Sinclair Groupings - The Exeter, New Hampshire Line

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John Sinkler of Exeter
by Rand Greubel
Published here by permission of the author. Originally published in the Sept. 15, 2001 issue of Yours Aye, the newsletter of Clan Sinclair Association, Inc. (U.S.A.). 

Click to read more about the recent discovery by Mike Hamilton 
of the Dunbar Prisoners, including John Sinclair of Exeter, NH

John Sinkler of Exeter, New Hampshire was, according to nineteenth-century genealogist L.A. Morrison, the second earliest well-documented Sinclair in the New World - not counting Henry Sinclair’s possible fourteenth-century feat.  Like many Americans with a Sinclair lineage, he is my ancestor.  My grandmother used to tell me what little she knew of him, relating that he came over from Scotland and was related to Scottish nobility. It seems that much of what is accepted as truth about John Sinkler is based on a combination of oral tradition such as this, and some very tenuous documentary evidence that mentions a John Sinclair in Caithness (born about 1612) as the son of a Henry Sinclair and Janet Sutherland. So far as I know, no one has ever established this connection firmly using primary sources… nor do I know if it is even possible.

The question of John Sinkler’s parentage and family connections has been pursued almost obsessively by several of his descendants, and the final chapter elucidating this mystery has yet to be written.  Although several researchers claim to have found the truth, in fact definitive documentary evidence - that is, primary sources - establishing John Sinkler's parentage and place of origin in Scotland has not yet been discovered.  However, in the words of L.A. Morrison, "many circumstances, [family] traditions, and suppositions point so strongly in a given direction, that in their cumulative force they amount almost to a certainty" (Morrison 1896:44).  The certainty that Morrison refers to is John Sinkler’s connection to the noble St. Clair family of Rosslyn, Scotland.

About a decade before the close of the nineteenth century a genealogist by the name of Leonard Allison Morrison began researching the ancient and modern history of the various branches of the Sinclair family in Europe and America.  His research was financially supported by Charles A. Sinclair of Portsmouth, N.H.  The book that resulted from his research, The History of the Sinclair Family in Europe and America for Eleven Hundred Years, published in 1896, remains the main source for most of what we know about John Sinkler, the ancestor of many Americans of Sinclair and St. Clair descent.  Another important source is a written account by the Hon. Charles Henry St. Clair of Morgan City, Louisiana based largely on orally transmitted family tradition, dating to shortly after the turn of the century.  

The documentary evidence concerning John Sinkler was gleaned by Morrison from land deeds, petitions, court records, and his last will and testament.  The evidence concerning John Sinkler's family background in Scotland comes to us via the oral St. Clair family traditions that were set on paper by L.A. Morrison and Charles H. St. Clair.  Two written versions of this family tradition, to be discussed later in this account, seem to have come from Mr. Charles H. St. Clair, who imparted one version to Mr. Morrison while setting down a slightly more detailed version in his own account.

Major evidence concerning the arrival of John Sinkler in America was overlooked by, or perhaps not available to, Morrison and C.H. St. Clair.  It was brought to my attention by Mrs. Marian Loeschner, past genealogist of the Clan Sinclair Association, U.S.A.  It consists of the following statement in the book History of New Hampshire, by Everett S. Stackpole, worth quoting in full:

An item of some importance in the early history of New Hampshire has been overlooked by historians.  This was the bringing in, as servants, of some Scotchmen, who had been taken prisoners by Oliver Cromwell in the Battle of Dunbar, September 3, 1650, and the Battle of Worcester, just one year later.  One hundred and fifty from Dunbar were sent to Boston in the ship Unity and there sold to pay their passage money of twenty pounds apiece.  They were forced to work as apprentices from six to eight years, after which they had their liberty and received grants of land in towns where they chose to settle.  Two hundred and seventy-two more prisoners came over from the Battle of Worcester in the ship John and Sara.  A score or more of these Scots were employed in the sawmills at Oyster River and Exeter, that then included Newmarket, and some became permanent settlers in those places.  Among them were Walter Jackson and William Thompson's son John at Oyster River, John Hudson of Bloody Point, and John Sinclair, John Bean, Alexander Gordon and John Barber of Exeter.  The descendants of these include some of the leading men in the state (p. 76).

