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Bray Wilkins (c. 1610 – 1/2 January 1702) was a Welsh immigrant, patriarch, and founder of Middleton, Massachusetts. Bray's origins aren't concretely known and are supplanted (and probably distorted) by familial tradition, however his reputation was already prolific in the Massachusetts Bay Colony decades before his death. His progeny, the Wilkins family, had a strong presence in the area. Bray and his seed were prominent figures in some Salem Witch Trials.
On a broad scale, Bray Wilkins' history is somewhat known. Bray was probably a descendant of Robert de Wintona, one of the men who captured Wales for the Norman people alongside Robert FitzHamon in the mid-11th century. Robert became the lord over Llandow and Llanblethian, in the latter of which he built a large manor which housed his descendants for some years. His great-grandson, Wilkyne de Winton, is the first attestation of what would become the surname 'Wilkins'. Over time, the by-names of Robert's descendants became corrupted, eventually forming surnames such as Wilcolyne, Wilkyn, Wilkin, and ultimately, Wilkins.
That being said, Bray's immediate origins aren't completely known. Family tradition places his birth in Glamorganshire on 16 October 1610, as the son of Thomas John Willkins and Hannah Nichols. However, there are no (surviving) records supporting these conclusions. It is known from his own admission and other records which required such information that Bray was born in 1610 in Wales. Where in Wales he was born is up for debate, it is sometimes suggested he was born in Brecknockshire and a descendant of the lord John Wilkins, who married the sister of Oliver Cromwell. While the Brecknockshire claims are up in the air, Bray was certainly not a descendant of the union of John Wilkins and Robina Cromwell, mainly because John Wilkins was actually born more than four years after Bray.
Immigration and life in Massachusetts
Regardless of his origins, Bray arrived in the Thirteen Colonies around 1630, his first residence being recorded as Lynn, Massachusetts. He is first mentioned in a parchment dated January 16, 1632 which describes the allotment of 16 acres of Dorchester to him. He is registered as have taken the Oath of a Freeman on May 14, 1634.
Bray was known by the community as a model citizen: upright, pious, and adored. In 1659, Bray and his partner John Gengell (of uncertain relations, see below) leased 700 acres of land eight to ten miles northwest of Salem, which became the town of Danvers, and later Middleton. A controversial mortgage claim lead to Bray and Gengell being brought to court in 1666.
Salem Witch Trials
In 1689, Bray and his family, along with several others, moved from Salem proper to establish a church in Danvers. Around 1690, Bray's granddaughter by his son Thomas, Margaret, married a man by the name of John Willard. Willard acted as a constable for the court, and given Bray's legal misfortunes decades prior, the family disapproved of him immediately after it was announced Margaret and John were eloped. The two lived a rather normal life for several years, all the while the Wilkins family did not shy away from making it known how they disapproved of John. During the first weeks of the Salem Witch Trials in spring 1692, paranoia and mania swept through Danvers. Willard, being a constable, found he at times was to arrest townspeople he held in high regard. His refusal to arrest accused witches lead to himself being accused of witchcraft, and on May 10 of the same year a warrant for Willard's arrest was ratified. Willard fled to Nashaway, where he was discovered following the issue of a second warrant for his arrest. Once returned to Danvers, Mercy Lewis, at this time the lover of Henry Wilkins, one of Bray's sons, accused Willard of being responsible for the death of her newborn son Daniel. Willard was put on trial on May 18, during which Bray Wilkins testified that he had been inflicted with a very painful condition after Willard had given him a stare, recounting, "[Willard] lookt after such a sort upon me as I never before discerned in any." Indeed, a kidney stone had begun to afflict Bray after he had encountered Willard in the middle of a meal some days before. Two of Bray's daughters and several others gave second-hand testimony that John Willard had beaten his wife Margaret and then exhibited odd behavior which frightened her into running to a relative's house for safety. During his examination, he denied these allegations with the rest, and desired that his wife would be called to testify on his behalf, but this does not appear to have been done. Indeed, no such frenzy is known to have occurred at any point, Margaret and John shared three children and lived a modest life. Regardless, the testimony of the Wilkins family was damning, and Willard was found guilty and hanged for witchcraft that August.
