A Belated Reply:
The English Origins of John and William Pratt of Connecticut
by Matthew Grow
A slightly edited version of this article was published in the New England Historical and Genalogical Register by the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, 101 Newbury Street, Boston Massachusetts 02116, Volume CXLIX, October 1995, Pages 374-378.
For 141 years, since the publication of Rev. Frederick W. Chapman’s The Pratt Family, the mystery of the birthdates of John Pratt and his younger brother Lieutenant William Pratt have plagued Pratt family genealogists. The Pratt brothers were disciples of the Reverend Thomas Hooker, following him first to Newtown, Massachusetts, and then to Hartford, Connecticut, arriving as original settlers in 1636. William Pratt later distinguished himself in the Pequot Indian Wars, being named a Lieutenant, and eventually settled in the Potapaug Quarter of Saybrook (which much later became Essex, Connecticut) and served as a representative from Saybrook at the General Court for twenty-three sessions. John Pratt stayed in Hartford, where he died in 1655. Chapman believed that these two brothers were the sons of the Reverend William Pratt, a Cambridge-trained Anglican priest, who served as parish priest at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England from 1598 till his death in 1629. Chapman listed the baptismal date of John as November 9, 1620, and asserts that no birth record survives for William Pratt. The assumption was that William Pratt, the younger brother, was born about 1622. All subsequent Pratt genealogists and historians who have dealt with the Pratt family have perpetuated these beliefs.
In July 1865, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register reviewed Chapman’s book, expressing admiration for his thoroughness in cataloguing the descendants of Lt. William Pratt. However, it attacked the assumption that Lieutenant William Pratt was the son of Reverend William Pratt of Stevenage, England. The editor commented, “The least satisfactory part of the book is the attempt to identify the father of the emigrant.” He agrees that it is clearly established that Rev. William Pratt had three sons, John, William, and Richard, of which John and William are not named in their father’s will. Also, the editor correctly argues that these birthdates would have made the sons of Rev. William Pratt much too young to have immigrated to America and become prominent citizens in Connecticut by 1636. He argues, “Why he would presume that they were in New England rather than dead, we do not see. We cannot see the slightest ground for the supposition, and trust if any proofs remain they will be furnished us.” Though belatedly, I wish to do just that.
Recent research at the County Records Office at Hertfordshire, England, has revealed the correct birthdates of John and William Pratt. The confusion over the birthdates arises from an understandable misinterpretation of the parish record. The microfilm copy of the original parish record states that the original records were damaged, and that some years were missing entirely. The year which would contain William’s baptism is missing; the year containing John’s baptism is out of order. The page to the immediate left of the page listing John’s baptism bears the date 1619; since John’s page is dateless, researchers in the nineteenth century assumed that John was born in 1620. However, by carefully studying the succession of months between the pages, it becomes apparent that the pages had been rebound out of order; the page listing John’s baptismal record obviously belongs earlier in the parish record. Moreover, the back of the actual page recording John’s baptism lists the year as 1607. When accurately interpreted, the records show that the correct baptismal date for John Pratt is November 29, 1607, not 1620. An examination of the original Bishop’s Transcript lists the baptism of William Pratt, in the handwriting of his father, Rev. William Pratt, as June 6, 1609. The transcript for the year 1607, where John Pratt’s baptismal record should be, is missing entirely. The new birthdates, verified by Hertfordshire County Archivist Kathryn Thompson, make John and William Pratt approximately the right age to emigrate and become prominent citizens in New England.
The misreading of the records began as early 1856 or 1857, when Orson Pratt, the author’s fourth great uncle and an original Apostle and prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was President of the Mormon British Mission and researched the birth and parentage of the Pratt brothers. Assisted by a young missionary, Charles Penrose, who would also later become an apostle of the Mormon Church, Pratt “made thorough search in English records, for the parentage and pedigree of William Pratt,” and subsequently furnished these records to Rev. Chapman to publish. Since by this time the parish records were bound out of order, it is easy to see why Pratt and Penrose misunderstood the records. Also, it is doubtful that the Bishop’s record, an exclusively Anglican church record, would have been made available to a pair of Mormon missionaries, or to the general public, while the parish record, a governmental record, would have been readily available.
