Friday 19 February 2016

The Truth about William and Abiah Gleason

(or Why I Learned to Look for the Original)

William Gleason was the fourth son of Thomas and Susanna (Page) Gleson. Thomas and Susanna were natives of Suffolk, England, who first appeared at Watertown in the Massachusetts Colony in 1652. William’s birth year can be approximated as 1648 based on his appearance as a witness in court records of 1671 when he is said to be 23 years of age.[i] It is unknown whether he was born in England or in the colonies. If his birth were in Watertown, there would be no baptismal record since the Watertown church records prior to 1686 are lost. For the same reason, there is likely no church record for the birth of William’s wife, or of their marriage, if these events occurred in Watertown. Although his parents moved from Watertown to Cambridge, then to Charlestown, and back to Cambridge, William lived in Watertown with his uncle William Page throughout his youth. For his services to the Page family he received a legacy of £10 in the will of William Page, to be paid at age twenty-two.[ii]

The name Abiah or Abia is a biblical name, as is Abiel, and Abijah; and the name of the wife of William can be found spelled as each of these variants. However Abiel is always a masculine name in the Bible, but Abiah and Abijah appear as both feminine and masculine. Since the name Abiah was often used for girls during that period in the colonies, Abiah is the spelling assumed here.

The Record Book of the Pastors of Watertown Church is available beginning in 1686. On 10 April 1687, an entry to these records tells of the baptism of four children of Abiah Leason [sic] who held the covenant. She is described as the “…wife of young William Leason.” The names of the children are William, Joseph, John, and Elizabeth.[iii] On 31 July, Abiah Leason [sic] was admitted to “Full Communion” in the Watertown Church. From these records, we have the knowledge that the wife of William was named Abiah, was a member of the church, and that she was the mother of his children. A birth record for only one of these children can be found. Because the couple settled at Cambridge Farms (now a part of Lexington), the birth of the oldest son of William and Abijah Gleison [sic] is entered on Cambridge records as 15 April 1679.[iv] Two more children, Esther and Isaac, were born to the couple after 1687.[v]

The facts are straightforward to this point, but now the genealogists enter the picture, confusing the facts with misinformation and transcription error.

The errors in the White genealogy
were propagated for decades

The compiler of the first genealogy of the Gleason lineage was John Barber White, a genealogist who never revealed a source, and published his genealogy in 1909.[vi] Many have quoted it as near Biblical truth. Of course we are grateful for his admirable efforts in searching vast records in a day when that was a very difficult thing to do. He created a guidebook of possibilities that we can use as a starting point for our research. Unfortunately, he employed the “best guess” technique to arrive at some conclusions. This method was used to determine William’s birth place and year. Moreover, when he found a girl named Abiah Bartlett, born 1651 in Watertown, she became the best guess for the wife of William.[vii] And it came to pass that Abiah Bartlett was accepted as his wife, and this fiction has been published willy-nilly on the Internet in countless Gleason family pedigrees. Had White looked more thoroughly into early records he would have discovered that Abiah Bartlett actually married Jonathan Sanders/Sanderson in Cambridge in 1669.[viii]

Note: Besides the aforementioned errors in William’s birth data and the error in the identity of his spouse, White is guilty of another major error concerning this family: William had no daughter Ann as he claims. According to the original church record, the Ann Leason [sic] in question was admitted as a young adult to the Watertown Church on 22 Jan 1687/8, where she held the covenant as an unmarried woman who lived with her mother.[ix] This Ann was actually the youngest child of Thomas and Susanna (Page) Gleason.

A confusing misprint crept into Torrey's book

The next genealogist to enter our discussion is Clarence A. Torrey, a man highly respected in the field and renown for his work: New England Marriages Prior to 1700.[x] He began his compilation in the 1920s and continued for years using only paper and pen. In 1985 the hand-written work was first transcribed and put into a printed version. Since that time the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has published the version used today, and a search on their website for the marriage yields this later printed version. Unfortunately the NEHGS entry for William and Abiah has incorrectly placed a right parenthesis, leaving one to wonder if Abiah Gleason might have later married Sanderson.[xi]

To resolve the question, the only thing to do was to seek out the original manuscript of Torrey. When I requested a look at the original, NEHGS graciously provided a scan of Torrey’s written notes. He obviously was aware of the error in White’s Genealogy, and he intended to correct White by making a notation that William’s wife was not Bartlett [double underlined in original]. He further wrote that “she married Jonathan Sanderson,” in reference to Bartlett. He gave William’s wife’s name as “Abiah ____” which is explained, in the introduction to the book, to mean that her surname is unknown. The introduction also explains that when the date of a marriage is unknown, the date of the birth of the first child is used, preceded with “by” meaning before. Thus he gives “by 1679” as the date of marriage, which in no way implies that the marriage year was 1679. Torrey’s original got it right, and the printed result should be:

The moral of the story is that conflicts in genealogy can sometimes be resolved with a look at the original. Of course the original is not always available, and we must rely on material that is someone’s interpretation of the handwritten. So be aware when quoting any genealogical source­ - the truth may yet remain hidden.

Torrey's original handwritten notes reveal the truth (last entry)
(click to enlarge)

Judith Gleason Claassen
Feb 2016

[i] Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Abstracts of Court Files 1649-1675, (Online database. NEHGS), 2:137.
[ii] Middlesex County Probate, 16345.
[iii] Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Watertown: Record Book of the Pastors, 120, 121-122. (Online Database,, NEHGS). The name Gleason is often spelled as Leason throughout early church records, but civil records use a variation of Gleason. If doing a search, one should try both spellings.
[iv] Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Vital Records of Cambridge.
[v] Ibid.; Record Book of the Pastors, 129.
[vi] John Barber White, Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Gleason of Watertown, Massachusetts, 1607-1909 (Haverhill, Mass: Nichols Print, 1909, repr. Bowie, Md., Heritage Books, 1992).
[vii] Ibid., 29; Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Watertown.
[viii] Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Cambridge
[ix] Record Book of the Pastors, 126. Listed as Ann Leason.
[x] Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700. (Online database. NEHGS) Originally published as: New England Marriages Prior to 1700. Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2015.
[xi] Ibid.

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