Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Cheney Boys of Roxbury: John and William Cheney

Well I'm back again, poking around in the far past after writing a few blog posts about my more recent ancestors.  I have taken up the slog again, writing about my more distant kinfolk. My ancestor under scrutiny this time is William Cheney who immigrated from England to Roxbury, MA.  John Cheney, who lived there briefly, is often identified as his brother or close kinsman.  A quick glance at shows me that as usual there is a lot of chaff to wade through before I find the nugget of truth.

english origins

A quick search of the internet results in three very different locations sited as the birthplace of John and William Cheney.  The most popular seems to be Bennington, Lincolnshire, second is Lambourne, Berkshire and finally Waltham Abbey in Essex. In his book "The Cheney Genealogy", Charles Henry Pope, noted genealogist, identified multiple Cheney families in England from whom it was possible that immigrants John and William Cheney might have come from including Benningon, Lambourne and Waltham Abbey.  Just before he explores these families he stresses "no link has been found which connect William of Roxbury or John of Newbury with any English family". He then goes on to give an unbiased overview of all the Cheney families that were found. Obviously family researchers have picked the Cheney family that they like best and just run with it.  I have even seen sites where a family identified with one location was uprooted and transferred to another, sort of an ancestor mash up.

The editor of William's findagrave bio claims he is from some place called Maynall Longley, Derbyshire. There is no such place.   There is a Meynell Langley in Derybshire.  Most of the info in the bio is questionable and there is no documented evidence to back it up.   And really, if you can't even spell the name of the place correctly how am I supposed to  have any faith in your information. 

My 'go to guy' in times like these is Robert Charles Anderson of the Great Migration series. Anderson has not written about William as an immigrant as he does not show up in the records until 1639, but he did a bio on John Cheney who landed in Massachusetts in 1635. He states that the English origins of John Cheney are unknown. He also says that John and William may have been brothers. Good enough for me, although I was kinda hoping it would be Lambourne, as that is where Miss Elizabeth Bennett reunites with Mr. Darcy, but oh well, that is just another fantasy. 

but wait there's more

St. Mary & St. Michael, Mistley by Tony Peacock
In a 2001 article in The American Genealogist entitled "The English Origin of John Cheney of Roxbury and Newbury, Massachusetts", author Leslie Mahler identifies John as the John Cheney who lived in Lawford and Mistley, Essex. She located a previously unknown marriage of John Cheney to an Amy Unknown and the baptism of their children, John, Mary and Martha.  After Amy's apparent death John was recorded as marrying Martha Smithe. The baptism of their son Peter is found in the Lawford parish records, all subsequent children were born in Massachusetts, including a second son named Peter. In a 2008 article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, "Various Wills Relating to New England Colonist", the same author, Leslie Mahler, states that the will of one George Lansdalle of Lawford confirms this identity by naming John Cheney, shoemaker, in his will. John Cheney of Newbury, MA was indeed a shoemaker by trade.

Robert Charles Anderson's comment on first bit of  information was that it was not impossible for John of Newbury to be the John from Lawford but that more research was needed. I wonder what his opinion is now in light of the discovery of will of George Lansdalle? 

so were they brothers?

Pope did not seem to believe that there was any evidence to declare outright that they were brothers. John arrived first and only lived briefly in Roxbury and then moved on to Newbury.  Pope's only comment on their relationship was that if they were brothers "they do not say it or act it". William seems to have arrived at a later date and is only recorded as living in Roxbury, why not Newbury where John, if he was his brother, lived? Pope also commented on the theory that John and William shared a house in Roxbury until such time as John left for Newbury, he said "Theories are easy to handle; but they are of little historic weight".  I guess the answer is we don't know if they were brothers and there is no way to prove it, and in genealogy if you can't prove it you can't say it.

Leslie Malher stated in her article concerning John's origins that there was no sign of William Cheney in any of the parish records or other records that she could find, leading her to  believe that William was not from Lawford. In fact she states that the name Cheney is rarely found in that area of Essex and the trail ends there. No parents  have been identified for John. I think I will repeat that last sentence: NO Parents have been identified! Got it...good.

william and margaret in massachusetts

William and Margaret met and married in England by the year 1626, based on the estimated birth year of their oldest child. Their arrival in Massachusetts is impossible to pinpoint, they are not listed on any ship manifest and William's name cannot be found in any record prior to 1639. William and Margaret had at least seven children, the first one named in a Massachusetts record was the fifth child, John, born September 29, 1639 in Roxbury.

Roxbury was one of the original towns founded by the Winthrop group after their arrival in Massachusetts in 1630.  The name was originally spelled Rocksbury and was so called because of the extremely rocky soil. The original settlement was close to the Boston Neck, Thomas Dudley said it was two miles from Boston, and spread westward into what is Jamaica Plain.  The town center was called Meeting House Hill, today it is known as John Eliot Square.

In July of 1639 William bought a house and house lot  from the Parker Brothers of Boston.  He is known to have lived on what is now Dudley St. near it's intersection with Warren St. but I am not sure if this was the lot he bought in 1639. In a audit of landowners in Rocksbury, done between 1634-1640 there were about 69 men who held acreage from 3 acres up to 356 acres, William's estate was a modest 24 1/2 acres.  At his death, William had land scattered around Roxbury and in Boston.

what's the matter with margaret

In his will, written in 1666/7 not too long before he died, William makes provisions for his "dear afflicted wife". What was she afflicted with?  The only clue comes in a church record when it was recorded in 1673 that "Margaret Cheaney widow having long been bound by Satan under a melancholick distemper (above 10 or 11 yeares) which made her wholly neglect her calling and live mopishly, this day gave thanks to God for loosing her chain and confessing and bewailing her sinful yielding to temptation".

