Friday, November 18, 2016

Medfield Historical Society Talk About Wheelock Descendants, 3 Oct 2016

Preamble To This Blog Entry

The following is more or less an exact transcript of the talk I gave to the Medfield Historical Society in Medfield, MA, 3 Oct 2016. The items in angle brackets <> signify slide transitions to the specified PowerPoint slide. You can find a PDF version of the slide deck here. The talk was well attended, with about 30 or 35 people, and lasted about 50 minutes, with a 15 minute question and answer session.

There are frequent mentions of the bibliography. This can be found on the Wheelock Genealogy website here.

Who I Am

My name is Rick Sullivan; and I'm very happy to be here talking to you today. First, a little about who I am. My mother was Betty Jean Wheelock, a direct descendant of Rev. Ralph Wheelock, whom you all know as the founder of Medfield. I've been fascinated by the Wheelock family history for two decades now, and love talking about it. In the mid 1990s I found a way to combine my love of computers with my love for genealogy by creating the Wheelock Genealogy website. At the time, this was a new and exciting way to publish a genealogy, so that everybody could see it, and could participate in it's growth and improvement. People, could suggest corrections and add missing details. This allowed the genealogy to grow over time and become more accurate. And more importantly, it's allowed me to connect with relatives and Wheelock genealogy enthusiasts all over the country and the world - hear their stories, and share them with all on the website.

What This Talk Is About

The challenge in talking about family history, especially to people who don't share it, is to make it interesting. From my perspective it's a priori interesting. Almost any random fact about Wheelock history will get my rapt attention. But, as I've discovered over the years, other people don't share my boundless enthusiasm. So, my modest goal tonight is to not be boring, and to tell you something interesting about the progeny of Rev. Ralph Wheelock.

Working in my favor is the fact that the story of his descendants is shared by many who came to Massachusetts during the 1600s. Though the details differ, the broad outlines will be familiar to anyone who can trace their ancestry back to early colonial America. So, in a way, this story belongs to all of us.

I'll start with a brief overview of Ralph Wheelock’s life, before coming to Medfield. I'm not going to cover his life in Medfield, because this audience is mostly familiar with that, and if not, the info is readily available in local history books.

I'll then talk about the origins of the Wheelock surname in America, because not all are descended from Ralph. I'll talk about some of the early relocation patterns, the movements of people to new towns, which I think will look similar for many early colonial families.

Then I'll talk about Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, because he's probably the most famous colonial Wheelock. I'll talk about Wheelock participation in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution. Finally, I'll close with a mention of some famous descendants of Ralph.

A Little About Ralph

<Ralph Wheelock Slide>

Rev. Ralph Wheelock was born in 1600 in Shropshire, England. He was a Puritan minister who got his graduate degree at Clare Hall in Cambridge, which, at the time, was the center of the Puritan movement. The Puritans had strongly held opinions about big changes that should be made to the Church of England - changes that threatened the establishment - namely the clerics and the monarchy. As a result, many Puritan ministers were under heavy pressure from the monarchy and the church; many were being dismissed from their positions, excommunicated, and in extreme cases, imprisoned or executed. It's not known exactly why Ralph decided to emigrate, but it seems likely he did so because of this oppression, and perhaps under duress. He had three young children at the time, his wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with their fourth; it's hard to imagine she was eager to take a six week voyage of uncertain outcome on rough seas. But whatever the reason, Ralph and family left England and arrived in Massachusetts in 1637. By July of that year, Ralph had signed the Dedham Covenant, and for the next 14 years played a leading role in that town. My guess is that he had hoped to retain the pastor's position there, but that was not to be. Instead, he held various other leadership positions. He was one of eight men chosen for "ye ordering of towne affairs", similar to a modern day selectman. He was chosen to assist the surveyor in laying out lots, and in 1644 the town voted to pay for the construction of a public school, and Ralph Wheelock was appointed headmaster.

<Picture of the first public school house>

This is the first tax-payer funded public school in America, and Ralph is credited with being the first public school teacher in America. This picture is a reconstruction from early town records of what the school must have looked like.

As we'll see, Ralph Wheelocks teaching career established a tradition that was passed down to some of his heirs.

Of course, another demonstration of the trust the town of Dedham placed in Ralph is that he was chosen to lead the effort to establish the new town of Medfield, farther up the Charles River.

