Capt. Thomas Willett

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Thomas Willett

Birthplace: Barley, Hertfordshire, England
Death: Died in Swansea, Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States
Place of Burial: East Providence, Rhode Island, U.S,A,
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Andrew Willett; Thomas Willett; Jacobine Willett; Alice Willett and Alice Willett
Husband of Mary Browne; Mary Willett and Joanna Prudden (Boyse)
Father of James Willett; Mary Hooker; Martha Saffin; John Willet; Sarah Eliot and 8 others
Brother of Elizabeth Willett; Anna Willett; Rebecca Willet; James Willett, ,Sr; Mathew Willett and 10 others

Occupation: 1st Mayor of New York
Managed by: Linda Sue
Last Updated:

About Capt. Thomas Willett

Wikipedia Biographical Summary:

"...Thomas Willett (1611-1674) was a British merchant, Plymouth Colony trader and sea-captain, Commissioner of New Netherlands, a magistrate of Plymouth Colony, and Captain of Plymouth Colony. He was appointed Mayor of New York on June 12, 1665, by Governor Richard Nicolls, and as a commissioner of admiralty on August 23. He was a member of the governor's executive council from 1665 to 1672 under Richard Lovelace. He retired in 1673.

His son Thomas Willett was a major in the militia of Queens County and a councilor under Governors Sir Edmund Andros and Henry Sloughter.



Thomas Willet; Captain; 1st Mayor of New York; Merchant; Immigrated in 1632 on the LION.

SOURCE: Adam and Ann Mott Ancestry; Thomas C. Cornell, page 251; FHL book# 929.273 M8579C. FHL US/CAN Film 1018871 Item 10.


Biographical Summary #2:

“...As a boy in Holland, Thomas learned both the Dutch and the English language and although there seems to be no record of his having attended the university, his later life shows he received more than the ordinary education” (Smith, page 42).

“In Leyden, young Willett was reared in the congregation of Reverend John Robinson, the beloved pastor of the Pilgrims in Holland. Mr. Robinson had been graduated from Cambridge University in 1599, where he received his Master’s Degree, and removed to Holland in 1608. His son, Isaac Robinson, who was born the following year, became one of Willett’s fast friends, and both boys sailed to New England on the same ship” (Smith, page 42).

The return trip referred to above was the 1632 trip in the “Lion” that Thomas Willett made after testifying at the trial of Isaac Allerton in London.

It was in 1620, that the small ship, Mayflower, crammed with 102 saints and strangers, sighted southern New England just before the onset of winter. “Of the passengers aboard the original Mayflower, only about 40 or so called themselves saints (religious dissidents who had cut all the ties to the Church of England which they regarded as hopelessly corrupt). The rest were strangers, as the saints called them; humble folk recruited to fill out the list. The strangers simply hoped to better their lot in the new world. Later generations, influenced by seventeenth century romanticists, would lump them all together as Pilgrims” (Cooke, page 48).

The story of the Pilgrims, is a separate story from that of our Thomas Willett. The Pilgrim era was closing in March, 1629, when Thomas Willett, sailed from Gravesend, England on the Mayflower with Captain William Pierce in command. This was not, however, the Mayflower of 1620 which took the original Pilgrims to Plymouth. In 1620, there were approximately 120 ships of English registry, and 20 of these were named Mayflower.

On board this second Mayflower were 35 passenger [sic] from Leyden, Holland, a portion of the Green Gate Congregation that included Isaac, Mercy, and Fear Robinson (Planters of the Commonwealth, page 35). What reason prompted young Thomas Willett to leave his family, parents and sisters, to settle in a “new world” is unknown. He most likely was encouraged by his father to start a new life away from the life of the exile in Holland.

Shortly after Thomas Willett’s arrival, the Colony's government sent him north to take charge of their tradin post near the mouth of the Kennebec River in what is now Main. A little later, a new tradin post was established on the Penoscot [sic] River, about 50 miles up the Maine Coast from the Pilgrim trading post at Kennebec. There was a royal proclamation against trading weapons to the Indians. However, another agent, Edward Ashley, was illegally furnishing the Indians with weapons in defiance of King Charles I proclamation of November 24, 1630. Ashley was arrested and sent to England for trial before the Privy Council. Young Thomas Willett had actually seen Ashley sell contraband and was a star witness. However, this required that Willett return to England. He and Isaac Allerton returned to England on Allerton's ship, White Angel. On September 6, 1631, Willett gave his testimony. Ashley was found guilty. This was only one of the problems and conflicts which faced the Pilgrim community.

And even greater fraud had been continuously perpetuated [sic] on the unsuspecting Pilgrims by Willett’s fellow traveller, Isaac Allerton. Allerton had been acting as the Pilgrim’s agent in London who dealt with the backers of Plymouth Plantation. Allerton had succeeded in running up the Pilgrim’s [sic] debt, from £400 (about $20,000) to £4,770 (about $238,500) in less than four years. Allerton was eventually dismissed from his position, but he continually plagued the Pilgrim fathers for years afterward.

