Saturday, July 20, 2013

Who were Mary Barrett Dyer's parents?

Mary Dyer was not a Tudor, not the secret child of 
Arbella Stuart and William Seymour.
© 2013 Christy K Robinson 

This article is copyrighted. Copying, even to your genealogy pages, is prohibited by US and international law. You may "share" it with the URL link because it preserves the author's copyright notice and the source of the article.  
All rights reserved. This book or blog article, or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

How do you stop a very old rumor, especially if it's hit the internet? I'm going to try, by telling you, repeating it, and saying it again. I will be overly redundant on the matter. Why do I try? Because this blog has received hundreds of search inquiries on this very subject.

Many genealogy pages (and Ruth Plimpton's book) say Mary Dyer's ancestry was royal by virtue of being the secret child of Lady Arbella Stuart and Sir William Seymour. If you've copied that to your records, it's time to erase the false legend now. No researcher has found proof of Mary's parents or her birth or christening record. They have, however, found proof that Mary Barrett had a brother named William Barrett who in the custom of the times was probably named after their father. Please read researcher Johan Winsser's articles at this link. Read my proofs at the end of this article.

The pure fiction that Mary was the daughter of nobility and potentially an heir to the throne of Great Britain, was created by a Dyer descendant, Frederick Nathaniel Dyer, in the late 1800s, the romantic Victorian era. It resembles many other attempts by conspiracy theorists to create some sort of connection to European royalty, perhaps to explain why a girl with no known background (as yet discovered) had an above-average education and stood out among other women of her time. The romantic notion was that a commoner from Westminster could never have risen socially without a royal background. 
Henry VII of England,
NOT Mary Barrett's ancestor,
therefore not your ancestor.

Lady Arbella Stuart,
probably about the time
of her illegal and short-lived
marriage to William Seymour.
The false story is that Mary was the child of Lady Arbella Stuart (3x great-granddaughter of Henry VII), aged 35, and William Seymour (4x great-grandson of Henry VII), aged 22 at time of their secret and illegal marriage. King James forbade their marriage, but they married in secret in June 1610. The secret was revealed, and by 9 July 1610, Arbella and William were arrested and imprisoned. Separate quarters, as you must imagine! William was in the Tower of London; Arbella was at Lambeth under house arrest. History records that there was no issue from this marriage. That means there was no secret child who would be raised as Mary Barrett.

 Age 35 was very old for first-time pregnancy in those days. It's called "elderly prima gravida" even today. If Arbella had become pregnant during her two weeks of married bliss and borne a baby while in custody and under a doctor's care for several maladies, it would have been noticed by servants, royal household personnel, Anglican clergy, or any of the Lambeth Palace or Tower employees like, oh, say, prison guards--it was impossible to hide something like that, especially since Arbella was a prisoner under a royal-watcher microscope! What about the laboring mother's screams or groans? What about a newborn baby's cry?

But according to FN Dyer's legend, the newborn Seymour child was spirited out of the Tower of London (a prison, remember, with security) and named after and raised by her nurse, the original Mary Dyer, and hidden from King James I while he searched for the child who had a better claim to the throne. Was there even a lady-in-waiting for Arbella? The only "lady" Arbella mentions in her letters, a woman who needed to be paid for her services, was a Lady Chaworth. Another point against FN Dyer is that Arabella was not even in the Tower at this time--she was across the river under house arrest. FN Dyer said the baby was spirited from the Tower of London, but Arbella was at Lambeth in March and April 1611 (her presumed due date), and then King James sent her on a long journey north to Durham, which Arbella delayed and claimed her inability to travel and need for recuperation at manor houses along the way. The journey and northern confinement meant she would be isolated from Seymour forever. Nevertheless, she was sent.
The odd couple: Stuart and Seymour, ages 35 and 22.

In early June the next year, the young William Seymour escaped the Tower and fled to France, having missed his connection with Arbella, who also escaped from her journey north to captivity in Durham. She traveled in men's clothes, but was delayed by weather, captured at sea, and returned to prison. If Arbella and William had a child born in March 1611, would they not have taken that child with them to their exile in France? After all, the child was supposed to have had a better heritage for the throne than King James. But King James, a middle-aged man, had been on the throne for years, and had heirs by now, so there was no need, no chance for a Seymour baby to knock him out. That's just not logical.

