Atherton One Name Study


Humphrey Atherton was born in 1607 into a family of minor Lancashire gentlemen. He was the son of Edmund Atherton of Winstanley who in turn was a son of Humphrey Atherton of Billinge. In later life Humphrey left Lancashire to settle in the New World. He was just one of a number South West Lancashire Calvinist Puritans who, influenced by the Reverend Richard Mather sought to make a new life in the American Colonies. In large part they were motivated by the desire to live and worship beyond the influence of the English Church. They had already rejected Church of England worship and they now also aspired to live in exclusively Calvinist orientated communities which banned other faith groups. (1)

Whilst a group of people descended from Edmund Atherton, formerly of Bickerstaffe, had lived in the Billinge area since 1446 this paper does not explore that relationship. (2)

What I have set out to do here is to recite the background of and the records for Humphrey's early life in Winstanley, Lancashire. Then I turn to his later life in New England concluding with the evidence that proves these combined records are for "one of the same man".

However, whilst his records in England are quite clear to me, his life in 17th century New England is a subject beyond my ordinary field of work. I have consulted researchers in the USA but if I have misconstrued any contemporary American documentation, correction is warmly invited.

As stated he was born in 1607 the son of Edmund Atherton. We shall later see that Edmund had three daughters who survived infancy named Anne, Margaret and Elizabeth.

Humphrey Atherton of Winstanley

Humphrey was baptised in Upholland Chapel on the 4th September 1607 in a register entry as follows "Humfra sonne of Edmud Atherton, Gent, Winstandley". This is not exactly "model" English and allowances have to be made for the phonetic spelling of English words using the former Northern English dialect.

Although there had been a Chapel at Upholland since 1318, the earliest surviving Baptism Register commences in 1607 with the baptism of Elizabeth Meller on the 6th June. The maintenance of Church Registers became mandatory in 1538 and the loss of these earlier registers prevents us from tracing the baptism dates for Humphrey's sisters.

Edmunds family owned land in both Billinge and Winstanley and in 1593 Edmund and his father Humphrey senior settled a land dispute with Edward Winstanley in the Court of the Palatine of Lancaster (3). Winstanley covered an area of just 1,859 acres and had formally been a constituent part of the Manor of Billinge which had been divided into three parts. During the 17th century both Billinge and Winstanley where situated in the Parish of Wigan, Lancashire.

In 1613 Humphreys father Edmund died and his Will was probated in Chester being the appropriate Probate Court. His will names his wife Elizabeth (Molyneux), his son Humphrey and daughters Anne, Margaret and Elizabeth in that order of age. Edmund also mentions a cousin named Richard Atherton and Roger Molyneux, his brother in law. (4) On 18th January 1614 (civic calendar) the Inquisition Post Mortem into the Estate of Edmund Atherton of Winstanley, Gentleman, is convened before Edward Rigbye, Esquire (5). The object of this Inquisition is to establish whether Edmund owed any money to the King, record such land as he holds in Socage (5a) and confirm his heir's title to the possession of any such lands. It is recorded that Edmund died on 10th April 1613 possessed of 14 acres of land in Socage/Freehold in Billinge and that his heir is Humphrey now aged 4 years and 3 months or thereabouts (4a). Clearly this record is inconsistent with baptism in 1607. However, the original document will have used Roman numerals and I believe that a clerical error was made and 'iv' years was recorded instead of 'vi' years. Furthermore, Edmund Atherton is the only person in the area so named who holds the rank of Gentleman. This is an age when social rank, if any was routinely recorded and indeed it was a statutory offence to fail to record a person's correct social rank in a legal document. Over time this evolved into the practice of recording 'occupations' in legal documents. Finally, unlike Probate this inquisition is only concerned with the Kings interests and does not schedule the full extent of a subjects Estate. Accordingly leases for years, leases for lives, goods, chattels, produce, ready money and debts due are not recorded here.

Whilst there are no records for Humphrey during his early life, Humphrey must have come into contact with the Richard Mather because he was the leader of Humphrey's co-religionists. Richard Mather had been born in the township of Lowton situated in the adjoining Parish of Winwick

Richard Mather is first recorded in 1612 when he is working as a School Master in Toxteth Park near Liverpool. He goes on to enrole at Brasenose College, Oxford, in order to obtain a qualification in order to be ordained as a Priest in the Church of England. He was ordained into the Church of England (6) by the Bishop of Chester and at this point in time he was fully conformable to Anglican worship and practice. Initially he will have served as a subordinate Curate and is first recorded as a minister in sole charge some time after 1618 in a Chapel at Toxteth. This was built by protestant dissenters and seemingly was not consecrated for Church of England worship. Ironically the chapel was built on land leased from Lord Richard Molyneux of Sefton, a prominent Lancashire Roman Catholic. Whilst at Toxteth Chapel it becomes clear that he no longer conforms to the Church of England and he is now one of those Anglican Puritans to have defected from the Church of England and adopted Independent Calvinist / Presbyterian orientated principles. Standing at the opposite polarity where a sizable minority of Lancashire people who still adhered to the Roman Catholic Church.

During the early 1630's the Church of England commence proceeding to silence Richard Mather which were complicated by the question of the status of Toxteth Chapel. The matter was resolved in 1633 by the Arch Bishop Neale of York who suspended Richard for a period in 1633 and again in 1634. At this time it was illegal to carry out the Ministry of God other than as an Anglican Priest and so any subsequent ministry and preaching carried out by Richard rendered him liable to be punished (7). None the less the early 1630's saw the advent of the so called "Gathered Churches" The most zealous Puritans opted out of Church of England and with other like minded people 'gathered together' to worship. These Puritans described themselves as 'godly people' and their Preachers recommended that they have as little contact with others, the 'ungodly', as possible. The attraction of living in new colonies made up exclusively of 'godly' people in Ulster and New England was becoming irresistible. The traditional argument had been that these people left England for reasons of freedom of worship and to escape persecution for their faith. However, this argument looks distinctly thread bare since they in turn persecuted anyone who did not share their religious beliefs. As we shall later see, when he became a Magistrate, Humphrey Atherton hanged a Quaker in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

At this stage I schedule the local church records for other children baptised with the name Humphrey Atherton. Between 1607 & 1620 in Upholland Chapel there is Humphrey son of Nicholas born in 1609, and Humphrey son of Robert born in 1617.

Turning to Wigan Parish Church between 1580 & 1620 there was Humphrey son of Alexander born in 1593 and Humphrey Atherton alias Harison born 1612.

Whilst Winwick Parish is of interest to some researchers in the USA, between 1580 & 1620 no boys named Humphrey Atherton were baptised there. However, in note (8) I list all the children born to men named Humphrey Atherton in Winwick between 1604 and 1631. But note that this family unit is also recorded in connection with Roman Catholic Recusancy which is perhaps why there is no record for the baptism of these children's fathers.

None of the above fathers has any social rank and most will have been farmers. South Lancashire was an overwhelmingly agrarian society mixed with some 'cottage industries' in the field of woodworking, metal working, shoe making and weaving. All of these artisans produced goods for the local market and many cultivated smallholdings as a secondary employment. However, people born into such families were potential assets to the American Colonies. They possessed 'hands on' living skills that would have enabled them to build wooden houses, make farm tools, clear the land and turn it over to cultivation. On the other hand, Humphrey Atherton son of Edmund was not born to work for his living but rather live off the income generated by the assets he inherited. Quite simply, 'Gentlemen' did not work as such. However some did have duties delegated to them by the State which included aspects of local administration and the dispensation of justice as Magistrates. The latter was held to be an honour. From the medieval onwards "leading men in time of war" had been the prerogative of the upper classes. British Army officers were still very largely drawn from the upper classes in the early 20th century.

Humphrey Atherton of Dorchester, Massachusetts

I have consulted Wikipedia in order to construct the broad profile of Humphrey Atherton's life and service in 17th century New England and American researchers in respect of the more detailed information. By reference to material sourced from the USA, some believe that Humphrey may have arrived at Boston on the James in August 1635 with the Rev Richard Mather. But there is no evidence that he travelled with Richard Mather who recorded his and his family's journey to Bristol to take ship. Richard also recorded his reasons for leaving England and these were purely personal matters which included conscience and faith. Wilfred Morrissette points out that the "Memoirs of the Hon'' Joshua Atherton" first record Humphrey as a member of Dorchester Church in 1636 and then as a Freeman of Dorchester in 1637. It seems more likely that Humphrey & his family landed in Boston in 1636 rather than 1635. I now set out four key areas of Humphrey's life from 1636 until his accidental death on the 16th September 1661


He is recorded in the Artillery Company of Massachusetts by 1638 holding the rank of Lieutenant until 1650 when he was promoted to the rank of Captain. In 1656 he commanded the Suffolk Regiment holding the substantive rank of Major. He is also named as a Major General in his epitaph. Whilst contemporary documents are not quite this generous in the rank accorded to Humphrey, it is abundantly clear that he had been a highly respected and militarily successful Army Officer. (9)

Political and Administrative

The first thing to say is that the administration of Massachusetts in the 17th century was not comparable to that of an English County. In theory at least, power devolved from the colony's elected Governor who was also the Crowns representative. However, individual townships/villages appeared to enjoy more independence from central government than they would have had been allowed in England. Also by definition, every able bodied male was a Militiaman out of necessity. Humphrey seems to have been involved in administration from 1638 onwards when he was deputy governor in the General Court. In 1653 he was Speaker of the House in the Court of Deputies and frequently acted as a Selectman.

