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October 27, 2012

The Bray Wilkins Family and the Salem Witch Trials


I've already written a little about the Wilkins family in another post, but since then, I have discovered that they were part of the large Bray Wilkins family, notable for its involvement in the Salem Witch Trials. Bray Wilkins and his family were also the first settlers of Middleton, Massachusetts. We are descended from no less than three of his seven children, as the Wilkins family had a penchant for marrying cousins. 

Bray Wilkins was born around 1610, and the first records of him in New England indicate that he lived in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  By 1654, he and his wife Anna (or Hannah) had joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1660, he and his partner, John Gingell, purchased 700 acres to the northwest of Salem known as "Will's Hill", and attempted to turn a profit on it by harvesting the timber and manufacturing wood products such as barrel staves and shingles. Ultimately, the venture failed, they were forced to sell back part of the land, and by the 1680's, Bray was farming a much smaller tract of land just to feed his family. His farm, along with parts of Andover, Boxford, and Topsfield were incorporated into the town of Middleton in 1728. The Bray Wilkins (Jr.) house still stands there as the oldest house in town.

In November of 1689, the Wilkins were among those who left the First Church of Salem to begin the Church of Christ at Salem Village (now Danvers) with Samuel Parris acting as their pastor. When the first arrests for witchcraft began in the spring of 1692, the husband of Bray's granddaughter Margaret, John Willard, was employed as a constable to bring in several of the accused. As things progressed, and he found himself required to arrest neighbors whom he had held in high regard, he attempted to decline this service, and soon found himself the subject of wild accusations of witchcraft. On May 10 the first warrant for his arrest was issued, but when the constable arrived, he had fled. A second warrant was issued a few days later and John was captured in "Nashawag" (now Lancaster), 40 miles away, and brought back to Salem to stand trial on May 18th.  He was accused of causing the death of Daniel Wilkins, son of Henry Wilkins, and grandson of Bray Wilkins. Daniel's girlfriend was Mercy Lewis, one of the most active accusers during the trials. Testimony from several members of the Wilkins family was presented at his trial. 81 year old Bray Wilkins related how that after John Willard had come into a room where he was eating and "lookt after such a sort upon me as I never before discerned in any" that he was struck with a painful condition that may have been a kidney stone. Two of Bray's daughters gave second-hand testimony that John Willard had beaten his wife Margaret (their niece) and then exhibited odd behavior which frightened her into running to a relative's house for safety. Several others similarly charged him with cruelty to his wife. During his examination, he denied these allegations with the rest, and desired that his wife would be called to testify on his behalf, but this does not appear to have been done.  He was found guilty of these and many other offenses and executed by hanging on August 19, 1692 at Gallow's Hill, Salem Village (Danvers) as a witch. 

I think it is worth noting, whatever the motivation of the rest of the Wilkins clan for testifying against John Willard, that his father-in-law, Thomas Wilkins, third son of Bray Wilkins, would have nothing to do with the proceedings. The records of the Salem Village church show that Thomas was one of four men who, "being grievously offended by reason of the (in their estimation) "unwarrantable actings " of their Pastor, Mr. Parris, in the matter of Witchcraft, do therefore habitually absent themselves from Public Worship, and from "Communion at the Lord's Table," notwithstanding the endeavors of the Pastor and Church to enforce their attendance thereupon. The grounds of their dissatisfaction are these: 1. "The distracting and disturbing tumults and noises made by the persons under Diabolical power and delusions, preventing, sometimes, their hearing and understanding and profiting by the word preached." 2. "Their apprehensions of danger of themselves being accused as the Devil's instruments to molest and afflict the persons complaining; they seeing those whom they had reason to esteem better than themselves thus accused, blemished, and of their lives bereaved." Thomas was also among those who signed the "Anti-Parris Petition" in 1695, an effort to remove Samuel Parris from the pulpit, and against the main Wilkins clan, who were staunchly "pro-Parris". 

