamaro- neck in 1660. Apparently Harold was unaware that Henry and his brother Peter were in Roxbury, Mass. as early as 1647. However, our problem is who was the actual father of Peter and Henry Desborough and how did Henry get to Mamaroneck? Harold's answer you already know. Mine is much less certain, much less clear, but very different. In the first place, even ignoring the fact that Peter and Henry do not appear as sons of Sir John, we shall later see that Peter, Henry's older brother was six years old in 1636 the year of Jane Cromwell's marr- iage. True, our two boys may be, probably are, distant 5
THE DISBROWS relatives of old James of Eltisley who had several broth- ers and doubtless countless cousins since, in those days and for many generations thereafter, the Disbrows appear to have been very fertile; but to connect Peter and Henry with the General's marriage in 1636, or to put Jane Crom- well's blood into their heritage, is to do the worthy Jane's memory an unwarranted disservice. In the second place, there is evidence to indicate that Peter and Henry were closely connected with Disbrows who had already settled permanently in the Massachusetts Bay Colony prior to the General's marriage. But before we get too involved in the scanty, and to some extent confusing, facts which befog the origins of our Henry, I suggest that you read "Saints and Strangers" which you should find waiting for you in my library. That, better than anything I have seen, will give you a picture of those first years in New England and of the people Peter and Henry knew as friends and neighbors, the sort of people they themselves were, whence they had come and how, and of the place where they now found themselves. Read- ing this book, it all becomes very real and close, again at least to me. I am glad we were once a part of it. Not that any Disbrows were among the Pilgrims of 1630 or shared their initial hardships. The Disbrows came with the Puritans in the period starting with Endi- cott's landing at Salem in 1628 and were a part of the rapidly swelling tide that quickly rose till, in the year 1630 with the coming of Winthrop and the founding of Boston, we have a record of thirteen ships coming to the Massachusetts Bay Colony bearing 1000 settlers - three times as many as had come to Plymouth in the first decade. And still the tide swelled. By 1634 nearly 4000 6
THE DISBROWS had arrived in the colony and some twenty villages on or near the shores of the Bay had been founded. Indeed, by 1636, the environs of Boston had become, for some of the hardier souls, so uncomfortably overcrowded that they, with their families, were already on the move westward to the Connecticut River Valley where, in that year, they founded the settlements of Windsor, Hartford and Wethers- field. In 1638 Puritans from England came via Boston and Long Island Sound to Quinnipiac where they founded a vil- lage soon to be called New Haven. It was here in the fol- lowing year that John Desborough's brother Samuel came to this country. Samuel stayed only a year or so, returning home in ample time to become as involved in Cromwell's affairs as did his more famous brother. He too became an M.P., a member of the Scottish Council of State and later Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland. Unlike John Desborough, however, he seems to have kept himself out of the Tower. Let me here say one more thing about John and Sam Desborough, after which we shall let them rest in peace. While it seems amply clear that neither of them were the founders of our Disbrow line, it may well be that they could be called our foster fathers. What I mean is this: In the early 17th Century the feeling between the Crown and the Commons was running higher and higher; the Dissen- ters were having a very tough time indeed. John and Sam- uel were becoming powers in the move to curb the King. What was more likely than that these two powerful bro- thers should help some of their poorer relatives get pas- sage to the New World where they could start life free from economic and religious compulsions. I have never seen the passenger lists of the early Puritan arrivals, if they still exist. Many records dis- appeared in '76 when the British evacuated Boston and 7
THE DISBROWS went to Halifax. It was then that Governor Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" disappeared, not to turn up again for nearly a century. But somewhere between 1630 and 1633 some list contained the father of Peter Disbrow and our own Henry. Whether or not his passage was paid by Sam or John Desborough we know not, but an interesting light on what that passage cost and how long the voyage took can be gathered from these figures incurred by a certain Master Rogers in 1628 - Passage £1 - 0s - 0d 11 weekes dyatt@ 4s/8d £2 - 11s - 4d roughly the equivalent of $200.00 today. Be this as it may, Disbrows were already here long before Samuel's arrival and from what follows it seems fairly certain that one of them was the man for whom I have so long been searching. Here are the names I have located to date. Isaac Disbrow, also of Eltisley so presumably of old James' line, sailed from London at the age of eight- een on the Hopewell, Capt. Bundock, in April 1635 for Bos- ton. One of his fellow passengers was Kyrkland, a probable ancestor of a later president at Harvard. It is not known positively how long Isaac stayed but when he landed Peter at least was already born. He later returned to England where he died. Nicholas Disbrow, a joyner (cabinet worker) born 1612 in Walden in Essex of whom we shall have much to say very shortly. Thomas Desborough whose short record begins and ends at Roxbury where he died in 1633. It is around these last two, Thomas and Nicholas, that my speculation as to Henry's parentage centers. There is an obvious connection there but it has a tanta- lizing vagueness which leaves me frustrated - as though 8