Wheelock Surname In America

Ralph and his wife Rebecca had nine children. Most of them lived to a ripe old age, giving Ralph and Rebecca almost fifty grandchildren, and at least 155 great grandchildren. Nobody knows exactly how many descendants of Ralph and Rebecca survive today, but there seem to be quite a few of us.

<Wheelock Progenitors in America Slide>

There are over 5000 Wheelocks in the white pages. Not all of them, it turns out, are descendants of Ralph. Some of them are descendants of a James Wheelock, of Virginia, whose ancestry is not certain, but does not seem to be descended from Ralph. Some of them are Native Americans, who adopted the Wheelock surname, for reasons that will become clearer later in the talk.  Some are descendants of a Charles Wheelock, who came to the United States from Ireland in 1810. And some are descendants of a South American branch of the family, founded by Thomas Wheelock of England, who emigrated to Peru in the mid 1800s. His descendants live throughout the Americas.

And there are, no doubt, Wheelocks who descend from others that I haven't mentioned, but in my experience, the vast majority of people with the Wheelock surname in this country are descended from Ralph and Rebecca.

Early Patterns of Relocation

<Early Massachusetts Relocation Patterns Slide>

Like all other colonial families in New England, the descendants of Ralph were constantly pushing the boundaries of the frontier, looking for new lands with which to make a living. Ralph himself did this twice in his life, coming first to the new world in 1637, and later to Medfield in 1651.

And for the next 200 years his progeny did the same. His daughter Record was an early settler of Marlborough, marrying into the Ward family there. Ralph's son Benjamin was an early settler of Mendon, and appears on the founders monument near the center of town. Descendants of Benjamin spread into Uxbridge, MA, and Smithfield, Glocester, and Burrillville, RI.

Ralph's grandchildren were early settlers of Shrewsbury. Samuel Wheelock signed one of the original deeds there, and was a founder of the first church. His son Gershom Wheelock is credited with building the first house in Shrewsbury. Elizabeth Ward describes the construction of this house in her book "Old Times In Shrewsbury":

He labored alone that winter, keeping up his spirits through the cold, dreary days by his merry whistling, sleeping in the loft and pulling the ladder up after him at night, always whistling his morning song before putting it down again. His courage never failed until the spring birds sang to him while he whistled, and the house was done; then he married Abigail Flagg of Marlboro, and housekeeping began in Shrewsbury.
Descendants of Samuel and Gershom spread into Grafton, Millbury, Sutton; and later into Cavendish, and Eden, VT, and New Ipswich, NH.

Descendants of Ralph also spread into Nova Scotia, under interesting circumstances typical for many New England families in the 1760s.

<Nova Scotia – Deportation of the Acadians Slide>

After the British won the French and Indian War, they decided it was necessary to forcibly remove the French settlers (also called the Acadians) from Nova Scotia. The Acadians had refused unconditional loyalty to Britain, and were engaging in military operations against the British, in support of the French. As a consequence, approximately 11,500 Acadians were forcibly deported, leaving entire farms and fisheries vacant. In order to populate the now largely empty region with loyal British subjects, land grants were offered to New Englanders.  Thousands took advantage of this offering, including at least four members of the Wheelock family, three of whom were brothers, the fourth of whom went separately, probably without knowledge of the other three. All went in the 1760s, establishing a large branch of the Wheelock family tree that survives still today.

<map of the Holland Land Purchase>

After the Revolutionary War, most of western NY was put up for sale by the Holland Land Company, at a cost of between $2.50 and $10 per acre, ( and many from New England took advantage of the opportunity, including Wheelocks from Charlton, who were early settlers of Batavia, Concord, Holland, Hamburg, and other towns in western New York.

Over subsequent generations, members of the Wheelock family continued to move westward, settling Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Utah, and California. The Wheelock family played a particularly interesting role in the early history of Texas. There is an amazing book by Mary Foster Hutchinson that covers the life of Col. Eleazar Louis Ripley Wheelock, who was a Captain in the Texas Rangers, and founded Wheelock, Texas. I've included this in the bibliography, for anyone interested.

The Great Awakening in New England: Eleazar Wheelock

<Slide of Eleazar Wheelock>

Perhaps the most famous Wheelock in colonial history was Dr. Eleazar Wheelock, great-grandson of Ralph. Eleazar came of age during the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the colonies in the mid-1700s.

