Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Who Was Rebecca Cornell Really?

The widow Rebecca Cornell. She was my 9th great-grandmother. You may have heard the story how she was "killed strangely" at Portsmouth in her own home. If you haven't, I will give you the highlights.

It was assumed that she had been burned to death from sitting to close to the fire while she was smoking her pipe when her body was found the 8th day of February 1673. After she had been buried a prominent citizen by the name of John Briggs came forward and said that Rebecca had visited him in the night as an apparition.

The following paragraph is a transcription of John Briggs' testimony:

John Brigs of the Towne of Portsmouth Aged sixty foure yeares or thereabouts, being According to Law Sworne and In[g]aged befor the Councell, Testifieth That on the Twelfth Day of this Instant month ffebruary in the night as this Deponentt lay in his Bedd, he being in A Dreame of Mrs Rebeca Cornell Deseased, and being betweene Sleepeing and Wakeing, as he thought he felt something heave up the Bedclothes twice, and thought some body had beene coming to bed to hime, where upon he Awaked, and turned himeselfe about in his Bed, and being Turned, he perceived A Light in the roome, like to the Dawning of ye Day, and plainely saw the shape and Apearance of A Woman standing by his Bed side where at he was much Afrighted, and Cryed out, in the name of God what art thou, the Aperition Answered, I am your sister Cornell, and Twice sayd, see how I was Burnt with ffire, and shee plainely Apeered unto hime to be very much burnt about the shoulders, fface, and Head.
Taken before the Deputy Govr and Councell mett the 20th day of ffebruary 1672/3 As Atest John Sanford Secretary

This post is not about the tragic death of grandma Rebecca, but the misconception that her maiden name was Briggs and that she and John Briggs were siblings and children of Henry Briggs of Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England.

I believe we can give credit to Rev. John Cornell for perpetuating this assumption in his book Genealogy of the Cornell Family which was published in 1902. It's true that John Briggs testified that the apparition in his dream introduced herself as "your sister Cornell", but that is not proof of a biological relationship.
As George McCracken states in his article, Who Was Rebecca Cornell? (TAG 36: 16-18), the usage of the word sister in seventeenth-century terms could have a few different meanings.
  • John Briggs could have been married to Rebecca's sister.
  • John Briggs could have been married to Thomas Cornell's sister.
  • Thomas Cornell could have been married to a sister of John Briggs.
  • Rebecca could have been a step-sister.
And, like Prentiss Glazier asserts in his publication of Thomas Corn(w)ell of Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, if she was blood-related she probably would have called herself  "your sister Rebecca". 

McCracken gives a list of baptisms, burials, and weddings from the Clerkenwell parish records of Briggs family members. Among them is a baptism listed for Rebecca, daughter of Henry Briggs 25 Oct. 1600, and one for John and Joyce, children of Henry Briggs 8 Apr. 1618. For some reason, the Rev. Cornell assigned these dates to the said John Briggs and Rebecca. 

I can tell you for sure that the widow Rebecca Cornell and Rhode Island's John Briggs were not the children of Henry Briggs of Clerkenwell because his John and Rebecca died as infants. I have found their burial records.

Source Citation - London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: P76/JS1/004, Source Information - London, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

  • Rebecka daughter to Henrie Briggs was Expired the 25th daie of October 1600
  • John sone to Henry Briggs was xpired April 8 1618

So it is my hope that those with trees having Henry Briggs assigned as the father to the widow Rebecca Cornell will remove him because it only hinders your search for her real parents. And we all know how misinformation can spread like wildfire!



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