ESSAYS ON THE LEE FAMILY
Ensign Thomas Lee II was born in 1639 and baptized September 29, 1644 in Rusper, Sussex County, England. He was the son of Thomas Lee I and his wife Phoebe Brown Lee. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lee and their three children Jane, Sarah, and Thomas II left England in 1645 for America together with Phoebe’s father William Brown. The senior Thomas Lee died of small pox during the crossing. The widow Phoebe married two more times. First to Greenleaf Larabee and was the mother of five children: Greenfield, John, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Sarah Larabee. Sarah, the half sister of Thomas II, was the grandmother of the diarist Joshua Hempstead. Phoebe married again to a man named Cornish and had two more children, James Cornish and a stillborn. She died in childbirth at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1664. William Brown, his daughter the widow Phoebe Lee, and her children arrived in Saybrook in 1645. According to Glimpses of Saybrook in Colonial Days, by Harriet Chapman Chesebrough “Their afflicted and distressed condition commended to the sympathies of those at the fort and Thomas II was particularly cared for by Matthew Griswold, and followed him to Lyme, where in later years he became a prominent citizen and received on arriving his majority a grant of land on the East side of the river”. A Saybrook 1650 division of land lists Thomas Lee (then about age 11) as a grantee. No documentation of the grant details has been found. A close relationship between the Lee and the Griswold families continued throughout the colonial period. About 1670 Thomas Lee II married Sarah Kirtland, daughter of Nathaniel Kirtland of Lynn, Massachusetts. It is probable that the first stage of the Lee house was built at this time.
Thomas and Sarah were the parents of three children, John, who wrote the “Dying Charge”, Thomas III (Mr. Justice Lee), and Sarah. His wife Sarah died May 21, 1676 leaving him with three young children. He soon married a second time on July 13, 1676 to Marah Dewolfe. There were eleven more children, four of whom died in childhood.
Over the years, during the distribution of Lyme’s common lands, Lee acquired large tracts of upland and salt meadow throughout town. It has been said that he owned one-eight of the town.
Records show that Lee was involved in two disputes over land ownership. A dispute between Thomas Lee II and Matthew Griswold Senior (his mentor) over 20 acres of calf pasture land was settled in favor of Lee at a town meeting on November 27, 1675. A town meeting on July 2, 1684 relates a controversy between Mr. Christophers and Thomas Lee over a parcel of land at Black Point. From the records of the October 1685 session of the Connecticut Assembly it is recorded in answer to the petition of Thomas Lee the court declared that the county clerk should handle his execution against Mr. Christophers. In 1686 at New London County Court Lee lost a jury trial and relinquished his claim.
Throughout his life Lee was active in town affairs filling numerous offices. In 1685 he was a deputy from Lyme in the Assembly, recorder of town records, surveyor, collector of the minister rate, meat packer-sealer (officer appointed to examine and test weights and measures), Hayward (an officer appointed to keep cattle from breaking through from a town common into enclosed fields, keeper of towns common herd of cattle), lister (assessor), and Ensign of the train band (local militia).
Lee’s will was dated June 1703. He left property “Where I now Live” to his youngest son Benjamin (age 10). His vast holdings throughout Lyme were left to his three sons, William, Joseph, and Stephen. The two oldest sons, John and Thomas III had already been given their share. His wife Mary was given one-third of his moveable estate. The daughters were left money. His eldest sons John and Thomas III and his wife were named executors of his will. He died on January 5 1704/5. No gravestone has been found. He was likely buried in one of the old cemeteries in present day Old Lyme.
Benjamin to whom the homestead was left must have died before he came of age as no further record of him has been found, nor has any record of Thomas Lee III of gaining possession of the homestead.
On May 28, 1705 [LLR 2:236] the executors of the estate, the widow and sons John and Thomas III leased the homestead to son William (age 21 and unmarried) for a period of nine years starting March 1, 1705. At that time Benjamin would have been age 21. Benjamin must have died sometime during the lease period. It would appear that William was left head of the household of his widowed mother and younger siblings.
