William Dyer provides
© 2014 Christy K
William Dyer (or Dyre, as he wrote it) was a man of many
talents and abilities. Trained as a haberdasher/milliner, he arrived in America in 1635
and was soon a property owner. He was clerk of several commissions, and the
“Portsmouth Compact” of 1638 is written in his hand. He was part of several
trading missions to buy food from the Native American tribes, and he was a
surveyor who laid out lots in Portsmouth, and
roads and boundaries in Newport.
He was the first Secretary of State to Rhode
Island’s government, then General Recorder from
1648-1650. During this time, William must have studied law, for he was
appointed Attorney General from 1650-53, and was first to hold that title
all of colonial America.
He was appointed Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Seas by both the English Council
of State and the United Colonies in 1652-53, was Rhode Island’s general solicitor in 1665-66
and 1668-69, and secretary to the council in 1669. During that time, he owned a farm which had horses, cattle, and sheep (as we see from various legal
actions he filed), as well as tobacco and hay.
As Secretary of State and then General Recorder, William
Dyer was responsible for writing the colonial assembly legal actions and
records, property deeds, and vital records. See Found!
More documents in William Dyer’s hand
. He kept the documents in a chest, in
a room with four locks. The four keys were kept in the four original towns of Rhode Island, and
brought out for court sessions. The official seal of the colony would have been
kept with the records.
The first anchor seal in the colony may have belonged to Benedict Arnold (the ancestor of the Revolutionary War Royalist) or Roger Williams. Benedict Arnold had an anchor with his BA initials
on either side. When they sent official documents or important letters, they sealed the papers with wax and a seal impression.
|Hand-drawn seal of Rhode Island, 1647. |
As William Dyer was General Recorder, he probably
drew this image himself.
It appears (from the book excerpted below) that William Dyer
provided an ivory seal with the image of an anchor, and that the seal was used on official
documents from 1648 to 1661, then copied for a new seal in 1664. From the description, it's impossible to know how the seal was made, but it's probable that the die of the seal was metal, and the handle of the stamp would have been ivory (walrus tusk from what Gov. John Winthrop called the sea horse). William Dyer was acquainted with Boston silversmith John Hull, who had been his neighbor until 1638, and who co-owned a ship that would be used by privateer Edward Hull in the first Anglo-Dutch war in 1653. John Hull would have the skill required to cast a die. (Has anyone noticed the pun between die and Dyer?)
The Rhode Island
seal’s image, an anchor, probably referred to Hebrews
, because of their exile from Massachusetts Bay Colony over their
dissidence to the theocratic government there. “We have run to God for safety. Now his
promises should greatly encourage us to take
hold of the hope that is right in front of us. This hope is like a firm and steady anchor for our souls.”
versions of the seal have carried the word “hope” over the image of the anchor. The anchor is a graphic symbol for "hope" (or esperance), and they've been used together for centuries.
The anchor that kept their boats and ships from drifting or
being shipwrecked symbolized safety and “home” to the people who had left first
England and then Massachusetts over religious oppression. And it was perfect to
represent Narragansett Bay, which Rhode Island
territories surround, as the second-most important seaport in New England,
In 1647 the four original towns [of Rhode Island and
Providence Plantations, including Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, and Warwick]
uniting under the Charter, held the first General Assembly, then styled the
General Court of Election, at Portsmouth, on the 19th, 20th and 21st of May. At
this meeting the anchor was adopted as the official seal.
"18. It is ordered that the Seale of the Province shall
be an Anchor." [A sketch of an anchor appears at the end of this entry in
the original records.] (R. I. Col. Rec. orig. p. 163, pr. vol. i. p. 151-)
Mr. Rider says: "No suggestion has come down to us
concerning the originator of the idea; but certain records exist in which it
became necessary for Roger Williams to use an individual Seal, and the anchor
was the device which he used."
|Mmm, a chocolate seal! It's about |
the right size stamp for the original
Rhode Island seal.
The record to which Rider refers was a deed signed by Roger
Williams, 20 Dec, 1661, and sealed with an oval seal bearing an anchor. (Prov. Town Rec. pr. vol. 5,
p. 309, orig. vol. 3, p. 454.)
The anchor was a comparatively common design on seals of the
seventeenth century, both in England and in the Colonies.
In Colonial times seals were scarce, and it was not possible
for each person to have his own seal and affix it when he signed a document.
Instead, generally only one or two of the leading men in a town owned a seal,
and these seals were used promiscuously opposite the signer's names.
The resolution of 1648, mentioning the ivory seal presented
by William Dyre [William Dyer, husband of Mary Barrett Dyer].
At the meeting of the
General Assembly at Providence, May 16th, 1648, "It is ord that the Seale
of Ivory, presented by Wm. Dyre shall be the seale of the State for the present
to Seale the writts originall and Judiciall or other records." (R. I. Col. Rec. orig. p.
194, pr. p. 213, and Prov. Town Papers, 01084.)
It appears from the wording of this resolution that for some
reason, perhaps poor workmanship, this seal was not satisfactory.
It is probable that this was the first seal of the Colony of
Rhode Island, as it is the first record referring to the actual seal, the
design having been specified the preceding May. Doubtless William Dyre, who was at that time General Recorder of the
Colony, assumed under the resolve of 1647, the duty of having the seal made, a
duty naturally incumbent upon his office, and in his official capacity
presented the new seal at the next meeting of the General Assembly, which
occurred in May, 1648.
There is no impression of this seal now known [in 1913] to
This seal apparently continued in use as the Colony seal
until 1660, when a new seal, which John Clarke had had made in England,
superseded it. At the meeting of the General Assembly (General Court of
Commissioners), at Warwick, 18th of October, 1660, it was "Ordered, That
the General Recorder is Authorized to demaund and Receive the Seale Sent by mr.
John Clarke, of mr. Nicholas Easton." (R. I. Col. Rec. orig., p. 100, pr.
There is no impression of this second state seal now known
[in 1913] to exist.
|1664 official seal of Rhode Island. |
Notice the shield shape inside the circle,
similar to the hand drawing of the 1647 seal.
The name of the colony is engraved on
the outer circle.
At the meeting of the General Assembly, held at Newport
March 1, 1664, it was "Ordered That for the presant, the old Seale that
hath ben the Seale of the Collony, shall be the presant Seale of the Collony,
to be fixed to any Commission that may be granted forth, or any matters of
publicke Concearnment and that with what Convenient Speed that may bee, a new
Seale be procured." (R.
I. Col. Rec, orig p. 132, pr., v. 2, p. ^2.)
What the trouble was that caused the above resolution to be passed we do not
know, but it seems safe to assume that there had been both a misuse of seals
and a dissatisfaction with the design or workmanship of the  seal then in
use. The seal was presumably the second seal, the one that Clarke sent over
from England. The expression "Old
Seale," however may refer to the Dyre seal, in which case the purpose of
the resolution may have been to reinstate the Dyre seal in place of the Clarke seal.
[It may be that the 1648 seal was misused by William
Coddington to show his authority when he set himself up as governor-for-life of
Rhode Island, and went to England to get his own charter. Roger Williams and
William Dyer had to sail to England to sort it out with the Cromwell government
and get Coddington's charter revoked. After that, Coddington and Dyer faced off
in court numerous times.]
On May 4th, 1664, the General Assembly, sitting at Newport,
"Ordered, That the Seale, with the mottoe Rhod Iland and providence
plantations, with the word Hope over the head of the Anker, is the presant
Seale of the Collony." (R. I. Col. Rec, crig. p. 134, pr. vol. 2, p. 41.) [See image.]
There are several impressions from this seal in the State
Archives on papers in the volumes entitled "Proceedings of the General
This seal is one and eleven-sixteenths of an inch in
diameter. In the centre is an upright foul anchor, with the word
"Hope" above it. Surrounding the whole, on a band is the inscription,
"The Colnie of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." Mr, Rider
believes that "The attachment of the cable to the anchor was doubtless the
work of the designer." Certainly there is nothing in the acts of the
General Assembly to warrant the use of the foul anchor.
The seal remained in use until November, 1687, when,
according to Arnold's History of Rhode Island, it was broken by order of Sir Edmund
Andros [royally-appointed governor of the New England colonies].
|Current Rhode Island state seal |
still uses anchor and "hope" in its imagery.
In December 1686, Sir Edmund Andros was sent by the English
government to govern New England and bring the rebellious colonies into line
with English law. Negating their royal charters and breaking their seals was
one way of asserting his autocracy. He was overthrown in 1689.
Rhode Island returned to using their own seal in 1690.
The inspiration to research this article came from the discovery of an artist in Newport, Rhode Island, Suegray Jewelry. She crafts seals as pendants and earrings. This is the Etsy page
where she sells anchor seals somewhat similar to the Rhode island seal.
Update: in July 2016, I purchased an anchor seal pendant from Suegray, and I wear it often in honor of William Dyer.
K Robinson is author of
Ancestors (history and genealogy)
Mary Barrett Dyer (17th
century culture and history of England and New England)
and of these books: