Documenting the Thorntons of Rhode Island, 1600s-1700s, Part 4 – What Can We Prove So Far?

This particular research project is one of the few times that I am posting at the same time I am accessing records and adding documents to my family tree. I guess that puts this post in the “methodology” category.

I mentioned that I began with the low hanging fruit – a handful of wills plus land deeds. Most Rhode Island records on FamilySearch are locked, so I’ve taken a couple of trips to my local FamilySearch Center to gather information.

In between my trips, I’ve continued to check online repositories for other possible books and records that might aid in my search. Lo and behold, I think I found the “manuscript” from which someone collected most of the now undocumented online information about the Thorntons. Once that data was shared online, the copy-and-pasters got to work adding everything to their own family trees – in spite of the fact that the “manuscript” does actually contain abbreviated versions of sources, which are, for the most part, primary records created in the lifetimes of the Thorntons.

What is this “manuscript” and why do I keep it in quotation marks? Mr. Clarence Irving Brown (1879-1947) was a Rhode Islander with a deep interest in local history. He spent much time compiling several collections of Rhode Island records, including Thornton Genealogy: An Alphabetic Account of John Thornton of Providence, Rhode Island; Together with Records of Many Other Thorntons in England and America, which was donated to the Rhode Island Historical Society and filmed by FamilySearch in 1950.

The “manuscript” is actually a huge collection of more than 3,700 (yes, three thousand seven hundred) index cards, on which various persons have noted details about the Thorntons, most of whom lived in Rhode Island.

This card is typical of the collection. It’s written in at least two hands and both in pencil and ink:

Notice that on the bottom of the card is the question of proof for all of these children and that the information came from Austin’s Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island. In the middle of the card, below the list of children, is a lightly penciled note about “see deeds of John Thornton. See note 10 for details. Well, note 10 isn’t so easy to find.

From other notes in this collection, sources note that John Thornton was in Newport, Rhode Island by 1651 and appears on the 1655 list of freemen.

Read carefully the image below pertaining to Richard Borden and John Thornton Sr., found in the Clarence I. Brown manuscript:

Richd Borden, it will be observed, was a land owner in Providence nearly twenty years before John Thornton bought a farm there. This fact is noticeable: As soon as the Indian War was over, and conditions for settlement safe in “the outlands,” John Thornton lost no time in changing his residence to where Thos Borden was living. Why should he do so?

I hate to say this in print, worried that someone who reads this might make the jump and state it online as if it were a fact, but this seems to be a possible HINT (AND ONLY A CLUE) that there was a familial tie between the Bordens and John Thornton, particularly, as we will see in future posts, there continued to be ties well into the 1700s. POSSIBLY, MAYBE – NO DOCUMENTARY PROOF – John Thornton’s wife, Sarah, PERHAPS could be a Borden.

There are also extensive notes about one John Thornton, a proprietor of Ipswich, Essex, Massachusetts c1636 and who died by 1639, when his widow Joan married Matthias Button in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts and they sold off John Thornton’s lot in Ipswich. It would be easy to connect John of Massachusetts to John of Rhode Island as father and son. HOWEVER, no proof whatsoever has been found confirming any relationship between the two and I’m certainly not going to propose that now.

On the other hand, the fact that John Thornton appears in Newport records by 1651 and was a freeman four years later suggests that he was probably born no later than 1634 and perhaps a few years earlier. A land deed calls his wife “Sarah,” but there are no apparent clues as to her maiden name.

Let’s assume that Austin’s list of children of John and Sarah (MNU) Thornton is correct. It probably is right because John was the only man of that surname in Rhode Island by the middle of the 17th century and their purported children don’t appear in Rhode Island records until such time as they would have been of age.

We can now begin to construct several family groups, to which more people will be added as documentation appears. Noticeable by their absence, though, will be birth and death records, as none have been found among the vital records collection of Rhode Island.

