go to Esther Mellen's page
One of James and Esther's great grandsons wrote down what he knew of his Shafter ancestors. Being about 100 to 120 years after the earliest events, allowance should be made for the corruptions that always occur in oral history, either for benign reasons or by embellishment. The writer was William R. Shafter of Townshend, CT, in 1857, and what follows is his account(1)
The Shafters originated in western England. The mother of James was Welsh. They sailed to Boston and died when their two children were young. They had used all their money to come to Massachusetts and had no estate to pass on when they died. The children were sent to an almshouse, where a Framingham farmer asked for James for farm labor. The siblings were distraught at being separated and the farmer agreed to take them both. James and Molly Shafter lived with the farmer until they married, James at about 19 or 20 years old. James and his wife stayed in the household until he was 21, then moved to his own farm. He had his first five children before moving to Richmond, New Hampshire. There he had three more. "He was a man of medium height, closely knit together, of high temper and indomitable perseverance." About 7 or 8 years later he was killed by a falling tree. "The eldest girls were then put out to places where they could support themselves, and Simon remained at home and took care of his mother and some of the younger children." James was sent to live with Mr. Dodge, but abuse led to him being taken and placed with Deacon Jewett. Eventually he was in a third home (John Alexander of Winchester). Molly married a man named Chubb and moved to Vermont [he jumps back a generation here, referring to James, Sr.'s, sister]. Lois, the oldest daughter, married John White and settled in Weathersfield. They had three sons and several daughters, one of whom married a Mr. Haskel. The other children married as follows: Mollie to Ellis Thayer, settled in Brookline, Vermont. Esther married to Benjamin Thrasher and settled in Athens, Vermont. Lydia married Enoch Phylips and settled in Essex, New York. Prudence married Jeremiah Bowers and remained in Richmond. Charity married Jabez Whipple and settled in Athens. Simon was a soldier in the Revolution and died at Valley Forge of smallpox. James, Jr., was also in the Revolution. He married and settled in Athens. James, Sr., and Esther were buried in Winchester, NH.(2)
Much of what William Shafter wrote is either verifiable or can be supported by circumstance. Shafter was surely a made-up name, perhaps the children's interpretation of their real name. Shafter doesn't appear in any other records researched in the US or Europe before 1751, when James married. There is a German surname Schafter/Schaefter, but James is an unlikely first name for the child of a German couple. Edmund Slafter suggested that James was a son of John Slafter of Lynn, MA and Willington, CT. John's son Benjamin left his property at his death to his nine brothers and sisters, and only nine children are ascribed to John. That suggests a tenth and otherwise unknown child. The similarity of the names was undoubtedly what led to this speculation, but the theory is very far-fetched, and there is no credible evidence to support it. Beside that, James was very likely born about 1730, leaving no possibility that he was a son of John Slafter.
William Shafter says that the farmer took both children out of charity, despite his limited means. No record has been found of an almshouse at Framingham. James and Molly's parents may have lived in Framingham, and the farmer took the children in directly after the elder Shafters died. There would have been no official guardianship record unless the parents owned real estate or the children inherited something of value in their parents' or someone else's estate. James was the ward of the farmer up to and after his marriage, so in order to meet a girl living in Oxford, which is not near Framingham, the farmer must have moved there or to a neighboring town. James was legally a minor when he married, but his wife Esther Mellen was 27. It was unusual for a woman to be that much older than her husband in the 18th century, especially for a first marriage. The space between the marriage intentions of James and Esther and the birth of their first child was only 4 months.
The most logical conclusion is that Esther's father was the adoptive farmer. The Mellens lived in Framingham before moving to Oxford at a time when James was a boy. He would then be living in the same house as Esther, and therein lies an ideal opportunity for them to conceive a child. Although it can't be proved, it makes sense that they continued to live with the Mellens until he came of age and could go out on his own.
James and Esther began their family in Oxford and had three, maybe four children there. They moved to Dudley, Massachusetts, by July of 1758, when the family was warned out of town. This usually indicates someone was at risk of needing support from the town, but were still there long enough for two more children were baptized. The last reference found to this family in Massachusetts was in May of 1762. James was abated the tax on residents to repair the meeting house, confirming the idea that he was very poor. A Richmond, New Hampshire, history says that James had property in the northwest part of town and the marriages of several of his daughters appear in Richmond records.(3) He wasn't among the freeholders in Richmond who voted at the town's first municipal meeting in 1765, although this could mean he simply didn't attend the meeting. The first documented date of the Shafter's being in Richmond, if the record does exist, is the marriage of Mary Shafter in 1774. Deed records have yet to be researched, however. Winchester is next to Richmond, making their burial there reasonable, especially if they lived near the border of the two towns and the Winchester cemetery was the closest to them.
Eventually the name "McMellen" made it's way into the family history. It hasn't been found when this was first in print, but it has been subsequently repeated. There is no reason to think the Mellens ever went by McMellen.
children of James and Esther (Mellen) Shafter:
i. Simon, b. 29 January 1751/1752 (Oxford vrs)
ii. Lois, b. 13 April 1753 (")
iii. Mary, b. 16 April 1755 (")
iv Esther, b. abt. 1757
v. James, bap. 29 April 1759 (Dudley vrs, from Congregational Church records)
vi. Lydia, bap. 31 August 1760 (")
viii. Prudence, b. abt. 1763/1764, supp. d. 7 March 1835 at the age of 71
1. Vermont Historical Gazetteer, comp. by Abby Maria Hemenway (Carrie E. H. Page publisher, Brandon, VT:1891), article on Athens by Frederick C. Robbins, p. 357-376.
2. Edmund F. Slafter, Memorial of John Slafter : with a genealogical account of his descendants, including eight generations (1869), p. 4.
3. William Bassett, History of the Town of Richimond, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, from its First Settlement to 1882 (Boston:1884), pp. 31, 301, 482 and 502.
all text and photographs © 1998-2009 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted