Early Migrations of the Mains and Scrivens

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To someone dabbling in family genealogy today, it may be a mystery why early ancestors in America migrated.

My first ancestors found their way to a coastal area where today's border between Connecticut and Rhode Island is. But, from there, why did they spread out? Generally, the westward movement usually came down to land, jobs, or religious freedom. There were other reasons, some more subtle. This article will discuss the various reasons I've discovered (so far) for the migration of my Scriven and Main ancestors.

Pre-Revolutionary New England and the freedom of religion

My ancestry started with the Mains, who first appeared with John Mayne on the state of Maine's coast, near Casco in the mid-1600's. Why did John come to America? From his date of residence in Maine, we can infer he was part of the Puritan Great Migration, which happened mostly between 1620-1640. These Puritans were "motivated chiefly by a quest for freedom to practice their Puritan religion." [1] After Charles became king in 1625, he dissolved Parliament in an attempt to fend off his enemies, and "With the religious and political climate so unpromising, many Puritans decided to leave the country." More than likely, John Mayne was one of thousands caught up in this struggle who decided to migrate to the New World.

After an Indian attack which resulted in the deaths of two of his sons-in-law, he retreated with what was left of his family to Boston. He died there in 1699. (See John Mayne)

Meanwhile, his son Ezekiel moved to Scituate, MA and then on to Stonington, CT. According to Richard Main, 4th cousin, (email to me, April 8, 2019) "A first opportunity for dissenting Puritans in Plymouth Colony to get free opened up when land was obtained in the name of the new Baptist Church in Situate, MA. Accepted male members of the new parish were issued land to develop, homestead and farm." Richard said that the coming relocations of the Mains were a product of the need of successive generations to have their own farms and religious freedom. The Situate relocation "worked for a while, then land in Stonington, CT was bought and a new parish formed there. Many Mains went for that deal, mostly sons who were not first sons and would not/did not inherit [local] land to work." In other words, farms were generally not split up among the deceased's offspring, but rather, settled on the first born.

That move by Ezekiel and others was superceded later by a move to North Stonington, CT., Richard continued, "Dozens of my family, the Mains of N. Stonington, CT, left for Berlin-Petersburg, NY starting about 1760 and turning into a flood by 1800. People who are well off where they are, happy doing what they're doing, don't leave, they stay put. But how well off people are in any one place probably follows a Bell-curve statistic, 12.5% are very well off, 67.5% are doing OK, and 12.5% in the remainder are failing and desperate. And all for a variety of reasons like intelligence, education, luck, skills, timing, stamina, strength, persistence, etc. But then you don't move away unless someplace else and something else is better. Then again, there are risk takers, pioneers, like Davy Crockett, and the risk-averse like grandma. Some need proof, some need a silver platter, some are spoiled, some are lazy, some are high functioning, no two the same or responding the same."

Richard Main went on to outline how migration was driven by inheritance--or lack of it. "Back in the 1700's, you needed a small farm to survive, and many children to help you work the farm. No land, you were screwed, no children, you were screwed. If you were not the #1 son when the old man died, you were screwed (ALL went to #1 son). So if you need land and are not rich, then you need land being given away. The Baptists would grant standard parcels to all male head of household MEMBERs registered and accepted in the Parish. So you [also] needed a new parish to get in on that deal. [That's how] N. Stonington, CT, and Scituate, MA matured. [That also happened with the] US Government's Land Bounties and Homestead Act in several iterations."

The Baptists' struggles for religious tolerance

While the need of successive generations to have their own farms was one driving force in the migration west, religious freedom was another factor. Richard Main also sent along (personal email April 8, 2019) a detailed discussion of the Baptists' struggles for religious freedom, highlighting the importance of this factor in the westward migration of the Main family and others. The following are excerpts from "Baptists in Early America" by David T. Ball:

"From the time in the early 1600s that some of the early Puritans came to believe that infant baptism could not be justified on biblical grounds, to the final abolition of the last remaining compulsory religious taxation system in Massachusetts in 1833, the Baptists bore the brunt of the religious persecution and discrimination meted out in early American communities. The Baptists countered by waging a struggle against governmental support for established religion more persistently and effectively than any other dissenting group. . ..

flogging for non-adherence to the Puritan rules.

