Thomas Cornell, Jr was accused of murdering his mother, Rebecca Cornell. Who was he? By most accounts Thomas was an integral part of the Portsmouth community. He was born in 1627 in Saffron Walden, Essex, England. He may have attended school there because he was able to read and write – a very valuable skill in early Portsmouth. He was eleven years old when his family emigrated from England to Boston. The Cornells were coming to Boston just at the time that Anne Hutchinson’s and her followers were leaving to begin a community in Portsmouth.  The Cornells bought William Baulston’s tavern in Boston, but they ran into trouble with the authorities there.  Thomas’ uncle, John Briggs, was in the group of Portsmouth founders and the Cornells followed him to Portsmouth in 1643. They were friends of Anne Hutchinson and went with her group to a new settlement in the Bronx.  The Cornells escaped the fate of the Hutchinson family and they returned to Portsmouth.

Thomas Cornell, Jr serving as Town Clerk 1658

Thomas played many roles in the Portsmouth community.  In 1658 he was chosen as town clerk.  He was a juror and even oversaw the construction of the prison he would eventually inhabit. He was a constable, deputy to the high court, set tax rates and was a town councilman.    Thomas seems to have left Portsmouth in 1661 after some quarrels with the town over his late father’s failure to construct a brew house.  The town wanted the return of the land that was granted.  Thomas may have been in the Dartmouth area since we know he had property there. He held offices in Dartmouth at the same time he held offices in Portsmouth.   In July of 1663 Rebecca Cornell deeded the family homestead to her son Thomas effective at her death.

Thomas Jr. had been married to Elizabeth Fiscock and they had four sons, Thomas, Stephen, Edward and John. There are indications that mother Rebecca and Elizabeth had a good relationship.   The speculation is that Thomas came back to the family homestead and his mother Rebecca when he was left a widower.  Thomas married Sarah Earle in 1668 and they had three daughters (one of whom was born after Thomas’ death).  The friction between Sarah and her mother-in-law was brought to light in the testimony of witnesses at Thomas’ trial.

Meanwhile Thomas worked the family homestead well.  They kept a good dairy, and used the wool from their sheep to spin valuable “trading cloth.”  A native American called Wickhopash (or Harry) was convicted of stealing Thomas Cornell’s rapier and a valuable length of this trading cloth.    Thomas was raising horses on his Dartmouth property for the West Indian market.  Thomas Cornell, Jr was not a poor man, but he wanted the resources to join in the Narragansett purchases and other financial deals that the Portsmouth men around him were capable of making.

Thomas’ last request was to be buried in the family plot next to his mother, Rebecca.  That request was denied, but he was buried at the homestead far away from his mother.