THE DISBROWS it really mattered which was Henry's father. After all it is a cold trail, over 300 years old - and one should expect breaks in it. All I at present know of Thomas is that on Sept. 3rd, 1633 there was granted to John Moody of Roxbury the administration of the estate of one Thomas Disbrowe. Fourteen years later the Roxbury record discloses that in 1647 a Peter Disbroe petitioned through his attorney Jonathan Pope to receive his wages from Griffen Brower. Again at Roxbury in 1653 another document is signed by, among others, Henry Disbrowe. So here we have the names of Peter and Henry Des- borough, Disbrowe, Disbroe as they first appear on the re- cord; they are together, and in the same town. When next these two names appear, they are once more together, this time operating a ferry between Long Island and the New York mainland in 1659, the name being spelled this time as Disbrough. It seems highly improbable that, in a community as small as New England then was, there should be two Peters and two Henrys with the same last name. I think it reasonable to assume that these two pairs were one and the same. If so, then Peter, who was born in 1631, was Henry's older brother (at least we know he was when they were operating the ferry). Granting this, we know also that when Thomas Desborough died in 1633, Peter was two and Henry was younger, perhaps not yet born. However Henry must have been at least 19 in 1653 when he signed a legal document - which tells us he was born no later than 1634 (19 years before 1653). So it now seems reasonably clear that these two bro- thers were probably born here in America (Henry surely) and certainly spent their boyhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts until some time prior to 1659 when they turn up, still together, operating a ferry in what is now New York but 9
THE DISBROWS was then Connecticut. The next question is - who was their father? Here, unless there were other Disbrows in the Boston area prior to 1637 of whom we know nothing at this writing, we are narrowed down to choosing between Thomas and Nich- olas. In Thomas's favor is the fact that he died in Roxbury and the two boys were raised there. Other than this there is nothing. We don't know his age or if he were married, although it would seem probable that it was his widow who raised the boys. I think the reason I incline toward Nicholas is that we know a lot about him and, from 1636 on, all of it is interesting. He was old enough to be their father; his later history indicates he was not the celibate type, and the Puritans married early and often. An incident in 1669, which we shall later cover fully, suggests that there was a very close connection between Nicholas and Henry - if he wasn't Henry's father he was, almost certainly, his uncle. In any event, what we know of Nicholas is too fascinating to be left out of this chronicle and, father or uncle, I shall treat him as the first of the American line. But bear in mind that the exact relationship is still in doubt. Perhaps one of you can go on from where I have left off and dig up a lot of answers; it is probably hidden somewhere waiting for you to uncover it. Thomas Disbrowe departed this life in 1633. Two years later Nicholas also departed from those parts but he headed for the Connecticut River Valley, leaving the two boys behind; they were, of course, far too young for the wilderness trail. But before we follow his subsequent life and adventures, let me take a 1st brief look at the settlement of Newtowne on the Charles River just North of Roxbury. In 1635, fifteen years after the landing of the Pil- 10
THE DISBROWS grims at Plymouth, it was a village with a population of under 300. There were several Cambridge University men there, including Kirkland who had just come over with Isaac Desborough, as we have just seen, and the Reverend John Harvard. The following year the General Court was to grant £400 toward the establishment of a college there and in 1638, John Harvard dying childless, he be- queathed half his estate and his library to the new col- lege which the Court ordered forthwith to be called by his name, while, in honor of the mother University, the name of the town was changed to Cambridge. Actually, owing in part to a shortage of funds, and in part to the outbreak of the Pequot War, classes didn't get under weigh until '38. In that first graduating class of 1642 was a George Downing, later to appear as Pepy's boss when he starts his diary in 1659. The following year he was knighted by Charles II and, years later, erected a row of houses one of which was to become famous as #10 Down- ing Street. I mention these things hurriedly in passing, for this narrative is about to follow Nicholas out of Cambridge, not to return for another 271 years when I, in 1907 as a starry-eyed freshman, first entered its hallowed precincts. Meanwhile news had been filtering back east about the richness of the Connecticut Valley and in June of the year 1636 the Newtowne congregation, over a hundred in number and bringing with them 160 head of cattle, made the pilgrimage to this new promised land. Women and children took part in this pleasant journey through the summer wilderness of friendly Indian country; Mrs. Hooker the pastor's wife being too ill to walk was carried on a litter. Thus, in the memorable year in which my Alma Mater was born, did Cambridge become the mother town of Hartford, Connecticut. 11
THE DISBROWS Among these settlers, if he was not among those who had already proceeded them the year before to prepare the way, was our young carpenter and joyner of twenty-four, Nicholas Disbrowe, as he was now spelling his name. 12

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Last updated September 13, 1995.

Todd L. Sherman (afn09444@afn.org)
© Copyright 1995/1996/1997 by Todd L. Sherman. All Rights Reserved.