Stackpole's statement is corroborated by information contained in an article published in the October 1927 issue of The Journal of the Massachusetts Historical Society.  The article states

The tax lists and other sources of information show that Exeter also profited by this chattel slavery, as Nicholas Lissen of the latter place is credited with being master of some of the Worcester prisoners (p. 28).

 Mr. Bernie Bean, an ancestor of the John Bean mentioned above, has authored a history of his family entitled The Life and Family of John Bean of Exeter and His Cousins.  He states that an expatriot Scotsman by the name of Nicholas Lissen "was operating two lumber mills near Exeter, N.H." in 1651 (Bean 1977:5).  Following Stackpole, he states that "the seven men who were indentured to Nicholas Lissen were: John Bean, John Barber, Alexander Gordon, John Sinclair, John Hudson, John Thompson, and Walter Jackson.  All were to be lifetime friends of John Bean" (Bean 1977:6).

If it is true that John Sinkler was captured at the Battle of Worcester and transported against his will to America in the ship John and Sara, as explicitly stated by Stackpole, one would expect his name to appear on the ship's list of passengers.  Surprisingly, such a list exists; unfortunately, there is no John Sinkler listed on it.  However, this in itself proves nothing.  In the article published in the October 1927 issue of The Journal of the Massachusetts Historical Society, cited above, the author says of this list: "While [the list] is fortunate for historical purposes, yet [it] is not to be accepted as a true record of their correct names" (p. 19).  Indeed, there are at least three illegible names on the list, one of which may be John Sinkler's.  There is also a "Salaman Sinclare" listed; this may be John, his name miswritten or misunderstood by a disinterested or less than competent clerk, or perhaps purposely altered by him for reasons unknown to us.  Indeed, this theory is bolstered by the fact that after this time, there is no further mention of a "Salaman Sinclare" anywhere in the records of New England.  It is interesting and telling that of the seven men described by Stackpole as being Battle of Worcester prisoners, only three (Walter Jackson, John Hudson, and John Bean [spelled "Benne"]) actually occur on the ship's passenger list.  Another possibility is that John Sinkler was a prisoner from the Battle of Dunbar, which occurred precisely one year earlier than Worcester ¾ although neither does he appear on the list of transported Dunbar prisoners.  After all sides of the argument are examined, Stackpole's information, John Sinkler's close association with confirmed Scottish prisoners of war, and the historical "coincidence" of his presence in America soon after the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester, all coalesce into the virtual certainty that John Sinkler was a Scottish soldier captured in one the military engagements of the British Isles in the early 1650s, and exiled to America in lieu of execution or continued imprisonment.

It is possible to tentatively reconstruct the sequence of events during the first few years of John Sinkler's presence on the American continent.  The ship John and Sara docked at Boston Harbor on February 24, 1652.  The surviving prisoners disembarked and were marched from Boston to Lynn, a two-day trip.  There, at a place called the "Saugus House" or the "Scotchmen's House,” they were apparently sold into indentured servitude to the highest bidder.  As noted above, our ancestor John Sinkler and several of his comrades were purchased by the Scottish expatriot Nicholas Lissen, a Presbyterian lowlander who had emigrated to America, via Northern Ireland, in 1637 (Bean 1977:5).  Transporting his new laborers north to present day New Hampshire, he employed them in one of his two lumber mills in Exeter.  There John Sinkler worked his way to freedom.  It is not known how long he remained indentured, but he was a free man by January of 1659, when he purchased ten acres of land in Exeter.  This transaction is recorded in a deed filed among the Old Norfolk County Records, at Salem, Massachusetts (Morrison 1896:65).  

Who was John Sinkler?  Historical records provide a sketch of his life in early colonial America, and scholars have established with reasonable certainty that he was a Scottish soldier captured and banished from his native land by English forces under the command of Oliver Cromwell.  But where in Scotland was he from, what was his position in life, and what was his connection to the very prominent Sinclair families of this period?  According to Charles Henry St. Clair, John Sinkler passed down this brief but tantalizing summary of his ancestry to his children:

My father’s name was Henry, my grandfather’s name was John, he was Master of St. Clair, we came from near Edinburgh Scotland, of the Rosslyn family.

