Thomas Saul: From Itinerant Tradesman to Town Magistrate

From Richard Saul

This article was published in the April 2024 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Member Richard Saul came across this article on the Browne House website, an historic house in the Queens area of New York. The Thomas Saul it refers to may be on Richard’s tree.

Thomas Saul first appears in 1639 in the town of New Haven; we know little of his origins, except that they soon caught up with him. The would-be colony was founded in 1638 by devout Puritan investors who dreamed of a Bible-based theocracy. However, not all New Havenites were religious fundamentalists. A carpenter by trade, Saul himself was part of an influx of itinerant artisans. In 1637, the advance party scouting the site had squatted in hillside dugouts; a year later, over 100 families needed housing. Amid this construction boom, Saul and another carpenter named William Gibbons were hired as sub-sub-contractors to work on the meeting house, an ambitious structure measuring 50 feet on all sides, with a tower, turret, and casement windows. Part of their job was to “make the roof of the tower tight, to keep out wet.”
The earliest mention of Saul occurs in the Court session of December 4, 1639, in which he and a Goodman Spinage were ordered to resolve their (unspecified) differences before the next session. Two months later, the Court ordered Saul to pay 5 shillings a week to a Mr. Evans, as security for Spinage’s claim against him. Finally, in the record of September 2, 1640, Saul acknowledged a debt of £20 to Humphrey Spinage, “to be leavied of his goods and chattells for publique use of this towne” should he fail to pay upon demand. Here Goodman Spinage is described as the agent for someone in London, offering a clue to Saul’s previous residence and possible motive for emigration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 1641 list of the residents of New Haven does not include Thomas Saul, although it’s unclear if itinerant tradesmen were counted. However, in 1644 he reemerges in the Court records, this time in absentia. Whether from negligence or lack of skill, the roof of the meeting house—which he and Gibbons were supposed to make watertight—was already badly leaking. Andrew Williams, the master carpenter, was squabbling with the two sub-contractors who had hired Gibbons and Saul over who bore the blame for their poor supervision. Given the urgency of the problem, the town ordered all parties to jointly repair the tower. However, within a few years the rest of the Meeting House began to decay, including roof, ground sills, timbers, windows and doors, and the entire building was condemned in 1670, erasing the only known monument to Thomas Saul.
New Netherland offered Saul a fresh start, away from creditors and angry clients. Unlike some Charter signers, he settled down in Flushing and become a freeholder there. An 18th century probate record refers to “a patent share of meadow in Fresh Meadows, Flushing…formerly owned by Thomas Saule.” However, his early years in Flushing also saw him back in court.

New Haven in Thomas Sauls time
New Haven in Thomas Saul’s time

On February 1, 1648 William Harck, the “Schout-Fiscal” or Sheriff of Flushing, appeared with his associates before Director-General Stuyvesant and the Council of New Netherland. They requested that the authorities “favor them with a pious, learned, and Reformed minister, and then order that each inhabitant should contribute to such godly work…and that an end be put to the present differences in a manner that shall promote peace, quietness, and unanimity in said town.” The record continues: “Thomas Saul, John Lawrence, and William Turner, the opposite party, thereto delegated by the remainder of their side, request the same as the Schout and his associates abovementioned have asked.” It does not elaborate upon the “present differences” between these two factions who claimed to want the same thing, but we can infer clashing ideas of what qualified as a “pious, learned, and Reformed minister.” This incident probably stems from a summons issued two weeks earlier for five of Saul’s fellow Flushing Charter signers:
Whereas one John Townshend, Edward [Hart?], Thomas Stiles, John Lawrence and John Hicks of Flushing in New Netherland are with others the principal opponents to the general vote and decision of their neighbors in contributing toward the support of a Christian and godly Reformed minister and to the nomination of a Schout…it is resolved for the best interest, advantage and peace of this province to have the said persons summoned to appear on the 23rd of January before the honorable Director and Council, and in case of refusal or declining to appear said persons may be arrested by the Fiscal…” – January 17, 1648
These wanted men, all original incorporators of the town like Saul, refused to support the minister, Elias Doughty, whom Stuyvesant had assigned to Flushing after he had alienated his previous parishioners in nearby Newtown (now Astoria, Queens.) It’s unclear if their objections to Doughty were doctrinal or personal, or if deep down they objected to funding any “official” minister. They further protested the Dutch system of choosing the Schout, the town’s law-enforcement officer and its only elected official. The townsfolk had to submit a list of nominees from which the Dutch would choose; however the faction represented here wanted the residents themselves to decide upon one candidate before seeking Dutch approval, giving the town more autonomy.
Council Record, April 8, 1648: Sentences of Thomas Stiles and Thomas Saul for assaulting the acting Sheriff of Flushing and obstructing the arrest of Stiles. (New York State Archives)
The parties did not respond to the summons, though the following week they evidently designated Lawrence, Saul, and Turner to face off against provisional Schout William Harck on their behalf and to lodge their competing request for a new minister. Stuyvesant and the Council agreed to search for a suitable reverend, so as “to promote peace, union, and tranquility both in ecclesiastical and civil affairs.” This noble aim failed, for on April 8, 1648, Thomas Saul and his fellow patentee Thomas Stiles were sentenced for assaulting Harck, who had been sent to arrest Stiles for some unspecified offense. Stiles confessed that he “threw the sheriff on the ground,” but promised “henceforth to behave as an honest inhabitant should,” and was “graciously pardoned”- provided he “beg forgiveness of God, the Council, the Honorable Director, and the Schout of Flushing,” and pay a fine of 50 guilders. Thomas Saul confessed to barring the door so that no one could come to Harck’s aid, thus preventing Stiles’ arrest. He likewise prayed mercy and promised to never do so again, and submitted to a fine of 25 guilders.
In a bizarre coda, around this time William Harck was dismissed for solemnizing a illegal marriage that he was not ordained to perform and to which the underage bride’s parents had not consented, then providing a bed in his own house for its immediate consummation. The Indian fighter Captain John Underhill replaced Harck as Schout, and promptly locked the detested Rev. Francis Doughty out of his church. The latter, despairing of ever being paid, absconded to Virginia and was not replaced. When the Long Island towns got their own magistrates, our erstwhile defendant Thomas Saul was twice elected to that office, in 1651 and 1655. We know nothing about the cases that came before him, as the town records of Flushing were destroyed by fire in 1788.  After 1655 Saul vanishes from the municipal archives of New Netherland and all neighboring colonies, which the indefatigable researcher B. Purcell Robertson personally scoured in the pre-Internet age for his Profiles of Selected Kieft Patentees of Flushing. As with Thomas Beddard, our other “International Man of Mystery,” we lack evidence of any surviving wife or children.
If Thomas Beddard represents one New World archetype – the pilgrim in search of religious freedom – Thomas Saul represents an equal and opposite type: the economic migrant. (Of course, these contrasting narratives are not mutually exclusive: Saul became caught up in the religious disputes of the town, whether he participated fully in a spiritual movement, or just provided some “muscle” to back up his zealous friends.) Regardless, his is a classic frontier story: leaving behind a trail of debt and dubious workmanship, in New Netherland Saul found a community that allowed him to go from troublemaker to magistrate, and ultimately reinvent himself as a respected citizen.
Reprinted with kind permission of Browne House.