"The Baptists’ struggle began in the New England colonies, whose Puritan founders believed themselves to constitute the vanguard of a ‘‘New Reformation’’ that would complete the work that Luther and Calvin. . .. The Puritans believed that theirs was the one and only true church and faith, and all New England colonists were expected to support the New Reformation project by supporting the Puritan congregations in their local communities. Any who could not bring themselves to do so were free to leave. . .. Any who would not leave were to be punished. . ..

"New England colonists who came to believe that infant baptism was illegitimate would become known to the civil authorities when they would refuse to have their own children baptized, and either turn their backs when the children of other families were being baptized or walk out of the church to avoid participating in such ceremonies. These early Baptists were then hauled into court, where they were

Adult baptism came into vogue in new settlements moving West.
warned, fined, or even whipped if they gave any indication that they would repeat their offending behavior. Those who refused to pay the fine were imprisoned for an indeterminate period. Church authorities would inflict a parallel process of warnings, censure, and ultimately excommunication. These early Baptists were considered social pariahs, subjected to harassment and ostracism, and they were denied the right to vote or hold office. Most either left the colony as quickly as they could, or decided that they would henceforth refrain from disrupting baptism ceremonies and keep their views to themselves.

"The Puritans were committed to maintaining some connection to the Church of England, in the hope of reforming it. Roger Williams, the pastor of the Puritan church at Salem, Massachusetts, came into conflict with Puritan officials when he advocated the view that the Church of England was a false church, and that the Puritans should separate themselves from it. . .. they could not accept Williams’s call to break from the Church of England completely. The authorities banished Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and the next year, he and some friends from the Salem church founded the colony of Providence Plantations, just to the south. After a number of English Baptists migrated to Providence between 1636 and 1639, Williams and his friends re-baptized themselves by immersion and formed the first Baptist church in America, in Providence. . . . A second Baptist church was founded in nearby Newport by 1644.

North Stonington Baptist Churh.

"In 1651 John Clarke, the pastor of the Newport church, and two of its members traveled to Lynn, Massachusetts, to preach in a private home. Massachusetts authorities arrested, tried, and gave them the choice of paying a fine or being whipped. Clarke and one of the others paid the fine, but the third, Obadiah Holmes, refused. He was tied to a stake on Boston Common, stripped to the waist, and given such a severe whipping that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks.

"Baptists persisted in Massachusetts, despite the persecution that they faced there. In 1654, the president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster, shocked his community when he refused to have his child baptized and publicly declared his opposition to infant baptism. . . . The Massachusetts legislature responded by passing a law stating that all dissenters should be removed from teaching positions at Harvard and in the public schools. Dunster was . . . forced to resign from Harvard. By 1665, Boston Baptists were worshipping in the home of their pastor, [when] Thomas Goold of the Boston church was arrested and disenfranchised, and later imprisoned and sentenced to be banished. One of the first openings toward religious liberty in Massachusetts followed, when sixty-six residents submitted a petition asking the authorities to free and tolerate him and the others. Instead, the authorities gave Goold only a three-day release to attend to some private business.

"When the authorities learned in 1679 that Boston’s Baptists had secretly built and begun to assemble in a meetinghouse, however, the legislature passed a law making it illegal to build any church structure without its permission. . .. [Later] a letter arrived from King Charles II expressing his support for ‘‘freedom and liberty of conscience’’ for all non-Catholic Christians. From that point on, the Boston Baptist church was never bothered again. . ..

