John Vargason to America

Following is the story of John Vargason, who lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts 1650-56.  He may or may not be the progenitor of this Vargason family in America, although the story is compelling.  To add him to the family tree, it will be necessary to fill in the next 70 years to discover whether or not the following generations connect him to John Vargason of Norwich, Connecticut, and his descendants as described in the Vargason Lineage from 1726 onward. 

John Vargason was a lad in Scotland, born perhaps around 1630-35.  Between 1642 and 1651, the British Isles were enmeshed in three English Civil Wars, pitting royalists against parliamentarians.  “Following Parliamentary victory in the first and the second Civil Wars, Charles I had been executed in January 1649 and a Commonwealth declared in England. In June 1650 his son landed in Scotland, where he was proclaimed King Charles II. In July the English Parliament, expecting Charles to initiate a Scottish led campaign for the English crown, launched a pre-emptive invasion of Scotland.” (UK Battlefields Trust.  UK Battlefields Resource Center.  Retrieved from, 8 May 2014.)

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow. From

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow.

Under the command of Oliver Cromwell, an army was sent from England to Scotland, crossing the border July 22, 1650.  The Scots had hastily raised an army commanded by professional soldier and excellent strategist Sir David Leslie.  John Vargason was a soldier in this army.  Commander Leslie avoided conflict and led Cromwell’s army around Scotland.  He used a “scorched earth” policy, which forced Cromwell to obtain his supplies from England.  By early September, Cromwell’s army, demoralized and suffering weakness and illness, withdrew to Dunbar, the port to which their supplies were delivered.  The Scots had a commanding position atop a hill overlooking Dunbar, but, the story is that, because it was a Sunday, church officials told Leslie not to break the Sabbath with battle.  So, he waited and began moving his army down the hill on September 2, losing his advantage.  On September 3, Cromwell attacked and won an overwhelming victory in this Battle of Dunbar.

Over 3,000 Scots were killed, and 10,000 were taken as prisoners.  “Of the 10,000 captured, half were released immediately due to their wounds or sickness. Not wanting the others to join up with Leslie and rearm, the rest were marched 118 miles south to Durham with the aim of sending them to the American colonies as labour. Given little food or medical help, and prisoners who tried to escape offered no quarter, only 3,000 staggered into Durham on the 10th of September. Once there, the food intended for the prisoners was stolen and sold by their guards so that two months later, only 1,400 were still alive. Of these, 900 were sent to the colonies and 500 indentured to fight in the French army.”  (Beck, Steve.  The Battle of Dunbar.  Military History Online.  Retrieved from dunbar.aspx, May 9, 2014.)

The first group of 150 prisoners of war sent to the American colonies was deported on November 11, 1650, on the ship, Unity.  They arrived in Massachusetts Bay in early 1651.  Although there was not a list made (at least, not one that remains) of the Scottish prisoners aboard this ship, the following website contains solid research piecing together their names: I believe that John Ferguson on this list is John Vargason of Ipswich.  (We know that the Gaelic Scottish burr, unfamiliar to English ears, caused their names to be Anglicized.  In addition, remember that spelling was phonetic and not standardized until about 1755, so don’t be thrown by the various spellings of Vargason throughout this post.)

About 60 of the 150 prisoners were put to work in the Saugus Ironworks in Saugus, Massachusetts.  Another group of about 25 was sent to Berwick, Maine, to work in the sawmills.  The rest were sold for 20-30 pounds apiece to anyone willing to pay the price.

We know from the following Ipswich Court Records and Files from 1654 that John Vargason/Vargison was indentured to (probably Richard) Jacob, an early settler and wealthy landowner who often retained servants.

John Vargison indenture Ipswich MA.crop

Photo by B. Sugden

Photo by B. Sugden

Richard Jacob arrived in America in 1634.  In the 1650’s, he had a houselot in town on Bridge Street, 40 acres of upland and meadow on the northwest side of the river, 12 acres of meadow at the West Meadows, 10 acres of upland at the Reedy Marsh, and one other houselot near Mill Street.  The photo to the left shows one of the parcels lying just outside Ipswich, as it looks today.  It is supposed that John Vargason worked as an indentured servant on this or similar property.