I've read a false rumor that Arbella Stuart Seymour was killed by King James in 1615 in the Tower of London. No, Arbella actually died--childless--from a self-imposed hunger strike in 1615. She may have been mentally impaired by porphyria, a blood disease. You can read their story in detail, which cites letters of all the players involved, here:  If you still doubt, read the biography at that link, and form a timeline. It just doesn't work for Arbella to bear a secret child.

After Arbella died, there was no reason to keep Seymour in prison, so (no doubt after a large fine paid by his family) he went back to England, and married Lady Frances Devereux in March 1617. They had seven children. Seymour took up a political career, and was a royalist supporter of his much-removed cousins, King Charles I and II. Again, if he had a baby by Arbella, wouldn't he have taken over the upbringing?

Let me be clear: it's impossible for Mary Dyer to have been a Stuart-Seymour daughter. There was no pregnancy, no cover-up, no baby, no servant named Mistress Mary Dyer who adopted a baby. The Stuart-Seymour historians and biographers never, ever, had an inkling that Arbella might have been pregnant or had given birth, because the story was invented in 1890, which was 280 years after Mary was supposed to have been born. Our Mary Barrett Dyer was born to a family named Barrett, with an older brother named William Barrett (for whom she was executrix in 1634 when he died abroad), and married William Dyer.

Really, isn't it MORE remarkable that Mary Dyer was brilliant and accomplished on her own, without a privileged background? If she was invited to court events (and there's no proof of that, either), perhaps it was because of friends or her guardian. Now, please go to your ancestry or genealogy files and DELETE the Stuarts and Seymours from your records. Arbella Stuart Seymour had no issue. No Mary. Do you really want pure fiction in your pedigree or family tree? (And if so, why??)

Celebrate that you are descended from a brilliant and beautiful woman who became great not because of whose child she was, but because of her conscious choice to lay down her life for her friends.

Please click the colored links to see for yourself that the "tradition" of Mary Dyer's royal ancestry is the fantasy of a Victorian man who was creating his own royal pedigree. 
FN Dyer sent his fictional account to the Colonial Dames Society where it was read in 1890. It contains more illogical statements and inaccuracies than Mary Barrett's parentage. He apparently had not even read a biography of Arbella Stuart. 

NEHGS, July 1940 issue (Vol. 94) published the marriage record of Mary Barrett (not Stuart-Seymour) and William (Latinized to Guglielmo) Dyer

NEHGS, April 1944 issue (Vol. 98) The New England Historic and Genealogical Society's Register published an article by Alice Eugenie Ortiz entitled "Tradition of Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr" which had been contributed by Mrs. Harry Clark Boden. Mrs. Borden herself stated that there was no proof whatsoever for her theory - simply that it was one conceivable way to account for Mary's early whereabouts.

From : Andrews Moriarty refuted this theory quite soundly in his article, "The True Story of Mary Dyer" (NEHGS Register, Vol. 104, January 1950). He states that "no proof is offered that the Lady Arabella ever "had" issue except a vague statement from Mr. Hardy's (Life of Lady Arabella Stuart) of a rumor that such was the case." Furthermore, Moriarty points out that "there never was such a tradition [of this lineage] among Mary Dyer's descendants, but that it was a quite modern story, emanating from an English gentleman, Mr. F. M. Dyer of Macclesfield [sic -]. for "Frederick Nathaniel" Dyer who was an American - his father was born in Rhode Island - and who moved to England to do research]....who, not so many years ago, sent the story of his beliefs to the descendants of Mary Dyer in this country. ... This 'tradition' does not even have the authority of age ... this being so, the story, without more evidence, is not worthy of serious consideration." Moriarty further takes the (then) editor of the Register to task for even accepting the article for publication, as it appeared four years after the July, 1940 issue (Vol. 94) which published the marriage record of Mary and William Dyer from the parish register of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, which clearly identified her as Mary BARRETT.  

