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Sarah Theyer Whipple

Sarah Theyer Whipple: Putative Wife of Captain John Whipple

By Charles M. Whipple, Ph.D., Ed.D.

It is the assertion of this abstract that the maiden name of the wife of Captain John Whipple is Theyer. This is based on the following observations. The information supplied by her tombstone states that she was born in Dorchester, New England, and died in Providence, Rhode Island Anno Dom 1666, age 42, placing her date of birth in the mid-1620s. As shown in several treaties, including my own, The History of Captain John and Sarah Whipple of Dorchester, Massachusetts and Providence Rhode Island, 1617-1685, Trafford Publishing, 2007, the maiden name commonly identified as belonging to her, including baptismal records have been: Theyer, Glouchester; Darling, London; Woodthorpe, Essex, and Hutchinson, unknown. The name Theyer has since been identified in an early 20th century Rhode Island source as wife to John Whipple. I have researched this issue on and off for over 40 years, arriving at a clearer understanding of this 300-year old conundrum with assistance from those sources noted below.

What is known, at present, is that Clarence Torry, in 1985, was able to list the surnames of the wives of 11 John Whipples of early New England, but not the wife of Captain John Whipple. (Clarence Almon Torry, New England Marriages Prior to 1700, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1985, pg. 803) The immediate question became not why, but is there a way to locate her by some other means? A noted Rhode Island genealogist stated recently that, “This is a classic hard problem in New England genealogy. If it is solved, it would merit an article in the New England Historical Genealogical Register.” (Correspondence with Diane Boumenot,, 16 January 2021).

A Sarah Hutchinson is known to have entered into the Ipswich family by marrying Joseph in 1690, a descendant of Matthew Whipple, not the John Whipple of Rhode Island line in the mid-1630s. Moreover, researchers have been, as yet, unable to find corroborating raw data on an unchallenged Darling/Captain John Whipple relationship. Baptismal records in Old England for: Darling, 13 March, 1624/25; Theyer, 8 January, 1624/25; and Woodthorpe, 1 August 1620; have been located, but not for Hutchinson. The Thayer Families Association responded to my inquiry that, “….I do not have a Sarah Thayer (in any surname spelling) who might have married John Whipple in 1638 in Dorchester, Massachusetts.” (Communication from Patricia Thayer Muno,, 11 February, 2021). This does not rule out the likelihood that such a marriage did take place, it did however mirror the state of present Whipple research. It should be made known that the name “They/Thay/Tay/Tey” has been found, among others, to have been used as a form of Thayer, as well as a nickname. The use of the Thayer name occurs in over 20 different languages, in a considerable number of variegated spellings.

Most family and professional genealogists are well aware that spelling was until recently not standardized, “Even the educated spelled their names in a variety of ways.” In the case of Whipple, over 100 variant names have been uncovered. Such non-standardized methods of naming, particularly during the early 17th century, have long been recognized to be universally normative and, “not at all disquieting to the more experienced antiquarian researcher.” The discovery of so many variegations of the Thayer/Theyer surname are a further example of this ancient, long-lived oddity. (William Wyman Fiske, “The Whipple Family of Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire,” The Genealogist, vol. 20, no. 2, [Fall 2006] pp. 191-217). (Surnames. Behind the Names.Com. 1 October, 2011). (Nicknamestees, origins, meanings, and (A Comprehensive Genealogy of the Thayer Family of America, The Thayer Families Association, Vol. 1, and others).

Such was the state of research on Sarah’s identity as I initially began a more in-depth study of possible later Rhode Island primary sources. Antiquarian researchers may, in time, unveil other credible claimants, or perhaps eventually prove the certitude of a different woman whose putative identity has already been affirmed. If so, unimpeachable use of bibliographic raw data, and thus unassailable evidence to her identity will have been the ultimate test. Similar attestations have been iterated and reiterated by researchers for a century or more.

