Puritans, Quakers, and Tories: The Tangled Web of My Dayton Genealogy

David Dayton
15 min readMay 1, 2022

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Most Daytons in America are descendants of Ralph Dayton, a Puritan who moved his family from southeastern England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1639. The two sons he brought with him eventually married and had, between them, at least ten sons. This progenitor Dayton tribe migrated south to the new Haven Colony and soon crossed the Long Island Sound. Daytons were among the first settlers on both coasts of eastern Long Island. During the Colonial era, some Daytons migrated back to Connecticut and Massachusetts, others settled in Rhode Island and New Jersey.

From all points of the Colonial compass, Daytons joined Colonial-era pioneers streaming north and westward along major river valleys: the Susquehanna, Delaware, Hudson, Mohawk, and Champlain. In the early 1800s, the Saint Lawrence River, Erie Canal, and Great Lakes gave these agrarian pilgrims easier access to greener pastures in the Northwest Territory acquired from the British in the treaty ending the Revolutionary War. Daytons were among the white settlers who pushed relentlessly into the forest, marsh, and prairie ecologies long inhabited by Native Americans in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Today there are at least 28 places in the United States named Dayton, in 25 states. Wisconsin has three; Illinois, two.

The website of the Daughters of the American Revolution lists 27 Dayton men whose ancestors claim they served in state militias or the Continental Army during the protracted war between Great Britain and insurgents in 13 of its North American colonies. Some of these men were unremarkable citizens answering the call of duty, however brief or humble; a few were illustrious Patriots, most notably Elias Dayton and his son Jonathan from New Jersey. But Daytons were also numbered among those who remained loyal to King George or were unjustly condemned as Loyalists because they wished to remain noncombatants. Canadian records list several Daytons among the United Empire Loyalists who fled to Canada during or after the conflict. One of them was Nathan Dayton, whom I now believe — after over a year of online genealogical sleuthing — is my fifth great grandfather.

My Search for William Dayton’s Father

I found it easy to trace my paternal line back five generations, starting with my father, Merritt William Dayton (1924–2020), who was the son of Claude Harrison Dayton (1888–1965). I don’t recall being told anything about Grampa Dayton’s father, but Ancestry.com showed me family trees compiled by a cousin and more distant relatives. I learned that my great grandfather was William Benjamin Dayton (1859–1917), and that he was born near Momence, Illinois, lived most of his life there, and died in Cortlandville, New York, a township on the southeastern fringe of the Finger Lakes Region, where my father was born. William B. was the oldest son of Andrew Dayton (1835–1892), who was the second-oldest son of William Dayton (1813–1848). William’s oldest son was named Reuben. William, Reuben, and Andrew became pioneering farmers in what was Iroquois County when William arrived in 1839 and later became Kankakee County. In my attempt to trace my paternal line back as far as possible, William Dayton became what genealogists like to call a “brick wall.”

When I began my research to identify William Dayton’s origins, no family tree publicly available online identified his father or mother or even exactly where he was born. Historical records that I found online led me to believe that he was born in or near Burford Township, Ontario, in the Grand River region between London to the west and Hamilton to the east, at the lower tip of Lake Ontario. I knew the year of his birth from his gravestone in Momence, Illinois: 1813. I discovered that he and his wife Elizabeth Hess identified themselves as being from Burford when they registered their marriage in London, Upper Canada, in 1832. It’s likely they were referring to Burford Township, an area of about 111 square miles with a population then of about 1,300 at that time. They could have been referring to the village of Burford, the largest community in the township with a population of about 150. I knew from many records on Ancestry.com that William and Elizabeth had three sons; two were born in Woodstock, Oxford County (now Brock County), just west of Burford Township. Their other son was born in Paris, a mill town located at a fork in the Grand River, near the northeast corner of Burford Township. All three Dayton sons came to the Momence area with their parents in 1839.

The Abraham Dayton Connection

On a Canadian government website, I found a digitally scanned copy of an early map of Burford Township. It shows the plots of land as originally surveyed and who owned them at some point between 1795 and about 1850. The map was used to record the succession of landholders during that period. With overwriting, sometimes with an early form of whiteout, the map is a palimpsest that’s hard to read. However, among the names that can be deciphered with confidence are Benajah and Abiah Mallory, Reuben Dayton, and Asa Dayton. Abiah was the daughter of Abraham Dayton, a Quaker from New Milford, Connecticut, by way of western New York state. Reuben was Abraham’s nephew, and I surmised — before I had DNA evidence — that Reuben could the father of my third great grandfather, William Dayton. I also thought there was a chance that the Asa Dayton named on the Burford Township map might be the ancestor I was seeking. Asa’s life story was richly documented, and it was fascinating. I hoped that he, and not the boring lifelong Burford farmer Reuben, would turn out to be my fourth great grandfather.

