Out of a Meanness

                    The Courage of Sarah Wells

                                     By A.J. Bull

The book that waited three centuries to be written

The tale of what America would become

Told through the courage of an orphan girl born in 1694



I have known Sarah Wells my whole life. The first time I visited the Bull Stone House was on a Family vacation. The reverence and veneration were palpable, and nearly overwhelming for a sensitive child of four. Her husband, William Bull, had an established family lineage, and that was good, but Sarah Wells’ ancestors were unknown. When it was pointedly explained to me by my father, that having been born a female I had ended his Bull line, I felt guilt that I had perpetrated such an affront to him, and wondered why the male line was more important than the female, and then, what could I do to make up for my grievous error?

With maturity, my quest altered into a need to know Sarah Wells better and give her the fame she deserved and maybe, if she became famous, someone somewhere might have the answer to, who were her parents?

When I first started doing research for this book, my view of history was a bit blurry. By that, I mean it seemed simultaneous—collapsed into a point of time, and all-inclusive. So, to enable me to keep track of all the events I was reading about, I started a chronology, and quickly realized it would provide the reader the same opportunity and the connections of these events to those whose lives they affected. The more research I did, the more I wanted to establish an understanding of the time in which Sarah Wells lived and triumphed. Having lived for 102 years she experienced an extraordinarily long span of history, even by today’s standards, and correspondingly, the effects of many historic events. Her life began at the very end of the Salem Witch Trials, in the middle of King William’s War and just before the worst cold and wet year of the “Little Ice Age.” It then continued to seven years after George Washington was sworn in as President of the United States of America, and the beginning of the French Revolution—with much in between.

Hoping I could find Sarah Wells’ parents, I of course tried the Internet, the holder of all information, true or false—except Sarah Wells’ origin. Next came multiple days at the Library of Congress which yielded a slim possibility with a Philip Wells, a surveyor who was known to have lived on Staten Island and left New Jersey for Williamsburg Virginia in 1694, the year she was born; but the only mention of Sarah was in connection with Christopher and Elizabeth Denn.

Back to the Internet, but this time I tried the back door. I started looking for churches in the area and of the era, which might have baptismal records. I soon learned there were precious few, and all, save one, were Dutch Reform. That one, an Episcopal Church, was the Chapel at Fort William Henry, previously Fort Amsterdam, Fort James, Fort Willem Hendrick, Fort James (a second time), Fort William Henry, then Fort Anne and finally Fort George. All located at the southern tip of Manhattan, now Battery Park.

It was at the Chapel where John Miller was, “The sole officiating Episcopal clergyman in the entire Province of New York (which included New Jersey at that time) during the three years of his residence…” (June 1692 - July 1695).

Having found this tantalizing information, I was sure I was on the right track. He was commissioned by the Bishop of London to minister to the troops at the fort in the Provence of New York, but due to political considerations he was not able to retain that position, and in 1695 he sailed back to England. It was, however, during his three-year tenure that he made copious notes about New York, including maps, and wrote a considerably detailed treatise, New Yorke Considered and Improved A.D. 1695.

As was often the case, England and France were at war. King William’s War, also known by five other names, was raging. As Miller was sailing back to England, a French privateer (government-sanctioned pirate) attacked. As the privateers were boarding Miller’s ship, he feared the details and maps in his treatise on New York would give the French the advantage in battle, and threw all his work into the sea. He was then taken captive and kept in a French prison, where he recreated from memory his treatise, and then smuggled it out. But no records accompanied it.

I was disheartened. Was this the end? Did the baptismal records go into the Atlantic? Unable to answer that question, I was impelled to pose another. If he hadn’t thrown the records overboard, where were they? Believing I must leave no stone unturned, I began a search for the Chapel’s records, because marriage and baptismal records were often kept in churches as a safe repository—I rallied myself. The Chapel had an up and down history; one of erecting and razing, building and burning—and the records saved each time. But saved where? It seemed logical that they would have gone to Trinity Church when the Chapel was finally torn down after the burning of New York during the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776. But after contacting the archivist there, the answer was no.

Frustrated, but not ready to give up I read that the British had control of the Fort for nearly all of the Revolutionary War, and thus access to the records. I also had read during my research that William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation was found at Fulham Palace, home of the Bishops of London, from whom John Miller received his ecclesiastical license. With this in mind I emailed Bishop Chartres, current Bishop of London, the same bishop who officiated at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, hoping someone at the palace would know about the Chapel’s records. I received a quick reply, not from the bishop but an archivist, who passed along some historic tidbits, but no records.

I tried the City of New York records, as the archivist at Trinity Church suggested. Nothing! And nothing from Lambeth Palace in London (home of the Archbishop of Canterbury) which was a stretch. Finally I learned that Miller’s documents had landed at the Church at Effingham, Surry, England where he was vicar.  No records.

It was time to write! Not what I planned or wanted to write, but I would adjust. I was out of ideas, and weary of dead ends. More and more information hits the Internet all the time, I consoled myself. There is a chance in the future that the mystery may eventually be solved. I came back to my original thesis, if she became famous, someone, somewhere might have the answer to the question, who were her parents? And where are the Chapel records?

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The riveting story
of one of America's
first women,
nearly a century
before there was a
United States
of America
A story that will
captivate you,
whether you are
a descendant of
Sarah Wells or not

Book excerpt and website Copyright © 2012 by A.J. Bull, All Rights Reserved

Contact: AJBull@ajbull.com


Hudson River Sloop Near Peekskill, NY by James Goodwyn Clonney

For information about Sarah Wells' homestead & genealogy, please visit our family at www.bullstonehouse.org