David Jay Webber

Major William2 Bradford (1624-1704), of Plymouth and Kingston, Massachusetts, was the son of Plymouth Colony Governor William1 Bradford (1590-1657) and his second wife Alice (Carpenter) (Southworth) Bradford (1590-1670). Major Bradford was married three times. According to a long-standing tradition his second wife was “a widow Wiswall.” This has been repeated in many places. The earliest appearance of this tradition in writing, as far as I can tell, is in an 1830 manuscript by Lewis Bradford of Plympton, Massachusetts, entitled “A Genealogical Account of part of the family of Bradford, which descended from Gov. William Bradford.” A very legible photocopy is in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants Library in Plymouth. Lewis Bradford writes on page 11 of his genealogy that “The second wife of Maj. William Bradford was a widow Wiswall, by whom he had one son, viz. Joseph, who, it is said, moved to Connecticut, and also his half brother Thomas is said to [have] move[d] thither.”

Major Bradford’s first wife, Alice (Richards) Bradford, died at Plymouth on 12 December 1671. Joseph3, the only child of the second marriage, was born in 1675. The first child of Major Bradford’s third marriage, to Mary (Wood) Holmes, was born about 1677.[1] We can conclude, therefore, that Major William Bradford married the “widow Wiswall” sometime around 1673, and that she died at the time of Joseph’s birth in 1675 or very soon thereafter.

Over the years various writers have tried to “nail down” the identity of this “widow Wiswall.” John A. Goodwin identified her as the widow of “Parson Wiswall” of Duxbury, Massachusetts.[2] This is impossible, since the Rev. Ichabod2 Wiswall, pastor of the church at Duxbury, lived until 23 July 1700, and his second wife, Priscilla (Pabodie) Wiswall, survived as his widow until her death on 3 June 1724.[3] William T. Davis suggested that she was “perhaps d[aughter]. of Thomas Fitch of Norwalk, Conn.”[4] This also is impossible, since Thomas1 Fitch’s three daughters are already maritally accounted for, and none of them was married to a Wiswall or a Bradford.[5] Ruth Gardiner Hall went so far as to specify, without qualification, that the “widow Wiswall” was Mary Fitch, born in 1643.[6] But Thomas Fitch’s daughter Mary, born in 1643, was married to Matthew Sherwood, and she died as his widow on 25 December 1730.[7] I suspect that this Fitch family mix-up can be attributed in part to a careless misapplication of data that really pertain to the next generation, since Major Bradford’s son Joseph3 did marry into the Fitch family – twice. His first wife was Anne2 Fitch, the daughter of the Rev. James1 Fitch of Saybrook, Norwich, and Lebanon, Connecticut, and the niece of Thomas1 Fitch of Norwalk, Connecticut. His second wife was Mary (Sherwood) Fitch, the daughter of Matthew and Mary (Fitch) Sherwood (!) and the widow of Daniel2 Fitch. (Daniel was the son of the Rev. James Fitch and the brother of Joseph Bradford’s first wife.)[8]

The chief reason why a satisfactory identification of the “widow Wiswall” has eluded Bradford family researchers is that there simply was no widow Wiswall who could have married Major William Bradford about 1673. The Wiswall or Wiswell family of Massachusetts was fairly small, and an examination of the genealogical data on the early generations of this family rules out such a possibility.[9] Where, then, did this story originate?

Since the tradition as it is currently formulated has never been a real possibility, we can conclude that a trace of genuineness may be hidden somewhere within it. If someone on the basis of superficial research and/or guesswork had invented this story, we could expect that the story would at least be comprehensible and perhaps even plausible. But since the identification of Bradford’s second wife as “a widow Wiswall” is, and always would have been, completely incomprehensible, we can conclude that it is probably not an invented story. Perhaps it is a garbled version of something old and genuine.

As we attempt to dig beneath the surface of the tradition to seek out this kernel of truth, we can begin by looking carefully at the wording of Major William Bradford’s will, dated 29 June 1703. Among other things, he mentions that he had “given a portion in Lands in Norwich (which were the Lands of my brother John Bradford)” to his son Thomas.[10] Major Bradford’s older half-brother John2 had indeed lived in Norwich, Connecticut, and he had died without issue many years earlier.[11] What is most interesting in the will, however, is how Joseph3 Bradford’s legacy is then described: “To my son Joseph Bradford a portion of Lands near Norwich aforesaid (which was his Mothers & part I Purchased) as may appear under hand & seal also I give to him the history of the Netherlands, & a Rapier.”[12]

Because Major Bradford’s older half-brother, John Bradford, lived in Norwich, we can easily see how he might have chosen a second wife from among the eligible women of that town. John2 Bradford may very well have served as a “match-maker” for a recently-widowed neighbor and his own recently-widowed half-brother.

We see from Major Bradford’s will that his second wife owned land near Norwich at the time of their marriage. This would have been land that she either inherited from her own family or that she bought as a widow. She would have had use of a portion of her deceased husband’s land during her lifetime; however, that land would have reverted to his heirs upon her death.