Taxes and religious freedom

"Although the overt persecution of Baptists had ended in the colony, its system of collecting taxes to support Congregationalist ministers and erect church buildings for each settlement remained in place. When Baptists would refuse to pay the tax, they were subject to imprisonment, and some of their property (for example, livestock) could be seized and sold at auction to pay the bill. . . . By 1735, the Baptists and other dissenters were more fully tolerated in New England than in England or in the southern colonies, where Anglicanism was legally established. Had the Great Awakening not burst on the New England scene in 1740, the Baptists might have remained content indefinitely with the legal status that they had achieved. The Great Awakening, however, split New England’s established churches between the New Lights, who were filled with evangelical fervor, and the Old Lights, who wished to retain prevailing styles of worship and beliefs. Over a period of years, many of the New Light Congregationalists who had separated from the established churches (who thus became known as Separates) adopted the Baptists’ belief that infant baptism is illegitimate, and eventually were absorbed into the Baptist denomination (and became known as Separate-Baptists).

"The young James Madison was horrified at what he saw [in Virginia], but he saw little hope of redressing the situation through Virginia’s colonial legislature. With the approach of the Revolutionary War, however, the tide began to turn. In 1775, with the assistance of Patrick Henry, the Virginia Baptist Association successfully petitioned for the right of Baptist ministers to minister to Baptist soldiers. In 1776, Virginia’s Revolutionary Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights that, under Madison’s influence, guaranteed to all ‘‘the free exercise of religion.’’ When war came, tax support for the Church of England was halted, and after the war, the Baptists argued against the adoption of a tax system that would support religion in general.

"In Massachusetts, the laws exempting Baptists from religious taxation were widely accepted until 1773, when the regional Baptist association endorsed Separate-Baptist leader Isaac Backus’s call for the total abolition of the religion tax system . . . failed . . .. In 1782, the Baptists succeeded in having a Bristol County court declare that the religious taxation system violated the state constitution, and by 1800 very few dissenters— whether Baptist, Universalist, Shaker, or Methodist—were being prosecuted for nonpayment of religious taxes." --DAVID T. BALL

Richard Main explained how Ball's history helps explain the migrations of the Puritans in Plymouth Colony to Situate, MA. where accepted male members of the new parish were issued land to develop, homestead, and farm. From there, they went to Stonington, CT, which was purchased by the Baptist church and a new parish formed there. "Many Mains went for that deal, mostly sons who were not first sons and would not/did inherit land to work." Then the same thing happened again in North Stonington, CT. "All the Mains seem to have gone there. Then the Baptists developed a 7th Day sect and they established themselves in what later became Berlin, NY, and Adams, NY. Lots of regular Baptist went there too.

My research indicates all the Mains were strong Baptists. Some very strong, especially the James 3 that went off to Adams, NY where they founded the Church and the town. The time finally arrived when sectarian and political influences, democracy, and new political parties brought complete separation of church and state in Connecticut in 1818."

Certainly, we can see from the foregoing how powerful religious intolerance was in motivating members of the Main and Scriven families to look for greener pastures.

William Scriven and his family

The first immigrant ancestor of the Scriven family was James Scriven from Devon, England. Records show that a Quaker meeting group paid for his passage to Flushing, New York, in order to bolster their numbers v.s. the more militant Protestants in the area. This was about 1712. John moved on to Oyster Bay on Long Island, then relocated as a Quaker preacher to Rhode Island around 1730. Records show (as we say today) that he played to mixed reviews. There, he married Alice Knowles, a daughter of a prominent English family, and had most of his children, including William Scriven.

Where the Mains came to Rensselaer County from Stonington, the Scriven family came from Westerly, RI, which was also on the coast, just to the east of Stonington. William Scriven, my nominal fifth great grandfather, was one of the first inhabitants of Grafton, NY, according to History of Grafton, New York; (from Landmarks of Rensselaer County, by George Baker Anderson, published by D. Mason & Co. Publishers, Syracuse, NY 1897). William Scriven's family settled in Petersburgh and Grafton, NY (see Town of Grafton [1]).

