The Real John Downing

John Downing of Ipswich Massachusetts and husband of Mehitabel has an identity problem. His messy genealogy is a classic victim of careless and incomplete analysis when genealogists add birth and death places to trees without any verification. As John Downing is my 8th great grandfather, it rests on my shoulders to help others clear up the mistakes.

It is easy to make errors when there are so few surviving records and many candidates with the same name. There were at least four or five John Downings living in Massachusetts in the mid to late 1600’s. Most genealogists seem to be looking for the husband of the infamous Mehitabel Braybrooke or the son of Emanuel Downing. They all seem to find the correct marriage records, but make significant errors on his birth and death. I will refer to Mehitabel’s husband as the “real John Downing.”

Emanuel Downing and his wife Lucy Winthrop (the sister of the governor) welcomed their youngest son, John into the world on 3 Jan 1640 in Salem, Massachusetts. Emanuel owned property in both Salem and Ipswich. After numerous trips to England, John and Lucy left the colony for good in 1656 and left most of their American born children in the colonies. Their eldest, Sir George Downing was a rising star in the political world back in England. It is doubtful either parent had much influence on John Downing’s choice for a wife.

Besides the real John Downing, there were a few others with that name: John Downing of Charleston who married Joanne and John Downing of Braintree who married Mary and was a soldier in the King Philip’s War in 1673. Either of these candidates could have been the John Downing buried on 27 Nov 1687 at Old South Church in Boston.

The most frequently cited spouse for Mehitabel on family trees is the Irish John Downing who gave testimony in the courts about a kidnapping. The researchers’ rationale is that this Irish JD was likely not a successful Puritan. He would have accepted Mehitabel as a wife after she burned down her master’s house but the son of the esteemed Emanuel Downing would never have accepted this foolish girl as his wife!

Not so fast. First, Richard Braybrooke, Mehitabel’s father gave the real John Downing half of his farm upon marrying his daughter. As his only child, Mehitabel was given a dowry that far exceeded her contemporaries. John Downing may have been willing to overlook some of Mehitabel’s flaws in order to increase his land holdings. As the youngest and “discarded” son on Emanuel, John would not have been a wealthy heir to the Downing estate in Salem and Ipswich.

And land holdings he had!  Sidney Perley, the editor of the Essex Antiquarian (Vol XI, 1907), referred to the husband of Mehitabel as a “planter” which signified he owned at least 200 acres of land. As a possible heir to some landholdings of Emanuel, his son may have inherited a portion of them. It is unlikely that the Irish John Downing would have attained the status of a planter with his background as a captive.

The most significant mistake family researchers make concerns the real John Downing’s burial record. It must have been exciting for some genealogist to have discovered his entry in Boston’s Granary Burial Ground’s records. There is also a fine tombstone that lists his death as 29 April 1694, but there is a problem:  the real John Downing was still alive in 1714 when his son-in-law, Thomas Lufkin, filed a bond of £200 “to maintain my honored father, John Downing and his wife.”  The John Downing who died in 1694 was a merchant from the Island of Nevis in the Caribbean.

So, the most frequently cited fact about the real John Downing’s death is erroneous. John’s death records and his burial site have not been located, but we can assume he died sometime after 1714. The oldest genealogies claim that the real John Downing was the son of Emanuel and he married Mehitabel Braybrooke. This is the most feasible conclusion unless more evidence is revealed.