Biography of Arbella Stuart by B.C. Hardy includes her letters, no mention of a baby girl--but conspiracy theory about a baby boy after Arbella's death. Arbella's servant Mrs. Bradshaw, under oath, said "her lady had never had a child."   
See screenshots here:

by B.C. Hardy, Constable & Company, Ltd., London, 1913

The book goes on to say that William Seymour was very upset at the rumor and denied he'd fathered a child by Arbella.

Arbella's letters to her uncle beg for money to pay servants (she didn't have the servants she thought she deserved, but she had a Lady Chaworth and a Mrs. Bradshaw--not Dyer). Arbella's 1610 letter to her husband on page 120 says, "Rachel wept, and would not be comforted, because her children were no more; and that indeed is the remediless sorrow, and none else. And therefore God bless us from that, and I will hope well of the rest, though I see no apparent hope."  She wanted a child, but didn't have one (no pregnancy had resulted from their short union), and wished God would bless them with children--though she saw no hope.

British Monarchs: Arbella Stuart, no pregnancy. 

The fiction was repeated in the opening pages of Ruth Plimpton's 1994 historical novel, Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker, Branden Publishing Co., Boston, 1994, pp. 10-13, "The Tradition of Mary Dyer & Lady Arabella Stuart." From there, the "tradition" or legend was copied thousands of times into internet genealogy sites as if it were the truth. But it was never the truth. It was a lie from the very beginning.

Lady Arabella Stuart No mention of pregnancy or baby.
Sir William Seymour No mention of baby. BECAUSE THERE WASN'T ONE. 

THIS ARTICLE IS PUBLISHED ON THE WEBSITE William and Mary Barrett Dyer, by Christy K Robinson, at

Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Slavery and child-trafficking in New England

© 2013 Christy K Robinson

This article is copyrighted. Copying, even to your genealogy pages, is prohibited by US and international law. You may "share" it with the URL link because it preserves the author's copyright notice and the source of the article.  
All rights reserved. This book or blog article, or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Most of us got the G-rated version of history
in  elementary school classes--
also high school--
also university.
 If you’re like me, you learned that American slavery was limited to the importation of African captives to the Southern colonies and states. Indentured servants were young men and women from the British Isles who desired a better life in America and contracted their services for seven years in exchange for their ocean liner ticket. Native Americans had it hard, but mostly out in the West, and they were pushed out or died out in various wars, and cheated out of their treaties and reservations. Children had some heavy-duty farm chores, and their educations were limited to eight years or so.

So yes, it was a hard life, carving a utopian republic out of the wilderness, and it took a lot of people to do it. But all my ancestors and their friends were New Englanders in the Great Migration, and they didn’t do human exploitation and trafficking.

Oh, really??

That’s not what I found while researching my biographical novel on Mary Barrett Dyer. I found pieces of the story in Governor John Winthrop’s Journal, and in snippets of social histories, genealogical websites, New England court records, and other sources.

Pequot War, 1636-37
 You’ll have to Google the Pequot War, because this article is concerned only with the aftermath: captured Indians becoming slaves. The few men who survived the slaughter of war were put to death. (The descriptions are grisly.) The women and children were used as house “servants” in Boston and dispersed around New England. Those who ran away and were found or turned in were branded, or sold for slavery in the Caribbean sugar and tobacco fields, which meant certain death.

People readily accepted these practices, but I believe it stemmed from a terrible disdain for the poor, as they were obviously not candidates for the Elect of God. Winthrop moralized the stories in his journal to contrast the blessed and cursed of God. This treatment of natives is tragic and ironic, considering that the Massachusetts seal features a native who is asking the English to come over and help him by converting him to Christianity.

Winthrop Journal, 1637 (p. 225): “Captain Stoughton and his company, having pursued the Pequots beyond Connecticut [River], and missing of them, returned to Pequot River, where they were advertised, that one hundred of them were newly come back to a place some twelve miles off. So they marched thither by night, and surprised them all. They put to death twenty-two men, and reserved two sachems [tribal chiefs], hoping by them to get Sasacus (which they promised). All the rest [72 Pequots] were women and children, of whom they gave the Narragansetts thirty, and our Massachusetts Indians three, and the rest they sent hither.”

