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The following is an account of Elisha given by an associate:1

     "It was at this time, when but 'ten or twelve members assembled for worship at Woonsocket [North Smithfield Meeting] on First Day, and many of these during the intervals of silence fell asleep', that Elisha Thornton became a Quaker. It was an event which his old associates must have regarded with the deepest surprise, and his new ones with the profoundest gratitude. His temperament, tastes, and early education, all seemed to be in opposition to a life of self denial and formal piety. Nervous, sensitive and timid, with a slender frame of body and a large heart, he had been thrown upon his own resources almost from infancy. The material wants of his nature, and the formation of his character through childhood and youth had been left entirely to himself. His love of Nature and his attachment to his friends amounted to a passion. The cheerful voices of Spring and the ringing laughter of his comrades, were his delight, and the glad tones of his violin, upon which he was not an indifferent performer, were the delight of his youthful companions. Fully alive to mirth and pleasure, and keenly sensitive to ridicule and contempt, Elisha Thornton became a Quaker. When, in a short time he became an Elder in the Society, I believe that the Friends of Woonsocket could preserve silence during their hours of worship without falling asleep, for his sermons are spoken as poems in blank verse, and the rhythmic manner of their delivery beautiful and impressive beyond description.
     At ten years of age little Elisha had received two months of schooling and was 'placed abroad' to live. At twenty-three he joined the Quakers, and three years afterwards became an Elder in the Society. In the meantime...he married Anna, daughter of John Read, and commenced his academy near the present village of Slatersville. His zeal in educational as in religious matters was not confined to these parts. Through his influence with Moses Brown the Friends school at Providence was inaugurated. At last, after spending thirty years of his life in doing good, receiving for his labors a scanty subsistence, and the consciousness of having done his duty, he removed to New Bedford where passed the remainder of his days.
     For the virtues of the good citizen and the graces of the consistent Christian, the Friend has ever been distinguished. His temperance, industry and frugality have won for him the envy and the respect of the tax-payer, for while he has added much to the wealth of the State, he has never asked for its assistance. His self denial, charity and brotherly love, have caused him to be inwardly admired and outwardly reproached by sectarians of other denominations, for while they have felt that the broadbrim was a symbol of morality, they have often insinuated that it covered a multitude of sins. There is but one act in their history to which the heart of the American patriot will not fully respond; and that act was simply an objection to act in the war of the Revolution. But that objection was founded on their creed, and their creed was - peace!"

     Elisha is on the 1777 census of Rhode Island men able or not able to perform military service.2 The census retains the form in which it was taken, from house to house rather than subsequently alphabetized. Elisha is on the list next to John Read in Smithfield, and both had certificates of religious exemption from the Smithfield Monthly Meeting.
     From this it's apparent that other sources are true in saying Elisha's parents were very poor. His academy was very likely in his house on Great Road north of what's now the village of Slatersville. His grandson Daniel Ricketson's published memoirs mention his visiting Anna (Read) Thornton at the family farm there. Anna is known to have moved from New Bedford after Elisha, Sr., died, given that a Friends record places her death in Smithfield, and burial in the North Smithfield Friends cemetery. His uncle Daniel Thornton also moved back there from New Bedford. Joseph Almy bought the Thornton property after Anna's death, and two years after he died in 1868, a Rhode Island State atlas puts a house labeled "Almy estate" at the corner of Great Road and (Providence?) Street. Ricketson mentions the nearby farms of his Read relatives, and censuses confirm that the Almys and Reads were close neighbors. In 2010 there is a house on what was the Thornton property, part of which appears to be from the 19th century if not earlier, with either a large, modern addition or a very modernized portion of the older house. Closer examination may help clarify the age of this house, but for now it is most likely that it was built by the Almys after about 1826.
     The New Bedford Friends Men's Monthly Meeting record on 19 March 1793 says that "our beloved Friend Elisha Thornton attended this meeting with a copy of a minute from the monthly meeting of Smithfield held the 31st of the 1st mo. last expressive of their unity with him as a minister and his prospects of making a visit to this quarter - his company & visit, his labours in gospel love in the ministry & discipline were comfortable, animating & acceptable to us." Following his son Elisha, who had come to New Bedford in 1804, Elisha, Sr., came with Anna and the younger and unmarried of their children. The New Bedford Friends minutes say that on 21 July 1807 they "received a removal certificate from Smithfield monthly meeting on behalf of Elisha Thornton, his wife Anna and their children Anna, Hannah, James and Lidia which was read & accepted." His adult son Daniel was accepted at the same meeting.2      Elisha and Anna supposedly lived on the northwest corner of School and Seventh Streets, in the same block as the (now former) Friends Meeting House. Following his efforts in Smithfield and Providence, Elisha opened a Friends school in New Bedford.

