Spencer Family Historical Timeline
What a fascinating Spencer family history Audrey Mae left for her descendants and all students of American history. Her ancestors’ story of success, tragedy and, at times, comedy would make a great novel or TV series. Move over, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Roots, and Downton Abbey. 🙂 Following the thirteen Spencer generations in America gives us a good historical timeline of colonial America.
John Spencer (Gravestone No. 2 of Audrey Mae’s gravestone numbering system) was named after his great-grandfather and his great, great-grandfather. His great, great-grandfather John was granted land (1677) by the King of England when East Greenwich was born. His great,great-grandfather John was the most educated of the early colonials in East Greenwich. “There is not much doubt that John Spencer was a leader. He was the first to sign the original grant-Incorporation of East Greenwich, was the first town clerk of East Greenwich (1677-1683), and was conservator of the peace in 1687. Early town meetings were held at his home. Much credit is due this man for the early town records which he kept,” records Martha McPartland in her book on East Greenwich published in 1960. John and wife Susannah had eight sons and one daughter. The first English baby born in East Greenwich was a Spencer! All of John and Susannah’s children grew to adulthood!
The John Spencer of Gravestone No. 2 was a young man when the American Revolution was beginning, and he was one of the minutemen in the war. The National Archives in Washington,D.C. records that John Spencer fought for fifteen months in the American Revolution. When John’s father and older brother died of smallpox in October of 1777, John’s mother wrote to George Washington to release her second son from the army. He was needed to work the farm as she was left alone on the farm with her daughters. Washington refused, noting he needed all his men. John’s mother, then, sold twenty acres of her land to hire a substitute to take her son’s place for six months in the American Revolution. Tragically, the substitute, Samuel Davis, was killed in one of his first battles, if not his first, and the family never heard from him again. Many years later, John’s sixth child, Richard Anthony (“Deacon”) bought back the twenty acres of land, when he was enlarging the “Spencer homestead”, as they called their land. In the 20th and 21st Century, John Spencer’s descendants tried to obtain records or information about Samuel Davis. The National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. have no records of Samuel Davis.
Realizing that this John in the eighteenth century named his sixth child Oliver Cromwell Spencer lets descendants know their ancestors’ political persuasion when they left England in the seventeenth century. Author’s note: Descendants today do not share this persuasion, especially since Princess Diana, the peoples’ princess, was a Spencer and Audrey Mae thought her youngest daughter looked like Diana . 🙂
Audrey Mae’s, Edith Anna’s, and John Edward’s grandfather, John Johnson Spencer, was in the Civil War. He had his own horse that he took with him to the war. His classification was Private, Farrier, Teamster and Blacksmith. The National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. report that John Johnson Spencer on December 14, 1861 joined for duty and enrolled in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for a period of three years . The Company Muster-in Roll was Lt. Greene’s Co., 1 Reg’t New England Cavalry. Later this Company name was changed to Co. H, 1 Reg’t Rhode Island Cavalry.
John Johnson Spencer was captured near Middlebury, Virginia and became a Yankee prisoner of war and was held at Belle Isle and Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Fortunately, he was paroled by Abraham Lincoln’s prisoner exchange parole program. He was exchanged for a Confederate prisoner before the prisoner exchange program abruptly ended. The South would not exchange the Black union soldiers, so Lincoln gave the South an ultimatum: either have the Black union soldiers in the exchange program or the program will be stopped. The parole program ended, and Lincoln nearly lost the next election, being criticized for allowing our white Yankee soldiers to waste away and die of starvation and neglect in Southern prisons, especially in Andersonville, Georgia. (Author’s note: Presidential decisions are not easy, to say the least! These decisions have horrendous consequences, even when the decisions are right!)
A bit of history that has significance to the Spencer descendants: “It appears that in 1888, ‘brick by brick, timber by timber, nail by nail’, Libby prison was taken down and carried to Chicago to be ‘made the gaze and show of the people of the West’. … This undertaking is one of the greatest on record, and Richmond loses one of her chieftest objects of interest for northern tourists. (From the Richmond Despatch, 2/7/1888 & 6/1/1889)”
Another Spencer fact was that five John Spencers from East Greenwich area went off to the Civil War. Two returned unscathed–as if that description were possible!; two were killed, and one, Audrey Mae’s, John Edward’s and Edith Anna’s grandfather, returned after being a prisoner of war. The web site author found a John Spencer buried in a Union Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Could that be one of the descendants of John and Susannah Spencer, the founders and early settlers of East Greenwich, Rhode Island in 1667? One of the John Spencers in the Spencer family cemetery died at age 19. He was in the Civil War. That is tragic enough, but then when you realize his three sisters in the Spencer Family Cemetery died at 7 months, 6 months and one year, no wonder the hurt from the Civil War still lasts to this century. That family’s tragedy was only exacerbated when their son who lived to adulthood was then killed off in the Civil War. How much tragedy does one family have to take? (Author’s note: Oh, why can’t we stop War!)