A view west on Old Scriven Farm.
Originally, he and his family came from Westerly, Rhode Island. The Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899 (Vol. 05: Washington County: Births, Marriages, Deaths) lists he and his family, complete with dates of birth, in Washington Co., Rhode Island.

Quaker disavowal

Why the Scriven family came from Rhode Island to this part of New York at the end of the Revolutionary War also had intertwining causes. William and his three sons, James, Zebulon, and John, fought in the Revolutionary War. He had served as a private under a Captain Blevin in the Westerly Alarm Company in 1777. This was probably a bone of contention in their Westerly Quaker Meeting group because of Quakers' anti-war and non-violent tradition. Colonial Quakers had split loyalties between their religious pacifism and their patriotism. Virtually anyone from The Society of Friends who even helped the war effort were excluded from their Meeting groups. (Even Betsy Ross, sower of the first American flag, was disavowed for her support of the war effort--though that disavowal may go further back to her being "read out" of her Quaker Meeting because of her first marriage to John Ross, a member of another denomination. [2]) One source said there were so many Quakers "disavowed" after the Revolution that it was one of the prime reasons why the Quakers went from a dominant sect in America to a marginal one within the next century. So, when the Scriven family, probably along with a larger group of Westerly neighbors, moved to Rensselaer, New York, this exclusion may have been the initial impetus--even before the promise of new land in Rensselaer Co., NY-- to move out of Rhode Island.

At any rate, there was no new incarnation of a Quaker Meeting in Rensselaer, so we have to assume that it was a fresh start in every respect, including their religion. The Scrivens were members of the Berlin, NY Seventh Day Baptists, which had flourished back in Rhode Island side by side with The Society of Friends. So it was probably only natural that these former Quakers joined the religion of their neighbors.

The post-revolutionary war economy as a cause for the migration

But there may have been a more practical reason for leaving Rhode Island. In 1786, "Farmers struck against merchants who had refused to accept the depreciated paper money."[3] It is easy to forget that, economically, the colonies were in financial disarray following the Revolution. State governments usually favored business people with money, and the common man was caught in between. Thus, many farmer-soldiers returned from the the war, only to find they had unmeetable debts, worthless paper currency, and no pay for their service. This may have been the case with the Scriven family, who records show arriving in Rensselaer Co. around 1779.[4] (That date coincides with the British occupation of Rhode Island, which might have been yet another factor. Little fighting occurred on Rhode Island soil, but the British captured and held Newport from December 1776 until October 1779.) Another source, History of the Towns of Rensselaer County, "Grafton," says the family settled right after the war was over, which would be between 1783-86.

Impoverished soldiers

The other factor worth mentioning is how utterly impoverished families were after the Revolution. They had won, yes, but their fledgling government at first had no national bank and no means of raising capital to pay them their wages. In fact, at one point in the early 1780's, mutinous soldiers marched on the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, trying to coerce it into paying them for their years of military service. Paying war debts was complicated by the fact that the 13 colonies, now states, wanted to reserve the power to raise taxes for themselves rather than the new federal government.

This view was reinforced by a post by Judy 2520 on Ancestry.com for Joseph Allen (another early Rensselaer Co. settler) who wrote: "In Western Connecticut settled a thrifty Seventh-day Baptist family, whose home lay in the path of the contending armies of the Revolution until they had given nearly all their substance to the patriot cause. Under the stress of this drain upon their resources, they sold what they had left, and moved on to Rensselaer County, in New York State. . .. Other families that migrated were the Mumfords, Hiscoxs, Clarkes, Maxsons, Crandalls, Babcocks, Blisses, etc., of Rhode Island ; Rogers, Bebees, Gilletts, Satterlees, of Connecticut."

(--from "Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America: A Series of Historical Papers Written in Commemoration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Organization of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, Celebrated at Ashaway, Rhode Island, August 20-25, 1902, Volume 1.)