“You definitely need primary sources for this research because there is so much confusion and erroneous information out there now. I agree with your conclusions these Sarahs are hopelessly mixed up. The primary sources are just not there. She appears in some places as Sarah Theyer Darling Whipple. … The Hutchinson Sarahs have no primary sources of documentation, either. Because Massachusetts probates are the only primary source that appeared not to have been examined, I looked and found a database for Massachusetts wills and probate records, 1635-1991, but with negligible results. Since we have already looked for original birth and marriage records for all of Massachusetts, I cannot think of anything else other than a random manuscript in some archive somewhere.” (Correspondence from Barbara Carroll,, 28 January 2021.)
“The authority on pre-1640 families is, of course, Robert Charles Anderson, chief editor of the ‘Great Migration Begins’ and ‘Great Migration’ series from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He treats the John Whipple you are mentioning in The Great Migration Begins, Vol. 3, pgs. 1970-1974. His 2015 re-indexing of his many works does not cite any further information about John Whipple. He is really the authority; he cites Sarah with no known last name. There is not much to be hoped from local researchers. If the problem were a person from 100 years later, say, passing in 1766, there is always the chance I could come upon an obscure reference that hadn’t been seen before. But for a person passing away in 1666, there will be little else to find. Available sources would have been known and studied by Dr. Anderson and his associates. You mentioned Thayer, Darling, and Hutchinson; these are common names in Rhode Island. I suspect if Robert Charles Anderson gave any weight to those names, he would have included one of them in his sketches, but he didn’t. … I think your plan for further research is to go carefully through early records of Dorchester. … These clues should be combined with physical closeness of any possible family to John Whipple’s known property.” (ibid, Boumenot).

As evidenced below, the above recommendations proved regnant; consequently, an endeavor was made to follow up on an appreciably later, previously unrecognized Rhode Island primary source, especially in that her listed surname approximated that of Sarah Theyer, as well as involved descendants of my lineal ancestor, Eleazer Whipple. (Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, Chicago, J.H. Beers & Company, 1908, III: 1676-1677). Sarah’s surname identified as “They” appears on the first line at the top of page 1677. Eleazer, great grandson of Captain John Whipple, had three sons: Jesse who is my lineal ancestor; Eleazer Jr, and Joseph, whose line continues the article. Joseph’s grandson, Benjamin, 5th great grandson of Sarah, was the interviewee. The interviewer went to considerable effort to assure the reader that, “Mr. [Benjamin] Whipple, although past his eighty-seventh year is very active, and in possession of all his faculties.” In so insisting it appears that he credited him with Methuselah like cerebral abilities few senior citizens possess. The Whipple brothers were prosperous, respected lumbermen and vintners from Cumberland township.

I confronted several genealogists as to the feasibility that, “Is it not likely that the interviewee, after 200 plus years, simply was forced to rely on archaic, fallible, familial memory that failed to recall the ‘er’ or, perhaps the interviewer or editor misunderstood.” Early on I questioned the Whipple webmaster, “Would it not be reasonable to at least consider that a wayward ‘er’ had intruded during this two-hundred year hiatus? Surely, if the family had not become victim to the inherent vicissitudes of generational amnesia, and had quoted the name Theyer in the first place, the issue of Sarah’s identity would not have arisen. Even if it cannot be proved that Theyer was intended, would it not then be prudent to acclaim that They was Sarah’s actual surname?”

That the Theyer/Thayer and Whipple families lived in adjacent proximity in Dorchester and Braintree, Massachusetts has been shown. Among others, a Richard Thayer family owned property next to the Neponset River, as did John Whipple. (The Vinton Memorial, Comprising a genealogy of the descendants of John Vinton of Lynn, 1648, also genealogical sketches of several allied families, by John Vinton, Boston, S.K. Whipple and Company, 1858, 355-57). Perhaps John and Sarah’s first meeting took place on the banks of the ancient Neponset River. Richard, and his near relative, Joseph, are considered to be the founders of the Thayer/Theyer families in America. Furthermore, recall that Whipple families dwelt in Essex County, England, for many generations, thus conceivably could have early on been acquainted with the Thayer family even in Old England.