“July 6: There were sent to Boston forty-eight women and children. There were eighty taken, as before is expressed. These were disposed of to particular persons in the country [including Winthrop, who took at least two into his service, one of whom was a sachem’s wife]. Some of them ran away and were brought again by the Indians our neighbors, and those we branded on the shoulder.”

“July 13: [Swamp fight, Capt. Davenport vs. Pequots] …life was offered to all that had not shed English blood. So they began to come forth, now some and then some, till about two hundred women and children were come out… [After the fight] … Here our men gat some booty of kettles, trays, wampum, [their food stored in pits, which was highly desirable to the English settlers whose crops were failing and people were sickening in the famine] etc., and the women and children were divided [mothers and children torn apart], and sent some to Connecticut, and some to the Massachusetts. … We had now slain and taken, in all, about seven hundred. We sent fifteen of the boys and two women to Bermuda, by Mr. Peirce; but he, missing it, carried them to Providence Isle [an island in the Caribbean, off the Nicaraguan coast, which was granted to Puritans until 1641].” In 1638, Mr. Peirce’s ship, the Desire, returned to Boston, having traded the Pequot slaves for "Salt, cotton, tobacco and Negroes."

In 1645, Emanuel Downing, brother-in-law of Governor Winthrop, wrote to him longing for another "just war" with the Pequots, so the colonists might capture enough Indian men, women, and children to exchange in Barbados for black slaves, because the colony would never thrive "untill we gett ... a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business."    

English children as “servants”
Surely if you look deep enough into any country’s history, you’ll find exploitation of child labor, including sexual exploitation. It still happens all over the world today. In the seventeenth century, there are accounts of boys being “pressed” into service on merchant ships, boys kidnapped to be actors (and sexual prey) in Elizabethan theater, and Irish children whose parents had been slaughtered by Cromwell’s forces were kidnapped and sent to America (if they were lucky) or the Caribbean to die in the cane fields. In London, where thousands of children had been orphaned by the Civil Wars, famine, and plague, starving children were lured to camps or transport ships with promises of food.

No one will ever know the extent to which the children and teens of both genders were exploited for sexual slavery. In Virginia Colony, there were at least four times as many men as women, and in New England, it was about double. Virginia Colony actually sought Tobacco Brides for planters in the 1620s.

See my article on the rape and subsequent abuse of an indentured servant, Elizabeth Due, in the household of Gov. John Endecott of Salem, Massachusetts. Rather than punish the rapist who made her pregnant, one of Elizabeth’s fellow servants was accused of fornicating with her, and he was whipped 13 stripes in public and forced to marry Elizabeth.

John Winthrop’s journal, June 1643: "One of our [Massachusetts-built] ships, the Seabridge, arrived with 20 children and some other passengers out of England, and 300 pounds worth of goods purchased with the country's stock, given by some friends in England the year before; and those children, with many more to come after, were sent by money given one fast day in London, and allowed by the parliament and city for that purpose." 

Translation: London Puritans took up a voluntary financial collection in the churches, to pay the passage of poor or orphan children from London to Boston, where the children were sold as indentured servants for a minimum of seven years, or to age 18 if they were younger than ten years old.

Orphans and poor were the responsibilities of parishes and their poor funds, and how convenient and easy on the consciences it was to get rid of those expensive little anklebiters and make some money at it. They cut their expenses of maintaining the poor and helpless, and they profited by selling off the liabilities. Once that lot was gone, the poor-tax collections eased.

Make no mistake, money was the issue, not the welfare of poor children.

“[Reverend] Hugh Peter collected these unfortunates at a place called the Six Windmills in Essex; but the ships were not ready, disease broke out in the children’s camp, many died, and others ran away or were recovered by their parents. [Hugh] Peter and [Thomas] Weld had promised to sail with the survivors, but either they could not bear to leave a country where so much was going on or, as is more likely, they feared catching ship-fever from the poor little wretches. [Actually, they got lucrative appointments preaching and writing in England and never went back to America.] So, as Weld apologized, ‘providence appeared clearly to our consciences to stop us,’ and the children came over with nobody but the seamen to care for them. How many actually arrived in New England or what became of them there, is not known. We know only too well what became of the small balance from the collection that Weld and Peter sent to the General Court for the children’s care when they arrived. The Court voted £150 of the money toward building the President’s Lodge; and then, if we have drawn the correct inferences from the accounts, charge the same sum off against the Country’s Gift.”  ~Samuel Elliot Morison, Founding of Harvard College, pp. 312-313.