The only correct American reference to the baptism of John Pratt is found in the Boston Evening Transcript of January 16, 1924. In response to a question regarding John Pratt’s son Daniel, a writer, only identified by the initials D.W.V., lists the baptism of John as November 29, 1607, corroborating the findings in Hertfordshire. However, how this correct date surfaced from amongst literally dozens of incorrect and estimated dates is a mystery. Whether the obscure D.W.V. had access to some long-lost family records or had done original research in Stevenage remains to be discovered.
Besides the rediscovered baptismal dates of John and William Pratt, which would make them old enough to have become prominent citizens in Connecticut as early as the 1630’s, circumstantial evidence also suggests that the immigrant brothers are indeed the sons of Rev. William Pratt. Rev. Pratt and his wife Elizabeth were the parents of six children, of which three, John, William, and Elizabeth, are not listed in his will. Also, the deaths of John and William Pratt are not found in the Stevenage burial register, which records the burials of other members of their immediate family, suggesting they did not live in Stevenage at the times of their deaths. If they had indeed died as infants, it seems strange that their father did not record their deaths in the Bishop’s Transcript.
Lt. William Pratt married Elizabeth Clark, daughter of John Clark, at Hartford probably in 1636. It is believed that John Clark (also spelled Clarke) was originally from Great Mundon, Hertfordshire, (about two miles from Stevenage) as the will of his brother George Clark lists property there. In his will, dated both February 17, 1672 and January 19, 1673, John Clark refers to William Pratt as both his son and as his cousin. Since William Pratt was his son-in-law, the reference to him as “son” is obvious; however, the reference to him as cousin is more puzzling. The term cousin, as used in early New England, most likely referred to a niece or nephew, but could possibly refer to other familial relationships as well. It is likely that the older John Clark was indeed the uncle or other close relative of William Pratt. Early Connecticut records indicate that there was probably a strong relationship between John Clark and William Pratt; they both served in the Pequot Indian War, both are among the original proprietors of Potapaug Quarter of Saybrook, and William Pratt served as executor of John Clark’s will. It seems probable that the elder relative John Clark assisted John and William Pratt in their dream of settling in the New World and then retained ties with both of them, but especially William, after their arrival.
A record of marriage for a John Pratt is found in Baldock, Hertfordshire (less than two miles from Stevenage), in 1626 to Elizabeth Young. Since no marriage record is found for John Pratt in early New England records, it is assumed that he married prior to his emigration. In John Pratt’s will, it mentions his wife’s Christian name as Elizabeth, and family records do not list a maiden name. Whether the Baldock marriage record refers to the emigrant John Pratt cannot be verified, and it is somewhat questionable whether he would have married at the age of nineteen. However, it is probable that John Pratt was married prior to his immigration as he participated in the original Cambridge land distribution, while his younger and unmarried brother William did not.
The New England evidence also suggests that the immigrant John Pratt was older than the immigrant William Pratt, as the English evidence would indicate. He had children before William, died first, and participated in the Cambridge land distribution.
Another important, though circumstantial, connection between the Reverend William Pratt and the immigrants John and William Pratt is Puritanism. How had the two young men come to be associated with the religious dissident Thomas Hooker, who was not from their immediate vicinity? Rev. William Pratt attended Emmanuel College in Cambridge, the hotbed of the Puritan Revolution where Rev. Hooker was also educated a few years later. It is probable that Rev. William Pratt was associated with or sympathetic to Puritan theology, and very possible that he was personally acquainted with Rev. Hooker. Also Rev. Samuel Stone, Hooker’s friend and assistant pastor, who devotedly followed him to Holland, Newtown, and Hartford, was from Hertfordshire. (Hartford was named for Stone’s birthplace.) It seems likely that the aging Rev. William Pratt, though possibly sympathetic to Hooker and his ideals, was unable to take an active part in the Puritan migration and leave his homeland because of his advanced age and position as parish priest. It seems equally likely that he encouraged his two son to take a more active role in this movement, assisting them to follow Thomas Hooker to Newtown. If this assumption is correct, it would explain why the boys are not listed in their father’s will, as perhaps they had already been allotted their portion.
The discovery of the baptismal records of John and William Pratt, the sons of Rev. William Pratt of Stevenage, England, in primary sources removes the principal objection to their being the John and William Pratt of early Connecticut. An extensive search of historical and genealogical records of New England has not located any record specifically identifying the ages or birth records of John and William Pratt of early Connecticut which would definitely prove the link. Nevertheless the weight of circumstantial evidence suggests that such a connection is extremely probable.