Monday, February 15, 2016

The Post University Years of Ralph Wheelock and the Timing of His Travel to Massachusetts

Introduction and Motivation

The research that went into writing this piece arose out of a discussion with a friend and fellow Wheelock enthusiast about the date that Rev. Ralph Wheelock came to Massachusetts. Did he come in 1637, or perhaps earlier in 1636? My friend maintained that the earlier date is more likely, especially given that Wheelock had to cross the ocean, make his way to Dedham, where he settled, build a house, all before the winter weather set in. But I think the commonly accepted 1637 date is correct, and it fits well with the evidence, cited below. 

Wheelock's Early Life in England

Ralph Wheelock was born in 1600, in Shropshire, England,1 at a time when religious tensions were building to a climax. The Church of England, established by Henry VIII, was less than a hundred years old; it had not yet found a stable footing, and there were strong belief systems pulling it in different directions. The Puritan movement was one of those belief systems, seeking change within the church. Contrast with the Separatists (e.g. the Pilgrims) who felt change was impossible, and chose to separate and form a new church. The Puritan movement was 35 years old when Ralph was born. As suggested by the name, it was a movement to "purify" the Church of England - rid it of it's vestiges of Catholicism, remove the ritual ceremonies, and restore God as the head of the church. Not surprisingly, this ran counter to the monarchy, who wanted to retain it's own position as the head of the church.

It was within this conflict that Ralph Wheelock attended Clare Hall in Cambridge, where he obtained his Master of Arts in 1631.2 Cambridge was at the center of the Puritan movement, and Ralph would have been in the thick of it. Many of the Puritans who graduated from Cambridge became Anglican priests, hoping to reform their local churches from within. Ralph was one of these, having been ordained by Francis White of the Norfolk Diocese in May 1630.4 After this date, he remained near Cambridge for six years or so, serving as local curate in Eccles, where his signature appears on the parish register5, and where two of his children were baptized.4 During this period, non-conformist preachers were under significant pressure, threatened with dismissal from their positions, excommunication, and imprisonment. Some, like John Cotton, were summoned to the High Court for their non-conformist practices, where they would have been required to recant, or face imprisonment. To escape this fate or worse, they were forced to flee. Holland and the West Indies were common destinations for fleeing Puritans. The Massachusetts Bay Colony received it's charter in 1629, and it quickly became a desired destination.

According to early family lore, Wheelock and family sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.1,6 While en route, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Peregrina.7 The exact circumstances of his departure is not known, but one can imagine that events came to a head in England, with conflict and repression of Puritan dissenters making life difficult, even dangerous. He may have left under duress, as had so many others, a notion supported by the fact that his wife was nearly to term at the time. But this is speculation, the facts have yet to be revealed.

The precise arrival date of Ralph Wheelock in Watertown, Massachusetts is not known, nor is it known on what ship he came. But he must not have spent much time there, because on 14 July 1637 he appears at a town meeting in Dedham, having signed the Dedham Covenant by that date, and is admitted as a resident of the frontier town:8

"Ralph Wheelocke Thomas Cakebread & Henry Phillipps admitted who subscribed accordingly." 

His arrival in 1637 seems certain. There are no earlier records of Ralph Wheelock in Massachusetts prior to the July 1637 date. He must have left England in early 1637, perhaps March or April. McClure states that it was a long trip, and that they turned backed once. Voyages across the Atlantic took anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, depending on the weather, and how far astray they sailed. So they could have left in March, turned back, left again in April, and arrived in June or early July. The timeline of Wheelock's arrival in Dedham fits well with the family history. 

Wheelock may have had Dedham as a destination in mind when he left England. Members of the families with whom he associated in Eccles and vicinity also ended up in Dedham;3 it's possible that Rev. Ralph Wheelock had his eye on the minister's job there - even before leaving the kingdom. Unfortunately, he didn't get that job, nor was he appointed Ruling Elder, which was a source of disappointment to him.9 But despite that setback, the respect for him held by residents of Dedham was evident in the positions he occupied over the course of the next 14 years. In 1639 he and seven others were chosen for "ye ordering of towne affayers according unto Courte Order in that behalf." The powers that these eight men had were probably similar to the town selectmen of modern times. He was also appointed to assist the surveyor ("measurer") in laying out the lot parcels and the boundaries of the town. He was declared a freeman on 13 Mar 1638/9. In 1642, he was appointed the General Court clerk of writs. On 1 Feb 1644 a Dedham town meeting voted for the first free school in Massachusetts, to be supported by town taxes. Rev. Ralph Wheelock was the first teacher at this school, and probably the first public school teacher in the country. In 1645 he was appointed one of the commissioners authorized to "solemnize" marriages, which at the time was a civil rather than religious duty. In the late 1640's Dedham was becoming quite populous, and it was decided to establish a new town, Medfield, farther up the Charles River. Rev. Ralph Wheelock was appointed leader of this effort, and has ever since been known as the "founder of Medfield".9,10

References and Notes

  1. Most of what is known about Ralph Wheelock's early life, and his voyage from England to Massachusetts comes from the Memoirs of Eleazar Wheelock, DD, by David McClure and Elijah Parish. McClure was an associate of Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, Ralph's great-grandson; the information, no doubt, came directly from Eleazar, who must have gotten it from his grandfather, Ralph's son. McClure says (page 11):  "Mr. Ralph Wheelock was born in Shropshire in England, in the year 1600. He was educated at Clare Hall, in Cambridge University, and became an eminent preacher of the gospel. With thousands of pious people, he suffered persecution for nonconformity to the established religion. He therefore, at the age of thirty seven years, determined on a removal to New England. The ship in which he embarked was once driven back by tempests, the voyage was long and distressing. While at sea his lady was delivered of a daughter. On his arrival, he settled in the town of Dedham, Massachusetts..."
  2. "Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900", edited by John Venn (1834–1923) and his son John Archibald Venn (1883–1958), published by Cambridge University Press in ten volumes between 1922 and 1953. Online at
  3. "The English Ancestry of Joseph Clark (1613 - 1683) of Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts", by Christopher Gleason Clark, published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 152, January 1998.
  4. "Mr. Wheelock's Cure", by Christopher Gleason Clark, published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 152, July 1998. 
  5. Ibid, Ralph Wheelock's signature appears on the Eccles parish register pages dated 1629-1633, and 1633-1636.
  6. "The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., President of Yale College", editted by Frank Bowditch Dexter, M.A., Vol II, Charles Scribner & Sons, NY, 1901. Ezra Stiles was an associate of Dr. Eleazar Wheelock, and cites a passage from an elegy given on the death of Rev. Ralph Wheelock, by John Wilson, the minister at Medfield, whom Wheelock knew directly. The passage goes like this: In Sixteen hundred thirty seven/It was hither he came/When spread there was the Leaven/of Heresy by Name. This date surely comes directly from Rev. Ralph Wheelock. Accessed online Feb 2016, at
  7. McClure states that Wheelock's wife gave birth to a daughter at sea. Since the birth of all of Wheelock's children except Peregrina are accounted for in England and Massachusetts, it follows that Peregrina must have been the one. The name is appropriate; perigrinare in latin means "to travel in foreign lands".
  8. "The Early Records of the Town of Dedham, MA, 1636-1639", Vol III, by Don Gleason Hill, pg 32. Accessed online, Feb 2016
  9. "Dedham, Massachusetts, 1635-1890", by Robert Brand Hanson, 1976, published by the Dedham Historical Society, pg 41.
  10. "Mr Ralph Wheelock, Puritan", a paper read before the Connecticut Historical Society, Nov 7th, 1899, with an appendix by Thomas S. Wheelock. Accessed online, Feb 2016


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