In Search of John Brock

Posted by Donna on 7:43 AM with No comments

Genealogy is a bit like detective work. You look for evidence; you follow the clues, and hopefully, find your man (or woman). Sometimes, the clues lead to interesting discoveries, and sometimes, sadly, they lead to a dead end. 

With so much information available on line, and more added every day, sites like Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, Americanancestors.org and the occasional Google search, have made it easy and convenient to add leaves to the branches of a family tree. It’s been (relatively) easy to uncover information on Jason’s early ancestors from the comfort of my couch, with so many of his early ancestors hailing from the proudly historic and well-documented state of Massachusetts.

Recently, Ancestry.com added a new database – Massachusetts Town Vital Collections, 1620-1988, a virtual treasure trove of the original hand-written, town and clerk records – birth, marriage and death - from towns across the Bay State. Some states have more information available on line than others, but some information can only be viewed, or better, discovered, with a trip to the local archives or historical society.

To date, I have documented more than 8 grandfathers eight times removed or better for Jason, men who were the first of their name here in Massachusetts (and there are still others in Connecticut, Maine and one in Virginia), including Robert Elwell, Thomas Millett, John Eddy, Thomas Riggs, John Tucker, Nicholas Denning, the Puritan, Samuel Chapin and the Pilgrim, Richard Warren, but the person I was interested in learning more about was John Brock, the first of the Brock name.

John Brock is Jason’s sixth great-grandfather. The first documented mention I’ve been able to find of him is the 27 September 1735 marriage intention to Abigail Elwell, the daughter of Eleazer Elwell of Gloucester.  Reverend John White in Gloucester married them in Gloucester on 25 March 1736.

The next mentions are associated with the births of his children, Abigail born on 1 December 1736 and then John on 4 November 1740. The Essex Antiquarian, a quarterly periodical dedicated to the biographies, genealogies, history and antiquities of Essex County, Massachusetts, included a blurb about John Brock in Volume 12, (year), which read, “John Brock, fisherman, lived in Gloucester, 1737-1774; married Abigail Elwell of Gloucester in or before 1737; both living in Gloucester in 1774,” and cites Records as its source. But that’s it. No birth for John, Sr., no parents or siblings, no death records for he or Abigail, nothing.  It was a cold case, but a nagging one.  Given Abigail was born on 3 August 1714, I made an assumption that John was born sometime between 1710 and 1715, but the Brock name was not as uncommon at the time in Massachusetts as I’d thought. There are numerous Brocks in Nantucket and Marblehead, but none that I could connect to John. I found a birth record for a John Brock, born in 1711 in Boston to George Brock and Mary Favor, and while the dates generate excitement and possibility, I can’t find anything that documents, with certainty, he is the John.

One of the great things, genealogically speaking, about living in Massachusetts, is the proximity to the cradle of Jason’s ancestry, so I took my own advice and headed to Gloucester, a quick 45 minute drive north.

Gloucester is America’s original seaport. Despite several setbacks and difficulty with profitability, settlement continued and the General Court of Massachusetts incorporated the Town of Gloucester in 1642. Included among the town’s first prominent families and land owners were Robert Elwell and Thomas Riggs.

The early town records are housed in two places – the Town Hall and the Cape Ann Museum Library. The Town Hall is a magnificent old building, but the archives are in a small space in the basement, smaller than the living room in my house. Sarah, one of the volunteer archivists, was extremely generous with her time and knowledge, having done a little pre-research in answer to my email inquiry and in expectation of my arrival.

The Archives Room is packed with books and binders, two computers, a working table and a few chairs, but the real gems, the original documents, are hidden away in a bank-like vault down the hall, complete with combination lock. The most noted publication on Gloucester is John James Babson’s The History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: including the Town of Rockport, (1860; Proctor Brothers, Gloucester, MA) and is the first place anyone familiar with town’s history will point someone who’s inquiring. There, on page 259 in the chapter titled New Settlers is John Brock, listed among the list of settlers from 1701-1750, known to have been heads of families.

