Deacon Edward Convers (1588/9–1663)
We know a lot about Edward, the head of the first Converse family in America, but there are still some questions about his life in England as well as in New England. Here are a few possible answers.
Was he born in 1588 or 1589? It is usually recorded that Edward was baptized on March 23, 1588/89, presumably soon after his birth [1,2]. The calendar was changed in Europe from the Julian version (named after Julius Caesar) to the Gregorian version (Pope Gregory) in 1582 because the former calendar was getting increasingly out of step with the seasons. 10 days had to be subtracted to get it back in line. Also, it was decided to start the year in January instead of the end of March as previously. This meant that events which took place from January to March would be moved from the previous year to the next one. However, England and its colonies did not initially go along with this, because it had been proposed by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1752 England and its colonies finally moved to the Gregorian calendar – the calendar we use today. Since Edward was baptized March 23, 1588 (Julian calendar), this becomes March 13, 1589 (Gregorian calendar). He died August 10, 1663 but since that was after March of that year, it is left as 1663. Thus, his lifespan was 1589-1663 and he was 74 when he died.
How many wives did he have? “The Winthrop Fleet”  says two: Sarah Parker , the mother of all his children, and late in life, Joanna Sprague. But the first three of his children – Josiah, James, Mary – were all born in England ca. 1618-1625 . Consequently, there is a significant gap between the births of Mary (about 1625) and Samuel, born in Woburn, Massachusetts Bay Colony and baptized 12 March, 1637/8. This has led to speculation that, although all these children are credited with having a mother “Sarah”, the first wife Sarah Parker had died young and he subsequently married another Sarah. Although this gap has been discounted by some as insufficient evidence for another wife, there is a burial record for Sarah, wife to Edward Convers, buried June 13, 1625 in the Essex Parish records . This is also mentioned in Torrey’s book , and in Hal Whitmore’s Converse family tree . Mary is believed to have been born in 1625: possibly her mother Sarah Parker died giving birth to Mary.
The date of the second marriage to Sarah____ (surname unknown) would have to be before 1632 when Edward and Sarah joined the Charlestown church , and more likely prior to 1630, when the family emigrated to America in one of the ships of the Winthrop Fleet. It would have been difficult for Edward, a single parent, to have cared for three young children on board a ship during a long, arduous journey, even if they went as a group with other Essex families. Thus, it seems more likely that Edward married the second Sarah before the voyage, though we cannot find any record of the marriage.
How many children did Edward have? As given above, Josiah, James and Mary were apparently born in Essex, and travelled to America with Edward in 1630. But two other children have been listed in some sources. John was baptized in 1620 , the same year in which James was born (according to a later deposition from him). It appears that the name in the baptismal record is incorrect, and “John” was actually James. A daughter, Sarah, born 1623  was said to have been in the Winthrop fleet , but Essex records show she died in infancy . Finally, Samuel was born in March 1636/7 in Woburn. So in total Edward Convers had 4 children who reached majority: Josiah, James, Mary and Samuel.
What level of society did he come from? It seems well-established that he was a yeoman, not a gentleman or of higher class. He was referred to in some Massachusetts Bay Company records as Goodman Converse (“Goodman” being a way of addressing a yeoman), and he never had “Mr.” attached to his name, even when others were so designated. He was involved in many projects in the new colony, and trusted with various tasks, but seemingly never regarded as being in the ranks of the leaders, who were gentry (gentlemen, from well-established families owning large estates in England), or from the aristocracy .
However, it should be borne in mind that yeomen were the highest rank of society below gentlemen, and at times served similar roles in society. They could have trusted positions, and were sometimes treated the same as gentlemen in an aristocratic household . And they could own land and pass it down to their children. This was particularly the case in Essex, which in the 17th century had retained fewer of the feudal practices still prevalent in some other counties. Yeomen often employed laborers and household servants. However, they would not have had a coat-of-arms; the ones shown on some websites for the Converse family are incorrect.
Allen Convers’s will of 1636 is quoted by Hal Whitmore [8, 14]. Briefly, back in England, Edward’s father Allen left two houses and land in three towns to his wife, to be passed on to his two youngest sons after her death. His other surviving children received immediate sums of money and/or payments per annum for the next five years, totaling about £100, which translates to well over £22,000/US$30,000 today, depending on the rate of conversion used .
Since Edward was engaged in running a ferry in Massachusetts, and later owned a mill there, it is tempting to speculate whether his family, who lived near the Roding River in Essex, had a ferry or mill on that river. There is no remaining evidence for this, and it is more likely that his father Allen was primarily a farmer, producing crops such as wheat or barley (there were many maltings in Essex, which he could have supplied ). It is tantalizing to imagine how the “one great brass pot and one caldron” which Allen mentions in his will  would have been used – perhaps for brewing “small beer” (weak beer, consumed by all, including small children, as it was safer than the local water).
Did he fall out with his father? This has been suggested by some people, from reading Allen’s will in which Edward, the eldest surviving son, is left only 5 shillings, and no annual payments . However, there are other possibilities. It might have been virtually impossible for Allen’s executors to arrange annual payments to Edward when he was so far away. And Allen might have already given Edward funds for the passage of his family in the Winthrop fleet. If passage had not been paid in advance, Edward would have had to work for someone else in America to pay it off. There is no evidence he had to do this: he was free to obtain land and was granted the ferry contract in 1630 soon after they arrived.
Was Edward well-educated? Some of the Winthrop fleet men could not even sign their own names on documents, but Edward could. Moreover, he was a Puritan: Puritans believed each worshiper should be able to read the Bible. He had a variety of occupations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony , and at least some of these, such as being a representative to the Assembly, would have required the ability to read and understand documents. Thus, he was probably well-educated by the standards of the time.
