Who’s Phebe?

When a man married two women with the same first name in colonial America and the early post-revolutionary United States, genealogical misidentifications become more likely since the wife generally took her husband’s name in all subsequent records. Children may get assigned to the wrong mother; in this case, the two wives were “merged” into one wife.

Samuel Rockwell (1727–1794) married Hannah Orcutt at Stafford, Connecticut on 15 December 1757.[1] However, the above findagrave entry (as it appears today; no doubt it will soon be changed) would indicate that she died 16 December 1834, aged 81. Born about 1753, she got married at four years of age! While no photograph of the stone appears above, the same information is given in both Stafford Vital Records and the Charles R. Hale Collection of Connecticut Cemetery inscriptions that “Hannah Rockwell, relict Captain Samuel, died 16 December 1834, aged 81 yrs.” My research had shown that Hannah Orcutt was born at Stafford 19 January 1738/39, daughter of Nathan and Phebe (Lillie) Orcutt.[2] No deaths of any Hannah Orcutt before 1834 were found in Stafford Vital Records. Either her age at death, per the gravestone and vital record, were both off by years (she was closer to 96 than 81), or something else was going on.

This makes it appear that that the Hannah of 1834 was the second wife of Samuel…

I also found the marriage of Samuel Rockwell and Hannah Lee on 3 September 1778 in Stafford Vital Records.[3] This makes it appear that that the Hannah of 1834 was the second wife of Samuel (of course, the maiden name was not on the 1834 record; the findagrave entry maiden name was the poster’s conclusion). So Hannah (Orcutt) Rockwell should have died sometime before 1778. Where was she?

According to Stafford Vital Records, on 11 November 1776, “Phebe, w. of Samuel” Rockwell died.[4] Who’s Phebe? I can find no record of Capt. Samuel Rockwell of Stafford having a wife named Phebe. Samuel and Hannah (Orcutt) Rockwell did have a daughter named Phebe born in Stafford on 14 August 1760.[5] This Phebe married Daniel Johnson at Stafford on 29 March 1781.

My thought was that “Phebe Rockwell” was the first Mrs. Samuel Rockwell, and should have been “Hannah [Orcutt] Rockwell.” While nothing in probate or land records showed Samuel Rockwell with a wife named Phebe, saying the clerk got this record wrong, I thought would require some additional evidence. Fortunately, the Rockwell family was also recorded in the Stafford Church Records. Therein, was the death of “Hannah, w. of Samuel Rockwell, d. Nov. 11, 1776,” the exact day as the above “Phebe.” There is no Phebe! Samuel Rockwell first married Hannah Orcutt, who died in 1776, and then married Hannah Lee, who died in 1834. Fairly straightforward, but having wives with the same name, along with a clerk’s error on a death record, made this harder to catch.


[1] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 126.

[2] Stafford Vital Records, 1:.17. The Orcutt Family of Scituate, Bridgewater, and Weymouth, Massachusetts are currently being published in a multi-part article series in the Mayflower Descendant.

[3] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 131.

[4] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 177.

[5] Stafford Vital Records, 2: 11.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

12 thoughts on “Who’s Phebe?

  1. Ah, yes. Benjamin Bailey married two Marys. The first Mary died soon after their daughter was born. It took me forever to straighten it out because the two Marys were either merged or the wrong one given the wrong b.& d. dates and wrong children. And to complicate matters, they both have been called Polly.

  2. I enjoyed reading about the two Hannahs! Had an issue with two Thomas Davis men in nearby Somers, Tolland Co. Almost all trees on Ancestry had merged the two men into one, when in fact my 4th g. grandfather, Thomas Davis, was born in Billerica, MA in 1717, and his nephew, Thomas Davis, was born in Somers (or Mansfield) in 1726! It took me a year of research, and a trip from Vancouver, Canada to Mansfield Ct to sort the two men out!

  3. A person has to be very patient and along comes the answer, but it doesn’t help that whoever posts material isn’t quite accurate. I am trying to straighten out a son posted to someone I had followed on Findagrave has the same name as his Father. But the Father on the son’s site died 20 yrs before the said son was born. Wrong for sure when it was in the 1800s well before some of these things are possible (so they say) now.. But I think even now 20 yrs is a long stretch to be believable….

  4. My question doesn’t really pertain to the topic of your posting, but I am wondering whether the Orcutt surname in early Connecticut is a variant connected to the Olcott family. I am descended from Thomas Olcott, a 17th-century Hartford early settler and eminence. (I am aware that there are other seeming variations of the Olcott name, such as Al(l)cott, Al(l)cocks, and more.)

  5. If Hannah Orcutt was born in 1753, she was not born in Connecticut, USA but in Connecticut, British Colony

    1. While strictly true in a historic sense, Find A Grave only allows for modern geographic areas, viz: my great-great-grandparents buried in Anaheim, California, which was Los Angeles County at the time of their deaths but is now Orange County. The variations on this theme are innumerable. Since the original purpose of the website was evidently to help fans find burial sites of their favorite celebrities, cemetery locations by modern jurisdictions make sense.

  6. For several years I too had my own “Phebe” issues in trying to make sense of my maternal heritage from the available records.
    My 3rd great grandparents Garry Law (1800-1879) and Sarah Turner Law (1800-1839) marry in 1822 and have five children including my 2nd great grandmother Phebe Eliza Law (1823-1897)
    My 3rd great grandparents Raymond Smith (1781-1856) and Roxanna Andrews Smith (1789-1868) marry in 1805 and have four children including my 2nd great grandfather Andrew Lee Smith (1812-1856) and two 2nd great aunts Eliza Smith (1810-1852) and Phebe Anne Smith (1819-1906)
    Phebe Eliza Law (1823-1897) marries Andrew Lee Smith (1812-1856) in 1841 and have four children including my great grandfather Raymond Lee Smith (1854-1912).
    Upon the death of Sarah Turner Law in 1839 Garry Law marries second my 2nd great aunt Eliza Smith. I don’t know whether this was before or after the marriage of my 2nd great grandparents in 1841. Garry and Eliza have no issue.
    After Eliza Smith Law dies in 1852 Garry Law marries third my 2nd great aunt Phebe Anne Smith. They have no issue.
    When Andrew Lee Smith dies in 1856, the widowed Phebe Eliza Law Smith and children move in with her father Garry Law and stepmother-aunt Phebe Anne Smith Law.
    My great grandfather Raymond Lee Smith, great grandmother Phebe Eliza Law Smith and 3rd great stepmother-3rd great aunt Phebe Anne Smith Law live together as a family unit into the 20th century.
    Spelling in the records varies from Phebe to Phoebe without consistency adding confusion. I chose one spelling for all.
    I got a break when an individual who I had contacted through a posted tree sent me an image of Garry Law’s grave marker which shows the he was buried with his first and second wives Sarah Turner Law and Eliza Smith Law.

    1. We must be related. I am the great great granddaughter of one of Andrew and Phebe’s daughters. My grandfather’s middle name is taken from your great grandfather’s name.

  7. My wife’s great-great-great-grandfather David Cogswell of Syracuse, NY, married Mary Barnes of Kent, England. But the dates of her life events made no sense; she was either too young or too old to fit them. It took us a while, but with further research we finally figured it out. David had married two women of the same name! Three years after his first wife died, he married her niece. A puzzle solved at last.

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