The Elusive George Clarke

Erin Taylor, August 2014

Identifying the origins and family of our George Clarke has been frustrating, often more a matter of eliminating who he is not. George Clarke does us no research favors by having a prevalent first and last name; Clarke (with the “e” at the end) was a common English surname associated with the profession of being a clerk for bureaucratic functions. We certainly know nothing of the education of our George Clarke, but such literacy skills had limited use in early Plymouth Colony. Men were needed to build, farm, manage livestock, and stave off Native Americans.

We are left with very few direct primary sources that identify our Clarke. Later in this post, we will provide sources of Clarkes that should not be confused with the George Clarke who was Alice Martin’s first husband. The earliest mention for this George Clarke is in the Plymouth Court Records (PCR) for 1637 (vol. 8, March 1637), where he enters into a series of disputes with Edward Dotey, a servant who came over on the Mayflower and then, once he completed his term, clearly had issues with Clarke and other Plymouth men. The records indicate that the two were likely farming neighbors as Clarke drags Dotey into court claiming the latter is denying him access to his lands (vol 8., October 1637). In June of 1638, Dotey is fined for physically assaulting Clarke (vol. 1), and the bad blood continues for another four years, when Clarke is ordered to pay Dotey four bushels of corn for some infraction (vol. 2, February 1642).

These court matters provide some clues about George’s age and position in Plymouth. For instance, we can assume he was over the age of 21 and no longer (if he ever was) a servant by 1637 because he is mentioned as owning land. That means his date of birth would have to be well before 1620, possibly before 1616. The disputes with Dotey indicate he had landholdings — not just in Plymouth Colony, but also in the actual town of Plymouth — and are re-evidenced by George Clarke’s landholdings in 1641 (vol. 2, December 1641). We do not know if George Clarke was a Freedman by his death in 1642, and Stratton reminds researchers that one did not need such status to own land in Plymouth (Plymouth Colony, 145).

George Clarke is not on the Plymouth Colony Tax Lists for 1633 or 1634 (the only dates available for this decade), and so we can presume he had not yet arrived from England or, a lesser possibility, resided in another American colony. We know Clarke marries “Allis Martin” January of 1639 (vol. 1, 1638 using the older, Julian calendar system) in the midst of his turf war with Dotey. He is also on the 1643 List of Men Able to Bear Arms (ages 16 to 60) for the town of Plymouth. However, his name is crossed out, probably because he is dead within a year.

We do not know how Clarke and Martin met as there is no mention — at all — of the bride before this marriage. All single persons were required to live with a family, often as servants (Thompson, 83). Our best guess from the evidence is that both Clarke and Martin were newly arrived to the colony in 1638 and were no longer under indenture contracts. George Clarke may well have arrived to Plymouth with enough financial resources not to have needed to enter into such a contract. Being a married man in the colony assured Clarke expanded land grants, and bachelors couldn’t dally in a community where they far outnumbered single women.

Martin and Clarke were married for just five years, and there are no court records indicating marital discord. Abigail Clark was born ca. 1641 and Martha three years later in 1644, the same year George Clarke died of unknown causes. In December of this year, Alice had already remarried — not atypical for colonial widows. She would have inherited George’s lands (enhancing her marriage appeal), and without any known adult, male Clarke family members, we question if Martin and her girls were put under a guardianship by the courts. James Deetz writes “[Widows] would more often than not…have the assistance of one or more ‘overseers,’ friends of her husband’s to whom he entrusted oversight of the welfare of his family” (The Times of Their Lives, p. 105). This would be such a legal guardianship; however, there are no records of such. Regardless, she would have had less than a year to manage her own finances, in the midst of bearing her second child.

After Alice’s trial, the courts had to address that Abigail Clarke, approximately seven years old, had no living parents. There is no indication Richard Bishop asked or was asked to raise her. It is not until May 1649, seven months after her mother’s execution, that the court asked one John Churchill to lease or sell George Clarke’s lands and home for the benefit of Abigail (vol. 2). This may indicate Abigail was adopted or indentured into the Churchill home. Interestingly, it is the matter taken up immediately after bringing Richard Bishop before the court for stealing a spade, for which he is ordered to sit in the stocks.

The matter of Clarke’s land holdings after his death demonstrates just how small the colony was. In 1666, Benjamin Eaton is granted 10 acres of land that was adjacent to land once belonging to George Clarke. Benjamin Eaton is the nephew of Rachel (Eaton) Ramsden, who was the first known eyewitness to the murder of George’s daughter, Martha, 18 years earlier.

There are other George Clarkes in this region and era who should not be confused with our Clarke. First and foremost are the George Clarkes of Milford, Connecticut. If only all such genealogical research was so straightforward: “Two George Clarkes were settlers in Milford, Connecticut in 1639. Both had wives named Sarah and both died in 1690” (Bryant, 3). In addition, one of these Clarkes had a son, George Clarke, Jr.

There is a George Clarke who sailed from England to Barbados on the Falcon in 1635. His age, however, is listed as 15, which doesn’t make him a likely landowner just four years later in Plymouth. However, the unlikely scenario does bring forth another, more tenable, possibility: Clarke came to the New World, but his port of entry was not Plymouth Colony. Men without familial connections in the New World would settle where land (and brides) were available. Conditions in both Barbados and Virginia forced such men to seek fortunes elsewhere — especially as slave labor replaced the indentured labor system. Nonetheless, relocation required the town’s permission for residence.

Of the early Clarke genealogies for the New England colonies, we have eliminated George Clarke as related to:

  1. Thomas Clarke, who arrived in Plymouth in 1623 on the Anne. This ship carried 42 adults “plus children,” all of whom are not named. Perhaps, just perhaps, George was Thomas’s minor brother. But it seems odd that George is never mentioned afterward in relation to Thomas, whose life is well documented in Plymouth records (Rev. William W. Johnson).
  2. Joseph Clarke, who landed in Nantucket in 1630 off the Mary & John, and settled in Dorchester by 1634. Similarly, Joseph’s life is well documented in the PCR and other Plymouth records with no mention of a brother or nephew named George being with him.

Reconstructing our Clarke’s life required considerable examination of other Clarkes and focusing on the scant and specific PCR records. From there, we developed context as to whom he was from his interactions with Dotey and description of land ownership. We’re grateful George Clarke was irate about Dotey, as it provides us at least a slim glimpse of his life. We looked to Abigail after 1648 and learned that there was still Clarke wealth and, possibly, this put her in a more secure position as a New World orphan.

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