Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Will of Lydia Dyer

Whenever I am doing archival research, I am always delighted to find a will. Wills are some of the most illuminating documents left by ordinary people, not only because they provide details about the deceased's material life, but because they often expose the dynamics of family relationships. In the absence of confessional diaries or soul-baring letters, it can be difficult to recover hard evidence about private relationships, but wills can offer excellent clues.

One of my favorite wills was written by Pete's great(x7)-grandfather, Benjamin Weaver (1690-1754) of Newport. In it, he left most of his goods (and slaves) to his wife, Hannah Coggeshall Weaver, including a horse, which he stipulated was,
to be kept by my son Thomas in same manner as he keeps such creatures of his own, and to be brought to the door for [Hannah's] convenience whenever she sees cause, without grumbling.
Recently, I have been researching the genealogy of Lydia Dyer, the elderly Boston refugee whose gravestone proclaims that she died while attempting "to escape ye abuce of ye Ministerial Troops sent by GEORGE ye 3d to subject North-America to Slavery." On Friday, I visited the Massachusetts State Archives to read her will. As I hoped, the will and its accompanying probate records gave me a great window into the Dyer family dynamics on the eve of the Revolution.

Lydia (Hough) Dyer was born to William Hough and Mary Bricknell on February 2, 1696/7. The family lived in the North End of Boston, where William was a tallow chandler. On December 17, 1717, Lydia was married to Joseph Dyer by Rev. John Webb at the New North Church. The couple had two sons, but only the first, Joseph (b. 1719) survived infancy (he became a cooper). Lydia lived a long and prosperous life in the North End. In May of 1775, during the siege of Boston, she left the city, ending up in Billerica. She died there in 1776.

Lydia wrote her will in 1774, but, owing to the vicissitudes of the Revolution, her estate was not divided until 1780. It was a substantial estate for a woman whose family members were craftsmen, even when one considers the rampant inflation of the 1780s. According to the inventory, Lydia left a "Mansion House and Land" in the North End valued at £17,000, a warehouse on Ballard's Wharf worth £3,000, and 68 ounces of silver plate, including a tea service, porringers, and a silver tankard, worth £1,360.

Lydia left most of her wealth to her grandchildren (her son, Joseph, died in 1780). Of Joseph's six surviving children, Lydia seemed to be particularly fond of her namesake, Lydia Dyer (b. 1757). Young Lydia was actually the third of Joseph's children to bear her grandmother's name — two sisters (b. 1744 and 1751) had also been named Lydia, but had not survived. I do not know whether Joseph's persistence in naming his daughters after his mother stemmed from devotion to her, from a sense of duty, or from an understanding that Lydia might favor a namesake.

Whether Joseph anticipated her fondness or not, Lydia certainly did favor her granddaughter. In her will, after consigning her soul to God and her body to the ground, but before disposing of her real estate, Lydia enumerates the goods she will leave to her granddaughter, including
my Fether Bed Bolster & Pillows with all my Beding both wolling and Linning, and all my W[e]arring Apparel both Wolling and Linnen and my Gold Necklace and buttons and House Linnen with all my Furniture that belongs to me
Anyone interested in an in-depth discussion of the ways in which colonial American women created lines of female inheritance, often involving passing moveable objects to namesakes, should read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's lovely essay, "Hannah Barnard's Cupboard," which became a chapter in her book, The Age of Homespun.

When it came time to divide the rest of her estate, Lydia Dyer made sure that young Lydia would not be forgotten. She stipulated that, after the death of her son, whatever remained of her estate should be divided among his children, "and Lydia Dyer to Receive her Equal Part besides the above mentioned."

Lydia was less generous toward her eldest grandson, William (b. 1745), with whom she may have been living in 1774. In the section of her will detailing the division of her substantial real estate, she decrees,
if my Grand Son William Dyer should bring in any Account against me either for Board or any thing Else then I give him not more of my Estate then five shillings, but if he does not then I will that he shall have his Equal shair with the Rest of my Grand Children.
Like Benjamin Weaver, Lydia Dyer seems to have anticipated some uncharitable grumbling from the heir she knew so well, and attempted to reach from beyond the grave to discipline him for bad behavior.

