The First Cannon Hill

Firing a cannon on the Fourth of July is a long-time tradition – a celebration that predates the parades and fireworks of today.  This past winter, in reviewing the archive of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society’s monthly Bulletin, I came across an article that Mary Stubbs Magenau wrote as she was researching her grandfather’s land ownership.  She wrote about South Wellfleet’s Major John Witherell, a Revolutionary War veteran, on whose hill the cannon was fired, a tradition for some time until it was moved across Blackfish Creek.  I’d forgotten we had a Cannon Hill on the south side of Blackfish Creek until Erick Eastman casually mentioned it at dinner one evening last month.  That single remark helped me locate Major Witherell’s property, and that helped me to better understand Mrs. Magenau’s article.

Our Cannon Hill is to the left of Old Wharf Road as it turns into a sand road, and with its tree cover is less conspicuous as a hill than it appeared years ago.  Other than Mrs. Magenau’s remark about the cannon, there is no proof that this happened – in fact, she learned about it from her uncle. Nevertheless, we can imagine that Major Witherell would oversee such an activity as it celebrated his generation’s victory in the Revolutionary War.  The Major came from a family that had left England soon after the settlement at Plymouth, arriving in Duxbury in the 1600s. The first colonial Witherell became the pastor of the Second Church in Scituate. A few generations later, they were in Eastham where the Major was born in 1753.

As a young man, Major Witherell joined the Sea Coast Defense, the colonists’ solution to the lack of a navy. Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Barnstable County authorities took measures to secure all boats that could be of use to the enemy, hiding them when and wherever they could.  In June and July 1775, Wellfleet organized Captain Joseph Smith’s Seacoast Company of militia, and they were stationed there until the middle of 1776. After February 1776, they marched to Truro — which had called for more help — joining another company already located there. Witherell was a Sergeant when he first joined, according to his pension application. Another source indicates he was a First Lieutenant when he served the Seacoast Defense in 1780. I have not found any record proving that he became a Major, but from the records in Wellfleet recording the births of his children, he was listed as “Major Witherell.”

The Seacoast Defense was involved after the stranding of the British ship Somerset in November, 1778, off Truro, north of the Clay Pounds. This is the ship whose wreckage is still exposed from time to time, first recorded in 1885,and again in 1973. There were nearly 500 prisoners taken off the ship who had to be marched to Boston and fed along the way. The Wellfleet Historical Society possesses one of its cannonballs.

In September 1778, Witherell participated in a march to Falmouth along with many Wellfleet men, in response to the needs there, but their time of service was limited to just two days, when the enemy turned to Martha’s Vineyard to harass the coast.

Major Witherell married Azubah Gross in 1775. They lost four of their children at young ages, but three daughters survived into adulthood. Major Witherell’s brother, Whitfield, was an upstanding Wellfleet citizen also, and the Witherell family had a presence in South Wellfleet throughout the 19th Century.

According to Mrs. Magenau’s research, Major Witherell purchased his land, a homestead, and other buildings from Ezekiel Harding in 1789. Major Witherell married Ruth Arey Wiley in 1822, two years after his first wife died, and after Ruth’s first husband, David Wiley, had died. They were neighbors in South Wellfleet.  In his old age, Major Witherell lived with Ruth and his daughter Betsy, who was married to Simeon Smith. Another daughter, Polly, who had married Samuel Smith, lived nearby.

In September 1831, Major Witherell sold a portion of his coastal land to Leonard Battelle, Robert Little, and Richard Arey, the land that later became the South Wharf and its stores.  After Major Witherell died in 1838, his wife Ruth sold other pieces of his estate to settle his debts. She died in 1844.

The cannon that came to be located on the north side of Blackfish Creek — on the Cannon Hill that once belonged to Captain Isaiah Hatch — was described by one local historian as belonging to a British warship that wrecked on the backside during the War of 1812. We do not know if this was Major Witherell’s cannon.  The other “Cannon Hill” is the topic of many stories of the Wellfleet boys from the north part of town who stole the South Wellfleet cannon presumably for their Cannon Hill near Uncle Tim’s Bridge. The cannon was recovered later by the South Wellfleet boys. It was buried at one point early in the 20th Century. The living relative who knew the burial spot revealed it in time for the Bicentennial when it was officially presented to the Town and installed on the Town Hall lawn.

Sources

Mary Stubbs Magenau “A Vignette of Wellfleet History” Cape Cod Genealogical Society Bulletin VOL XIV no 2, page 37.

Elizabeth L. Cole, “Wellfleet Soldiers and Sailors of The Revolutionary War” Wellfleet Bicentennial Committee, 1976 (paper held by the Wellfleet Public Library).

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us.

Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org.

R.E. Rickmers, Wellfleet Remembered Volume 6, Blue Butterfly Publications, Wellfleet, Mass. 1986.

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About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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8 Responses to The First Cannon Hill

  1. Susan Stahl says:

    This is fascinating stuff, and beautifully written. I hope you are reading the replies, because I’m wondering if you might be able to help me figure out whether or not I have 3 portraits of the Witherell family.

    I have 3 painted portraits given to me by my parents. They aren’t signed but resemble those of the Prior-Hamblin school in style and framing. They appear to be mother, father, and son. They were given to my mother by her parents, Harold and Ruth Downing of Hingham, MA. My grandfather, Harold Downing, purchased property from the Kemps on Long Pond in Wellfleet in 1939, which has been my family’s summer residence since that time.

