Theodore Foster, U.S. Senator

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Theodore Foster

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Brookfield, MA
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Judge Jedediah Foster and Dorothy Foster
Husband of Lydia Foster and Esther Bowen Foster
Father of Maxwell Stewart Foster; Samuel Willis Foster; Dwight Cranston Foster; Theodore Raeejeph Foster and Ruth Lydia Seymour
Brother of Theophilus Foster; Abigail Foster; Dwight Foster, Judge & U.S. Senator and Peregrine Foster

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About Theodore Foster, U.S. Senator


Theodore Foster (April 29, 1752 – January 13, 1828) was an American politician. He was a member of the Federalist Party and later the National Republican Party. He served as one of the first two United States Senators from Rhode Island and, following John Langdon, served as dean of the Senate. He was the elder brother of Senator Dwight Foster.

Early life

Foster was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1752. His father was Judge Jedediah Foster, who graduated from Harvard University in 1744. He engaged in classical studies at the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (now known as Brown University), graduating in 1770. He then studied law and lived with fellow student Solomon Drowne. He was admitted to the bar association and remained in Rhode Island to practice law. Foster was a protege of Brown University's first chancellor, Chief Justice of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and revolutionary patriot Stephen Hopkins. Foster married the sister of the future governor of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Arthur Fenner.

American Revolution

Theodore Foster played a role in the Gaspee Affair of 1775, along with John Brown and others, which helped catalyze events leading to up to the American Revolutionary War. Foster distinguished himself as a staunch supporter of General George Washington and the Federalist cause.

Later life

Until 1790 Foster held various positions in the government of Rhode Island. He was then appointed to the United States Senate, beginning his service on 7 June 1790. Rhode Island's state legislature reappointed him in 1791 and 1797, and he served until March 4, 1803 when he retired from public life to engage in writing and historical research. Foster became a passionate collector of numerous documents relating to colonial Providence. He helped found the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1822. Foster's heirs sold his extensive collection of historical documents to the Society in 1833. Many of these documents are unpublished.

During the latter period, Foster also served as a trustee of Brown University. Foster returned to public life to serve in the Rhode Island state legislature from 1812 to 1816. He lived in the town of Foster, Rhode Island, which was named after him. When Solomon Drowne moved back to Rhode Island he lived on a farm (Mt. Hygeia) next to Foster's. Foster died in 1828.


Following was downloaded 2010 from "Ancestors of Lille Foster" Generation No. 6, at

HON. THEODORE FOSTER (Jedediah, Ephraim, Ephraim, Abraham, Reginald), b. Brookfield, Mass., April 29 1752 ; m., Oct. 27, 1771, Lydia Fenner, dau. of Gov. Arthur Fenner of Rhode Island who gr. at Brown ; b. March 1, 1748 ; d. June 1, 1801 ; m., 2d June 18, 1803, Esther Bowen Millard of Foster, R. I. ; b. June 15, 1785 ; d. Dec. 29, 1815. He entered Rhode Island college (now Brown university), in 1767, being graduated in the class of 1770, and in 1773, on receiving the degree of A. M., delivering an oration on "The Future Greatness of the American Colonies." He received the same degree from Dartmouth college in 1786. In 1794 he was chosen one of the trustees of Brown university, which position he held until 1822. After his graduation, he began the practice of law in Providence county. He served as deputy from Providence in the general assembly, in six sessions, the first being that of October, 1776. From 1776 to 1781 he served as secretary of the Rhode Island council of war. In 1781 occasion arose for dividing the town of Scituate, in the western part of the state. The newly created town was named Foster, in compliment to him. As early probably as 1789 he was acting as naval officer of Providence, resigning in 1790. On the adoption by Rhode Island in May, 1790, of the Constitution of the United States, he was one of the two senators chosen to represent the State in Congress. His term of service as senator was one of the longest on record, namely, thirteen years, 1790 to 1803, and has been surpassed by only three others from that State. During this public service his wife died at Providence, in June, 1801. The next twelve years of his life were passed chiefly on his estate at Foster. After the death of his second wife, Dec. 29, 1815, he returned to Providence making his home with his oldest daughter, Mrs. Stephen Tillinghast, whose husband was a grand-son of Governor Stephen Hopkins. At her house he died Jan. 13, 1828.

