Theophilis Eaton probably is the family’s most famous ancestor although he is 14 generations back, among 8,192 progenitors. Because of his prominence in American colonial history, however, we know a great deal about him and his life. Shown here, Eaton was born about 1890 in Stony Stratford, England, the son of Rev. Richard Eaton, a Puritan clergyman who originated in Coventry. Theophilis became a successful merchant and once, ironically, served as a commercial agent for King Charles I at Copenhagen. One genealogy records that he married Grace Miller in 1622. After her death in 1826, the very next year he married Ann Yale, a widow with three children from an earlier marriage, and the daughter of Bishop George Lloyd of Chester, England.
The Eaton name is forever linked with that of Rev. John Davenport, shown here, vicar of a important London church, a charismatic preacher and a Puritan leader. Eaton’s father had baptized Davenport and the two Puritan worthies were close friends. Davenport’s church was the center of a prosperous and strongly Nonconformist community. The pastor himself several times was called before Church of England authorities to account for his views. Eventually forced to flee to Holland, Davenport soon returned to England and in concert with Eaton organized a scheme of emigration to the New World. With relatives and fellow Puritans drawn from several parts of England, the emigrants embarked in late April, 1636, aboard the Hector, a boat of some 250 tons. They arrived in Boston harbor two months later, on June 26. With them was Eaton’s wife, Ann, and her children.
Although the original idea of the company was to settle in Massachusetts and they received a warm welcome from earlier settlers, the company quickly determined that the place was not suitable. Davenport was concerned about theological issues being debated in Boston that he found difficult. Eaton could not find a suitable harbor along the Massachusetts coast that was not already occupied by earlier settlers. But new opportunities beckoned. The Pequot Indian War which began in April of 1837 with the massacre of nine white settlers, including three women, had ended with an Indian defeat at the Battle of Great Swamp. New areas of Connecticut now were open for colonization. Eaton’s company settled on Quinnipiac, the site of an abandoned Indian settlement on a spacious harbor looking south toward Long Island Sound. A illustration captures their arrival. That was in March 1638. The settlers called the place “New Haven.” They intended their community to be a Puritan theocracy in which, by its original covenant: “The word of God shall be the only rule to be attended to in ordering the affayres of government.”
A Tiffany stained glass window in Center Church in New Haven depicts the first Christian service conducted in the settlement on Sunday, April 1638. The window contains 2,320 individual pieces of glass and cost $10,000 when installed in 1893. John Davenport appears in the center of the scene, right hand pointing heavenward, a Bible clutched in his left hand. To his left is Theophilis Eaton, bearing a white beard and full head of hair, richly costumed and stately of bearing. He holds the rounded black hat of the Puritan and what appears to be a rifle. There they stand, Davenport and Eaton, Church and State united as one. Anne may be the woman in the foreground.
Developing the New Haven Colony
These Puritan forefathers then got very busy. From April 1638 until October 1639 the colonists lived in cave-like shelters along a creek while their town was being planned and built. Under the direction of Eaton the town was designed around nine squares -- the first example of town planning in New England. It included a central market and a commons known as New Haven Green that exists to this day. Although the settlers had among them a surveyor, historians give credit to Theophilis for the far-sighted layout. As one has noted: “It is impossible to conceive of any action of importance taking place during the first two decades of New Haven history without the advantages of Eatonian guidance.”
Some of Eaton’s settlers, probably at his urging, moved out to establish other Connecticut towns -- Milford, Guilford and Stamford. In 1640 the New Haven company purchased a tract of land across the Sound on Long Island and founded a settlement at Southold. Other sites followed on Long Island and in Delaware as part of Governor Eaton’s grand plan to develop a network of Puritan-controlled coastal trading centers stretching from New England to the Chesapeake Bay.
In the initial years of the colony Theophilis held the title of Chief Magistrate. With official consolidation of all Puritan holdings under the title of the New Haven Colony in 1643 he became the first governor, a post he held until his death in 1858. Historical accounts of his leadership are generally favorable. Believing with his Puritan brothers that he was among the Elect and that God’s hand was guiding him and his fellows much as God had guided the Israelites in the desert, Eaton had enormous confidence that his actions were divinely ordained.
