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James Ensign & Sarah (Elson) Ensign

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

James and Sarah Ensign were my 10th great-grandparents via my great-grandmother, Mary (Harvey) Reese Gaul. The following information was published in Reese Family Record, containing compiled information printed about their lives and theories about the origins of the Ensign family:

In New England they were associated with the Reverend Thomas Hooker Colony which settled first at Mount Wollaston, probably in 1632, then removed to Newtown, later called Cambridge. There, James Ensign was made a freeman of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on March 4, 1634. The New England tradition claims that James and Thomas Ensign came from Kent, England and settled in eastern Massachusetts in the early 1600’s. Some believe they were brothers, though no proof has been found. Thomas joined the Plymouth Colony in 1633/34 and settled in Scituate. James supposedly came to America in or soon after 1629 aboard the Griffin along with Rev. Thomas Hooker, settling in Newtown. Hooker disagreed with the governing policies of the Plymouth Colony and in 1636 led a group of about a hundred people to their new settlement which they called Hartford, establishing the Connecticut Colony. Hooker is said to have written the world’s first democratic constitution, declaring that government officials should be elected by the people and should allow tolerance toward all Christian denominations . The name of James Ensign appears on a monument in the Hartford burial grounds, erected in honor of the founders of Hartford. Connecticut records show that James was allotted a tract of land on the south side of the town. He held several positions of importance including constable, chimney viewer, and a surveyor, indicating he was adequately educated. He was also prominent in church affairs. In 1669/70, he and his wife Sarah, formed the South Church, or second church of Hartford along with thirty other people.

It is not known that James came to America directly from County Kent. Neither is it known that he and Sarah were original members of the Reverend Thomas Hooker group, but the popular opinion in the family seems to be that these two men, Thomas and James, were brothers, although there is no evidence that their families were associated in this country. The Hooker Company is referred to by Governor Winthrop in his "History of New England" as the Braintree Company. It is supposed that the company came from Braintree, a town about forty miles from London, though Mr. Hooker had been for some time a non-conformist preacher in the city of London. It is quite possible that James and Sarah had joined the group in Braintree, and that Thomas had come to New England, possibly on the same ship, but had cast his lot with the Plymouth group rather than with the more powerful Massachusetts Bay Company. It is quite certain that James and Sarah were with the Hooker company in their migration from Newtown to Hartford in the year 1635 or 1636.

It is certain that James was regarded as one of the founders of Hartford, for on the monument in Hartford "burying ground" erected to the founders, the name of James Ensign appears as number seven reading up. The records show that James was one of the original proprietors of the Hartford settlement, and that he was allotted a tract of land on the south side of town. He was prominent in church and community affairs, served as a constable, chimney viewer, then an important office, with the enormous log chimneys made at least partially fire-proof by daubing with mud, and was, apparently, a surveyor, which indicates that he was an educated man. In February, 1669/70, James and his wife Sarah, together with thirty others formed the South, or second church of Hartford.

On 18 April 1659 at Hartford, 59 persons signed an agreement to remove to Hadley, Mass., among who was James Ensign, but he changed his mind and remained in Hartford.

James and Sarah had five known children including David, Sarah, Mary, Hannah and Lydia, who died in infancy. His daughter Sarah, married John Rockwell in 1651.

There are several theories on James Ensign’s parentage. There is a tradition that he was a member of the famous Stuart (or Stewart) family of Scotland according to the book “Record of the Descendants of James Ensign and his wife Sarah Elson” by Martha Eunice Ensign Nelson, 1960. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland was the cousin of the English Queen, Elizabeth I. Mary fled from Scotland, seeking asylum with her cousin Elizabeth, leaving the Scottish throne to her son, James VI, who inherited the throne after Elizabeth died in 1603 with no children. At that time James VI’s name was changed to James I of England, and the two kingdoms were united. In the years that followed, the Scots made countless attempts to regain their status as an independent nation. When the throne was passed to the Hanover’s, whose name was changed to Windsor during World War I, many Stewart’s found both England and Scotland to be dangerous and it is said that about 1632 James Stewart decided to pursue a better life in the new world, America. For his protection, he hid his identity, assuming the role of a common laborer on a boat in order to pay for his voyage. Laborers were not required to give their names and because one of his duties was to care for the ship’s flag, shipmates called him Ensign (pronounced En’sin). The boat docked in Massachusetts and it is known that he resided in Cambridge before moving to Connecticut where he was honored as one of the founders of Hartford.

Another tradition regarding the origin of the Ensign family, is that their origins are French, claiming to have found early records where the Ensign name was written “de Ensign” or “d’Ensign”. It was assumed that the first Ensign appeared in England about the time of William the Conqueror, however a thorough study performed by Charles Sidney Ensign of Boston, revealed that the first Ensign of England was Scandinavian. Charles’ son presented an account of his father’s life in “The New England Historical and Genealogical Register” in January 1918, claiming the Ensign family was probably of Frisian or Danish origin. “Ens” was a small fishing village on the isle of Schockland in the Zuyder Zee, included in the region then known as Frisia, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The inhabitants of the island were ordered to evacuate. In old English, the suffix “-ing” meant “descended from” and it is possible the name Ensign is defined as “Descended from Ens”. In records of Hartford, Connecticut, the name appears as “Ensing” in the wills of James and Sarah Ensign in 1670 and 1676.

The Ensign name is not a common one. There are several records in Canterbury, England, pertaining to the Ensign family and variations in the spelling include Ensing, Enesynge, Ensyng, and Ensynge. The records were written during the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), Edward III (1327-1377), and later, in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, a record of Robert Ensinge in possession of the Chilham property. The "Archaeologia Cantiana" is a series of books published in the mid-1800's containing much information about Kent. Volume 10, page 135, "has to do with an assessment of forty shillings made upon De Thoma de Enesynge for aid in the knighting of the Black Prince, son of Edward III. The fact that Sir Thomas was asked to contribute such a goodly sum of forty shillings indicates that the Ensign estate at that time was of considerable value."

A 12th or 13th century church in Chilham, Kent, England, contains a window displaying the “Arms of Ensing”, which are described in the Topographic of 1791 as “Sable, three swords erect, 2 and 1, argent, pommels or.” There are no other traces of the Ensing name there but two tracts of land within a couple miles of the village are known as “Upper Enzeen” and “Lower Enzeen”, said to be parts of the family’s ancient estate according to Hasted’s Kent, Vol. 7, page 283 which reads as follows:

“ENSIGNE, otherwise Lower Ensigne, is another small manor here, situated within the borough of Northerne, the house being about a mile and a quarter north-east from the church, which was formerly in the possession of a family of the name of Ensigne, one of whom, Robert Ensigne, in the 30th year of Henry VIII, was in possession of it, and then held it by knight’s service of the manor of Chilham, and in one of the windows of Chilham Church were formerly the arms of Ensign, Sable, three swords erect, 2 and 1, argent, pommels, or. After this it came into the family of Petit in which it continued until about the year 1640.” (Arms shown above).

Visit the ancestor profile page for James Ensign and/or Sarah Elson for more information!

See also Record of the Descendants of James Ensign, the Puritan, by M. E. Ensign. Find it on eBay or Amazon.

or read it online here: Volume 1 | Volume 2


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