    This brief statement contains five crucial pieces of information.  It suggests 1) the name of John’s father, 2) the name of John’s paternal grandfather, 3) the status of John Sinkler’s grandfather as an eldest son, 4) the place of residence of the family, and 5) the relationship of the family to the Sinclairs of Rosslyn.  

The accuracy of any given anecdotal family history is, admittedly, problematic. A 200-year old, orally transmitted, family tradition may be regarded as a good starting point for research ¾ a useful set of clues ¾ but to accept it uncritically as historical fact would be risky at best.  It does seem reasonable, however, that the story contains a core of truth, possibly more.  When L.A. Morrison approached this problem in the late nineteenth century, he did not question the basic accuracy of any of the five pieces of information embedded in this statement.  Consequently, his interpretation that John Sinkler was the great-grandson of George Sinclair, the 4th Sinclair Earl of Caithness ¾ which is well known to most of us and which he discusses in detail in his book ¾ remained true to four of the five pieces of information but took liberties with the family residence, placing it in Caithness instead of Midlothian.  He explains this departure from the family story by suggesting that what John really meant was that his family originated near Edinburgh, even if his immediate family hadn’t actually lived there for quite some time.  To my way of thinking, it appears that Morrison has taken what is arguably the strongest piece of information embedded in this family tradition and given it the least credence.  In my experience with family oral histories, names and relationships get confused but generally people remember where their ancestors came from.

Morrison obviously searched long and hard for some record that would establish the parentage of John Sinkler.  He failed to locate primary records, although it is not clear how thorough his search for such records was.  He eventually came upon, or was shown, a reference in Notes on Caithness Family History by John Henderson (published in 1884) which mentioned that John Sinclair, Master of Caithness, had a son named Henry, who had a son named John.  Morrison felt that this fit the family story so closely that the mystery had been solved.  Yet, he was also careful to insert this caveat: “we have no positive connection and we do not know for a certainty the name of (John Sinkler’s) father” (Morrison 1896:44).  Modern Sinclair genealogists and family historians have tended to disregard Morrison’s thoughtful warning and accept the hypothesis as solid fact.  

I have always been a bit skeptical that John Sinkler of Exeter, New Hampshire was the same John Sinclair mentioned in Henderson’s Notes on Caithness Family History.  One reason is the family tradition, stated above, that suggests a link to the Edinburgh area and the Rosslyn family.  The Sinclairs of Caithness were, of course, an offshoot of the Rosslyn Sinclairs, but why didn’t the family tradition preserve the link to the Caithness Sinclairs, especially since their prestige and political power had eclipsed that of the Rosslyn family well before 1650?  

Another problematic aspect of the Morrison interpretation is John Sinkler’s date of birth.  John Sinclair, the son of Henry Sinclair of Borrowstown and Lybster, Caithness (who died in 1614), was born about 1612.  Morrison stated his case that John Sinkler of Exeter and John Sinclair of Caithness were the same individual, then subsequently noted that Sinkler was born “probably about 1630” (Morrison 1896:69).  In fact, John Sinkler’s probable military background, which Morrison was not aware of, suggests that the latter date is probably closer to the truth.  If Sinkler was born in 1630, he would have been 22 when he was transported to America, a little older than his friend and fellow prisoner John Bean, who was born in 1633 or 1634 (Bean 1977:3).  Alternatively, if he was born in 1612, he would have been around 40.  It is not impossible that John Sinkler was 40 years old when he was captured and transported, but it seems a rather advanced age for a seventeenth-century foot soldier.  

John Sinkler died in 1699 or 1700.  If he was the great-grandson of George Sinclair, the 4th Sinclair Earl of Caithness, the grandson of John the Master, and the son of Henry who died at Kirkwall, Orkney ¾ that is, if he truly was born in 1612 ¾ then he was approximately 88 years old when he died.  It might be expected that John Sinkler’s sons and grandsons would have survived to similar ripe old ages, given the strong genetic component of life expectancy.  In fact, none of John Sinkler’s sons or grandsons lived beyond 75 years of age, and their mean life-span was only 54 years (see Morrison 1896:72-75).  How is it that John Sinkler, who probably had a more difficult and debilitating life than any of them, lived an average of 34 years longer than two subsequent generations of his male progeny?  If, on the other hand, he was actually born in 1630, then he lived approximately 70 years, the same as his eldest son James.  This seems much more likely.

