Who's Phebe?

When a man married two women with the same first name in colonial America and the early post-revolutionary United States, genealogical misidentifications become more likely since the wife generally took her husband’s name in all subsequent records. Children may get assigned to the wrong mother; in this case, the two wives were “merged” into one wife.

Samuel Rockwell (1727–1794) married Hannah Orcutt at Stafford, Connecticut on 15 December 1757.[1] However, the above findagrave entry (as it appears today; no doubt it will soon be changed) would indicate that she died 16 December 1834, aged 81. Born about 1753, she got married at four years of age! While no photograph of the stone appears above, the same information is given in both Stafford Vital Records and the Charles R. Hale Collection of Connecticut Cemetery inscriptions that “Hannah Rockwell, relict Captain Samuel, died 16 December 1834, aged 81 yrs.” My research had shown that Hannah Orcutt was born at Stafford 19 January 1738/39, daughter of Nathan and Phebe (Lillie) Orcutt.[2] No deaths of any Hannah Orcutt before 1834 were found in Stafford Vital Records. Either her age at death, per the gravestone and vital record, were both off by years (she was closer to 96 than 81), or something else was going on.

This makes it appear that that the Hannah of 1834 was the second wife of Samuel...

I also found the marriage of Samuel Rockwell and Hannah Lee on 3 September 1778 in Stafford Vital Records.[3] This makes it appear that that the Hannah of 1834 was the second wife of Samuel (of course, the maiden name was not on the 1834 record; the findagrave entry maiden name was the poster’s conclusion). So Hannah (Orcutt) Rockwell should have died sometime before 1778. Where was she?

According to Stafford Vital Records, on 11 November 1776, “Phebe, w. of Samuel” Rockwell died.[4] Who’s Phebe? I can find no record of Capt. Samuel Rockwell of Stafford having a wife named Phebe. Samuel and Hannah (Orcutt) Rockwell did have a daughter named Phebe born in Stafford on 14 August 1760.[5] This Phebe married Daniel Johnson at Stafford on 29 March 1781.

My thought was that “Phebe Rockwell” was the first Mrs. Samuel Rockwell, and should have been “Hannah [Orcutt] Rockwell.” While nothing in probate or land records showed Samuel Rockwell with a wife named Phebe, saying the clerk got this record wrong, I thought would require some additional evidence. Fortunately, the Rockwell family was also recorded in the Stafford Church Records. Therein, was the death of “Hannah, w. of Samuel Rockwell, d. Nov. 11, 1776,” the exact day as the above “Phebe.” There is no Phebe! Samuel Rockwell first married Hannah Orcutt, who died in 1776, and then married Hannah Lee, who died in 1834. Fairly straightforward, but having wives with the same name, along with a clerk’s error on a death record, made this harder to catch.


[1] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 126.

[2] Stafford Vital Records, 1:.17. The Orcutt Family of Scituate, Bridgewater, and Weymouth, Massachusetts are currently being published in a multi-part article series in the Mayflower Descendant.

[3] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 131.

[4] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 177.

[5] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 11.

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child