East Lyme Historical Society

Stories of the Lee Family

by Wilbur Beckwith

Ensign Thomas Lee II  |  Mr. Justice Lee  |  John Lee  |  Lt. Ezra Lee

Ensign Thomas Lee II

Ensign Thomas Lee II was born in 1639 and baptized September 29, 1644 in Rusper, Sussex County, England. He was the son of Thomas Lee I and his wife Phoebe Brown Lee. Phoebe Brown Lee. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lee and their three children Jane, Sarah, and Thomas II together with Phoebe’s father William Brown left England for America in 1645 and arrived later in the same year. The senior Thomas Lee died of smallpox during the crossing. According to Glimpses of Saybrook in Colonial Days, by Harriet Chapman Chesebrough “Their afflicted and distressed condition commended to the sympathies of those at the fort and Thomas II was particularly cared for by Matthew Griswold, and followed him to Lyme, where in later years he became a prominent citizen and received on arriving his majority a grant of land on the East side of the river”. The widow Phoebe married two more times.  First to Greenleaf Larabee and was the mother of five children: Greenfield, John, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Sarah Larabee. Elizabeth, the half sister of Thomas II, was the grandmother of the diarist Joshua Hempstead. Phoebe married a third time to a Cornish and had two more children, James Cornish and a stillborn. She died in childbirth in 1664 at Northampton, Massachusetts. 

A 1650 division of Saybrook land lists Thomas Lee II then about age 11 as a grantee. No documentation of the grant details has been found. Thomas Lee II is listed in Lyme in the Connecticut census of 1670. A close relationship between the Lee and the Griswold families continued throughout the colonial period. About 1670 Thomas Lee II married Sarah Kirtland, daughter of Nathaniel Kirtland of Lynn Massachusetts. It is probable that the first stage of the Lee house was built at this time.

Thomas and Sarah were the parents of three children, John, who wrote the “Dying Charge”, Thomas III (Mr. Justice Lee), and Sarah. His wife Sarah died May 21, 1676 leaving him with three young children. He married a second time on July 13, 1676 to Marah (Mary) Dewolfe. There were eleven more children, four of whom died in childhood.

Over the years, during the distribution of Lyme’s common lands, Lee acquired large tracts of upland and salt meadow throughout town. It has been said that he owned one-eighth of the town.

Records show that Lee was involved in two disputes over land ownership. A town meeting on November 27, 1675 a dispute between Thomas Lee II and Matthew Griswold Senior (his mentor) over 20 acres of calf pasture land was settled in favor of Lee.  A town meeting on January 22, 1684 granted Lee twenty acres of common land at Black Point. A meeting on July 2, 1864  recorded a controversy between Mr. Christopher Christophers  concerning a parcel of land at Black Point. In answer to the petition of Thomas Lee II to the October 1685 session of the Assembly shows that the county clerk should handle his execution against Mr. Christophers. In 1686 at New London County Court Lee lost a jury trial and relinquished his claim.

Throughout his life Lee was active in town affairs filling numerous offices. In 1685 he was a deputy from Lyme in the Assembly, recorder of town records, surveyor, collector of the minister rate, meat packer-sealer (officer appointed to examine and test weights and measures), Hayward (an officer appointed to keep cattle from breaking through from a town common into enclosed fields, keeper of towns common herd of cattle), lister (assessor), and Ensign of the train band.

Lee’s will was dated June 1703. He left property “Where I now Live” to his youngest son Benjamin (age 12).  He died on January 5 1704/5. No gravestone has been found. He was likely buried in one of the old cemeteries in present day Old Lyme. His vast holdings throughout Lyme were left to his three sons, William, Joseph, and Stephen. The two oldest sons, John and Thomas III had already been given their share. His wife Marah (Mary) was given one-third of his moveable estate. The daughters were left with money.  His eldest sons John and Thomas III and his wife were named executors of his estate. On May 28, 1705 [LLR 2:236] the executors of the estate, leased the homestead to son William age 21 and unmarried for a period of nine years starting March 1, 1705.   At the end of the least Benjamin would have been age 21.  It would appear that William was left head of the household of his widowed mother and younger siblings.