So, Margaret at about age 60 seems to have had some sort of mental breakdown, possibly entering a chronic depression of some sort.  This apparently began several  years prior to her husband's death and lasted until about 6 years afterwards. The only thing surprising about this is that more women weren't likewise afflicted. Just think how hard and awful their lives were. I get depressed just thinking about what it was like to live in that age.  At any rate, she seems to have recovered her senses and got on with what was left of her life.

Margaret also revived enough to remarry sometime between 1673 and 1679 when she was identifed in a deed as a widow.  Her second husband's surname was Burdge, nothing else is known about him.

the reluctant puritan

In 1632 the Puritan Church in Roxbury  finally had it's meeting house and it's minister, the Reverend John Eliot. Eliot recorded each new member as they joined. Church membership was more than just a religious experience, it's significance was far reaching. No man could become a Freeman of the Colony without first becoming a member of a church and for a while your children could not be baptized unless one of the parents was a member. Of course everyone had to go to church, whether or not you were a full member, but becoming a member required a full disclosure of your sins, sort of a baring of the soul.  Not everyone was prepared to go through with what must have been an uncomfortable  event. Margaret became a member within a few years of arriving in Massachusetts. William however put off becoming a member for almost 20 years, finally taking the plunge in January of 1664/5.  Did he feel his years creeping up on him, was his health beginning to fail, did his thoughts turn to the state of his soul, who knows what his reasons were, he just finally took the plunge. He became a freeman in May of 1666 and died the following year.

a good citizen

Despite his lack of church membership and the fact that he was not a Freeman of the Colony, William seems to have been a good citizen of Roxbury.  In 1645 the town established their first school.  At that time the costs were covered voluntarily by the town's people.  William was not only a contributor to the school but served in the office of Feoffee.  Feoffee is an old word that doesn't get much use these days. A Feoffee is a trustee, so William was a trustee or administrator of the new school.

William was elected and served as the town constable.  We associate the job of constable with law enforcement and police work. In 1630 the job was a bit different.  The constable collected taxes, served writs and warrants as well as enforced local laws. He did this in addition to working his farm or other form of employment. Often times men would refuse to serve as constable after they were elected and were fined for turning down the job. William also served as a selectman for the town for one term.


Ellen b. in England by 1626, m. 1642 Humphrey Johnson d. Sept. 1678
Margaret b. unknown m. 1650 Thomas Hastings of Watertown
Thomas b. unknown 1633 d. 1698
William b. unknown 1635 d. 1681
John b. 29 Sept. 1639 Roxbury d. 12 Oct 1671 (drowned apparently catching eels)
Mehitable b. 1 June 1643 Roxbury d/. 1693/4
Joseph b.   6 June 1647 Roxbury d. 1704 Medfield


photo by Jeff Lloyd
William had  his will written on 30 April 1667.  He was not able to sign but made his mark.  In his will he indicated that he was sick and he probably felt the time had come to face the inevitable, despite being only about 63 years old.  William divided his estate among his children and left provisions for the care of his wife. He asked that one of his children live in the Roxbury home with Margaret to care for her.  William died shortly after writing his will, the inventory of his estate was taken only a few later on 30 July of 1667.  The executors of his will were Thomas Cheney his son and Thomas Hastings, husband of his daughter Margaret.

Margaret Cheney Burdges moved to Boston by 1682 when she was released by the church at Roxbury and joined the South Church of Boston. Her son Thomas had to post surety to the town of Boston that his mother would not become a burden to it's citizens.  Margaret signed her will, or rather made her mark,  and died in July of 1686 in Boston.  She was buried in Roxbury next to her husband William Cheney. 

Related Posts:
Thomas Hastings of Watertown and Margaret Cheney

Charles Henry Pope, The Cheney Genealogy, Boston, 1897
Robert Charles Anderson,  Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634-1635, Vol II
Leslie Mahler, The English Origins of John Cheney of Roxbury and Newbury, Massachusetts, The American Genealogist, Vol. 76, 2001, pp. 246-247
Leslie Mahler, Various English Wills Relating to New England Colonists: Gillette, Swaine, Cheney, and Tutty-Knight-Whitman, The New England Genealogical and Historical Register, Vol. 162, 2008, pp. 116
Archealogia Americana Volume 7
Francis S. Drake, The Town of Roxbury: It's Memorable Persons and Places, Roxbury, 1878

Questions Comment Queries Corrections Welcome 
Please site your sources 


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. William is my 9th great grandfather. This is fascinating history. So you're saying that the 'inferred' connection to Cheney of Lamborgne is still not verified?

Also..on the gravestone in the blog...How can you read what's on the gravestone? It looks like gibberish to me.


Eric Raymond (Hastings/Raymond side of the tree)

Arlene Patricia Sontag said...

William is also one of my distant great grandfathers. I so appreciate the hard work of all the researchers. Thank you!

Austin Cheney said...

William Cheney is my 11th generational grandfather!

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