From Forbes to Furbish: A Scottish Prisoner’s Life and Legacy

Due to their strong Scottish accents and lack of the ability to write their own names, many British colony immigrants found their names changed by English clerks. Such was the case of members of the House of Forbes. Seventeenth century documents regularly refer to such spelling variations as Fobes, Vobes, fforbes, Fobbs, Farabas, Forbess, Forbus, Forbis, Fourbish, Forbush, Furbish, and Furbush.


One of the most notable Forbes was William Furbish who arrived on the colonial shores as a prisoner of war and became the progenitor of extensive family throughout New England. William’s story is one of bravery, resilience, and a strong family legacy. His life has been documented in many articles, books, town and court records. Craig Stinson, a William Furbish descendant, has researched and compiled the most comprehensive biography, “How a Scottish Prisoner of War became one of my First American Ancestors.” This article is based on his work and is quoted extensively. The Clan Forbes Society is very grateful to Mr. Stinson for his permission to share this remarkable story with you.

William Forbes / Furbish, May 8, 1631–1694.


Not much is known of the early years of William’s life in Scotland. He was born on May 8, 1631 in Aberdeen, Scotland, during the reign of King Charles I of England. The ensuing years were fraught with discontent with King Charles I and his disregard for the Scottish people. This resulted in many battles, one of which would change the life and lineage of William Forbes.

Battle of Dunbar


On September 3, 1650, William and his brother Daniel found themselves on a hill in Dunbar in the middle of a battle during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.


Stinson reported: “Under the field command of David Leslie the young and inexperienced Scots enjoyed an almost impregnable fortified defensive position on Doon Hill overlooking the English encampment at Dunbar. The English invaders were worn out, sick, and short of supplies. On September 2, 1650, Cromwell determined to evacuate his forces and return to England. Seeing the movement of the English army, Leslie inexplicably ordered the Scots to deploy on level ground, abandoning their defensive position. The move took them almost an entire day. Aware that the Scots had given up their one advantage, Cromwell is reported to have said, “the Lord hath delivered them into our hands!!” Under cover of darkness and heavy rain that night the English redeployed their 11,000 troops. At 4:00am on September 3, the English attacked. Soon outflanked by a superior strategy, the Scots were routed. .” (“How a Scottish Prisoner of War became one of my First American Ancestors”, July 2016)


As far as the eye could see, the Scottish Prisoners of War that survived the battle were rounded up and marched 100 miles south from Dunbar toward the west coast. Some naked, hungry and injured, they were shown no mercy. Those that could not walk, or refused to, were killed and left where they fell. Those that survived the march reached Framwellgate Bridge and were held in Durham Cathedral. There they were exposed to starvation and disease. Of the approximately 3500 young Scotsmen that arrived there, 1700 perished due to the harsh conditions in the cathedral. In 2013, while under construction, Durham University unearthed a mass grave. 28 individual skeletons were discovered and excavated from the sites. The remains were determined to likely be those of prisoners held there in 1650.


The dilemma now was what to do to with these young men. Too costly to house, they were a threat if released as they might rise up again. The concern was passed off to the Committee of Safety to worry about by the Council of State. Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Parliamentarian and Governor of Newcastle, parsed out some of the prisoners as general laborers and indentured servants. Entrepreneurs John Becx and Joshua Foote came forward and petitioned the Council for men to take to the American Colonies where there was need for laborers.


After a debate of whether the captured Scots would have a negative effect on the New Colonies, the order by the Council of State to sail the Unity, mastered by Augustine Walker, to New England was given on November 11, 1650. A six week voyage ensued with 150 of the strongest, and healthiest of the survivors. This was no luxury cruise crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Cold weather, gales, and storms made for great discomfort. Livestock, cargo and passengers were held together in the ship’s hold tossed hither and yon by the treacherous weather.

American Shores


Finally, they arrived in Boston Harbor mid-December, mercifully quicker than expected. Numbers suggest another 10% of the Scots were lost during the journey. Once they arrived the men were sold off to business men in the area as indentured servants. Sold at £20 to £30 pounds each, they were in servitude for an average of 7 years. Many worked in the iron mills in Saugus, Massachusetts, and others went to Southern Maine along the Piscataqua River to work in the saw mills there.


Reverend John Cotton took pity on these Scottish men and on July 28, 1651, he wrote to Oliver Cromwell, the English Commander and later Lord Protector of England. He pleaded with him to allow homes to be built for the captured Scotsmen. He requested the homes be built to house four men to a home and some land for them to work. The men were required to work 3 days a week for the Bondsman and 4 days to work for themselves in order to repay the money invested in them, and that after a period of 6-8 years they be released.


Stinson wrote: “And what of William Furbish? One account says that Augustine Walker, master of the Unity, sold brothers Daniel and William Forbes to Samson Angier for £30 each. This same source says that Angier sent Daniel Forbes to his brother Edmund Angier at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and kept William with him. If this information is correct, William Furbish’s brother may be the early immigrant whose name is rendered at Cambridge as Daniel Farrabas. (Forbes and Forbush Genealogy). …Regardless of what became of Daniel ‘Farrabas,’ William Furbish almost certainly served out his indenture at Dover, New Hampshire. We know that when his indenture ended, William ‘Ferbish’ was first taxed on land at Dover in 1659.” (“How a Scottish Prisoner of War became one of my First American Ancestors”, July 2016)


On many records, his name can be found spelled Furbish, Furbush, and Ferbish. This could be due to the heavy Scots accent and the inconsistency of spelling in that day. Of course as we will go on to see, he may not have been very cooperative when giving his name.

