An Ancestor I’d Like to Forget

Native American warriors waited to extract their revenge for his cruel practices.

I have hundreds of people in my family tree already, enough to keep me busy tracking down ancestral profiles for years to come. I did not need to find Richard Waldron but when I did, I could not look away. His DNA still floats in my blood, maybe even carries traits that impact me today. Will I have pay a price to wipe the record clean and expunge his cruel legacy?

Richard Waldron came from the well-endowed the Puritans who put their family fortunes to good use in the Massachusetts colony. He came first to Boston in 1635 and for two years surveyed and purchased land. He returned to England, married, and returned to settle in Cocheco, now Dover, New Hampshire. He built a sawmill and a gristmill on the river, along with a trading post, where he traded with local Native Americans, people, it would turn out, who suspected of cheating all along.

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The Cocheco River where Waldron built mills that grew into large factories in the 19th-century.

Within 15 years of settling in Dover, Waldron had three children and an ascending prominence in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Elected to the General Court of Boston in 1654, he served for nearly 25 years, some as speaker of the house.

Waldron also earned a reputation for harshness when, in 1662, he ordered constables in eleven towns from Dover to Boston to tie three Quaker women to a cart and whip their bare backs publicly. In the depth of winter, through snow, the women were marched to Hampton where they were whipped. In Salisbury, the local constable, Sgt. Major Robert Pike, balked at Waldron’s order then sent a team to intervene and bring the women to safety on the other side of the Piscataqua River.

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A re-enactment in 1976 of the expulsion of the Quaker women as recounted in “The History of Salisbury” by Carolyn Sergent.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier portrayed Waldron’s persecution of the Quakers, suggesting that the women might have cursed him:

“And thou, O Richard Waldron, for whom
We hear the feet of a coming doom,
On thy cruel heart and thy hand of wrong
Vengeance is sure, though it tarry long.”

Waldron survived the Quaker episode and was given more responsibility. In 1672 he was commissioned a military captain, then major-general in the province of New Hampshire. He led a failed campaign against the French and Native Americans who had raided English settlers on the coast of Maine and in Acadia in 1676. He kept his business dealings with the local Penacook Native Americans alive and maintained peaceful relations. Yet as the settlers encroached more and more on Native American land, raids on settlers increased. In Dover, settlers took refuge inside barricaded garrisons.

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A palisade wall protected the meeting house.

In 1676, Native American made a stand against the encroachment of the British, launching the so-called King Phillip War on settlements across Massachusetts. The Pennacooks did not get involved in the war but when it ended, dozens of the warriors who fought the British took refuge with the them. The authorities in Boston ordered Waldron to seize the fugitive warriors. He he had just signed a peace treaty with his trading partners and he did not want to upset them by attacking their settlement and seizing the warriors. He also knew that the Pennacooks would not hand over their visitors easily. So he devised a cunning plan.

Waldron invited the Pennacooks and their visitors to take part in a military game in Dover, where they would test each other’s skills. During the competition Waldron got the warriors to drop their weapons, then pounced. Two hundred men were taken captive, most of them the visiting warriors. Eight were executed and the rest sold into slavery. The affront was burned into the Pennacook collective memory.

Waldron’s star continued to rise. In 1681 he was named deputy president of the province of New Hampshire. Now in his 60s, he sat at the pinnacle of local power, arrogant enough to believe no one could attack him. One historian describes how Governor Bradford tried to warn Waldron that he was in trouble, sending a letter that read:

“Some Indians…report that there is a gathering of Indians in or about Penacook with the designe of mischief to the English…they have a particular designe against yourselfe and Mr. Peter Coffin which the Council thought it necessary …to give you notice that you take care of your own Safeguard, they intending to endeavor to betray you on a pretention of Trade”. *

The letter arrived a day late. On the night of 27 June of 1689, the Pennacooks took their long-simmering revenge. The plot unfolded as Pennacook women asked for overnight shelter at five garrisoned houses, including Waldron’s. While the occupants slept, the women slipped the bolts on the door of the garrisoned houses, opening them to the warriors. At the Waldron house, the men headed straight upstairs to find their target.

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An old woodcut shows Waldron swinging his sword at his assailants.

The slow torture and death of Richard Waldron is not one for the weak of heart. Reports say he came down the stairs, vainly slashing his sword at his assailants, and was quickly overpowered and tied to a chair.

The Pennacook warriors ate a meal prepared by the Waldron women, then split the patriarch’s head open. The men took their time with him, each cutting an X into his chest to signify their trade accounts with him were closed. Still alive, his ears and nose were chopped off and stuffed in his mouth. When he had little life left, his tormentors rigged his sword so he would fall on it to receive the final death blow.

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Richard Waldron did not die alone that night. Twenty-three people were killed and another 29 taken prisoner and marched to Quebec, including Waldron’s six-year-old granddaughter, Sarah Gerrish. Waldron’s house was burned to the ground.

More than half of Dover’s residents escaped the massacre. Waldron’s daughter Elizabeth remained safe at home with her husband and remaining children, a group that includes her son, Nathaniel Gerrish, who is my direct ancestor.

Thinking back over three hundred and fifty years since Richard Waldron wielded power in his province, I think about our leaders whose behavior is stunningly deceptive. I see the cruelty that sealed Waldron’s fate and created scars that have yet to heal. I also see people who pushed on, forgiving, and finding enough shared values to overshadow the cruelty of those days.

Written by

TV, print and online journalist. Mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, adventurer, history-lover. and

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