Deborah Taylor Brownell

Deborah Taylor Brownell

1795 – 1886

Deborah Taylor Brownell. Courtesy of Pat Pond.

Her name was Deborah. It was a common name of her time and she lived the life of a typical 19th century farm wife. Born at the close of the 18th century, her ninety years spanned the growth of this Nation from a tenuous union of separate colonies to world power. She saw the beginning of industrialization, and graceful white-sailed ships on the Sakonnet River turn to steam for power.

Deborah Taylor was born August 29, 1795 in Little Compton, Rhode Island. She was the seventh of ten children born to Jonathan and Martha Briggs Taylor. Deborah was a direct descendent of Robert Taylor, who died at Newport Jan. 13, 1688. It is believed that he came from Kent County, England. He was a rope maker by trade and owned a large Newport farm on what was once called Taylor’s Point, now Ochre Point, where the famous Vanderbilt mansion, “The Breakers” now stands.

The 23-acre Taylor farm in Little Compton was located on the northerly side of Taylor’s Lane. The rambling Cape Cod homestead in which Deborah was born is still standing.

Deborah attended “Old Peaked Top” with her brothers and sisters.

When Deborah was seven, her grandfather, William Briggs, died in Little Compton. He had been a Captain in the Revolutionary War.

Deborah’s father died at the age of 56. Deborah was only thirteen years old. The entry in the old Taylor family Bible reads: “Jonathan Taylor departed this life Monday evening, Mar. 20, 1809 at the age of 56 years, one month, 2 days.”

A year after Deborah’s father died, her grandfather, William Taylor, passed away. He was 87 and had been a soldier in the Revolution. William was a Deacon in the Congregational Church at the time Mase Shepard, its third minister, was ordained in 1787.

Deborah was a young woman at the beginning of the war of 1812, and two years after its close in 1815 married a young militia officer whose name was Thomas Brownell.  Being Little Compton natives, they must have known each other from childhood.

On September 28, 1818 Deborah and Thomas’s first child, a daughter named Hannah after Thomas’s mother, was born.  In 1820 when a second daughter, Julia, was born on April 9, the population of Little Compton stood at 1,580, the high mark of that century.  A third daughter, Martha Briggs Brownell, was born on May 5, 1822. By that date they had been married five years. The following year a fourth daughter, Sarah, was born and with a growing family to shelter, Thomas bought a house (now known as the Brownell House) on the Commons three weeks later on March 19, 1824 for $500 from John Springer, Jr., a carpenter. It may well have been built for Deborah and Thomas, who were the first Brownells to live there.  The location was excellent for Thomas in his trade making and repairing shoes and boots. Two expansions to the house were made by the time that their fifth daughter, Abby, was born in 1827 and in 1832 a son, Cyrus Augustus. 

With six children ranging in age from 14 to one year in age the family needed more room and purchased a farm on East Main Road (now Maple Avenue) in 1833 with a typical 18th century Cape Cod large center chimney house later called “The Tallows” for the two large Tallow trees that stood in the front yard.  After moving his family to the farm, Thomas and Deborah sold the Brownell House on the Commons to the United Congregational Church Society, Thomas Burgess Treasurer, for $420.

The family was active in the Congregational Church, holding half of pew 43, and Deborah was one of the founders of the Ladies Aid Society when it was founded in 1840.  In 1841 Hannah married Uriah Tripp, followed by Julia marrying John Pettey in 1843.  Sarah (Sal or Sally) married Matthew Leeman in 1844, followed by Martha’s marriage to Arnold Thomas in 1848 and Abby to George Butler in 1852.   Cyrus ran off to sea in 1851 at the age of 17 and continued to sail until he married Caroline Chase in 1856.

In 1854, William Tripp, a near neighbor on Long Highway, purchased a red Asian cock from a sailor in New Bedford. He let it run with his scrub hens and the resulting “Tripp Fowls” became the stock from which the famous Rhode Island Reds were bred. This was the beginning of Little Compton’s thriving chicken and egg business.

A savage hurricane struck Little Compton in early November 1861. On November 8, Thomas died. He was 72. Cause of his death was listed in the town’s vital statistics as “a fit”, which probably meant a stroke. One cannot help wondering whether the hurricane had any connection with Thomas’ death. Was he possibly stricken while repairing wind damage on the farm?

Thomas died in 1861 leaving everything to his “Beloved wife Deborah”

Deborah continued to live on the farm with daughters Sarah and Hannah and Hannah’s three children, Hannah’s husband, Uriah, having died in 1846 and Sarah’s husband in Minnesota trying to establish a farm.

