As much as he enjoyed visiting other New England states, such as New Hampshire, my father’s roots in Connecticut were as deep as the Atlantic Ocean. His paternal grandmother, the former Ann Matilda Corning, was born in Preston, Connecticut. Preston was also the birthplace of his dad, Frank Everett Peckham.
According to family records, our Cornings have traced their roots to Saundby Parish, Nottinghamshire, England, to the late fifteenth century.
The first Corning to settle in America was Ensign Samuel (sometimes spelled Samuell) Corning, who was born in 1616 in Norfolk, England. After arriving in Massachusetts, he first lived in Salem but didn’t stay there long. He and his wife Elizabeth chose to settle down in the smaller town of Beverly, approximately four miles north of Salem, because of its better opportunities.
It turned out to be an auspicious move. In 1641, Samuel became a freeman, a title that conferred franchise and other privileges in the community. He also established himself as a trusted citizen of Beverly by serving as a selectman, a responsible job given to a town officer who, because of his capabilities, had been chosen to manage certain public affairs.
Samuel was a Puritan in his religious beliefs. This was not a problem in Massachusetts, as it had been in England. There, as he learned through his own disheartening experience, the domineering Church of England harassed Puritans because of their belief that people should use the Bible as a guide in social, financial, and even—-much to the horror of British authorities—-political issues. Puritans believed that when the Bible reigns as supreme authority in the foregoing matters, religion stays simple, pure, and unscathed.
Undoubtedly his tenacious hold on Puritan beliefs was the precipitating factor that brought Samuel to the New World, where he was sure to find religious freedom. And find freedom he did. Historical records indicate that he was one of the founders of First Church in Beverly, where he and his family enjoyed worshiping freely and in peace. As evidence that he was a hard worker, another trait of the Puritans, he himself built the church’s meeting house. Because he wanted to keep his mind on God, Samuel had no use for ornate rituals or vestments, thus ensuring that the meeting house’s interior was kept spartan.
He carried his religious beliefs into his home by living a simple lifestyle, although it is known that he had some real estate holdings within the community. It is also known that he was fairly well off financially in his later years (which he interpreted as a blessing from God).
Samuel’s great-grandson Nehemiah, born in 1717, was the first of my family’s Cornings to settle in Connecticut. He was married twice, first to Mary Pride and then to Freelove Bliss, the mother of Uriah Corning. It’s unknown whether Uriah, born in 1758, followed a traditional Puritan lifestyle of hard work, but it is certain that he heeded the call to arms after Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Uriah’s ancestors had found religious freedom but he, like other Colonists, yearned for political and economic freedom. He sensed that the appropriate time for breaking the chains of domination by the British Empire—-and the time for liberty—-was looming on the horizon like a huge bonfire. And when the time came to fight the Redcoats, Uriah eagerly participated.
Benjamin Corning, Uriah’s uncle, faced unexpected tragedy too soon for him to live in a free America or even to participate in the war for very long. According to records of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), after he joined the Continental Army the British captured him and placed him with thousands of other captured Continental soldiers on one of the British prison ships. His ship, the HMS Jersey, was moored in New York Harbor, and its crowded, unsanitary conditions were notoriously horrible. Because they had little food and no medical provisions, many of these unfortunate prisoners of war died on the ship. That’s what happened to Private Benjamin Corning, who died in 1783, the year in which the British surrendered at Yorktown. The Jersey was abandoned not long thereafter.
Uriah had much better luck than Benjamin in fighting the Redcoats and surviving the war. He served the Colonies in several capacities, according to data obtained from the Veterans Administration (Certificate 3543 issued December 26, 1832). His first assignment was as a private in Colonel Samuel Sheldon’s regiment, in which he served in the Battle of Long Island—-the first major conflict of the Revolution—-and the Battle of York Island.
Following these conflicts, he became a mariner for five months on board the Confederacy, a Continental frigate whose main job was to protect convoys. It was under the command of Captain Seth Harding. The primary task of personnel on board was to discreetly raid British merchant ships. It was dangerous work, but Uriah came through unscathed. He then served in other assignments. It is known that he was present and serving during the burning of New London and at the massacre at Fort Grisold in Groton in 1781.
After receiving his honorable discharge, signed by General Washington himself, he returned to Preston. Here he and his wife, the former Elizabeth Willett, raised their family. Along with other former Colonists, they cheered heartily in 1789 when George Washington was sworn in as America’s first President.
In 1868, a descendant of the first Corning in America became entwined in the Peckham family tree. In that year, Ann Matilda Corning, granddaughter of Uriah and Elizabeth, married James Riley Peckham of Norwich, Connecticut. As a result, two clans with deep roots in New England were forever united. Ann Matilda became the mother of my grandfather, Frank E. Peckham, and thus my father’s grandmother.