Governor of the Colony of Connecticut, 1750-1754
Born: January 1678/9, Windsor, Connecticut
Political party: None
Offices: Selectman for Windsor, 1707
Deputy, Connecticut General Assembly, 1709-1711
Justice of the Peace, 1710-1721
Clerk, Lower House, General Assembly, 1710-1711
Commissary, CT Military Expedition to Canada, 1711<
Assistant, General Assembly, 1714-1741
Judge, Hartford County Court, 1721-1732
Judge, Connecticut Superior Court, 1732-1741
Chief Judge, Superior Court, 1741-1750
Deputy Governor, 1741-1750
Commander of Connecticut Troops and Second in Command of New England Troops in United Colonies Expedition Against Louisburg, 1745
Governor of Connecticut, 1750-1754
Died: May 17, 1767, Windsor, Connecticut
Roger Wolcott was born at Windsor, Connecticut on January 28, 1678 (Old Church Record) or January 4, 1679 (headstone), the tenth child of Simon Wolcott and his second wife, Martha Pitkin. Martha is said to have come to Hartford about 1660 or 1661 to persuade her brother William to return to England. Instead, she met Simon Wolcott, and the couple was married in October of 1661. Simon’s father, Henry, had come to Dorchester, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, on the Mary and John in 1630 and moved to Windsor with the other founders from Dorchester in 1636, but Simon, Henry’s youngest son, did not come to America until 1640. Simon died in 1687, when Roger was eight, leaving Martha with six children and many debts. The family struggled. Two years later in 1689, she married the widower Daniel Clarke of Windsor, who became Roger’s stepfather.
Because a formal elementary education was not available, Roger Wolcott did not learn to read or write until he was about 11.1 Having once learned, however, he applied himself to reading every book that he could borrow, and progressed rapidly in knowledge. Much of his reading was in law books. He tried to save money to go to school, but never had enough, and yet he educated himself in an impressive manner. In 1694, at age 15, Roger was apprenticed to a clothier (a person who “dresses” or finishes cloth) in Windsor and left home. He did so well in that business that by 1699, only five years later, he had his own shop. He ran his business for several years before he married Sarah Drake, daughter of Jacob Drake of Windsor, on December 3, 1702.
Roger and Sarah Wolcott had fifteen children, including a set of twins. Three boys and one girl died in infancy, and one boy died as a child. Roger Wolcott may well be the Connecticut governor who had the most children as well as the Connecticut governor with the most Connecticut governors (three) as his descendants. He was the father of Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as Governor of Connecticut from 1796-1797, and the grandfather of Oliver Wolcott, Junior, Governor of Connecticut from 1817-1827. In addition, Roger and Sarah’s thirteenth child, Ursula, married Matthew Griswold (Governor, 1784-1786) and was the mother of Roger Griswold, Governor of Connecticut from 1811-1812.
Roger Wolcott’s successful business and knowledge of the law no doubt brought him to the attention of the town officials and leading citizens. In 1707, he was elected as a Windsor selectman. He was admitted to the bar in 1709 and elected Deputy from Windsor to the General Assembly in that same year. He became a justice of the peace in 1710 and also served as clerk of the lower house from 1710 to 1711. When Connecticut participated in a military expedition against the French in Canada in 1711, he was appointed as commissary, or supply master.
Wolcott was chosen an Assistant in 1714, serving during a period when Connecticut’s government chose to cooperate with England in order to offset the continuing efforts of British politicians to portray Connecticut as a rebellious colony and revoke her liberal 1662 Charter. He was also a member of important colonial committees that decided matters of finance, law revisions, Native American issues, and boundaries.
Seven years later, in 1721, Roger Wolcott became a judge of the County Court of Hartford County. He joined the Connecticut militia in 1722 and was appointed to the post of captain. Wolcott became a Judge of the Superior Court in 1732 and while still in that position, in 1739 became a colonel, commanding Connecticut’s First Regiment. Two years later, in 1741, he became Deputy Governor under Governor Jonathan Law, and, as was the custom of the time, he was also appointed Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut. Law’s administration was another in which Connecticut had to defend its right to its Charter.
The 1740’s were years of a religious revival known as the “Great Awakening”. Congregational Churches experienced divisions in their congregations, the “Old Lights” wanting to keep things as they were; the “New Lights” embracing and advocating reforms and worship with more spirit and fervor. Both Law and Wolcott sided with the Old Lights.
In 1745, Roger Wolcott was 67 years old. Still, he was so highly respected that he was appointed major general in active command of the Connecticut troops in King George’s War. He was second in command for all the New England forces and led the Connecticut troops in the capture of Louisburg in Cape Breton, a major victory. Wolcott returned to Connecticut by 1746, and in 1747 his wife, Sarah (Drake) Wolcott, died at age 63.
