Mary Rowlett (ca. 1678-1746)

Notes by Russell J. Rowlett, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Mary Rowlett was the only surviving daughter of Peter Rowlett (ca. 1639-1701), a farmer who owned 160 acres on the Appomattox River near the mouth of Old Town Creek in Henrico County, Virginia. Since 1749, the area has been in the southern part of Chesterfield County, and today it is inside the city limits of Colonial Heights. In his will, dated December 4, 1701, Peter specified, "All the rest of my Estate whatsoever I give after my debts and funerall Expenses be paid and Defraid I give and bequeath unto my Children Peter Wm and Mary to be equally shared and Divided amongst them."

This is the only definite reference to Mary Rowlett, but there is evidence that she married twice, had many children, and died in 1746. These notes describe her life, or rather the life suggested by the scattered records that survive from the early eighteenth century.

For reasons to be mentioned later, it appears that Mary Rowlett was probably born about 1678, which would make her younger than her brothers Peter and William. We know Peter was born about 1673, and William was probably born around 1676. Like many girls in Virginia, she married early, probably about 1696 when she would have been 18 years old. Her husband was named Henry Wilson.

It seems that Henry had started a new plantation on 130 acres of land on the bank of the Appomattox next door to Peter Rowlett's plantation. The land was owned by Henry's father, John Wilson. On November 1, 1706, John deeded the land to his son. The deed reads as follows:

John Wilson the elder, of Bristol Parish, Henrico Co., to my son Henry Wilson, the plantation where he now liveth, on Appomattox River, bounded by Capt. George Worsham, Peter Rowlet, and George Wilson, 130 acres, also 100 acres on Swift Creek upon Simons Run, being part of my tract there, next to Maj. Feild [sic], Mr. Francis Epes and Philip Jones.

The Wilsons prospered here, and Henry and Mary had at least nine children, six sons (William, Henry, Richard, Thomas, George, and Stephen) and three daughters (Mary, Anne, and Martha). If they named sons John and Peter, as one might expect, those children apparently did not survive.

Henry's father, John Wilson, made his will on October 24, 1716. When it was recorded in Henrico County Court, on February 4 of the following year, the men appointed to inventory the estate were George Worsham and Mary's two brothers, Peter and William Rowlett.

Like the Rowletts, the Wilsons belonged to the established church at Bristol Parish. One of the two crucial records in reconstructing Mary Rowlett's life is an entry in the parish's register:

Stevens son of ye decd: Hen: Wilson & Mary his relict [widow] born 15th septr last bapt octobr 8th 1721.

"Stevens" is undoubtedly Stephen, Henry and Mary's youngest son. The entry implies that Henry Wilson died in the spring or summer of 1721, leaving his pregnant wife with a large family to raise. Since she was carrying what would be their ninth surviving child, they had been married a long time, probably about 25 years, and Mary was probably near the end of her child-bearing years. These considerations give us the approximate dates for Mary's birth and marriage mentioned above. Almost certainly Henry Wilson would have left a will, but unfortunately the Henrico County will book covering the period between July 1718 and February 1726 does not survive.

We don't know how long Mary waited before remarrying. Most widows didn't wait very long, if they had young children as Mary did. Her second husband was Thomas Frost. He seems to have been a newcomer to the neighborhood, and as far as we know he had no children of his own.

Thomas Frost died in the winter of 1743-44, but apparently he left no will. At the court session in early March 1744 his widow Mary was granted administration of his estate, with Mary's son Stephen Wilson and Richard Walthall posting her bond. The inventory was carried out by Peter Rowlett and Henry's brother George Wilson along with two neighbors, William Worsham and Essex Worsham.

Widow Frost made her own will on August 12, 1746, and it was probated at the October court session. This document, the other crucial record in understanding her life, is one of the few wills filed by women in colonial Chesterfield County. The witness signatures on the will are those of Mary's brother Peter and his two sons Joseph and William Rowlett. Stephen Wilson did the inventory by himself on October 6.

Mary had no land to leave, but she listed her nine surviving children. She gave livestock to her sons William and Richard, and furniture to her daughter Anne Whitehall. She left a token shilling, as was the custom, to her sons Henry, Thomas, and George and her daughters Mary Farlow and Martha Wilson. Everything else went to Stephen.

One last note: several sources, including John W. Pritchett's influential web site http://www.virginians.com, have claimed that Mary Rowlett married Francis Coleman. The Bristol Parish Register lists the births of several childen of Francis and Mary Coleman between 1721 and 1733. It is extremely unlikely that this Mary Coleman was born Mary Rowlett; Mary Rowlett would have been in her fifties by 1733 under any reasonable calculation.

Latest update February 19, 2003