At two periods of his life, namely, from 1776 to 1785, and from 1803 to 1828, his time was largely devoted to the collection of historical materials. The papers left by him (many of which were placed in his hands by Governor Hopkins), amount to about one thousand and are preserved in sixteen bound volumes now in the possession of the Rhode Island Historical Society. He was one of the earliest members and first officers of that society, organized in 1822. In 1800 he was chosen a corresponding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. A sketch of his "Life and Services" by William E. Foster, is printed, pages 11-134 of. vii. of the Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society (1885), his "Materials for a History of Rhode Island" being printed pages 67-94 of the same volume. He was educated at the public school and by private instructors, fitted for college and was graduated at Brown university (then called R. I. college) ; m. Lydia Fenner of Providence, R. I., dau. of Rev. Noah Millard of R. I., and Hannah Bowen). He was a lawyer at Providence. He was elected a justice of the peace for the town and county of Providence at the general State election in 1773, and was town clerk for twelve years (1775-87), and was in 1776 a member of the State Legislature. In 1787 he was elected a member of the Governor's council and was for thirteen years U. S. Senator (1790-1803). "He was a thoroughly unselfish man, and had literary tastes, personal friendships, and a love of nature which were far dearer to him than pecuniary gain." In personal appearance he was dignified and prepossessing and in stature above the average height. His face which was full and round, beamed with benignity and intelligence. He had a light complexion and blue eyes. His wife Esther Millard d. Dec. 29, 1815, aet. 30. riv. Noah Millard, b. at Rehoboth, Mass., Oct. 10, 1758, was the son of Noah Millard and Jane Maxwell. He was a "Six Principle Baptist." He preached without ordination at Foster R. I. (a town incorporated in 1781 and named in honor of the Hon. Theodore Foster) for some 10 years (1795-1805). In April, 1805, he removed to Burrillville, R. I. where he was ordained, Oct. 15, 1806, and preached until his death, Oct. 25, 1834. He had 5 children: Hannah, Samuel, Esther Bowen, Theodore Foster and Arthur Lemuel.

Mr. Foster was a lover of the study of antiquities, particularly American and made considerable collection toward a history of Rhode Island, which he planned, but from habits of procrastination never executed. In the preface of his life of Roger Williams, Knowles used what he found advantageous to his purpose among Mr. Foster's papers. He died at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. Stephen Tillinghast. He d. Jan. 13, 1828. Res., Providence, R. I.--Pierce, Foster Genealogy, p. 212-213.


     FOSTER, Theodore (brother of Dwight Foster), a Senator from Rhode Island; born in Brookfield, Worcester County, Mass., April 29, 1752; pursued classical studies and was graduated from Rhode Island College (now Brown University), Providence, R.I., in 1770; studied law; was admitted to the bar about 1771 and commenced practice in Providence, R.I.; town clerk of Providence 1775-1787; member of the State house of representatives 1776-1782; appointed judge of the court of admiralty in May 1785; elected as a Law and Order candidate to the United States Senate in 1790; reelected in 1791 and again in 1797 and served from June 7, 1790, to March 3, 1803; was not a candidate for reelection in 1802; retired from public life and engaged in writing and historical research; again a member of the State house of representatives 1812-1816; trustee of Brown University 1794-1822; died in Providence, r. I., January 13, 1828; interment in Swan Point Cemetery. -- Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949. U.S. GPO, 1950.



