COLONIAL FAMILIES
OF AMERICA
 

By Frances M. Smith
Genealogical Company
Three West Forty-second
Street, New York

 Sewall  Family

 
 

This booklet was shared by
W. Darcy McKeough
and reprinted by
Robert Sewell
November 2002

Click to Contact Robert Sewell
 

Thanks to Mark Sewell of Liverpool
for the suggestion.

The Sewall Family

NAME PROBABLY OF GAELIC ORIGIN — FAMILY PROMINENT IN LITERATURE, THE ARTS, AND POLITICS — ONE WAS PASTOR OF THE HISTORIC OLD SOUTH CHURCH.

    The name of Sewall is a familiar and an honoured one. Literature, the arts, education, and politics bear the stamp of the family influence.

    If the original form of the name was Seawall, the derivation would be from sea and wall, a structure of stone or other materials intended for defence or security against the sea.

    The first to bear the name lived near or was a builder of seawalls.

    Other and more interesting derivations are given which would prove it to be an ancient one. Suil, in Gaelic, means a willow, and su, south; wold, wall, wild, and well, a wood, a plain, or a lawn. Combining suil or su with wold, the name, a local one, would mean, when assumed as a surname, one who lived in or near a plain or wood of willows; or one who lived on a southern plain.

    Whatever the original name, we find in old records the forms Sewel, Sewell, Sewill, Sewale, Sewayll, Suwold, Suwall, Suwell, and Sowell. Seawell is a familiar colonial form of the name.

    One of the first, if not the first, of the family in this country, was Henry Sewall, who was living in Massachusetts in 1634, and was one of the founders of Newbury. He came from Bishopstoke, England.(1)  His son was Samuel, also born in England, who, in 1718, became Chief Justice of the Massachusetts colony, an office which he held for ten years.

    He was a Harvard graduate, 1671, and remained there as librarian and student of theology. But his marriage five years later with the daughter of John Hull, mint master, caused him to give up his studies, and he became associated with his father-in-law in business.

    He was assistant governor of the colony. As judge he presided at the trial of some of the victims of the Salem witchcraft delusion. A few years later, convinced of his error, he made a public confession, asking pardon of God and men for his offence.
His diary, which gives an interesting account of the times, was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

    His son, Joseph, was a preacher of such fervour and unction that he was universally known as the “Weeping Prophet.” He, too, was a Harvard graduate, and elected its president, an honour which he declined. He was pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church, and a friend of Whitefield.
The nephew of Samuel the first, Stephen, also was Chief Justice of the colony, as well as a great-grandson, Samuel, born 1709, who attained to the high judicial position in 1813.

    Memorials of the family are preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society. These include portraits of Jonathan and Joseph Sewell, and the diary, letters, and books of Judge Samuel Sewell, also his portrait.

    Olive branches flourished in Sewall families — seventeen being the sum total in one family. There is a pretty story regarding a forefather, that his wife brought, as her marriage portion, her weight in silver, or 30,000! She must have been a buxom maid! Her father was, perhaps, the John Hull, mint master, already mentioned. But he and his daughter together, with the bridegroom and all the wedding guests thrown in, and the flowers and the presents, could hardly make such a charming total. We will take off a few flourishes, that is, a few ciphers, from this fairy tale, and say that a lucky Sewall received with his bride her “dot” of $300 in silver—but we won’t say it was her weight in coin.(2)

    The Sewells have been a power in Virginia and North Carolina since earliest times. The ancestors of the author, Molly Elliot Seawell, gave their name, in 1627, to Seawell’s Point, the identical spot of the Jamestown Exposition, 1907. Seawell has a curious local pronunciation, being pronounced in Virginia as if it were spelled “Sowell,” though Miss Seawell herself pronounces her name as it is spelled.

    The family is prominent in Moore and Franklin Counties, North Carolina. James Seawell was a member of the Legislature from Franklin in 1801 and 1802, and a member of the same body from Moore County in 1812 and 1813. James Seawell was a member of the Legislature from Cumberland County in 1833 and 1834, but this was probably another man by the same name. Gideon Seawell was a member of the Legislature from Moore County, in 1826-27.