The return trip to New England was arranged. Thomas had the company of another old family friend from Leyden on the outbound trip. this was his father’s friend, John Browne, along with his daughter, Mary Browne, and other members of that family who were immigrating to the new world. They left England on June 22, 1632, on board the Lion, which was a fairly large ship for the day. The return trip took twelve weeks; they arrived in Boston on September 16. Thomas Willett and Mary Brown must have seen a lot of each other during that voyage. An enduring romance must have had its inception on board the Lion.

On July 6, 1636, he married Mary, the daughter of Worshipful John Brown (b 1584 in England; d April 10, 1662, at Swansea, Massachusetts), the son of Thomas Browne. Peter Browne, the uncle of John Browne had come over on the original Mayflower, and he and the elder Thomas Browne were sons of Thomas Browne, Senior. The Browns were from Swansea, England, and his wife Dorothy (nee Beauchamp) had immigrated from Cambridge, England, to Holland, and then followed the Puritans to Massachusetts. Governor Winthrop performed the ceremony. The Browns had been one of the last of the Green Gate Pilgrims to leave Holland for the new world. They were old friends of the Willett family.

“By this marriage, Willett allied himself with one of the most influential families of the Plymouth Colony. Mr. Brown had become one of plymouth’s [sic] most prominent figures and had been given a patent on the Kennebec. For twelve years he was a commissioner of the United Colonies of New England, and for eighteen years he was a governor’s assistant.

The Dutch were suspicious of the English, particularly the English settlements in Long Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This is where Willett, born in England, raised in Holland, was at his best, as an intermediator between the Dutch and the English. He acquired a remarkable degree the confidence of the Dutch, and also the Indians, as well as the English. When Governor Stuyvesant first arrived in New Amsterdam, in 1647, to succeed Governor Kieft, a spirit of intercolonial courtesy induced Governor Bradford, of Plymouth to write to Stuyvesant, under the date of April 3d, 1647, congratulating him on his safe arrival, and in the letter commending to the Dutch Governor, Thomas Willett and William Paddie as men who [sic] he could trust. Stuyvesant accepted the recommendation, finding it in accord with the sentiment of New Amsterdam; and soon after appointed Captain Willett to represent the Dutch in a boundary commission between New Netherlands and Hartford.

On March 7, 1647/48 Thomas Willett was made Captain of the Plymouth Company of Militia. He succeeded Captain Miles Standish, that “little stovepipe” who had died.

On June 6, 1649, he was made a surveyor of the highways. From 1651 until 1664, he was a magistrate of the Plymouth Colony.

Captain Willett kept a residence in New Amsterdam. In 1655, he was one of the 320 taxpayers. He owned several ships, and perhaps one or all of them were ocean-going vessels. In 1651, he purchased the frigate Palomne; he was bondsman for Edmond Scarborough, late of Accomack County, Colony of Virginia, for £5,000 in 1655; and about the same time purchased the ship Abraham’s Sacrifice; he also owned the New Netherlands.

[p. 8] In 1660, Thomas Willett founded the town of Swansea, Rhode Island, and here were [sic] Massachusetts and Rhode Island join, made his home. It must have been a nice home. Willett was well-to-do, if not down-right rich. His son John was living in New Amsterdam, perhaps as overseer to the Willett ventures there. His son Hezekiah lived at Swansea, probably with his father.

In the summer of 1664, Governor Stuyvesant, and the Burgomasters and the Dutch people had known that an English invasion was threatened.

On the 8th of September, 1664, Governor Stuyvesant surrendered in the face of overwhelming force. Against the fleet of Col. Nichols, he could have only brought to bear 100 men, 25 guns, and barely enough ammunition to fight for one day. All Dutch rights were to be respected. The Dutch council then in session would rule until the usual change in council members was made the next spring. But the Dutch form of government was not customary in the King's dominions, so Governor Nicolls [sic] decided to give the city a new charter and government when June, 1665, came around. Who would be the first English Mayor?

Captain Thomas Willett was chosen by Colonel Nichols to be the first English Mayor of the renamed New York City. It was a natural choice made by a Colonel who had avoiced bloodshed through negotiation. And Captain Thomas Willett was one of the chief negotiators. Not only was he respected by the English, but also by the Dutch. He spoke fluent Dutch and had a home in the city, along with business interests. On June 12, 1665, Willett assumed his seat at the head of the council. Of five aldermen on the council, three were Dutchmen who had previously served. New York was then a small town of a few narrow streets, south of Wall Street, lined with small thatched cottages and some big handsome Dutch buildings.

On January 8, 1669, Thomas Willet's wife, Mary Brown, died at their home in the Plymouth Colony. She was buried at Swansea.

Captain Willett married a second time, on September 19, 1671, he married Mrs. Joyce Pruden.

Thomas Willett died at Swansea and was buried at the head of Bullock’s Cove, in what is now East Providence, RI. His tombstone gives the date of his death as August 4, 1674 “in the 64th year of his age”. His will dated April 26, 1671 and probated on August 12, 1674, left bequests to his four sons, two daughters, a brother-in-law and the church of Rehoboth. His wife Mary died on January 8, 1699.