By 1656, John Vargason/ffargason had a contract with the Village of Ipswich as “one of them that keep the cow herd on the north side of the river.”    The meeting notes appear on page 102 of the Massachusetts Town and Vital Records in handwriting that is unfortunately difficult to read.

I decipher the notes as follows:

13 March 1656        (27 April 1656)

Agreed with John ffargason for one of them that keep the cow herd on the north side of the river to have 12 s per week for his wages to begin the keeping the 27 of April to go out with them at half an hour after sunrise and bring them in at half an hour before sunset to have 12 s per head at their going out and 6 s per head at the latter end of June in butter or wheat and the rest of their pay at the end of their time whereof 1/2 peck of wheat for every head and for all those cows that go above one m? to pay half and above two m? the whole pay provided always they approve themselves to the yeomen to the faithful discharge of their trust and if any shall not pay within 6? days after demand to pay 6 s in every head more the demand being at the house for keeping in the Spring and on the Lord’s days as form only to take the cows at Mr. Robert Paynes.                                                                                                                The mark of John ffargason

Agreed with Marke Quilhers? to join with John forrgason in keeping the herd on the north side of the river on like terms.  Indian corn to be paid at 2 s.

By July 1656, it appears that young John, as was the case for many of the Scottish indentured servants by now, turned to thoughts of love.  Just two doors away from Richard Jacob on Bridge Street lived Thomas French and his family.  His daughter Sarah played a major role in the next, and last known, phase of John Vargason’s life.

From the Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Volume II, 1656-1662, are the following entries:

Capture 1

Capture 2

Capture 3

While whipping seems like harsh punishment, it was the norm of the day, and the court records are full of similar incidents.  Nothing more is known of Sarah French, and she does not appear in her father’s will in 1680, possibly indicating that she had died or been disowned!  I have found no further information in the Ipswich records concerning John Vargason, and it is likely that, at the conclusion of his indenture, soon to be completed, he moved onward.  The search continues.









Searching for John Vargason in Quebec

Somewhere on the Internet, in a discussion about an early John Vargason, it is written that, “My cousin told me that in Quebec she was shown the grave of the first man buried in the oldest cemetery there.  It was of a sea captain who died in the harbor.”  As far as I know, this statement has never been investigated, so, on a recent trip to Quebec City, I explored the early cemeteries there.  (Quebec, of course, is a province, and a very big one, at that.  I believe that Quebec has been interpreted as Quebec City by most family researchers adopting the above statement as fact.)

I visited the four oldest cemeteries in the city, according to my research, to see what I could find:

vargason blog quebec cross1)  The Cote de la Montagne Cemetery in Old Quebec is called the “first Quebec City cemetery” by the “Official Tourist Guide 2013-2014” for Quebec City and Area, published by Tourisme Quebec.  This cemetery was in use from 1608-1670.  The graves are marked by one simple cross today.  Information Centre representatives told me that there is no list of names of those buried there.

vargason blog quebec sillery monument2)  The Indian Cemetery at the Maison des Jesuites de Sillery contains a monument and wooden crosses to honor the unnamed who are buried here.  This was the cemetery of the first Jesuit mission, founded to convert First Nations people.

Vargason blog quebec hospital cemetery3)  The Quebec General Hospital Cemetery is the burial ground of over one thousand soldiers, sailors, and Canadian militias of Montcalm’s army.  It is very small, 150 feet x 250 feet, and is still in use today.  Large plaques list the names of some of those buried here.  There is no one by the name of Vargason in any of its variant forms included on the plaques.

vargason blog quebec st matthews4)  St. Matthew’s Cemetery was in use from 1771 to 1860.  It contains the oldest preserved tombstone in Canada, that of Alexander Cameron, an officer of the 78th Fraser Highlanders who died in 1759, before the cemetery actually began.  The protestant St. Matthew’s Church has been turned into a library, and in the library is a book called Les Cimetieres de Quebec by Pierre-Georges Roy, published in Levis in 1941.  It lists the graves in this cemetery.  Although there are many sea captains buried here, none has a name resembling Vargason.