John Willard's widow, Margaret, married William Towne, whose own family had also been affected by the trials, and added nine more children to the three she had borne to John Willard. In 1710, the court pardoned John Willard, and attempted to make restitution for material damage. Addressing the court, Margaret says, "Having been notified by order of the Generall court to appear before your Honors to give an account as near as I can what dammage my self together with my aforesaid former Husband did sustain in our Estate besides the fearfull odium cast on him by imputing to him & causing him to suffer death for such a piece of wickedness as I have not the least reason in the world to thinke he was guilty of I say besides that reproach & the grief & sorrow I was exposed to by that means I do account our dammage as to our outward estate to have been very considerable. for by reason of my said former Husband being seized by order of the civil Authority & imprisoned all our Husbands concerns were laid by for that summer we had not opportunity to plant or sow whereas we were wont to raise our own bread corn I Reckon (which your Honors may please more certainly to Inform your selves from the Records of those unhappy times & things that happened) I say according to my best Remembranc from the time of his first imprisonment to the time of his suffering was near upon half a year all which time I was at the trouble & charge to provide for him in prison what he stood in need of out of our own estate, my aforesaid Husband was 3 weeks a prisoner at Boston which occasioned me to be at yet more charge & trouble & altho I had after his sentence of death was past upon him obtained a Replevin for him for a little time which not coming as was expected at the time appointed I was forced to hire a horse at Salem & go to Boston to see what was the reason of the failure, I have nothing further to add but only to pray your Honors to guess at the dammage as well as you can by the Information I have here given & that God will direct you in & about what you are now concerned about, & so take Leave to subscribe my self Your Honors Humble & sorrowful servant the marke of Margarett Town
I Judge that my Loss and damage in my estate hath not been Less than thirty pounds, But I shall be satisfyed If I may have twenty pounds allowed me. "

For a complete transcript of the trial, as well as many other original documents visit the Salem Witch Trial Documentary Archive.

22 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this information as it states some info. I wasn't aware of. A few years ago, I pulled up some info. where Bray was a businessman and operated a ferry service and was also charged with stealing hay but those charges were dropped.But he was very prominent person in Salem. Also maybe you can find the split in the Wilkins as to who stayed to the North and those that went into the South. As there is a big population of Wilkins in North Carolina and South Carolina. My part of the Wilkins is from the New York area after Salem. So I'm the Northern part of Wilkins.
    Thank you,
    Wayne Wilkins

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I haven't researched forward on any other branches of the Wilkins, other than my own who moved to New Hampshire, and then to Londonderry, VT. You did remind me to finish a post with a descent chart, however, so check it out if you like. We may have more than just Bray Wilkins in common since his descendants inter-married several times!

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  2. I ran into some Clarks that I'm related to from up in the same area. We are now in contact with one another. And are of Wilkins decent. In fact Russ Clark is still in Vermont.
    I do know that the U. of Virginia has a lot of our family records but can't get into the site.

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  3. I came across your Bray Wilkins entry by chance this evening and before leaving, just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Bray Wilkins and his wife were my 10th great-grandparents. My 2nd great-grandmother (Stella Mae Wilkins) married Edward Elmer Sprague. When I started doing research and looked more into the Wilkins line I was just amazed! Again, thank you so much for the enjoyable read! Shannon

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  4. You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was very excited, as well, to find the story of the Wilkins.

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  5. Greetings Kin! I'm Guy, 14th great grandson of Bray, from a branch that traveled to Indiana in the 1800's. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your entry. I knew of it, but never got to read it before.

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  6. Wow! Bray is my 15th great grandfather. My grandmother is Esther Wilkins DOB: 1900.

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  7. i am albert wilkins dob 1943 15 gen of brey middleton mass my grandfather was albert alonzo wilkins died 1943 married to marion peabody decednt of george peabody

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  8. i am albert wilkins dob 1943 15 gen of brey middleton mass my grandfather was albert alonzo wilkins died 1943 married to marion peabody decednt of george peabody

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  9. Bray, John, David, Enos, Peletiah, Calvin, John Calvin, W. Clarence, Roger F., Richard (me), Gordon (curator at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem)

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  10. Wow! I don't know how it works out exactly, but it looks like Bray and Anna are my 10th great grandparents on my grandmother's side (my last name is Maples and her family is from Illinois and Missouri). The son of Bettiah Wilkins moved to Illinois in the 1800s. Would like to take another trip to Salem now!