Bray Wilkins died in January 1702. His burial place is not known, though legend places in on the original foundations of Danvers/Middleton that he and Gengell built, today known as "Will's Hill", also where he died.
Marriage and descendants
The identity of Bray Wilkins' wife isn't known, but there are two candidates: Hannah Way and Hannah Gengell. Hannah Gengell is proposed to have been the sister of Bray's lifelong partner John Gengell. Neither candidate has more evidence favoring their identification over the other, however it is more likely Bray married Hannah Way as opposed to Hannah Gengell. Any mention of Bray's wife simply refers to her as "Hannah" and no mention of her maiden name is ever recorded in the sparse times she is ever mentioned. No record of her death is known to exist.
Two persons who had access to much early documentary material about the Wilkins family, now lost, Martha J. Averill and Emily Ann Milliken née Wilkins, maintained that Bray's wife was Hannah Gengell, and furthermore the Wilkins are described with familial kindness in John Gengell’s will dated 10 April 1685. However, a 1984 article from The American Genealogist written by David L. Greene disputes the identification of Bray's wife as a Gengell by claiming the main piece of support, John Gengell's will, makes the conclusion impossible, as Gengell called himself 70 in that document, and thus about 21 when Bray married Hannah (though why this fact makes it impossible for the wife of Bray Wilkins to be Hannah Gengell is suspiciously unexplained). Though Greene acknowledges that it is difficult to escape the inference that Bray and John Gengell were in some way related, he advances the following arguments: Henry Way arrived at Nantasket in 1630 (meaning he was in New England when Bray was) with his wife Elizabeth and children Samuel, Richard, Henry, and Susanna, suggesting the seemingly missing entry for his son Aaron Way may indicate that other children may very well have gone undocumented. Additionally, Bray purportedly sold land to what he called his "trusty kinsman" in May 1675, one of whom was clarified as Aaron Way. Furthermore, during his testimony against Willard in 1692, Bray called Richard Way, his theoretical brother-in-law, his 'brother'. Greene also mentions one of Bray’s sons was named ‘Henry’, which he postulates was intended as the namesake of Hannah Way’s father. However, there is no reason to think that other relationships couldn’t explain the language. After all, members of a common social group might call themselves "brothers" or "cousins" without any actual blood or marital relationship. Still, it doesn’t help the case of the Gengell identification that Hannah Way is attested to while Hannah Gengell isn’t. John Gengell himself is only sparsely attested to, let alone a hypothetical sister of his, and even then, none of the surviving pieces that attest to his existence give an idea of his personal life. On the other hand, the Way family is very well documented; manuscript summaries of the parish registers for Bridport and Allington, Dorset, in the collection of the Rev. Richard Grosvenor Bartelot, show that Henry Way married Elizabeth Batchelar on 22 Jan. 1615, (apparently as his second wife) and that they had a daughter "Hanah" who was baptized there on 3 March 1616. Additionally, while it is true and evident in John Gengell’s will that he regarded the Wilkins very highly, he very explicitly avoids calling them relatives. Coincidentally, Aaron Way is also mentioned alongside a “Mary Way” as a witness in the will.
Bray was only married once, the wedding probably taking place between 1632 and 1636. Bray Wilkins had eight children:
- Samuel Wilkins Sr. (December 1636 – 20 December 1688)
- John Wilkins (22 March 1642 – 1723)
- Lydia Wilkins (25 September 1644 – 1701), who married John Nichols of Topsfield
- Thomas Wilkins (16 Mar 1647 – October 1717)
- Margery Wilkins (c. 1648 – c. 1697), who married Philip Knight Jr.
- Henry Wilkins (17 July 1651 – 8 December 1737)
- Benjamin Wilkins (c. 1652 – 1715)
- James Wilkins (c. 1655 – ?)
- The American Genealogist, Vol. 60; Jan. 1984; Bray Wilkins of Salem Village, Ma. and his children. Greene, David L. pp. 14–18, 111-113
- Hill, William Carroll, b. 1875. The Family of Bray Wilkins: "Patriarch of Will's Hill", of Salem (Middleton), Mass. Milford, N.H.: Cabinet Press, 1943.