Known issue of Thomas and Mary:

  1. Martha Willett, married John Saffin, a merchant of Boston and had eight sons; four of them were mentioned in Thomas Willett’s will.
  2. Esther Willett, b. July 6, 1647
  3. Hezekiah Willett, born and died in 1651
  4. Rebecca Willett died April 2, 1652
  5. James Willett, mentioned in will
  6. Hezekiah Willett, mentioned in his father’s will, killed by Indians at the Willett plantation in Swansea.
  7. Andrew Willett, mentioned in will
  8. Samuel Willett, mentioned in will
  9. Thomas Willett
  10. Mary Willett, married Samuel Hooker

SOURCE: The Willett Families of North America; compiled by Albert James Willett, Jr., A Willett; House Publication

There are very detailed, scholarly analyses of the genealogy of Thomas Willet published in Volume 80 of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (1949)

Capt. Thomas Willett was the first English mayor of New York.

Colonial Mayor.

First Mayor of New York City. Arriving in 1632 on "The Lion" (with a religious separatist movement that called themselves "The Saints", that fled England to Leyd(e)n, Holland then went back to England to follow the Mayflower voyage), Thomas Willett was a merchant that traded from Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. He succeeded Captain Miles Standish as head of the Colonial Militia and negotiated what is now known as the "Rehoboth North Purchase" which acquired land (now known as Attleboro and North Attleboro, Massachusetts) from Wampanoag leader Sachem Wamsutta who was the son of famed chief Massasoit. He later conducted sea trade from the Colonies and was a navigator from 1651 to 1654. When the charter of "New Amsterdam" was changed to British possession, Governor Richard Nicholls granted the city charter on June 12, 1665 and the city, population 1,500 at the time, got Thomas Willett as its English representative/mayor, making him the first mayor of "New York". He served two concurrent one-year terms from 1665 to 1667. His property in that colony was confiscated when the Dutch reclaimed the area and he settled in the locale of Barrington, Rhode Island (while some accounts have his retirement in Sewansea or Seekonk, Massachusetts, these towns are all close and at the time the town lines that currently exist were not the same.) He was married to Mary Brown and together they had fourteen children. There is a large memorial marker placed for him, and near it is the original weathered stone which, now unreadable is documented as having the following inscription "1674 Here lyeth the body of the worthy Thomas Willett, Esq. who dies August 4 in the 64th year of his age, and who was the first mayor of New York and twice did sustain the place." (bio by: R. Digati)

tormentor of Quakers

party to religious intolerance at New Amsterdam and Long Island: Source: Besse's Sufferings. See Transcript at Chapter 5, New England
Date: 1657 ' Some Time after, he (Robert Hodgson) was examined before the Governour, incensed against him by one Captain Willet of Plymouth, and received Sentence, to work two Years with a Negro at the Wheel-barrow, or pay a Fine of six Hundred Gilders. When he would have made his Defence, he was not suffered to speak, but sent again to the Dungeon, and none of the English People suffered to come to him. After some Days he was taken and pinion'd, and being set with his Face toward the Court-Chamber, another Sentence was read to him in Dutch, which he understood not.' Hodgson was then repeatedly beaten and imprisoned his crime being to speaking his mind as to his own religious preference.

Disputed Parents

Robert Charles Anderson states that he was possibly the son of Thomas and Alice Willet of Leiden citing:

GEORGE CANNING BURGB88, A.B., “THOMAS WILLETT OF LEYDEN AND PLYMOUTH, FIRST MAYOR OF NEW YORK” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Boston, MA: NEHGS, 1907) Vol 61 p 157-64 see p 158 The author states that there is no evidence he was the son of Rev. Andrew Willett. This theory was proposed in NEHGR 2:276 simply stating that the name is rare and that Rev. Andrew Willett had a lot of children. This claim was then repeated by other authors without evidence. But there is an origin nearer to Leiden. He cited Morton Dextor in “Members of Pilgrim Company at Leyden” p 639 that there was a Thomas Willett and wife Alice who came from Norwich, England to Leiden in the Puritan movement who lived for a while with Robert Browne who gave the name “Brownists” to the separatists. He points out that our Thomas Willett has a mastery of Dutch language, custom and manners and was probably born in Leiden. And that our Thomas married Mary Brown. Dexter states that “unqualifiedly, that he was the son of Thomas and Alice Willett.

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Capt. Thomas Willett's Timeline

Barley, Hertfordshire, England
Age 27
Plymouth, Montgomery, Pennsylvania, USA
November 10, 1637
Age 32
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony
August 6, 1639
Age 34
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony
August 21, 1641
Age 36
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony
May 4, 1642
Age 37
Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
December 2, 1644
Age 39
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony
October 1, 1646
Age 41
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony
July 10, 1648
Age 43
Plymouth, Plymouth Colony