We don’t know what her surname was at birth, or even her first husband’s name. But we do know that she was known by everyone in town as a chirurgeon (surgeon/doctor), and was recognized as such when her second husband’s probate case was in court.
Joanna arrived in the colonies sometime before 1640. As a wife, or a widow, we do not know. Her husband, if she had one, was not around by 1640. This we know because according to testimony regarding her 2nd husband John’s probate in 1680, she had married forty years earlier to John Smith. (I know, right. Just what I need, another bloody Smith in the family). She brought into this 2nd marriage one daughter, by the name of Elizabeth.
They were most likely married in Boston, where John had been working as a tailor/nailor*, and stayed there for about 13 years. (It is believe that he arrived in New England about 1638 with a brother, Nehemiah. This brother helped him out with a loan when the family wanted to moved to New London, Connecticut about 1653.
Joanna and John had no children, or at least not any that lived. (And John had no children when he died.)
She was a noted doctor and was skillful at healing wounds and bruises and made her own salves, which she used on the patients she tended. Her practice no doubt helped to fill the family pantry or coffers. These skills were passed on to her granddaughter Agnes, who married Thomas Pember. (It does not appear that her daughter Elizabeth was interested in learning the healing arts.)
Agnes (traditionally pronounced Inez, silent ‘g’) was an excellent student:
“Agnes studied medicine under her grandmother, Joanna Smith, became her assistant, and took over the practice when the grandmother became enfeebled. Caulkins’ History of New London, (page 355), mentions Agnes Pember, “was who was for many years famous as a nurse and doctress … Tradition related many vivid anecdotes respecting this energetic and experienced race of female practitioners… and unbounded confidence was placed in her female skills to stroke for the King’s evil (scrofula, thought to be cured the a touch from royalty), to cure cancers, alleviate asthma, and set bones.1
When John died in 1679, Edward Smith, a nephew (a son of John’s eldest brother), protested the will stating that the intent of John in inviting him to move to New England, was that he would treat him as his own son, and upon John’s death, Edward would inherit, as if a son. Probate court records indicate Joanna denied Edward the right to any inheritance, as the will never states any such thing, and all Edward could provide was heresay.
Joanna made a statement that she wished the court to consider regarding the matter of the will:
That I stand as the third person distinct from my deceased husband and Edward Smith, with a lawful conveyance of a part my husband’s estate in my hand which cannot be voided by all those former acts which they pretend to be my husband’s.
“He [Edward] is worse than an infidel that provides not for his own house. I was the proper house my husband had to provide for, flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, and he could not with good conscience do less than provide well for me. I brought an estate to him: I helped in getting the estate, the bare rents my husband knew would not maintain me, who he knew he was to leave blind and sickly and aged. If he did in former times say he would do more for Edward, and less for me, it is to be supposed that those purposes were upon his view of things as they stood when I was well able to live by my chyrurgery, now I am blind and cannot see a wound much less dress it or make salves, also my husband expected better behavior from Edward: then after he found, in the providence of God altering my condition so much as for being a good help to others, but I was grown to be a great burthen, gave my husband a just call to alter his former intentions and to give me what might purchase me that respect and supply which the necessity of my condition called for, and which was his indispensable duty to provide for which he having done, if it must not be undone, then woe to poor widows when their husbands are dead, and under what doubts must all consider, tender, conscionable husbands live and die when they shall see an instance of one that did what he could to provide for his widow, but it was frustrate the law would not maintain it. But I hope for better things from the prudence and justice of this court, such as may make the widows heart sing for joy and &c. “Joanna Smith”2
The case was in court a while, but eventually Joanna received her due.
In one of the depositions in the probate case from Richard Smith of New London we learn something interesting regarding her daughter Elizabeth:
“…Furthermore, John Smith added that his wife had been very earnest with him, to make one of her daughter’s children, his heir. But the said John Smith said he wholly declined it because his wife’s daughter was a Quaker and he could not abide Quakers, and also that her husband [George Way] did not please him.”
So apparently John didn’t care for his stepdaughter’s Quakerish ways (or her husband). A common view in New England at the time where Quakers were vilified, harassed, and even hanged for their belief.
Joanna was blind at the time of her husband’s death, which is stated several times in the depositions, and in the statement regarding her granddaughter Agnes taking over the doctoring business.
Deposition of Martha Mould: …and if that any words had passed between them in the last sickness wherein one being sick and sometimes testy and angry, and the other through age, weakness and want of sight, not able to do as formerly she could have done…
Deposition of Anne Lattemore: that she was there watching in the time of his sickness, and that Joanna acted “with all tenderness and due respect as a wife could do, being in such condition as she was, in being weak, aged and dark sighted.”
The following court case is found in Connecticut court records from 1682:
“Elizabeth Way presented for not living with her husband. The Court orders her to go to her husband or to be imprisoned.” Elizabeth stated that her husband resided in Saybrook and she would remain with her mother at New London as she was the only daughter of John and Johanna Smith.
So, Elizabeth up and left her husband to take care of her aged, blind mother. As her only child, and a devout Quaker, I would imagine that she felt she had no other course but to do her duty, as both. Maybe she was even glad to get away from the old ball and chain for a while. George certainly didn’t seem inclined to be reasonable about the matter, as shown by his bringing her to court to insist that she return home.
The court order was disregarded by Elizabeth.
Joanna died in 1687, aged about 73, but not before passing on her doctoring knowledge to her granddaughter Agnes, who was also well know for her skills. Joanna’s estate was inherited by her daughter Elizabeth, who was now living in Lyme, Connecticut. At no time does the maiden name of Elizabeth appear in the records, so we still do not know who her father is.
I am imagining a tradition of strong, intelligent women in Joanna’s family passing down these doctoring skills to the next generation. All of them, in their time, a vital part of their community. Just reading her statement to the probate court, in trying to get her just due from her husband’s estate, some of that strength comes through.
Joanna is an ancestor in my Dad’s Cross line. Joanna’s lawyer, representing her in the probate case, was William Pitkin. William is an ancestor on the Shaw side of the family, (through Charlotte Hatch). Ensign Clement Minor, an ancestor on mother’s Shepard side, testified against the nephew, Edward in the case. It’s a small world in the 1600s.
*Naylor is written in the records, some believe that to be a typo and he was a tailor, others think it meant nailor. Which sounds like a very weird job to me, what, you just nail all day. Hey, sir, you need anything nailed today. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound likely.
- John Pember: The History of the Pember Family in America, Compiled by Mrs. Celeste Pember Hazen; 1939: self published.
- A genealogical history of the descendants of the Rev. Nehemiah Smith of New London County, Conn.: with mention of his brother John and nephew Edward. 1638-1888, by Smith, Henry Allen, 1889; Albany, N.Y.: J. Munsell’s Sons.
- Connecticut Way Family, compiled by C. Granville Way. Original manuscript in possession of Mary Elizabeth Way, Martinez, California. Loaned to the public library of Fort Wayne and Allen County, May 1978.