Area native’s genealogical research shows links to early Pittston settlers and the famous Pilgrim ship
A local woman’s research into her family genealogy recently turned into a jackpot of American history.
Her findings connected her to an important figure from the colonial days of Greater Pittston — and connected both of them to the Pilgrims who sailed the ocean in the Mayflower.
And that’s just the beginning of the story.
Rebecca Sammon, a Greater Pittston native now working in Harrisburg, was recovering from an illness when she decided to take up genealogy.
“I had a desire to know where I came from,” she said. “Why am I the way I am?”
Through extensive research, Sammon was able to trace her lineage back to George Soule (1601–1679). Soule was an English indentured servant who served as a tutor to the children of one of the early leaders of the Pilgrims. When the Pilgrims decided to take their fateful journey to America, the so-called “New World,” Soule accompanied them.
Soule and the other immigrants, whom Sammon considers “super brave pioneers,” established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. That marked the second successful English attempt to colonize North America. (The first successful English colony began in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.)
Sammon submitted her research findings to the Mayflower Society, a group whose members can trace their lineages back to the Pilgrims. Society historians checked her work and confirmed her findings.
They also linked her with a woman from New Mexico who had recently joined the Society. This woman had a family tree surprisingly similar to Sammon’s. She also had a very old Bible passed down through many generations of her family.
That Bible came from the Phillips family, formerly of the Pittston area.
Sammon had seen references to a John Phillips (1751–1846) on her own family tree. The name rang a bell. Sammon remembered reading about the Frances Dorrance Society, a group of archaeologists based near Pittston, and their discovery of the likely home site of John Phillips.
Al Pesotine, president of the Frances Dorrance Society, spoke with Sammon about her findings. Pesotine was able to confirm that the John Phillips in Sammon’s family tree was most certainly the same one the archaeologists had been investigating.
“This is a huge surprise, and it’s great for our local history to connect one of the early settlers of Pittston to the Mayflower,” said Pesotine.
John Phillips is not one of the most famous names of Greater Pittston history. However, he probably should be. He was one of the first and most accomplished colonists to move into the area. Phillips was involved with our area through almost every step of its settlement. He was also a very colorful character.
Born in 1751, Phillips would divide his time between Connecticut, Vermont, and what is today Northeastern Pennsylvania. After the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Phillips made friends with war hero Ethan Allen, and served in Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys” militia. During the Battle of Wyoming in 1778, Phillips was an eyewitness to British Loyalists and their Native American allies conquering Wyoming Valley. He and his family had other run-ins with Native Americans — some friendly, some not.
Phillips was a wealthy man known for jingling gold and silver coins in his pockets. He was also a major landowner. His primary household was in the Coxton area, near modern-day Pittston and Duryea. Land deeds and other documents place him in the area where archaeologists are recovering colonial-era sites today. Records indicate Phillips took up residence in that area in 1777 after buying it from his father, Francis West Phillips (who had originally bought it in 1771).
Although Phillips is closely associated with the Coxton area, he did not like it much. Living close to the banks of the Susquehanna River, he and his family faced the river’s regular floods, which damaged his fences, buildings, and crops. Phillips eventually moved away, giving this property and hundreds of acres of other property to his many children (Hosea, Comer, Susannah, Mary, Sarah, and Martha).
The end of the war brought many changes to Greater Pittston, and to Phillips. In 1786, Phillips joined other prominent citizens (including Battle of Wyoming leader Zebulon Butler) in choosing and buying the land for Luzerne County public buildings and Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. In 1791, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Wilkes-Barre, with the warning “as long as you behave yourself.”
‘Servant of God’
Phillips was also a devout Baptist. He helped to found the First Baptist Church in Pittston (which is still active today) as well as another church in Abington. He served as a deacon in both, becoming widely known as “Deacon Phillips.”
As if he did not have enough to do already, Phillips was also an active horseman. He was known for his agility and skill in riding, and enjoyed the sport well into his old age. He was so spry that, even at 88, he was able to jump onto the back of his horse.
Around 1812, Phillips moved to Abington in Lackawanna County. After the death of his first wife, Phillips remarried twice. He was about 90 when he married his third wife, Mrs. Bathshebola Green, a widow of around 67.
Phillips’s long and eventful life ended after 94 years, on September 4, 1846. He was buried at the Baptist church in Abington under a tombstone reading: “Servant of God, well done! Rest from thy loved employ; The battle fought, the victory won, Enter thy Master’s joy.”
Al Pesotine and volunteer members of the Frances Dorrance Society have been excavating in Coxton since the mid-1990s, thanks to the cooperation of the Reading and Northern Railroad, which owns the land. Their work is strenuous, involving not only digging but also thousands of hours of research. Their main site of interest, known as the Conrail Site, contains mostly undisturbed layers of Native American artifacts dating back approximately 10,000 years. Their extensive research told them that colonial buildings might be in the area, but were not sure exactly where.
In 2009, archaeologists on the Conrail Site began to dig up tall stacks of rocks. It soon became clear that these were part of a very old building foundation. In the coming seasons, they dug out the foundation to discover a basement. Artifacts from the soil dates the site to the 1700s. Research into the possible ownership of this long-lost home led to one most likely candidate: John Phillips.
Over the next decade, the archaeologists continued their work, both digging in the ground for clues and analyzing their hundreds of finds. During that time, they discovered two additional large building foundations as well as a stone-lined well. The basements all had cellar entrances and one had a root cellar. They were quite small — averaging about ten by fifteen feet — so they were probably once topped by humble log cabins. These cabins rotted away or burned long ago, and their remains were pushed into the empty basements and filled in.
All of these structures have since been called the Phillips Site in honor of their most likely original occupant. The artifacts found in the Phillips Site are helping archaeologists reconstruct colonial life in Greater Pittston. Every item is carefully mapped, bagged, and researched. The most common finds include bits of ceramics, including broken cups and plates. All of these have proven important in dating the site to the era of John Phillips.
Buttons, nails, doll parts, and tools have also appeared. Some of the most exciting finds include coins. Some were types minted by Great Britain and Spain that were used in colonial America. Others were minted in the 1780s by the state of Connecticut when it claimed control of Wyoming Valley.
Some of the items found even provide hints as to the relationship between European colonists and the Native Americans who lived in Wyoming Valley before they arrived. These artifacts include colored glass beads, an iron axe, as well as gunflints—sharp stones meant to trigger rifles and muskets to fire. These kinds of small items were commonly traded by colonists to native people. One of the most surprising finds was a Native American arrowhead made of European sheet metal.
Rebecca Sammon’s investigation of her own family created a link between her and the colonists whose homes are being excavated. The story doesn’t end there, though, and neither do the surprises.
Sammon had known Pesotine for her entire life. In fact, they’re cousins, connected by a shared ancestor named Miller. This means that Pesotine is part of this big family tree. He had been helping to excavate the land and properties of John Phillips for more than a decade without ever having imagined he was one of Phillips’s descendants.
“From the personal point of view, it’s so surprising I had this calling to work for 25 years in an area I felt passionate about, only to find out that I’m recovering part of my own ancestry at the same time,” Pesotine said.
The volunteer archaeologists hope to continue the painstaking work, both with their trowels and with their books and maps. Given the amount of work to be done and the limited number of volunteers, their work may take years. But they stand to make many new discoveries and shed new light on Wyoming Valley’s fascinating colonial era.
Mark Dziak is a Pittston-based author. His works on local history include “Digging Up Wyoming Valley” and “The Battle of Wyoming: For Liberty and Life.” He has been a member of the Frances Dorrance Society for many years. For more information on the Society, check out their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/HistoryNEPA/