Remembering Thomas Darby
One of the little-realized facts about Acton’s Revolutionary War soldiers is that we do not have a complete listing of who they were. Captain Isaac Davis’s company of Minute Men who marched to Concord on April 19, 1775 are quite well-documented, thanks to the testimony of long-lived individuals and the pride of Acton residents that their Minute Men were first at the bridge and suffered losses as a result. A monument in the center of town reminds us of their place in history. However, two other companies of Acton men served that day. We can figure out some of them thanks to a wonderful donation to the Society of Captain Joseph Robbins’ papers, but we still do not know all who participated.
The Revolutionary War stretched on for eight years, and while records became somewhat better as the war went on, not all soldiers’ service was perfectly documented. In the years since, because of local focus on those who were killed on the war’s first day, soldiers who served and died later and in places farther away have received much less attention in Acton. One of those casualties was Thomas Darby who was killed at the Battle of White Plains in 1776.
In honor of Memorial Day, we attempted to find out something about Thomas Darby. His surname was not a common name in Acton in later years. He is not mentioned on any monument, marker, or historical map. There are no streets bearing his name in a town full of Revolution-themed roads. Given this lack of attention, we assumed that he was a young, unmarried man who probably did not have family around or whose extended family died out early. That assumption turned out to be incorrect. Though we were not able to find out much about his life, we can at least try to give his story some family context.
We are, for this blog post, indebted to and somewhat at the mercy of published town histories and genealogies of Thomas’ family. Though we have used online vital, town, military, probate, and land records to try to corroborate and supplement their stories, the records of the time are incomplete. Some research avenues were limited after COVID-19 led to the closure of libraries and archives, but the Darby family is hard to untangle even in the records that do exist. The Darbys were numerous, were sometimes called “Derby,” “Daby” or another name variant, and tended to repeat first names within and across generations. (As one example, a Daby family of Harvard, MA seems to have been intermingled with Thomas’ family in some histories, though the actual connection, if there was one, is uncertain.) As best we can tell, Thomas descended from three generations of men named John Darby. John Darby was certainly a common name in Thomas’ family; it was given to Thomas’ eldest brother and two younger brothers, the last of whom reached adulthood.
The first of Thomas’ male ancestors noted in most genealogies was fisherman John Darby of Marblehead. What usually was not mentioned was his notoriety. According to Eric Jay Dolin’s Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates (among other histories), John Darby was on the crew of a boat boarded by pirates in August 1689 and, quite voluntarily, threw in his lot with the pirate Thomas Pound. John’s new career was short-lived as the pirates’ activities over the next two months led the Massachusetts governor to send out a crew after them. When they caught up with the pirates in Tarpaulin Cove (located on an island near Martha’s Vineyard), John Darby was killed in the ensuing battle. His wife back in Marblehead was left with five young children.[i]
The second John Darby (1681-1753), Thomas’ grandfather, married Deborah Conant, presumably before Dec. 27, 1704, and had many children in Essex County, MA. They moved to Concord around 1721. Deborah’s brother Lot Conant also settled in Concord; a deed in 1745 mentioned that a piece of land owned by John Darby was bounded in part by Lot Conant’s land. In that 1745 deed, John Darby sold part of his farm and other lands to his eldest son John (Thomas’ father), carefully giving him the right to cross the barnyard to get to his own barn doors, to cart his hay, and to use the well. Son John was also given one fifth of the apples in the orchard. The elder John’s will, dated 1747, left to his wife “Deborah Darbie” any lands and buildings that he had not yet disposed of in the “southerly part of Concord” and his interest in land in Acton. The will conveniently named his children: John (Thomas’ father), Andrew, Ebenezer, Benjamin, Joseph and Robert Darbie, Deborah Wheeler and Mary Heywood.
Thomas’ father John Darby (1704-1762?) married Rebecca Tarbox in Wenham on March 16, 1728. John and Rebecca had two children, John (1729-1732) and Thomas (born 1731). Thomas’ mother died by 1735. His father was remarried to Susanna (possibly Jones), and they had eight more children: John, Rebecca, Lucy, John, Anne, Elizabeth, Nathaniel and Elnathan. As far as we can tell from land records, Thomas grew up in “the westerly part of Concord” near his grandparents and a large number of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. (The 1745 deed from his grandfather to his father confirms that Thomas’ family was living on his grandfather’s farm at the time.) At least some of the family ended up in Acton after it was set off as a separate town in 1735. Thomas’ uncle Andrew Darby was considered one of the founding settlers of Acton (see Phalen, page 28) and was chosen for various responsible roles in its early years, including selectman and assessor. Four of Andrew’s children’s births were reported in Acton vital records. Andrew moved to Worcester County around 1848 and was again a founding father of Narraganset No. 2 (later Westminster), leaving a large number of descendants in that area. Thomas’ uncle Benjamin bought Acton land abutting Iron Work Farm in South Acton in 1844. Joseph Darby bought land and a cooper shop in Acton in 1776. One thing we can say with certainty is that Thomas was not a lone Darby who happened to sign up with Acton’s minute men. Darbys and their relatives had been in Concord and Acton for decades.