On the other hand, though Reuben’s life seemed unremarkable, he was the nephew of another man whose story was also quite a tale for after-dinner chats, in its own way. Burford histories mention Abraham Dayton as either the first white man to settle in Burford village, or as one of the first three. These accounts usually explain that he came to Upper Canada seeking land on behalf of a religious group from western New York. Lieutenant Governor Simcoe, so the story goes, assumed that Abraham and those he represented were ordinary Quakers. Having a high opinion of Quakers, Simcoe granted Abraham provisional ownership of an expansive area of wilderness in Oxford County reserved for a township to be called Burford, after a village in West Oxfordshire, England. An early Burford history remarks on the township’s good fortune that Abraham Dayton’s community decided not to follow him to Canada — because they were actually a fanatical cult. They were disciples of Jemima Wilkinson, who preferred to be known as the Public Universal Friend. A proponent of gender fluidity long before there was a name for it, the Universal Friend claimed that the person formerly known as Jemima Wilkinson had died and that her soul remained in heaven. The body she formerly inhabited had been reanimated by God’s spirit and made a new perfected being, neither male nor female.

From 1782 to about 1792, Abraham Dayton and his wife Abigail Cogswell were devout followers of the Public Universal Friend. Records show that Abigail was sometimes among the coterie of women who were the Friend’s most trusted acolytes. Abraham was also a dutiful and trusted servant, recruited to be among the vanguard who established the society’s communitarian settlement near Penn Yan, New York, from 1788 to 1790. He and his brother Nathan were instrumental in building the settlement’s first grist mill. Why Abraham decided to abandon the Friend’s settlement near Penn Yan is uncertain. One historical account states that Abraham was among the followers who left the community because they wanted to escape the strife and uncertainty caused by legal disputes with land speculators and infighting within the community. Other accounts, chiefly Canadian, say that Jemima Wilkinson sent Abraham to Upper Canada seeking land for the Universal Friend’s settlement as a backup plan in case the situation in New York became intolerable.

In any event, Abraham and Abigail were among the first families to build log cabins in the area of Burford Township that became its largest community, possibly as early as 1793. Their only child, Abiah, along with her husband Benajah Mallory, joined them by 1795 when their first child was born there. The Mallorys brought others with them from New York, and soon about two dozen settlers were helping to fell trees, build cabins, and plant crops. In his fiftieth year, Abraham fell ill and was mostly bedridden for about two years before his death in 1797.

By that time, Abraham’s son-in-law had already become the de facto leader of the community. Benajah Mallory soon represented Burford Township in the legislature and earned a reputation as a maverick and gadfly. He was also a wheeler-dealer whose net worth quickly rose and even more quickly fell. He lost several lawsuits over deals that went bad. When war broke out with the United States in 1812, he initially proclaimed loyalty to the Crown and even represented the government in trying to persuade nearby First Nations tribes to join the fight against the Americans. In late 1813, however, Benajah Mallory defected. At Fort Niagara, he joined a unit of Canadian volunteers that conducted raids across the river. He commanded this unit in several battles against local militia and British troops. In retaliation, the patriotic citizens of Burford burned down the cabin that Abraham Dayton had built and that Benajah and Abiah had inherited. The government eventually repossessed all their property. Abiah’s cousin Reuben Dayton undoubtedly suffered some blowback from the anger about Benajah’s treachery. Burford’s current historian believes that Reuben may have been living in the cabin that the locals burned down.

Who Was Reuben Dayton of Burford?

Back in 1799, Abraham Dayton’s widow Abigail had married Colonel Joel Stone and moved to his homestead in the Thousand Islands region on the Saint Lawrence River. Colonel Stone, a United Empire Loyalist from a New Milford Quaker family, was a close friend of Abraham’s brother Nathan. Joel sponsored Nathan’s move to Elizabethtown, Upper Canada, around 1794. Nathan’s second son Reuben settled in Burford around the same time as his cousin Abiah, or perhaps a couple years later after Abraham died. In any case, Reuben Dayton’s name appears on that early Burford map and a history of the township lists him as having been granted that land in 1802. Reuben is also recorded in the same history book as a private in the Burford militia in 1800 and as the quartermaster of the militia in 1807. I’ve found no other documentation of his deeds and whereabouts until the birth of his daughter Eliza in 1822. She was born in a village about 14 miles west of Burford.