“The first of this name to arrive in this country were Richard and Thomas and their families. They were among the first Massachusetts colonies and came from Braintree, county of Essex, England, in 1630, settling in Massachusetts, where they commemorated their old home by naming the settlement Braintree. … The family was distinguished in England having been granted a coat of arms. … The spelling of the name varied at different times and appears as Thaire, Thyer, Thaer, Theye, Theyer “We next find a coat of arms conferred on Augustine Thayer of Thaydome, a small village in the county of Essex, about 18 miles north of London. We also know that our ancestors when coming to this country chose their residence in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1630, or thereabouts. …” (Representative Men,1:261). (The Thayer Family of Brockworth: According to the Researches of Reverend Canon William Bazeley, Luis Thayer Ojeda, 1907, pgs. 5-6). (Memorial to the Thayer Name, from the Massachusetts Colony of Weymouth and Braintree, Embracing Genealogical and Bibliographical Sketches of Richard and Thomas Thayer and their Descendants from 1636 to 1894, Bazaleel Thayer, 1874, IV).

As noted above, the Thayer name emerges in several languages, so it was to be expected that Thayer/Theyer families are shown in history to have been exceptionally peripatetic; having moved out into various other continents by the fifteen hundreds. Thomas and Richard are shown to have been in Brockworth, Gloucester, England, by 1601. They had moved to Braintree, Massachusetts by the 1630s and 1640s. Among Thomas’ descendants was a John Theyer who on 8 January, 1624-25 had his daughter, Sarah Theyer, baptized in Brockworth Cathedral. (The Thayer Family of Brockworth, pg. 33). Sarah’s putative great uncle was John. And in the conflict between king and parliament, he fought as a royalist Catholic. His estate was sequestrated. His family became near destitute. (Wikipedia, John Thayer, 1597-1673). Perhaps this led, in some measure, to Sarah’s penurious plight as described in her admittance record to the church at Dorchester in 1641.

What was the reason the wayward “er” got omitted in the late 19th century Cumberland interview? Could it be that it was not wayward to begin with and They was Sarah’s surname. Subsequent to an inquiry of genealogist friends as to its regnance in early New England, I was assured that it was rare, but not non-existent when spelled in that specific way. Colonial American history and etymology professors at my university mostly concluded that its presence could be, and likely was, a simple communication error, and that a different name was intended, particularly if pronounced with a long “e” vowel and the usual sound heard in the indefinite pronoun, they. If this be sustained then They or Theyer could assuredly be her surname, irrespective of those issues raised herein; my distant cousin simply needing more practice in enunciation, or the interviewer needed a new hearing aid—this illation perhaps once again affirming the usefulness of Occam’s Razor.

In summation, it is the attestation of this treatise that the Whipple website, and Whipples the world over, could have finally found Sarah, whose maiden name likely is Theyer. The word “likely” is used advisedly in that the evidence for the Sarah traced herein has, assuredly, proven to be credible if not decisive, despite being the enigmatical puzzle a few researchers have made it to appear. Moreover, the research methodology utilized herein may not have provided all those safe-guards thought to create a robust degree of consensual validation required to provide the unassailable verity encouraged by the genealogy profession. Though some well-intentioned, irreproachable authorities may disagree, I have become sanguine enough to believe that the collaborative effort of further highly trained certified professionals, like those cited herein, will eventually come to the same, or similar, agreed upon consensus, considering that decades of anecdotal and theoretical research has proven to be of no use what-so-ever in solving the mystery of the missing name on the wayward marriage certificate of 1638. In the meantime, I am inclined to aver that the “They” incident of 1908 was not venial human error but prescient, considering that the name They could stand on its own, or as a close variant of the Theyer name. Most assuredly, I wish I had been there in person to witness that long ago seminal conversation between my Cumberland cousin and his biographer—a conversation that helped solve a near 400-year old mystery.

Fellow antiquarian researchers are yet encouraged to continue to hope that your own research will eventually lead to final reconciliation. But in the meantime, until such elusive closure has been achieved, let us continue to avoid the ubiquitous “curse of the family genealogist” by refusing to make that ineludible giant inferential leap from mere hope to reality. Responses are solicited.

Dr. Charles M. Whipple
Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Philosophy
University of Central Oklahoma