If any reader has further information concerning a Quebec connection to the Vargason’s, I would like to hear from you.

A Book by Mr. Pemberton

Along with the table, barrel, pails, kettles, and spoons, John Vargason’s will (see post of May 22, 2013) shows that he owned two books, the Bible and a “book by Mr. Pemberton.”  Just as one might peruse the bookshelf of a friend to learn about his/her interests, I have been curious about the Pemberton book to learn a bit about John Vargason.

There were several books at the time written by people with the last name of Pemberton.  Israel Pemberton, a Quaker, espoused pacifist views and was opposed to fighting Britain in the Revolutionary War.  (I expect that this was not John’s view, because both of his sons participated in the war effort.)

Israel’s son, James Pemberton, supported the rights of the Native Americans, and, in 1757, published “An Apology for the People Called Quakers, containing some reasons for their not complying with human injunctions and institutions in matters relative to the worship of God.”  (At this time, I do not know of a Vargason connection to the Quaker faith.  This book also sounds a bit scholarly for the second text in one’s home.)

Ebenezer Pemberton, 1672-1717, was pastor to a Presbyterian church in New York City for 26 years and at Old South Church in Boston from 1700-1717.  Some of his sermons were published.  (This, too, sounds scholarly for this household, unless there was some connection to this minister.  Perhaps he visited the church in Norwich, or John’s pastor presented it as a gift.)

There was a New Testament by Pemberton and Rivington published in 1730.  (I expect that this would have been referred to in the will inventory as the New Testament, not a book by Mr. Pemberton.)

Pemberton book

Mr. Pemberton’s book

Finally, there was a book by Henry Pemberton, A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, published in 1728.  It was the common man’s Principia, a book by Sir Isaac Newton, which introduced the concepts of physics and calculus.  According to, it was in this book that Dr. Pemberton first told the famous story of Newton watching the apple fall and discovering the principle of gravity.

(I am guessing that this was the book in John Vergison’s will.   “In this book Pemberton tried to give an insight into Newton’s model in an easily comprehensible language to a broader readership.  The book was an immediate success; it was published in several editions and translated into various languages,” according to moneymuseum’s webpage.  This would have been a sound and popular reference book of its day.)

Having such a book in the home might indicate that some or all of the household members were literate enough to read the text and that John was interested in furthering his education or that of his children or grandchildren with the latest scientific knowledge.

John Vargason’s Will

John Vergason/Vergison/Vargason, who died February 23, 1782, left a will.  This document is important for many reasons, but primarily because it documents that he was the father of Ezekiel Vargason.  And, that allows us to confidently record another generation in our family tree.  The Vargason Lineage page will be updated soon with this information.

John Vergison's signature

John Vergison’s signature

In his will, recorded in Norwich, Connecticut, he names his “loving wife Hannah” as well as his children:  John, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, Thankfull, Anna, and Martha.  The children are probably named in birth order by gender.

In the will written December 9, 1777, he bequeathed to his grandson Elijah Simons, son of his daughter Anna Simons, ten acres of land and  the remainder of his estate after debts were paid and other bequests were made–on condition that “Elijah shall continue to live and dwell with me until he shall arrive to the age of twenty-one years.”  No doubt a disappointed grandfather, in a codicil dated January 26, 1782, he withdrew this bequest, because “Elijah did not fulfill said conditions, but did leave me and depart, and cease to dwell with me.”

Following John’s death, an inventory of his goods was taken on March 8, 1782.  Shown below, it includes what is probably a fairly typical list of household items for his day.

Inventory from will

Inventory of John Vergison’s goods