I'm looking forward to getting to know Lydia Dyer better. She did not leave many other documents, but I have some more family wills to read and I will also see if she (or her family) is mentioned in the letters of her neighbor and pastor, Andrew Eliot.

10 comments:

Deb Holland said...

Would she have left all the household goods to Lydia not just as a mark of her favor, but because it was the woman's job to provide such goods for marriage, and so the male grandsons would be provides with such goods by their wives?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Yes, that's definitely a major reason why a grandmother would leave moveable goods to her granddaughter. I was thinking of the relationship between the two Lydias as special mainly because the older Lydia makes no special provisions for any of her other granddaughters - Young Lydia is clearly the favored heir over her sisters as well as her brothers (also, Lydia Sr. leaves no tokens to William's wife, even though she is apparently living with her).

One of Ulrich's arguments in the article I mentioned was that women created lines of female-dominated inheritance in which favored heirs were often marked by sharing names. The goods then passed from one Hannah (in this case, Lydia) to another.

I'm still trying to figure out whether young Lydia's older sister, Mary (b. 1752) was still alive when the will was written. She was definitely deceased by 1780, but I haven't found a precise death date yet. If older Lydia passed over an older granddaughter in favor of her namesake, that would make this case even more stark.

Richard said...

Hello, I am a descendant of Lydia Hough Dyar. Joseph was the first of the libe to use the unique spelling with "ar" intsead of the usual "er". I was thrilled to read your post, as I know little about Lydia and Joseph. I do have William Hough's will from 1714 and it is one beautiful piece of calligraphy. I also have Edward Bricknell's will as well. Do you have a photo of Lydia's gravestone and do you have a copy of her will? I would LOVE to obtain a copy for my family tree records!
Incidently, after Lydia, my Dyer/Dyar line goes to Joseph Jr. then to the "infamous" William. He was father of John Fowle Dyar who was married to Jane Eayers by Rev John Murray of the First Universalist Church in Boston. John Fowle was actually baptised in the New North Church, I believe. John died in July 1812, but he had a posthumous namesake, who was also named John Fowle Dyar. He was a leather dealer in Cambridgeport, later a Universalist minister. He was married to Sarah Elizabeth Baker, daughter of Jacob Baker and Lydia Adams. Rev Dyar was a fascinating man. After his first wife died of typhoid in 1852, he moved to western Massachusetts where he was a justic of the peace, and minister in the town of Prescott (now under the waters of Quabbin Resevoir). He lived in Pelham and died in 1891, buried in Ware,Massachusetts. No gravestones though. It seems that nobody had them, so I was excited to read that you found Lydia Hough Dyer/Dyars!

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Hi Richard,

Glad to hear from a Dyar relative! Your ancestor William sounds like quite the scamp, but maybe Lydia was just a curmudgeon.

There is a photo of her gravestone in this post.

You might also be interested in this article about Lydia and her gravestone.

I don't have a copy of the original of Lydia's will, but I do have photocopies of the official copies on file with Suffolk County. They are available on microfilm at the Massachusetts State Archives. If you are interested in looking them up, the record number is 17231. The records are in the Suffolk County files, vol. 79 (pgs 292, 622) and vol. 80 (pgs 277-8).

I have also transcribed parts of Joseph Jr's will here. His number in the Suffolk County records is 17215.

I will be using Lydia Dyar's story in my dissertation — check back for updates as I find out more!

Richard said...

