Thomas Baxter, a somewhat unpleasant person

“A Piratical Vessel destroying a Merchant Ship,” from The Pirate’s Own Book, by Charles Ellms, 2004

Mercenary, pirate, double-crosser, jailbird, bigamist, wife-abandoner. “Well, at least he didn’t kill anybody,” says one descendant.

Meet Thomas Baxter, born between 1626 and 1628, either in Shropshire or Norfolk. We don’t know how he got here but he may have come with his father George as part of the Winthrop fleet to Massachusetts in 1630. We don’t know his mother’s name for sure, but it might have been Mary Adams. The Baxters moved to New Amsterdam with a few other English families in 1635, and in 1641 were given a grant of farmland on the site of present-day Bellevue Hospital, on the East River. Thomas probably grew up on that farm. George worked for the Dutch West India Company, was secretary and translator for both governors Kieft and Stuyvesant, and also did business with the bloodthirsty Captain John Underhill (a Vail ancestor), but those stories are for another day.

Thomas Baxter started out innocently enough in New Amsterdam. He first appears in the official record beginning in 1646, borrowing money, selling beaver skins, buying a boat, and renting property. He was a member in good standing of the Dutch Reformed Church. He married Bridget Clark about 1651 and over time they had three children, Thomas, Elsje, and John.

In 1652, Britain and the Netherlands declared themselves at war. A nervous Peter Stuyvesant decided a palisade was in order to keep out, not Indians as we’ve been told, but British colonials from Westchester, Massachusetts, and New Haven. He assessed the 43 richest citizens to pay for the wall and bought the timber – quite a lot of it – from Thomas Baxter. “The planks were to be of oak twelve feet long and eighteen inches in girth; there were to be from 300 to 350 oak posts, also 300 split rails, 11 feet long, to be delivered in fourteen days, at twenty stivers per post and rail. To be paid in wampum,” said the contract.

The wall was finished in May of 1652. Stuyvesant then ordered the settlement cleared of English, and Baxter and others were expelled. With permission from Cromwell’s government, Baxter got himself a letter of marque from Rhode Island and began seizing Dutch vessels. He commanded a band of Rhode Island marauders and a frigate named La Garce, which I’ve seen translated as either “The Bitch” or “The Wench.”

So far, fair enough. Then he began seizing English vessels, moving from privateer to full-fledged pirate. Rhode Island revoked his commission. Baxter became such a nuisance that the warring Dutch and English agreed on the need to stop him. He was arrested by Stuyvesant and escaped from jail. Stuyvesant seized Baxter’s property – an abandoned house and a catboat tied up to what is now the corner of Pearl and Whitehall streets – and later built his official residence on top of it. It was nicknamed “Whitehall” for its grandeur.

Baxter took more boats and eluded capture. His properties in Westchester and Connecticut were confiscated. Then he stole a canoe belonging to a Connecticut magistrate, and the New Haven Colony went after him with a vengeance. They caught him in Stamford, and he was arrested and jailed.

Here Baxter’s crew stepped in. They learned where he was being held and assaulted the guards. One of Baxter’s men was killed, and an officer was wounded in the rescue effort. These were the only casualties of the Anglo-Dutch War in New England.

Amazingly, after a trial and heavy fines, Baxter was let go in 1656. Five years later, his wife Bridget filed for divorce, citing abandonment and the existence of another wife in England. She was granted the divorce, but the court noted that “the estate that her husband Baxter left with her is sold to pay debts, all excepting a bed and her wearing aparell.”

Thus ends the story of Thomas Baxter, because I don’t know where he went after that. But in a footnote for Vail descendants, Bridget, now living in Westchester, next married John Palmer. Their daughter Mary married Francis Doughty and is the source of all those Doughty cousins Gamama always wanted us to meet.

Thomas Baxter is an ancestor of Kate Stott.

Sources:

  • Baxter, Frances, The Baxter Family: Descendants of George and Thomas Baxter of Westchester County, New York, as Well as Some West Virginia and South Carolina Lines, (Tobias A. Wright, New York, 1913).
  • Merchant, Gloria, Pirates of Colonial Newport (History Press, Rhode Island, 2014).

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