SEARCH OF JUSTICE:
THE STRANGE ORDEAL AND TRIUMPH OF NICHOLAS JENNINGS
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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.
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
– 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.
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.
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!
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
Harriet Chapman Chesebrough,
Glimpses of Saybrook in Colonial Days, (1984) p.142.
Tomlinson, R.G. The Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut (1978), p. 25.
Ibid, p. 26.
Ibid, p. 72.
Nicholas and Margaret Jennings
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