With power came wealth. Eaton built a mansion at a spot that is now the north corner of Elm and Orange Streets in New Haven. Shown below, it was a common form of manor houses of England at the time. Contemporaries characterized it as “large and lofty” with two full stories and a large attic. It is said to have had 21 fireplaces, although later authors have disputed that total. Although Rev. Davenport and one or two other Puritan worthies had large houses, Theophilis’ was the most impressive in New Haven. No records exist of its destruction but it was gone by 1730.
In Eaton, as with many Puritans, there was a strong mix of the secular and the sacred. The famous American preacher Cotton Mather mentions with approval the tradition in the Eaton household wherein the “pater familias" would call together the children every Sunday evening to see how well they had paid attention to the sermon of the day, pointing out “in an obliging manner” difficult theological points and applying the doctrines to the children’s lives. With that attitude it is no wonder that in 1656 Eaton drafted a strict code of laws for the New Haven Colony. Drawn on Biblical injunctions and aimed at dictating personal conduct, this screed subsequently became the basis of many New England “blue laws.”
Trouble in Paradise
Wealthy, living in a large home of 10 rooms with five chimneys and multiple fireplaces, an unquestioned leaders apparently thoroughly in charge of his situation, Theophilis should have been a satisfied man. But the cankerworm of religious dissent, so much a part of the Puritan rebellion, was now gnawing at the vital center of his own family. Our ancestor Ann Yale Eaton had been converted to Anabaptism, the forerunner of the Baptist denomination, after she had accepted the teachings of Lady Deborah Moody, shown here, described by one author as a “wise and anciently religious woman.” This conversion was no small matter. Ann’s descent into heresy was not only a religious offense but a serious civil crime.
Why did Ann take such a scandalous step to rebel against the beliefs of her distinguished husband and his colleagues? One account has her overburdened by a household of some 30 people, relatives of her own and of her husband. Anne’s inlaws, including Theophilis’ mother and a daughter from his first marriage, are portrayed as strongly antagonistic to her. Theophilis is reputed often to have sided with his “flesh and blood” against Ann, largely ignoring her companionship and confiding entirely in his friend, Rev. Davenport. Presumably looking for a way to express her frustration, Ann stopped coming to communion services. Then word got around that she had converted to heretical Anabaptism . There ensued, according to one story, a confrontation with Rev. Davenport who subsequently brought her before the church court on 17 charges, including the unspeakable crime of criticizing a minister.
The power of the Puritan clergy had reached a height reminiscent of prelates in fundamentalist Moslem countries of our own day. Each of the towns in the New Haven colony was governed by seven clergymen magistrates known as “Pillars of the Church.” None but church members were their electors, thereby disenfranchising at least half the settlers. These magistrates also served as judges. Trial by jury, an established English tradition, had been dispensed with by the Puritans since no authority could be found for it in the laws of Moses. Consider then the pain and embarrassment that Theophilis must have felt when his wife, the mother of his children, was called up before this tribunal. If Ann had been a lesser light in the community, the Puritan magistrates might have had her publicly whipped and banished her from the colony. As the wife of the governor she simply was convicted of lying (her religious dissent being the real charge) and excommunicated from the Puritan church.
In his book “The First Frontier” author Roy Coleman portrays a scene in which John Davenport is presiding in the New Haven Green meeting house and before him sits the Right Worshipful Governor Eaton and a group of other New Haven worthies. But the wife of the governor has no assigned seat. She is no longer a member of the church, having been excommunicated. Ann Yale Eaton sits among the non-members. “Gossip said that she was asking the Governor for a separate room,” says Coleman. After the death of Theophilis she soon returned to England where she died in 1659. With her on the trip back was Elihu Yale, 11, a grandson out of her first marriage. He eventually would finance the founding of Yale College, now Yale University. The univerrsity is literally a stone’s throw from the scene of his grandmother’s trial.