Biography of Rev. Ralph Wheelock

(1600 - 1683)

Reverend Ralph Wheelock, Puritan, educator, and founder was born in Shropshire, England in 1600. The origins of his surname can be traced back to the tenth century in Wheelock Village, near Sandbach, in the County of Cheshire. Ralph was educated at Cambridge University, Clare Hall. He matriculated in 1623, obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1626, and a Master of Arts in 1631.

At that time, Cambridge was the center of the dissenting religious movement that gave rise to Puritanism. His contemporaries at Cambridge University included John Milton and John Eliot, whose liberal views he seemed to share. The persecution of those with Puritan beliefs ran high during this period, which undoubtedly motivated Rev. Wheelock to participate in "The Great Migration" which brought  many new immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By one account, 20,000  came to New England during the peak years of the migration between 1630 and 1640 [1].

On 6 May 1630, in England, Rev. Wheelock was ordained priest by Francis White, Bishop of the Norfolk Diocese [12]. Shortly thereafter, on 17 May 1630, he married Rebecca Clarke [2]. At least three children were born to the family in England (Mary Wheelock, baptised in Banham, County of Norfolk, 2 Sep 1631; Gershom Wheelock, baptised in the village of Eccles, County of Norfolk, 3 Jan 1632/33; and Rebecca Wheelock, baptised in the village of Eccles, County of Norfolk, 24 Aug 1634 [10]). There is strong evidence that Rev. Wheelock served clerical duties at the parish in Eccles, where Gershom and Rebecca were baptised. This is evidenced by his signature as "local curate" on the register pages that record his childrens baptism [11].

Rev. Wheelock, his wife Rebecca, and at least three children sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, just 7 years after Boston was first settled, and during the peak of the "Great Migration" [3]. Some Wheelock historians have suggested that Rebecca gave birth to a daughter aboard ship, but no definitive proof is available [4].

Upon arrival, Rebecca and Ralph Wheelock settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. There Rev. Wheelock participated in a plan to create a new settlement further up the Charles River, to be called Contentment (later renamed Dedham). In 1638 Rev. Wheelock became one of the earliest settlers and a founder of Dedham. He lived there with his wife for more than a decade, and played a leading role in the affairs of the town. The records at Dedham show that children Benjamin, Samuel, Record, and Experience were born into the family of Ralph and Rebecca while at Dedham.

In July 1637, Rev. Ralph Wheelock signed the 'Dedham Covenant' which was in effect the founding constitution of the settlers of Dedham [13]. In 1639 he and seven others were chosen for "ye ordering of towne affayers according unto Courte Order in that behalf." The powers that these eight men had were probably similar to the town selectmen of modern times. He was also appointed to assist the surveyor ("measurer") in laying out the boundaries of the town.

On 13 Mar 1638/9, Rev. Wheelock was declared a freeman [5]. In those days, one had to be a "freeman" in order to exercise the full right of suffrage, or to hold public office. To become a freeman, it was necessary to be a member in good standing of a local church, and to appear before the General Court to take an oath whose essential elements swore to good citizenship and good religious character.

In 1642, Ralph Wheelock was appointed the General Court clerk of writs. The General Court was the central court of the Bay Colony, with powers granted by the British Crown to decide legal matters, to dispense lands, and to establish laws. At this point in time (1643), the population of the Bay Colony was about 18,000 [6].

In 1645 he was appointed one of the commissioners authorized to "solemnize" marriages, which at the time was a civil rather than religious duty.

Although Rev. Wheelock was an ordained minister, his greater inclinations were toward teaching, which he did with great fervor and in various capacities throughout his life. Though the records are sketchy, it is likely that Rev. Wheelock was the first public school teacher in America. On 1 Feb 1644 a Dedham town meeting voted for the first free school in Massachusetts, to be supported by town taxes. Rev. Ralph Wheelock was the first teacher at this school. Three years later, in 1647,  the General Court decreed that every town with 50 families or more must build a school supported by public taxes. [9]

By the late 1640's Dedham was becoming quite populous, and it was decided to establish a new township further up the Charles River, out of a tract of land that was then part of Dedham. Rev. Wheelock was appointed leader of this effort, and in 1649 he and six others were given the duties of erecting and governing a new village, to be called New Dedham, later renamed Medfield.

In May, 1651, the town of Medfield was granted the full powers of an independent town by the General Court of Massachusetts. In this year Rev. Ralph Wheelock and his family removed to Medfield, where he lived the remaining 32 years of his life. The records at Medfield show that Eleazar Wheelock was born to Ralph and Rebecca at Medfield. Eleazar's grandson would become the founder of Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.

Though others participated in the establishment of the Town of Medfield, the Rev. Ralph Wheelock is considered to be it's primary founder. As leader of the previously mentioned committee of seven, it is almost certain [7] that Rev. Wheelock wrote the document called "The Agreement" which, for a time, every new settler of Medfield had to sign. "The Agreement" stated that the signatories were to abide by the town ordinances and laws, maintain orderly conduct, and resolve differences between themselves peaceably.