Orphanages and work houses were emptied to send children and poor people (usually widows) away and out of sight. In addition, children and teenagers were kidnapped from their neighborhoods where they lived with their parents, to be sold for transportation to America or Barbados.

1657: Londoner Sarah Sharp was a “common taker up of children in ships and a setter to betray young men and maidens to be conveyed into ships, and as hath been proved upon oath before me, that she confessed to one Mr. Guy that she hath at this time four persons aboard a ship whereof one is a child about eleven years of age, all to be transported to foreign parts as the Barbados and Virginia.” ~Greater London Record Office, Middlesex Sessions Rolls, MJ/SR 1165/54

On 26 June 1661, Philip Welch Jr. and William Downing, English slaves in Ipswich, Massachusetts, testified in Salem court:
“We were brought out of our own Country [taken from their beds at night] contrary to our own wills & minds, & sold here unto Mr. Symonds by the master of the Ship Goodfellow, Mr. Dill, but what agreement was made between Mr. Symonds & ye said master, was never acted by our consent or knowledge, yet not withstanding we have endeavored to do him the best service we could these seven complete years. Which is 3 years more than you used to sell them for at Barbados, when they were stolen in England. And for our service, we have no callings [trades or professions to live on] or wages, but meat & clothes. Now 7 years service being so much as the practice of old England, & thought meet in this place, we being both about 21 years of age, we hope this honored courts and jury will seriously consider our conditions.” 
Unfortunately the terms of agreement between Samuel Symonds and Shipmaster Dill were deemed legal, and Philip and William would serve out an additional two years.  

The ship Goodfellow was primarily a transport ship for conquered Irish, Scottish, and child slaves, and it made repeated trips to Virginia and Boston to sell its human cargo.
By order of the "State of England," many Irish people had been sent to New England. On their arrival they were sold by those at whose expense they had been brought over, to any of the inhabitants who were in want of slaves or servants. There arrived [in 1653] a ship called the Goodfellow, Captain George Dell, with a large number of emigrants of the above description. Many of the Scotch people had been sent before this in the same way. Some of them had been taken prisoners at the sanguinary battle of Dunbar. There arrived in one ship, the "John and Sara," John Greene, master, early in the summer of 1652, about 272 persons. Captain Greene had orders to deliver them to Thomas Kemble of Charlestown, who was to sell them, and with the proceeds to take freight for the West Indies. ~History and Antiquities of the City of Boston, by Samuel Gardner Drake

Theocratic society thought that God rewarded good, moral, Christian people with wealth and eternal salvation; and punished bad people (lazy, malingering, criminal, immoral, mentally-ill) with poverty and hell. They rationalized that they were being kind and merciful by sending the poor children away to learn a trade and perform rehabilitative work. Parliament and courts, both royal and Commonwealth, had opportunities to stop the kidnapping and didn’t.
The Baker's Cart, by Jean Michelin, 1656.
This is the sort of life children were stolen from,
to be sold as slaves in the Americas.

When they could not be procured from orphanages or prisons, children and teens were stolen from their homes and parents, or off the streets, and herded into camps or transport ships with promises of food. We can only imagine the terror and life-threatening conditions of these captives. One account tells of English children on board a ship, whose horrified screams were audible from the shore, and of parents trying to get their children released, but could not because they didn’t have the money to buy back their freeborn children. The courts were deaf to the parents’ pleas, because the traffickers’ story was that the parents had sold the children, spent the money, and the children had been fed, and now the parents wanted their children back at financial loss to the traffickers.