Thomas Lee III, also known as Mr. Justice Lee, was the son of Ensign Thomas Lee II and his first wife, Sarah Kirtland. He was born December 10, 1672, presumably in the Lee House. He married Elizabeth Graham on January 24, 1695. They were the parents of seven children: Mary, b. 1698; Elizabeth, b. 1701; Ester, b. 1703; Thomas IV, b. 1705; Samuel, b. 1708; Eunice, b. 1711; and Elisha, b. 1714.
It is uncertain how he obtained possession of the Lee House. When his father died January 5, 1704/5 his will left the house to his youngest son, Benjamin, then eleven years old. Benjamin apparently died young, though no record of his death has been found. Shortly after Ensign Lee’s death, the farm was leased by his widow Mary and their two adult children, John and Thomas, to their brother William, age 21, for a period of nine years. No record has been found of the property being transferred to Thomas Lee III.
The Lyme records of 1703 record “An indenture of Danele Smith to Thomas Lee Junar”. The indenture was declared “ful fild” on May 4, 1713, at which date Smith had become age 21.
Thomas Lee II and Joshua Hempstead, the diarist, were first cousins through their common grandmother, Phoebe Brown Lee Larabee. Joshua makes frequent mention of Thomas Lee and family, referring to him as “Cuzn Thos Lee”. The diary records visits to and lodging at the Lee House, as well as births, marriages, and deaths of family members. Lee’s will was written by Joshua.
Lee was active in civic affairs throughout his life. He served as deputy from Lyme in the Assembly from 1713 to 1725, and was appointed Justice of the Peace by the Assembly from 1736 to 1746. As such, he was known as “Mr. Justice Lee”. His name appears as a witness on numerous legal documents, such as wills, deeds, and estate inventories.
In January 1726/7, Thomas, his brother Stephen and nephew John Lee, were granted permission to dam Bride Brook and erect a sawmill. The dam embankment can be seen near the Bride Brook Memorial boulder, just west of the Lee House.
Lee was among those who petitioned the Assembly in 1719 to establish a new ecclesiastical society in the eastern part of Lyme. A new church was established, known as the Second Society or East Society. This church is the ancestor of the present-day Niantic Community Church. A large burying ground was established near the old church and is maintained by the Community Church. Lee was very active in the affairs of the early church, serving as committeeman, moderator of meetings, and various other duties.
Lee was active in the affairs of the local Niantic Indians. Upon the Memorial of the Indians to the May 1728 session of the Assembly, Captain Stephen Prentiss of New London and Mr. Thomas Lee of Lyme were appointed overseers of the Indians with full power to take care of their planting grounds and to see the same is well fenced and secured.
The May 1734 Assembly appointed John Griswold and Thomas Lee to lay out the bounds of the Indian lands. The October 1734 session of the Assembly approved their layout of 300 acres. The layout comprised the general area of present-day Crescent Beach, Oak Grove Beach, Attawan Beach, and Black Point Road.
From the May 1736 session:
“And wheras this Assembly now informed that the said Nahantick Indians desire their children may be instructed,
“Thereupon it is resolved, that the Colony Treasurer do pay out of the publick treasury unto Messrs. Thomas Lee of Lyme, and Stephen Prentiss of New London, the sum of fifteen pounds; who are appointed to receive the same, therewith they shall hire some suitable person to instruct the said children to read, and also the prinicipals of the Christian religion, and also render an account to this Assembly of their disbursement of the money aforesaid.”
On August 8, 1752, Joshua Hempstead wrote “Yesterday morning died my kinsman Deacon Thomas Lee Esq of East Society in a good old age.” His gravestone in the Old Stone Church Cemetery reads: “Thomas Lee died August 9, 1752”. At this writing (2008), the redstone is shelled and no longer legible. The stone for his wife Elizabeth, standing next to his, reads: “Mrs. Elizabeth Lee wife of Deacon Thomas Lee died September 3, 1757 age 84.
His last will was written January 1749/50, about three and a half years before his death.
Lee’s three sons had died before him. His large holdings were left to his three grandsons, with provisions for his wife and daughter Mary. His grandson Elisha received the house. His three grandsons received the Sabbath-day house. The dictionary definition of a Sabbath-day house: “A house formerly built (as in Connecticut) near a church heated on winter Sundays as a place for worshipers living at a distance to warm themselves and eat between morning and afternoon services in an unheated church.”