The Rathbun Family Crest - John Rathbone
The Rathbun Family Crest

John Rathbone in later years in America was called a “husbandman” (farmer), and it is likely that he worked as a boy as a farm laborer. It is probable that he also learned from his father the shoemaking tradeto some degree. With no schooling, he was illiterate until his death.

John seemed destined to live his life in a manner little different from that of his father and his ancestors for many generations. But thewinds of change were beginning to blow, and his life would change with them.

It must have been in the early 1650s that John Rathbone met Margaret Acres, daughter of Thomas Acres of the adjacent parish of Prescot. Shewas born in 1633, and was four years younger than John. They were married about 1652 or 1653, but the marriage is not recorded in either the Prescot or the Farnworth records. Possibly they were married in 1652 in the Farnworth Chapel, but the area was hit that year by a severeplague outbreak, and no entries were made in the Farnworth register. Or they may have married outside the church, by a justice of the peace. Cromwell in 1652 took away the clergy’s sole right to perform marriages, and allowed civil marriages by justices of the peace, so long as the proposed marriage was announced in the public market place on three consecutive market days.

Unfortunately, many of these justices were illiterate, and left no record of their marriages.

At any rate, soon after their marriage, John and Margaret decided to join the increasing tide of emigration to America. They were undoubtedly influenced by the poor economic conditions in England and possibly by the outbreak of plague in the early 1650s. There were no burialsrecorded at Farnworth during the 1646 – 52 period, and it is probablethat John’s mother (Alice?), died in this period, possibly of the plague.

Extracted from The Rathbun, Rathbone, Rathburn Family Historian, Volume 1, Number 1, January 1981, page 4 – 7.

Virtually all the Rathbuns, Rathbones and Rathburns in America today are descended from John Rathbone who migrated to the New World from England about 1654. He is undoubtedly the same John Rathbone who was baptized March 28, 1629, at Farnsworth Chapel, Parish of Prescott, County of Lancashire, England. His father was Thomas Rathbone, a shoemaker in the town of Ditton, 11 miles east of Liverpool on the Mersey River.

The family was poor, and young John was probably put to work as a small boy either in his father’s shoe shop or as an apprentice to a neighboring tradesman. He received little, if any, schooling, and remainedilliterate until his death.
In the early 1650s, he married Margaret Acres, the daughter of Thomas Acres, a neighbor in Ditton.

This was a period of great unrest in England. Years of civil war ended in 1653 with the beheading of Charles II and the installation of Cromwell as Lord Protector.

In 1654, Thomas Rathbone, the shoemaker, died. He left a small sum of money to his youngest son, John, who apparently used the money to take his bride to America, which was already developing a reputation asa land of opportunity. They first settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where a number of Lancashire immigrants were already living. Unfortunately, the Dorchester town records for this period were destroyedby fire, and we have no records of his early days there.

John Rathbone’s name first appears in American records on August 17, 1660, when he was listed among 12 Massachusetts men who met at the Roxbury home of Dr. John Alcock to consider the purchase of Block Island,12 miles off the coast of what is now Rhode Island. Alcock proposed that 16 families could share in the purchase and establish a ‘plantation’ on the island.

The 12 men at the meeting agreed to the purchase, and to send a surveyor to the island. The group, expanded to 16, later reassembled and made plans to divide the 6,720 acre island. Drawings were held to assign each of the proprietors a “great lot” in both the northern and southern sections of the island.

Most of the proprietors agreed to purchase a full one-sixteenth share, tow toke double shares, and several, less affluent, pooled their funds and bought half-shares. Among the latter were John Rathbone and Edward Vose. Their land in the southern section lay along the southeastern coast, encompassing what is now known as Mohican Bluff. That, together with their lot in the northern tract, gave them, they thought,a total of 420 acres of land.

Within a few years, Rathbone realized that the original survey had been inaccurate. He obtained a second survey, which established that heand Vose had been shorted by 130 acres in their “great lot” in the southeastern corner. He appealed to the attorneys for the Alcock estate- John Alcock having died – and they agreed in 1671 to give him “whatland shall be found wantinge … in some convenient place in the commonland.”


To make up for the shortage Rathbone was given 60 acres near the center of the island, stretching from near what is now the town center to the ocean on the east side. That surveying error proved to be a bonanza, for the correction gave him a strategically located piece of land in what became the most valuable part of the island.


Rathbone must have been a man of foresight. for the next few years he steadily increased his holdings on the island. In 1674, he purchased 42 acres and in 1680, he bought 12 1/2 adjoining acres.

On Oct 10, 1680, he made the final payment for his share of the original purchase, as shown in this early land record:


“I, John Williams … executor of the estate of John Alcock … doe acquit John Rathbon from the payment of 30 pounds which hath been received … 11 pounds five shillings (by) said Alcock … and the rest by Thomas Terry and myself … in full payment of a two and thirtieth part of Block Island … which said Rathbon bought of Mr. Alcock as by an account upon the Block Island Book of Accounts …”

This would indicate that Rathbone had made a down payment of somewhatless than 50 percent, and had repaid the balance over a period of nearly 20 years – a system similar to today’s 20 year mortgage plans.

