Colonial Gilberts


I was recently delighted to find that a small company out of Markham, Virginia, would print me a hard copy of J. Wingate Thornton’s 1850 Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England.  Setting aside the forgivable retransmissions of errors found in earlier works by Westcote and Prince, this little 23 page gem inspired me to compile a brief sketch of some of the lesser-known, but still notable Gilberts from history.  In doing so, I consciously decided to omit the more famous Sir Humphrey Gilbert (who claimed Canada for England) and his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh (who hardly needs introduction here).  Further, Thornton’s enthusiastic view of the bravery and industry of the Gilbert family tempted me to produce a romanticized rescript of past nobility.  This I also resolved to avoid, leaving in the sometimes savage and sometimes sorry behavior that still follows our little clan and marks us as human.

Sir Adrian Gilbert of Compton

Among the more ‘human’ of us, and the one I feel most akin to, was Sir Adrian Gilbert of Compton (1541-1628).  At his lowest low, he was called “the greatest buffoon in England” and “cared not what he said to man or woman of what quality soever”.  Like his brothers Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh (especially when they were in Ireland), Adrian was accused of “great fury” and “savage cruelty”.  Nonetheless, he was noted for his intelligence in mathematics and alchemy, something he shared with noted mathematician John Dee.  In the 2000 book Following the Ark of the Covenant, authors Kerry and Lisa Boren go so far as to say Dee charged Adrian with carrying the Ark of the Covenant to the Americas!  Less far-fetched is that Adrian became “a great favorite of Mary, Countess of Pembroke” due to their shared interest in alchemy, he becoming her laboratory assistant.  What is certain is that Adrian was of the same ilk of Devon explorers as his many Gilbert relatives, having received a patent from Queen Elizabeth I for the discovery of a northwest passage to China, the document being titled “The Colleagues of the Fellowship for the Discovery of the North-west Passage”.

Another of these Devonshire explorers was the sea captain Bartholomew Gilbert, who arrived in America in 1602.  His mission was to establish a colony in the New World, which he did in Cape Cod (named by him).  Captain Bartholomew apparently did not inherit his uncle Adrian’s mathematical acumen.  The colony failed after a few weeks when it was discovered that he had miscalculated the overwinter provisions, having brought only six weeks’ worth of food.  The entire party packed up and was back in England by late July.  Captain Gilbert cannot, however, be discredited for lack of bravery.  The very next year, on May 10th, he set sail from Plymouth, England, determined to discover the fate of brother Walter Raleigh’s famously-vanished Roanoke Colony.  Upon anchoring off the desolate former site of Roanoke on July 29, Captain Gilbert and four of his men formed a landing party.  Once ashore, they were attacked by a band of Algonquians and killed.  The seal of Northampton County, Virginia, today bears the date 1603 in commemoration of Captain Bartholomew Gilbert’s courage.

Another Gilbert, a son of Sir Humphrey, also engaged in what Thornton called the Gilbert’s, “hereditary scheme of peopling America with Englishmen” in 1607.  In that year, two ships under the command of Sir George Popham and Captain Raleigh Gilbert, set out from Plymouth, England.  They arrived with one hundred men, weapons, and supplies at the mouth of the Sagadahock, or Kennebeck River, on the coast of Maine.  They built a fortified store-house they called Fort Saint George, and the two ships returned to England for supplies.  The forty-five men who remained were under the presidency of Popham and the admiralty of Raleigh Gilbert.   Over a harsh winter Popham died, leaving Raleigh as president.  At some point, news reached the colony that Raleigh’s older brother, Sir John Gilbert (another son of Sir Humphrey) had died.  With that news, and in the face of “nothing but extreme extremities”, the colony unanimously voted to return to England.  It is said that they were so resolute in this goal that they built a ship to facilitate the return voyage, which would probably be the first oceangoing vessel built in America – built under the direction of a Gilbert.

