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Abraham Wightman

 

Abraham Wightman, Jr.  was born May 16, 1761 in Norwich, New London Co., CT Colony1, and died ca. 1826 in Port Talbot, Ontario, Canada1. He was the son of Abraham Wightman and Susannah Stark. He married Catherine Randall ca. 1780 in Bozrah, CT ?, daughter of Rufus Randall and Margaret Wightman. She was born September 21, 1761 in Colchester, New London Co., CT Colony1, and died ca. 1840 in Gorham, Ontario Co., NY1.

Abraham Wightman Jr. was the grandfather of George Ransom Wightman. Abraham was the youngest child of Abraham Sr. and Susannah Wightman; his father was over 50 when Abraham Jr. was born and his mother was in her mid-40's. He grew up helping to farm his father's land in Norwich, CT (the portion that would later become Bozrah).

Like many young men in New London County, Abraham answered the call to serve the cause of Revolutionary America as soon as he was of age. While no major battles were fought in Connecticut, the colony's overall perspective was similar to that of Massachusetts, although not quite as radicalized as Boston. Thus, the Wightmans, like most of their neighbors and peers, embraced the goals of the revolution and offered their service and muskets to the cause. Abraham was only 13, when the British marched on Lexington and Concord, and only 14 for the siege of Boston. However, late in the war he served as a teen-aged private in Capt. Nehemiah Waterman's Company of the 3rd Brigade, 20th Regiment of Connecticut Militia, Col. Samuel Abbott and Col. Zabdiel Rogers commanders. He was a militia member (a minuteman or citizen-soldier), not a member of the standing continental army. His older brothers James and John also served in the same unit, as did a cousin Daniel Wightman. His first cousin, Captain Zorobabel Wightman, commanded a different Company in the same militia Regiment.

Abraham's first recorded service was for a tour of duty under Col. Abbott to New London on July 9, 1779, when he was only 18 years old. The reasons for this are not spelled out in the record, but it was likely in response to British threats to the port at New London. The British were raiding the Connecticut coast during this period, and while they did not raid New London at this time, the threat was constant and the militia was often called up to respond when British ships were reported.

Abraham performed "special services in cooperation with" Count d'Estaing on Nov 7, 1779. The initial detachment orders to which he responded were for a term of three months, under the command of Col. Nathan Gallup in General Tyler's brigade. Like all the other members of his unit, he was detached from his militia unit on November 9th and discharged from service on November 29, 1779, thus serving only twenty days instead of the expected three months. The reasons for this service are not clear. By late 1779, most of the fighting had moved to the southern states. Count d'Estaing, the ineffectual and overly-cautious French admiral, had just completed a disastrous campaign in Charleston, SC in October of 1779. If Abraham did indeed serve d'Estaing in November of 1779, it may suggest that d'Estaing's fleet reconnoitered or resupplied in the friendly deepwater port of New London (across the Thames River from his grandfather's home in Groton) prior to returning to France. Indeed some of d'Estaing's fleet did sail north up the coast before setting out across the Atlantic, but I've not been able to determine if they came to Connecticut. Alternatively, it is possible that the dating of this record is incorrect. In August 1778, the Continentals with their French allies made an abortive, disastrous assault on Newport, RI in an attempt to retake the long-occupied city from the British. Count d'Estaing led the assault on Newport, this being his only major operation in New England. Given the Wightman family's Rhode Island roots, it seems possible that Abraham may have participated in this misadventure, and the Connecticut and Rhode Island militia were part of the attacking force, but no positive evidence has surfaced to support this idea.

On September 6, 1781 the war "finally" came to New London County. General Benedict Arnold, now fighting for the British, attacked New London and Groton, CT. The British and their German and Tory allies burned both towns and massacred the American troops that were defending Fort Griswold (in Groton, overlooking New London harbor), ignoring their surrender. As much as anything, it is this act for which Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut native, was hated. The 20th Regiment Militia responded to the attack, including Waterman's Company, with Abraham and his brother John among them. Abraham's tour of duty was from September 6-8, 1781, under the command of Col. Zabdiel Rogers, with another Wightman cousin ("Zen. Wightman"-- who I've not been able to identify) serving as a Sergeant. Given the distance between Bozrah and New London, however, the 20th Regiment may not have reached the scene of the devastation until after the British had pulled out. However, some militia members from about the same distance as Bozrah did reach the scene before the attack began (Arnold was delayed by adverse wind). In any case, Abraham served from September 6 through 8 in response to Arnold's raid. At the very least, he participated in putting out the fires, and may have gotten a few parting shots at the retreating redcoats, Hessians, and Tory militia. The September 13, 1781 issue of the Norwich Packet carried a surprisingly understated account of the raid, however the article makes no specific mention of the role of the Norwich militia.

Abraham served again on September 19, 1782, again under Capt. Waterman, but this time under the direction of Major Benjamin Leflingwell. The purpose of this duty (apparently just a single day) is quite unclear, since the war with the British essentially ended in October 1781 with the surrender of General Cornwallis.

In the midst of the Revolutionary War, and before Abraham's response to the Arnold raid, he married Catherine Randall (a distant cousin of Arnold). Somewhat ironically, she was a cousin of General Benedict Arnold. See the discussion under her grandmother, Catherine Westcott. Considerably more information about the Randall family can be found on the Randall Family site. Abraham and Catherine almost certainly grew up knowing each other well as children. They were first cousins once removed, the current limit of legal acceptability for marriage in many states (inbreeding coefficient 1/32). Catherine Randall's great-grandfather was Rev. Valentine Wightman, who was also Abraham's grandfather. The Randall's homesite and farm was in Colchester, the town immediately adjacent to the Bozrah section of Norwich, so they were likely no more than a few miles apart. Moreover, Catherine likely visited her grandfather, Daniel Wightman, who had the farm next to the Abraham Wightmans. Catherine gave birth to Humphrey, their first child and George Ransom's ancestor, in the midst of the Revolutionary War in 1780. As was typical, more children followed on a roughly two year cycle.

Following the end of the war, and the birth of the United States, some time around 1790, Abraham moved the family to German Flatts in Herkimer County, NY (near Mohawk, NY), where he farmed the land. The reasons for this rather significant move are not clear, however Abraham's father had speculated in land in this under-populated and agriculturally rich region. Whatever the sequence of events, a dozen or so families from New London County followed Abraham's relatives William Wightman and William D. Wightman, along with another of George Ransom's ancestors, Stutely Palmer, to central New York State. Most of Abraham's siblings also made the move with their families, including the twins James and John, Benjamin, and sister Amey, now married to David Lamb. Most of these families would later push on to be among the early settlers of Mexico, NY, where Abraham Jr.'s first son and George Ransom's father, Humphrey, would settle and prosper. Neither Stutely Palmer, nor any of the Wightmans appear in the New York census in 1790, suggesting that the move to Herkimer County occurred either sometime in the year 1790 or shortly thereafter.

The German Flatts area of Herkimer County lies in prime agricultural land along the Mohawk River, just east of the current city of Utica. It was originally settled by destitute Germans who were shipped from England to settle in the Hudson River area in the early 18th century. By the 1720's, the first families had penetrated the wilderness up the Mohawk and settled this area. It was (and is still) prime dairy country and as early as 1785, farmers were producing large amounts of cheese. Cheese exporting started around 1800, and it would seem likely that Abraham also raised dairy cattle and produced cheese. The first through road, from Albany to Utica was not completed until 1794; the primary means of travel was via the Mohawk River itself. A canal, built in 1797 aided river travel by bypassing rapids (the great Erie Canal would be completed in 1820 after most of the Wightman ancestors had moved on).

By 1800, John and James Wightman were farming in German Flatts, Herkimer County, NY on farm plots that were very near each other, separated only by the farm owned by Stutely Palmer, Sr. At this time, Abraham was living in Warren, Herkimer County, NY. Warren was originally part of German Flatts, but separated from it late in the 18th century. Abraham's farm was not too far from a farm owned by a George "Whitman" (many of the Wightmans, including Abraham, were spelling their name "Whitman" at this time) -- probably another Wightman cousin. In another part of Warren, presumably not too far away, was a cluster of four farms owned by Abraham's second cousins, Allen, Eleazer, and Timothy Wightman, and Joseph Randall, who might be Catherine's uncle. The three Wightmans are the sons of Allyn Wightman of Connecticut, who was the son of Rev. Timothy Wightman. This location seems curious. Abraham probably arrived in German Flatts about the same time as his brothers and would likely have had the opportunity to locate near his brothers. Apparently he chose not to, settling in the much more isolated and undeveloped community of Warren. This was wild, heavily forested rolling hills. Abraham seemed to have a craving for desolate, undeveloped places, as the rest of his life bears testimony. It is also possible that he had a falling-out with his brothers and chose to distance himself from them. Warren, some twenty or so miles south of the Mohawk River, was formed from German Flatts in February 1796, and named for the Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren, who died at Bunker Hill. There were several lakes, two sulphur springs, and many streams. The community did have an inn, store and grist mill by 1795. A Baptist Church was organized in nearby Jordanville in 1799, and Abraham and his family may have been members of that church. It is worth pointing out, however, that participation in religion had declined significantly in America following the Revolution. After the "Great Awakening" had run its course and, to some extent, helped realize the revolution, church rolls dropped to 10% of their pre-revolution high. It is difficult to know how this affected Abraham, but some very circumstantial evidence, described below, raises the possibility that he might have been a relatively uncommitted Christian.

