Going off grid in The Oblong

Oblong map 1799

Participation in a DNA surname project through FamilyTreeDNA has shown that my Brewster line descends from Elder William Brewster, passenger on the Mayflower and religious leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The tricky part comes in documenting the tree from 1620 down to the present day. The older parts of the tree aren’t so difficult, because many descendants of Mayflower pilgrims kept careful records through their history. More recently, documents like the United States Federal Census, family wills, and birth and death records make my line pretty clear. The problem comes in the mid-1700s, when one Brewster ancestor seems to have gone “off the grid” for a time, abandoning his wife and children and eventually popping up in a wilderness area on the border of Connecticut and New York State, called The Oblong.

From important research work by Brewster family historian Jeanne Killick, I learned that another William Brewster in my line (and there are lots of them) was born about 1695 in Lebanon, Connecticut.  He and his brother Ebenezer seem to have started out their lives in a fairly conventional way, marrying and raising large families. At some point, their family lives seem to have gone off the rails, especially considering 18th century norms. In 1739, brother Ebenezer’s wife Elizabeth petitioned for divorce, accusing him of abandoning her and their children in 1729. William’s wife Mehitable filed for divorce in 1748, stating that her husband

“…without any just cause from your petitioner given willfully deserted and left your petitioner with the total neglect of all duties of a husband toward your petitioner ever since the year of 1733…”

So why did the two black sheep brothers end up in The Oblong?

The border between Connecticut and New York State was disputed starting in the 1600s. In 1644, Connecticut claimed a huge chunk of Long Island, along with all of present day Rhode Island. Twenty years later, the border was set 20 miles east of the Hudson River, running parallel to the river. In a final compromise in 1731, New York gained a 2 mile wide, 60 mile long strip running north-south, which was called “The Oblong”. In return, Connecticut added a panhandle area on Long Island Sound that includes Stamford and Norwalk.

The Oblong was still a wilderness at that point, with very few inhabitants. It was the first land available to new settlers that had come available in quite a while. People from places like Connecticut and Long Island had to clear land and build roads to open the area up to settlements, so that by 1740, there were 40 or 50 families living there. This “wild west” area may have appealed to the two brothers, as a place to start a new life, including new wives and children (although it’s not at all clear that the first marriages were dissolved before the second families were begun). William and Ebenezer pop up only a few times in local records, in tax rolls, selection of town constables, and a court record regarding an unpaid debt. They both tried relocating to the frontier of Virginia, with Ebenezer remaining and William returning north. The richest information comes from the diary of a Brewster cousin from Connecticut named Jabez Fitch. In January of 1674, Jabez wrote

“Toard night I went over to Deacn Mix’s after a Brake &c. where I lit of one Wm Brewster living at ye Oblong, who is come among us for a visit being a Cussen of ours, ye man was brought up at Lebanon where he lived with his first Wife &c he Married a Second Wife at N. Haven &c mov’d to ye Oblong as he tells me, where he lived till ye year 1754 when he movd with his Family Down to Virginea, where he Says he was when Genll Bradick was Defeeted by ye French in 1755 & in 57 ye Indians Drove him of with his Family & oblidg’d him to Return to ye Oblong again where he has made a home ever Since”

Sounds like William and Ebenezer were adventurous men who lived through some exciting and terrifying times.

The following generation of my Brewster line – the sons of William of The Oblong – is currently an unsolved mystery. There are a few candidates that show up in the area of The Oblong and Dutchess County, with first names John, Samuel, and Peletiah. And maybe another William thrown in for good measure. My documented line starts up again with Absalom Brewster, my 4th great-grandfather, who was born about 1763 and died in 1838 in Philipstown, Putnam County, NY. His father seems to be the missing link, waiting to be discovered.

Sources

  1. FamilyTreeDNA Brewster surname project, 2019
  2. Pilgrim Hall Museum website, Beyond the Pilgrim Story; William Brewster, 2017
  3. Our Brewster/Bruster ancestry by Jeanne E. Killick, 2011
  4. Angelfire.com, Descendants of Ebenezer Bruster I, Jeanne E. Killick, 2008
  5. ConnecticutHistory.org, Surveying Connecticut’s Borders, 2013
  6. Hudson Valley Magazine, The Oblong in Pawling: A History of a Quaker Community in the Hudson Valley, by David Levine, 2012
  7. Pilgrim Notes and Queries, Vol. 1, published by the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1913

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