Old Ship's Church Hingham MA
Deacon John Leavitt’s Letter to His Descendants January 4, 1691*
On this cold Sunday winter evening of January 4 in the year of our lord 1691, I take my pen in hand to write a short history of my life to my future descendants so they will know how I got to this place and what I did during my life.
I am in my 83rd year of life on this earth and I am not sure how many more years the good lord will give me. It is a cold winter evening as usual for this time of year and I have just returned from our church service in the grand Ship Church, that we built about ten years ago.
I was born in 1608 in Beverly, Yorkshire, England, the first son of Percival and Mary Linkley Leavitt. My parents had 9 children, 4 sons and 5 daughters. I don’t remember too much of my early childhood, but remember being hungry and at times not having much food on the table. At the age of 13, I became an apprentice and planned to become a maker of clothing.
In these times in order to survive one must have a trade in order to make a living. I never truly enjoyed being a tailor and frankly was not that good at it. I found myself dreaming of a more exciting life where I could grow my own food and have land of my own and a family. The likelihood of this becoming true however seemed awful doubtful at the time.
I had heard stories of groups of English people heading for the new world of New England and how they planned to build communities, have their own land, church and families. This was very exciting to me and something I longed for and dreamed about, but since I was indentured to serve my master until my 21st birthday the prospects seemed out of the question.
One evening when I was 16 years old, our family had a visit from my Uncle Christopher Levett, who was a Captain in the English Navy and the Kings Woodward of Somersetshire, which means he was an expert on wood for building English ships. He is my favorite uncle. He had just returned from New England and had explored the East Coast of New England in search of forests for wood to build future masts for our Navy ships. He told of exciting tales of this new land and his plans to get a group of people together to come with him to the New World to establish a settlement, which he planned to call York. My uncle had even been granted 6000 acres from the King for this purpose.
He could see how excited I was about his adventure and I told him I wanted to go with him to the New World. At first my parents were shocked with the idea and told me I couldn’t go; besides I was indentured to the tailor Thomas Woodward until I was 21 years of age. As time went on they could see I was serious and unhappy with my current life.
My Uncle Christopher knew of my desire and told me he couldn’t take me with him, since I was still indentured and being a Naval Vessel and him being a Navy Officer it would be dangerous for him. I was very dejected until Uncle Christopher contacted me one day that one his captain friends had agreed to provide me passage to the New World and would not put me on the ship’s roster. I was both excited and scared but I knew I had to make this adventure. My parents were sad to see me go, but reluctantly they let me go. I felt some remorse about leaving my apprenticeship early, but the thought of this great adventure overcame any regrets. So at nineteen years of age and with only a handful of belongings and an introduction letter from my uncle Christopher, I boarded a ship along with another group of adventures for a place called Plymouth in the new world.
It was a long sea voyage and I confess I am not a sailor and was often sea sick. It was hard for me to stay below deck in the confined spaces with so many other people. The seas were rough and there were many storms. There was much sickness aboard ship and four of our party perished before we arrived at our destination. We also had two babies born during the voyage. Upon finally arriving in Plymouth, I had decided to stay with the group I crossed the sea with, who planned to settle somewhere north of Plymouth. They started a new community in a place called Mattapan, which was later changed to Dorchester.
On our way to our new land we encountered some local savages (Called Indians) but they appeared friendly and willing to share their food with us. At first I was frightened by the appearance of these Indians, but I eventually became comfortable with them and have had many Indian friends in my lifetime. We reached our destination in the early summer and immediately began planting our crops for the fall. We all helped each other stake out our land and build our new homes.
Life was good in those first years at Dorchester. In 1629, I was able to again see my Uncle Christopher and meet Governor Winthrop. We had a great reunion and my uncle was happy that I was doing well. Uncle Christopher seemed very excited about his current voyage and when we parted he said he would let my parents know I was well. Unfortunately several years later I heard that my Uncle Christopher had died and had been buried at sea. I miss his great wisdom and happy sense of humor.
Since I had acquired land and was a proper citizen of Dorchester and the church, I was honored by the community and given the title of freeman. I was very excited about this honor, but little did I know the problems it would cause me a few years later. Notice of my becoming a freeman had reached England and my master Thomas Woodward read about it and came to Dorchester and seized my property in 1634.
I became very distraught and left Dorchester with the few belonging I had left and went north to Exeter to see a distant relative, Thomas Lovet, who had settled there according to my Uncle Christopher. They were very nice to me and provided lodging and comfort to me during this trying time of my life.
After I got over the initial shock of losing my property, I realized that now I was free and owed no one even though I had nothing. This was a great land I was living in with lots of opportunity for people who worked hard. During this time I met my first love Mary Lovet who was a niece of Thomas Lovet and we were married. We decided to move to a new settlement called Hingham, where I was able to again receive land to farm and a place to live. In 1636, I once again became a freeman in Hingham and remained one for the rest of my life.
During my life with Mary we had five children and I became a deacon in the church and a leader in the community. I became a friend to the local Indians and at one time helped the Indian chief bury his mother. I always found them true to their words and a giving people. The Indians never forgot our kindness and when they sold their land to the township of Hingham in 1665 they required that I receive 10 acres of land on the north side of Turkey Hill. I have always been grateful for that gift and their friendship.
In 1646 my wife Mary died of an illness and left me alone with my five children. Jeremiah my youngest son was only 4 months old at the time. It was a very sad time for me and if it wasn’t for the help from my friends and church I don’t know if I ever would have recovered. Fortunately I had met the Gilman family, who were a prominent family in England who came and settled in Hingham in 1637 and were friends of my Uncle Christopher Levett. We also became good friend and business associates and when Mary died, they were there to help and consul me. One of their daughters Sarah came over and helped with the children. She was a lovely girl and I soon fell in love with her. We were married in December of 1646.
Last month Sarah and I celebrated our 44th year of marriage. During these 44 years we have prospered and raised mine and Mary’s 5 children plus 8 of our own. I am so grateful for my family and I am very proud of each one of them. Some have moved away to start their own adventure and begin their own families. Some have remained here in Hingham and have been very helpful to me and Sarah in building our home and helping to plant our crops. During this time we were fortunate to increase our land holding and wealth.
In 1675 Chief King Philips, as he was called, tried to enlist all the native Indian tribes together to eliminate the English from their lands. This became a very bloody war and lasted until 1676 when King Philip was killed. Many people including whites and Indians were killed. Many of my Indian friends and neighbors were killed, some who had never made war against us.
The last fifteen years have been a time of healing and rebuilding for our once thriving country. Ten years ago our church decided that we needed a new meeting place so we built a large substantial building with an unusual roof. We wanted to build a structure that would last a long time and therefore we would need a strong roof to withstand the hard winters. Since most of the carpenters had more experience building ships than buildings, the strongest structure they knew how to build was the hull of a ship. So we came up with the idea of making the roof look like an inverted hull of a great ship. I was pleased to help build and donate some of the wood for this structure. I am always proud during church services to look up at that magnificent and gigantic strong ceiling. It is our hope it will last for a hundred years.
Well it is getting late and Sarah is telling me I should come to bed. I have enjoyed looking back at my life and it was good for me to take the time and remember all of my blessings. It is my hope my children, grandchildren and all of my descendants prosper in this new land as I did and hope they will remember me.
“Guard well thy faith, keep true thy heart,
Hold thou thine honor fast;
Thus be the luster of thy worth,
Back on thy fathers cast.”
By: John Michael Leavitt 10th Generation Mose's Lineage
*This letter is a work of fiction based on historical facts about Deacon John Leavitt.