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  11. Hi Emily, thanks so much for this account. It was really useful information in my search for clues to my lineage.

    Bray is my tenth-great grandfather as well. This fall, we visited Salem and Middleton, Ma. and were able to locate the area that was the original Wilkins land deed. It is not far from the Middleton Library and Historical Society across from the Middleton Town Water supply, which was once known as Wilkins Pond. The Library has literature describing Bray as the first settler of Middleton and highlights the location of his original house on Will's Hill. We also found the original home of My 9th great-grandfather's (Thomas) son Bray which was built in 1698. The Middleton Cemetery also has several old headstones of Wilkins family members that are interesting to see. It was a really incredible thought that I was walking the same paths that my ancestors may havewalked over 300 years ago.

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  12. Very interesting! I have lived in MA all my life and have not yet visited Salem. I would love to do a similar tour of the Middleton area. The 1698 house is definitely on my list!

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  13. Hello. I just wanted to offer an FYI. One of my ancestors was a Samuel WILKINS, and I am descended from 2 of his children. Unfortunately, he is a "concrete block wall" in all directions. He was reportedly born ~1775 in "Maine" and no one knows who his parents were, where he lived, who he married, and where his children were born - etc. ... My "educated assumption" is that his parents were William and Sarah (BANCROFT) WILKINS from Middleton, MA. After they lost 4 young children, the moved to "Maine" ~1775. My "guess" is that Sarah was pregnant and died as a result of childbirth. They had a 7-yr-old daughter, and I'm guessing William asked another couple to raise his daughter and newborn son. ... William was a surveyor and moved around a lot - up and down the River. .. I have tidbits of information on William while he was in "Maine." And he possibly lived past 1820. But, he was never found in the 1790, 1800, or 1810 census because he never owned property. (His brother also moved to "Maine" but William's children are not mentioned there.) Betty (near Lowell, MA)

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    1. Dear Betty,
      my mom is a black Wilkins. My great great great grandmother was a mixed one. She could pass as white. You look like her..Pretty, dark eyes and hair. I don't know her first name. My mother geneology is 23% British!

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    2. I think the search goes to the South after mid 1800's. Unfortunately I have little info on her name, I'm the descendant of that black child from the late 1800s.

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  14. I also believe I am descended of Bray...as I have traced my geneology back to Solomon Wilkins of North Carolina(Father of Elisha Wilkins of Tennessee....I found a Solomon Wilkins who was related to George Washington Wilkins...Descendant of Bray.

    The records get sketchy...but I have come to believe that Solomon.....had two wives..any help verifying this would be awesome...however either way....I am satisfied with my beliefs....

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    1. Dear Del,
      my mom is a black Wilkins. My great great great grandmother was a mixed one. She could pass as white. She had dark hair, eyes, and nice lips. Something happened with a black child I think a sale. My mother geneology is 23% British!

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  15. I am a descendent of Bray and looking for info on my grandfathes father Albion Clough and his mother Caddie Wilkins who ended up living in Hillsborough or Effington N.H.my grandfathers name was Solon Wilkins sometimes called himself Samual Curtis Wilkins but we were told by him his real surname is Clough.I am still trying to figure out all the connections.


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  16. Hi there, just found all this wonderful information on the Wilkins family.
    Having been early immigrants my ancestors descended from Captain John Wilkins returned to the UK in the 1840's.
    I am going to have to get my family tree out and see what my connection is to Salem, as I remember that I had found ancestors living there.

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  17. Has anyone ever been able to figure out if Bray's wife was Hannah Gringell OR Hannah Way? I find little definitive and would be so grateful if someone could set this straight. I'm on Ancestry as gbofire or email @ gbofire@frontiernet.net

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