Unfortunately, land records for the earlier years of Norwich’s existence are almost non-existent, and there are some significant gaps in our knowledge of who owned what land.[13] The Norwich land records have not yet revealed any genealogically useful information about the Bradford holdings there, other than the deed cited in note 10.

Norwich had been settled in 1660, and between then and 1673 (the approximate time of William2 Bradford’s second marriage) only a small number of the male proprietors in Norwich had died. According to Frances Manwaring Caulkins there were probably only three: William1 Backus, Francis2 Griswold, and Major John1 Mason. Mason’s wife died before he did, and Backus’s widow died in Norwich not long after her husband.[14] With Francis Griswold, however, we have a different story.

Francis2 Griswold (born about 1629) was the son of Edward1 Griswold and his first wife Margaret (_____) Griswold. He was one of the founders of Norwich who had moved there from Saybrook, Connecticut, with the other original settlers. He died in October 1671.[15] The given name of his wife, who came with him from Saybrook, was Sarah.[16] Her surname has not been ascertained. In spite of persistent claims to the contrary we do at least know that she was not the daughter of Thomas Tracy.[17] Francis and Sarah Griswold were the parents of nine children, the eldest of which was born in Saybrook in 1653.[18] The youngest, Lydia, was born in Norwich in October 1671, the same month in which Francis died.

Francis Griswold had held several public offices. He was Deputy for Norwich to the Connecticut General Court for eleven sessions, between 1664 and 1671, and was Lieutenant of the Norwich Train Band.[19] His social standing was therefore comparable to that of Major William Bradford, who likewise served in several offices of public trust.

At a session of the New London County Court held on 4 June 1672, “The Inventorie of Liut. ffrancis Griswould Deseased was Exhibitted In Court & ordered to bee Recorded, this Court Grants ye Relict Administra[tion] & ordereth the Estate as ffolloweth, to the widdow the one third of all houseing & Lands Dureing her naturall Life ... .”[20]

In Connecticut records Francis Griswold’s surname sometimes appears as “Griswell.”[21] This more phonetic spelling of the name probably reflected the common pronunciation of the time, which minimized the final “d.” The name Wiswall or Wiswell, and the name Griswold or Griswell, would have sounded similar when spoken.

For all of these reasons I would like to propose the hypothesis that Major William2 Bradford’s second wife, identified by Bradford family tradition as “a widow Wiswall,” was actually the widow of Francis2 Griswold. According to this hypothesis the pronunciation and spelling of the name became garbled after a few generations of oral transmission, or perhaps through the smearing of an early written record that is no longer extant.

The tradition that Major Bradford’s second wife was “a widow Wiswall” was passed down through the Massachusetts branch of the Bradford family rather than through the Connecticut branch. This is noteworthy. In 1830 Lewis Bradford was very much aware of this tradition, but he did not at that time know very much about those members of the family (Joseph and Thomas) who had moved to Connecticut. In fact, he was not completely certain that they had actually gone there. He noted that they were “said” to have moved to Connecticut. Lewis Bradford obviously had not been in contact with the descendants of Joseph and Thomas Bradford.[22] Now, the Connecticut Bradfords would have been familiar with the Griswold name, since bearers of that surname remained prominent there, and they consequently would have been less likely to confuse that name with the name of a Massachusetts family (Wiswall) that was similarly pronounced. By comparison, the Griswold name is very uncommon in early Plymouth records. It is not a name that the Massachusetts Bradfords would have heard very often, and after a time they might very easily have forgotten the correct pronunciation and spelling.

The Griswold name was not, however, completely unheard of in Plymouth, and that leads to a consideration of the next category of evidence for my hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, Francis2 Griswold’s widow Sarah married William2 Bradford about 1673 and moved to Plymouth Colony to live with her new husband. Griswold’s older children were married in Connecticut either before his death or soon thereafter, but we would expect that his younger children, or at least some of them, would have stayed with their mother and moved to Plymouth with her. Since William Bradford’s second wife died just a couple years after her arrival in the colony, it does not surprise us that she is not mentioned in surviving Plymouth records. But do any of the Griswold children appear in Plymouth records? The answer is a resounding yes!

Francis Griswold’s daughter Hannah3 was born in Saybrook on 11 December 1658.[23] In the Plymouth vital records we read that “Mr. William Clark married Hannah Griswell 7 March 1677[/8].”[24] Hannah (Griswold) Clark died on 20 February 1687/8, and is buried in Plymouth.[25] Francis Griswold’s youngest daughter Lydia3, mentioned earlier, also appears in the Plymouth vital records: “Joseph Bartlet Jr. married Lidia Grizwel 6 June 1692.”[26] Joseph Bartlett died on 9 April 1703, and on 24 June 1704, Lydia married (second) Joseph Holmes, Jr. Lydia (Griswold) (Bartlett) Holmes died in January 1752, and is also buried in Plymouth.[27] We are compelled to ask: How did two daughters of a Norwich proprietor, who died in 1671, end up living in Plymouth and marrying into Plymouth families? The hypothesis here presented offers a very plausible answer.