    These portraits were given to my grandfather by an undertaker named Bill Martin of Braintree. He told my grandfather that they were portraits of the Witherell family of Wellfleet, MA. My mom thinks that Mr. Martin knew of my grandfather’s interest in Wellfleet and gave him these portraits to thank him for helping him out in his funeral business over the years (my grandfather also operated a funeral home).

    Any suggestions of where I might be able to find other information?

    • Hi Susan,

      Nice to hear from you about an interesting “problem!” When I researched Major John Witherell for my article about Cannon Hill, I discovered that Wellfleet had LOTS of Witherells, so your portraits could be of any one of their number. Given the style, do you think they could be dated to pre-1850? — that might narrow the field. Also, I wonder if a portrait at that time meant a certain economic or social status?
      I did find a Benjamin Witherell in Wellfleet (his grandfather was a brother of Major John Witherell) — he died in 1849 (born in 1815), and a death notice I found for him noted that he was an “Esquire” and that he was a representative to the Massachusetts Legislature for four years. I noticed his name on many deeds, and I was curious about him, so took some time to figure out who he was. Could that have been a reason to have a portrait?

      Also, when I was looking at the Witherell family, I found a book in the NY Public Library, and. luckily, copied down the following which might give you another lead:

      History and Genealogy of the Witherell/Wetherell/Witherill Family of New England
      Some Descendants of Rev William Witherell (ca. 1600-1684 of Scituate, Plymouth Colony, and William Witherell (ca. 1627-1691) of Taunton, Plymouth Colony.
      Compiled by Peter Charles Witherell, Ph..D. and Edwin Ralph Witherell, B.B.
      Gateway Press Inc., Baltimore 1976

      Peter C. Witherell, 1 Highland Drive, Hamilton, Illinois 62341
      Edwin Ralph Witherell, 710 Cedar Village Drive, York, PA 17402

      Have you found evidence that there is a family association for the Witherells? I have found these for a number of other Cape families with roots in the 1600’s.

      I’ve had some contact with the Wellfleet Historical Society —- David Wright, who works there part-time, will be helpful if he can. His email address is langrite@verizon.net.

      Hope this helps — let me know what you find!

      Best,
      Pam
      P.S. either this address or pamtice372@gmail.com

    • Hi Susan,

      Another blog reader sent a message to me to give to you … here it is! You’ll see his contact information there …

      In reply to Susan Stahl… Eunice Rich Kemp, daughter of Wells Emory Kemp and Huldah Bacon, married William Witherell of Wellfleet, Oct 18, 1846, they both died in or near Boston. William was a g-grandson of William and Mary, john’s parents. (William, son of Benjamin Rich Witherell, son of William Witherell, brother of Major John Witherell.)
      Several years ago, I helped a Boston couple track down the owner of a house that they had bought.. it had been owned by Nancy K. Witherell, daughter of William and Eunice (Kemp) Witherell. She had been buried in Wellfleet, and apparently never married.
      I can be reached at Leggiero2@frontier.com if anyone has any information, or if I can help in any way.

      Tom Wetherell

  2. Pam:

    another reply:
    I have been researching the witherell/wetherell families for many years and began my work with the excellent compliations done by Peter and Edwin Witherell.. (I had found some mistakes in the information they had been given about my branch and wished to correct it, so 30 years later….)
    I can possibly help the young lady with the paintings.. as I have an extensive list of witherells in wellfleet, but I noted an interesting statement in your article.
    You said that one of his sons lived to adulthood, but I do not have a record of any of his sons surviving that long…. do you know which one he was???
    Secondly, in reply to Susan Stahl… Eunice Rich Kemp, daughter of Wells Emory Kemp and Huldah Bacon, married William Witherell of Wellfleet, Oct 18, 1846, they both died in or near Boston. William was a g-grandson of William and Mary, john’s parents. (William, son of Benjamin Rich Witherell, son of William Witherell, brother of Major John Witherell.)
    Several years ago, I helped a Boston couple track down the owner of a house that they had bought.. it had been owned by Nancy K. Witherell, daughter of William and Eunice (Kemp) Witherell. She had been buried in Wellfleet, and apparently never married.
    I can be reached at Leggiero2@frontier.com if anyone has any information, or if I can help in any way.

    Tom Wetherell

    • Hi Tom,

      Can you give me further information on the question you have about the son? I’m not sure which of my statements you are speaking about.

      I sent your message on to the woman with the paintings — let me know if you hear from her!

      Pam

      • Tom Wetherell says:

        PAM
        you made a comment that one of the sons of Major John Witherell and Azuba Gross lived to adulthood…. I was wondering which one it was..

        tom

  3. Hi Tom,
    I did make that comment and I have gone over my notes to see what prompted it. You are right — their children all died, except the three daughters, Polly, Sally and Betsy. I may have not looked at the son WIlliam carefully and thought he made it to adulthood. Sorry about that —- you may have thought you had a new leaf on your family tree! Did you hear back from the woman with the paintings?

    Pam

    • Tom Wetherell says:

      Pam:
      thanks for clearing that up… I have not heard from the lady with the paintings…
      I do have a fairly large file on the witherells of that area if you ever need reference.
      yep, I thought I might have a new leaf…
      tom

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