     FOSTER is a considerable post township, and situated on the extreme western border of the State, some fifteen miles from the city of Providence. Foster was incorporated with Scituate in 1730, from the western section of that township, and remained up to 1781, when it was set off as a distinct and separate township. It derived its name, Foster, from the Hon. Theodore Foster, for many years a United States senator; and for this mark of esteem upon the part of the citizens of the town, Mr. Foster presented the town with a library. Some of the books are still preserved, and especially one in which was written the early records of the town, and is now in the possession of the town clerk.
     MOUNT HYGEIA--The settlement of this celebrated spot was begun by two of the most learned and distinguished men in the history of the town of Foster, if not in the State. Theodore Foster and Solomon Drowne are names that are intimately connected with the history of Foster, and occupy a prominent and honorable place in the historical record of their native State. The following interesting sketch of the early life and settlement of these distinguished personages, at what is familiarly known as "Mount Hygeia," was kindly furnished by the Hon. Amos Perry of Providence.
     Among the prominent men whose names are enrolled on the records of the town, Senator Theodore Foster, after whom the town was named, and Dr. Solomon Drowne, the eminent botanist, unquestionably hold a first place. Therefore, without disparagement to other worthy residents of that rural distict, we shall offer a brief paragraph, to recall the images and preserve the memory of these two men, "par nobile fratrum," who represent types of character that well-nigh belong to the lost arts. The friendship of these men was formed and cemented in boyhood's days.
     Foster came from Brookfield, Mass., while yet in his teens; graduated at Rhode Island College in 1770; and Drowne graduated three years later. The boys roomed, studied, and took their meals together, in the old Drowne mansion, on Cehapside, Providence; worshipped together in the old First Baptist Church; had each other's company in visiting favorite sylvan retreats and exploring the forests for miles around, and had longer and more intimate relations than ordinarily fall to the lot of college classmates. Writings and traditions are still preserved that give an idea of the visions and romantic schemes of these youthful students. Science, philosophy, and belles-lettres were their delight, and in order to indulge their taste for these pursuits, they agreed to withdraw, as soon as circumstances would permit, from places frequented by the multitude, and take up their abode on adjoining farms, where they could have each other's society and pass their days in rural retirement. This cherished plan was, however, for a long time frustrated by the force of circumstances, and seemed to be forgotten. Indeed, nearly aquarter of a century elapsed with only occasional and hurried meetings.
     Foster, besides contracting a matrimonial alliance with a sister of the late Governor James Fenner, studied and practiced law in Providence; was town clerk twelve years; was drawn into the exciting life of a politician, and in 1790 was made a United States senator, which office he held till 1803. Drowne studied and practiced medicine; married the lady of his choice, Miss Elizabeth Russell of Boston; served as a surgeon in the Revolutionary war; spent considerable time in foreign travel and study, and, like General Varnum and Admiral Whipple, acted as a pioneer in the settlement of the West.
     In the summer of 1800, while Mr. Foster was still a member of the Senate, these quondam room-mates and cherished friends met in Providence. They were somewhat changed by the discipline of life, yet in heart and soul seemed to each other as in boyhood's days. Amid their hard encounters with the outward world, they had maintained their loyalty to truth and duty, and sustained their interest in the pursuits which were the delight of their youth. Shortly before this meeting, Mr. Foster, who had been bereft of the companion of his joys and sorrows, wrote Dr. Drowne several letters, in some of which he referred in touching terms to his affliction and to his future prospects. The latter, acting the part of a good physician, sought to amuse and sooth his friend, and recommended in the most felicitous terms, religion, philosophy, science, literture, and finally, a second matrimonial alliance.
     In the following extract from a letter dated May 2, 1800, the doctor shows a keen appreciation of the senator's needs, and indicates in no ambiguous terms the step that should be taken: "Who, at your time of life," says the doctor, "could think of passing the remainder of his years without a partner of his joys and cares, when qualified so peculiarly to reciprocate domestic felicity?" The doctor then proceeds to discuss the matrimonial question, and in his remaks brings in a case where there is a great disparity of years. A week later, the doctor made the following manifest effort to divert his friend and draw him into the filed of philosophy:


     "Your very agreeable letter of the 2d instant was received by me this beautiful morning, and I could not but consider it a confirmation of the congeniality of our minds; for while I lay awake last night, my imagination was roving amid the wonders of creation. Among the wild fancies in which I indulged, one was, how this wonderful structure, the terraqueous globe, would appear to a person entirely detached from it, and contemplating it unsupported by any visible power, wheeling majestically through the vast expanse of heaven. I was next led to admire the surprising faculties and capacities of the human mind, so fitted to embrace sublime ideas, and to range, I had almost said, beyond creation's bourne. Of what an astonishingly projecting genius is man possessed! He has not hesitated as at Panama. Thus, if he could not create, he has dared to think of altering and improving the formation of a globe. Surely, thought I, that principle in man which can contemplate and project such mighty things must participate of immortality. But perhaps, at best, I must come to your conclusion--Guesswork, all!"