The Civil War was then tearing apart the Nation, and Little Compton was squarely behind President Lincoln and the Union.

The Congregational and Methodist Societies were busy distributing “boxes and barrels” filled with “various needful articles of clothing” for the “poor soldiers now contesting the rebels at the seat of the war.”

The New Bedford Standard on October 10, 1862 reported that “the people of Little Compton having furnished their quota of 44 men for the last call, feel somewhat relieved of a burthen of anxiety. They have given up meetings and returned to their agricultural pursuits.”

On April 4, 1865, the following item appeared in the New Bedford Standard:

Rejoicing in Little Compton – Mrs Prudence Wilbor, a patriotic lady of this place, and about 70 years, on learning of the taking of Richmond, through the Standard, donned her shawl and bonnet, sought the sexton, obtained the keys, and commenced a merry peal of the bell which continued one hour. She also called upon some young men to reeve the halliards of the flag-pole and to hoist the American Union at the mast head, while the roll of the drum and the music of the shrill fife, added much to the occasion. Many came rushing into the village to learn of the good news, and life and animation were evident on the countenance of all.

In 1871, Julia Pettey, Deborah’s second daughter, died. She was 51 and is buried on the Commons.

An entry in the diary of Sarah Soule Wilbour May 20, 1883 reports “Have been to see Mrs. Deborah Brownell. She is old and feeble. 85 last month.”

In 1884, Deborah wrote the following letter to her daughter Sarah Leeman:

Jan 10th
Dear Sarah,

I don’t feel able to write much. I think you want a letter from Mother. the cold takes hold of me. We are having very cold weather. The mercury in some places is 2 in some 8 above. George [Butler, her son-in-law] got his ice in Tuesday. Hannah [Tripp, widowed daughter who was then living with Debora on the farm] went down there. Abby [Butler, George’s wife and Deborah’s daughter] had ten men and very lame with her Siatic leg. Who they be killing themselves for? he went to [New] Bedford. left her with 6 cows, 2 pairs of oxen.

John Pettey [another son-in-law] died last month rather sudden. he was to Augustine’s he went to help him in his vessel. something hit him. he lived about a week. he was very feeble before. he had a good many Complaints. He kept house in Edward Howland’s house [a big white house just south of the Quaker meeting house.] his things is there. he was buried at Westport. the folks thought it very strange that he should be buried there [his wife Julia was buried on the Commons] we could not go to the funeral. it was a very cold morning. they started early. I don’t know what Minister they had.

[Capt.] Augustine [Pettey] goes in his vesil this Winter. They have a little girl named Cora. I think it ought to be Julia.

Alden Simmons is dead. he didn’t seem to have any disease. he seemed to sink right down. he was here four weeks before he died to bring a coat to mend. [Did Deborah or Hannah do mending to earn money?] he went down to George’s to send to Bedford for Wine. we went to the Funeral, a bitter cold day.

We went to Horace Dyers [a neighbor] for Thanksgiving dinner and to George’s for Christmas dinner.… Uriah [Tripp, Hannah’s son] sent his Mother a box of groceries for Christmas.

My shoulder is better but not well. I feel glad it was not my hip. .We went down the neck, stayed two nights, made three visits. I was to Alasanders when I fell. I was getting up out of the chair when I fell.

We think of going to Fall River in a week or two if we can get there. Robert Brownell lives in Mr. Broadbents house. [where Chief Arthur Snell lived in 1970] he has bought it.… Mr. Bliss the grocer man lives in the Uncle Christopher house. Albert Simmons tends Prestons store [on the Commons, now Wilburs].

Write when you get this. Excuse my bad writing. love to all from Mother Deborah Brownell. Abby [Butler] is better of her lameness.

On February 17, 1886, Deborah died in Little Compton. Town records list the cause of her death as “old age”. She is buried beside Thomas in the old Burying Ground near the slate stones of her Taylor ancestors.

wife of
Thomas Brownell
Feb. 17, 1886
aged 90 years 5 months
19 days
Gone to Rest

The inscription on her marble gravestone.

In her will, she left “Ten Dollars” to each of her grandchildren except for Uriah Tripp to whom she bequeathed twenty-five dollars.  To her children Hannah Tripp, Martha Thomas, Sarah Leeman, Abby Butler and Cyrus A. Brownell she bequeathed “ all my real and personal estate of whatever name or nature found at my decease”.

Adapted from “Her Name Was Deborah” – a memoir by Barbara Ann Jewell Pond based on years of conversations with her mother, Henrietta Maria Brownell Jewell.

April 2020

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