The World of Samuel Wyllys
“…I saw this morning Goodwif Seager in ye woods wth three more women and with them I saw two black creatures…”
So begins the testimony of Robert Sterne in the first document of the Samuel Wyllys Papers. This innocent-looking piece of paper, about four inches by four inches, brought one woman more thoroughly under the scrutiny of the authorities and eventually to trial for witchcraft.
The Samuel Wyllys Papers, an amazing group of 88 court documents from 1600s Connecticut, has the official title of Depos56itions on Cases of Witchcraft, Assault, Theft, Drunkenness, and Other Crimes Tried In Connecticut 1663-1728. The documents place us squarely in the actual society of the times, a place of saints and sinners. Witches were believed to be real, and it was very likely that your cross neighbor was one. A faithless husband might leave his wife; the law must intervene.
Samuel Wyllys, who came to Hartford at age six in 1638 and literally grew up with the Colony of Connecticut, collected these documents as part of his duties in his years of service to the colony. In 1654-1684, 1689-1692, and 1698, he was a “Magistrate” or “Assistant,” a member of the Upper House of the legislature, members of which also sat on the Particular Court and later the Court of Assistants on a rotating basis. He was a Commissioner for the United Colonies in 1662, 1666, 1667, 1669, and 1671, patentee and custodian of Connecticut’s 1662 Charter, and held other leadership positions. In June 1659, the General Court “requested” him “to goe downe to Sea Brook, to assist ye Maior [John Mason] in examininge the suspitions about witchery, and to act therein as may be requisite.”
Through his many years of service, various documents, records of events in the lives of his contemporaries, came into Samuel Wyllys’ possession. The settlers of early Hartford were a litigious group, and not afraid to point out their neighbor’s faults! Among the court papers Wyllys acquired were documents pertaining to Goodwife Seager, Elizabeth Clawson, Mercy Disborough, and Katherine Harrison -- all accused of witchcraft. Other documents pertain to a man who sold cider to the Indians on the Sabbath, getting two of them drunk. Or, there was a wife and her suspected lover, the constables finding him between the two mattresses that made up the bed, taking him away with the wife dragging behind, her arms clasped about his waist. Also, the man who suddenly was the owner of 50 yards of calico, at a time when such cloth was scarce. Where did it come from? All of these are cases in the Wyllys Papers.
In those early days, men of position had offices in their homes. Samuel Wyllys would have kept these early depositions and other papers in his house (now gone) on top of the hill just to the south of the present Charter Oak Place in Hartford. After his death, succeeding generations assumed responsibility for them. Three Wyllyses, each Secretary of the Colony or Secretary of the State for Connecticut in his turn, represent a ninety-eight year span in which the descendants of Samuel Wyllys had continuous custody of the papers. Samuel’s only son was Hezekiah Wyllys, who was Secretary of the Colony for 23 years (1712-35). Hezekiah’s son, George Wyllys, replaced his father in 1735, and served for 61 years (1735-1796).
George’s son, Samuel Wyllys, then replaced George in 1796 and was Secretary of the State for 14 years (1796 until his death in 1810). That Samuel had two brothers, William and Hezekiah, who allowed William Stone, editor of the Connecticut Mirror, to examine the papers relating to witchcraft. Transcripts of some documents appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser, July 14 and 15, 1820; the New York Spectator, July 18, 1820; and The Hartford Times and Weekly Advertiser, August 8, 1820.
William Wyllys died January 18, 1826 and Hezekiah Wyllys on March 29, 1827. The documents accumulated by their ancestor, Samuel Wyllys, appear to have remained in the original Wyllys house until Hezekiah’s death. The house was then sold, and the papers went to Hezekiah’s daughter Amelia (Wyllys) Adams, wife of Ashur Adams of Charlestown, and, on her death (ca.1859) and Ashur’s (ca. 1861), to their children. In 1868, one of the children sold most of the documents to Nicholas Brown of Providence, Rhode Island.
Nicholas Brown passed the papers on to his son, Nicholas Brown III, and later they went to the son of Nicholas III, John Carter Brown. John’s widow, Mrs. Sophia Augusta Brown, on July 10, 1907 sold part of the papers to George Godard, Connecticut State Librarian. The documents, of varying size, were then arranged, indexed, “preserved by the silk or Emery process,” and “substantially bound.” The resulting volume of Samuel Wyllys Papers is in the State Archives [CSL Call Number Main Vault 974.6 fW97].
There were some Wyllys documents that did not follow this route and eventually went to the John Hay Library at Brown University. In 1930, Photostats of these documents were made for the Connecticut State Library and are now bound in a separate volume entitled Samuel Wyllys Collection Supplement, Depositions on Cases of Witchcraft Tried in Connecticut 1662-1693 [CSL Call Number Main Vault 974.6 fW97 Supp.]. In exchange, a Photostat of the State Library’s volume of Wyllys Papers was sent to Brown University.
Through the years, the use of the original Samuel Wyllys Papers was limited to those who could come to view them in person in the Connecticut State Archives. Although a microfilm was made in 1954 by the Genealogical Society of Utah [Family History Library film 0003645], many of the items did not film well.
Digitization now makes these historic court papers available to anyone with access to a computer. The reader will quickly see that the written alphabet of the 1600s is not quite like the modern written alphabet. Although the State Library has not prepared transcriptions of most documents, we do offer some suggestions for reading and interpreting old handwriting.
The Connecticut State Library is proud to present the digital version of the Samuel Wyllys Papers. Step back with us into the days when Hartford was young, its inhabitants were all too human, and -- your neighbor might be a witch!
Barbour, Lucius Barnes. Families of Early Hartford, Connecticut. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1977 [CSL call number HistRef F 104.H353 A22 1977]. See pp. 696-700 for information on the Wyllys family.
Hinman, R. R. Catalogue of the Names of the First Puritan Settlers of the Colony of Connecticut…. Hartford: Printed by E. Gleason, 1846 [CSL call number SpecColl F 93 .H65]. See pp. 108-9.
Report of the State Librarian to the Governor for the Two Years Ended September 30 1908. Hartford: Published by the State, 1909 [CSL call number ConnDoc St 292 1908].
Seymour, George Dudley. Captain Nathan Hale 1755-1776: Yale College 1773 Major John Palsgrave Wyllys 1754-1790: Yale College 1773, Friends and Yale Classmates…. New Haven: Privately Printed for the Author, 1933 [CSL call number E 280 .H2 S512].
Talcott, Mary K. The Original Proprietors. Hartford: Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford, Inc., 1986 [CSL call number HistRef F 104 .H353 A28 1986]. See pp. 271-2.
Tomlinson, R. G. Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut. [s.l.]: R.G. Tomlinson, 1978 [CSL call number BF 1576 .T65 1978]. See pp. 67-8 for a brief overview of the Samuel Wyllys Papers.
“Trials for Witchcraft.” Hartford Times and Weekly Advertiser, August 8, 1820, p. 2
The Wyllys Papers: Correspondence and Documents Chiefly of Descendants of Gov. George Wyllys of Connecticut, 1590-1796. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1924 [CSL call number F 91 .C7 v. 21].
Written by Bonnie Linck, History & Genealogy Unit, Connecticut State Library, October 2008
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