Rev. Ralph Wheelock was granted the first house lot in Medfield (12 acres), and served on the first Board of Selectmen (1651). He subsequently served on the Board of Selectmen in 1652-1654, and again in 1659. In 1653 he took up a collection for Harvard College, the first college in America. Fund raising for Harvard was probably a regular event, being a primary source of revenue for the fledgling institution.

In 1655, the town voted 15 pounds to be used to establish a "schoule for the educataion of the children, to be raised by a rate according as men have taken up lands, and the rest of the maintenance to be raised upon the children that goe to schoule" [8]. Rev. Ralph Wheelock was the first schoolmaster. In his book "Mr. Ralph Wheelock, Puritan", the Rev. Lewis Hicks speculates that Rev. Wheelock remained schoolmaster for a period of 8 years.

Every year, Medfield chose a representative to the General Court in Massachusetts. Rev. Wheelock held this position in the years 1653, 1663, 1664, 1666, and 1667.

Rebecca Clarke Wheelock died on 1 Jan 1680/1 in Medfield. Two years later, Rev. Wheelock died, in the 84th year of his life.

Rev. Wheelock played an active and important role in the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was instrumental in establishing two new towns, and held virtually every office of importance in both of them. Furthermore, he was at the forefront of establishing the educational foundations of the country.

His descendents would also prove to play an important a role in settling New England and the rest of America. His son, Benjamin, was a founder of the Town of Mendon. Among his great-grandchildren were founders of several New England towns, as well as Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth. Succeeding generations would push farther west, settling the frontiers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Nova Scotia, and Texas, establishing impressive credentials as teachers, writers, soldiers, founders of towns, and creators of business.

Written by Roderick B. Sullivan, 1 Mar 1998, Northboro, Mass., revised 28 Sep 1998

Notes and Sources

  1. "The History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts, 1650 - 1886", by William S. Tilden, published by the Medfield, Massachusetts Historical Society, pg. 23.

  2. Genealogists have variously reported that Rev. Wheelock married Rebecca Barber, Rebecca Wilkinson, and Rebecca Clark. An article by Christopher Gleason Clark, in the January 1998 issue of "The New England Historical and Genealogical Register", vol 152, entitled "The English Ancestry of Joseph Clark (1613-1683) of Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts" provides compelling evidence that Rev. Wheelock indeed married Rebecca Clarke.

    The key components of this evidence are as follows. First, the parish registers of Wraplingham, County of Norfolk, England, contain a recording of the marriage between Ralph Wheelock, cleric, and Rebecca Clarke, 17 May 1630. Second, the will of Rebecca's father, Thomas Clark, refers to his grandaughter Marye Wheelock. Third, the baptism of Marye Wheelock, daughter of Ralph Wheelock, cleric, is recorded in the Banham, County of Norfolk parish registers. (Banham is near Wraplingham). Fourth, the will of William Clark, uncle to Elizabeth Clarke, is witnessed by Ralph Wheelocke "in his unmistakable hand".

    Ralph Wheelock's will refers to George Barber as his "brother-in-law". This led to the speculation that the maiden name of Rebecca must have been Barber. But it is shown in the article that George Barber married Rebecca Clarke's sister, Elizabeth Clarke, thereby explaining the reference in Ralph Wheelock's will.

  3. No record of Ralph Wheelock's passage to America could be found in "The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1607-1776" by Peter Wilson Coldham.

  4. "The Wheelock Family in America (1637-1969)", by Walter T. Wheelock, privately published, pg. 93. It is suggested here that Rebecca gave birth to a daughter while at sea. (Mr. Wheelock's original source is not known at the time this footnote was written.) Other Wheelock genealogies have reported that Rebecca was born at sea, and that Mary was born at sea. The research of Christopher Gleason Clark disproves the assertions that Mary or Rebecca were born on ship, leaving Peregrina as the only candidate, since the birth place of the remaining children is well accounted for.

  5. "List of Freeman of Massachusetts 1630-1691", also Tilden, pg. 506.

  6. Tilden, pg. 33.

  7. Tilden, pg. 37.

  8. Tilden, pg. 62.

  9. "Material Suggested For Use In the Schools, In Observance of the Tercentenary of Massachusetts Bay Colony and of The General Court and One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of the Adoption of the Constitution of the Commonwealth", prepared by committee, Commonwealth of Mass, Dept. of Education, 1930, Number 1, Whole Number 212.

  10. "Mr. Wheelock's Cure", by Christopher Gleason Clark, published in the July 1998 issue of  "The New England Historical and Genealogical Register", July 1998, Volume 152, pg. 311.

  11. Ibid, pg. 312. As Christopher Gleason Clark writes: "Curates were licensed by the bishop of a diocese to serve the cure, that is, to care for the souls of the parishioners and to perform the duties of an assistant to the incumbent."

  12. Ibid, pg. 312.
  13. "Ralph Wheelock Puritan, A Paper Read Before the Connecticut Historical Society, Nov 7, 1899", by Rev. Lewis W. Hicks, M.A., with an appendix by Thomas S. Wheelock, published by the Hartford Press, 1899; available on, accessed January 2016.