Nathaniel Brittain (1625?-1684): Some Reconsiderations

John A. Brittain; Lewistown, Penna.; January, 2004

For all those interested in Brittain genealogy, including those correspondents who have given me valuable information and help.

In my Brittain genealogy[1], in the biography of Nathaniel Brittain, son of Richard Britton of Batcombe, Somerset, I included the statement that he was one of the original patent holders of Gravesend, Long Island in 1645. I based this on information I found in the library at Newtown, Connecticut some 30 years ago. Regrettably, I didn’t write down the source of the information; I was going to come back and do it later, but then we moved. But I remember seeing his name on a list of the patent holders of Gravesend. It made an impression on me, because I had never heard of Gravesend before. Note: I (DLH) am certain it was Nicholas Stillwell and not Nathaniel Britton who was the Gravesend patent-holder; see footnote.

Dr. Stillwell[2] notes that someone else made the Gravesend claim, many years ago, in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol XVI, p. 102. However, he says, “that claim has never been corroborated”.

Out of the blue recently, after years of watching the Internet in hopes that a list of the Gravesend patent holders would show up, I found one[3]. Nathaniel Brittain is not listed; however, his future father-in-law, that Indian fighter and man-about-town, Nicholas Stillwell, is.

So, it is reasonable to assume that there are two different lists of the Gravesend patentees in libraries – one with Nathaniel Brittain on it, and the other without. Which is correct?

To explain which one I think is correct, I have to tell you about some other information I came across recently[4]. Let me first give you some facts as background

In 1638, a group of Bostonians sailed to Narragansett Bay and established the town of Portsmouth on the north end of Aquidneck Island, in what is now Rhode Island. Two of these founders were John Coggeshall (1601-1647) and William Baulston (1601-1679). Coggeshall had a son John, born about 1620, and Baulston had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1630. These two were married in 1647, and they had three children: John, born c. 1649, Elizabeth, born c. 1649, and William, born c. 1654. If this sounds like a dynastic marriage, it very well may have been. In any event, in October 1654, John Coggeshall (the younger) drafted up a detailed list of grievances against his wife in a petition for divorce to be presented to the court. Elizabeth read it; it apparently sounded fine to her, because she endorsed it to the effect that it was also her will that the divorce go forward. The divorce was granted by the court on May 25, 1655, in a document signed by Roger Williams.

Meanwhile, while John Coggeshall was preparing to file for divorce, two English soldiers were sailing on a ship in Long Island Sound, on their way to Hempstead, Long Island. The two soldiers, who at the time lived in Southold, L.I., were Captain John Underhill and a friend, Captain John Youngs. John Underhill is well known to history, as he is one of the most formidable soldiers in the history of colonial New England. He seems to have been everybody’s favorite soldier – a man who could organize your militia and deal with the Indians – and Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Netherlands all engaged his services at one time or another.

On this ship was another passenger, a “Nathaniel Britten”, and what happened next was testified to by Underhill and Youngs in court documents[5], on July 30, 1655, as follows:

The testimony of Captain John Underhill, aged about 46 years, deposeth as follows: that he (this deponent) coming in Mr. Mahew’s[6] vessel from Sandwich, one Nathaniel Britten, a mason, being then also in the same – it being about August, 1654 –he, the said Britten, boasted what interest he had in Betty Coggeshall – that he built the house and had laid many a stone there – and that he was persuaded she would follow him wheresoever he went, and that he was very earnest to go ashore and see her and the child, because he was very confident the youngest child was his. But, through much persuasion of Mr. Mahew and this deponent, made the said Britten engage he would not go ashore, the vessel then riding in Portsmouth harbor . Afterward, arriving at Hempstead, in the ordinary did several times declare that the last child Betty Coggeshall has was his – and bound with an oath. John Underhill

To which Youngs added:

The testimony of Captain John Youngs, about age 31, deposeth as follows: that he (this deponent) being then present at the ordinary in Hempstead abovesaid and in company with Captain Underhill and the aforesaid Britten, some discourse passing about Betty Coggeshall, he said he knew her very well and that he had laid many a stone at her house. He deponent told him that he, the said Britten, meant knavishly because he laughed so. He said, You may take it as you please. This deponent told Britten it was a common report abroad that the last child she had was his; he answered, if it was true enough or sure enough. John Youngs

Wow! What to make of all this? The only other point to add to the story is that, some 30 years later, Elizabeth Coggeshall, then remarried, made a written statement in which she said that John Coggeshall was the father of all their three children, so the rumor of Britten’s (or, maybe others’, paternity) must have persisted for a long time.

These statements lead to questions. Was this our Nathaniel Brittain? Was this when he arrived in Long Island? Why was he so keen to see Betty Coggeshall? Did he expect her to take her child and fly with him - from her loveless marriage - to New Netherlands?

