Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Are you a descendant of William and Mary Dyer?

Beware the genealogy sites: there are many false (and funny) notions out there

© 2014 Christy K Robinson

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The blog author's paternal and maternal
pedigree charts mounted on a wall.
Genealogy websites are only as good as the information that people paste into them. Sometimes data is put there by professional genealogists and historical researchers, but more often, it's a stone soup of copy-pastes from other genealogy and Wiki pages that also have it wrong.

Many people who research their ancestry look at only the member of a family who is their direct ancestor. If they’re professional genealogists or historians, they like to see a family record. And before I wrote my three books on Mary and William Dyer, I had to know what happened to their children, who their associates were, and their children, where they were born, what properties they owned, who they married, their professions, their religious and political affiliations… 

The place to start is not necessarily with names in the past (start with the grandparents you know and work backward one step at a time). Certainly you would not start with a famous name that you’d like to have for an ancestor, but can’t prove! For instance, though my mother was a kick-butt ancestry researcher in the 1960s through 1980s (without internet, obviously), and she maxed out Personal Ancestral File v.1.0 in 1985 and had to call the techies in Salt Lake City to increase the memory, she made a few mistakes in equating a name and a locality with “how it must have been.” Later, better, more complete records have since corrected the data, but alas, I can’t claim those certain people as my ancestors. I can’t bend the facts to fit my known ancestors just because they have the right surname in the right city. Someday, I might find the missing link, but for now, I have to stop with what is known. It's very difficult to do that when you're *this close.*

 There were hundreds or even thousands of Dyers in England in the 1600s before the Great Migration to colonial America. It would be silly to think they were all siblings or close cousins. The origin of the Dyer name was probably wool dying, and when surnames came into more frequent use in medieval times, that industry took place in several places around the country. Here a Dyer, there a Dyer. As our William Dyer the Elder spelled it, Dyre, or Mary Barrett Dyer spelled it, Dire, it might have meant fear, trouble, or calamity. Most people of the 17th century spelled phonetically because there was no dictionary standard as there is today.

Another truth about names is that the custom, over thousands of years and countless cultures, was to name children after parents and grandparents. In the space of a hundred years, you could have five Williams—or more! If a baby or child died, parents would name subsequent children that same name. That’s what the Dyers did. Their first baby, born in 1634, died after being christened William, and they used the name again a few years later.

But our people were not the only Dyers or even William Dyers in New England at this time. There were Dyers in Maine and Cape Cod, and in Maryland—probably all the colonies. They had children who were, as the custom dictated, named after their fathers. William Dyer begat William Dyer begat William Dyer. And none of them were Mary Dyer’s husband or sons!

Mary and William emigrated to Boston, and their next child was born in October 1635, named Samuel. Two years later, in October, the anencephalic girl, called Mary’s “monster,” was stillborn. She had no name because they didn’t christen or baptize the dead. (Yet some websites omit the stillborn girl, and call her Mary, which would make Mary Jr. an old maid, age 28, at her marriage to Henry Ward!)

The Dyers’ fourth child was William—again. Based on events of his parents’ co-founding of Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island, and of his later life, it’s very probable that William Jr. was born in the fall of 1640. (Several of his siblings were born late in the year, so it’s reasonable to guess this about William Jr. also.) When he carried the previously-agreed-upon reprieve to his mother’s execution site, he was still just a teenager. He wrote, in his thirties, that he had been at sea for more than 20 years.

Mary gave birth to eight children (William the infant, Samuel, stillborn girl, William Jr., Maher, Henry, Mary, and Charles), and she may have had miscarriages that were never recorded. I’ve seen recent statistics that even in the 21st century, up to 40 percent of embryos will spontaneously miscarry because of defects—imagine what it might have been like 370 years ago! Further, one must consider that the mothers were nursing babies for a year or two, and lactation sometimes suppresses fertility.

After Samuel and the anencephalic girl who were born in Boston, and the parents moved to Rhode Island in 1638, there are no birth records or baptisms for Dyer children. There are two reasons for this: the vital records of Newport were lost at the bottom of New York harbor in the Revolutionary War, and/or the Dyers, like the Baptists and Antinomians of Rhode Island, didn’t baptize infants or children, but would have waited for them to reach an age of accountability when they could make their own decisions about eternal salvation.

