The New England family names of BOWDISH and BOWDITCH are generally accepted as variants of the same surname. In England there are other variants in the records (e.g. BOWDAGE, BODYCHE). Experienced family historians recognize that surname spellings vary greatly over time due to (1) in earlier times, people were much less rigid about spelling than today and (2) the natural consequences of phonetic transcriptions (in the records) by those of varying educations and acuity of hearing. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to this family, hereafter, as BOWDISH.
Origin and Relation
The subject of this biography, William BOWDISH was born about 1618 in County Devon, England. He was admitted as an inhabitant of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts on 20 Nov 1639. But, there was another William BOWDISH (known as the patriarch of the Boston and Salem family) residing in Salem contemporaneously. Early accounts document these two Williams as father and son. A mystery continues today about the relationship of these two Williams who I believe are related for the reasons which follow. In the interests of clarity, I will refer to the subject of this biography as William of Newport and to the second William as William of Salem.
The name BOWDISH is not a common surname. It was not common then and it is not common now.
It is generally accepted that both BOWDISH men were of Devon in southwest England.
It would be spectacularly coincidental if these two William BOWDISH men were unrelated when they resided in a small town when the total Colony population was less than 18,000 and the population of Salem was probably no more than a few hundred. As you may know, the fleet of John WINTHROP had landed at Salem in 1630 with about 1,000 persons. Two hundred died the first year and another two hundred returned to England. Significant immigration took place in the decade of 1630 to 1640. During that period, and due to displeasure with how Salem was situated, the towns of Boston, Charlestown, Cambridge and several others were founded. Today, the United States Census Bureau evaluates the 1640 New England Colony (or Massachusetts Bay Colony) population at 17,800, total. It is therefore likely that the population of Salem, itself, could not have been more than a few hundred persons in 1640.
In the earliest accounts (Essex Antiquarian, 1906 vol 10 page 55), it was stated that William of Newport and William of Salem were father and son. This theory has not been proved nor disproved. The theory was challenged in 1918 by G. Andrews Moriarty, Jr in his abstract “Genealogical Research in England” contained in English Origins of New England Families Vol 1 (reprinted 1984, Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co.) Moriarty singles out two points of argument, that (1) the surnames were spelled differently and (2) that Nathaniel, son of William of Newport received a sole interest in the Salem land estate of his father because Nathaniel sold thirty acres of his father’s land. (and that William of Salem did not). Neither of these points proves anything one way or the other. These early people were not fastidious about the spelling of surnames. The point concerning the interest in the estate of William of Newport is questionable because ten acres of his Salem land (total of 40 acres) remains unaccounted for. The two Williams may well have been father and son, or they could have been uncle and nephew, or any of the various ways two people of the same family can be related.
Moriarty appeared to desire the establishment of a connection between William of Salem and William of Thorncombe, England to be that of son to father, respectively. The motive, no doubt, had something to do with the lure of an aristocratic connection. For the Thorncombe BOWDISH’s were probably descended from the Chardstock BOWDISH family who were country, minor aristocrats having received their manor “BOWDITCH” in Elizabethan times. In this matter, but without scholarly proof, I am inclined to agree with Moriarty in part. Thorncombe and Chardstock are a mere 5 miles distant from one another. The likelihood that the BOWDISH’s in the area were related is very high. The idea of some connection between the New England BOWDISH’s and the Chardstock BOWDISH’S is persuasive. However, that William of Salem and William of Thorncombe were son and father is much less persuasive.
William of Newport
William BOWDISH and his wife Sarah were admitted to the First Church of Salem on 10 May 1640. Later, their names were later expunged from church records. On 23 Jan 1642/43, William received a grant of ten acres of land. On Feb. 12, 1642/43 their son Nathaniel was baptized in the First Church of Salem. Then on 4 Aug 1646, Sarah was admonished by the Quarterly Court of Salem "for offensive withdrawing from ye ordinance of Baptizing of Infants", referring to daughter Sarah. On 13 Aug 1649 “Goodman Bowditch” received another grant of thirty acres of land at Salem. Then on 9 Dec 1673 it was ordered at Salem that the layers-out-of-land lay out and bound the lot formerly granted to William BOWDISH according to the towns grant. Ten months later Nathaniel BOWDISH of Providence, Rhode Island sold to Jon Pudney thirty acres of land at Salem Commons. What happened to the first grant of ten acres of land? Did it go to William of Salem?
It is thought that William BOWDISH and Sarah removed to Newport , Rhode Island in 1649/1650 to avoid further persecution. No records substantiate this removal either in Salem or in Newport. The absence of records is not proof of the absence of persons. We must be mindful that many Newport records were lost during King Philip’s War. His son Nathaniel, however, appears in the records as resident at Newport and sells his father’s land in Salem. Thus, William of Newport is deceased by 1674.
© 2009 Mark Fields. This work may be reproduced and redistributed, in whole or in part, without alteration and without prior written permission solely for genealogy research purposes, provided all copies contain the following statement: " © 2009 Mark Fields. This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of Mark Fields, his heirs, or assigns."