Children of Theodore Foster and Esther Millard are:

 		i. 	  	Maxwell Stewart Foster, born 06 Dec 1804 in Providence, RI; married Mary Howard 27 Aug 1823; born 12 Nov 1795; died 24 May 1835.
 		ii. 	  	Samuel Willis Foster, born 30 Nov 1806 in Foster, RI; died 11 Oct 1850 in San Francisco, CA; married Ruth Belden Seymour 23 Feb 1829; born 06 Nov 1808 in Webster, MI.
	Notes for Samuel Willis Foster:


     Washtenaw County's most significant history (Chapman 1881) describes Samuel W. Foster as a miller who worked for Judge Dexter during the late 1820s. It also mentions Foster as the founder of Scio Village and Foster's Station--both former Washtenaw county villages located on the banks the Huron River. While the titles miller and village founder give us some clues about a man who left a permanent mark on the area, they fail to do him justice.
     Few realize that Samuel W. Foster was an inventor, financier, prospector, surveyor as well as a miller, land speculator and underground railroad operative. Had the dynamic man stayed in Washtenaw County to live out his life, he would be recognized as one of the most prominent early pioneers in the state.
     There is some confusion in local historical records about Foster hailed from Rhode Island. That premise was undoubtedly formed from statements made by Judge Crane, who was, at one time, Foster's neighbor when they both lived in Dexter.
     Crane's statement contradicts information recorded on early land deeds. Foster indicated to land official that he came from Worchester, Massachusetts. The U.S. Census of 1850 also lists Foster's home state as Massachusetts. However, on the same census, Theodore R. Foster, Samuel's brother, told the enumerator that he was from Rhode Island.
     The apparent contradiction is answered by tracing Foster family history. His family moved frequently back and forth between states. Samuel did come to Washtenaw County from Massachusetts around 1827. A few years after his departure to Michigan, Samuel's parents and siblings moved from Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. Young Theodore then moved in Scio Village from Rhode Island to be close to older brother Samuel.
     Samuel W. Foster, born in 1806, was the son of Esther Bowen Millard and Theodore Foster, schoolmaster, lawyer and United States Senator from 1790 to 1802. The elder Foster helped found an agricultural town (Foster, Rhode Island) in 1781. Forty years later, young Samuel would do the same in Washtenaw County.
     From the level of accomplishments, it seemed likely that young Samuel received, what appeared to be, his considerable education at Brown University where his father was a trustee for twenty-eight years (1794 to 1822). But that is not the case. The University does not claim him as a graduate. Records indicate that he probably attended the public schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and perhaps was tutored by Mr. Foster's associates at Brown.
     Foster didn't happen into Dexter Village and Judge Dexter's employ by simple good fortune. His family knew Dexter before the Judge came to Michigan. In fact, it is possible that Foster was named after Dexter. In a letter dated December 17, 1819, Samuel's father states, the Honorable Samuel Dexter of Dedham, Massachusetts, an intimate friend of my Father, at whose house I had been in the last preceding Thanksgiving day...
     Although the exact date of 21 year-old Samuel W. Foster's arrival in Michigan is not known, we can reasonably assume that he had a job waiting for him in Dexter. He first purchased land in Washtenaw County on May 21, 1827, and he was an original grantee of 80 acres in section 32 in Webster Township.
     That same year he married 19 year-old Ruth Seymour, of Webster Township. It is highly probable that Ruth and Samuel know each other in Massachusetts and that Samuel followed Ruth to Michigan. Ruth was the daughter of Ira Seymour and Betsey Morehouse and reportedly had several attractive sisters. Folklore contends that Foster and Seymour were the first couple married in the township (1827).
     Samuel and Ruth became members of the Webster Congregation Church. They apparently were not involved in the founding (1834), but were involved in building the church. Records recounting construction of the famous country church states:
     Whitewood logs were brought and drawn from the timbered land of Plymouth for Foster's Mill at Scio and manufactured into lumber sufficient to enclose and floor the structure.
     Church records show that by 1840 Samuel and Ruth, like other prominent, church-going families in the community, bought a pew (#36) in support of the church for $25.