The other Dyer children can be approximately dated by subsequent life events. Maher was probably born in the fall of 1643, because he’s named after the terrible deaths of Anne Hutchinson and her younger children. Henry Dyer was born about 1647, Mary about 1648, and Charles in 1650. The birth and weaning of Charles meant that Mary Dyer couldn’t have sailed to England in 1650, as some websites have written. There’s a 1652 letter from Governor William Coddington to John Winthrop Jr. that says Mary had sailed on the “first ship.”

I’ve also seen references in 19th century books that Coddington wrote letters to John Winthrop Sr., years after the Bay Colony founder, Winthrop Sr., had died. No, Coddington was writing to Winthrop Jr. 

And I read that King Charles II, who wasn’t even born until 1630, made Massachusetts land grants to the Dyers in 1636—but in reality, the land grants were made for financial and service considerations by the colonial governor and assistants under their charter. Their corporation bought the land in their "patent" or charter, so they were the ones who granted deeds. People will put anything they like in genealogy pages, and other people come along and trust that the poster has diligently done their research.  

Poster of Mary Dyer's
handwriting, and a photo
of the Dyer statue in Boston.
 I've read Mary Dyer's handwriting for myself, and learned that her words and the words of the letters we read in history and genealogy sites are not the same—her words were rewritten in London, after her death.

So before you jump to a conclusion, you have to know life spans of your people, in birth, death, marriages, and children. You have to be realistic about travel times and modes of transport, climate, pirate or criminal threats, pregnancies, newborns and nursing babies, ongoing international politics and conflicts or wars. You have to look at maps, for goodness' sake. One website says that the Dyers were married at a church in Leicestershire. Excuse me, that would be in London, 100 miles to the south!

I’ve studied the family of Sir Henry Vane the Younger, after whom I believe Henry Dyer was named because there aren’t Henrys (that we know of) in the Dyer relatives. Vane named a daughter Mary, which was not a family name among his or his wife’s relatives. Katherine Marbury Scott, Anne Hutchinson’s younger sister, had no Marys in her relatives, so I think she named her daughter after Mary Dyer, too.

After Mary Dyer was executed on June 1, 1660 (one website called it May 32, 1660—think about that), her husband William married a woman named Catherine in about 1661, and they had one daughter, Elizabeth, in 1661 or 62. I’ve actually seen a website that wrote that Elizabeth was Mary and William’s daughter, born two years after Mary Dyer died.  

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve written that people have confused William Dyer Sr. with a Puritan minister of the same name in London, who was born 23 years too late to be our man.

And there’s the persistent myth that Mary Dyer was the daughter of Arbella Stuart and William Seymour—but if you plot out the events from Arbella’s biography based on her letters and papers, you’d see that the timing of who was where and when (never mind the fantastic illogic) proves that there was never a Stuart-Seymour child.

Timelines, people! Do the math. Use your logic. Put it in context. “If it doesn’t fit—you must quit!” (to paraphrase from an infamous trial of the 1990s).

 If you’d like to see the research that does not repeat the mistakes, legends, and hyperbole of the Victorian era (as immortalized in the books of Horatio Rogers and Ruth Plimpton), you need to read the nonfiction book, The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport. It’s written in short chapters and sorted by topics (Mary Dyer, William Dyer, their associates/friends/enemies, the culture they lived in, and cosmic events). The accounts of the early Quaker historians are balanced or supplemented by discoveries in New England colonial annals, archives of the British Library, the Massachusetts Archive and State Library, Winthrop journal and papers, scores of out-of-print books, and a considerable bookshelf full of recent research.

To read it in an in-depth story-telling style, read both novels: Mary Dyer Illuminated; and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. Readers say that these are not light, fluffy stories. They're meaty. They're chewy. They use easy language, but require some thinking. And you'll remember them for a very long time. There’s even a timeline at the end of the second book that resolves the lives and events of the Dyer family through the end of the first generation.

Knowing what happened to the Dyers and what made them who they were, and knowing how they met and overcame those challenges, will change you whether or not you're the recipient of their DNA. You'll see how they were among the foundation stones that built America.  

"It is not the glorious battlements, the painted windows, 
the crouching gargoyles that support a building, 
but the stones that lie unseen in or upon the earth. 
It is often those who are despised and trampled on 
that bear up the weight of a whole nation."

JOHN OWEN, English Puritan minister

1616 – 1683


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)


  1. Question on a Dyer descendants group in Facebook: "How do I find out if I'm related to them? My name is _____ Dyer."

    You need to work your way back through your Dyer line: you, your dad, your grandfather, your great-grandfather, etc. Some of your work may already be done by a family member! What information you lack from immediate relatives like cousins or aunts/uncles, you can search for in census records. There are numerous ancestry/genealogy sites, some free and some paid subscription--but like I said in the article, you have to be very discerning about what you believe in those sites, because just *anyone* can post any right or wrong thing, which then gets propagated to the world.