The captives were sold to the ship’s master, who now owned them. The children were considered freight, had monetary value, and were disposable. There were no nurses, social workers, or babysitters on the transport ships. The children were at the mercy of the seamen—and there are tales told of ships’ boys who were routinely sexually abused, so you can imagine what else may have happened. Up to half of the human cargo died in transit, and one observer reported that 32 children’s bodies were thrown into the sea at one time.

After eight to twelve weeks chained in the ship’s hold, they arrived in America or Barbados and were sold again to colonists and planters, ostensibly for a term of indenture where they were “apprenticed” to a trade. In reality, they were set to hard labor, clearing land, tending crops, logging, moving stones and stumps, etc. 

Most of what I've cited in this article is about economically-disadvantaged English slaves and servants. But there was another, even more horrendous and barbaric economy in the Irish slave trade. From 1641 on, the Irish population shrank by two-thirds as men, women and children were slaughtered, and tens of thousands of them were transported to be sold in the West Indies and America. Some historians claim the Irish were bond-servants, but others have said slaves. Most of them didn't live more than a year or two.

By no means was every purchaser of indentured servants a bad master. Some of the children would have been raised amongst the families and treated well. Servants who were 18 or older could marry after their indenture termed out, and they did learn useful trades. Many (perhaps even most) masters honored the contracts. And though there are no records to support this, many genealogies do not list the name or background of a colonist’s wife—could she have been a captured, transported child who served an indenture, and then married a settler?

Further reading:
Early colonial American slavery
Smithsonian's forensic examination of skeleton of 16-year-old indentured servant in Maryland. Article and photos. The boy's skeleton, from between 1663 and 1677, showed evidence of hard physical labor, and was discovered in a rubbish pit under a house.

Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Shelter Island: Mary Dyer's last six months


© 2013 Mac Griswold          
This article excerpted with author's permission, from Mac Griswold’s book, The Manor: Three Centuries of a Slave Plantation on Long Island, available at and bookstores.

An enterprising young English merchant, Nathaniel Sylvester, and his three partners bought Shelter Island in 1651 and began to set up a provisioning plantation there to supply his partners' vast sugar holdings on Barbados with barrel staves, salt meat, and grain, which fed the hundreds of enslaved Africans laboring in the cane fields.

Two years earlier, King Charles I had lost his head on the chopping block, and one of his auditors of the Royal Exchequer, had lost his job. Four of the Brinley children were speedily dispatched to a safer place, the New World. One was Grizzell Brinley, only 15 years old, who came to Newport with her sister, Anne, who had been hastily married off to Governor William Coddington of Rhode Island. Coddington had come to England to find himself a third wife, and Anne fit the bill, even though her parents' family were both Royalists and Anglicans. For two years, Grizzell lived in Newport, absorbing the sights and sounds of that rude settlement, which got its start a decade earlier when Coddington, along with Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, had been banished from Boston.

Sometime in the late winter of 1653, Nathaniel Sylvester sailed for Newport, probably from Barbados, and shipwrecked on the rocks of Conanicut Island just outside the harbor. Undeterred, he salvaged some of his goods, took the captain of the vessel to court for stealing much of the rest, and wooed Coddington's young ward, Grizzell. They married in July and sailed to Shelter Island, where Grizzell would have found much more primitive accommodations than she'd grown used to in Newport—already a step down from her parents' grand house and garden in the best part of London, Clerkenwell. Shelter Island plantation was also operated with slave labor, both African and American Indian—the sounds of many languages rang in the air.

By 1659, when Mary Dyer came for shelter to Shelter Island, the house may have been somewhat less provisional, and was certainly able to provide lodging and comfort and protection for the many Quakers preaching the Inner Light along the western edge of the Atlantic World: in Barbados and the rest of the West Indies, and all along the coast from the Carolinas to the persecuting Puritans of Boston.

Mary Dyer was as spiritually driven and intellectually active as her friend and mentor, Anne Hutchinson. Her contemporaries repeatedly described her as “comely,” an adjective that then connoted feminine beauty and modesty matched by moral grace. Winthrop, for example, recalled her as “a very proper and comely young woman,” as if to underscore his astonishment that this paragon could commit the transgressions for which she had been banished. Gerard Croese, a Dutch minister, later praised Dyer as a “person of no mean extract and parentage, of an estate pretty plentiful, of a comely stature and countenance, of a piercing knowledge in many things, of a wonderful sweet and pleasant discourse, so fit for great affairs, that she wanted nothing that was manly, except only the name and the sex.”

