Gideon Cornell

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Gideon Cornell
1st Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court
In office
May 1747 – January 1749
Preceded by Office established
Succeeded by Joshua Babcock
Personal details
Born July 5, 1710
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Died 1766
Kingston, Jamaica
Spouse(s) Rebecca Vaughan
Children Gideon, Rebecca
Parents Thomas Cornell and Martha Freeborn
Occupation Deputy, assistant, chief justice

Gideon Cornell (1710–1766) was a farmer, trader and judge who became the first Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, serving from 1747 to 1749.

Ancestry and early life[edit]

Born July. 5, 1710 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Gideon Cornell was the son of Martha Freeborn and Thomas Cornell, who was elected several times as an assistant and deputy (representative) from Portsmouth.[1] Cornell descends from Thomas Cornell who came from Saffron Walden, County Essex, England, and settled in Portsmouth in the Rhode Island colony, and later in New Netherland.[2][3] He also descends from Thomas Hazard, one of the nine founding settlers of Newport, Rhode Island, and from William Freeborn, who was one of the 23 signers of the Portsmouth Compact which established the first government in the Rhode Island colony.

Upon his father's death in 1728, Cornell inherited a large amount of land in Rhode Island and Jamaica and a substantial sum of money. At the age of 21 in 1731 Cornell became a freeman of Portsmouth. On 22 February 1732 he married in Newport Rebecca Vaughan, the daughter of Captain Daniel Vaughan, a ship captain, and Rebecca Weaver. Governor William Wanton officiated the wedding.

Political and mercantile career[edit]

Gideon Cornell house, Newport

In 1732 Cornell began his public service as a deputy (representative).[4] From 1740 to 1746 he was elected as an "assistant" to the governor (according to Austin, or from 1739-1745, 1764 according to another source),[5] and in 1746 he was also on a committee to run the boundary line between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.[4] In 1738 Cornell served as one of the Justices of the Peace for Portsmouth, and in 1741 was selected as one of the Justices of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace for Newport County.[6] He had initially been selected as the fifth justice "in room of" (replacing) William Ellery, Sr. who was "chosen assistant," and in 1742 Cornell was selected again to serve as a Justice of this court.[7]

In May 1747 Cornell was chosen as the first Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which at that time went by the title of the "Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Gaol Delivery."[8] He was likely untrained in the common law. In the early days of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the legislature was distrustful of an independent judiciary and non-lawyer farmers were appointed as justices as late as 1819 (although Cornell likely served as a judge prior to his appointment).[9] His name is misspelled as "Cowell" in Warren's history of the Harvard Law School.[9]

Cornell owned the sloop Jupiter which was seized in Jamaica for violating the Navigation Act, despite an unsuccessful appeal in 1758 to the Lords of the Committee of Council for Hearing Appeals from the Plantations for the Court at Kensington (28 July 1758).[10] Other ships of Cornell's were also accused of trading in foreign contraband according to the British laws.[11] Cornell was also involved in other legal entanglements, including a land dispute over mortgaged property in Newport, when in 1763 he filed a trespass and ejectment suit. The opposing party, Thomas Shearman, appealed the case to the Rhode Island Supreme Court and then eventually to the "King in Council" in Great Britain in 1767.[12]

Cornell died in Kingston, Jamaica in 1766 where he had gone to receive a large sum of money awarded to him by the British government.[13][14] His purported city house still stands at 3 Division Street in Newport, Rhode Island[15] Cornell was a co-founder of Newport's Redwood Library, which is housed in the oldest library building in America.[16] He was also one of the original signatories for the petition creating Brown University.[17] The Historical Society of Pennsylvania contains Cornell's commissions of appointment as judge from 1743 to 1748.[18]


Cornell had two known children, the oldest being a son, Gideon, born October 10, 1740, who appears to have died in infancy. His only other known child was a daughter, Rebecca, born February 17, 1755, who married Colonel Clement Biddle of the Biddle family and had numerous descendants.[19]


Cornell's ancestry after the first generation comes mostly from John O. Austin's Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island.[20] The George Lawton ancestry is from Shurtleff and Shurtleff.[21]



  1. ^ "family treemaker". Retrieved 2012-05-21. 
  2. ^ Moriarty 1959, p. 107.
  3. ^ Austin 1887, pp. 54-5.
  4. ^ a b Cornell 1902, p. 46.
  5. ^ Palfrey 1890, p. 570.
  6. ^ Smith 1900, p. 79.
  7. ^ Smith 1900, pp. 86,92.
  8. ^ Smith 1900, p. 122.
  9. ^ a b Warren 1908, p. 66.
  10. ^ "Report and court opinion on the appeal of John Boutin, 1758". Retrieved 2012-05-26. 
  11. ^ Pitman & xxxx, p. ??.
  12. ^ Washburn 1923, pp. 150-3.
  13. ^ Cornell 1902, p. 47.
  14. ^ French & French 1894, pp. 132-3.
  15. ^ "Newport Restoration". Retrieved 2012-05-25. 
  16. ^ Stockwell 1876.
  17. ^ Guild 1896, p. 517.
  18. ^ "Historical Society of Pennsylvania". Retrieved 2012-05-26. 
  19. ^ Brownell 1910.
  20. ^ Austin 1887, pp. 29,54,121,296,320.
  21. ^ Shurtleff & Shurtleff 2005, pp. 73-4.
  22. ^ In 1959 genealogist G. Andrews Moriarty revealed that the Thomas Cornell who married Elizabeth Fiscock in New Amsterdam was not this Thomas, as stated in most genealogies of the family


External links[edit]