IMG_1520Rebecca Cornell’s mysterious death in 1673 has been the subject of stories, books and even a play.  We know the story of how her brother, John Briggs, described a dream which called into question the cause of her fiery death.  Her son, the junior Thomas Cornell, was ultimately hung for what was judged a murder.  Rebecca Cornell, however, had another claim to fame.  Rebecca was a friend of Anne Hutchinson and she was one of Portsmouth’s founding mothers.

In 1630s Thomas and Rebecca Briggs Cornell were respectable members of the Saffron Walden community in Essex, England. He was 45 and she was 38 when they sailed for Boston in 1638 with their eight children. Rebecca Cornell’s brother, John Briggs, was one of the earliest and perhaps youngest followers of Anne Hutchinson at age twenty-nine. Thomas and Rebecca came to Boston in 1638, just as Anne and her followers were leaving.  They bought the house of William Baulston and received his license for innkeeping.  Thomas soon ran into trouble in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Thomas received fines for selling wine without license. Neither Thomas nor Rebecca were literate, but Rebecca was considered an accomplished spinster (spinner).  Thomas was in trouble for his religious beliefs and they government refused to renew his license.

In 1640 the couple departed for Portsmouth. Thomas was made a freeman in Portsmouth and became a constable. By 1642 the Cornells, the Hutchinson and the Throckmortons and others had settled in large tracts of what is now the Bronx. The Hutchinson and the Cornells had adjoining land. When the Hutchinson family was massacred in August of 1643, the Cornells lost property, but their family was preserved. A boat brought the Cornells to safety and away from the hatchets and flames that killed their neighbors. The Cornells lost cattle and their home was burned.

The Cornells headed back to Portsmouth. Thomas Cornell was given ten acres of land by November of 1643. Their eldest daughter Sarah remained in New York as a new bride. Thomas accumulated land grants in both New York and Portsmouth. In July 1646 Thomas was granted a 100 acre homestead that would be the location of Sarah’s mysterious death in 1673. This grant is the land around the Valley Inn property today.

Source:  Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Crane.  Cornell University Press, 2002.

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