     Foster was socially aware and politically active. In 1830 he attended an Anti-Masonic convention. Records show he attended Whigs of Washtenaw meetings from 1830 to 1835, and later signed a Whig petition aimed at making the Michigan Territory a state. Samuel ran for office several times on the Free soil ticket in 1840s. He also attended a Young Men's Temperance Convention in 1835. His temperance convictions makes it ironic that decades later, Scio village would be infamous for its illegal alcohol production and consumption.
     As mentioned earlier, in 1831 he purchased 66 acres in Scio Township and later purchased river frontage for the development of another village in Washtenaw County--Foster's Station. These purchases reflect a high level of speculative activity, but appear to only scratch the surface real estate wheeling and dealing.
     Other local historians have said that Foster's name frequently appears when conducting land record searches in their communities. Evidently he wanted property in Lenawee county and had an interest in a mill on Walker Lake in Livingston County, all while operating primarily in Washtenaw. One can only guess at the level of his involvement around the state.
     While Foster's speculative land deals like Scio Village were initially successful, one of his projects was a bust of state-wide magnitude. You recall from Chapter 1 that Foster started his Scio village venture just a short time before an economic depression rippled across the country. Any depression inhibits economic growth and perhaps Foster had concerns about selling his village property during a slowdown.
     Chapman (1881) states that Foster and John Holden of Scio approached the state lawmakers with a plan (and a petition) that was designed to help lift Michigan out of the financial depression. that plan later became known as the infamous wildcat banking law.
     The bill, officially known an An Act to Organize an Regulate Banking Associations, was passed by the Michigan Legislature on March 15, 1837. To oversimplify, it allowed Michigan banks to be chartered ...upon any persons desirous of forming an association for transacting banking business. It also allowed banks to print their own money and back this money with only a small percentage of capital.
     The freedom from regulation and traditional sound banking practices attracted many unscrupulous individuals. Fuller (1924), famous state historian and educator states, ...While some bona fide banks were established, it was soon found that the law was taken advantage of by dishonest men to practice the grossest frauds and swindles.
     When the law was enacted there were fifteen banks chartered in the state. After the act was repealed on April 3, 1838, forty-nine banks were in operation. Fuller (1924) writes,
     ...When all the banks had been swept out of existence there were bills afloat representing millions of dollars. Many of these were in the hands of bona fide holders, who lost heavily thereby. ...Children used them to play with, and in the rural districts, where paper-hangings were scarce, people used them to paper their rooms.
     It is doubtful that Foster benefited much from the bill he helped become law. Perhaps he even accepted some of the worthless paper money for some of his village lots. We do know that he didn't open a wildcat bank in Scio Village and, again, much like the modern banking scandal, money was made by the bankers.
     It does appear that neighbors may have held some resentment toward him for participating in the banking disaster. In 1842, 1844 and again in 1845, he ran for public office (county surveyor) and lost.
     As we mentioned, Foster was a man of many talents. In addition to being a surveyor (Scio Village, Foster's Station) and a master mill builder (Scio Flouring Mill, and the first mill at Foster's Station), he was also an inventor. As an inventor, he succeeded where other failed--he was granted a patent on one of his inventions!
     Sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s, he started manufacturing and selling his agricultural machinery. One of his first inventions was a Smut Machine. Smut is an old term for a fungi that forms on grain. If left untreated the contaminated grain turns into a powdery mass. Foster's machine removed the fungi.
     U.S. patent, number 1,436 was granted to Foster on December 21, 1839. The specification letter began:
     Be it known that I, Samuel W. Foster, of Scio, in the county of Washtenaw, State of Michigan, have invented a new and useful Improvement in Machines for Cleaning Grain, called "Foster's Improved Smut-Machine."
     The letter continued with a description and a drawing. The drawing can be found in Appen. C.
     Foster ran advertisements in Ann Arbor's Democratic Herald newspaper promoting his Smut Machine and his own threshing machine with recommendations from satisfied customers.
