by: Leo Lawton
About the time of the Norman conquest the Lawton name is first known to be in England. It became established in Cheshire in the latter half of the eleventh century. About the year 1200 Adam de Lawton was half owner of Lawton, the other half being owned by Saint Werburg’s monastery. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541, during the reign of King Henry VIII, the ecclesiastical half was purchased by the Lawton family May 10, 1542. For four and a half centuries following William’s ascension to the throne in 1066 the family flourished, and we can only speculate that some of it’s members moved on to other areas. It would not be unreasonable to think, in that length of time, they would have been removed some 100 miles.
In Cranfield Parish, Bedfordshire in the year 1536 there existed a man named Richard Lawton born about 1500. At this time, it is unknown how long the family had lived there. It is known that Richard paid rent on a “grove with land and meadows,” and therefore it is reasonable to assume he was a farmer of some sort. He was evidently married to John Purrier’s sister as John mentioned his Lawton sister in his 1558 will.
Thomas, one of Richard’s five children, was born near 1527. Approximately 1550 he married Joan Wheeler, and born unto them were two daughters, and a son born about 1558, whom they named Thomas. This Thomas married Mary, and fathered four children. Their first born in 1581 was named George.
George met Isabel Smith, and married her November 13, 1606. To them were born eight children, two of which were named George born September 23, 1607, and Thomas born April 17, 1614. These two grew to manhood in their native Cranfield, but as the years passed they grew dissatisfied with their lot in life, as thousands of other English born citizens had, and decided to attempt the hazardous crossing to the colonies.
From 1628 to 1639 no Parliament sat in England, while in 1635 King Charles placed a ship tax on all shires. Bedfordshire was assessed 3000 pounds. In 1638 some 200 pounds, owed by 660 people, had still never been paid. In 1639 King Charles ordered the county to furnish 200 men for a campaign against Scotland. For these reasons and others, between the years of 1620 and 1642 some 80,000 Englishmen, or a full 2% of the population left their mother country. Fifty eight thousand of these went to the American Colonies.
Due to some serious religious differences a group of twenty three people known as Antinomians had been ordered out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They selected John Clarke for the task of obtaining a new colony site where they might practice religion in the manner that they chose. John immediately engaged the aid of Roger Williams, who had previously been expelled from Massachusetts Bay, and had formed a new colony he named Providence. Together, they dutifully performed their given task, negotiating with the Narragansett Tribe of American Indians for the purchase of Aquidneck Island for forty fathoms of white beads. They also offered, and it was accepted, ten coats and twenty hoes if the Indians would vacate the island before the coming winter. George and Thomas Lawton appeared in America in the year 1638, and were accepted as members of the newly founded colony of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island, although they were not of the twenty three original Antinomians.
At the very first, allotments of land were three acres per family. Later these were increased to four and six acres each. The price of the land was established at 2 shillings per acre, and remained so until all land had finally been allotted in 1713. One of the conditions was that the grantee had to build a house on his land within one year. Some families met this requirement by digging a cave into the side of a hill, while others built rudimentary homes. Some were nothing more than walls made of hewn timbers pounded into the ground side by side, and then a thatched roof erected on top. One was described as building stone walls about four feet high between two trees centered on the ends. Then a pole was lashed to the trees to form a ridge pole, and sticks were laid atop of this, which were in turn covered with boughs. A hole left in the roof corner was covered with birch bark that could be opened and closed to allow the smoke out.
At a town meeting on January 2, 1639 a survey of the towns corn supply was taken with the results showing 108 bushels total. This was equally reapportioned at one and one quarter bushels per person, which was to last them for six weeks. I do not know what their plan was after it ran out which would have been mid February of a cold and snowy New England winter. The settlers regularly traded with the Indians so that may have been their plan, or fishing and hunting may have supplemented their diet.
Another family tells of typical life of the times, and how they had brought a five pint brass kettle and an iron pot for cooking, as well as an axe, a hoe, and large needles. They traded with the Indians to obtain fish and oysters. Grapes were plentiful, as were eels which were eaten, and their skin woven into rope. They hunted for deer, bear, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, and partridge. They also traded with the Indians for ducks which were smoked and salted for winter use. Dried berries and corn could be bought from the Indians in any quantity. The corn was boiled, pounded, and baked before the fire into what was known as Johnny Cake.
On April 30, 1639 once more religious differences had appeared, this time within the Portsmouth Colony. At this period in America, religious affiliation was akin to political unity. The inhabitants felt it necessary to draw up a new political statement that read as follows:
“We whose names are under written doe acknowledge ourselves the legall subjects of his Majesty King Charles and in his name doe hereby binde ourselves into a civill body politicke unto his lawes according to matters of justice.”
George and Thomas were both signers of this document. This would seem to prove the natural affinity with their mother country at this time. Those not wanting to agree to this document started a new town named Newport on the opposite end of the Island. Three years later a man named Samuel Gorton, who would abide by the laws of neither town, started still another settlement, named Warwick, on the mainland.
George Lawton served at Portsmouth as a deputy for six years, as an assistant for nine years, and on several other committees. He owned twenty acres of land in Portsmouth near the land of his brother Thomas. He also owned land on the Wading River, building the first mill of the settlement where the two brooks unite, and land on the opposite side of the road. The foundations of the mill, as well as some large flat stones used by the Indians for grinding corn before the coming of the English, can still be found there. This came to be known as Lawton Valley, and remains so today.
Thomas Lawton was a Deputy for one year, and a Commissioner for four years. He became a large landholder for his time. As well as about 160 acres of land at Portsmouth, he also held some 600 acres in Warwick, and further holdings in Massachusetts and New Jersey. For these two brothers, America was indeed the Land of Opportunity.
By one hundred years later there were fourth generation Lawtons in America, and the total of known descendants of George and Thomas was about 265. Now there are 14th generation American Lawtons, with well over 35,000 known descendants, and possibly an equal amount unknown to present day researchers. In keeping with their pioneering spirit they are widely scattered, and without doubt every State has some Lawtons in residence.
Some of the above information is from the research of:
Dr Elva Lawton
Burrell C Lawton
Dr Frank Renaud