Scrivens Move from Westerly to Rensselaer Co. NY

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Date: 1780 to 1821
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Family Origins in Rhode Island

William Scriven, my 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). Based on research from Scrivens Family Genealogy and some follow-ups, William Scriven, settled in Petersburgh and Grafton, NY (see Town of Grafton [1]). Originally, he and his family came from Westerly, Rhode Island. 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. Since details of his life are scant, the following bio is composed mostly of what is known about how and why the Scriven family came from Rhode Island to this part of New York at the end of the Revolutionary War.

Quaker disavowal

William and his three sons, James, Zebulon, and John, fought in the Revolutionary War. He had served as a private in 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. (See the American Revolution in Pennsylvania) 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, sewer 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 also coincides with 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 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 ; and this gave to Petersburg, afterwards Berlin, Elder William Satterlee, and the large Satterlee family in various parts of New York."

--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. Other families that migrated were the Mumfords, Hiscoxs, Clarkes, Maxsons, Crandalls, Babcocks, Blisses, etc., of Rhode Island ; Rogers, Bebees, Gilletts, Satterlees, of Connecticut." 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 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

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 for twelve years before they could finally get it 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 the 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)

"William moved to New York with his family about 1779. They were among the first settlers of the town of Grafton in Rensselaer County. There is some speculation that the Scrivens left Rhode Island as a result of their exclusion from the pacifistic Society of Friends over William's service in the Revolutionary War.

"It is interesting to note that only descendants of William and Mercy Lewis are mentioned in Zebulon Scriven's will; none of the descendants of William and Mary Mosher are mentioned. Furthermore, the History of the Town of Grafton reports that "William Scriven and family, consisting of seven sons and two daughters, came from Rhode Island and settled in this town about 1779." No mention of a wife is made, even though William would have been married to Mary Mosher at the time; and seven sons and two daughters would only be enough to include the children of William and Mercy Lewis (minus Elsie, the eldest daughter, who would have been 26 and was probably already married to Caleb Bassett by that time). It is possible that the William Scriven who married Mercy Lewis and the William Scriven who married Mary Mosher were two different individuals; though the Scriven Record clearly states otherwise."

William's first 10 children were born in Westerly, RI between 1750 (Alice) and 1766 (Joseph) with Mercy Lewis Scriven. She died in 1766 (perhaps during or just after the birth of Joseph?). He married Mary Mosher in 1773, and had Matthias and Benjamin Henry with her while he was still in Westerly. Polly was born in 1780 after the family moved to Rensselaer Co, NY. Mary Mosher died in 1809 and so did Polly (some say, in a house fire). William lived to be 99, also outliving sons Joseph, Joshua, and Matthias. [11]

The Saunders List of Descendants

A list of descendents was compiled by Jon Saunders under the title, "They Came from Milton," a website that follows the migration of the Seventh Day Baptists from Rhode Island to the midwestern United States. The family (with links to all individuals) starts with William, includes all my Scrivens aunts and uncles, and lists full lines of William's children and grandchildren. [12]

William outlived his son Zebulon

BP Scrivens (in a post on said "[William] outlived his son, Zebulon, who took over the family farm in Grafton. Zebulon provided an annuity for his son to take care of William, who lived to be nearly 100! "[He was]Buried on the family farm, according to the 1899 Scriven Family History where "Aunt Olive" lived and died. (Olive was his granddaughter, daughter of Williams Scriven, Jr.) William Sr. lived with them until his death. He was buried in a potato field in an unfenced, overgrown plot , according to Ruth Bennett, in "Grafton Hills of Home." (1974, Vantage Press, NY). By 1980, it had become a pasture for horses, and was rented by the owners of the adjoining property."

William, outliving the above mentioned son, Zebulon, finished his life living with another son, William II (who by then ran the farm), and died there. There is a family plot on the Old Scriven farm where my cousin Jack Swift and I located flattened tombstones of William II and his wife Mary. Had we had the time to root around more, we may have come up with William I's tombstone, too-- who the above record says is also buried there. The farm is now (as of the summer of 2013) owned by Gunny Gundrum, who has a small, one man sawmill there. He also is a beekeeper. (You can get to the farm by following Rt. 2 in Rensselaer Co. to Scriven Rd. which is on the border of Grafton and Petersburg, NY. Take a left on Stage Coach Rd. (the original thoroughfare) and that will lead you to the farm.)