Governor Jonathan Law died in November of 1750, one month after the General Assembly ended. The General Assembly reconvened briefly to elect Roger Wolcott as Governor and Thomas Fitch as Deputy Governor to serve until the regular election of May 1751. Both were reelected in that election.
Roger Wolcott had served Connecticut faithfully and well for many years, and the first part of his term as governor went well. Then one incident cast a shadow on his public life. A 200-ton Spanish ship, the Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph, was driven off her course from Honduras to Spain by bad storms. On November 24, 1752, while limping into New London harbor, the ship was twice run into rocks, resulting in heavy damage and one of her masts being cut away. It was suggested that the pilots guiding her into the harbor deliberately tried to wreck her so they could steal the cargo of gold doubloons, silver, and valuable indigo, worth some $400,000 in Spanish dollars, or about $3,800,000 in today’s money, a staggering amount of goods and money for colonial New Londoners.2 In addition, the cargo consisted of items that were relatively uncommon in the colonies, including silver, which was very scarce in New England as Britain did not allow silver coins to leave England3(the colonists often relied on silver coins minted in Mexico).
The cargo was off-loaded and stored in the port’s customs house and in a basement strong-room at the house of Gurdon Saltonstall, Jr., who had asked the Governor and Company to be appointed special agent to protect the property. The British naval and military actions against Spain in the Caribbean in the 1740’s in which New Londoners had fought and died, a general dislike of the Spanish by the British at that time, and the fact that the vessel had originally belonged to England but had been captured by the Spaniards about twelve years earlier perhaps influenced the mysterious disappearance of portions of the cargo from storage over the next year. It did not help that the Gurdon Saltonstall who stored part of the cargo was the son of Governor Gurdon Saltonstall, under whom Roger Wolcott had served. Collusion on the part of Wolcott and Saltonstall was suspected. Meanwhile, New Yorker Henry Lane had convinced the Spanish supercargo (steward of the cargo) to request that Saltonstall be relieved as agent. Under pressure, Governor Wolcott authorized Lane to receive the cargo, but Lane then apparently appropriated four chests of silver for himself.
Political wrangling over who was responsible for the losses involved the New London customs inspector, Saltonstall, Wolcott and the Connecticut government, and the British Crown and the Spanish court. It was feared that Connecticut could be responsible for damages amounting to up to one million Spanish dollars4. At one point, both Britain and Spain each sent a warship to New London harbor. The reconstructed Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph finally left in January 1755. Many felt that Governor Wolcott was too lax in solving the thefts and in providing sufficient protection to the cargo. Some accused him of malfeasance. His poor handling of the situation created rumors and caused him to lose votes in the 1754 elections. Thomas Fitch was elected Governor of Connecticut instead.
Wolcott was 76 years old when he was defeated, a new event for Connecticut. All previous governors had died in office. Shortly after the election, he was exonerated of the charges of theft of goods from the Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph. Supporters voted for him in 1755, although he was not on the ballot, and he almost won. Wolcott spent the much of the remainder of his life on his farm, cultivating his land, and served as an elder statesman, on call if the government needed him.
Wolcott was a many-talented man. In addition to his political and military activities, he also wrote the first book of poetry published in Connecticut. Titled Poetical Meditations, Being the Improvement of Some Vacant Hours, it was printed in 1725. After his retirement from public office, he continued to write, publishing church-related pamphlets. He also published a “Letter to the Freemen of Connecticut” in the Connecticut Gazette (New London) of 1761. In his final years, he lived in Windsor with his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Newberry. He died there on May 17, 1767 at the age of 89. He is buried in Windsor’s Palisado Cemetery and is commemorated by that town’s Roger Wolcott School.
No known portrait of Roger Wolcott exists.Footnotes
1Wolcott, Samuel. Memorial of Henry Wolcott. Pages 83-87 contain Roger Wolcott’s own short history of his life. It is also included in Stiles’ History of Ancient Windsor.
2John J. McCusker’s Website “How Much is That Worth Today”, found at http://eh.net calculated that 40 pounds, an average freeman’s annual income in 1752, would be worth about 4,100 pounds in 2001. This translates to approximately $6,100 US dollars in 2001. The Website is based on McCusker’s book,Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in Great Britain from 1264 to Any Other Year Including the Present.
3The Coins of Colonial and Early America, www.coins.nd.edu/ColCoin/FAQ.
4Stark, Bruce. The Spanish Ship Case.
Bates, Albert C., ed. The Wolcott Papers: Correspondence and Documents During Roger Wolcott’s Governorship of the Colony of Connecticut, 1750-1754, With Some of Earlier Date. Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, vol. XVI. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1916 [CSL call number F 91 .C7 v. 16].
Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. History of Norwich, Connecticut. Hartford: Press of Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1873 [CSL call number F 104 .N93 C3 1874]. See pp. 365-367.
Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. History of New London, Connecticut. Second Edition. New London: F.M. Caulkins, 1860 [CSL call number F 104 .N7 C28 1860.] See pp. 462-468.
Cook, Doris E. “Roger Wolcott’s Long Tidal River,” Bulletin of the Connecticut Historical Society 32 (January 1967), 16-20 [CSL call number F 91 .C67].
Decker, Robert Owen. The Whaling City: A History of New London. Chester, CT: Published for the New London County Historical Society [by] Pequot Press, 1976 [CSL call number F 104 .N7 D42.]
Dictionary of American Biography, Volume XX. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936, s.v. “Wolcott, Roger,” pp. 445-446 [CSL call number E 176 .D56].
Encyclopedia of Connecticut. New York: Somerset Publishers, Inc., 1994 [CSL call number HistRef F 92 .E53 1994].
Garrity, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, s.v. “Wolcott, Roger” [CSL call number CT 213 .A68 1999].
Grant, Ellsworth S. “From Governor to Governor in Three Generations,” Bulletin of the Connecticut Historical Society 39 (July 1974), 65-77 [CSL call number F 91 .C67].
Griffen, Robert C. and Mitchell R. Alegre. Wolcott Genealogy. Interlaken, NY: Society of Descendants of Henry Wolcott, 1986 [CSL call number CS 71 .W85 1986].
Hansen, Ann Natalie. The Dorchester Group: Puritanism and Revolution. Columbus, OH: At the Sign of the Cock, 1987 [CSL call number F 67 .H24 1987]. Discusses some early Wolcotts.
Highways & Byways of Connecticut. Hartford: G. Fox & Co.,  [CSL call number F 94 .H54 1947].
Hooker, Roland Mather. The Spanish Ship Case: A Troublesome Episode for Connecticut, 1752-1758. Tercentenary Pamphlet Series, XXV. [New Haven]: Published for the Tercentenary Commission by the Yale University Press, 1934 [CSL call number HistRef ConnDoc T 271h].
McCusker, John J. Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in Great Britain from 1264 to Any Other Year Including the Present“. Economic History Services, 2001.
McCusker, John J. [Website] “How Much is That Worth Today”, http://eh.net/ based on his book, above.]
National Cyclopedia of American Biography. New York: James White & Company, 1900, s.v. “Wolcott, Roger”, vol. X, pp. 326-7 [CSL call number E 176 .N27].
The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Micropaedia, Vol. 12, s.v. “Wolcott, Roger”, p. 726. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1986. [CSL call number AE 5 .E363 1986].
Norton, Frederick Calvin. The Governors of Connecticut. Hartford: Connecticut Magazine Co., 1905 [CSL call number HistRef F 93 .N 88 1905].
Raimo, John W. Biographical Dictionary of American Colonial and Revolutionary Governors 1607-1789. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1980 [CSL call number E 187.5 .R34].
Stark, Bruce. “The Spanish Ship Case“, at www.ctheritage.org/encyclopedia/ctto1763/spanishship.htm, part of the Connecticut Heritage Gateway site.
Stiles, Henry. The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut…. Reprint . Somersworth, NH: New Hampshire Publishing Company, 1976 [CSL call number HistRef F 104 .W7 S85 1976]. See Volume II, pp. 802-807 for his family record and a transcription of his autobiography.
Van Dusen, Albert. Connecticut. New York: Random House, 1961 [CSL call number HistRef F 94 .V3].
Wolcott, Chandler. Wolcott Genealogy: The Family of Henry Wolcott. Rochester, NY: The Genesee Press. 1912. [CSL call number CS 71 .W85 1912a.]
Wolcott, John Benjamin and Charles V. Waid, comps. Wolcott Immigrants and Their Early Descendants (The First Six Generations). Rochester, WA: Society of the Descendants of Henry Wolcott, 2002. [CSL call number CS 71 .W85 2002].
Wolcott, Roger, “Journal of Roger Wolcott at the Siege of Louisbourg,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society I:131-62. Hartford: Published for the Society, 1860 [CSL call number F 91 .C7 v. 1].
Wolcott, Samuel. Memorial of Henry Wolcott. New York: Anson D.F. Randolph and Company, 1881 [CSL call number CS 71 .W85 1881]. Pages 83-87 contain Roger Wolcott’s own short history of his life.
Researched and originally written by David O. White, Museum of Connecticut History, Connecticut State Library. Edited and revised by CSL Staff, February 2003. Copyright © 2003.