Hi Caitlin,
That is great that you intend on doing your dissertation on Lydia Dyar. I would love to read it when you're done!
I too have Joseph Jr's will, as well as Joseph Sr., John and Deacon Thomas Dyer's will from 1676. I was very lucky to hold the actual will of Deacon Thomas Dyer at the Mass Archives several years ago. They don't allow that anymore, so I feel that I was very fortunate.
I will have to look for Lydia's will. It's very unusual to find a woman in such a postion in those days. Quite a nod to Lydia's intelligence and character.
I have quite an interest in old gravestones too and photographed several ancestral ones from the 17th, 18th and early 19th century. Those 18th century ones are something else, huh? I love the art work involved in them. Thanks for sharing such great work!

AEY said...

Caitlin,
Have you finished your dissertation yet? If not, you should know that Lydia Dyar was a Boston shopkeeper, selling among other things (or maybe primarily) seeds and advertising in the Boston newspapers on a fairly regular basis. You can access these at genealogy bank.com. Anne Yentsch

Christopher M said...

Hello,
I am a Lydia descendant from Ohio. There is quite a bit of folklore in the Family thanks to people living long lives. I laugh when reading the story of Lydia. She is just like the smart, independent descendants that have lived over the last 200 years. Our family line goes through Lydia's favorite grand daughter, Lydia. She is my 6G grandmother. It is quite an interesting story. The family was divided between Torres and Patriots. We have quite a few wild family stories that I am working to verify.


Chris

Anonymous said...

All,
We think we found a portrait of Lydia Dyers granddaughter. We are trying to confirm, and should be able to since there is information about the painter and the year it was painted. She had blue eyes, and was a blond.

Anonymous said...

Caitlin,
Some information about Lydia Dyer from our family Bible and diary records.

1. In 1780, Lydia Dyer was pregnant, and had a two year old daughter named Lydia, her first (surprise !)

2. Thomas Ridgeway and Lydia Dyer left for Nova Scotia soon after the estate was settled. We believe the two girls lived to adulthood, but Thomas Ridgeway the second died in Nova Scotia at the age of 14. They had more kids in Canada.

2. We have stories about Lydia Dyers older sister Mary. According to family legend, she was violently forced out of Boston my a mob due to her Loyalty to the Kind. (I have tried hard to confirm this, but their are no records for Mary indicating her fate)

3. The story gets very interesting after the Revolution, Lydia Dyer died in April, 1820. about six years after her husband Thomas.


My 92 year old great Aunt began researching the (Ridgeway, Dyer, Hardy) family almost 70 years ago, and still has copies of old letters from 100 years ago.


The fate of Lydia's older sister Mary has always been an interest to me, but I think some of the family tales were exaggerated. (but to be fair, my Aunt was Valedictorian of her high school about 1939, and my grandfather graduated from Harvard in 1931..so they were no dummies...and were not ones to make things up)

Cheers
Chris in Ohio

Anonymous said...

Caitlin,
Some information about Lydia Dyer from our family Bible and diary records.

1. In 1780, Lydia Dyer was pregnant, and had a two year old daughter named Lydia, her first (surprise !)

2. Thomas Ridgeway and Lydia Dyer left for Nova Scotia soon after the estate was settled. We believe the two girls lived to adulthood, but Thomas Ridgeway the second died in Nova Scotia at the age of 14. They had more kids in Canada.

2. We have stories about Lydia Dyers older sister Mary. According to family legend, she was violently forced out of Boston my a mob due to her Loyalty to the Kind. (I have tried hard to confirm this, but their are no records for Mary indicating her fate)

3. The story gets very interesting after the Revolution, Lydia Dyer died in April, 1820. about six years after her husband Thomas.


My 92 year old great Aunt began researching the (Ridgeway, Dyer, Hardy) family almost 70 years ago, and still has copies of old letters from 100 years ago.


The fate of Lydia's older sister Mary has always been an interest to me, but I think some of the family tales were exaggerated. (but to be fair, my Aunt was Valedictorian of her high school about 1939, and my grandfather graduated from Harvard in 1931..so they were no dummies...and were not ones to make things up)

Cheers
Chris in Ohio