In 1808, Abraham and Catherine moved their family, including some grown adult children and a toddler (but without George Ransom's father, Humphrey, who was by this time married), to Westmoreland Township in Oneida County, a few dozen miles to the west. The 1810 US census lists "A. Whitman" as a resident of an unnamed township in Oneida County. At this time, Westmoreland claimed a population of 1135, so it was fairly populous, despite its relatively remote location. In fact, there were no roads at all in the area, save the paths of Native Americans, as late as 1790's, when the first settlers arrived. The land was rich and undulating, nearly wholly usable for agriculture, and punctuated by many streams. The town quickly generated several stores, two churches, and eventually an iron foundry over the next few decades after its founding. In 1814, the Wightmans held land in Catherine's name in Westmoreland.

During the Wightman's time in Oneida County, the United States engaged in the War of 1812. Abraham, now over 50, apparently did not serve, or possibly served a limited role in the militia. The British attacked Niagara, in the western part of New York, but the fighting did not progress into the Mohawk Valley.

In 1818, the family moved again, a few miles to the west, to Elbridge, Onondaga County, NY. Catherine, Lucy, Clarissa, Maria, Hannah, and James were still living at home in that year and were members of the Elbridge branch of the Skaneatles Baptist Church. Abraham himself was apparently not listed on the membership registry for that church, a curious omission. It is possible that Abraham was busy elsewhere, or had turned away from organized religion.

In 1819, the economic bottom fell out of America. Crop and land prices plummeted in what is referred to as the "Panic of 1819"-- the first of several brief depressions in 19th century America. Partially in response to the economic situation, Congress enacted the "Public Land Act of 1820", which set minimum prices for the sale of public lands and undoubtedly also had the effect of decreasing the supply of cheap land for prospectors.

Probably motivated in part by these circumstances, in 1820, at the age of 59, Abraham moved the family once more, this time a very long move of some 500 miles, to Port Talbot, Ontario, Canada. British Colonel Thomas Talbot apparently fell in love with the wilds of Ontario not long after the American Revolution ended and sought a large parcel in southwestern Ontario after he resigned his commission. He was able to acquire 5000 acres, and settled the north shore of Lake Erie in 1803 in the area of Elgin County, south of the current city of London, Ontario. Talbot was able to motivate settlers with grants of 200 acres of virtually free farmland; aggressively settling Scottish settlers from 1816-1818, and also recruited a number of families from upper New York State. Each settler had to clear their land, pay a modest settlement fee, and clear land for roadways to develop the area. By the mid-1800's, after Abraham's death, there would be over 12,000 inhabitants in Elgin County, which was virtually unpopulated as late as 1800. In 1820, Abraham, presumably Catherine and Clarissa, and perhaps Hannah and Lucy made the long a difficult move, probably in part by ship across Lake Erie and settled at Port Talbot, which is now in the area of Dutton, Ontario, near John Pearce Provincial Park. Abraham and Catherine's son, Abram, and his young family also made the move. This move was somewhat strange, since it put Abraham back under British rule, the very nation he had fought against as a young man. Abraham certainly sought more and better land at each move and the difficult economic conditions may have been a powerful motivator, but he may also have been plagued by a feeling of crowdedness as more settlers moved into his area at each location. Clarissa, who was probably no more than 15 when the Wightmans left New York, would end up marrying a prominent man of New York State. Abram would also move on relatively quickly, eventually settling in Michigan Territory. Similarly, Catherine moved from Port Talbot, Ontario to Ontario County, New York after Abraham's death, living out her days with her daughter Clarissa and her husband Oliver Harwood.

 

Children of Abraham Wightman and Catherine Randall are:

 

 

Sources

1. Mary Ross Whitman, George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

 

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