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John Wightman


John Wightman was born ca. January 1598/99 in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England1,2, and died 1669 in Rhode Island Colony3. He was the son of Edward Wightman and Frances Darbye. He married a woman whose name is not known, but was born ca. 1601 in England, and died Bef. 1654 in England.

As a boy, John saw his father burned at the stake for his religious views. He apparently moved to London with his mother after that pivotal event, eventually marrying an unknown woman and raising his family for many years in London, before immigrating to the new world as a middle-aged man, after the death of his wife.

During his life in England, John experienced the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), with all the political and religious upheaval that it brought. This terrible period in English history ended with Charles' beheading and Cromwell's Republic. John immigrated to the new world during the Cromwell era. Oddly, the early years of the Cromwell "Protectorate" were relatively tolerant of religious dissent; Jews were allowed to return to England, Quakerism prospered, and congregations were allowed to choose their own form of worship. Thus the motivation for the Wightman emigration is unclear. John's son Valentine emigrated first, before 1648, perhaps in response to the upheaval under Charles I. His success in the New World may have persuaded the rest of the family to leave troubled England behind. Certainly, the journey of the so-called Pilgrims in 1620, the Puritans in 1628, and John Winthrop's fleet in 1630 had established a sense that flight to America was a possibility for nonconformists and the disadvantaged of England. A possible association between the Wightman family and that of Roger Williams in England may have added a personal connection to the great and free community Williams had by now established in Rhode Island: Williams' sister, Catherine, married Ralph Wightman, merchant of London, in 1606. There have been various claims that this Ralph was a brother or child of John. The latter is impossible, since our John was only a small child in 1606. The former is not supported by the available data, since no child named Ralph is indicated in the will of Edward Wightman of Burton-on-Trent. However, this Ralph Wightman is probably of the House of Wykin, which makes him a probable cousin of John.

A John Wightman entered Jesus College of Cambridge University in 1634. There is no evidence that identifies this John Wightman as ours (and there were many other Wightman's in the London area), but it is possible.

John arrived at Newport in 1654 (almost certainly via Boston) and then moved on with his son George (at least) to Richard Smith's trading post in Wickford, RI, across the Narragansett Bay. Little is known about John's time in Rhode Island; he was already 55 when he arrived. Presumably, he lived in the household of one of his sons until his death.

Some sources claim that John died on November 13, 1692 in Weymouth, Massachusetts Bay colony. This is another John Wightman (Whitman), probably a child of Zechariah Wightman (relationship unknown), who came to Massachusetts in 1635. Furthermore, this would require our John (son of Edward the heretic) to have lived to the very ripe age of 94 (not impossible, but unlikely). The Wightman/Whitman's of Weymouth were from Norfolk Co., England, making any connection to the Burbage Wightman's likely to be indirect. This has not stopped sloppy genealogists from conflating the two men, but as shown here and by the careful research of Mary Ross Whitman, the John Wightman of Weymouth was not closely related to John, son of Edward of Burton-on-Trent.

In the interest of establishing what is certain, it is important to note that there is no written record of our presumed John Wightman in Rhode Island. His name, existence, and date of death are based on family tradition and speculation. The tradition that George's father's name was John and that he was the son of Edward of Burton-on-Trent is solidly represented in 19th century American writings, particularly those of Baptist history and genealogy. The first statement to this effect has been dated back to 1771, in an early Baptist history. It is clear from the written record that Edward of Burton-on-Trent had two children named John, and if the second John survived it would make perfect sense for him to be the father of George of Quidnessett.

We know virtually nothing about John's wife. Various, unsubstantiated claims suggest that her name was Ruth or Mary or perhaps Mary Ruth. However, some of these same sources claim she was born in 1601 in Rhode Island, which would be impossible since there were no European settlements in New England at that time, and their children were definitely born in England, most likely in London. I have taken the 1601 birth year as reasonable. Whatever her name, she clearly died young, perhaps after giving birth to her last child in 1634, when George's ancestor George was only a toddler.