     Records show that Ruth and Samuel Foster had their first child, Andrew, on August 5, 1832. Two year later, in 1834, Ruth gave birth to a girl, Esther. On October 4, 1842, the couple lost an infant son, Joseph. Four years later, their last child was born. Ira was named after Ruth's father, Ira Seymour.
     Perhaps it was the death of his son Joseph that soured Foster on regular church attendance. Whatever the reason, his frequent absences were noticed by church elders early in 1850. Church records show elder met in Session on February 19, 1850, to hear charges against him. While the actions of the elders tell us more about the influence of church than about Foster, it does give us insight into his later decisions. The minutes from the meeting follow:
     Session was held by church elders. Topic: Bro. Foster not appearing: Bro. Reeves was appointed by the Session to act as defense.
     The Witness: Bro. Dwight & Bro. Boyden took the oath. The charges and specifications having been read Bro. Dwight testified that he had no recollection of Bro. Foster having been present on the Sabbath more than once in two or three years. That in January 1850 he visited Bro. Foster as a committee of the Church and belabored with him in respect to the charge and specifications in the citation. That Bro. Foster replied that he found it more convenient to attend meeting elsewhere. That he occasionally attended at Scio and sometimes at Dexter.
     The Session then voted that Bro. Foster be suspended from the communion of the church until he shall give satisfactory evidence of true repentance, and that his decision of the Session be publicly read next Sabbath.
     Members of the Session: D.B. Davidson; P.H. Reeve; Strom Kimberly; Norman Dwight; N.C. Goodale
     Foster's unfavorable standing in the church may account for the negative comments about him found in an informal area history. A neighbor and church member, who may or may not have known Foster personally, mentions him in a history of Webster Township prepared for some church related activity around 1874. He [Foster] was a man of good ability, great energy, quite an inventive genius, but lacking in concentration and thoroughness.
     There is room for speculation that Samuel W. Foster was singled out for suspension for political reasons. Members probably knew that he and his brother Theodore were operatives on the underground railroad. Harboring or transporting slaves was, after all, a federal offense.
     Within months of his suspension from the church, Foster caught gold rush fever. Like many other Washtenaw Countians, he was probably influenced by the letters Ann Arbor's founder, John Allen, was writing to the Ann Arbor Argus detailing his trip and life in the gold fields of California.
     Although the route Foster and his friends took to the Golden State is unknown, we do know he didn't accompany Allen as Morrison (1957) implies. Allen's letters from California (at the Bentley Historical Library) make that point clear. Perhaps Foster traveled with business associate and Ann Arbor Township miller Harvey Cornwell, who left for California in the same year.
     Chapman (1881) recounts, ...when the first great stream of emigrants passed over the plains to California, he [Foster] was called to his final reward.
     Notice of his death in October was contained in one short paragraph in the November 27, 1850, edition of the Michigan Argus (shown in this chapter). A search of subsequent editions surprisingly revealed no tribute, no eulogy, no other mention of the man who founded two communities in the county.
     Ruth, Samuel W. Foster's widow, stayed in Scio Village for a number of years and was appointed village postmaster in 1854. She left the post in 1860 and moved to Lansing with her children. (Andrew became a carpenter and Ira served in the Civil War.) On October 7, 1869, she married Freeman Havens of Ingham County.---Chapter 10, Scio Village : Ghost Town with a Past by Nicholas A. Marsh
 		iii. 	  	Dwight Cranston Foster, born 28 Dec 1808 in Foster, RI; died 16 Aug 1852; married (1) Alma Jeanette Seymour; born 19 Mar 1816; died 11 Jan 1843 in Scio, MI; married (2) Cornelia Seymour 01 Nov 1843; born 17 Apr 1806.
 	16 	iv. 	  	Theodore Raeejeph Foster, born 03 Apr 1812 in Foster, RI; died 27 Dec 1865 in Lansing, Ingham, MI; married Francis Delia Seymour 08 Aug 1832 in Scio, Washtenaw, MI.
 		v. 	  	Ruth Lydia Foster, born 04 Oct 1814 in Foster, RI; married Joseph Willard Seymour 03 Jan 1834; born 01 Mar 1811.
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Theodore Foster, U.S. Senator's Timeline

April 29, 1752
Brookfield, MA
December 6, 1804
Age 52
Providence, RI, USA
November 30, 1806
Age 54
Foster, RI, USA
December 28, 1808
Age 56
Foster, RI, USA
April 3, 1812
Age 59
Foster, RI, USA
October 4, 1814
Age 62
Foster, RI, USA
Age 75