Let’s take these one by one. My guess is that “Britten” was certainly our Nathaniel Brittain. For one thing, it’s a rather unique name, and I’ve never read of any confusion between different Nathaniel Brittains in that period.

Was this when he arrived in New Netherlands, to take up residence? Maybe, but at this point there’s no way to be sure. “Hempstead” (the modern location of the port would be Roslyn, L.I.)[7] is about 18 miles or so from the early Long Island towns – Amersfort, Gravesend, and the others – an easy day’s walk. But if you knew you were going to Gravesend, for instance, it would have been easier to go farther by boat, through the Hell Gate. The distance from Portsmouth, R.I. to Hempstead is around 120 miles, which would seem to be a sail of about a day or so – a fairly easy trip. Underhill and Youngs weren’t going home – Southold is on the eastern end of Long Island - so they were presumably going somewhere on business. All in all, this voyage would seem to be an ordinary Long Island Sound commute of the time. Nathaniel Brittain could have made the trip many times.

Now, why did he want to see Betty Coggeshall? In thinking about this question, I think it’s useful to recall the description of Nathaniel in Stillwell (quoted by Van Name[8]):

...a man of good English extraction, shrewd, pertinacious of his rights, perhaps contentious, of good education and fair means…apparently a good portion of his time was spent in the courts, either as a plaintiff or a defendant.

My guess is that he had no intention of going anywhere with Betty Coggeshall. I prefer to think that all this banter, while waiting for the ship to complete whatever it had to do In Portsmouth harbor, was an attempt to tease Underhill. These three men may have known each other fairly well – they certainly knew of each other. Brittain would have certainly known of Underhill because of his position and military career, and Youngs certainly knew of Brittain through the stories going round of his liaison with Elizabeth Coggeshall. Brittain, at least, could have had a couple of drinks. So, just to see what Underhill will do, he says he’s going ashore and see Betty. This is a scandalous suggestion, and Underhill, a figure of authority, rises to the bait and takes action to see that he doesn’t do it, potentially upsetting the neighborhood.

In any event, Underhill and Youngs don’t seem to be very mad at Brittain. When they land at Long Island, they go together into the nearest tavern for a few drinks or whatever. Youngs finally gets tired of hearing Brittain talk and rebukes him for laughing about a scandalous affair with a high-born lady, but life seems to go on with no harm done.

In considering this, Nathaniel Brittain seems to come off – in addition to being the hard worker and good businessman described by Stillwell – as somewhat of a loudmouth. I’ll bet he didn’t father that last Coggeshall boy: he probably just went around telling everybody he did. Making himself out to be the seducer of one of the town’s important women may have done something for his ego.

In any event, let’s get back to the original question: was he a Gravesend patent holder or not? Almost certainly not: he could not have been spending years in Rhode Island as a stonemason if he was responsible for a farm on Long Island. Furthermore, he appears in Long Island around 1660; that is to say, he begins to be mentioned in records, land grants, court fights, and so forth. If he had been there from 1645 on, why is the slate clean of any mention of this talkative character?

Let’s also consider one other piece of evidence, from Van Name:

It has been asserted by an eminent historian that Nathaniel Britton arrived in America, with his brother William, and that they settled in New Hampshire in 1652 (SIH 21:17), and later moved to Newtown and Flatland.

I wonder if that “eminent historian” read somewhere that Nathaniel Brittain was in “Portsmouth” and thought, “New Hampshire”, when the Portsmouth referred to was in Rhode Island. As a matter of interest, any original document of 1652 linking “Nathaniel Brittain” and “Portsmouth” could not have meant New Hampshire, as the town in New Hampshire was not called that until 1653: it was "Strawberry Banke” before then. Just a thought.

My advice is that anyone looking for more about Nathaniel should go to Rhode Island – to Portsmouth and to Newport. Somebody digging deep enough there will find something more about this colorful ancestor.

[1] Brittain, John. Ancestry of Edward, William, John, and Richard Brittain. Lewistown, Pa. 1997.
[2] Stillwell, John E. History of Jeremiah Stillwell, etc. New York. 1931.
[3] Mayes, D. The Settlement of Gravesend. -- web link no longer valid as of 2011
[4] Anderson, Robert, and Sanborn, Melinda. An Early Rhode Island Divorce. New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Vol CXLIX, October 1995. There is no additional information about Nathaniel Brittain in this article, other than some quotes from Van Name.
[5] I have modernized some of the spelling and punctuation in these testimonies.
[6] Almost certainly a Mayhew, of the family of Thomas Mayhew, Governor of Martha’s Vineyard
[7] Roslyn was “Hempstead Harbor” until 1844. (Colonial Hempstead extended from Long Island Sound to the Atlantic Ocean.)
[8] Van Name, Elmer G. Britton Genealogy. Gloucester County Historical Society, Woodbury, N.J. 1970.