<Great Awakening Slide – George Whitefield Preaching>

The Great Awakening brought about a religious zeal that differed dramatically from the uptight and stiff Puritanism that dominated the previous century. It was characterized by great fervor and emotion during prayer. It emphasized religious principles over pursuit of wealth and worldly matters; and featured traveling evangelists who gave passionate sermons to large crowds, and conducted dramatic religious conversions.

Wheelock, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Great Awakening. Like George Whitefield, Wheelock was himself an itinerant preacher, even though he had a permanent position as pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Lebanon, CT. In 1741 he travelled throughout Connecticut, preaching and promoting the Awakening. In that year he was said to have written 465 sermons in support of revivalism. He was considered by his contemporaries to be the "chief intelligencer of revival news".

Not surprisingly, the Great Awakening threatened established religious institutions, and led to religious divisions throughout the colonies. In 1743, the Connecticut Assembly clamped down on the revivalist movements, putting in place many rules and regulations that inhibited growth of revivalism. One such rule was that pastors who preached outside of their own congregation could not collect a salary.

<picture of Samson Occom>

This left Wheelock in need of another source of income. Toward that end, he began to take students into his home, one of whom was Samson Occam, a Mohican who knew English, and had been converted to Christianity in his childhood. Rev. Wheelock had great success preparing Samson Occom for the ministry. As a result of Wheelocks instruction, Occam went on to become a popular Presbyterian minister, preaching to Native American and colonial audiences.

With that success in his pocket, Wheelock was inspired to set up a school for Native Americans. The idea was to instill religious education in the boys, so they could return to their native culture as missionaries. The girls, lest we think they were forgotten, were to be taught “housewifery”. He spent considerable time and effort raising money for this new school; and toward this end sent Samson Occom and a Presbyterian Minister named Nathaniel Whitaker to England to raise funds. They had success, and came back with 12000 pounds, which was held in trust by an English board of trustees, headed by the Earl of Dartmouth. Unfortunately, he did not have as much success finding students among the Native population. In retrospect, it hardly seems surprising that Native Americans might not be deeply interested in spending years studying colonial American religion. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea to Wheelock, and to many others.

This was a serious setback for Wheelock, who was forced to come up with plan B, which was to expand his idea for the school to include a college for the education of whites as well as Native Americans. He obtained a charter for his school from King George III, named it Dartmouth, became it’s first president, and graduated the first class of four students in 1771. One of these students was his son John Wheelock, who became the second president of Dartmouth College.

Despite it’s start as a school for Native Americans, it fell far short of it’s goal. After 200 years of operation, it graduated only 19 Native Americans. In 1970, John Kemeny, the 13th president of Dartmouth, recommitted the college to it’s founding purpose. He established a program to actively recruit Native American students, and by 2016, 700 Native Americans from over 200 different tribes have attended Dartmouth, more than all the other Ivy League schools combined.

I mentioned earlier that many Native Americans bear the Wheelock surname, especially amongst the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. During colonial times it was common for Native Americans to adopt English surnames. Rev. Wheelock, his family, and students interacted extensively with Native American tribes, especially the Oneida; though we don’t know exactly when, one or more of them took the surname, possibly in tribute to Rev. Eleazar Wheelock.

<Lucy Wheelock Slide>

Rev. Eleazar Wheelock was not the only Wheelock interested in education. His distant cousin, several times removed was Lucy Wheelock, who founded Wheelock College in Boston. She had a keen interest in childhood education, taught kindergarten for many years, and gained a reputation as an excellent teacher. She put her experience to work educating other kindergarten teachers, taking more students, expanding the curriculum, and in 1941 Wheelock School incorporated and became Wheelock College.

Wheelocks And the Revolutionary War

I'm not going to say much about the Revolutionary war, except to note that the highest ranking Wheelock participants tended to run in families. I count about 63 distinct Wheelocks in the Revolutionary War rolls, most from Massachusetts.