These stories are a reminder that European colonization in Native American lands immediately locked the two cultures in a complex, brutal war that came in waves of violence lasting nearly 300 years.  An example of this comes from the tale Mrs. Rowlandson’s captivity from the book Tragedies of the Wilderness, by Samuel Gardner Drake, 1844.  Mrs. Rowlandson and her three children were made slaves for eleven weeks by Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nashaway/Nipmuc Indians led by Monoco after their attack on Lancaster, Massachusetts. Later, after being purchased out of slavery for 20 pounds sterling, she wrote about her encounter with young John Gilbert, son of my many-great grandfather Captain John Gilbert (first of my line to come to America).  Mrs. Rowlandson writes, “I went to see an English youth in this place, one John Gilbert, of Springfield.  I found him laying without doors upon the ground.  I asked him how he did; he told me he was very sick of a flux with eating so much blood.  They had turned him out of the wigwam, and with him an Indian papoos, almost dead, (whose parents had been killed,) in a bitter cold day, without fire or clothes; the young man himself had nothing on but his shirt and waistcoat.  This sight was enough to melt the heart of flint.  There they lay quivering in the cold, the youth round like a dog, the papoos stretched out, with his eyes, nose, and mouth full of dirt, and yet alive, and groaning.  I advised John to go get to some fire; he told me he could not stand, but I persuaded him still, lest he should lie there and die.  And with much ado I got him to a fire, and went myself home.”  I have found no further record of the fate of young John Gilbert.

The unfortunate young John Gilbert’s father, Captain John Gilbert (1626 – 1690, and one of many with that name), soldiered on along with his brother, Jonathan Gilbert, in establishing Hartford, Connecticut.  Of John we know he married Amy Lord, daughter of Thomas and Dorothy Lord, on May 6, 1647, and had probably arrived from Yardley, England, in about 1645.  He and his brother Jonathan, the latter being a linguist of Native American languages of the region, are recorded as acting as emissaries between the Governor in Hartford and the local tribes.  In 1653, Jonathan was even so important as to be made a ‘marshal’ of sorts, receiving a special warrant from the Colony to “rayse such considerable forces as hee sees meete”. 

It was Jonathan’s younger son, Captain Thomas Gilbert, who rekindled the maritime adventurism of his recent ancestors.  Born about 1655, Thomas was said to have been “a brave and successful officer, and a leading man in the primitive navy of the colony”.  For several years, Thomas commanded the twelve-gun Swan during a turbulent time of war on the high seas.  During King William’s War, Thomas and his associates captured the French ship Saint Jacob.  The Swan’s luck ran out in 1695 when it was overtaken by a French privateer of 20 guns.  Even in this defeat, a witness’s account prompted Thornton to write the Thomas displayed, “fortitude and self-possession in difficulty, manly and generous heart, and desperate and unflinching defense against superior force”.  This Captain Gilbert was said to be self-confident enough to freely weep when moved by the scene of two companions being joyously reunited after the Swan went down.  He spent the rest of the war a prisoner in France, released afterwards during a prisoner exchange.

Captain Thomas Gilbert’s uncle, Captain John Gilbert (1626-1690), is from where my American line descends.  What follows is what I consider to be typically and woefully American:  eight or so generations of virtually no family history.  I know very little about the men and women of my line from Captain John’s son Joseph through my grandfather, Robert.  However, despite my earlier self-admonitions against romanticism, I cannot resist putting the stars of my father and my grandfather up among the constellation formed by my ancestors.  Notable to me, and just as bravely, my grandfather Robert James Gilbert recrossed the Atlantic to help defeat the Nazis as an infantryman in Europe.  The best I can tell he fought in some of the most harrowing battles in Italy – and had the artillery-shrapnel scars to prove it.  My father, Bernard James Gilbert, spent eight years in the Army and National Guard during the Cold War, only to spring back into volunteer service to rescue victims and recover bodies during the lethal Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak.  After that, he spent fifteen more years in the Civil Defense helping flood and disaster victims without taking a dime.  Precious little is known about my female ancestors, and I do not mean to neglect them here.  I submit that whoever and wherever a Gilbert may be, man or woman, we belong to a family of singular daring.

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