1873 Gravesend map from Wikipedia
Footnote: Gravesend -- Wikipedia -- note that the 1873 map still shows the huge influence of the Stillwell family here -- history:
           The first known European to set foot in the area that would become Gravesend was Henry Hudson, whose ship, the Half Moon, landed on Coney Island in the fall of 1609.[dubious – discuss] The island and its environs were at that time inhabited by bands of Lenape people. The land subsequently became part of the New Netherland Colony, and in 1643 it was granted to Lady Deborah Moody, an English expatriate who hoped to establish a community where she and her followers could practice their Anabaptist beliefs free from persecution. Due to clashes with the local native tribes the town wasn't completed until 1645. But when the town charter was finally signed and granted it became one of the first such titles to ever be awarded to a woman in the new world.[5]
           The town Lady Moody established was one of the earliest planned communities in America. It consisted of a perfect square surrounded by a 20-foot-high wooden palisade. The town was bisected by two main roads, Gravesend Road (now McDonald Avenue) running from north to south, and Gravesend Neck Road,[5] running from east to west (Map). These roads divided the town into four quadrants which were subdivided into ten plots of land each (The grid of the original town can still be seen on maps and aerial photographs of the area). At the center of town, where the two main roads met, a town hall was constructed where town meetings were held once a month.
           The religious freedom of early Gravesend made it a desirable home for ostracized or controversial groups, such as the Quakers, who briefly made their home in the town before being chased out by New Netherland director general Petrus Stuyvesant, who was wary of Gravesend's open acceptance of "heretical" sects.
          In 1654 the people of Gravesend purchased Coney Island from the local natives for about $15 worth of seashells, guns, and gunpowder.
          In August 1776 Gravesend Bay was the landing site of thousands of British soldiers and German mercenaries from their staging area on Staten Island, leading to the Battle of Long Island (also Battle of Brooklyn). The troops met little resistance from the Continental Army advance troops under General George Washington then headquartered in New York City (at the time limited to the tip of Manhattan Island). The battle would prove to be the largest fought in the entire war.

Note: that the above statement "In my Brittain genealogy[1], in the biography of Nathaniel Brittain, son of Richard Britton of Batcombe, Somerset, I included the statement that he was one of the original patent holders of Gravesend, Long Island in 1645." is unlikely to be true simply due to Nathaniel's age. He is known to have been born after 1624 based on British tax records (see sources), and many genealogists estimate it in the early 1630s -- a man under 21 would not be a landowner. Additionally, there are no known records found for Nathaniel (or William) in the 1650s' his first record is in 1663 (and for William 1661) -- it seems somewhat unlikely that they would be landowners in 1645 and have no other records for ober 16 years when they had so many in the 1660s.

Furthermore, it is documented that Nicholas Stillwell was a patentee in 1645.

"The Gravesend Project: Archaeology in Brooklyn" (pdf -- found on internet), excerpted:
...The original settlers were not a unified group. Although all English, they came from different backgrounds. Some of them had earlier lived in Hopton, near Turtle Bay in Manhattan, where they grew tobacco. Led by Nicholas Stillwell, they moved into the shadow of the New Amsterdam fortifications out of fear of reprisals to the ill-considered anti-Indian policies of Governor Kieft in the early 1640s. The second group came with Lady Moody in 1643 from various English settlements in New England, especially Salem and Lynn.... This small community was limited by plan to about forty families (around 200 people, to judge from the 1698 census). Although communication with other parts of Brooklyn was not too difficult, Gravesend was an isolated, rural settlement. Some of the Gravesend settlers, especially the Dutch who began moving in soon after the foundation of the settlement, had relatives in other Brooklyn villages, and on accasion they shared preachers or went to church in Flatbush or New Utrecht. ...The town records of Gravesend, from the inception of the settlement, are stored in the J. Kelly Collection of Local History at Saint Francis College. Microfilms of these records were procured by Brooklyn College in the course of the Project. The Surrogate's office of Kings County has records of probated wills. The County Clerk's Office has land transfer and conveyence records, back to the original Indian purchases in many cases. ... (project excavation was begun 1976) ... Of the original patentees of 1643 (39), only 21 remain in Gravesend until 1657, and no more than two are still living in the community or have descendents in Gravesend in 1698. ... After 1660, the new settlers were predominantly Dutch ... In 1696, Gravesend had 17 slaves... the only multiple slave-owners in the community are English; the Dutch who owned slaves had only one per family. .... The Stillwells and the other English who came with them were tobacco farmers before coming to Gravesend and continued this occupation at the new settlement. Perhaps the use of slaves as fieldhands may be associated with the crop and the methods of growing tobacco. ..." (bibliography has some good references)

• Therefore, I (DLH) think it likely that John Brittain read his notes wrong, and it was just Nathaniel Britton's father-in-law Nicholas Stillwell who was the original Gravesend patentee. Land and court records for Gravesend should be examined to confirm; perhaps Nathaniel did live there after he married Anne Stillwell ~1664.