Susannah Wheeler Shepley

With St. Patrick’s Day this week, I have absolutely no Irish ties and couldn’t think of a single “lucky” event to associate with an ancestor. I decided to give the theme a twist so I am writing about Susannah Wheeler, born on St. Patrick’s Day – 17 March 1648/49 – in Concord, Massachusetts, but she and all but one child came to a most unlucky end.

Susannah Wheeler was one of eight children of Obadiah Wheeler and his wife, cousin Susannah Wheeler, both of whom were born in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England. They settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where all of their children were born.

However, Susannah’s marriage to John Shepley is recorded in nearby Chelmsford – they married on 23 September 1672. In the 1670’s, the western area of Middlesex County was still sparsely settled land where plantations and villages were subject to Indian attacks.

The Shepleys likely had a somewhat difficult life.  After marriage, they removed to Groton, which encompassed a much larger area back then. The towns of Pepperell, Shirley, Dunstable and Ayer and even some land in today’s New Hampshire were part of the original Groton, but there were few settlers there.

The town of Groton was almost destroyed in a Native American raid on 13 March 1676 during King Philip’s War. Only four garrisons remained standing and the inhabitants fled to Concord. Two years later, in 1678, they returned to rebuild the town.

Unlike many other families of their time, the Shepleys had only two, and perhaps three, children surviving until 1694. Their son John was born about 1678, but his birth was apparently not recorded. John and Susannah also had a daughter, born 15 March 1681/82 in Chelmsford, but her name was not entered into the birth record. They may have had a third child, whose birth was also not recorded. The source for that information will become known a bit further along in this story.

John Shepley’s land was on Martin Pond’s Road, not too far from the village common. It was near the middle red arrow on the map below. The village common was the area that is a triangular shape, sitting at the intersection of two main roads and a smaller local street, indicated by the bottom red arrow. The arrow at the top of the map near Groton Cemetery, becomes Chicopee Row, where another ancestor, Lt. William Lakin, had his garrison house. His military title was not a courtesy title. He had an important job and that was to be vigilant about unfriendly intruders.

There is actually not very much written about the events of 27 July 1694. Groton native and well-known historian Samuel Abbott Green recorded what early descriptions he could find in An Account of the Early Land-Grants of Groton, Massachusetts, published in 1879, almost 200 years after the actual event.

From 1688-1697, settlers were on high alert, as King William’s War followed King Philip’s War. The French and English were again fighting and the French had allied itself with the Wabanaki Confederacy, five Native American tribes,  which included the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki and Penobscots.

On pages 29-33, Green begins the accounts of raids on the town:

These facts show that the early settlers were not leading a life of peace at this time. The orders and counter-orders to even the small garrison tell too well that the danger was threatening. The inhabitants had already experienced the cruelty of savage warfare, and knew it to their horror. For some eyars they had been n the constant alert, and held their lives in their hands. King William’s War was no begun. The second attack on the town came in the summer of 1694, and the account of it I prefer to give in the words of contemporaneous writers.

He then quotes Cotton Mather’s Magnalia:

Nor did the Storm go over so: Some Drops of it fell upon the Town of Groton, a Town that lay, one would think, far enough off the Place where was the last Scene of the Tragedy. )n July 27 (1694) about break of Day Groton felt some surprizing Blows from the Indian Hatchets. They began their Attacks at the House of one Lieutenant Lakin, in the Out-skirts of the Town; but met with a Repulse there, and lost one of their crew. Nevertheless, in other Parts of that Plantation, (where the good People had been so tired out as to lay down their Military watch) there were more than Twenty Persons killed, and more than a Dozen carried away.

Finally, Green reports:

The following list of casualties, in part conjectural, is given as an approximation of the loss sustained by the town:

John Longley’s family, 7 killed, 3 captured
Rev. Mr. Hobart’s family, 1 killed, 1 captured
John Shepley’s family, 4? killed, 1 captured
James Parker Jr.’s family, 2 killed, 3? captured
Alexander Rouse’s family, 2? killed, 1 captured

This is the source of a possible third child of John and Susannah Shepley, but nothing more is known about his/her existence. Not only did Susannah died, but her husband John, unnamed daughter born in Chelmsford in 1681/2 and possibly another child were all killed in the raid that morning.

History notes that all were scalped and reportedly their scalps were presented to the Governor of Canada, the Count de Frontenac.

Son John, born about 1678, was the sole survivor, but he was taken captive to Canada. Some four years later, he returned to Groton, married and raised his family. All Shepleys are said to be descended from him.

Samuel Abbott Green makes mention of the Shepley monument in Groton. I have been unable to find a photo of it, but apparently it is a memorial to the family killed in the attack.

Today, we often talk about Irish luck in a light-hearted manner, but Susannah Wheeler Shepley and her family led a difficult, dangerous life on the frontier of Massachusetts and paid with their lives.




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