    Probably the most distinguished of the name in North Carolina was Judge Henry Seawell, who lived in Wake County, and was said to have been in his day the greatest criminal lawyer in the State. He was Superior Court Judge and a member of the Court of Conference, which was then the Supreme Court. His father and mother lie buried about one mile south of Carthage. They were Joseph and Martha Seawell, and the inscriptions on their tombstones are still plainly legible, although made in 1835. It is also quite interesting to note that this Martha Seawell was a sister of Nathaniel Macon, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and for many years a Senator in Congress from North Carolina.

    In the South we find a marriage connection with the family of Thomas and Willie Jones, who were the principal authors of the Halifax constitution, and among the most prominent Southern families.

    One of the most popular of political songs during the Revolution was “War and Washington,” written by Jonathan Mitchell Sewall, a lawyer and nephew of Chief Justice Stephen. He was the author of the famous couplet:

“No pent-up Utica contracts your powers,
But the whole boundless continent is yours.”

    This occurs in his “epilogue” to Addison’s “Cato.”

    When Jonathan visited England, and the tombs of his ancestors, he found the name universally spelled Sewell, a form which he adopted.(3)

    A history of the Society of Friends was written in 1717, by William Sewel, a Friend living at Amsterdam, Holland. The history is mentioned by Lamb, in his “Essays of Elia,” under the title, “A Quaker Meeting.” Sewel’s grandfather was an English Brownist, who had emigrated to Holland.

    The arms reproduced are: Sable, a chevron between three bees, volant, argent.

    Crest: A bee, or.

    This is the coat-of-arms engraved under the portrait of the Rev. Samuel Sewall of Boston, a descendant of Henry Sewall, Mayor of Coventry, England, at the end of the sixteenth century. It is the arms borne by the Sewall family of the Isle of Wight.

    The crest of one branch of the family is a chaplet of roses, argent, leaved vert, a bee volant of the first. The arms of another branch are, Sable, a chevron between three butterflies, argent.(4)



Footnotes added by Robert Sewell:

(1)  Henry Sewall came from Coventry, Warwickshire to Massachusetts in 1634.  The Sewall Family returned to England in 1647 where they first lived at Tamworth, Warwickshire; then at Bishopstoke, Hampshire (referred to here); and they finally settled at North Badesley, Hampshire; where Henry Sewall, having entered into Holy Orders, was the Minister.   Henry returned to Massachusetts in 1659; his wife and children followed in 1661.

(2)  This story originates with the charming tale The Pine-Tree Shillings found in Nathaniel Hawthorne: Grandfather's Chair. Hannah Hull's dowry was 500 which would have been 10,000 shillings or 1500 ounces of silver or 125 troy pounds; perhaps a reasonable weight for a young lady 18 years of age. However, Samuel received part of this dowry 17 days prior to the wedding and the remainder a fortnight after the wedding; and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this sum was in any way related to Hannah's weight. For further details, see Samuel Sewall, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, M. Halsey Thomas, ed., Farrar, Straus and Girous, Inc., New York, 1973.

(3)  This line does not refer to Jonathan Mitchell Sewall, but to his cousin Jonathan Sewall/Sewell (1729 - 1796).

(4)  The concept of "butterflies" is mistaken.  Lysons, in his History of Bedfordshire, states that in the church of Houghton Regis, near Dunstan, there is an effigy of a knight in armour, representing Sir John Sewell who flourished in the time of the Black Prince. Lysons claims this effigy: "has the arms of Sewell — a chevron between three butterflies."  This effigy was inspected by my great X2 grandfather, {Rev} Henry Doyle Sewell who stated in a letter dated February 3, 1858 that Lysons had mistaken the bees volant for butterflies because the monument had been "strongly defaced with whitewash and mutilated."  Robert Sewell, November 2002.
 
 

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