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  • A Search For Their English Origins

    Francis H. Russell

    Published Date : February 1987
     John Russell and his wife Elizabeth arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in Woburn in 1640.1  Their English origin has been hitherto unknown.

    Recently about 25-30 percent of surviving baptism and marriage records in English parish registers, 1538-1850, have been consolidated in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) prepared by the LDS Church. This index is available on microfiche in various genealogical libraries, including NEHGS (see the Register 137 11983]:193-217, 138 11984]: 39).

    John and Elizabeth’s first child, John, Jr., was born in 1640 (according to his gravestone in King’s Chapel Burial Ground), the year his parents arrived in the Bay Colony.  The microfiche for each of the 41 English counties has been reviewed to find all marriages between a John Russell and an Elizabeth around 1638-1640.  There was only one such marriage found, that of John Russell and Elizabeth Rakestraw in the chapelry of Caton, Lancashire, 3 November 1639.2

    Since the IGI includes only one-fourth, or slightly more, of surviving parish registers, so that several other marriages between John Russells and Elizabeths might be recorded elsewhere, we must next determine if any circumstantial evidence points to an identification of the Caton and Woburn couples. In the following list of arguments the first couple will be referred to as John and Elizabeth Russell (C) and the second as John and Elizabeth Russell (W).

    1.  After their marriage in 1639 there is no mention of John and Elizabeth (C) in local parish records or probate registries, no baptisms of children, no will of either partner, nor mention of them in the wills of others, nor any record of burial, although there are frequent records relating to their Russell and Rakestraw contemporaries.3  John and Elizabeth (C) disappear from the Caton scene just as John and Elizabeth (W) arrive in the Bay Colony.

    2.  Both John’s and Elizabeth’s (C) remaining parent died in 1639, his father and her mother. Elizabeth’s mother, Magdalen Rakestraw, left two-thirds of her and her husband’s estate to Elizabeth.4 This inheritance would have facilitated John and Elizabeth’s migration to the New World.

    3.  John Russell (W) did not attend a university, a point Increase Mather made in his attack on the Baptists.5 As author of the “Woburn Memorial for Christian Liberty” and co-founder of the Baptist Church in the Bay Colony, however, Russell’s education was obviously beyond that of a simple artisan.  The Royal Grammar School in Lancaster, a half hour’s walk from Caton, was the oldest and one of the best schools in northern England and open to freemen without charge.6

    4.  Elizabeth’s (C) father, Thomas Rakestraw, is included in a published list of “pioneers in the Lancashire non-conformist movement.John (W) was an early Bay Colony leader in the movement for church-state separation.8

    5.  It may not be entirely irrelevant that Elizabeth’s (C) older sister Mary named her first daughter Elizabeth,9 and Elizabeth (W) named her only daughter Mary.10

    6.  John Russell’s (W) occupation was that of a cordwainer, one followed by some of his descendants for several generations.  This trade was common in northern Lancashire.  The only crop in that part of the country is grass and the only agricultural pursuit the grazing of cattle and sheep.  One result was a flourishing leather products industry.11  In Woburn John Russell (W) was deacon, selectman, commissioner for the allotment of lands - and, over the years, sealer of leather.

    7.  John and Elizabeth (C), as non-conformists, had ample cause to emigrate. “Lancashire had a powerful and zealous Puritan party which began in 1560 when many felt that the religious establishment under Elizabeth was too political and the forms of religious worship too Catholic.”’ 12  Puritans became the objects of persecution by the Church and Crown.  The tensions finally grew into armed struggle, the English Civil War.  It ultimately became so bloody that, as one instance, on March 18, 1643, the Royalists carried out the “Lancaster Massacre”, killing a hundred men, women and children and burning the town. At the end of the day, however, those who hold with nonconformism will be glad to know, the Puritans still held the Castle and the Royalists retired.  By this time a considerable number of Puritans had resolved to found their own community in the New World.

    John and Elizabeth Russell (C) quite possibly were among them.



    1. Francis H. Russell, “A Cobbler At His Bench: John Russell of Woburn, Massachusetts,” the Register 133 (1979):125.

    2.  Caton, adjoining Lancaster, is a rural village of a few hundred families.  Below it is the valley of the Riser Lone; above it, Caton Moor rises to 1800 feet, giving a view of the Lone estuary, Lancaster, and the sea. Thomas Gray wrote of Caton, “every feature which constitutes a perfect landscape is here.”

    3.  In the 1500s eight Russell brothers resided in Caton: those of Robert (d. 1586), Nicholas (d. 1587), Miles (d. 1587), William (d. 1591), John (d. 1592), Richard (d. 1601), Henry, and Bryan.  Richard had a son Henry (d. 1639) who married first Thomasyne (d. 1609) and second, in 1610, Jennet Hodgson (d. 1628). John Russell (C) was probably the son of Henry and Jennet.  Thomas Rakestraw, Jr., John’s brother-in-law, was one of the appraisers of Henry Russell’s estate.

    I am indebted to Mrs. Olive Teale of Lancaster for her assistance in research in local parish and probate archives and in transcribing the wills written in Old English script.

    4.  Probate records, Lancashire Record Office, Preston.

    5.  Russell, op. cit., 132.

    6.  J. Bulmer, History and Archaeology of Lancaster.

    7.  James Johnson, Pioneers of Lancashire Non-Conformity.

    8.  Russell, op. cit., 128-31.

    9.  See the will of Magdalen Rakestraw, copy in the author’s possesston.

    10.  John Russell Bartlett, Genealogy of Russell Family: the Descendants of John Russell of Woburn, Massachusetts,1640-1878 (1879), 15-16.

    11.  Information from the Museum of Industry and Crafts, Kendal, England.

    12.  Robert Halley, Lancashire: Its Puritanism and Non Conformity 2 vols. (1869).

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