MARY (WILLS) WILBOR BURR
(1751 - 1852)
(____ - 1837)
Considered “the last of the Punkapoag Indians”, Mary (Wills) Wilbor Burr’s life and times--as well as her two marriages--are a glimpse not only into Canton’s local history but also into our young nation’s early beginnings as a whole. While Mary’s exact year of birth is still contested, there is little doubt that her long lifespan included witness to the growth of a nation as played out against the backdrop of her native people as they sometimes assimilated into the European colonists’ culture, while at other times were decimated by the same encroaching forces.
Mary’s maiden name of Wills and (two) married names of Wilbor and Burr seem almost deliberately contrived in their similitude. Daughter of Nuff Wills and Sarah Moho (he a black resident of Canton, she a Native American of the local Ponkapoag tribe), Mary’s first marriage to Jacob Wilbor was brief. They married in January of 1781 and he died in October of 1788. Three children of Jacob and Mary Wilbor, who died in infancy or early childhood, are recorded as buried in the Indian burial ground near what much later became known as Burr Lane.
It had been through Jacob’s possible kinship with Ponkapoag Indian Simon George that he had been granted rights to land previously owned and improved by George. It was here that Mary also made a home with her second husband Seymour Burr, a Revolutionary War veteran and pensioner who had secured freedom from the slavery of his youth through military service. Oft written but difficult to substantiate, Burr’s African origins allegedly include his birthright as the son of a prince. He took both his first name and surname from Connecticut farmer and master Seymour Burr, using various spellings “Seymour/Seymore/Semour”. Seymour was brother to the infamous duelist and third Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, whose shot took the life of Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804.
Freedom awaited any African American slave whose escape led him to join with the British army in the fight against the colonists, but when the young enslaved Seymour attempted this route to a new life, he was quickly captured by American forces and returned to his master. The elder Seymour then proposed a surprising alternative: if young Seymour paid his master the bounty the British had given him to join their forces and enlisted instead with the Continental Army to assist in the fight for this young nation’s freedom, Burr would release him from further enslavement. African-born Burr accepted the bargain and in April of 1781 joined an infantry regiment of the Continental Army and subsequently saw action in the Revolutionary War, purportedly including bitter encampment conditions at Valley Forge.
In the custom of the laws of the day, Burr’s children would be free if born of an Indian wife, though when he came to Canton as a newly freed man it is impossible to know his exact intentions. Married eventually to the widowed Mary (Wills) Wilbor, Seymour and Mary settled on her late husband’s land. As was also the law of the time, it was Seymour and not Mary who was deeded the land previously granted to Wilbor by the guardians of the Ponkapoag tribe as a result of this 1805 marriage. Here the couple resided with their family until Burr’s death in February 1837; he is buried in an unmarked grave at either the Canton Corner Cemetery or the Indian burial ground located near what is now known as Burr Lane off of Pleasant Street in Canton.
Mary outlived Seymour by a decade and a half and is buried at Canton Corner. Her gravestone records her age as 101 years and includes the epitaph “Last of the Native Punkapoag Indians” which seems a fitting memorial as Burr allegedly often referred to her, in his broken English and at times perhaps in short temper, as “you Injun”.
Endicott, Frederic (Editor) "The Record of the Births; Marriages and Deaths and Intentions of Marriage in the town of Stoughton from 1727 to 1800 and in the Town of Canton from 1797 to 1845 Proceeded by the Records of the South Precinct of Dorchester from 1715 to 1727"Printed by William Bense 1896. p.208 (Burr death record)
Huntoon, Daniel T. V. "History of the Town of Canton, Norfolk County, Massachusetts" University Press 1893 pp.28-31; 623 (list of Rev War soldiers)
Nell, William Cooper; Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1855). The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut.