Cliff McCarthy, 2016
Matthew and Jane (Baker) Gilbert were among the first and most prominent members of New Haven colony. Matthew served the colony as its Deputy-Governor and was chosen as one of the “Seven Pillars” of the community.
Matthew was born in England, date and place unknown, but came to America aboard the ship Hector, which arrived in Boston on June 26, 1637. That ship and another carried two hundred and fifty Puritan emigrants (two hundred were women, children, and servants) seeking a new religious freedom under the ministrations of Rev. John Davenport, and backed by the merchant Theophilus Eaton. During a year in Boston, a small party was sent to explore the region known as “Quinnipiac,” later to be called “New Haven.” Upon the party’s favorable report, the settlers sailed to New Haven in 1638 and founded the wealthiest and most theocratic colony in the New World. On June 4, 1639, Matthew Gilbert and 54 other “freemen” signed the Fundamental Agreement of the New Haven Colony, which served as the constitution of the settlement.
It is unknown if Matthew and Jane were married upon their arrival in the New World, but the baptisms of all of their children were recorded in New Haven. Jane’s maiden name is found in the will of her brother John Baker, proved June 13, 1664 in England.
Matthew Gilbert was one of the leaders of this community, his name appearing fourth among the list of freemen in 1639. It had been “agreed that church members only shall be free burgesses” to choose the magistrates and conduct the affairs of the colony. He was selected, along with Davenport and Eaton, as one of the Seven Pillars, or founders, of the church and served it as a deacon from 1639 to 1658. The names of the Seven are carved into the marble walls of the present-day post office and court building.
From 1639 through 1643, Matthew served the General Court as one of three “deputies to assist the magistrate in all courts called by him” and “to assist the courts by way of advice, but not to have any power by way of sentence.” In that position, he was exempted from military service in 1640.
The General Court of May 1658 selected Matthew and two others as magistrates. He was re-elected in 1659, 1660, and 1664. From 1661 – 1663, Matthew Gilbert served New Haven colony as its Deputy Governor.
In his first year as a magistrate in 1658, the court heard a dispute involving an indentured servant that reminds us not to judge historical events by today’s standards. In this case, as described in the book, The Piglet’s Paternity, by Jon C. Blue, an indentured servant named Thomas Wheadon sued for his freedom from his master, one John Meigs, claiming that Meigs had broken the terms of their contract. To make the long story shorter, Wheadon was an orphan under the age of majority, who had assigned himself to Meigs aboard ship on the passage to America. Meigs claimed he had the assent of the boy’s previous master in England, but without written proof, this claim was considered dubious. (Was Wheadon a runaway servant?) Meigs had contracted with Wheadon to teach him the trade of currier over seven years. However, once at New Haven, Meigs stated that our Matthew Gilbert “desired one of his servants.” With Wheadon’s consent, Meigs transferred the contract to Gilbert for five years. After these arrangements had been made, Wheadon had second-thoughts, claiming that he had been promised a trade — a lucrative one, at that — which he was not being taught. Further, he saw other servants’ contracts were for four years, while his was for seven. He felt he had been taken advantage of.
After a great deal of testimony, the court came to an interesting decision. It agreed that Wheadon, as a minor still under indenture to an English master, did not have the authority to contract himself to Meigs aboard ship, so that contract was null and void. However, it ruled that Wheadon was required to fulfill the terms of his agreement for service to Matthew Gilbert. (How convenient, since Gilbert was on the panel of magistrates making this ruling and benefiting materially from its decision — this was a clear ethical breach by today’s standards. And, why didn’t the legal theory that was used to free Wheadon from Meigs, apply just as legitimately to Gilbert?) In an interesting side-note to the case, two of our ancestors, William Potter and Christopher Todd, gave testimony in this case.
In 1662, the charter for Connecticut was granted by King Charles II and, much to the dismay of New Haven, it merged New Haven with the rest of the Connecticut colony, thus compromising its independent status. Matthew Gilbert was named in the order of the General Assembly of Connecticut to assist in the merger of the colonies.
Matthew Gilbert was a merchant and held a large amount of land in and around the new colony. The Gilbert home was prominent in the center of town facing New Haven green, at the corner of the present-day Chapel and Church streets. [For the location, see the Brockett Map, 1641.]
According to Rachel M. Hartley in her History of Hamden, Connecticut, 1786-1936:
“In March, 1663, Matthew Gilbert asked for a tract above Shepherd’s Pen, ‘because he was willing to try to rayse some food for his horses in winter to wont them there.’ He was granted forty acres for this purpose, and he set up a farm noted for the fine horses which he bred. In time he enlarged the size of his property, and attracted other settlers to build near him. The name of the locality soon changed from having been called ‘Shepherd’s Pen’ to ‘Gilbert’s Farms,’ for the Gilberts came to stay and to establish a permanent home, whereas Nehemiah Smith, driven out of the first two places where he had attempted to raise sheep, had come come out here to the wilderness not so much because he wanted to make it his home as that there was nowhere else that he could go with his sheep. He became discouraged in a few years and gave up his venture. Not so the Gilberts who lived there for many generations.
[Mathew] Gilbert was one of the foremost men in the Colony, being deacon, assistant magistrate, and deputy governor. Third Division allotments in this section came into his hands, and in his will his heirs received land on the Plains, on Mill Lane, and in the ‘Little Quarter.’ A simple gravestone in the rear of Center Church on the New Haven Green, the church in which Matthew Gilbert was one of the original Seven Pillars, bears the letters “M.G. 80.” Many believe that this marks the spot where he was buried, although there has been much dispute about it among antiquarians. In any case he died in 1680, and this burying ground was used by his family.”
Matthew Gilbert died in 1680. There is a stone on the New Haven green which purportedly marks the date and his final resting place. This stone, however, carries with it a legend that it actually marks the grave of William Goffe, the Regicide and the “Angel of Hadley.” As one of Cromwell’s High Court of Justice that convicted King Charles I to death, Goffe took refuge in New England when King Charles II restored the monarchy. Goffe was harbored by supporters in New Haven and in Hadley, Massachusetts. He was supposedly hidden for many years in a secret room in Rev. Russell’s house in Hadley. It was Goffe, the legend says, who roused the townspeople from their Sunday worship services when Hadley came under attack by Indians during King Philip’s War. Some people claim that he, not Gilbert, is buried on New Haven green under the stone cryptically inscribed “M.G. 80”, disguised so as to keep the identity of its occupant secret from the English rulers. Click the link for a fuller story of the Regicides.
Jane Gilbert lived until 1706. Both Matthew and Jane left wills, naming their children. During his life, Matthew Gilbert accumulated great wealth and much land. To see a transcription of Matthew Gilbert’s will, click here.
Children of Matthew & Jane (Baker) GILBERT
MATTHEW GILBERT was born 1599 in England, and died 1680 in New Haven, CT. He married JANE BAKER 1639, daughter of JOHN BAKER and MARJORY MALSTED. She was born 1623 in England, and died 1706. The Children of MATTHEW GILBERT and JANE BAKER are:
i. JOHN GILBERT, b. Abt. 1644; d. 26 November 1673, New Haven, CT; m. SARAH GREGSON, 12 December 1667, New Haven, CT; d. 1697.
ii. SARAH GILBERT, b. Abt. 1646; d. April 1672, New Haven, CT; m. JOHN TODD, 26 November 1668, New Haven, CT; b. Bef. 2 December 1642; d. Aft. 22 February 1723/24.
iii. REBECCA GILBERT, b. Abt. 1649; d. 16 March 1670/71, New Haven, CT.
iv. MARY GILBERT, b. 11 June 1651, New Haven, CT; m. ROBERT AUGER, 21 November 1673, New Haven, CT.
v. HANNAH GILBERT, b. Abt. 1653; m. JOSEPH PARKER, 3 June 1673, New Haven, CT.
vi. MATTHEW GILBERT, b. Abt. 1655; d. 1711; m. SARAH PECK, 2 May 1684, Lyme, CT; b. 4 August 1663, Lyme, New London Co., CT; d. 4 April 1730, New Haven, CT.
vii. SAMUEL GILBERT, b. Bef. 4 October 1657, New Haven, New Haven Co., CT; d. 12 January 1720/21, New Haven, CT; m. HANNAH LITTLE, Abt. 1695; b. 30 November 1671, New Haven, CT; d. 1726.
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- Blue, Jon C., The Piglet’s Paternity, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015
- Boyer, Carl, Ship Passenger Lists,
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- Dexter, Franklin Bowditch, Historical Catalogue of the Members of the First Church of Christ in New Haven, Connecticut, New Haven, 1914.
- Gilbert, Geoffrey, ed., Gilberts of New England, Victoria, B.C., 1959.
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- Holmes, Frank R., Directory of the Ancestral Heads of New England Families, 1620-1700, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1964.
- Jacobus, Donald Lines, Families of Ancient New Haven, Rome, NY: Clarence O. Smith, 1927.
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- Osterweis, Rollin G., Three Centuries of New Haven 1638-1938, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.