“Every town has its bad apple, and Gravesend was without exception: for it had the notorious Thomas Applegate.” Thomas Applegate, the founder of the Applegate family in the United States, was an Englishman, probably of Norfolkshire origin. The earliest record of Thomas in this country is a court-issued license allowing him to operate a ferry between Wessagusset and Mount Wollaston in the Massachussetts Bay Colony. Three years later, in 1638, Thomas’s license was revoked after the canoe he was using as a ferry was overturned and three individuals drowned; Thomas was deprived of his canoe “as punishment for his negligence,” and he was advised “not to venture too many into a boat.”
As one relative put it, “the Applegate’s were of independent spirit, and that did not endear them to the Puritans.” Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, were strong-minded believers in free speech, and, in the strict and ecclesiastical Massachusetts Bay community, they were often embroiled in lawsuits with their neighbors and subjected to censorship and punishment from local government officials. On September 6, 1636, Elizabeth was “censored to stand [in the town square] with her tongue in a cleft stick for swearing, reviling and railing,” and Thomas appears in several Massachusetts Bay records for accusations of slander from his neighbors. In the 1640s, like many others, the family removed to Long Island for refuge.
In Long Island, Thomas became one of the first patentees of Flushing–individuals who hold exclusive land grants–and worked in the colony as a weaver and planter. Thomas purchased a vast tract of land in the Gravesend vicinity in 1646, and Elizabeth frequently appears in the records of land titles after his decease. But Thomas and Elizabeth also featured in a number of petty slander cases: In 1648, Ambrose London brought suit against Elizabeth for saying that his wife milked Elizabeth’s cow; Elizabeth claimed that she was merely repeating what Penelope Prince had told her, and there is no record of Elizabeth being charged or fined. In 1650, “one Nicholas Stillwell brought action against Thomas Applegate for saying, ‘he thought if plaintiffs debts were paid he would have little left.’ As he had nothing to say to the charge the court admonished him and fined him twelve gilders and costs of court.”
One account of the Applegate family in Long Island states that Thomas, “seems to have spent most of his leisure in the public stocks on the common.” In January of 1651, Thomas was charged with slander for stating that a fellow colonist had “but half a wife” and was ordered to stand at public post with a paper across his chest on which was written “notorious scandalous person.” That same year, Thomas was sentenced to have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron after charging the governor with bribery: “[Thomas’ words are] so contrary to all rules and laws divine and human, to scandalize and speak evil, especially of the governor…” After making a public acknowledgment of his transgression, he was pardoned.
During the mid-1600s, these lawsuits became increasingly common, and many of the individuals charged with slander were ultimately pardoned after publicly admitting to their wrongdoing. As Stillwell writes in Historical and Genealogical Miscellany, “But such was the habit of the times. Few or none escaped from conflict of this sort…their talk degenerated into gossip of a dangerous, personal nature, readily embellished and circulated over the convivial cup at the tavern. The habit grew in the community till it became customary to air the most petty grievances in court, and the contest savored much of a pastime. So great a nuisance did it become, that the court, finally, for its own protection, passed a rule laying the expenses of the suit upon the plaintiff in the event of his failure to successfully prosecute his case.”
Thomas Applegate, the founder of the Applegate family in this country, seemingly appeared in the records in the United States in 1635: he had accumulated some wealth in England, was literate and able to sign his name, had connections among government officials and wealthy landowners in the colonies, was an accomplished businessman and had knowledge of both English and Dutch laws. He was also well-known, though, for the many slander suits filed against him; while some early genealogists’ and historians’ accounts of the extent of his transgressions may be exaggerated, there is no doubt that Applegate was known as somewhat of a “bad apple” in his own right–but I’m proud of my ancestor’s “independent spirit” and commitment to free speech, too.
Read more about Thomas and the Applegate family at The Applegate Project and the Applegate Sisters of Corydon, Indiana. Additional research publications include: Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County, New Jersey by Francis Bazley Lee; This Old Monmouth of Ours by William Stockton Hornor; and Historical and Genealogical Miscellany: Data Relating to the Settlement and Settlers of New York and New Jersey by John E. Stillwell.