While none of the above proves that John Sinkler of Exeter was not the same person as John Sinclair, son of Henry of Caithness, as circumstantial evidence it is very suggestive that Morrison’s interpretation is not correct.  It is my hope that additional research, particularly into primary documents such as parish records, will eventually either confirm or refute the Morrison hypothesis and solve the 350-year old mystery of John Sinkler’s origins.

Further research from Rand - 

The following suggestions about further research into the origins of John Sinclair are adapted from the ideas of Roger Coone, a descendant of John Sinkler who was born in the U.S. but currently lives in England.  In 2000, Roger wrote me several emails outlining his thoughts about this problem.  Much of the following is quoted directly from Roger’s emails.

·John Sinkler may have been captured following the Battle of Dunbar rather than Worcester.  The names of his companions – Jackson, Hudson, Thompson, Bean, and Gordon – provide a clue, as they collectively suggest Lowland origins.  “This would suggest that they were taken at Dunbar as the majority of soldiers who fought there were from Lowland regiments.  Although Lowlanders fought at Worcester they formed a smaller proportion of the Scottish army due to the losses suffered at Dunbar.”

·    “At Worcester there was a regiment raised from Caithness under the command of one of the relatives of the Earl of Caithness.  Like nearly all of the Scottish regiments that fought there, it was destroyed and many of its men were captured.  This begs the question why weren’t more Sinclairs on the John & Sara as they would have formed a high proportion of the Caithness regiment.  As an example there were a high proportion of Simsons on the John & Sara.  Simson is sept name of Clan Fraser and the Frasers were well represented at Worcester as the clan chief raised his men and formed a regiment that fought there.”

·    The information above was extracted from A Regimental History of the Covenanting Armies 1639-1651, by Edward Furgol, published by John Donald, Edinburgh.  “There is a document entitled A List of the Prisoners of War Who Are Officers in Commission, in Custody of the Marshall-General.  It was published in London in 1651.  I don’t know if this document can be consulted or where it is held but it may throw further light on John Sinclair.”

·    “There is also the question of rank.  Generally all men captured with the rank of captain and below were earmarked for transportation.  Those above the rank of captain were generally imprisoned.  For instance, John Sinclair, Lord Roslin, was besieged in his castle of Roslin after Dunbar.  The castle garrison was battered into submission by General Monk and Lord Roslin was imprisoned at Tynemouth.”

·    “There is an Edinburgh parish record on file with the Mormons in Salt Lake City that a Henry Sinclair born 1604 and from Edinburgh married a Janet Sutherland (born 1608 and also from Edinburgh) and had a son named John Sinclair (born 1630, Edinburgh).”

If the parish record mentioned above is genuine, it may provide a better explanation for John Sinkler’s parentage than Morrison’s hypothesis that he was the grandson of John, Master of Sinclair in Caithness.  As far as the historical information, certainly more research could be done on this aspect of the problem.  My gut feeling is that Roger is right; John Sinkler was probably from the Edinburgh area and was somehow related to the Roslin Sinclairs. 

Rand Greubel


Bean, Bernie
    1977    The Life and Family of John Bean of Exeter and His Cousins.  Vol. 1 of The Clan MacBean in North America.  The Clan MacBean Register, Cut and Shoot, Texas.

Henderson, John
    1884    Notes on Caithness Family History.  David Douglas, Edinburgh.

Morrison, Leonard Allison
    1896    The History of the Sinclair Family in Europe and America for Eleven Hundred Years.  Damrell & Upham, Boston.

Stackpole, Everett S.
    1916    History of New Hampshire, Volume I.  The American Historical Society, New York.

DNA Notes on the Exeter Group

The Exeter lineage seems to be one of our tightest lineages. So far, all those who claim to be of this lineage show extremely tight DNA alignment. For once, this is what we hope for in a lineage.


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