The Origin of the Fessenden Family in America

(The following is the text of Chapter 1 of The Fessenden Family in America by Edwin Allan Fessenden.)

The first Fessendens in America of whom we have any record were John Fessenden and his wife Jane. The exact date of their coming is a little doubtful; some accounts say that they arrived in 1628, others in 1636 or 1638, but it seems certain that they were in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1638 and resided at what is now the southeast corner of Winthrop and Eliot Streets. He sold this property in 1639 and purchased a house and lot described as being on the west side of Eliot Street, south of Mt. Auburn Street, in Cambridge; this was the Fessenden family residence for more than a century.

John Fessenden bought six acres of land in Charlestown in 1642 from N. Davis; his widow Jane sold it to John Watson and Mary Cook in 1673. This land adjoined Charlestown and the Cambridge commons. On the sketch map of Cambridge, “A” marks the site of the first dwelling of John Fessenden, and “B” the location of the house and lot purchased in 1639. This site was, in 1939, occupied by an automobile parking lot adjacent to the Brattle Square subway station.

In a manuscript list by Rev. Thomas Shepard, of Cambridge, of fifty “Confessions of Diverse propounded to be received and entertained as members” (of the church) was “Goodman ffessenden Jan. 8, 1640.”1 In this same history of Cambridge is given a list of signers to a petition or memorial indicating their satisfaction in the present government of the church and the commonwealth, and their resolution to assist and encourage the same. The date of the instrument was Oct. 19, 1664, and among the signers is “John Fisenden.” 2 His name was on the list of proprietors for 1636. He was made a “freeman” (i.e., admitted to formaland complete citizenship) June 2, 1641, and was a member of the church in Cambridge in 1658 and probably earlier. He was chosen a “selectman” of the town in 1656, 1661, 1662 and 1665, holding that office until his death.

John Fessenden is described as a “glover” (i.e., a glove maker) by trade, and one account says that his tanyard was a part of the site of the present Harvard Yard, but I have been unable to confirm this from a rather complete report on the history of the real estate holdings of Harvard University. He appears to have been prosperous and to have accumulated considerable property for that time.

John and Jane Fessenden had no children, at least none that grew to maturity; the most commonly accepted accounts state that they sent back to England for an heir, and that John’s “kinsman” (probably nephew), Nicholas Fessenden, came over. Nicholas’ sister Hannah also came to America, but whether at the same time as Nicholas or later is uncertain. Nicholas Fessenden was born in or near Canterbury, England, about 1650, and his sister Hannah in 1649, probably the children of Robert and Mary Fessenden. They are believed to have arrived in Cambridge about 1660 (another account says 1665) and went to live with their aunt and uncle.

John Fessenden died Dec. 21,1666; his “will” was proved Apr. 2,1667 (this was not a will in the sense in which we usually use the term, but a sworn statement of witnesses who had heard him state his wishes with regard to the disposal of his property). He bequeathed his estate, which was fairly large for that day, to his wife Jane, with directions for the care of Nicholas Fessenden, and for aid to be given to Hope Atherton should “he again come to ye college” (Harvard). His widow Jane Fessenden died Jan. 13,1682, aged 80, and her will was proven Mar. 31, 1684/5. It bequeathed her whole estate to her “cousin” (a word then used for uncle, nephew, etc., as well as for what we now call “cousin”) Nicholas Fessenden, with the exception of thirty pounds to be paid to Hannah (Fessenden) Sewall, and some minor legacies. (see Appendix)

One bit of evidence is somewhat in conflict with the dates given above for the arrival of Hannah Fessenden in America. This is an entry copied from the register of Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, by Rev. Elisha J. Fessenden in 1885, by which Hannah is said to have been baptized just before leaving for New England. This note reads:

“January 31st, 1669. Hannah Fessenden, daughter of Robert Fessenden and Mary, his wife, of the age of 17 years, was baptized by Dr. Castilion of the Cathedral.”

But Mr. DeWitt H. Fessenden, of New York, states (1939) that he had seen the same record and that the date was 1652. He may have confused this with the date of Hannah’s birth (since 1652 plus 17 gives
1669). But even this does not agree with the date of her birth (1649) as given on her tombstone. In “A Memorial of William Pitt Fessenden” appears the following:

“Savage says: Nicholas ‘came over in 1674, perhaps with his wife Margaret to inherit his uncle’s estate.’ According to another account, John emigrated from the county of Kent to Cambridge in 1636, accompanied by his wife Jane, nephew Nicholas and niece Hannah, and died Dec. 28, 1666, constituting his nephew Nicholas and niece Hannah his heirs. His widow died Jan. 13, 1682, aged 80, without issue. By still another account, Nicholas came to this country when a small boy to live with his uncle, which is probably correct, and whose heir all accounts agree he was.”

The first of these three speculations is unlikely, as we shall see later, the second is obviously untrue, since John certainly came to America long before Nicholas was born if we accept Nicholas’ age at the time of his death as given on his grave-stone.
Hannah Fessenden married John Sewall, brother of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of Salem witchcraft fame, and had three children:

  1. Mary Sewall b. Aug. 19, 1672; m. Elisha Hagar.
  2. Sarah Sewall buried at Menotomy, Mass., Jan. 28, 1675.
  3. Martin Sewall died through accident, Feb. 19, 1698.

After the death of John Sewall, Hannah (Fessenden) Sewall married again, her second husband being Lt. Jacob Tappan, whose first wife was Hannah Sewall, a sister of John and Samuel Sewall. Hannah (Fessenden) (Sewall) Tappan and her husband moved to York, Maine, where they lived the rest of their lives. The inscription on her gravestone there reads:


Nicholas Fessenden married Margaret Cheney (see Appendix for Cheney genealogy), probably in Cambridge in 1674 (note that this disagrees with Savage’s suggestion quoted above, that Nicholas brought Margaret from England about this time, but it is found repeatedly in many accounts and is very likely correct, particularly as it is known The Fessenden Family in America that Margaret Cheney was from the family of Cheneys who were the founders of Roxbury, Mass.) Nicholas and Margaret had at least fourteen children of whom eleven lived to maturity. Of these eleven, ten married, seven of whom were sons. Of these sons, all except one (Joseph) had male descendants. All of the Fessendens in America are in all probability descended from these six sons of Nicholas: John; Nicholas, Jr.; Thomas; Ebenezer; William and Benjamin.

Nicholas Fessenden died in Cambridge Feb. 24, 1718/9 and his wife died there Dec. 11, 1717. Both are buried in “The Old Burying Ground” in Cambridge, just across the street from the Harvard Square side of Harvard University Yard. Their graves are about in the middle of the grounds, and there are several other Fessendens buried in the same part of the cemetery. The grave-stones were in remarkably good condition in 1940, the inscriptions perfectly clear, sharp and legible in every detail. The inscriptions are as follows:



Other marked graves are those of Nicholas Fessenden, Jr., and his daughter Anne, William Fessenden, Sr. (a younger brother of Nicholas, Jr.) and Martha, Mary and Sarah Fessenden, daughters of William Fessenden, Jr. There may also be others whose graves have not been marked or whose stones have disappeared. In particular, one of the two gaps in the row of graves, one between Nicholas and Margaret, the other between Nicholas and Nicholas, Jr., may be the resting place of John Fessenden. In 1845, the foundation of a monument was still
visible near the gravestone of Nicholas Fessenden. From a number of sources I have heard accounts of the tradition that the several Fessenden family lines originated in six brothers who came over from England at some unknown date. I t seems quite likely that the “six brothers” were really the six sons of Nicholas Fessenden mentioned above as being those who married and had male children who grew to maturity and thus founded the several family lines, and that the only error in the tradition is in the idea that they came over from England instead of having been born in America. The eldest son, John (1677- ca. 1739) lived most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, although there is some indication that he was for a time in Lexington, Mass., returning to Cambridge where he died. Of his five children, three were sons; two of these, John (1704-1753) and Jonathan (1709-1770), married and had descendants. There is no record of the marriage of the third son, Jabez. The descendants of John remained in New England for two generations, one line then moving to Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania. There are groups from this line still in Pennsylvania, in central New York and in Michigan. The descendants of Jonathan also went to Susquehanna County, Pa., where some are now (1968) living.

The male line of Nicholas, Jr., (1680-1719) apparently died out shortly, as there are no records that have come to my attention of male descendants beyond one great-grandson. He was the first college graduate of the family, graduating from Harvard College in 1701. The inscription on his gravestone is in Latin, as was common for college graduates in those days.

Thomas (1684-1738) removed from Cambridge to Cambridge Village (now Lexington), Mass., about 1712. No information has appeared as to his occupation, but he probably was a farmer. He married three times and had thirteen children. Of these, six were boys and all married and had descendants. As might be expected, this branch of the family is large and widely scattered. There is a group in western Pennsylvania, another in Ohio, still another in Wisconsin; another group centers around the Chautauqua country in western New York and many are found in the far western states. Most of this line have been farmers, artisans of all types, rather small business men in general—substantial citizens of modest circumstances.

Ebenezer (1692-1756) was married twice and had at least three daughters. There may have been other children, but there is no record
concerning sons.

William (1694-1756) was a carpenter, according to most accounts, but he apparently also lived on the old homestead and, as was often the case in those days, operated the farm. Other accounts state that he
also followed the trade of tanner. He had seven children by his first wife and seven more by his second wife. Of his nine sons, only four grew to adulthood and married, and of these, only two left a male line.
However, the descendants of William have included an unusually large number of illustrious members. William Jr., (1718-1758) is the ancestor of the Maine branch of the family, distinguished for the many eminent
jurists, clergy and physicians, as well as many who were successful business men. The descendants of Peter (1728-1789) also numbered many who were prominent in Canadian affairs, as several of this family
6 The Fessenden Family in America inclined to the English side during the Revolution and emigrated to
Canada. This branch of the family is distinguished by its eminent professional men. Groups from this branch are found in Maine, in Connecticut, in Canada and also in the far west of the United States.

Benjamin (1701-1746) graduated from Harvard in 1718 and was ordained a minister at Sandwich, Mass., in 1722. He lived in Sandwich all his life, serving the community as physician as well as minister. Of his eleven children seven were sons, but only two, Benjamin (1729-1783) and William (1732-1802), left male descendants. The descendants of Benjamin, Jr., that did not remain in Sandwich are found in Rhode Island and Connecticut; many have been successful business men in various parts of New England.

A seventh son of Nicholas, Joseph (1696-1733/4), married and had one daughter. He shot himself with his own gun and died a suicide. During the nearly three and a half centuries that the Fessendens have been in America, most have been typical middle class citizens—solid, substantial and respected. Few have sunk to the oblivion of deep poverty and few have risen to positions of great wealth or power. Many are mechanically or scientifically inclined, but relatively few seem to be attracted to the creative arts.

Physically, there seem to be two distinct types. One is tall and slender, usually fair-skinned and blue-eyed, with a bony face and frame. A definite Fessenden peculiarity is a prominent nose, broad and high at the center but thin and sharp at the end, with a slight hollow at the tip running back toward the upper lip. There is often a remarkable resemblance between Fessendens of this type; pictures of William Pitt Fessenden and of my own great-uncle Timothy could be of the same individual, yet Nicholas was their only common Fessenden ancestor. This type is often inclined to be rather reserved and retiring.

The other type is shorter and stockier, with dark eyes and somewhat dark complexion. These Fessendens are much more given to public life, are good speakers and tend to go into the professions rather than business.

A family legend tells that in the days when men wore knee pants, most men had to pad their legs to give their calves the proper shape, but Fessenden men never had to resort to this subterfuge. An unusually large number of Fessendens have lived to a ripe old age; as someone expressed it, “the Fessendens are a hardy folk, but they do get old.”

The History of the Fessenden Family in America