Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mary Dyer at Shelter Island: She ever shined in the image of God

Guest post © Johan Winsser

Shelter Island (marked) in relation to New England
 After spending the winter of 1659-60 witnessing to her faith on Long Island, Mary Dyer went in the early spring to Shelter Island, thinking to go from there back to Rhode Island. About seven miles in breadth and width, Shelter Island lies between the two peninsulas at the eastern end of Long Island. It was largely owned by Captain Nathaniel Sylvester, one of four wealthy Barbados sugar planters who in 1651 purchased the island from New Haven Colony, intending it as a station for their flourishing triangular trade between England, the West Indies, and New England.[1] Objections to Sylvester’s Quaker sympathies—his close business partner was the Quaker Colonel John Rous and he was married to the sister of William Coddington’s third wife—were not so strong as to bar him from carrying on a profitable commerce with the merchants of New Haven Colony.[2]

Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island
Photo courtesy of Johan Winsser

At Shelter Island, Sylvester gave succor to traveling and expelled Friends. Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick of Salem came to the island in the summer of 1659 after their harsh treatment at Boston. Being elderly and in frail health, Lawrence made his will and died there the next spring. His wife and yokefellow Cassandra followed three days later. William Robinson, who would die for his faith and principles on the Boston gallows in October 1659, was appointed one of the two overseers of Southwick’s will. No tombstones were erected for the Southwicks—not surprising since early Friends usually did not erect memorials to the dead, giving no nod to worldly vanity.

Quaker cemetery, Shelter Island
Photo courtesy of Johan Winsser
 In 1884 a four-sided monument to the early Friends who had visited the Island was erected in a quiet grove. Each step was inscribed as follows:

West Top Step – THE PURITAN AND HIS PRIDE
West middle step- OVERCOME BY THE FAITH OF THE QUAKER
West bottom step – GAVE CONCORD AND LEXINGTON AND BUNKER HILL TO HISTORY

South top step – DANIEL GOULD BOUND TO THE GUN CARRIAGE AND LASHED
South middle step – EDWARD WHORTON THE MUCH SCOURGED
South bottom step – CHRISTOPHER HOLDER THE MUTILATED

East top step - LAWRENCE AND CASSANDRA SOUTHWICK
East middle step- DESPOILED IMPRISIONED STARVED WHIPPED BANISHED
East bottom step- WHO FLED HERE TO DIE

North top step – OF THE SUFFERINGS OF CONSCIENCE SAKE OF FRIENDS OF NATHANIEL SYLVESTER MOST OF WHOM SOUGHT SHELTER HERE INCLUDING
North middle step - GEORGE FOX FOUNDER OF THE SOCIETY OF QUAKERS AND OF HIS FOLLOWERS
North bottom step - MARY DYER MARMADUKE STEVENSON AND WILLIAM ROBINSON WILLIAM LEDDRA WHO WERE EXECUTED ON BOSTON COMMON
Zoom on northeastern part of Shelter Island, from Google Maps.
Quaker cemetery is close to head of Gardiners Creek.

When Dyer arrived, she found other Quakers already there and was warmly received. Like Elijah sojourning on the mountain before returning to confront Ahab, she decided to stay, to rest and reflect, waiting for the next clear command from God. A young Quaker, John Taylor, noted her arrival in his journal.

And there came several Friends from other Parts in New-England, to see us: One was Mary Dyer … She was a very Comely Woman and a Grave Matron, and eve[r] shined in the Image of God. We had several brave meetings there together, and the Lord’s Power and Presence was with us Gloriously.[3]

By May, as the days warmed, the osprey nested, the dogwood bloomed, and the gardens brightened with daffodils, lupines, and sweet peas, Dyer’s clear call had come. Her unwanted gallows reprieve last October enabled the Bay magistrates to avoid the only two choices she hoped to press upon them: repeal the bloody anti-Quakers laws or hang Mary Dyer. Furthermore, the reprieve allowed the magistrates another opportunity to dissemble about the Quakers. Any appearance of backing down from the tyranny of the Boston magistrates and ministers meant that the Quaker cause would be compromised. Dyer believed she had no choice but to go forward and put her life on the line again. Nothing less than a full revocation of those “bloody laws” could stay her course and spare her life.


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Johan Winsser has been researching and writing about Mary Dyer for many years. Some of his research is found on his DyerFarm website. Thank you, Johan, for your contributions to Dyer genealogy research, and to this Dyer blog.




[1] Helen Wortis, Shelter Island and Barbados,” Long Island Forum, [35:12] December 1972, 258-263.
[2] Isabel Calder, The New Haven Colony, New Haven, 1934, 97.
[3] John Taylor, An account of some of the Labours, exercises, Travels, and Perils, by SEA and LAND, of John Taylor of York: and also His DELIVERANCES; By way of Journal. London: J. Soule, 1710, 8.

3 comments:

  1. I visited Shelter Island last summer and was very moved by the Quaker Monument. I'm a descendant of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick. Nice post!

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  2. Thanks for this excellent post. I'm also a Southwick descendant, but hadn't heard about the Quaker monument. Maybe I can fit it into a Rhode Island research trip this spring.

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  3. Great Blog and great article from a talented guest author. I can't help but wonder what effect Mary's choices had on her husband and children.

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