Benjamin to whom the homestead was left must have died before he came of age as no further record of him has been found, nor has any record of Thomas Lee III of gaining possession of the homestead.

Mr. Justice Lee

Thomas Lee III, also known as Mr. Justice Lee, was the son of Ensign Thomas Lee II and his first wife, Sarah Kirtland. He was born December 10, 1672, presumably in the Lee House. He married Elizabeth Graham on January 24, 1695.  They were the parents of seven children: Mary, b. 1698; Elizabeth, b. 1701; Ester, b. 1703; Thomas IV, b. 1705; Samuel, b. 1708; Eunice, b. 1711; and Elisha, b. 1714.

It is uncertain how he obtained possession of the house. When his father died January 5, 1704/5 his will left the house to his youngest son, Benjamin, then twelve years old. Benjamin apparently died young though no record of his death has been found. Shortly after Ensign Lee’s death the farm was leased by his widow Marah (Mary) and their two adult children, John and Thomas III to their brother William, age 21, for a period of nine years. No record has been found of the property being transferred to Thomas Lee III.

On July 1, 1703 Daniel Smith was indentured to Thomas Lee III.  The Lyme records 2:306 December recorded his indenture of eleven years until age 21.

Thomas Lee III and Joshua Hempstead, the diarist, were half first cousins through their common grandmother, Phoebe Brown Lee Larabee. Joshua makes frequent mention of Thomas Lee and family, referring to him as “Cuzn Thos Lee”. The diary records visits to and lodging at the Lee House, as well as births, marriages, and deaths of family members. Lee’s will was written by Joshua.  Lee was active in civic affairs throughout his life. He served as deputy from Lyme in the  Colonial Assembly from 1713 to 1725, and was appointed justice of the peace by the Assembly from 1736 to 1746. As such, he was known as “Mr. Justice Lee”.  His name appears as a witness on numerous legal documents, such as wills, deeds, and estate inventories.

In January 1726/7, Thomas together with his brother Stephen and nephew John Lee, were granted permission to dam Bride Brook and erect a sawmill. The dam embankment can be seen near the Bride Brook Memorial boulder, just west of the Lee House.

Lee was among those who petitioned the Assembly in 1719 to establish a new ecclesiastical society in the eastern part of Lyme. A new church was established, known as the Second Society or East Society. This church is the ancestor of the present day Niantic Community Church. A large burying ground was established near the old church and is maintained by the Community Church. Lee was very active in the affairs of the early church serving as committeeman, moderator of meetings and various other duties.

He was active in the affairs of the local Niantic Indians. Upon the Memorial of the Niantick Indians to the May 1728 session of the Assembly at Hartford appointed  Captain Stephen Prentiss of  New London and Mr. Thomas Lee of Lyme to be overseers of the Indians with full power to take care of their planting grounds and to see the same is well fenced and secured.

The May 1734 Assembly appointed John Griswold and Thomas Lee to lay out the bounds of the Indian lands. The October 1734 session of the Assembly approved their layout of 300 acres. The layout comprised the general area of present day Crescent Beach, Oak Grove Beach, Attawan Beach.

From the May 1736 session:

“And wheras this Assembly now informed that the said Nahantick Indians desire their children may be instructed,

Thereupon it is resolved, that the Colony Treasurer do pay out of the publlick treasury unto Messrs. Thomas Lee of Lyme, and Stephen Prentiss of New London, the sum of fifteen pounds; who are appointed to receive the same, the therewith they shall hire some suitable person to instruct the said children to read, and also the principals of the Christian religion, and also render an account to this Assembly of their disbursement of the money aforesaid.” The Reverend George Griswold, pastor of the Second Society, preached to the Indians from 1741 to 1760.