Was Edward “neglectful, the cause of drowning of three passengers” and perhaps even a “rude fellow”? These quotes come from a book by the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College . Edward ran the ferry service across the Charles River for about a decade, until it was allocated to the newly-founded Harvard College and became a very important contributor to the college’s income. According to Morison, the drowning was caused by the use of a dugout canoe instead of a skiff. The use of dugouts was learned from the Native Americans, they were commonly used, and in most circumstances these boats seemed very effective and reasonably safe . It is unclear whether Edward Convers was ever held responsible for these deaths; other men (his employees?) are mentioned, but not him, in the court records . No other book on the early colony mentions or blames Edward Convers for this incident, and in his busy life in Massachusetts, there is no other calumny attached to his name. (It is not clear whether Morison’s “rude fellows” referred to Edward or to his employees).
Notes and References:
1. Digital images of original parish records are available online from Essex Archives at: https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/ (last viewed April 2021)
2. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 148/1/1: Edward, son of Allen Convers, baptized Navestock, St Thomas the Apostle, 23 March 1588 (image 46).
3. “The Winthrop Fleet. Massachusetts Bay Company Immigrants to New England, 1629-1630”. Robert Charles Anderson, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2012. See “Edward Converse”, pp. 237-243.
4. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 139/1/0: “Edward Convers and Sara Parker married ye 29th June” 1614. Great Burstead, St Mary Magdalene (image 38).
5. The baptism of Josiah, son of Edward Convers, 30 October 1618, South Weald, St Peter, is recorded in the Essex Archives (Ref. D/P 128/1/2, image 122). Birth dates for other children – James (1620?), Mary (1625?) – are surmised from later records.
6. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 128/1/2: “Sarah, wyfe to Edward Convers was buried June 13…” 1625. South Weald, St. Peter (image 141).
7. “New England Marriages Prior to 1700”. Clarence Almon Torrey, New England Historic Genealogical Society, third supplement, 2015. Accessed on ancestry.co.uk.
8. See this website, article by Hal Whitmore – http://converse-ancestry.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Convers-Family-England.pdf
9. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 128/1/2: “John Convers son to Edw Convers and Sara his wife was bap…” 29 Nov 1620. South Weald, St Peter (image 128). This is assumed by some to be a transcription error, and actually relates to James, not “John”. (Note that in the previous entry on this page, the name “James” has been corrected to “John”. Maybe the scribe was having a rough day!)
10. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 128/1/2: “Sara Convers dau of Edward Convers and Sara his wife was baptized ye 2 day of June…” 1623. South Weald, St Peter (image 136).
11. Essex Archives Ref. D/P 128/1/2: “Sara Convers daughter to Edward Convers was buried ye 30 day of December” 1623. South Weald, St Peter (image 137).
12. “Puritan Pedigrees. The Deep Roots of the Great Migration to New England”, Robert Charles Anderson, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2018, pp. 79-105. The most prominent member of the Charlestown (and later Woburn) group was Mr. Increase Nowell, a well-to-do merchant from a family of clergy (he was grandson of the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, and grandnephew of the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral).
13. “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England”. Ian Mortimer, Vintage Books, 2013, pp 231-234.
14. Hal Whitmore, op.cit. More details are in “The Converse Family and Allied Families”, Charles Allen Converse, pub. by Eben Putnam, 1905, vol II, pp. 857-891 and especially pp. 860 and 890 (available via Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/15715/).
15. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator. (Viewed April 2021)
16. Daniel Defoe said that the Roding Valley is “famous for good Land, good Malt, and dirty Roads”: quoted in “Essex” by L. Burleigh Bruhl and A.R. Hope Moncrieff, London, Adam and Charles Black, 1909, p. 48. Malt is sprouted barley, a stage in beer-making.
17. Edward Converse was “a leading citizen in Charlestown, … the first to conduct a ferry between that town and Boston, …a leader in the establishment of the new town of Woburn, where he became, with Captain Edward Johnson, the most influential of its citizens….one of the first two deacons of the Woburn church…he was a magistrate, empowered to try “small causes”; he represented Woburn in the General Court, and for 19 successive years, until his death in 1663, he was elected a selectman of the town.” From “History of Winchester Massachusetts”, Henry Smith Chapman, Town of Winchester, 1936 (available via Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/23264/).
18. “Converse who again obtained the privilege, proved neglectful, and was the cause of drowning three passengers by using a ‘canooe’ instead of a skiff”. The Founding of Harvard College, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Harvard University Press, 1935, p. 300.
19. Orcutt, Jacob M., “Mishoonash in Southern New England: Construction and Use of Dugout Canoes in a Multicultural Context” (2014). Masters Theses. 106. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/masters_theses_2/106
20. Edward Converse is mentioned in eight documents in “Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1630-1692, volume II”, John Noble, Trieste Publishing, 2017. He served on various juries and other official positions, and in 1642 is referred to as “Constable of Wooburn” (Woburn). The references to the ferry in this book are: granted permission to run it, 1630, ran ferry 1631-1640, drowning of 3 men, 1638 (with no mention of Edward Converse), fined 10 shillings “because the ferry had been neglected, 1640”, and ferry handed over to Harvard College 1640. Meanwhile, Edward had begun to survey the Woburn/Winchester area in 1635, and built the first house there in the fall of 1640-spring of 1641, so it might have become difficult for him to continue supervising the ferry in any case. (“History of Winchester Massachusetts”, op.cit.).