J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jonathan Sewell’s D.N.A.

The new issue of American Ancestors just arrived, and it shares interesting gossip about one of the people I’ll mention in my “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour this afternoon at 3:30.

I’ll touch on this person only briefly—my focus at that stop will be his mom, and he was only eight at the time. So I’m sharing the gossip here.

Jonathan Sewell (1766-1839, shown here) grew up in Cambridge as the namesake son of Massachusetts’s Attorney General. The family left the province as Loyalists and spent some unhappy years in England, where they started spelling their name Sewell instead of Sewall. As a young man Sewell emigrated to Canada, studied law, and eventually became the Chief Justice of Upper Canada (Quebec).

In 1793, Sewell acknowledged that he was the father of an infant boy, baptized John St. Alban Sewell. Sewell wasn’t married at the time. Neither was the baby’s mother, Elizabeth Cornfield. The situation was awkward, but you no doubt see a solution—the parents got married.

To other people. Within a few months Cornfield married Sgt. John Finch, a British army musician. Three years later Sewell married Henrietta Smith, whose family were Loyalists from New York. The Sewell household included Jonathan’s little boy, who grew up to be a very handsome British army officer.

In later years some of John St. Alban Sewell’s descendants whispered that the Chief Justice wasn’t his real father. Rather, that man had been covering up for the actual parents, Prince Edward of Britain (1767-1820) and his mistress, Julie St. Laurent. Or maybe Prince Edward and Elizabeth Cornfield. Either way, the officer was secretly a half-sibling of Queen Victoria.

Eben W. Graves is researching the genealogy of all the Sewells in North America, as he relates on his website. His American Ancestors article describes the results of Y-chromosome testing he recently arranged for five volunteers from different patrilineal branches of the Sewell family, including one descendant of John St. Alban Sewell.

And the shocking result was: that baby boy was actually a Sewell. His patrilineal descendant has the same genetic haplotype as other descendants of the first Sewall to settle in Massachusetts. So this paternity revealed…what the written record had said all along.

What was the evidence for a royal paternity? As far as I can see on Graves’s webpage about John St. Alban Sewell, it wasn’t very compelling. One point is:

When Jonathan Sewell married in 1796, John St. Alban remained in the home and was brought up as an elder brother of the family. Then, as now, it was completely and totally socially unacceptable for a child from a previous relationship that didn’t have the blessing of the church to even be referred to, let alone remain in the family.
Some Revolutionary-era American men did bring up illegitimate children within their households: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Flucker, James Lovell. And now we have another eighteenth-century example.


Waldo4me said...

Good post. I'm curious about the child staying with his father. Was that commonplace? Was it because of the gender of the child? Did the mother agree to give up the child or was it a legal requirement?

A very different and unusual situation compared to today's standard.

J. L. Bell said...

It was commonplace in eighteenth-century New England for couples to marry when the woman became pregnant—about a third of all marriages were followed by a birth within seven months.

If a woman gave birth without being married, the law required that child to be bound out by the town’s Overseers of the Poor. In essence, the mother had no rights to such a child. Often, however, the man who became the legal master of the baby until it came of age was its maternal grandfather, keeping everything within the family.

Examples of a father raising an illegitimate child are more rare. Of the four examples mentioned in this posting, three (Flucker, Lovell, Sewell) involve men in the social elite. Three (Franklin, Lovell, Sewell) involve male babies. In the Lovell case, the child (born to the daughter of Harvard college steward Jonathan Hastings) didn’t become part of his father’s household for years, but Franklin and Sewell seem to have raised their illegitimate sons from an early age.

I don’t know of enough cases to see clear patterns, however. There are just enough to say that it wasn’t unheard of for Jonathan Sewell to treat his baby son the way he did.

Anonymous said...

Well some of us have Sewell as a family name from England.

Winston Sewell Stone :)

J. L. Bell said...

As I recall, when Attorney General Jonathan Sewall changed the spelling of his family name, he insisted that “Sewell” had been the original spelling when the family emigrated to the New World.

Which indeed it may have been, but spelling was so inconsistent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that he was unusual for the period in insisting on one over the other.

But he acted too late. The man’s only biography, written by Carol Berkin, is titled Jonathan Sewall because that’s the spelling he used for the most significant parts of his career. At least it offers a simple way to distinguish him from his son Jonathan Sewell.

Unknown said...

Interesting story about Jonathan Sewell We know of him as the friend or John Adams at the crux of the revolution, who escaped to England barely with his family his and their lives at great risk, as the revolt unfolded. This was real historical Drama ,that even Hollywood could not improve upon!
We have researched Sewell Seawell, Sawell, Sowell lines from the late 1500's and the name changing that went on was often times unexplained or unexplainable. Sometimes it was a simple errors of a Ships yeoman who registered Passenger's names as they came across the prow in Southampton and left again in Jamestown a "changed personage" and to future genealogists a perplexity!. Another change occurred at times we have concluded when loyalist Persons or entire families of the era denounces their Rebellious cousins and went north to Canada or back to England, whilst the Rebels changed their spelling to reflect a distinction henceforth.
The Ancestor of interest in my line is Thomas Sawell(b1589 d1649) or Seawell came to Jamestown on "the George" in 1619 (by ships log) with possibly another relative of the era, in the settlement was a Henry Sewell(b d Unknown). We know Thomas was listed as a servant in some capacity to Abraham Piersey of Piersey’s Hundred (AKA Flowerdew), He apparently received his 100 acres after a period of "indentured" servitude, (as was the common arrangement at the time). Henry's properties may have done similarly but records are sketchy.
We know both held land in adjacent properties, and we think may have been, or probably were related, but no proof has come to light (yay or nay). There is good evidence that both were involved with a Sewell "shipping company" which shipped from Sewell's Point, VA, (where USN parks her Aircraft Carriers BTW). A senior Henry Sewell from an earlier Generation worked the Business end from England, We have seen documents of Shipments from there containing Tobacco, Sassafras, etc, all known objects of trade between the Colony and Motherland. "Pieces of these Puzzles" come together slowly, in fits and starts and names misspelled or mistaken from a steward's poor hearing can easily account for a Gent's name becoming a curiosity in the historical record, maybe even accounting for the apparent "end of a bloodline, or the beginning of another bloodline altogether in the clouded view of future researchers. WE would of course love to hear of some conclusive evidence to affirm our suspicions about Thomas and Henry possible relationship, if anyone reading this might know of a resource to that end Thanks