The highest ranking of these were 3 Massachusetts colonels:

  • Col Ephraim Wheelock (g-grandson of Ralph), of Medfield, commander of 4th Suffolk County Regiment
  • Lt. Col Moses Wheelock (his brother), of Westborough, commander in the 6th Worcester Co Regiment
  • Col Silas Wheelock (Ephraims cousin, once removed), of Mendon, commander of the 7th Worcester Co Regiment

And 2 high ranking officers from Vermont

  • Lt. Col John Wheelock, son of Dr. Eleazar Wheelock (corresponded with George Washington)
  • Lt. Eleazar Wheelock (his brother), ditto, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson

Wheelocks And the Civil War

<civil war slide>

I count about 215 distinct men with the Wheelock surname who fought in the Civil War. The vast majority of these were Union soldiers who descended from Ralph. 

But there were quite a few with the Wheelock surname who fought for the Confederate cause. Most of these were probably descendants of James Wheelock of Virginia; but a few are descendants of Ralph. Three of these are sons of Josephus Wheelock, whose life story is probably typical of many southern families with northern origins.
Josephus was born in Massachusetts, fought in the War of 1812 for Vermont, and then moved to Alabama in a mass migration of settlers that has been called "Alabama Fever". "Alabama Fever" was triggered by the forcible removal of the Creek Indians from their southern homelands into reservations farther west. This was a forerunner to the "Trail of Tears", which happened a decade later. The Creek clearances opened vast tracts of lands for settlement, and Josephus was one of the many northerners who took part in this. He went south probably around 1820 or 22,  married a southern woman, and had many children in Alabama and Arkansas. In the 1840 census he's listed as a farmer with 11 slaves.

His wife died at a relatively early age, before the civil war, after which he married a northern woman from Vermont. At least three of his sons fought for the confederacy, but he claimed himself loyal to the Union. After the war, Congress created the "Southern Claims Commission" to reimburse southern loyalists for lost goods and property damage suffered at the hands of the Union Army. He made such a claim for $12,377.16, but was denied, possibly because he died during the process. His wife moved back north shortly after his death. His Confederate sons survived the war, and lived out the remainder of their lives in Arkansas.

There are 5 Wheelocks who fought in "Colored Regiments". I had assumed that these might be former slaves, but at least one of them has been firmly identified as a white northerner. (Edwin Miller Wheelock, abolitionist, descendant of Charles Wheelock from Ireland). Another, Joseph W. Wheelock, is probably a descendant of Ralph.

Charles Wheelock

<charles wheelock slide>

The highest ranking descendant of Rev. Ralph Wheelock to fight in the Civil War was Brevet Brigadier-General Charles Wheelock, commander of the NY 97th Regiment. The most interesting story about Charles involves the Battle at Gettysburg. He lead the NY 97th in that battle, where his regiment suffered heavy losses - more than half were killed and captured. Wheelock himself was captured, after finding sanctuary in a nearby farmhouse, owned by a Miss Carrie Sheads. As the story goes: He was cornered there by rebel soldiers, but refused to surrender his sword - asking instead to be shot.

<picture of farmhouse>

As it turns out, that farmhouse still stands in Gettysburg. It's a historical landmark, celebrated partly because it still has a shell from the battle, protruding from the south wall. 

At any rate, Wheelock stubbornly refused to give up his sword, and while the capturing officer was temporarily distracted, he gave it to Carrie, who hid it in the folds of her dress. When the officer returned, Wheelock convinced him that another Confederate troop had taken the weapon. His captors led him out of the farmhouse, presumably to a prison somewhere. But Col Wheelock somehow managed to escape his capture, and after a 6 day journey by foot through rebel infested territory, he finally regained the Union lines. Later, he went back to the farmhouse to retrieve his sword.

In her journal Carrie Sheads wrote:

"It was a sad sight to see them take that grey headed veteran, but it was a joyful sight to see him return and reclaim his sword." 
There is much more to the story than this; if you're interested in the full account, you can google "Carrie Sheads", or consult the book written about the NY 97th, which also has a full biography of Charles Wheelock,  and is listed in the bibliography.

Julia Wheelock

<picture of Julia or her book>

Julia Susan Wheelock was another member of the Wheelock family tree to make notable contributions to the Civil War effort. Her story begins on September 10th, 1862 when she received notice at her home in Michigan that her brother Orville had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Chantilly.  

On receiving this news, Julia immediately left her home for Alexandria, where he had been hospitalized. Sadly, he died before she got there; but she managed to find the attending nurse who was with him when he died. Her account of his death moved her deeply, and the two women became close friends. Rather than returning to the comfort of her home in Michigan, Julia chose to stay in Alexandria for the remainder of the war, to work with the Michigan Relief Association, attending and helping wounded soldiers. She kept a detailed diary of her experiences, from which she later wrote a book called "The Boys in White: The Experience of a Hospital Agent in and Around Washington". The book sold reasonably well. It was out of print for many years; but recently Julia was inducted into the "Michigan Women's Hall of Fame", and the book has been reprinted, and is available at

Wheelocks in the Industrial Revolution

Since we are so close to the Blackstone River Valley, it's important to say something about the role that the Wheelocks played in the Industrial Revolution. It's often said that the Blackstone River Valley was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution; and the Wheelock family played significant roles in developing some of the technologies that powered the Industrial Revolution.

Jerry Wheelock

<Picture of the Stanley Wollen Mill>

This is the Stanley Woolen Mill in Uxbridge, near the Blacksone Canal. This was the longest locally owned mill in Uxbridge, operating continuously by the Taft and Wheelock families from 1833 to 1989. This mill helped pioneer the manufacture of cashmeres, and was one of the first to use power looms developed specifically for woolens. It manufactured military uniforms from the Civil War through World War I, and is said to be the first US mill to specialize completely in the manufacture of woolen garments, primarily mens wear for the domestic market3.

Jerry Wheelock, born shortly after the Revolutionary War, was the first member of the Wheelock family to become involved in the woolen business. He was a natural mechanic, and formed his own company to manufacture machines used in the woolen mills. He was the inventor of numerous devices and improvements that made wool manufacturing more efficient and economical. Many generations of the Wheelock family continued in the business after him. Stanley Woolen Mill is named after his g-grandson, Stanley Wheelock; and, amazingly, there are still members of the Wheelock family running related businesses in Uxbrdge.

Jerome Wheelock

<Picture of Jerome, with sign in front of the Wheelock Engine Company>

Another local Wheelock that played a significant role in the Industrial Revolution was Jerome Wheelock, of Grafton. He ran away from home at the age of 15, and somehow evaded discovery for years, until he became old enough to legally live on his own. While his parents probably viewed this as a troubling start to life, he ended up doing all right for himself. Wheelock specialized in steam engines, and made numerous improvements to them, the first being the Wheelock Steam Cylinder Packing, which he patented in 1864. This invention was widely adopted by all steam engine manufacturers, and it gave him the financial freedom to start the Wheelock Engine Company in Worcester. From there he made and patented many further improvements to the steam engine, which won him awards and accolades at shows and expositions all over the world. His steam engines were manufactured internationally, and made him a very rich man.

He was obviously a man who cared about his legacy, making generous endowments to his home town of Grafton, which were used to fund the library there, and to erect a statue of himself which stands at the center of town. He established the Jerome Wheelock Fund at Harvard and Clark University, and left a bequest to the City of Worcester to erect statues in his honor. I've also noted that he has the largest headstone I've ever seen in the Worcester Rural Cemetery, dwarfing everything around it.

Famous Wheelock Descendants

Finally, I thought it might be interesting to list other famous descendants of Ralph that people are likely to have heard of. 

Col Douglas Wheelock

Colonel Douglas Wheelock is an astronout who travelled aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2007 for a 2-week stay at the space station. During that stay he did 3 space walks to move and repair the solar arrays.

In 2010 he travelled on a Russion Soyuz spacecraft for a long term stay at the space station. During this stay, an emergency shutdown of the space station's cooling system forced him to engage in three unplanned space walks to make repairs, for which he won two international awards for bravery.

Matt Damon

Matt probably needs no introduction. He descends from Ralph through his daughter Record, who lived in the part of Marlborough that is now Northborough, MA.

Emily Dickinson

Also a descendant of Record, though her relationship to Matt Damon is fairly distant.
John Hall Wheelock
Was an award winning poet, and editor at Charles Scribner and Sons.

Professional Baseball Players

(Bobby Wheelock, Gary Richard Wheelock)


(Thomas R. Wheelock – Wheelock & Company)


(Merril Wheelock – Boston, Masonic Temple, corner Boylston & Tremont; Otis L. Wheelock – Chicago)


Oscar Merritt Wheelock (aka “dynamite devil”)

This, I'm sure, is not a complete list - there are no doubt other notable descendants that have yet to be identified. 

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