    Also, you can get free help by visiting the family research centers at LDS (Mormon) wards or stakes. They're staffed by volunteers who can coach you through the free online resources. I'm not a member of their denomination, but have always found them to be extremely helpful and knowledgeable.

    Depending on your age, you'd be nine to thirteen generations removed from this particular William and Mary Dyer. Remember, the key is to use simple math (a three-year-old cannot give birth), a timeline, and a generous helping of logic.

  2. Christy:

    As always, your posts are entertaining, enlightening and enjoyable! Kudos.

    Just two quick questions: 1. Do you know of any Dyer DNA projects? 2. Since Marston Watson didn't get the descendants of Samuel Dyer born 1695 in Boston right and confuses the North Kingston Dyers' with the West Greenwich/Greenwich Dyers' (page 120 and 121 of his Vol. 2, Royal Lines of Rev. Francis Marbury), what documentation do you have for Samuel 3, son of Samuel and Mary Cotta? Watson confuses the lines of the North Kingston Dyers with the West Greenwich/Greenwich Dyers (children of Tabitha Niles Dyer). Since North Kingston records were burned the only source I can come up with is "Ten Generations". Additionally, I've found a Samuel Dyer who marries Anna Jones 15 Oct. 1726, daughter of Ephraim Jones and a Samuel Dyer who marries 4 Jan 1727 Prudence Parson.

    Can't use William Alan Dyer's work, so I am thinking I DNA is the only way to prove this with a bunch of cousins, joining in the effort.

    Your thoughts.
    Heidi Haines Handley

    1. Thanks for your comment, Heidi.

      I haven't tried the DNA route because of personal finance issues, but it would be fun! You might ask in the Facebook group, "William and Mary Barrett Dyer Descendants." https://www.facebook.com/groups/408167562566868/ . If some of them have done the DNA test, you could judge the degree to which you match. I'd love to know more about that, and post a guest article here (by a genealogist or even a DNA tech) explaining how it's done.

      I have several FB friends who are professional genealogists, who could probably help seekers make ancestry connections through trusted, reliable resources.

  3. The best online Dyer genealogy pages are those by Frank Dyer (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~dyer/) now deceased for several years and not since updated. Frank was rigorous and reliable. If you find a connection to one of his lines, you may save yourself substantial work. However, always confirm your line by checking the primary sources.

  4. Examine dramatic claims about your ancestors very carefully. Herodias(Long) Gardner and Mary (Barrett) Dyer may have been spiritual sisters, but it's very unlikely that they were kin. Despite expert debunking, it's been claimed that they were sisters, the daughters of Arabella Stuart, and thus descended from royalty. That, and a dollar, will get you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.

  5. I am a direct descendant of William and Mary Dyer. I believe I am 12th generation, born and raised in Providence, RI. I have always been interested in my family history and have recently begun researching it again and ran across your blog. I look forward in reading your articles here and maybe even get the book. Thanks.

  6. jackshrevechicago@sbcglobal.netJuly 1, 2017 at 7:51 PM

    I am descended from Mary's son Charles through his son James and his daughter Freelove (Dyer) Shreve. I have a DNA match with someone who descends from Dr. Jonathan Dyer (1692-1773) of Truro, although she is admirably very careful not to claim descent from Mary, and I realize that Jonathan's ancestry is problematic. Nonetheless, the DNA connection suggests to me that Jonathan's ancestry may not be that nebulous. I'd like to hear more about this from anyone familiar with the situation.

    On another matter, I wish to comment that when I wrote my tenth-grade term paper on Mary Dyer back in 1964 there was no internet; and hardly any sources beyond Horatio Rogers--not even a Ruth Plimpton yet. I wonder if Johan Winsser was beginning to have Mary Dyer on his mind back then. Mary Dyer Studies have come into their own.

    1. Hi, Jack,
      You might ask in the Facebook group, "William and Mary Barrett Dyer Descendants." https://www.facebook.com/groups/408167562566868/
      You can ask to join the group, and after an admin glances at your profile and decides you're not an evil spammer, you'll be admitted. It's a casual, friendly group with lots of Shreves, so you'll fit right in.