Elisha was an early advocate of the abolition of slavery. Daniel Ricketson's The History of New Bedford quotes from one of Elisha's writings. "During these early years my mind was often led to view and reflect very feelingly upon the subject of the African slave trade and upon the great injustice done to the natives of this land. From the prospect which I had I should scarcely hesitate to predict that the African slave [slaver?] sooner or later will feel the scourge of the divine displeasure in a very awful manner on account thereof, and the period may not be very distant." However meager his circumstances were in youth, his education was broad. He became proficient in math and astronomy, and published an almanac for many years. In 1789, one of those almanacs included the poem "On the Slave Trade." It was written in a style very much of the time, butThere are two versions at Doug Sinclair's Archives: a full transcription and an edited version that I made for my self that takes out the more arcane references and style.

Ricketson also says his clothing reflected the "primitive school," perhaps the same as that of Joseph Russell described in the same book. Ricketson's account above mentioned that "the broadbrim was a symbol of morality," refering to the broad-brimmed hat. Elisha is described as "tall and erect - his head was large, his forehead broad and high, his eyes gray and full, his nose of the roman order, and the expression of his face indicative of intelligence and sensibility. He was of a tender and humane spirit, liberal in his religious views, and generous toward all." His voice was "rich and musical." Another source says "He was not only a sound, but a most attractive preacher. In the published testimony of the Smithfield Monthly Meeting it is said of him, that 'he was a man of quick apprehension and capacious mind, of an edifying and instructive conversation, deeply concerned for the welfare of the whole human family; he labored faithfully in tenderness and love for an advancement in the way of holiness, with a mind clothed with universal charity and benevolence. Rarely has a man been so generally beloved and respected among us."4 When Gilbert Russell's house caught fire, Ricketson says that Elisha's horse, which was grazing nearby, was frightened and ran to Elisha among a crowd of onlookers and put his head on his master's shoulder. He requested to see the sunrise on the day he died.
     The New Bedford Mercury printed an obituary three days after he died. Nothing of the events of his life are given. Like most obituaries of the time, his character is described in terms of Christian devotion, part of it reading "he embraced as brethren the family of man - though firmly attached to the principles of the Society with which he professed, his Christian charity led him to do ample justice to the piety of those who differed from him in their views." That Elisha was always physically frail, already indicated above, is inferred here as well: "the spirit which animated a long enfeebled tenement has returned to him who gave it." The end of the obituary allows a glimpse of his funeral: "The last tribute of respect was yesterday paid to his remains - and after a solemn meeting of worship at the meetinghouse of Friends, the corpse was followed to the place of interment by a numerous concoarse of friends and neighbours, whose deportment evinced a deep semse of the loss sustained by his removal."
     Elisha is buried in a Russell family lot in the Friends section of Rural Cemetery, New Bedford. Although Anna died in North Smithfield, it is surprising to find that she is supposedly buried in the Upper Smithfield Friends Yard in what is now Woonsocket, Rhode Island, according to an old cemetery survey. There is a gravestone for Elisha in New Bedford, but none for Anna.

children of Elisha Thornton and Anna Read:

Elisha b. 3, 6 or 11 April 1780

vital records sources: Elisha's birth is recorded in the Smithfield Friends records and the New Bedford vital records (taken from a family Bible owned by Mrs. Otis N. Pierce when the New Bedford vital records were published in 1932), but they don't agree. This is very likely due to the change in calenders in 1752, shifting the numbering of months forward by 3 and the number if days by 11. The Bible says that he was born on the 12th of the 7th month in 1747 and died 31 December 1816. It also says he was 25 years, 8 months and 19 days old when he was married at Mendon. The Town of New Bedford seems to have a separate record of his death, calling him "an eminent minister of the Society of Friends" and gives the same death date and a death age of 70, but this hasn't been checked against the original town records. He wasn't 70, but was in his 70th year, meaning he was 69. His gravestone gives the same death date and that he was 69 years, 5 months and 19 days old. This points to the same birth day as given in the Bible. The Smithfield Monthly Meeting records say he was born on the 30th of the 4th month. This is probably the only contemporary record of his birth, since its conversion to the modern calender is 11 July. The entries made in the Bible were most likely made by Elisha, Jr. The birth date used for this article is the old calender date (as are all the other pre-1752 dates in this website) since in 1747 his birth did occur on the 30th of June, according to the best source. Elisha's marriage is also recorded in the Bible, surely recorded after the fact. "Mendon" Friends came from an area larger than the town of Mendon, and in this case it may refer to what became the Blackstone Monthly Meeting, which was near the border of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Their records may reveal that the Reads, who were Friends, were members there. Smithfield, RI, is a neighboring community.

1. Erastus Richardson, History of Woonsocket, (Woonsocket:1876), 4
2. The Rhode Island 1777 Military Census (Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.:Baltimore, 1985), 91.
3. Men's Minutes, New Bedford Monthly Meeting, 1792-1808, pg. 255 (LDS microfilm).
4. Proceedings on the Occasion of Laying the Corner-Stone of the Library Edifice, for the Free Public Library, of the City of New Bedford, etc. (New Bedford:1856), 63.

all text and photographs © 1998-2020 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted