During a recent visit with cousins from out of state, I learned that my mother’s family’s Mayflower connection is through Mercy Leonard, the wife of Samuel Robinson. I started doing a little digging to confirm this. I haven’t found the Mayflower connection yet, because, hey, I just started looking, but I found something else that grabbed my attention.
Because I get absurdly excited by all of these family history discoveries, I have to share. Grab a Bloody Mary (yeah, we’re related to her, too, but it’s way distant) or pour another glass of grape juice, and settle in for a little history lesson.
In the mid-eighteenth century, both France and Britain claimed parts of what is now Vermont. To further complicate matters, three British colonies – New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – laid claim to at least a portion of Vermont’s territory. They argued nastily among themselves as to which colony had the right to issue land grants in the area. In 1741, to the relief of New Hampshire and New York, a royal decree finally prevented Massachusetts from claiming lands north of its current border. But the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, broke out in 1756 over territorial lines between the American colonies claimed by France and those claimed by England. Vermont lies less than 50 miles south of Montreal. Its territory was very hotly disputed.
The British finally took control of Ticonderoga (New York) and Montreal (Quebec), and in 1760 signed a peace agreement with France to end the North American portion of the conflict. The North American battles between France and England that started in 1756 had spilled over to Europe, where it the Seven Years War finally ended for good in 1763, making it last – you guessed it – seven years.
Even though the European superpowers had resolved their territorial differences, the British colonies had not. Before the ink was dry on the North American peace agreement, New Hampshire colonial governor Benning Wentworth began making land grants in disputed territory. His motivation was part colonial power struggle and part avaricious land speculation. Many of the settlements that sprang up as a result of Wentworth’s land grants were named for Wentworth and his rich and powerful pals who he hoped would support him when New York predictably got testy over the whole matter. The very first of these land grants went to our ancestor, Samuel Robinson, for Bennington. Samuel knew the area because he had camped there with his troops during the French and Indian War.
Samuel Robinson died in London, England on October 29, 1767. He had been elected by a convention of Vermont towns to go to the king to petition for validation of the New Hampshire land grants. He succeeded, but was stricken by smallpox before he could return home. In a twist of fate, his grandson Dr. Benjamin Robinson (1776-1857), would pioneer smallpox vaccination in America.
The territorial dispute among the colonies was not resolved before the Revolution. Vermont was never a separate English colony. Depending on who was asked, it was part of either New Hampshire or New York. In 1777, during the Revolution, Vermont declared itself to be a separate Republic because of the land disputes between New Hampshire and New York. After the Revolution, in 1791, Vermont became the 14th state. The New Hampshire land grants pretty much prevailed once everything shook out.
My 7th great-grandfather Captain Samuel Robinson was a product of the First Great Awakening, an evangelical religious movement that started in New England in the 1730’s. This evangelical movement championed a version of separation of church and state that was first proposed by Roger Williams when he founded Providence, Rhode Island, along with Richard and Catherine Marbury Scott. (FYI: Catherine Marbury Scott is my favorite of our direct ancestors. Her older sister, Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was utterly amazing, and I’m going to be just like her when I grow up. That means I’ll be run out of Boston and killed by restless natives on Long Island, but that’s another story.)
Roger Williams promoted the notion that freedom of thought, of opinion, and of the press would inspire individual religious belief, not dogma dictated by a ruling hegemony of religious leaders. Naturally, these religiously “free” places – like Providence – permitted their leaders to impose their version of religion on local residents. The movement was born in Puritan New England, after all. (Non sequitur: Massachusetts was the last state – yes, state – to abolish established religion in the United States in 1833.)
Our illustrious forebear did all he could to ensure only the right sort of Christians were his neighbors. Mercy Leonard Robinson and her children are buried in Old Bennington Cemetery, next to the church Samuel Robinson founded there. The original church building no longer exists, but its replacement celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006.
After the Revolution, Mercy and Samuel’s son Moses (named for Mercy’s father – it’s her I’m researching, remember) was a member of the delegation sent by the Republic of Vermont in 1782 to the Continental Congress to work out the territorial dispute with New York. He later served as governor of the Vermont Republic and oversaw its transition to statehood. He served as one of the first pair of senators from Vermont. Several of Samuel and Mercy Leonard Robinson’s sons were prominent leaders in politics and medicine. Religion, not so much. That was their father’s bailiwick.
Thomas Jefferson is credited in legal doctrine with the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” because of a letter he wrote to the Baptist Church leaders in Danbury, Connecticut in 1803. Before the famous Danbury letter, though, he wrote a letter to Moses Robinson in 1801 on the subject. The original is at the University of Virginia among Jefferson’s papers. Jefferson, who had been President for less than a month at the time the letter was written, expressed dismay that so many of the clergy seemed to want to establish state religion, and ended his letter with a complaint that still rings in my ears today – mostly because I listen to my own words, and I pontificate about this a lot:
The eastern States will be the last to come over [to Jefferson’s notion of a secular and scientific nation], on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State, and began to indulge reveries which can never be realised in the present state of science. If, indeed, they could have prevailed on us to view all advances in science as dangerous innovations, and to look back to the opinions and practices of our forefathers, instead of looking forward, for improvement, a promising groundwork would have been laid. But I am in hopes their good sense will dictate to them, that since the mountain will not come to them, they had better go to the mountain: that they will find their interest in acquiescing in the liberty and science of their country, and that the Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.
(Today, I’d insert “Southern and Midwestern” for “eastern” in that first line. In fairness to Jefferson, not only was the letter written before the Civil War and Dust Bowl devastated the economies of those regions, thereby providing fertile ground for more religious fervor, it predated the Louisiana Purchase.)
According to a recent Gallup poll, Vermont is now the least religiously-inclined state in the nation. I assume 7th great-grandfather Robinson would not be nearly as amused as I am by this, especially since his own sons began selling land to the wrong sorts as soon as old Sam was room temperature.