Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Eaton, Theophilus
EATON, THEOPHILUS (1590?–1658), first governor of the colony of New Haven, was born at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, in or about 1590, the eldest of the seven sons of the Rev. Richard Eaton, by Elizabeth, his wife. At the time of his birth, his father, a native of Cheshire and a B.D. of Lincoln College, Oxford (Wood, Fasti Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 230, 282), was presumably curate of Stony Stratford, though his name does not occur in the irregular list given by Lipscomb (Buckinghamshire, iv. 370); soon afterwards he became vicar of Trinity parish, Coventry, 12 Jan. 1590–1 (Dugdale, Warwickshire, ed. Thomas, i. 174), and finally vicar of Great Budworth, Cheshire, 3 Aug. 1604 (Ormerod, Cheshire, i. 452). He died at Great Budworth in 1616–17 (Probate Act Book, P. C. C., 1617–18, f. 1 b), aged 54. His will of 11 July 1616 was proved at London 14 Jan. 1616–1617 by his son Theophilus (registered in P. C. C. 8, Weldon). Theophilus was sent to a school at Coventry, and there formed a lasting friendship with John Davenport, the puritan divine [q. v.], whose parishioner he afterwards became in London, and at whose instigation he migrated to New England. His memory was so retentive that he could repeat from beginning to end the sermons which he had heard at church. His father urged him to take orders, but Eaton preferred to qualify himself for the business of a merchant. After serving the usual apprenticeship, he was admitted a freeman of the city of London, and engaged in the ‘east country trade.’ The East Land Company soon made him their deputy-governor. In this capacity he visited the northern countries of Europe, and by skilful negotiation succeeded in materially increasing the traffic of the company with the ports on the Baltic. He was sent by Charles I as his agent to the court of Denmark (Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702, bk. ii. pp. 26–7, who, however, gives no dates). Resuming business at home after his return from Copenhagen, he ‘spent,’ says Mather (loc. cit.), ‘many years a merchant of great credit and fashion in the city of London.’
A puritan in faith, Eaton took a deep interest in the emigrations to America. He was one of the original patentees of Massachusetts, and one of the magistrates or assistants chosen in 1629 (Hubbard, General Hist. of New England, 2nd edition, 8vo, Boston, 1848, p. 317). He took an active part in the proceedings of the company before its transfer to New England, and paid 100l. towards procuring the charter (Hutchinson, Province of Massachusetts Bay, iii. 395). It has been supposed that Eaton had no original intention of going to New England. When, however, proceedings under the Act of Uniformity became so oppressive as to induce his friend Davenport to retire into Holland, and afterwards to prepare for emigration to America, he determined to accompany him thither. Accordingly he, with other ‘Londoners and merchants of considerable estates and dealing in the world,’ embarked in two ships, and arrived at Boston 26 June 1637. In the autumn of that year Eaton, in company with a few friends, took a journey of exploration along the shore of the Hudson, from Saybrook to Fairfield. The fine bay of Quinnipiack attracted their attention, and they decided to make it their settlement. They erected a poor hut on the future site of New Haven, and here a few men subsisted through the winter. On 30 March 1638 Eaton and his companions sailed from Boston, reaching the bay of Quinnipiack on 14 April. Near the bay the settlers laid out their town in squares, and in 1640 gave to it the name of New Haven. On 25 Oct. 1639 Eaton was unanimously chosen governor, to which office he was annually re-elected till his death, the only instance of such an honour. In 1655 the colony, finding it necessary that the laws of Moses, which they had hitherto solely recognised, should ‘be branched out into particulars,’ the general court requested Eaton to prepare a code. He performed this difficult task with the assistance of Davenport, and the new code was printed at London in the following year, with the title ‘New Haven's settling in New England. And some Lawes for Government published for the Use of that Colony.’ A reprint of the very scarce original, edited by C. J. Hoadly, was issued in quarto, Hartford, U.S., 1858. These laws, which from their whimsicality and puritanical severity gained the epithet of ‘blue,’ have been made the subject of mingled reproach and ridicule; though unnecessarily severe they were less sanguinary than those of the other colonies. Eaton's administration was sorely embarrassed by the long and violent dispute between the English colony at New Haven with the Dutch at New Netherland. By prudent counsels, however, he managed to prevent actual hostilities as long as he lived. In his dealings with the native tribes he exhibited the same moderation and fairness; indeed, it has been proudly asserted that all the lands of New Haven colony were obtained by equitable purchase of the Indians. Like many of his comrades, Eaton had ‘brought over a great estate, but after he saw the manner of the country he soon gave over trading and betook himself to husbandry, wherein, though he met with the inconveniences usual to others, which very much consumed his estate, yet he maintained a port in some measure answerable to his place’ (Hubbard, p. 329).
Eaton died suddenly, 7 Jan. 1657–8, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. A plain sandstone tablet in the cemetery at New Haven marks the place of his burial, or rather of his reinterment. His will of 12 Aug. 1656 was proved on 31 May 1658. The inventory includes an estate at Great Budworth (Bacon, Thirteen Historical Discourses, 1839, pp. 354–357). Eaton was twice married. His first wife died in London after bearing him two children. His second wife was Ann, widow of David Yale, and daughter of Dr. Thomas Morton, bishop of Chester. Eaton ‘ became a most exemplary, loving, and faithful father.’ A son, Samuel, born in 1629, graduated at Harvard in 1649, and died in June 1655, within two days of his wife. The three surviving children were Theophilus, Mary (wife of Valentine Hill of Boston), and Hannah.
Eaton's widow, who had been driven to the verge of insanity by the severity of church discipline about 1644 (Bacon, pp. 87, 90, 296–306), went home, accompanied by Theophilus and Hannah, and died in London in 1659. Theophilus lived afterwards at Dublin, but Hannah married William Jones in 1659, and returned to New Haven (Savage, Genealog. Dict. of First Settlers in New England, ii. 97–8, 567).
Hubbard, himself partly contemporary with Eaton, says (Gen. Hist. p. 330) he was a man of commanding presence, dignified manners, and profound judgment. Mather also testifies to Eaton's comeliness of person by the recital of a romantic anecdote.[Authorities cited; Moore's Memoir in Collections of the New York Historical Society, 2nd ser. vol. ii. pt. ii. pp. 469–93; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1628–9, p. 578, 1634–5, p. 39, 1635–6, p. 37; Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), bk. ii. pp. 26–9; Winthrop's Hist of New England (Savage), ed. 1825, i. 228, 237, 259, and passim, ed. 1853, p. 272, and passim; Hubbard's General Hist. of New England (2nd ed. 8vo, Boston, 1848), pp. 262, 317, 318, 329–330; Young's Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, p. 123 and passim; Kingsley's Centenary Discourse at New Haven, pp. 11, 75.]