William Kerley 1583

Research by Jim Mau

William Kerley was born about 1583, probably in Dorset or Wiltshire, England. He was a member of the great migration of Puritans during the 1630s and a founder of Sudbury, Lancaster, and Marlborough.

Many family trees and family histories give his birth as 1602, but court records in Massachusetts contradict this date.

In the Middlesex County court files of 1659 is this entry from June – “William Kerley, aged about 76 years, is released from all ordinary trainings, paying 5 shillings per annum to the use of the military company in the town where he dwelleth.” (History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877 by Lucius Robinson Paige, 1877.) This would place his birth around the year 1583.

Old age may have overtaken William Kerley in 1658. As late as September 1657 he was appointed one of the commissioners for Lancaster “to superintend the municipal concerns with power to make all necessary rates and levies”. (Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Town of Lancaster, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by Joseph Willard, 1826, page 31.) But by the third month of 1658 he was becoming stubborn – a house and some land for Master Rowlandson “was put to the vote and granted by the major part, (and opposed by none but old Goodman Kerley.)” (Willard, page 60) His wife’s death would have only worsened his mood – “Ann wife of William Kerly Senior died 12 – 1 – 1658”. (Lancaster Vital Records) Willard makes this assessment in a footnote: “Goodman Kerley (William Kerley, senior,) seems to have continued in a wrathful state of mind for some time; for though one of the number appointed to manage the municipal concerns of the town, he did not attend the meetings of his brethren; it being a usual entry in the records that the Selectmen met at such a time and place, all excepting Goodman Kerley.” (Willard, page 60) After this period William Kerley, Senior, generally was referred to as “Goodman” or “old Goodman” Kerley, and the references were usually passive – referring to his land, not to any action by him. It may be correct to attribute any recorded activities of this era to William Kerley, Junior.

Being born in 1583 would have him coming of age around 1603 – a very exciting time indeed. The Spanish Armada had been thwarted during his childhood. The English government encouraged piracy (under the guise of privateering) as a form of commerce. The East India Company had just been organized. The English were busy establishing plantations and consolidating their conquest of Ireland. English mercenaries were engaged in Holland – consider Myles Standish. In 1616 Sir Walter Raleigh led an unsuccessful expedition to Venezuela in search of the Lost Cities of Gold. (For a lively account of the era see 1603 by Christopher Lee, 2003.) Involvement in any of these exploits could explain William Kerley’s military background.

Henry S. Nourse thought William Kerley, Senior, must have served in the English army based on the arms and armor he brought to the New World. (The Military Annals of Lancaster, Massachusetts, 1889, page 1) The will of William Kerley, Senior, included a gun, a sword, a cutlass, iron clothes, and military books. Both his sons were leaders in the military development of early Massachusetts.

Very telling is the way the Massachusetts courts wrestled with the issue of the age limits of military service at about the same time William Kerley, Senior, was exempted from duty. Perhaps it was the infirmity of this revered veteran that forced the issue. Anyone wanting to understand how our ancestors thought and justified decisions can read the short document on this subject in History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877, by Lucius Robinson Paige, 1877, page 401.

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