The available records about Reuben’s life, considered along with the obvious gaps in them, strongly suggested that he could be my fourth great grandfather. He married Nancy Richmond in either 1828 or 1833. Her family’s genealogy says 1833 and that she had six children with Reuben. However, Nancy’s 1892 newspaper obituary states that she had 12 children. Genealogies on Ancestry.com identify 11 of those children. If Eliza really was her first child, born in 1822, Nancy would have been 14 when she gave birth. Reuben would have been 44. I suspect then that Reuben was a widower when he married Nancy and already had at least two children by his first wife. I have not yet found solid documentary evidence to support that theory. However, Nancy’s obituary says four of her children were boys, and I have found records for only three. Her obit also notes that Nancy outlived all but three children, but only two of the 11 identified on Ancestry.com died before Nancy. My third great grandfather, William Dayton, died in Momence Township, Illinois, in 1848. His first child was born in Woodstock, Oxford County, in 1833, and he named that child Reuben.

All of the above leads me to believe that my William Dayton was likely Reuben’s first-born son. Tracing Reuben’s line back to Ralph Dayton has been done and dusted by many other genealogists far more authoritative than I. Reuben was the son of Nathan, who was the son of Abraham F. Dayton Sr., a farmer and miller who was the first person buried in Northfield Cemetery, adjacent to the land he farmed in New Milford, Connecticut, from about 1740 to 1780. From Abraham Sr. of Milford, it’s a mere three more fathers back — Caleb, Abraham, and Samuel — to the first American Dayton, Ralph of Ashford, Kent. If only I had proof that William Dayton was Reuben’s son! “Dear Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., I would greatly appreciate it if the Finding Your Roots team could look into verifying the identity of my fourth great grandfather.” A note I never wrote, but wanted to.

The Alternative Ancestor: Asa Dayton (1765–1812)

In trying to pin down the identity of William Dayton’s father, I was initially tempted to consider the year of William’s birth as an important clue: 1813. That was the year Americans started winning some battles in President Monroe’s contemptible attempt to liberate Canada from British rule. I think that the Asa Dayton on that early map of land holders in Burford Township was the Asa Dayton Sr. who died as a soldier in the U.S. Army on November 26, 1812. For the longest time, I clung to the notion that my William Dayton of Burford could have been the grandson of that Asa Dayton.

Undisputed documentary evidence shows that an Asa Dayton fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War and there met and married Sarah Bowman, the daughter of Jacob Bowman, a United Empire Loyalist. In 1797, this Asa Dayton claimed in a land-petition affidavit that he had fought with a Loyalist militia on Long Island during the Revolution. Since he was born in 1765, his claim was at least a possibility. The British authorities did not accept it, however, because he had no corroborating evidence. If they had accepted his claim, Asa would have been entitled to 200 acres for each of his half dozen children; his petition acknowledged that he had already been granted 200 acres for himself. I think he is the same Asa Dayton who owned 200 acres in Burford Township. His attempt to acquire additional land was not entirely in vain. His wife’s petition for 200 acres was granted because her father was a well-known veteran of Butler’s Rangers, a band of American Tories who waged a guerilla war against Patriots across vast stretches of the Colonial frontier in New York and Pennsylvania.

Asa Dayton may have been motivated to petition the government of Upper Canada for additional “family lands” in 1797 because a local oligarch had usurped Asa’s grant of 200 acres in Burford Township. Under “Asa Dayton” written in the rectangle for Concession 10, Lot 6 on that Burford map, the words “to R. Hamilton” appear. That is most certainly a reference to the Honorable Robert Hamilton. He was a member of the Land Board of Upper Canada who infamously took possession of thousands of acres of Burford Township. It’s possible that Asa simply sold his land to Hamilton or lost ownership because he failed to meet the terms of his grant — for instance, by not clearing the land and turning it into a productive farm. But it’s also possible that Hamilton seized Asa’s land by administrative fiat, unfairly. In any case, I think it’s a safe bet that Asa soured on homesteading in Burford after the Executive Council of Upper Canada dismissed his land petition in 1797. The records for later years that I have so far located suggest that he and Sarah Bowman established two households, one in Upper Canada and one in New York. Sarah owned land in Humberstone, Upper Canada, inland from a port town on Lake Erie just west of the Niagara River. Her father and brothers lived nearby. I suspect they actually worked the land that Sarah owned. Her next child, also named Sarah, was born in 1799 in what is now Monroe County, New York. In 1798, Asa Dayton appears in at least one historical record of that area as keeper of the first inn in what is now Brighton, New York, a town on the southern outskirts of Rochester. In addition to the inn, Asa owned a farm. From 1801 to 1804, he paid special taxes to New York state assessed against the value of his farm. These were taxes that New York levied on all farmers to pay off the state’s war debts.