With Sarah’s help, we found some notes about John Brock in the varied indexes and abstracts lining the shelves of the room. She disappeared to the vault, returned with a gray archival box and carefully removed its tissue-papered contents. She gingerly unwrapped a wonderfully old and fragile ledger and placed it on the table in front of me. The title page, in a flourished hand and brown ink, identified the book as the Selectmen’s Records Third Book.  The subsequent pages were filled with handwritten records from 1756 to 1781, documenting the meetings and decisions of the town leaders. It was amazing to be that close to original documents that old. 

Sarah turned the pages delicately to page 116 and the first of John’s records – a notice of tax abatement of 10s Province tax and 6s Town tax on 3 November 1763. A tax abatement is a stay of paying a tax grated to a taxpayer by a taxing board. It could be granted for a short or long term, for a total or percentage of the tax. There was another abatement for 1762 and once again in 1766. John’s children were grown by then, in fact, his daughter Abigail passed away in 1764. His son, John would die 5 years later.

The next entry was in April 1774, “At a meeting of the Select Men of Glocester [Apr?] 15 An Order was Drawn on the Town Treasurer to Pay Docter Thomas Sargent or Order the Sum of Two Pounds five Shillings and six pence it Beaing for Mediences and Attendance on John Brocks wife as pr his Acct Render in 2..5..6  [spellings as written]. 

I inquired as to why the Selectmen would order a doctor bill paid on John’s behalf. Sarah told me that they (Selectmen) would support the town’s poor, and this entry was indicative of John’s financial status.

By 1774, both of John’s children had died, and judging from the doctor bill, his wife, Abigail, was not well. There were no additional records about Abigail, so I don’t know if recovered from her illness or if she died too.

John’s status in town did not improve, and there was another entry the next year. “The Poor were Lat out to the following Persons from March the 25/1775 to March 25/1776  viz......John Brock to be alow'd 2/5d pr weak till further Orders.”  The final entry found in the book came on page 491 in  1780,  “At a Meetting of the Selectmen Feb'ry 15th 1780 An Order was Drawn on ye Town Treas'r or Succes'r To Pay unto Deac Nathan'l Kinsman or Order Twenty Pound being in full for making a Coffin for John Brock one of ye Town Poor.

John Brock died a pauper, and potentially alone, at approximately 70 years of age.  This was the first indication I’d found of his death, as it had not been noted in the Town’s vital records. The life of fishermen in early Gloucester was hard, and from all accounts, John had not been financially successful at his trade.  Sarah said that he would have been buried in a pauper’s grave in the First Parish cemetery, but most certainly, his final resting place would not have been marked.

I was taken aback by the somberness of it all, and the sad life of this first Brock ancestor. The Brock name, however, would persevere, in John’s son, John, who died in 1771, leaving his wife, Martha with three young children, the fourth born posthumously; to John III, born in 1766 and the last of this line in Gloucester. He would move to Maine, where he and his wife Susannah would raise 9 children. Their son, David, was married first to Judith Farrar, and secondly to Livonia Coburn. Their son, Alvan Dinsmore Brock, would go on to represent Maine in the Civil War, would marry twice, and lead a colorful, if not somewhat eccentric life until he was killed by an electric car in 1900. Alvan’s son, Fenelon was a patent attorney in Washington, DC, and with his wife, Lilian Burritt Brock, a woman of distinguished heritage herself, raised 5 children, including Walter Burritt Brock. Walter, a Presbyterian minister and sometimes inventor, like Alvan, was a bit different in his thinking, and perhaps a bit like John the first, was often down on his luck.  My late father-in-law, Richard Warren Brock followed, and now, the name rests with Jason and his three sons, Harry, Makenzie and Mitchell.

The chapter on the first John Brock isn’t closed just yet. Despite the absence of his life story, save a few sentences in town records, I know there’s more to learn about him. I’ll just keep looking.