Unfortunately, however, records actually detailing Thomas’ life are very few. According to Concord vital records, Thomas Darby was born January 12, 1731 to John and Rebekah Darby. His baptism was recorded in the records of Ipswich’s “Hamlet Parish Church” on Jan. 17, 1731. As noted, Thomas grew up in Concord and lived on his grandfather’s farm. According to many sources, Thomas married Lucy Brewer. Presumably they married around 1761, but we have not found a marriage record. We found no land records bearing Thomas’ name, but he was living in Acton by 1757 when, during the French and Indian War, he was listed as a private in Captain Samuel Davis’ “Foot Company,” Acton’s Alarm Company #2. His children with wife Lucy were recorded in Acton’s town records (Vital Records, Volume 1, page 63, all together):
Thomas was mentioned in Acton’s town records on March 26, 1769 when he was paid two pounds for keeping a school. Though hard to read, an order dated April 19, 1770 indicates that Thomas “Derby” was paid one pound, ten shillings for keeping a school the next year as well. That is the only mention of Thomas’ work that we have found. He could have been living and working on a relative’s land but we have found nothing to prove that.
The next records we have of Thomas come from Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Darby was listed as part of John Hayward’s company that answered the “Lexington Alarm.” John Hayward was Captain Isaac Davis’ second-in-command and became the leader of Acton’s minute men when Davis was killed. Thomas Darby presumably was drilling with Captain Davis as tensions with the British rose in late 1774 and early 1775. He was one of those who marched to Concord on the first day of the war, was there in the first company facing the British, and must have witnessed the death of Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer.
Apparently, Thomas had the full support of his wife in turning to soldiering. According to a colorful story in the history of Hudson, New Hampshire, Lucy (Brewer) Darby “sheared her sheep, spun the wool, wove the cloth, colored it with butternut bark, made the uniform and carried it to her husband, then in temporary camp, and told him to go fight for his country.” (page 575)
Thomas’ war service continued. Records for early war service are spotty, but a pay abstract for a travel allowance dated Winter Hill, Jan. 15, 1776 confirms that he was part of Washington’s army participating in the siege of Boston that winter. He was serving as Corporal in Capt. David Wheeler’s company, Col. Nixon’s regiment. Joseph Darby of Acton was also in the company, probably the son of Thomas’ uncle Joseph who still lived in Concord. Thomas and Joseph (“Derby”) were both in Capt. Simon Hunt’s company that was called out to help fortify Dorchester Heights in March 1776. Thomas seems to have been reported as a private for that service.
In Sept. 1776, a company was formed of men from Concord, Acton, Lexington, and Lincoln to serve in the Massachusetts Third Regiment under Eleazer Brooks. Simon Hunt of Acton was captain. A list of Simon Hunt’s company (that did not include a year) showed Thomas Darby as a corporal. Fifteen Acton men were in the company, including Thomas Darby of Acton and Nathan Darby of Acton/Concord, both of whom reported at White Plains. Nathan may have been another son of Thomas’ uncle Joseph, but it also could have been Thomas’ brother Nathaniel whose later service (clearly as “Nathaniel Darby” from Acton) was credited to “Nathan” in the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors compendium. Either way, Thomas had family in the company.[ii]
Though we know that Thomas served and died at White Plains, even the role of his company there is hard to pin down, as later reports on the battle were somewhat conflicting. Fletcher and Shattuck’s histories (of Acton and Concord, respectively) both made sure to assure us that Colonel Eleazer Brooks’ regiment behaved bravely. Whatever happened in the chaos of the battle, the result was tragedy for Thomas’ family; Lucy was left a widow with four daughters to support. Thomas does not show up in probate or land records; presumably he left little money behind. There is no indication in town records that Acton helped Thomas’ family financially. We can only assume that they took refuge with relatives elsewhere, probably in Ashby, MA. A Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution publication stated that Lucy was a pensioner. (page 237) Though it would seem that widow Lucy Darby should have received a pension under a 1780 Act of Congress, we have found no evidence of that seemingly simple fact in online records. (Perhaps the 1800 fire that consumed the earliest pension records destroyed her application, but we found no records of payment, either.)
We finally found additional records of Thomas’ family when his daughters started to marry. On May 28, 1788, daughter Rebeckah married Revolutionary War veteran John Pratt in Harvard, MA. Both Rebecca and John were recorded as residents of Harvard at the time, but John had apparently moved to Fitchburg, MA where the couple settled and raised their nine children, one of whom was named Thomas Darby Pratt.