Records are easy to find online for Asa Dayton and Sarah Bowman, as well as for their two daughters and two of their three sons. Hardly any records exist for their first-born child, whose name was William Dayton. All I’ve found for him are a Canadian baptismal record and two U.S. Army records. This William Dayton was born and baptized in 1792 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, then called Newark, Upper Canada. His brother, Asa Dayton Jr. was born there four years later. Both brothers fought in the War of 1812 as soldiers in the United States Army, alongside their father Asa Sr. In July 2012, all three Dayton men enlisted in the 23rd Infantry Regiment mustered in New York state. Asa Jr. was a drummer boy, 16 years old. William, 20, and Asa Sr., 47, were Privates in the same company of foot soldiers, and both died on the Niagara frontier.

Asa Sr. died in late November 1812 and William less than a month later. Little fighting occurred during that period along the Niagara River, but many American soldiers died from malnutrition and disease that swept through the miserable tent camps the regular Army had to endure while most of the state militiamen went home to their families. The U.S. Army recorded Asa’s and William’s enlistments and their deaths but not where they were buried, probably because their corpses were thrown into unmarked mass graves whose locations are not memorialized by the U.S. National Park Service. Should you think my speculation here is overly cynical, here is Alan Taylor in The Civil War of 1812 describing the conditions in the Army camps on the Niagara frontier during November and December of 1812:

Malnutrition, exposure, and wretched sanitation produced rampant
sickness. Afflicted by colds, dysentery, measles, pleurisy, and pneumo-
nia, many soldiers were finished off by a typhoid fever. They died so fast
that coffin makers and grave diggers could not keep up, so dogs feasted
at shallow, sandy graves.

Asa’s William (Records Galore) versus Reuben’s William (None)

On the basis of documentary records alone, I thought it more likely that my third great grandfather William was Reuben Dayton’s son by a first wife missing from the public records. But I also hoped that William might have been the son of Asa Dayton Sr.’s oldest son William. What if Asa Sr.’s 19- or 20-year-old William got a woman pregnant before or just after he joined the U.S. Army in July 1812 and that woman named the child, born in 1813, after his father? To whom would that hypothetical mother turn for help in caring for the child? Surely, to Sarah Bowman, the child’s grandmother.

Sarah belonged to a large, well-known family of Canadian Loyalists living in the Niagara peninsula. Sarah would have lived for a time in Burford Township with her husband Asa Sr. and would have known the other Daytons who lived there: Abraham Sr., Reuben, and Abiah. She would have known or easily learned that Reuben was still unmarried in 1813 and working a farm on his own. What better solution for her fatherless grandson than to be sent to live with a relative, a bachelor farmer, in a community that learned only that the child’s father had died during the war?

It took months for me to document this tangled web of documentary clues and purely circumstantial conjecture. Here’s a bloodline chart that depicts the two theories I developed about the identify of my fourth great grandfather. I thought that either or neither might be correct. An affinity for absurdist tragedy, perhaps, had me hoping to find, some day, evidence to prove the second, more unlikely scenario. That made-for-Netflix story would explain why my third great grandfather William — a given name not found in Reuben Dayton’s family — named his first-born son Reuben.

Chart summarizing the two possible paternal lineages of William Dayton of Burford, Canada.

My DNA Evidence

Late in this lengthy project of tracking down guesswork clues, I decided to give Ancestry.com a DNA sample. The results produced a DNA match suggesting that a certain distant cousin and I have a common ancestor. That person’s family tree showed that she was the granddaughter of Reuben Dayton. It was with relief, and a little sadness, then, that I filled out my Dayton family tree all the way back to Ralph Dayton of Ashford, Kent, England.

But what of Asa Dayton Sr.’s father? Who was he? Many amateur genealogists on Ancestry.com claim to know, but none presents solid documentary evidence that convinces me. I have to suspect that Asa Dayton Sr. may have been related to Abraham Dayton Sr. because they shared the same surname and were both among the first settlers of Burford township. Also, intriguingly, Abraham is known to have been a Quaker, and Asa is a given name known to have been popular among American Quakers in the 18th Century.

If you have any insights or possible clues into the origins of Asa Dayton Sr.’s family, please share. All theories considered, but DNA evidence preferred.

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David Dayton

See https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/david_dayton Here, you’ll find draft chapters of a memoir and drafts of poems to be published in a book on Amazon.