John Viall Returns Home to Johnston, Part I

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At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, he immediately volunteered to serve in the Rhode Island militia in the campaign to besiege the British troops occupying Boston.

While there, he volunteered to service in the Continental Navy aboard the public armed brig Washington; the ship was soon capture and he along with other crew members were transported to England. Viall and his shipmates were subsequently impressed into the Royal Navy. When his vessel sailed to America, he took the opportunity to jump ship in New York and he returned to Rhode Island. He then volunteered to serve in the R.I. Continental Line regiment and participated in the New Jersey campaign of 1777.

His unit moved north and fought in the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778; during the Continental Army’s retreat, Viall was again captured by the British, while part of a rear-guard, and he had to spend a couple of months aboard a prison ship in Newport harbor before he was exchanged. He left the service at that time because of ill health, but subsequently chose to serve aboard privateers raiding British commerce. In 1780, while service aboard the sloop Revenger, his ship captured a British sloop; Viall was sent aboard as prize mastered sailed the vessel back to Providence.

Once again, as noted in the first article: the proper spelling of the family name is Viall, as is inscribed on John Viall’s gravestone, but almost all the public documents concerning him in Johnston spell the name “Viol.” When quoting documents, the name will be spelled as is, thus usually Viol.

This article deal with John Viall’s life after he returned from his war service. His pension records state that he was born in Johnston on May 12, 1756. Other than that there is virtually no information to be found concerning either him or his family. In this case this is perhaps not surprising, for before the war he would have been a bit too young to have been a landowner and was not yet considered a “freeman.”

What is notable is that there really is no mention in the town records of his family, perhaps indicating that they were of modest means and not landowners in the town; back then land ownership meant everything and lack of it meant near anonymity. The Viall name was not at all common in Johnston, and was usually associated with the East Bay communities. How and why they ended up in Johnston is unknown.

It was only toward the end of the war that John Viall appears in the official records of the town of Johnston. The very first mention of him is rather surprising in its subject. Deed Book 2, page 655 states: “Know all Men by these presents that I John Viol of Johnston … Mariner, Do hereby freely manumit, Set free & liberate my Negro man Servant called Bridget of the age of about 17 years from all Bondage & Slavery whatsoever from this April 23, 1781, and I request all persons whom it may concern to permit & suffer the said Bridget to go and pass anywhere after said time as a free man without molestation, he behaving orderly & without breach of Law.”

How a man of such modest means, not yet a landowner, could come to own a slave is anyone’s guess. I would surmise that it had to do with his military service; perhaps while serving aboard the privateers he had acquired Bridget as a cabin boy. It is also of note that Viall is referred to as a “Mariner,” or seaman.

The next notice of Viall was at a Town Council Meeting of June 1781: “…Lt. John Viol be and is herby appointed and directed to enlist the Town’s proportion of soldiers to do duty for one month within the state…” Soon after, at the Aug. 28, 1781, Town Meeting, John Viall was voted a “freeman” of the town, meaning he was a full-fledged member of the community, with the right to vote.

On May 9, 1782, Viall made a big move in his life, purchasing a small parcel of land on the north side of the Plainfield Turnpike from Edward Fenner for 18 pounds silver money (J 2/142). At a Town Council Meeting a few months later, Aug. 3, 1782, we learn why he bought the parcel: “Resolved that John Viol have License to keep a Public Tavern in the house that he is now building, from this time until the 29th day of September next, paying the sum of 1 Shilling & 6 pence…” (Town Council 1/154)

It was not rare that citizens sold spirits to the public from within their dwellings; it was a practice that was carried on by a small percentage of the townspeople, but was not their primary source of income. However, the fact that Viall requested a license even before his house was built may indicate that he did not have a particularly strong earning potential.

He was a mariner, but if he was not willing to go to sea anymore or learn another trade, his earning prospects would have been limited. Also remember that he did not own a large tract of land that would have allowed him to raise a big herd of livestock.

The house he built on its small lot was almost certainly located on the north side of Plainfield Street, somewhere between the former 1025 Club and the King estate of Neutaconkanut Park, just after the great bend in the above road. On Dec. 17, 1783, he sold a small section of his house lot to Thomas Dyer of Cranston for 10-16 pounds silver (J 2/153). The significance of this deed is that it is co-signed by Lydia Viall, wife of John Viall. She was the daughter of David and Mary Brown and grew up in the house that still stands today at 69 Morgan Ave. this house is located on the north side of the forks the road where Morgan meets School Street.

It is not known for sure when they wed, but it may have been in late 1780 or early 1781 (based on the birth date of their first child). On May 2, 1794, Viall sold off another small piece of the home lot, this time to Labin Lewis, “schoolmaster,” and Olney Goff; this particular lot only measured “38 feet wide on both ends and 100 feet wide on both sides” (J 2/234), and cost 6-15 pounds. The sell-off of small portions of what was already originally described as a small lot is rather puzzling, but again may point to the chronic financial problems Viall seemed to have his entire life.

John and Lydia Viall had four children, and all of them would have been born in the above house: David (born Dec. 6, 1781), Sarah (born July 22, 1788), Mary Ann (born March 29, 1791), and John Brown Viall (born July 19, 1793). John and Lydia finally did sell off the rest of the lot and the house that the had built some 22 years later. On Feb. 1, 1804, the Vialls sold to Reuben Thornton for $540: “A certain lot…containing by estimation about 98 square rods [about 1,600 square feet]…together with the Dwelling house, fruit trees, fencing, and all other buildings…” (J2/378).

Where to now? The answer comes a few years earlier. David Brown, the father of Lydia Viall, died on Dec. 23, 1801. His estate consisted of a fairly good size dwelling house along with about 24 acres of land on the north side of Morgan Avenue, and about 20 acres on the south side. There was controversy with the Will that was presented to the Probate Court by the widow, Mary Brown. The other heirs, Lydia Brown Viall, her song David, and husband John, objected and petitioned that the Will be disproved. And that is exactly what happened.

At a Court of Probate held on Jan. 12, 1802, it was in part stated: “…This Court taking into consideration the Sircumstances of the Family…with material disadvantages to the heirs & that it is also the Opinion of the Neighbors and all present that it would be much to the advantage of the persons concerned to have their request granted…it is decreed by the court that the said Paper be set aside and disproved.”

At a Court of Probate held a year later, on Jan. 8, 1803, a Mr. Jeremiah Jenkins, Church Warden of St. John’s Church, Providence, appealed the decision to void the Will; is it possible that the church was left part of the estate. It is notable that in addition to a “large old bible,” Brown’s personal effects also included five “Church Common Prayer Books” and six “Old Books on Divinity.”

However, the Court rejected his appeal and Lydia Viall was declared their only heir; she and John received all the real estate and remaining $515 in cash left over after their expenses. I am assuming that the widow Mary Brown may have been deceased at this point, for I know of no other reason she would not have been named as one of the heirs.

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