In summary, I believe it to be highly likely that Major William2 Bradford’s second wife, heretofore identified as “a widow Wiswall,” was actually Sarah (_____) Griswold, the widow of Francis2 Griswold of Norwich. The evidence is admittedly indirect, and no definitive proof for this identification can be produced at this time. But in my opinion the evidence strongly points in this direction.


1. Robert S. Wakefield, compiler, William Bradford of the “Mayflower” and His Descendants for Four Generations (Plymouth, Mass.: General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2001), 3-5.

2. James Shepherd, Governor William Bradford, and His Son, Major William Bradford (New Britain, Conn.: by the author, 1900), 79.

3. Esther Littleford Woodworth-Barnes, compiler, Mayflower Families Through Five Generations, Volume 16, Part 1: Family of John Alden (Plymouth, Mass.: General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1999), 66-68.

4. William T. Davis, Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth, Part II: Genealogical Register of Plymouth Families (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1883), 38.

5. Roscoe Conkling Fitch, History of the Fitch Family, 2 vols. (Haverhill, Mass.: Fitch Family, 1930), 1:116.

6. Ruth Gardiner Hall, Descendants of Governor William Bradford (New York: Bradford Family Compact, 1951), 4.

7. Roscoe Conkling Fitch [note 5], 1:116.

8. Wakefield, Bradford [note 1], 17-18; John T. Fitch, Puritan in the Wilderness, 2nd ed. (Camden, Me.: Picton Press, 1995), 292, 296.

9. Anson Titus, “The Wiswall Family of America,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 40 (1886), 58-60.

10. George Ernest Bowman, The Mayflower Reader (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1978), 287; recorded in Norwich Deeds 2A:202.

11. Wakefield, Bradford, [note 1], 3.

12. Bowman, Mayflower Reader [note 10], 287.

13. Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of Norwich, Connecticut (Hartford: by the author, 1866), 60-70. Norwich, Windham and Lebanon deeds were reviewed at the Connecticut State Library, but no sales of property by Joseph Bradford mentioned parents or grandparents.

14. Caulkins, Norwich [note 13], 132, 146, 158.

15. Esther Griswold French and Robert Lewis French, The Griswold Family (Wethersfield, Conn.: The Griswold Family Association, 1990), 15; Donald Lines Jacobus, The Granberry Family and Allied Families (Hartford, Conn.: E. F. Waterman, 1945), 233-34; Donald Lines Jacobus, The Waterman Family, 3 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: E. F. Waterman, 1939-54), 1:665-67.

16. At a session of the New London County Court held on 17 September 1672 Thomas Adgatt and John Post were appointed overseers of the “Widdow Sarah Griswell her Estate” (New London County Court records 3:51, at the Connecticut State Archives). Dr. Norman W. Ingham, CG, has verified the existence of this record and provided a photocopy and transcription; cf. Jacobus, Granberry [note 15], 235 n.

17. French, Griswold [note 15], 15; Jacobus, Waterman [note 15], 1:667.

18. French, Griswold [note 15], 15-16; Jacobus, Waterman [note 15], 1:667-68.

19. Jacobus, Granberry [note 15], 234.

20. New London County Court records, 3:47, at the Connecticut State Archives (photocopy and transcription from Dr. Norman W. Ingham); quoted in Jacobus, Granberry [note 15], 234-35.

21. For example, in Caulkins, Norwich [note 13], 85, and in the court record cited in note 16.

22. Four of Major William Bradford’s daughters also lived in Connecticut (see Wakefield, Bradford [note 1], 10-14).

23. French, Griswold [note 15], 15; Jacobus, Waterman [note 15], 1:668.

24. Vital Records of Plymouth, Massachusetts (Camden, Me.: Picton Press, 1993), 85. It is interesting to note that his marriage to Hannah Griswold is recorded both in the Plymouth records and in the Saybrook Colony records (Vital Records of Saybrook Colony [Old Saybrook, Conn.: Saybrook Press, 1985], 21).

25. French, Griswold [note 15], 27; Jacobus, Waterman [note 15], 1:668; Donald Lines Jacobus, “Thomas Clark(e) of Plymouth and Boston in the Line of Nathaniel3 of Lyme, Connecticut,” The American Genealogist 47 (1971):3-16 at 5.

26. Vital Records of Plymouth [note 24], 86; Eugene A. Stratton, “Descendants of Mr. John Holmes, Messenger of the Plymouth Court,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 74 (1986):83-103 at 96-97, 203-23; 77 (1989):143-44.

27. French, Griswold [note 15], 30-31; Jacobus, Waterman [note 15], 1:668.

The Rev. David Jay Webber is Rector of Saint Sophia Ukrainian Lutheran Theological Seminary in Ternopil’, Ukraine, where he also serves as Professor of Theology. Address: c/o Ukrayins’ka Lyuterans’ka Bohoslovs’ka Seminariya Svyatoyi Sofiyi, Vulytsya Zbaraz’ka 29A, 46002 Ternopil’ UKRAINE.

This article was published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 155, Whole No. 619 (July 2001), pp. 245-50.

Pilgrims and Palatines
Professional Genealogical Research,
with a Historical Perspective,
by David Jay Webber

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