Administration of Justice

In 1654 he became a Magistrate, a considerable honour in England as we assume it was in Massachusetts society with its still essentially English customs and culture. Humphrey is recorded as being involved in the prosecution of Quakers including Mary Dyer who was hanged for returning to the Bay Colony having been ejected for Quakerism. Another Quaker, Wenlock Christian was more fortunate because his execution was remitted following a last minute amendment to New England Legislation. In England too there were Quaker practices that offended the Law but punishment was not as radical as this. Sometimes the non conformance laws were used against Quakers in England and absurd though it was, there are also records of Quakers classed as or along side Roman Catholics for the purpose of recording and prosecution.

In addition to the prosecution of Quakers there was also the case of Ann Hibbins whom Humphrey tried and executed for Witchcraft. A possible distant relative of Humphreys who had lived in Pemberton, near Winstanley brought a private prosecution in the Court of the Star Chamber against four people for witchcraft in 1585. But Witchcraft seems to have been a rare indictment in English law prior to accession of "King James I" in 1603. King James feared the concept of Witches and one wonders if some cases were brought to please James.


All agree that his wife's name was Mary and the belief that he married in England some years before migrating to America is very reasonable. Some sources in the USA believe that Mary was the sister of Nathanial Wales because in his Will, Nathaniel refers to Humphrey as his brother in Law. But others have pointed out that this may not be so because it could equally be a reference to the marriage between Nathanial Wales 'junior'' and Humphrey's daughter Isobel. Had Humphrey been married to a sister of Nathanial Wales senior, then Nathanial jnr and Isobel Atherton would have been first cousins. Such close affinity may have made this union unacceptable in New England?

There is a marriage of 'reasonable probability' in Lancashire being the marriage of Humphrey Atherton of Wigan (Parish) to Mary Kennion of Kenyon in the Parish of Winwick. This is recorded on the 29th March 1625 in Winwick Parish Church and in keeping with standard practice; the ceremony took place in the Brides parish! Again by reference to sources in the USA, Humphrey's first four children are understood to have been born in England in the following order of age, Jonathan, Isobel, Elizabeth and Margaret. Some have pointed to three children baptised in Winwick Parish between 1628 and 1631 being Elizabeth, John and Isabel in that order of age.

However in England we would discount this because:

1. It is irregular for a child other than the first born to be baptised outside of the Parish they live in normal circumstances. Also Winwick Parish Church is distant from Winstanley relative to the far more conveniently situated Upholland Chapel or for that matter Wigan Parish Church.

2. The Winwick register's systematically note where a child lives, if that place is beyond the Winwick Parish boundary.

3. The New England 'Bay Colonists' were with the exception of a small "trading enclave" Calvinists. Would a Calvinist take a child to the C of E for baptism and promise to bring that child up according to the laws of the Church of England? It's not very likely.

4. John is not Jonathan and in any case, clearly John and Elizabeth who are baptised just three months apart must have different parents.

5. None of these baptism records accord the fathers any social rank. If a child's father was a "Gentleman", that fact would have been recorded.

6. The order of baptisms differ from the order of birth for Humphrey and Mary's English born children (USA sources).

7. Despite the occurrence of two Elizabeth's and an Isobel Atherton in Winwick Parish, there is no Jonathan and there is no Margaret.

8. As was usual, other members of Humphrey's family that lived in the Winstanley area had their children baptised at Upholland Chapel.

It would not usually be necessary to write so much but as one American said to me, "it must be hard for you on the other side of the pond to understand ours systems". This is so and the converse must also be true.

Also, the Winwick Atherton's were interrelated and a number of them were recorded as Roman Catholic Recusants in the early 17th century to the detriment of their recording in Church of England Parish Registers. The author of this study is descended from the 'Roman Catholic' William Atherton of Ashton in Makerfield in the Parish of Winwick, Lancashire.

Returning to Humphrey Atherton, I think we may be looking for records in the Church of England that simply do not exist because Richard Mather could have baptised Humphrey and Mary's English born children. Indeed it is not impossible that he married Humphrey and Mary. There is also the matter of a younger New England Calvinist settler named James Atherton. He too is missing from the Church of England's records. Richard Mather is the common denominators here but Richards English registers (if maintained) have not survived and so it is impossible to settle the issue. However by elimination, what alternative explanations remain?