  7. Hello: I have never written to a post like this before so bear with me. I have been able to connect myself to Colonel Charles Dyer from Rhode Island and I have a verified DAR line to him. However, I am not able to connect him to his father. I have seen many genealogies that say his father was Samuel Dyer whose wife was Mary (perhaps Brown) from Massachusetts, but I have not seen any documentation to prove it. My current information says Charles was the s/o Samuel and Mary and Samuel was the s/o Samuel and Mary Cotta. This second Samuel was the s/o Samuel and Anne Hutchinson (grand daughter of William and Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson) and the third Samuel was the son of William and Mary Dyer. All so confusing, I was hoping someone might be able to point me in the right direction to document this line, or perhaps someone already has reliable documentation on this line?? I was going to write to the Newport Historical Society for research but they charge $75 and hour. During these times, not something I can spare right now. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks, Tami

    1. Tami, thanks for your comments. I don't have the answers you seek. But I've just admitted you to the Facebook group, and perhaps one of the members has a similar line.
      Best wishes on your search.

  8. I was looking at the Dyers of Barbados recently in the Archives here on the island. There were several in the 1640's, William, John, Francis, Anthony, Samuel and Roger who executed deeds.

    I have no relation as far as I know.

    There is a 1689 will of Samuel Dyer, merchant which mentions a Richard Barrett suggesting the Dyer family in Barbados was probably related to the Dyer family in Rhode Island.

    There was also a Clutterbuck family into which the local Dyer's married. That's an unusual name so am trying to see if it arises in Mary Dyer's genealogy.

    There was also a Quaker from Barbados, William Leddra who was also hanged with Mary Dyer.

    Barbados, like other islands in the Caribbean, St. Kitts, Antigua etc was on the route from England to America from early days. It also had a large Quaker Community.

    Chances are she came through Barbados on her way back from England.

    I am also finding John Winthrop jun. was related and in business with families here.

    I've always wondered if there may have been an economic reason for the treatment the Quakers received at the hands of the Puritans.

    The Quakers took over the trading business the Puritans had established through Barbados/Eastern Caribbean to America prior to their arrival on the world scene, 1647/48.

    1. Mary Barrett Dyer DID return from England via Barbados. The winter storms were so strong that the ship had to bypass New England and sail to Barbados to wait for a few weeks until it could sail back to Boston in March. One of the Quakers in Barbados wrote a letter describing Mary, to Margaret Fell, a prominent Quaker who married George Fox.

    2. Hi Dyers. I have never seen this blog until today but I thought I would share information passed down to me from my mother. My great great grandmother was Phila Maria Dyer, daughter of Daniel Dyer and born 1823 probably in RI. Phila's family moved to Iowa sometime about the 1860s I think. Phila died in Portland, Oregon where I live, in 1907. Phila married one Isacc Watson, of Rutland VT, had a daughter also named Phila (Watson), who in turn married my great grandfather, Dr. A.E. Rockey. And it goes on.

      My information shows the Dyers staying in the RI, Vermont area until about 1860s, when Daniel Dyer moved to Iowa. I'd be happy to share my information if wanted.

  9. My great grandmother Lilian Barrett Dyer was married to Robert William Hare. Her parents were Charles H Dyer and Mary E ( Jordan) Dyer. My dad was Lillian’s oldest grandson. This makes Mary my 10th great Grandmother. I’m fascinated and hope to learn more about my strong passionate ancestor!

    1. Susan
      I am an 11th great grandaughter of Mary and William. I believe this also means that Anne Hutchinson is also a decedent...their children married. It has been a fascinating journey. I can trace my Dyer lineages back to 1560 in England.
      Susan Dyer Taylor

    2. yes i to descand from william and mary.i have found most of the ancestors had went to virginia as well but that was after 1660.anne hutchinson is also on my family tree as a aunt

  10. Hi I believe William & Mary are my 10th great-grandfather & Grandmother. i have taken a DNA test on Ancestry.com. My family tree on their webwsite is the Dyer-Ortquist Family Tree. I believe it is open to public viewing. If any of you have access to their family trees and you see mine, let me know of any mistakes in the Dyer family part of the tree.
    K L Dyer

    1. I am very new at all of this. But I have William and Mary Barrett Dyer as relatives to my tree also.

  11. Chris Engle. I'm a descendant. Also a descendant of Mary Barnes, hung for witchcraft. I have other Dyer family as well but they were Virginia settlers, not puritans. It is kind of cool. But being an early settler of Indiana is more relevant to my life.


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