From surviving records of his land transactions, it is apparent that Rathbone’s major holdings, and his home, were in the center part of the island, which very early emerged as the town center. He also retained his original tract in the south end, for in April 1680 the town officers gave him permission to erect a fence “across ye highway in ye south end of ye island and to hang and maintain a gate for ye liberty of ye inhabitants to pass to the sea when they see occasion.” For this privilege, Rathbone gave the town an acre of land.

John Rathbone apparently maintained a second home in Newport for a number of years. The birth of his youngest son, Samuel, on August 3, 1672, is recorded in early Quaker records at Newport. In 1674, he was living in Hammersmith, in southwest Newport. In 1681, he was elected to represent Block Island as deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly, a position he held for the next five years. he apparently remained in Newport during this time and his name appears on a Freemen’s List there in 1683.

In 1685, John Rathbone was a member of the Crown Party, which supported King James’ over vacating the Rhode Island colonial charter, and uniting the colony with Massachusetts Bay, New Plymouth, New Hampshire and Maine. A majority of the General Assembly voted to defy the King and continue operations under the old charter. Rathbone and 12 other delegates sent a petition to King James pledging their allegiance to the crown:

“With all dutiful respect and submission as becometh loyal subjects, and in obedience thereto, we … doe hereby present our full and free submission and entire resignation of the powers given us in said charter, unto your Majestie’s pleasure, humbly desiring … that your Majestie will take such notice of us in the succeeding government as may best consist with your Majestie’s honour and our good …”

Rathbone was the only one of the 13 who signed with “his mark” – carefully printing “JR” for his signature. This is one of two documents (the other is his will) which show that he was illiterate, not uncommonin that day.

Sir Edmond Andros, appointed by King James as Royal Governer for the United Colonies, did “take notice” of the signers in the new government. All ere rewarded for their loyalty by appointments. Rathbone was named in 1688 as a Grand Juryman on the General Quarter Sessions court, which replaced the General Assembly as the governing body of the colony.

That same year, however, saw the overthrow of King James in the Glorious Revolution. The Crown Party was out of favor, and Rathbone returned to Block Island, his political career cut short. Less than a century later, his descendants would be fighting a later King in the American Revolution.

In July 1689, Block Island was invaded by a French privateer, lookingfor plunder. The invaders asked some of the islanders who was most likely to have money, and were directed to John Rathbone.

The Frenchmen went to the Rathbone home, and seized John Rathbone Jr., not realizing there were two men with the same name. The younger John, then about 35 years old, was tied, stripped to the waist, and whipped by the French in an effort to make him “confess” where he had hidden his money.

By posing as his father, young John enabled his parents to escape capture and possible harm at the hands of the invaders.

It is a matter of conjecture whether the elder Rathbone was really one of the richest men on the island, or whether his neighbors resentedhis recent association with the discredited Crown Party. He had, however, accumulated a considerable amount of property on the island; between 1679 and 1693, he gave 255 acres of land to his children. Familytradition relates that he did this in hope that his descendants wouldremain on the island forever.

From the standpoint of land value, Rathbone’s Block Island investmenthad been a profitable one. in 1684, 210 acres were sold for as much as the entire island had cost 23 years earlier. Our ancestors also lived through inflationary times.

In his will, dated Feb 12, 1702, at Block Island, John Rathbone described himself as “yeoman, being sick in body but of perfect memory.” He was not too sick, however to attend the April 8 town meeting with all five of his sons. Presumably he died early that fall, for the willwas formally proved before the town clerk on October 6.

Rathbun Family - Block Island
Rathbun Family – Block Island

Although he listed himself as a “Block Island,” the inventory of his estate indicates that he considered Newport his principal home. The contents of his “Newport House” included beds, pewter, wearing apparel, a bible and a gun. His Block Island inventory consisted entirely of livestock – 11 cattle and 70 sheep.

He apparently conducted some sort of business in Newport, since his will refers to a “shop” there. A 1702 record lists him as one of the proprietors of the Newport Town Wharf.

The date of Margaret Rathbone’s death is not known. She survived herhusband for at least 14 years. in July 1707, she was listed as the owner of a lot in Newport – presumably the property left her in John’s will. In March 1716, as the “widow and relick of John Rathbun, deceased,” she made a deposition on Block Island regarding property she and her husband had deeded to their son, John Rathbun, Jr.

Of their five sons, three lived and died on the island – John Jr., Thomas and Samuel. The other two, William and Joseph, moved to the mainland. During the first quarter of the 18th Century, Rathbun (as it came to be spelled) must have been the island’s most common name. The census of 1708 listed 208 residents, of whom at least 58 were Rathbuns. There was a wave of migration to the mainland between 1725 and 1740, and the 1744 list of “tax rateables” showed only four Rathbun families remaining on the island.

Extracted from The Rathbun, Rathbone, Rathburn Family Historian, Volume 9, Number 1, January 1989, Page 3.

The early records show that John and Margaret Rathbone returned to Block Island from Newport by 1676, when he was elected as the island’s surveyor of highways and fences. In 1679, he was elected to the town council, was highway surveyor again in 1680, and was a jury foreman in 1681. That was the year he was elected to the General Assembly, and he apparently moved back to Newport.

He was back on Block Island by 1689, when he was a member of the towncouncil. John apparently held no public office after 1690, when he was about 61 years old. He and Margaret lived in Newport for several years in the early 1690s, and then returned about 1699 or 1700 to BlockIsland, where he died in 1702.

Original Author / Source: Unknown