Children of John Wightman are:

Valentine was the first Wightman of George R.'s family to arrive in the New World, likely around 1648, probably settling at Providence initially (although some sources hold that he was in Warwick this early). He was preceded only by Zechariah Wightman and his family (relationship to ours unknown) who came to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and established the extended Wightman family of the Boston area. Valentine mastered the difficult Native American languages relatively easily. Thus he was employed as an Interpreter for various commercial and government interests. In particular, like Roger Williams, Valentine was one of the few European men who could communicate freely with the Narragansett tribe. He was also employed by George R.'s ancestors Richard Smith and Roger Williams as an envoy and interpreter to the Narragansett tribe. His skills did not go unnoticed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony either. He witnessed an agreement on August 18, 1654 between Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pequot sachem Ninigret, which led to the release of some Pequot captives during the Pequot War. In 1660, he served as a primary witness between Chief Ninigret and the United Colonies (Mass., Plymouth, Conn., New Haven, Hartford).

Like almost all settlers, Valentine was actively involved in land purchasing and speculation. On January 28, 1655, he purchased a meadow and 25 acres of upland from Robert Coles in the Providence area.

On April 27, 1657, he purchased land in Warwick, RI located between that of William Harris and Edward Manton and moved his family down the Narragansett Bay, perhaps due to the arrival of his father and brothers in this area. He was made freeman of Warwick on May 18, 1658. During this time, Valentine served as a witness to the Atherton Company's purchase of Quidnessett and other land on the western shore of the Narragansett Bay. In 1660, Valentine himself purchased over one hundred acres of prime land in the northernmost portion of Quidnessett, adjacent to the Bay, establishing the Wightman Homestead, which would be handed down intact through the Wightman line for over 200 years. He would eventually sell this land to his brother, George's ancestor George Wightman. Valentine's relocation to Warwick did not last long, and Valentine moved back to Providence in 1661, finally settling in the part of Providence called Smithfield.

Valentine remained active in political affairs. He was appointed to a petit jury in Providence by Roger Williams in 1661, engaged in land trading during the 1660's (including an April 27, 1655 purchase of Warwick land from Robert Coles), was elected constable of Providence in 1671, and served as a member of the early RI colonial general assembly as a Deputy in 1675. On May 31, 1666, Valentine took an oath of allegiance to King Charles II.

He was among the few who stayed in Providence during King Philip's War between colonists and the Wampanoag, Narragansett and Nipmuck tribes (1675-1676). Thus, Valentine likely witnessed his own town being burned to the ground, almost certainly including his own home, by the very same tribe he had negotiated with years before.

In 1676, Valentine was elected Town Treasurer of Providence and in 1685 appointed to a general court at Newport.

One source (US International Marriage Records, 1340-1980) lists Valentine's wife Mary's surname as Wightman and her birth location as Rhode Island. Since there were no Europeans in Rhode Island in 1630, this seems unlikely.

Daniel settled in Newport, after arriving in Rhode Island at Richard Smith's trading post in Wickford with his father and brothers. In the absence of Dr. John Clarke, the first minister of the First Baptist Church of Newport, a theological schism between members of the church occurred in 1656. Daniel was among the dissenters who broke away and formed the Second Baptist Church in that year. Another of George's ancestors, Rev. Obadiah Holmes, was the pastor of the First Baptist Church at that time, and presumably on the opposite side of the issue. Daniel served as an assistant pastor of the Second Baptist Church.

There is some confusion and debate over Daniel's existence. Mary Ross Whitman argues that some of the dating on the relevant documentary data is questionable. If indeed the dates are wrong, the association of this "brother Daniel" of George might be incorrect. The Daniel Wightman of the record could be Rev. Daniel Wightman, the son of George, who is known to have come to Newport in 1694. The Daniel I describe here might not have existed. On the other hand, John Wightman of London supposedly had five sons who immigrated to Rhode Island. Accounting for these "five sons" would lead one to reasonably expect a Daniel Wightman in this generation.



1. Adams, Charles Collard, Middletown Upper Houses, (1908, New York: Grafton).

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

3. "Legends at Rootsweb", electronic resource.

4. Anonymous, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900, (2004, Yates Publishing).

5. James Savage, A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Before 1692 (1860, Boston).