Rebecca Rawson

The tragic story of Rebecca Rawson, 1679

The following is from a story told in 1921 by Rev. Glenn Tilley Morse, President of the Historical Society of Old Newbury and Newburyport.

Edward Rawson arrived in Newbury in 1637. When he was only twenty-three years old he was chosen town clerk, notary public, and registrar for the town of Newbury. He was one of the three men assigned to divide Plum Island among Ipswich, Rowley and Newbury.


In 1650 Rawson was chosen Secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an office which he held for thirty-six years, and took up his residence in Boston. His house and forty acres of land in Newbury were sold in 1651 to William Pillsbury of Dorchester.

Circa 1670, oil on canvas, portrait of Rebecca Rawson (1656–1692), the daughter of Newbury settler Edward Rawson, courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Edward Rawson had three daughters, the oldest having been left by him in England, where she was born. She is said to have married an “opulent gentleman.” His second daughter, named Rebecca, was born here but died in infancy. The third daughter was also given the name Rebecca, and was pronounced by her contemporaries to be one of the most beautiful, polite and accomplished young ladies of Boston.

Into the life of this merry, care-free, joyful girl, came a young man of respectable appearance and pleasing manners. He was received by the best people and favored by her father. He was introduced as Sir Thomas Hale, Jr., the nephew of Lord Chief-Justice Hale of England. They married in Boston, on July 1, 1679. Now addressed as Lady Hale, she was much envied by the young women in the best Boston society and embarked with Sir Thomas for England with every reason to expect a happy and useful life as a great lady.


They arrived safely in England and spent the first night at an inn and the second at the house of a friend. The next morning, Thomas arose early and told her he would go to the vessel and have the trunks sent up in time for her to dress for dinner. The trunks came and she waited for him to come with the keys, until it was almost dinner time. She finally had the trunks broken open and instead of finding her beautiful clothing, jewels, and other property, she found herself robbed of everything and the trunks filled with shavings and rubbish.

Rebecca was driven to the inn where they had passed the previous night and inquired for Sir Thomas Hale, only to learn that his name was Thomas Rumsey, a graceless young spendthrift who had left his wife and two children three years before and gone to parts unknown.

Rebecca Rawson never saw Thomas Rumsey again. She had thought herself the wife of a nobleman and she was left unwed, pregnant and disgraced. During the next thirteen years, she lived in England, supporting herself and her child by her own ingenuity and industry. Finally, the solicitations and entreaties of her father and friends in America persuaded her to return. She took passage with one of her uncles in a vessel belonging to him, bound for Boston by way of Port Royal, Jamaica. She left her child in England in the care of her older sister who had no children and desired to raise it.

Painting by Robert W. Nicholson, “Port Royal Earthquake” National Museum of Jamaica

The ship arrived at Port Royal in Jamaica and after a few days delay, was about to set sail for Boston, when on June 9, 1692, the place was visited by a tremendous earthquake. The chief part of the city slipped into the sea. The ship on which Rebecca Rawson was traveling was swallowed up with its passengers and crew.

Her uncle, who happened to be on shore at the time was the only person saved out of the entire ship’s company to divulge the sad news of the fate of this most accomplished and talented, but unfortunate young woman.

Pillsbury family reunion in 1889 after the old house had burned
A Pillsbury family reunion at the ancestral home, the original dwelling house of Edward Rawson, after it burned on July 4th 1889

The Rawson-Pillsbury house became an Inn run by David & Sarah Emery in the early 1800’s. A Tercentenary marker about Edward Rawson is on High Street in Newburyport between Lafayette Street & Rawson Avenue.

The replica Pillsbury-Rawson house stands near the intersection of High and Lafayette Streets in Newburyport MA

Sources and further reading:

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