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According to Bardsley’s A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, the Gildersleeve surname is a nickname meaning “with sleeves braided with gold”.  One source refers to it as an English nickname for an ostentatious dresser.  Originally, the name was derived from the Middle English nickname “Gyldenesleve” or “golden sleeve” – “Gyld” (gold) + “Slef” (sleeve).

Some of the first records of the surname date back to 1273 for a Roger Gyldensleve from County Norfolk, and in 1421 John Gildensleve was a Fellow of College of the Holy Cross, Atleburgh, County Norfolk.  Other variations of the surname include “Gildensleeve”, “Gyldersleive”, “Gildersleeve” and “Gildersleive”, along with similar names such as “Gilder”, “Gildersome”, Gyldenloeve” and “Gildensholme”.

The first New England immigrant and the progenitor of all American Gildersleeves was Richard Gildersleeve. Even though he is barely mentioned in early American history, he played a significant role in the country’s early days. The Declaration of Independence would be tinged with the sentiments expressed by Richard Gildersleeve over one hundred years before it was signed in 1776.

Richard Gildersleeve

Richard Gildersleeve was born in 1601 in County Suffolk, England. Little is known about the early years of Richard, but at some point prior to 1635, he joined other like-minded believers in the great Puritan exodus, desiring to escape religious persecution. It is believed that Richard was an English yeoman, a commoner who cultivated the land.

Upon arrival in New England, he first dwelt in Watertown, Massachusetts. By the time Richard arrived, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were already setting up a theocratic government. If one wanted to vote and participate in civic affairs, church membership was required. Settlers who had fled England to avoid religious persecution would begin to experience it again. “The ministers ruled supreme, minute laws interfered with personal liberty, amusements were studiously discouraged and devotional exercises substituted in their stead.” (Gildersleeve Pioneers, p. 21).

To flee New England religious persecution, Richard joined other Puritans who decided to leave Massachusetts and settle the newly-formed Connecticut colony. They departed in the autumn of 1635 with their oxen and cattle, while food supplies and household goods were loaded onto ships. After a month-long trek, the group reached Wethersfield, but the ship was delayed due to a storm and the Connecticut River froze early, leaving the new residents of Wethersfield without the food and household goods they had expected to arrive. The pioneers had no choice but to build cabins and wait out the long and dreary winter as best they could.

Richard Gildersleeve would become “one of the most interesting pioneers of the first settlements of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven and Long Island, N.Y.” (Gildersleeve Pioneers, p. 22). Early Connecticut records indicate that Richard might have been a little “rough around the edges.” Summoned by the General Court to provide an inventory of goods, he was late in responding to the order – he had to be reminded by the constable to appear. He also had a dispute with a neighbor, Jacob Waterhouse.

Waterhouse owed Richard a considerable sum of money. Richard had purchased a hog from his neighbor and apparently refused to pay for it until Waterhouse paid his debt. Each man sued the other and in court each lost his case, which perhaps didn’t sit well with Richard. After freely expressing his opinions as to his treatment in court, he was summoned to court where he was accused of delivering “pernicious speeches, tending to the detriment and dishonor of this Commonwealth”. He was fined forty shillings, with a sort of “probation” attached — an additional twenty pounds — until the next general court would be held. Richard eventually paid the entire fine, but as it turns out he had probably been planning to leave the Commonwealth altogether after residing there for four years.

It had not been an easy four years either. The Pequot Indians terrorized the nascent colony, and wild animals, especially bears, were prevalent. A girl shot one from the doorway of her home and remarked, “He was a good Fatte one and kept us all in meat for a good while.” (Wethersfield and her Daughters, 1634-1934). In April of 1637, William Swayne, a neighbor of Richard’s was attacked by Pequots and his two daughters were kidnapped.

His legal troubles and the ever-present dangers notwithstanding, the town of Wethersfield had problems of its own in regards to discontented parishioners. He left Wethersfield and headed to New Haven, where he participated in the founding and organization of the new colony, settling in Stamford. The move must have done wonders for Richard because his standing in the new colony was elevated and he began to hold a succession of various offices (including fence-viewer and deputy of the New Haven general court).

Richard migrated once again in 1644 to Hempstead, Long Island, New York and soon became one of the largest and most influential land owners. He served as a Dutch magistrate under Governor Stuyvesant. Perhaps not so admirably, however, the first instance of Quaker persecution by the Dutch (and remember Richard was a Puritan) was led by none other than Magistrate Richard Gildersleeve:

[Quakers] ran against a rock in the person of Magistrate Gildersleeve. As soon as the latter heard of the coming of Hodgson, he issued a warrant to the constable to arrest the preacher. Already a place had been appointed for the holding of a meeting, and there the constable found the Quaker, “pacing the orchard alone in quiet meditation.” He at once seized hold of him and hauled him off to the magistrate. But as it was just time for worship, the conscientious justice locked him up in his private house – for Hempstead had no jail – and went off to hear Mr. Denton preach. While the magistrate was thus performing his religious duty, the Quaker got the better of him; for in some way, probably by shouting in a loud voice from the window of his prison, he succeeded in collecting a crowd of listeners, who, gathering before the house, “staid and hearth the truth declared.” (The New England Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly – Volume 7)

Of course, Richard was not pleased to have been outwitted. Hodgson was seized by the sheriff and taken to New Amsterdam, thrown in prison and fined six hundred guilders.

During the years preceding his death in 1681, Richard Gildersleeve was often called upon to serve in other civic offices and settle disputes with Indians, which, of course, meant that Richard Gildersleeve had finally obtained a measure of community and civic stature – with age came wisdom and forbearance. He would witness controversies that arose when the English sought to gain jurisdiction over the Dutch Long Island settlements.

When the Long Island towns came under English jurisdiction more controversies arose. On October 9, 1669, Richard Gildersleeve met with other aggrieved parties of the eight towns and drew up what was called the “Hempstead Petition”. It appears to have been a case of “taxation without representation” – something that would agitate colonists in the next century and incite the Revolutionary War.

One family historian was so bold as to suggest that the Hempstead Petition marked the beginning of American independence. The historian lauded his ancestor:

Richard Gildersleeve was a yeoman, the best stock of English blood, the bone and sinew also of English strength. It was his particular destiny to play an important part in the history of political liberty. He was one of the strongest links of that long chain of events that marked the slow development of political liberty with the consequent foundation of the greatest republic in history. The story of his life was a constant struggle for his fellow men against despotism and tyranny. The crowning feature of his struggle was the part he took as an American pioneer and leader of men in personally experiencing and personally directing a notable contest of Long Island colonials against overbearing disregard of the dearly bought liberties of himself and fellow colonists.

In the long chain of events that marked the slow progress of political liberty from the Magna Carta in 1215 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he personally forged a strong link. He led in the making of one of the documents that showed the continued development of political liberty in the New World after it had been checked in England by the Stuart kings. This document, the Hempstead Petition of 1669, marks one of the beginnings of American independence. (Gildersleeve Pioneers, pp. 15-16)

That is quite a statement regarding a person who is barely mentioned in early American history. Following Richard Gildersleeve’s death, “The Charter of Liberties and Privileges” was drawn up in 1683. Known also as the Dongan Charter, it was the first time the term “the people” was mentioned in any form in regards to the powers (or limits) of government. Thank you Richard Gildersleeve.

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