On August 8, 1752, Joshua Hempstead wrote “yesterday morning died my kinsman Deacon Thomas Lee Esq of East Society in a good old age.” His gravestone in the Old Stone Church Cemetery reads: “Thomas Lee died August 9, 1752”. the old brownstone marker is shelled and no longer readable. The stone for his wife Elizabeth standing next to his, reads:  “Mrs. Elizabeth Lee wife of Deacon Thomas Lee died September 3, 1757 age 84.

His last will was written January 1749/50, about three and a half years before his death.  Lee’s three sons had died before him. His large holdings were left to his three grandsons, with provisions for his wife and daughter Mary. grandson Elisha received the Lee house. His three grandsons received the Sabbath-day house – a house built near a church and heated on winter Sundays as a place for worshipers living at a distance to warm themselves and eat between morning and afternoon services which were held in an unheated church.  

John Lee and the Dying Charge

John Lee was born September 21, 1670 the eldest child of Thomas Lee II and his first wife Sarah Kirtland.  On February 8, 1692 he married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Richard Smith and Joanne Quarrels.  Richard Smith was a signer for the East side of the Loving Parting that separated Lyme and Saybrook in 1665, and founder of the Smith family of Sucapaugh (North Bride Brook Rd).  They were the parents of eleven children.  Among his descendants was Jason Lee, minister from 1774 to 1810 of the Baptist Church at the corner of North Bride Brook Road and the Boston Post Road.

According to the Lyme records Lee was active in Town affairs serving as a lott layer, minister’s rate collector and 1st townsman.

Joshua Hempstead writes the following in his diary; “Wed 18 Januaries, 1715/16 John Lee buried died of ye measells”.  Shortly before his death he made a charge to his children dated January 13, 1715/16.  John’s widow Elizabeth married John Bailey of Groton with whom she lived until 1727.  When he died she returned to Lyme and Lived with her children until 1762.  There she died being worn out with age being more than ninety years of age.

The Dying Charge of John Lee     

“I charge my dear Children, that you fear God and keep his Commandments and that you uphold his public worship with diligence and constantly as you can and that you be constant in the duty of secret prayer, twice every day all the days of your lives and all you that become to be heads of families that you be constant in Family Prayer, praying evening and morning with your Families besides your prayer at meat and that you in your Prayers you pray for converting grace for yourselves and others, and that God will show you the Excellency of Christ and cause you to love him and believe in him and show you the evil of sin and make you hate forever and turn from it ant that you never give over till you have obtained converting grace from God.

Furthermore, I charge you that you chuse Death rather than deny Christ in any wise of any degree and that you never turn papist or hereticks but serve God in the way you was brought up in and avoid all Evil Company lest you be led into a snare and temptation.  Also be careful to avoid all Excess in Drinking and all other sin and prophaneness and be always dutiful to your mother and be kind to one another.

This I leave in Charge to all my posterity to the End of the world charging every person of them to keep a copy of this my charge to my Children.  This is my dying Charge to my Children.’

John Lee

January 13, 1716

Lt. Ezra Lee and the First Submarine Turtle

Lt. Ezra Lee was born in 1749 in Lyme the son of Abner Lee. Ezra was a descendant of Thomas Lee II through two lines; grandson through one and great-grandson through the other. He had an extensive military record during the American Revolution from 1775 until his discharge in 1782. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant. During the war he was employed by General Washington on secret missions and wintered at Valley forge in 1777-1778. His most memorable mission was to operate the first submarine, the Turtle, built by David Bushnell of Saybrook. On September 6, 1776 he took on the daring and dangerous attack upon the British flagship Eagle in New York Harbor. This was the first attempt to attack a ship from under water. Though it was unsuccessful, the British moved their fleet from the harbor. General Washing later commended Lee for his daring exploit.

Lee died October 29, 1821. He was buried in the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme. His tombstone reads “He was a Revolutionary Officer and esteemed by Washington”.