Local history

The life of the Burnhams on Bennetts Neck

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 7:00am

For many years I have enjoyed "Out of Our Past" articles in the Register. This is a story about Nancy and Solomon Burnham, the first family to settle on Bennetts Neck in Edgecomb. I am a descendant of Nancy and Solomon, and my family has owned property on the Neck since the late 1700s. Now that I am retired, I have had a chance to go through the old family records and memorabilia, and would like to share what we know with your readers. – Tim Eddy

Solomon Burnham and his wife, Nancy Wheeler Burnham were the first white settlers on Bennetts Neck in Edgecomb. They probably moved there in the late 1790s when they both were in their thirties. Solomon’s father had married Mary Knight. Her father, Daniel Knight, bought Damariscove Island in 1755 and also purchased much of the land around Pleasant Cove. Solomon was a sea captain, and life on the Neck suited his family. As the timber was cleared from the Neck, it became available for pasture land. Only a short fence was needed at the “Neck of the Neck” to contain animals in over sixty acres of pasture. This made it possible for Nancy and their seven children to be gainfully employed caring for the animals while Solomon was off at sea.

Nancy was born on Damariscove Island in 1764. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Knight, the sister of Mary Knight. Solomon and Nancy were, therefore, first cousins, and both were grandchildren of Daniel Knight. When Daniel Knight died in 1780, he left an estate that justified him being regarded as “the wealthiest man in the area.” Being from a wealthy family did not make life much easier 200 years ago on the Neck. There were still Native Americans in the area. A family story passed down tells of Nancy standing in the door of their house with a rifle while her young daughter, Rosanna, went to the well for water. Nancy was described as being very smart and energetic, with a habit of scolding. She was five-foot-six in height and wore a size three shoe. It is important that you keep this image in mind as we progress through this story.

In 1815 Solomon purchased the Neck from John Pool for $600. The life of Solomon and Nancy on the Neck came to an end in 1824 when Solomon and two of their sons died at sea. Nancy was then 60 years old and her children were in their 20s and 30s. In 1826 she decided that it was time to arrange for her retirement living somewhere other than on the Neck. She had to figure out how to do this financially. In 1824, married women could not legally own property, so, when Solomon died, Nancy could not own the Neck. However, the law provided that widows had a partial ownership of property owned during the marriage that was called dower rights. This gave the widow the right to one-third ownership of the marital property for as long as she lived. Clearly, this was a deterrent to selling the property, and enabled the widow to have some bargaining power.

Nancy decided that she would like to go live with her daughter, Rosanna, who was married to Isaac Pool. Isaac owned a great deal of farm land nearby, and essentially ran the family businesses out of Pools Landing on the abutting property. It turned out that Isaac was not interested in buying the Neck, but his father, John Pool, would like to own it as a possible place to retire. The problem was that John did not want to buy the property with the dower rights attached. So, the deal that Nancy struck with Isaac was that he would agree to buy the land subject to the dower rights of Nancy and her daughter-in-law, Esther, also a widow. The arrangement was that as long as Isaac provided the two widows with lifetime care, they would not assert their dower rights.

On March 29, 1826, several transactions took place. Isaac purchased the Neck, subject to the dower rights, for $107. Isaac then sold the Neck to John Pool, with warranty protection against any claims, the same day for $600. Also on the same day, Isaac purchased Pools Landing from John Pool for $50.

So, the question is, who got the best of this deal?

John Pool regained ownership of the Neck for $600, the same price that he had received when he sold it to Solomon Burnham eleven years earlier. Since John was 60 years old, he probably welcomed the opportunity to achieve the typical retirement goals. He could have a quiet place where he could tend to his animals, earn some income and be close to his family. Selling Pools Landing for $50 was clearly a bargain for Isaac. But. John was assured that his son would stay around and carry on the family businesses and he would be where he could keep an eye on what Isaac was doing.

Isaac Pool probably thought that he had a good day. He spent $107 for the Neck and $50 for Pools Landing and collected $600 from John Pool. He also gained ownership of Pools Landing, a key source of potential income.

Then there was Nancy. She received only $107 for the Neck. However, she did receive lifetime care for herself and her daughter-in-Law, Esther. If Isaac did not live up to Nancy’s or Esther’s expectation of the care that they were receiving, either of them could assert their dower rights to the Neck and force Isaac to remedy the situation. Nancy soon moved in with Isaac and Rosanna and remained there for most of the rest of her life. That lasted another forty years. She died in 1865 at the age of 101.