KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: LAND CONTROL IN THE CASE FAMILY OF SIMSBURY

Author: Brianna Dunlap

When conjuring the image of a quintessential New England town, the mind’s eye visualizes an ancient town center with colonial homes surrounded by rolling hills and fields peppered with herds of cattle. The town Simsbury, which was developed during the first two hundred years of its existence by the simple necessities of colonial settlers, is the quintessential New England town. The town selectmen required regions for homes to be built, a common center district for shared use, and ample land for farming.

Founding men of colonial settlements wrote and held deeds that eventually created the spaces needed for homes and farmland. Land deeds, covenants and leases were crucial, because for them, “the life of a colonial community was…wrapped up in the ownership of land and where the fruit of the land and wealth of the forest and river and mine was necessary to the prosperity of their generations and their future generations.” The Simsbury forefathers’ mindset  drove them to establish land titles and boundaries that were reflective of their social and legal standards. John Case, among other fellow settlers to the region in 1669, made sure the deeds to his lands were secure and recorded by the General Court.

In the early days of the town’s history the Case family, the descendants of founder and constable John Case, held and purchased land in greater proportions than other families in the town. It is possible that the land covenants by the founders of Simsbury established a legacy of land obsession and therefore created a tradition of land ownership expansion in the Case name that followed descendants. The Case family of colonial Simsbury, and the later surrounding towns of West Simsbury and Canton, kept land in the family from the pre-Revolutionary era through the Jacksonian era by intermarrying and by acquiring more land at regular intervals.

The land purchases made in 1637 by settlers to the region.

The land purchases made in 1637 by settlers to the region.

Simsbury's landscape in 1730.

Simsbury’s landscape in 1730.

An interesting example of the seriousness with which the Case family undertook dealing with land began with an 1840 land lease from a son to his father and witnessed by Justin Case and Newtown Case. In 1842 attorney William Sally wrote a letter, enclosed with a lease, to Jeffery Phelps (Case) in the hope of nullifying a land deal from only a few years prior in which Jesse Case Jr. had deeded land to his father, Jesse Case and his lovely wife Lydia, for use for the rest of their lives. Yet, when Jesse Case passed away leaving behind his widow, the tables turned.

Dear Sir, Enclosed I forward a lease from Jesse G. (Jr.) Case to Jesse Case. You will perceive that the lease is to Jesse Case and not to his wife. She consequently cannot hold any more than his support. I also learn that the deed of Jesse G. to Jesse deters the widow from holding her thirds on the same if Jesse G. neglects his support of the property…”

The attorney explained that Jesse Jr. claimed that the lease was only to his father for the rest of his natural life but not for the widow. Although the widow previously had been described in the deed with glowing terms, she was being removed from the property by her step-son. The letter went on to call for discretion from one professional to another as they work out what action to take. The author even mentioned that attention should be given to the additional counter claim that the widow’s daughter, Fanny Church, should receive eighteen dollars to settle account books debts that her late step-father left. The discretion was needed since Mrs. Fanny had been visited by the local Commissioner who was pretending to want further information on the situation from her.

The dramatic ejection of the widow and her daughter was not settled in the letter, but it surely opened the subject of land control in the Case family. What was it that triggered the claim and counterclaim? Perhaps there were poor sentiments between Jesse Jr. and his father’s second wife. One possibility was that the family feared the widow or her daughter would marry outside the Case family and take the land with them. Jesse Case Senior was a Case with a bloodline of descent from Joseph Case and lived out his final years in West Simsbury, where the claim centered around, but Jesse Jr. had remained on the paternal homestead in the “Farms District” until his death. For over a century, Cases had married Cases, keeping land in the family.

Map of Connecticut 1797 showing the border with Simsbury.

Map of Connecticut 1797 showing the border with Simsbury.

The land spat between Jesse Case Jr. and his father’s widow may have been deeply personal, but it is realistic that hindering a woman’s power of control over land ownership was not uncommon in in the Case family. The nineteenth-century land dispute was not the first; since before the Revolution, Cases had been vigorous in fighting for their land.

Joel Case, who lived on Case farm from 1746 until his death in 1780, gave to his wife, Chloe, half of his entire land and homestead in his will. The stipulation for such land control was that she had to remain as Joel’s widow for the rest of her life and never remarry. Such a requirement varies from the complete removal of land from Lydia Case, but indicates land ownership was taken so seriously that measure were taken to keep the line of ownership directly in the Case family.

Legal means were certainly not the only way that the Case family held on to the founder’s concept of land and power. While the land deed records do not exist for Amos Case, who moved to West Simsbury in 1740, it is known that he lived on East Hill and the house he built belonged to a direct descendant of his, Myron Case, by 1856. The only two daughters of Amos Case went on to each marry two brothers, the sons of Richard Case. This mattered because Richard Case was a grandson of the family progenitor, the original John Case.

The legacy of land ownership stayed with the Case family because of the colonial founder’s legacy. By no means was the family working as one unit in all decisions to acquire or hoard property, but the various related branches certainly had similar goals of land acquisition. More likely, this was due to a tradition carried on based on a pattern of marriage and behavior handed down through two hundred years of collective memory and practice.

The districts of Simsbury in 1869 reflected the regions established during the settlement of the town.

The districts of Simsbury in 1869 reflected the regions established during the settlement of the town.

 

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To explore the Case family or the colonial era of Simsbury, Connecticut learn more here:

Genealogical history, with short sketches and family records, of the early settlers of West Simsbury, now Canton, Connecticut by Abiel Brown. https://archive.org/details/genealogicalhist00browiala

Simsbury; being a brief historical sketch of ancient and modern Simsbury, 1642-1935 by John Ellsworth. https://archive.org/details/simsburybeingbri00ells

And, certainly visit the Simsbury Historical Society’s archive where they have entire boxes set aside for the Case family documents. http://www.simsburyhistory.org/

Women and the Law in Farmington

Author: Kevin Simon

When the founders came to Farmington they looked to create a pious paradise on Earth. With diligence and hard work they created a community in their own image, righteous, and upright.  But not everything was as perfect as the first families intended.  Some dark traits came with them to the new world.  By the turn of the seventeenth century some alarming events took place that would challenge their idyllic world.

A Two Sides of a Coin: What drives a Mother to Kill, and a Wife to Murder?

In the quiet little hamlet of Farmington there were two murders. One was a crime of necessity; the other, an act of passion.  Amy Munn murdered her child on the night of March 11, 1698.  As an unwed mother and a servant in the home of Samuel Wadsworth she was in no position to raise a child.  Beyond the financial responsibility of raising a child Amy knew she would be convicted of fornication, fined and whipped before the community.  Infanticide was a capital crime, but Munn was not executed. She was convicted of notorious negligence.  Her charges were reduced for a lack of witnesses, though the circumstantial evidence was damning.  What pushed a mother to such an extreme?  We will never know, but there were pressures on young people at this time to remain chaste.  Each small New England town had an interest in preventing illegitimate births, concerned that these new children to become a financial burden on the community.

Abigail Thomson was quite another matter. Described by her neighbors as quarrelsome and termagant she berated and abused her husband regularly.  On December 17, 1705, matters came to a head when in a fit of rage she flung a pair of tailoring shears at her husband, piercing his skull.  Poor Thomas clung to life for nearly twenty days, suffering from his wound, before he passed away.

“...Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband...” Quote from Abigail Thomson's indictment.

“…Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband…” Quote from Abigail Thomson’s indictment.

During the depositions, Abigail’s harsh nature was exposed. She was known to threaten her husband and say she would be the death of him.  A neighbor, Joseph North, recalled on multiple occasions she chased him from the house and threw rocks at him.  At first Abigail denied throwing the shears in anger, but then when that story was not believed she claimed he had beaten her with a broom, and she struck him in self defense.  Not a single deposition was made in her defense. The court was not moved.

Abigail was sentenced to death, but received a stay when she claimed pregnancy. Hopefully, Abigail named her daughter Mercy delivered in 1706.  Mercy went into the care of her uncle who lived in Wallingford, but Abigail would not get a reprieve.  She was believed to be executed in May of 1708.  These women demonstrated rare instances of violence in a quiet community, but they were actors in their own right, however the final case was a victim of her circumstances.

A Person Before the Law: The Sad Case of Hannah Norton

When Hannah Norton came to court things did not go well for her. Her legal entanglements diminished her standing in her community and before the law.  Hannah Norton married Samuel North and started an uneventful life in Farmington.  Her quiet life unraveled after her husband died in 1683.  The widow North stayed with her neighbors, the Ortons, for several days, then returned home.  A few weeks later Thomas Hancox accused her of unclean acts with John Orton.  Hancox was her jilted suitor.

By North’s account she was assaulted. Orton’s story was different.  He testified that she took his hand and gave him rum.  Even Orton’s wife supported her husband, saying the widow North, “loved his company.”  Both Orton and the North were fined, twenty pounds and seven pounds respectively.  In what must have been an excruciating letter North begged for forgiveness from God and the court for her unclean acts, but did not budge from her claim of assault.

“...I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater...” Quote from Hannah North's deposition.

“…I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater…” Quote from Hannah North’s deposition.

 

But this was not the end of the widow North. Just three years later another controversy arose.  Hannah’s new husband, John Rew, accused Matthew Woodruff of fathering her child.  Woodruff was an associate of her first husband Samuel.  Both Woodruff and Hannah denied this and so did the Court of assistance, dismissing the charges and Rew’s appeal.  One can only imagine how Hannah’s reputation must have suffered having a husband who publicly questioned the paternity of his child.

The new Mrs. Rew was not finished in court, though this final case omitted her name. When John Rew came home one night in October of 1719, he was in for one big surprise. His home had been completely cleared out.  The impressive inventory stolen included warming pans, a dresser, and cookware.  Rew, found his cupboards bare, and exclaimed they left him “not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers”  During the night Roger Orvis and Samuel Warner cleaned out his house, and divvied up the goods hiding them under the floor boards of their homes.

...not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on...” Quote from John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on…” Quote from John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

When the men were hauled in front of the judge they claimed Rew’s wife, Hannah, had given them permission to take the items. The argument John Rew made to get back his goods was a final blow to his wife, whom he claimed could not settle his debts, “for she is not a person in law.”  He argued that when bound to a man she did not have to power to dispense with his goods, even those brought as dowry.  The sad case of Hannah Norton, assaulted by her neighbor, disgraced by her husband, whose husband questioned her legal identity, is a story of both women’s oppression and women’s resistance.  One can only hope Hannah’s story had more happiness than the courts revealed.

...for she is not a person in law...” Quote form John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…for she is not a person in law…” Quote form John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

 

Farmington Overlay Map 3

Moving left to right, point 1 is the location of Thomas Thomson’s home where he was killed.  Point 2 is the location of the alleged assault on Hannah North.  The last point is the location of Samuel Wadsworth’s home, where Amy Munn lived.

Recommended Readings about Women and Crime in New England

  • Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960. McFarland, 1999.
  • Hull, N. E. H. Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Mann, Bruce H. Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut. 1st New edition edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Roth, Randolph. “Child Murder in New England.” Social Science History 25, no. 1 (2001): 101–47.
  • Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women in Early America: A Reappraisal.” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 129–51. doi:10.2307/744005.