A fascinating Spencer story was how the land was still passed down by male inheritance as late as the twentieth century. When one Spencer couple had no male heirs, a twelve year old male (Audrey Mae’s, John Edward’s, and Edith Anna’s father) from another Spencer line (gravestone No.8) was sent to live with the couple (gravestone No.64) who had no male heirs. (Web site author’s comment “Not a fun thing for a twelve year old boy to leave his own Spencer family and land and go live with another Spencer family and work that land. However, this web site author is the grandchild of that 12 year old boy referenced, and I never heard any mention of this from him or anyone else in the family. I wish I could ask my grandfather about this, but, unfortunately, both he and my mother are now gone. Another missed opportunity by the younger generation neglecting to interview and record the older generations’ stories.”)
Also, continuing down through history, the only reason to keep the land was to work the land. If you could no longer work the land, there was no reason to keep the land. The farmer would work the land with the hired hands from sunup to sundown. The farmer’s wife would work from sunup to sundown cooking meals for family as well as hired hands, and caring for family and home before the days of electricity, indoor bathrooms, electrical washers, and dryers.
By the twentieth century, attachment to the land was lessening.
In 1922, William J.B. and Mary Jane (née Vaughn) Spencer sold the land on Middle Road. The money was used to buy a large home and property in an upscale nearby Coventry (Rhode Island) residential area. This upscale home had the modern convenience of an indoor bathroom! Village life was not so labor intensive as farm life. Audrey Mae’s, Edith Anna’s and John Edward’s mother, Mary Jane, was a small, fragile woman, and she would only live thirty more years even with the easier life style off the farm.
Also, when a Spencer married a woman from England, his widow lived on the land–at Spencer’s Corner–until her death. The land went to his widow and three daughters who were educated in Providence. The daughters eventually sold the land and they moved away. One daughter married a man from New York and moved to New York. However, one, or maybe two, of the daughters would continue to send money to Audrey Mae to hire people to care for the Spencer historical family cemetery when Audrey Mae’s spouse or sons were unable to get to the cemetery. Audrey Mae would not need to pay her sons for the cemetery upkeep, but when they were too busy or away — all three were in the military for three years–, Audrey Mae depended on hiring gardeners. Audrey Mae’s sister, Edith Anna, in California, would also send money to Audrey Mae to pay for the care of the historical cemetery. It is a known fact that descendants of the ancestors in the historical cemeteries are the owners of the historical cemeteries! and therefore, descendants need to be the responsible caretakers.
Audrey Mae’s youngest son just retired (2013) and one of his tasks in retirement is care of the historical cemeteries. (The web site author was relieved to observe that his son, as well as his grandchildren–both male and female–, also, has an interest in the historical cemetery grounds.) Audrey Mae’s youngest son tells the story of his learning how to use a lawn mower and other gardening tools. His first experience with a lawn mower was as a young child in one of his historical cemeteries.
The homestead is gone from Audrey Mae’s, Edith Anna’s, and John Edward’s Spencer family lines, but Audrey Mae’s, Edith Anna’s and John Edward’s (“Ed’s”) historical Spencer cemeteries (the Spencer Family Cemetery and the “over back” Cemetery) will always be there on the historical Spencer family land as a constant reminder of our Spencer family history and of colonial New England.
Passed down through the Spencer history from father to son-and now mother to daughter-is a promise not to forget the historical cemeteries where their Spencer ancestors are buried. This web site and three other web sites, spencersofeastgreenwichri.org, straightspencerhistoricalcemetery.org, and vaughnhistoricalcemetery.org, carries on the promise for this generation and future generations. In one sense, these ancestors have never died but have been immortalized. “Nobody’s ever dead as long as you remember them.” Through oral tradition and now digital web site data, our ancestors–their successes as well as their challenges–will live on in the memories of their descendants.
“The task of the older generation is to give the younger generation roots before they sprouts their wings.”
“Spencer descendants, if you have any additional information on the Spencer family timeline, please add a comment to this web site and the web site editor will add this to the site. Thanks.”