Generation 1:

John Thornton, born say 1634, place unknown, married Sarah (MNU), unknown date and place. John was a freeman of Newport, Rhode Island by 1655. John and Sarah likely married in Newport about the time that John was made a freeman.

1n 1695, John Thornton Sr. and John Jr. made a complaint to the Town council on behalf of his grandchildren, Zachariah Field’s children, that they might be bound out to good places and educated so he died sometime after that complaint was presented.

Other records allow us to add husbands’ names to the daughters. Remember that the exact birth order of the children is unknown and there is leeway in the estimated birth years particularly of the three youngest sons.


  1. John, born c1656; died 1716: married Unknown, based on his 1716 will
  2. Solomon, born c1658
  3. Elizabeth, born c1660; married Edward Manton
  4. Sarah, born c1662; married (1) Zachariah Field (2) John Gurney
  5. Thomas, born c1664; married Margaret (MNU) as named in his 1711 will
  6. James, born c1668
  7. Benjamin, born c1670; died after 1741; married Unknown
  8. William, born c1672

Generation 2

John (John) married Unknown, who died before his 1716 will. He named only sons John and Josiah in his will, but mentioned “children sons and daughters” indicating there were at least two daughters living at the time and probably at least one more son, younger than John and Josiah.

Benjamin (John) was born c1670, probably Providence, Providence, Rhode Island; died after 1741; married Unknown. Whether he married more than once is not known, but there is no indication of a second wife. His children are proven by a land deed recorded between Benjamin and David in 1741, in which David is called the son of Benjamin, and David’s 1772 will, in which he named his siblings.

A new fact which I learned helps pinpoint a narrow range of years in which Benjamin might have been born. There are three tax lists for Providence, Rhode Island dated 1687 plus July 1688 and August 1688. The August list is mentioned as “containing almost all the males in Providence” at that time. Benjamin Thornton appears on that August list, but not in the 1687 or September 1688 lists. That might well indicate that he was at least 16 years old (militia age), but not yet 21 years old, so not of legal age to appear on the regular tax list by himself. Therefore, if we choose 18 as the middle of the possible age range, that places his birth year near 1670.

Those same tax lists allow us to estimate both a marriage year for john and Sarah and years of birth for their children.

The September 1687 tax list includes John Thornton Sr., John Jr. and Solomon.

The July 1688 list seems to include males aged 16 or older but perhaps capped the age at a maximum that excluded John Sr. since he isn’t on that list, but which includes John Jr., Thomas and James (all on page 38), Solomon and Benjamin (page 39) and William (page 40).

The August 1688 tax list, like the 1687 list, has only John Sr., John Jr. and Solomon.

Now, look above at the family group of John and Sarah Thornton. Th estimated years fit nicely with the tax lists.

As more documents created by Benjamin during his lifetime are examined, that year is likely close to accurate. Many online trees place his birth as late as 1681 – obviously impossible when his name is found on a 1688 list.


  1. Benjamin; dead by 1772
  2. Joseph; dead by 1772
  3. Titus; dead by 1772
  4. John; living in 1772
  5. Mary; married Jonathan Vallet
  6. Sarah; married Stephen Paine; dead by 1772
  7. David; died 1772, Glocester, Providence, Rhode Island; married Alce (MNU)

Some of the puzzle pieces are beginning to fall into place. We have a family group for John and Sarah (MNU) Thornton that, by preponderance of evidence seems reasonable and we have a proven list of the children of Benjamin Thornton and his unknown wife.

Next, we’ll head back to the wills and land deeds to see what other gems of information can be gleaned.

2 thoughts on “Documenting the Thorntons of Rhode Island, 1600s-1700s, Part 4 – What Can We Prove So Far?”

  1. Hello,
    would like to know more about the Rhode Island Thornton’s. I believe I am a descendent of Solomon Thornton. Do you have a book I could buy?

    Rita Thornton Stout.

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