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History of Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730)

Samuel Sewall was born in Hampshire, England in 1652 but moved with
his family to Massachusetts in 1661. He attended Harvard College
from 1667-1671. In 1676, he married Hannah Hull, the daughter of one
of the colony's wealthiest citizens. The couple had fourteen
children, six of whom survived past infancy. In total, Sewall had
four wives.

John Hull, Hannah's father, owned substantial property in Muddy
River, then a part of Boston, which Samuel Sewall eventually
acquired. At his peak, he owned roughly 350 acres of land in Muddy
River, land stretching from Harvard Street to the Charles River and
including portions of Longwood. In 1705, Muddy River was granted a
charter to separate from Boston. However, as Muddy River was not
considered a refined name, the residents borrowed the name of
Sewall's estate and christened their new town Brookline.
Sewall kept a diary from 1673 until a few months before his death in
1730. As one of the Colony's prominent citizens, he knew most of the
notable people of his time and wrote about them in his diary. He
also wrote about all aspects of his own daily life and activities.
His diary has been put to countless uses by historians studying
early America because Sewall kept one of the most complete records
of everyday life in seventeenth century America.

Samuel Sewall's other contribution to American literature is "The
Selling of Joseph", his antislavery tract published in 1700.
Although he was deeply religious, Sewall was able to persuasively
refute many of the Biblical reasons given in support of slavery. His
diaries portray him as being virtually alone in his antislavery
beliefs and unable to prevail on his neighbors to treat their slaves
better than they treated their animals.

In the spring of 1692, the governor appointed Sewall as one of the
magistrates to sit on the special Court of Oyer and Terminer, which
was established to hear the cases of accused witches in Essex,
Suffolk, and Middlesex counties. From his perspective as a Puritan
magistrate during the Salem witch trials, his diaries show how he
initially believed that justice must be dispensed in combating
witchcraft. In December 1696, Sewall drafted a proclamation for a
fast day in Massachusetts Bay for all to do penance and make
reparation for the sins of the witchcraft tragedy. On January 14,
1697, Samuel Sewall stood in his pew in church while the Reverend
read his petition confessing to his guilt and asking the pardon of
God and man for his role in the tragedy. Each following year, Sewall
set aside a day for fasting and prayer as penance for his part in
this tragedy.

For more information on Samuel Sewall, please see the Sowell Family
Heritage web site.


 

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