A family takes root in the wilderness

The extraordinary life and times of Sarah Wells Bull come alive in new book

Make text smaller Make text larger


  • Julie Boyd Cole pumps water at the family homestead, 300 years old this year, from a pump dating to the days of her ancestors Sarah and William Bull (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • These family trees, framed and hanging in the Bull Stone House, were created by early ancestors (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • A bedroom in the Bull Stone House (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • The Bull Stone House and outbuilding (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • Descendants slept on this original rope bed into the 21st century (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • That hole in the wall allowed early ancestors to keep their gun powder dry (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • The parlor at the Bull Stone House (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

  • The grounds of the old stone house (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

By Ginny Privitar

— A treasure trove of notes reveals how Sarah Wells really felt about her early years in the wilderness.

Her grandson Peter Bull said she felt dejected as she surveyed her new home, a wigwam built by her Indian guides near the Otterkill River, as yet unsettled by white people. How different from the home she left, on Pearl Street in Manhattan!

"She saw nothing wrong, as she said, but her situation in life — a mere solitary hermit, as it were in society — again those gloomy prestiges came hovering over her senses — as if she must sink down," Peter wrote.

He goes on to say that Sarah was roused from her pensive thoughts by the jangling of the cow bells. She picked up her pail and went to milk them. Life for this pioneer woman left little time for regrets, and her days were soon filled with activity.

Julie Boyd Cole and Sarah Brownell are cousins and authors of "Sarah, An American Pioneer: The Circumstantial and Documented Evidence of the Courageous Life of Sarah Wells Bull," about their shared ancestor. Cole said their greatest discovery was being able to date the "Goodwill Notes," which the family had in its possession since 1965, and contained valuable insights into the character of their legendary ancestor.

"Being able to date them and put authorship to them, we realized Sarah's grandson Peter Bull had written them, and his life overlapped hers by 40 years," said Cole.

Peter attributed the history to Sarah. That they were contemporaries for four decades made it very plausible that he'd heard these things from Sarah herself.

Indentured servitudeThrough diligent research, Cole and Brownell have brought Sarah to life and filled in some missing pieces of her history in a book filled with fascinating background about Colonial New York.

It was known that Sarah Wells was born about 1696, orphaned at a young age, and bound over by the "orphan master" of the Lutheran Church, as an indentured servant of Christopher and Elizabeth Denne of Manhattan, sometime between 1707 and 1710.

Denne, who was a carpenter and dock master, owned a portion of the Wawayanda Patent land in Orange County. He was concerned that the crown would take away his land if it was not developed. In addition, he was heavily in debt and decided to move from the Manhattan townhouse he rented to the wilderness of what is now Orange County.

In May 1712, he sent Sarah, his 16-year-old indentured servant, ahead of him, along with two carpenters and three Munsee Indian guides, animals, and provisions to establish a home on the Otterkill, near today's Goshen. The site was about two miles from the Munsees' native village. As an incentive, Denne promised Sarah 100 acres of land at the end of her servitude, to be carved from his own 2,000-acre stake.

Sarah later met stonemason William Bull, another indentured servant. After their periods of indenture ended, the two married on Aug. 25, 1718. Bull built many stone houses, including the stone house that bears his name and still stands today, and that is the site of many family reunions. Together they had 12 children, and at the time of Sarah's death, aged 100 years and 15 days on April 21, 1796, her recorded descendants numbered 335. Today they number more than 76,000 and are spread around the country and the world.

There had remained missing parts of Sarah's history. Who were her parents, and what happened to them?

Through their love of history and desire to know more, Cole and Brownell have managed to narrow the answer to that question and others.

The authors believe Sarah was the daughter of German immigrants Samuel and Elizabeth Shoemaker Pettinger. When Sarah was about nine, her father went to sea and was never seen again. Elizabeth left Manhattan, taking her three youngest children with her to New Jersey. Sarah and, likely, her sister Elizabeth were bound into service.

At some point, Sarah's surname was changed to Wells, which the authors say is an English translation of the German "Pettinger." In the early 1700s, there was some antipathy toward a wave of Palatine German immigrants. The authors speculate someone with authority over Sarah changed the name to avoid any trouble.

Sarah and William thrived in the wilderness. Sarah not only managed to raise 12 children, she survived the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and outbreaks of disease. It was a hard life with much physical toil. But, as tough as it was, it only seemed to strengthen her.

An unhappy second marriageDuring the French and Indian War, the Bull Stone house served as a place of refuge for area residents, especially at night. Although the house was never attacked, as were homesteads near the Delaware River, the entire area was under high alert.

After the death of her husband, William, in 1756, Sarah married Johannes Miller. Apparently the marriage was not to her liking. Family lore said she and Miller were divorced, but no record could be found.

The authors managed to corroborate the outcome of Sarah's second marriage, thanks to a newspaper record they found in Genealogical Data from Colonial New York Newspapers by Kenneth Scott.

On Nov. 29, 1770, this ad was printed in the New York Journal in Manhattan. It reads, in part:

"Absconded from her husband and son-in-law, about 6 months ago, Sarah Miller, the wife of Johannes Miller; whereas the subscribers are anxious she will run them in debt; therefore this is to warn all persons from crediting her on either of their accounts as they will pay no debts of her controlling from the date hereof." It was signed Johannes Miller and John Miller.

According to Cole and Brownell, this was often the only way that couples divorced in the middle colonies at that time, with an announcement that the union was no more.

Once again, at age 73, Sarah Wells Bull Miller was showing her independent spirit. She went back to the Bull Stone House to spend the rest of her days.

As for Cole and Brownell, the search for revelations about their family's history, goes on.

See related story, "Curiosity about shared ancestor has cousins delving into history."

Make text smaller Make text larger


Pool Rules


Judge won't let unvaccinated children back in school
A federal judge, citing an “unprecedented measles outbreak" in suburban Rockland County, N.Y., has denied a request to let 44 unvaccinated children return to school.
Read more »

SUNY Orange presenting classic film 'Rashomon' March 28
NEWBURGH - On March 28, 2019 at 7 p.m., Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, will be screened the Orange Bank & Trust Company Great Room in Kaplan Hall, on the SUNY...
Read more »

State Assemblyman Schmitt talks tax relief
GOSHEN - State Assemblyman Colin Schmitt (R,C,I,Ref-New Windsor) on Feb. 20 addressed a sold-out crowd at the Goshen Chamber of Commerce Networking Breakfast as a guest speaker to...
Read more »

Local author to hold book signing March 30
GOSHEN – Local author, Eleanor Kuhns, will be signing her new book, The Shaker Murders, at Linda’s Office Supplies between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on March 30. Kuhns, the...
Read more »


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Community Newspapers


Find more about Weather in Chester, NY