A Freed Man


William Furbish appears in the Ancestry.com database “North America Family Histories 1500-2000” as having land on the Piscataqua River in Eliot, Maine. He is listed as William Furbish, the first of his name in Kittery, Maine in 1659. In 1664, records show this tract of land was 40 rods wide running from the river back one mile. Eighty acres in all. He added another ten acres in 1668. After his death, his homestead would eventually become a Garrison on the river because of its location and structure. Seven children were born to him there by his first wife Rebecca whose grave is believed to be in a cemetery of 30 stones still on the property.


Life was adventurous for William! A true Scotsman, he often found himself in disagreements with the town and church. One incident occurred in 1662 involving the Quaker and Congregational Church.


Stinson related a telling story: “In 1662 the Quakers first visited Dover. They came from Salem and from ‘old England.’ In public debate with Congregational minister Rev. John Rayner, and to his deep consternation, they convinced many listeners to take up the Quaker path. During their extended stay they crossed the river to Kittery, Maine, where Major Nicholas Shapleigh…an early settler in the area, provided them lodging.


“In December the Quakers returned. But this time the Puritan Rev. Rayner was armed with more than his theology and his rhetoric. He had drawn up an order that called for the arrest of three Quaker women, Mary Tomkins, Alice Ambrose, and Ann Coleman. One of the deputies of the court, Major Richard Waldern, issued the order on December 22, 1662. The women were arrested and summarily convicted. Their sentence for professing doctrine contrary to the Congregational Church was to have their hands tied to the tailboard of a horse-drawn cart, and for each to be stripped to the waist and beaten ten times with a three-corded whip. They were then to be dragged through the snow and ice several miles to the center of the next town, where the beatings were repeated, a journey through eleven towns and 80 miles in all. The brutal punishment was of course designed to kill the women.


“Rev. Rayner reportedly stood by laughing as the beatings were being administered. Two local men rebuked the pastor and for that act of disrespect were themselves put in the stocks. One of these two men was our William ‘Fourbish,’ of Dover. Perhaps, in addition to the cruelty of the local clergy and the bravery he witnessed from the Quaker women, William Furbish also recalled his own 80-mile forced march from Dunbar, Scotland, to Durham, England, just twelve years earlier.


“Despite the protests of Furbish and others, this sorry parade did continue in the bitter cold through two more towns, until at Salisbury the town leaders refused to comply with the order and put a stop to the persecution. The tale of the women’s courage in the face of such persecution led to the conversion of many in Dover and Kittery. “ (“How a Scottish Prisoner of War became one of my First American Ancestors,” July 2016)


The Scots, who had worked side by side in the mills and the forests and the ironworks and the fields, continued to band together as their indentures ended. By 1659, as Furbish was completing his indenture at Dover, his fellow Unity prisoner Daniel Ferguson was completing his time at the Great Works. Ferguson settled about four miles east of Dover, New Hampshire, on the Maine side of the Newichawannock River (Abenaki for “River with Many Falls”) where it was joined by the Cochecho. Unity prisoner John Neal settled just south of Ferguson.

Note Furbish land in top left corner, just north of Ferguson

When William Furbish made his break with Dover this is where he went, purchasing what became the family homestead on the land adjoining the north side of Daniel Ferguson in 1664. The homestead was 40 rods (660 feet) of riverfront and reached back a full mile from the river, giving him 80 acres of beautiful Maine land. Furbish’s property was just three miles upriver from Nicholas Shapleigh, and two miles from the Samuel Hill homesteaded in 1686. Given how little land a second or third son in Scotland was apt to inherit, this wonderful spread of wilderness must have seemed a dream.


The Furbish house was 30 or 40 rods from the riverbank; the marks of the old cellar could still be seen in the 1890’s. When it became necessary, the family burying ground was located a few rods south of the house, and eventually was populated with about 30 graves marked with field stones. This must be the final resting place of some of the first five generations of our Furbish ancestors, perhaps of William Furbish himself.


Now about age 33 and well established, William Furbish married in York County, Maine. According to old court documents his wife’s given name appears to have been Rebecca. We do not know who her parents were. Their son Daniel was born March 20, 1664. The baby was probably named for William’s brother.


Furbish Defies the Law Again


Puritan laws were strict toward everyone, but especially toward Native Americans. In 1657 a law was passed making it illegal to sell or provide liquor to Indians; in 1663 it became illegal for an Indian to be intoxicated. William Furbish appears to have had little regard for puritanical laws; in 1674 he was fined in New Hampshire for drinking with two Indians named Richard and Harry.


Indian Attacks


The formerly peaceful Wampanoag attacked suddenly in 1675; on October 16 they ambushed and killed 70-year-old Roger Plaisted and two of his grown sons at his home in Quamphegan, two miles upriver from William Furbish. The assailants moved downriver, striking isolated homes, killing whom they could and burning what they could. We know the assaults continued past William Furbish’s house to Sturgeon Creek. Before winter arrived, eighty persons had been killed. We are unsure how the Furbish family avoided becoming numbered among the casualties, but apparently William was able to defend his family and home.” [Two sons and two daughters along with his wife Rebecca were unharmed.] “The settlers responded with a promise for a truce, and when at a large gathering the antagonists laid down their arms, the English soldiers slaughtered them. This treachery on the part of both parties, now magnified, was never forgotten…


William and Rebecca Furbish Abuse the Constable


On the first day of July 1679, the constable attempted to seize the Furbish homestead. The reason we do not know – but we can certainly guess. Like an overzealous hall monitor, the Constable’s job was to note whether anyone was breaking any law, including swearing profanely, which the Scots were constantly in trouble for doing, or for not respectfully and regularly observing the Lord’s Day. Knowing Furbish’s disdain for the Puritan clergy, it is a wonder he went seventeen years between arrests!