With the rest of the Boston outcasts, Dyer moved to Rhode Island and lived there for a decade. In the early 1650s, shortly after the birth of a sixth child, she left her husband, William Dyer, and their children for England. When she returned to Boston in February 1657 as a Quaker, the authorities arrested her. William secured her release on payment of a £100 bond and the promise that she would not return to Massachusetts, on pain of death. But Dyer soon reappeared in Boston to hurl herself against the colony’s 1658 capital law. Quickly imprisoned, she was sentenced to be hanged with two younger Friends, Marmaduke Stevenson and William Robinson. Quakers from all over New England converged on Boston; one woman brought winding sheets for the martyrs’ corpses.

On October 27, armed soldiers surrounded the three as they walked a mile to the scaffold. They went “hand in hand, all three of them, as to a Wedding Day,” Dyer in the middle. Onlookers said that their faces shone with joy. By official command, military drums rolled incessantly, so that only those closest to the gallows could hear the heretics’ last words. Robinson and Stevenson rejoiced that they would be at rest with the Lord; Dyer spoke of the “sweet incomings and refreshings of the Spirit.” Robinson stepped up to the platform; the hangman adjusted the noose, and after he pulled the ladder away, Robinson’s body jerked, writhed, and was still. Then came Stevenson’s turn. Having watched her companions perish, Dyer ascended. Her face was covered with a handkerchief, her arms and feet bound. Theatrically, improbably, a long pause followed. The hangman took off Dyer’s blindfold. Unmoving, and seemingly unmoved, she continued to stand with the halter around her neck. She had to be forcibly escorted from the platform, even after hearing that the magistrates had reprieved her. Unbeknownst to Dyer, they had granted this pardon some days before but kept the news secret in order to pull off the grisly charade. Perhaps the magistrates feared that hanging a woman would increase sympathy for the Quakers; perhaps they wished to look magnanimous. Dyer was banished again, set on a horse, and escorted to the Rhode Island border. Another return to Massachusetts, she was informed, would result in her execution. She made her way home, but she didn’t stay there for long. 
Shelter Island is enclosed by the arms
of Long Island. It's south of
Connecticut and SE of Rhode Island.

[In November 1659, Mary Dyer sailed to the eastern tip of Long Island, which encloses a smaller island called Shelter Island. Nathaniel Sylvester had sheltered several Quaker missionaries well-known to Mary Dyer. When Mary arrived, Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester (he was 49, she was 23) had two small children, a farm that supplied food and other products for the Barbados plantation, and several Quaker guests, including Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick.]

Shortly before the Quaker missionary John Taylor left Shelter Island in late 1659, Mary Dyer arrived. Taylor found Dyer, then in her late forties, to be still “a very Comely Woman,” as well as “a Grave Matron” who “ever shined in the Image of God,” and the two led several meetings together. By the end of the following April she decided to return to Boston, to burn as a candle for the Lord, traveling north through Providence to avoid visiting her husband and children.
Sylvester Manor and inlet. This house was built 70 years after
Mary Dyer's winter on Shelter Island.

The six months or so that Dyer spent with the Sylvesters may have been the happiest, most dedicated, least fractured time of her life. Her actions embodied her faith; all the rest of life’s concerns had burned away.

Perhaps Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester helped her into a boat, prayed with her and waved goodbye, then watched her disappear over the rim of the bay. They could have had no doubt that she was voluntarily, knowingly, headed for death. By late May she was back in Boston’s jail. On June 1, 1660, Dyer mounted the scaffold. As her body dangled from the noose, her skirt quivered in the breeze. What a bystander scoffingly said at that sight would eventually stand as Mary Dyer’s truth: “She did hang as a Flag for them to take example by.”

 Mac Griswold is a cultural landscape historian and the author of Washingtons Gardens at Mount Vernon and The Golden Age of American Gardens. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Travel + Leisure. She lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

Video of Shelter Island Farm, from BBC World News