According to Index of Revolutionary War Pensioners, (Online database:, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009, from material provided courtesy of, William and his wife Mary Mosher were pensioners for his service in the Revolution. Also mentioned in the record were Polly Scriven and Isaac Saunders (whose children married into the family). Other names mentioned that turn up again in the Petersburg, NY area are Ziba Hewitt (whose name is on the cemetery where Joshua Scriven is buried, off Crandall Road), Zebulon Lewis (who also married into the family), and Babcock (there is a Babcock headstone in the old Scriven homestead cemetery).

Son Zebulon's will

In his son Zebulon's will, it provides for his father, William, who outlived him: "Thirdly, I order my executor to pay one dollar and fifty cents in provision and clothing monthly to that person who maintains or supports my father William Scriven each and every month during the natural life of my father William Scriven and at his decease I hereby order one dollar in provision to be paid to my eldest sister Else Bassett, each and every month monthly during her natural life,"

William Screven is NOT related

Finally, just a word on avoiding confusion of this William Scriven with another who bore almost the same name at the same time. According to a message board post on by mgmscrivens, "The Families of Petersburg," by Hilda Allen says "William of Westerly, RI, was the son of James and the great grandson of Rev. William Screven of Maine and Charleston, SC". The William who was originally from Kittery, Maine, actually started out with his surname spelled in the traditional way (not with two "e"s) The Screvens, when they were in Maine, produced no male offspring that were the right age to have ended up in Petersburg, NY. There is also the fact that the Scrivens, with a lot of other families, migrated from the Westerly, RI, area to Petersburg and Grafton. Meanwhile, the Screvens of Maine were pushed out of there by religious intolerance, and finally settled in South Carolina, where William started the First Baptist Church. If there is a connection between the Scriven and Screven families, it would have to have originated back in England before the first immigrants of each family line came to America.

Sources Rhode Island Births and Christenings, 1600-1914 database, FamilySearch, William Scriven, 06 Jun 1727; citing WESTERLY,WASHINGTON,RHODE ISLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 930,814. Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Genealogical Research Databases, database online, ( : accessed July 7, 2016), "Record of William Scrivens", Ancestor # A100794. [13] History of Grafton, New York; From LANDMARKS OF RENSSELAER COUNTY, by GEORGE BAKER ANDERSON (published by D. MASON & CO. PUBLISHERS, SYRACUSE, NY 1897)

"History of the Towns of Rensselaer County." Grafton.

"History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer Co." by A. J. Weise, Troy: Francis and Tucker,1880 [14]

Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899 for Zebulon Scriven (Vol. 05: Washington County: Births, Marriages, Deaths)

Rhode Island History [15]

Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants by Lloyd D. Bockstruck [16]

Background of Settlement in Petersburgh and Rensselaer County, NY, "Early History of Rensselaer County"[17]

Annals of New Netherland, Privatizing Colonization: The Patroonship of Rensselaerswijck, by Dr. Charles T. Gehring, Director, New Netherland Project [18]

"Town of Grafton" Petersburgh Public Library notebooks [19]

Biography from post by BP Scrivens on William Scriven, Our Many Ozark Roots, [20] WikiTree profile Scriven-57 created through the import of Alexander Family Tree.ged on Jul 16, 2012 by Rod Alexander. See the Changes page for the details of edits by Rod and others. Grafton Hills of Home, by Ruth Bennett (1974, Vantage Press, NY) They Came to Milton, compiled by Jon Saunders [21]

Personal visit to the old Scriven Farm by Bob Scrivens and cousin Jack Swift in late June, 2013. Made possible by Paul Ward, retired history professor and local genealogist. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Genealogical Research Databases, database online, ( : accessed 2 February 2016), "Record of William Scrivens", Ancestor # A100794. "Why the Allens and other families came to Rensselaer County" Posted 27 Feb 2015 by judie2520

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