I now move to compare the life of Humphrey Atherton of Winstanley and that of Humphrey Atherton of Dorchester to see what; if any attributes and functions they have in common

Firstly and very importantly Allan Bond points out that in June 1636 Humphrey is recorded in the congregation of Dorchester Church with the social rank of Esquire. He is one of three men listed as holding this social rank. (10) This flatters him since in England he held the lower rank of Gentleman, a rank bestowed upon him by birth. However, it is clear from this June 1636 list that the congregation of the Church had not left their English social ranks behind them. Clearly 17th century New England was not the egalitarian society that it was destined to become. I appreciate that some English distinctions of rank are unfamiliar in modern America and many have gone out of use in modern England. I have listed the hierarchy as it was in England in 1650. (11) However in 1636 when Humphrey Atherton is listed with the rank of Esquire the principle is exactly the same as our recording today is of a Colonel, a Senator or a Captain. We state their function or their rank. Finally, during the first half of 17th century South West Lancashire, no other man named Humphrey Atherton is recorded with any rank save only for this Humphrey son of Edmund.

Next, Humphrey Atherton of Massachusetts seems to have devoted his life from 1638 onwards to the service of the Bay Colony in the defence of its inhabitants, local administration and the dispensation of justice. He is also recorded as being active in the trading of land holdings (12).

Now returning to Humphrey Atherton of Winstanley, with his limited practical skills, I had wondered what he had to offer the American Colonies and how he could justify his place there and earn a living. However, it seems that the sort of administrative and judicial duties that gentlemen were sometimes called upon to perform in England were also required in the New World.

Accordingly, based on the evidence that is before us and interpreted from the perspective of English Social History, this paper describes two parts in the life of a single individual and therefore Humphrey of Winstanley and Humphrey of Dorchester is the same man.

Mike Atherton, Liverpool, 2012. (Copyright M. Atherton 2012)


Firstly I wish to record my gratitude to Allan Bond (UK) and Sharon Fitzpatrick, Wilfred Morrissette and Terry Atherton for their help and advice with some of Humphrey Atherton's USA records.

1. In 1559 Parliament past the Act of Uniformity which was primarily intended to make Roman Catholic worship illegal in England & Wales. The state sponsored Protestant 'Church of England' was created and failure to conform to Church of England worship was punishable by a fine for every month of non attendance. However, the protestant C of E retained certain decorative church features, acts of ceremony and church robes and vestments which were reminiscent of the Catholic Church. These were retained for reasons of visual continuity of Christian worship. Within the Church of England there was a more orthodox group of Protestants that sought to 'purify' the English Church of such features as had been inherited from the Roman Catholic Church. This group was known as the Puritans but for the most part their aspirations were frustrated until after 1648. Accordingly some defected from the English Church prior to this date. Whilst the non conformity laws had been passed specifically to make Roman Catholic worship illegal; technically any ministration or worship outside the C of E could be suppressed.

2. First recorded in a Palatine Court Roll during the 6th year of King Edward IV, 1446/47, Reference PL 15/30.2d.

3. Victoria County History of Lancashire, Vol III, page 89

4. I am unable to render a verbatim transcription of this document, not least because of the age of our photocopy.

4a. Lancashire Inquisitions published by the Record Society of Lancashire & Cheshire

5. An Esquire was one social rank above a gentleman. In the modern USA the suffix Esq is associated with Lawyers.

5a. Historically such land was held for fee/service under a feudal overlord who in turn owed the King 'military service' for his lands. This arrangement had long lapsed by the 17th century and the modern equivalent of 'Socage' is Freehold.

6. The Protestant Church of England sometimes called the Anglican Church is broadly similar to the American Episcopalian Church

7. Victoria County History of Lancashire, Vol III, page 44(Toxteth Chapel & Richard Mather)

8. Baptism of children born to a number of men named Humphrey Atherton in the Parish of Winwick 1580 to 1640:

Unnamed 14.12.1592 (a)

Unnamed 19.03.1595 (a)

Elizabeth 22.02.1604

Ann 10.06.1609

Elizabeth 28.09.1628 (b)

John 26.12.1628 (b)

Isabel 23.01.1631

(a) Some Roman Catholics would take their children to the C of E for baptism "under duress". But they sometimes refused to remain present to witness the child's baptism leading to the possibility of doubt as to the child's given name. (Obviously they collected the child after baptism)

(b) Clearly born to different parents

9. See the New England Historic Genealogical Society transcripts re a Codicil to the Will of Nathaniel Wales and a mandate issued by Governor Joseph Dudley, Esquire, re the Estate of Major Humphrey Atherton.

10. Records of the first Church at Dorchester 1636-1734, by G H Ellis

11. Social ranks (rural) as at 1650 for men below the rank of Baron:




The moveable rank of 'Armiger', the descendant of a Knight



Husbandmen and Artisans


12. Wikipedia