Because the end of hostilities with England left numerous families impoverished, almost any enticement to migrate would have been powerful, considering the alternatives of mortgage foreclosure and pauperism. [Some of these facts come from Ron Chernow's biography, Alexander Hamilton.]

But why come to Rensselaer County?

At first, it was only speculation why the Scriven family (and many others from the same Rhode Island, Washington Co., area) resettled in Rensselaer County. We do know that Rhode Island, unlike most other states, did not provide its returning Revolutionary War soldiers with what were called "bounty lands," that is, payment as "a grant of land from a government as a reward to repay citizens for the risks and hardships they endured in the service of their country, usually in a military related capacity." [5] If you look at the geographic western boundaries of the 13 original colonies, you can see why. States like New York--or even Massachusetts--had ample room for westward expansion, but Rhode Island, small to begin with, was landlocked. It was an easy thing for some colonies to "gift" soldiers with what at the time was frontier land, so the soldiers could be in the vanguard of western expansion--and form the nucleus of defense against the native American Indians who sided with the British during the war. (For an interesting discussion of why the Scrivens and other families relocated from Westerly, RI to Rensselaer Co., NY, see the G2G posts [6])

Marketing Petersburgh

Yet, Grafton/ Petersburg was the destination of the Rhode Island Scrivens, the Mains, and others. The book The Town of Grafton says "William Scriven and family, consisting of seven sons and two daughters, came from Rhode Island and settled in this town about 1779. Three of the sons, James, Zebulon and John, were Revolutionary soldiers." There were many other families from Rhode Island as well, including the Crandalls, Wests, Saunders, and Lewises. This source says that the early arrivals "paid an average annual rent of 10 bushels of wheat per 100 acres." These towns were in Rensselaer County, named for the Stephen van Rensselaer family, (see Wikipedia:Stephen van Rensselaer), a Dutch landowner and reputed to be one of the 10 wealthiest men in America at the time. Petersburgh itself was named for Rensselaer's farm manager, just as nearby Stephentown was named for the wealthy Patroon himself.

Having said all that, Greater Petersburgh (which at first included Grafton and part of Berlin) and surrounding Rensselaer Co. was described in these forbidding terms: "The surface is very rocky and broken, and a large portion of it is still covered with forests. The summits of the hills are from 800 to 1200 feet above tide, and many of them are covered by huge, jagged masses of graywacke. . . . The soil is chiefly clay, underlaid by hardpan, and is wet, cold, and hard of cultivation." (from Gazetteer and Business Directory of Rensselaer County, N. Y., for 1870-71, compiled by Hamilton Child, 1870. [7]) It's little wonder that my great grandfather, when asked what crop he raised on his farm in close by Berlin, NY, wryly said, "Why, rocks! Rocks of course!" So, why William Scriven came to this place and not another is still hard to answer. You would almost have to go back in time and see what other options were available to them.

The Van Rensselaers and their lessees

The Anti-Rent War

According to the Town of Petersburgh website, "Since the coastal regions of Rhode Island and Connecticut were overpopulated and teeming with unemployed young men recently discharged from service in the Continental Army, the van Rensselaers sent out glowing advertisements to induce these people to settle in the Little Hoosic Valley." Van Rensselaer carved up the county and allowed settlers to “lease” the land so he could generate income from it. It is instructive to know that Van Rensselaer's title, "patroon," is a Dutch term that translates as "investor," and this patroon was one of the men behind the West Indian Company of New Netherlands. So, there is no doubt about his intentions: making money from his investment. William would appear to have been one of the lessees. The first lessees were Dutch, but there weren't enough of them in the Dutch homeland to work all the farms the Van Rensselaers had in mind. [8] So the Van Rensselaers reached out to the English. The following account seems like the most accurate story of what happened next:

The Church family's account of the lessees

According to the descendants of John Church, the Van Rensselaers almost never actually sold land outright. Instead, they offered tenants leases. After the Revolutionary War, Stephen Van Rensselaer decided to entice new farmers to the lands that no one had been willing to settle as yet - the hill lands, hard and rocky. People who answered his advertisements were told to choose their parcel, farm it free for seven years (after clearing it), and then come back and negotiate a permanent lease.

"(Ed. note: These very same advertisements no doubt were seen by the John Church family in Connecticut, resulting in their settling the steep rocky ridge between Church Hollow and Potter Hill in Petersburgh.)

"When the farmer came back to renegotiate his lease, he was told to sign the standard lease or give up the land. Few were willing to do this after they had finally begun to make their farms pay, so they signed. The leases were feudal in the powers of the landlord and the duties of the tenant, but the farmers really had no choice."

The Church website continues, saying, "We know, from first person accounts, some of the difficulties that the early settlers in this area faced. The first difficulty was that this land was part of the Van Rensselaer estates, so farmers had to pay their rent every year (here, rent was 10 bushels of wheat per 100 acres), but when the farmer leased the land, of course, he got timberland and not farmland. Then, even after the land was cleared and the crops harvested, the farmers had to make a 20-mile trip to Nassau just to get their corn or wheat ground. This trip took three days. Winters were harsh and the houses were not weatherproof: people could remember waking up in winter with several inches of snow on their beds.

"But these were not the only inconveniences. There were no stores in the area until 1778; prior to that time settlers had to make the long trip down to Castleton Landing for manufactured goods. The paths were too small to admit wagons, and so everything had to be carried. One family was forced to leave its wagon in Cherry Plains [many miles south of Petersburgh) for twelve years before they could finally get it back to their farm. We often forget that the early settlers in the Eastern part of the the United States faced a situation just as difficult as the men and women who later settled the West. . ..

Stephen Van Rensselaer's sons precipitate the Rent Wars

"Stephen [Van Rensselaer] died in 1839. He had collected over $41,000,000 in rents from his 100,000 tenants during his lifetime and was one of the wealthiest men in the country. His heirs were told that the estate's debts could be paid out of their portions or with the proceeds from back rents. The brothers, Stephen and William, decided to collect the rents rather than damage their own portions. Thus, they ordered sheriffs and their agents to collect from the tenants.

"When the estate called in past debts, a group of tenants tried to meet with Stephen (he inherited the West Manor, now Albany County) and renegotiate the leases. Many of the families had been paying rents on the same land for generations, including all taxes, and now wanted to buy the land. Stephen refused to renegotiate, but agreed to sell the worst land in the estate for $5 an acre (more than twice what the tenants offered). This was the beginning of the Anti-Rent Wars: the tenants refused to pay any more rents." [9]

Other local historians say that William Scriven was given his land because of his family's service in the War. (But that seems unlikely, given the fact that William and others came from an entirely different state, not to mention that the Van Rensselaers appeared guided mainly by profit rather than patriotism or philanthropy.) In any event, by the time (William's son) Zebulon Scriven’s will was written (he died in February, 1821), it appears the Scrivens were owners. Eventually, Van Rensselaer's son was forced to sell off the parcels around the 1840’s when he was accused of perpetuating feudalism during the uprising of tenant farmers. (For an interesting discussion of this period, see The History of the Church Family of Petersburgh, NY)

When you think of how hard overland travel must have been around the end of the Revolutionary War, we can be sure that the Mains and Scrivens must have been well-motivated to migrate to Upstate New York. But it was tough going once they got there. You could even argue that they were actors in the first American story of class struggle, pitting workers against capitalists. It wasn't until the mid eighteen hundreds that people like Caleb Scriven, who started manufacturing shirts, put a financial footing under the feet of the ancestors of the original farmer-soldiers who settled there.


Town of Petersburgh History [11]

BP Scrivens, notes on early Scrivens in Grafton, emailed 4/25/2013.

Richard Main emails, April, 2019.

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