On November 27, 1788, Thomas’ eldest daughter Lucy married John Gilson who enlisted from Pepperell, MA at the age of fourteen and was in the Battle of White Plains. A Samuel Gilson of Pepperell was in the same company and was reported killed at White Plains; this may have been his father. (Sources disagree.) The marriage between Lucy and John Gilson was recorded in Townsend and Ashby, MA, both giving Lucy’s residence as Ashby. A profile of the Gilson family in Hayward’s history of Hancock, NH tells us that John Gilson was a blacksmith. He and Lucy settled originally in what is now Hudson, NH and then moved to Hancock, NH. (They may have lived for a time in Bennington as well.) They had eight children, one of whom was named Thomas Derby Gilson. (We checked other sources to confirm his middle name. Aside from the mention in the Hancock history, we only found him listed as Thomas D. Gilson in other records.) Both Thomas Darby’s daughter Lucy Gilson and Thomas’ widow Lucy Darby died on August 10, 1834 and were buried together in the Hancock cemetery. Thomas’ widow had lived with John and Lucy Gilson and their family for nearly fifty years. Widow Lucy Darby had managed to accumulate some money and left a will, written in 1832, that named her daughters and six of her Gilson grandchildren.
Thomas’ daughter Phebe married Jonathan Rolfe on August 30, 1792. Both were of Ashby, MA, but their marriage, like Lucy’s, was recorded both in Townsend and Ashby. Apparently, Jonathan was a carpenter. Two histories gave Jonathan the title of “Captain,” but we were unable to find out why. Jonathan and Phebe stayed in Ashby until after 1810, and their nine children seem to have been born there. Jonathan and Phebe later moved to Dalton, NH. Jonathan died in 1825 and Phebe in 1840, and they were buried in Dalton.
Youngest daughter Mary (also known as Molly or Polly) married Deacon Moses Greeley (1764-1848) who was born in Haverhill, MA. His father also served in the Revolutionary War. Moses first married a cousin Hannah with whom he had two daughters. After she died in in 1793, Moses and Mary married and lived in Nottingham West (later Hudson), New Hampshire. Moses was a blacksmith and apparently a successful farmer. The couple had nine (or possibly ten) children, one of whom, Moses, Jr., legally changed his name in 1829 to Moses Thomas Derby Greeley. Their eldest, Reuben, like his father, served as a selectman, becoming chairman of the Board, town clerk, and representative in the Legislature. One of Mary’s grandchildren was the locally well-known Moses Greeley Parker. Mary Darby’s husband Moses Greeley died in 1848, and Mary died in 1856. They were buried in Hudson, NH. A history of Hudson, NH has personal sketches of Moses (including Mary) and Reuben and includes pictures of all three of them.
Even though Thomas Darby was one of Acton’s celebrated Minute Men, his service has been given surprisingly little attention. Perhaps because he survived April 19, 1775, Acton’s historical attention focused instead on those who were killed that day. Contrary to our expectations, he came from a large family and left many descendants. None of Thomas’ daughters settled in Acton; stories about his life would have been passed down elsewhere. If anyone has more to tell us about Thomas Darby, his family, and or any other Acton Darby connections, we would like to document their history. We would also be grateful for any corrections or additions to this story. Please contact us.
[i] We would like to find more records to make sure of the connection between John the pirate and Thomas’ great-grandfather. The name Darby was much less numerous than in later generations, so duplicate John Darbys are much less likely, but we did want to confirm the identity. The pirate John was known to the remaining members of his fishing vessel, so his identity was no mystery at the time, and there were witnesses to his activities as part of the pirate crew. For us, genealogies tell us that Thomas’ great-grandfather was a fisherman, and that he came from Marblehead. Many sources say that the pirate was from Marblehead working on a boat out of Salem and that the pirate’s widow was left with four or five children. The timing of pirate John’s death in October 1889 is consistent with (1) Thomas’ ancestor’s probate inventory dated Janr 17, 1690 (given the writing, it might be June 17), and (2) his widow Alice Darby, mother of five, marrying John Woodbery on July 2, 1690.
[ii] To complicate matters further, Thomas also had another first cousin named Nathan who was in Westminster by that point as well as a brother named Elnathan. Various cousins of Thomas served at different times during the Revolution; with name duplication, telling them apart in records becomes complicated and depends heavily on location at enlistment. Checking online scans (via Ancestry.com) of the 1778 roll of the 15th Regiment, listed by town, we found Nathaniel listed as a soldier from Acton in Hunt’s company; at that point, at least, the soldier in Hunt’s company appears to be Thomas’ brother. Elnathan seems to have enlisted for service from the town of Harvard in 1777.
Select References Used (in addition to digitized vital and other records):
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