Nicholas E. Hollis
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Three hundred, seventy-six years ago my Jennings ancestors were arriving in the New World.  Some came as early as 1634 resolute in their desire to carve a better future away from England’s repression and turmoil, especially during the Cromwell era.  Certain Jennings lines were well-established, even prominent, in the 16th and 17th century England, but those who ventured across the Atlantic were of a particularly hardy and independent strains.  The strict Puritanism of Massachusetts Bay Colony held little appeal for Jennings family members who first appeared in the Connecticut Colony.

Twenty-two year-old Nicholas Jennings arrived in New England in 1634 aboard the “Francis” sailing from Ipswich.  He was among the first settlers of Hartford on the Connecticut River along with his father, John, and younger brothers, John and  Joshua.  The father and brothers apparently arrived from England a year after Nicholas in 1635. The family was apparently strapped for finances and were not recorded as among the “proprietors” of Hartford.  By 1636 the town had nearly 800 settlers.  John was a chimney sweeper and was provided land courtesy of the town. Young Nicholas served in the Pequot Wars (1636-1637) under Captain John Mason and was apparently liked by his commander. 

In the late 1630s Nicholas was awarded land in the Soldiers Field at Hartford and began building a home of his own.  But he gave up the project and moved to New Haven where he was attracted to a young, indentured servant named Margaret Bedford, who worked in the household of one of the town’s leaders, Captain Turner. Margaret was working off her passage fare with a four-year debt, but the young couple decided to run off together. They were apprehended.  Nicholas was brought before the court on March 3, 1643, charged with fornication.  He was found guilty and severely whipped.  Margaret was found guilty of similar charges as well as theft of some household items on April 7, 1643.  She was severely whipped and ordered by the court to marry Nicholas Jennings.  He was then ordered to make restitution to Captain Turner for Margaret’s remaining indentured labor and to repay with double value those items which Margaret had taken.

Despite the rough start, the Jennings couple settled down in New Haven where Margaret returned to working in the home of Captain Turner until he disappeared on a business trip crossing the Atlantic in January 1646.  Hoping for a fresh start, the couple left New Haven, moving to Hartford where John Jennings (father of Nicholas) was dying. Upon his death Nicholas and his brother, Joshua, sold their father’s property and lands.

Lack of social standing and possibly problems in New Haven continued to stalk Nicholas Jennings.  In March 1647 he was called before a court and punished for allegedly striking a neighbor’s cow.

Victimized for youthful indiscretions and recognizing a stacked deck was building against him, Nicholas retreated to Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River where he bought land next to his former commander, Captain John Mason.  He and Margaret lived there peacefully until 1661 when they were caught up in the spreading psychological hysteria known as the witchcraft trials. The reign of terror started in Hartford and swept down the valley. Neighbors with grudges, card-playing, drinking, virtually any perceived dispute between generations or sexes could trigger a deadly allegation.  In the Jennings case, a neighbor (George Wood) unhappy over a land dispute, pointed the finger at Margaret on behalf of his wife – and soon both Nicholas and Margaret were on trial for their lives./1  The court eventually found the couple not guilty, but did not clear them either. The three Jennings children – Martha, John, and Joseph – were separated from their parents by the court and apprenticed out.  Martha was examined and found not to be pregnant, as had been alleged. /2

Nicholas Jennings, bloodied but unbowed, continued to reside in Saybrook.  Clearly, he had decided to make his stand with his family there (also he apparently owned property east of the Connecticut River near modern-day Lyme) – and, in any case, there was no easy way out. The witchcraft hysteria grew more deadly.  In Hartford, over the next four years, 17 more people were accused, and 4 were executed./3 The societal insanity reached its climax at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 during a six-month period (May through October) 19 people were indiscriminately accused and hung – with many more persecuted. The panic ended abruptly as public opinion changed. Witchcraft trials were halted, and then condemned, but the damage had been done.

Nicholas Jennings lived until 1673, one year longer than his neighbor and commander, Major John Mason (elevated rank after the Pequot War).  As veterans, the two probably had some gruesome stories to swap. It was a rough frontier, and the enemies were not always the Indians.  The gravesite of Jennings has not been located.

Other Jennings, notably Joshua (probably his brother) and John (father), were among the founders of Fairfield, Connecticut in 1639 with Roger Ludlow.  About forty years later Stephen Jennings of Hatfield, Massachusetts, achieved legendary status for his daring rescue expedition, tracking an Indian raiding party which had kidnapped his wife and daughters into Canada. He arranged their ransom and negotiated their safe return to Massachusetts in 1677-78 with French military escort!

The personal ordeals of Nicholas Jennings and the unrelenting assaults on his reputation (and that of his family), endured for years, place his descendants in some rarified company. Among other direct descendants of the Connecticut witchcraft trials were Sir Winston Churchill, wartime prime minister of Great Britain (whose mother was an American named Randolph), and Noah Webster, a famous American author and lexiographer./4


1/ Harriet Chapman Chesebrough, Glimpses of Saybrook in Colonial Days, (1984) p.142.

2/ Tomlinson, R.G.  The Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut (1978), p. 25.

3/ Ibid, p. 26.

4/ Ibid, p. 72.

See also Nicholas and Margaret Jennings

Jennings Heritage Project
P.O. Box 5565 - Washington DC 20016

Tel: (202) 296-4563

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