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Sayward-Wheeler House (c. 1718)

Expect the unexpected

York Harbor, Maine

At Sayward-Wheeler House, overlooking the York River, free and enslaved people lived in close proximity as the dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War unfolded around them. Enslaved household members Prince Sayward and Cato sought freedom, while the wealthy and esteemed property owner, Jonathan Sayward, found himself at the center of turmoil.

On land once home to the Wabanaki people, Sayward-Wheeler House was owned by one family through direct lineage from 1719 to 1977. The house changed little in the nineteenth century, due to the declining wealth of Sayward’s descendants and in deference to the family’s patriarch. In the twentieth century, descendant Elizabeth Wheeler purchased the property as a vacation retreat and to preserve her ancestral home. Today, the parlor still contains furniture and portraits that were there on the eve of the Revolution. It is believed to be one of the best-preserved colonial interiors in the nation.

Plan Your Visit

Location

9 Barrell Lane Extension
York Harbor, Maine 03911

Days & Hours

First and third Saturdays
June – October 15

Tours on the hour
11 AM – 3 PM

 

Admission

$10 adults
$9 seniors
$5 students and children

Free to Historic New England members.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Historic New England is following all state, local, and CDC safety guidelines for York. Tour group size is limited. Due to small room size at the Sayward-Wheeler House, masks are required for all staff and visitors at this time.

Directions

I-95 to Maine Exit 7, “The Yorks.” Bear right onto Route 1 south; left onto Route 1A, follow 1.5 miles through York Village, turn right onto Route 103 (Lilac Lane); immediate left onto Barrell Lane; immediate right onto Barrell Lane Extension.

Parking

Street parking along Barrell Lane Extension.

Contact Information

Sayward-Wheeler House Exterior

The house was typical of many houses in York in the first half of the eighteenth century, consisting of two rooms over two rooms with a central chimney.

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  • Sayward-Wheeler House Exterior

    The house was typical of many houses in York in the first half of the eighteenth century, consisting of two rooms over two rooms with a central chimney.

  • Sitting Room

    The largest room in the house, the sitting room was used primarily for entertaining and conducting business.

  • Tall Clock

    This tall clock, in the corner of the sitting room, may well have been Jonathan Sayward's most valuable belonging.

  • Sideboard

    Jonathan Sayward Barrell added this sideboard to the sitting room. A portrait of his father, Nathaniel Barrell, hangs above it.

  • Parlor

    Furnishings in the parlor include a mahogany drop-leaf table and Chippendale-style chairs made in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, c. 1760.

  • View

    Sayward-Wheeler House overlooks the York River.

Agamenticus
The Wabanaki people named the river and town now called York, Maine, Agamenticus. Having lived in this place for thousands of years, according to oral tradition, the Wabanaki suffered disastrous consequences with the arrival of European explorers in the 1500s and European settlers in the early 1600s.

European diseases from which the Wabanaki had no immunity, a three-way struggle for land and survival between the Wabanaki, French, and English, and the ensuing series of escalating conflicts decimated the Indigenous communities in Maine. More, needing labor to expand their economy in this frontier, European settlers incited conflicts with the Wabanaki for the purpose of winning battles, taking captives, and enslaving them.

In desperation, the Wabanaki people fought back. At the 1692 Candlemas Massacre, Madocawando, sachem in the Penobscot band of Wabanakis, with a French missionary led three hundred Wabanaki and French into the settlement now called York, killing dozens of settlers, taking survivors captive, and burning all but a few buildings.

Settlers abandoned the area until the 1710s, when they returned and rebuilt.

Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine, was described as a new house when Joseph Sayward (1684-1741), a millwright, purchased it from Noah Peck in 1720.

Boneto
Boneto, an enslaved Indigenous man was purchased by Joseph Sayward in 1730. Though he was enslaved for life, in a document of indenture, Boneto was promised freedom in nine years if he “behave himself honestly faithfully soberly & temperately as a servant of nine years servitude.”

Sayward was active in civic affairs and was an elder of the Congregational church, but he was imprudent in his financial affairs, and in 1732 the town of York voted to help him out of debt. Perhaps to provide further financial aid, Jonathan Sayward purchased the house from his father in 1735 for £200. After the elder Sayward’s death in 1741, Jonathan Sayward lived in the house with his first wife, Sarah, and his mother, who died in 1759.

It is not known how Boneto’s life unfolded. He may have been sold to pay off debts prior to 1735. He may have achieved freedom in 1739, in accordance with the terms of indenture. He could have escaped, particularly if he was from the area and so knew the land and the people who could help him.

That the Indigenous communities had the advantages of familiarity of the land, and family and friends who could help them escape was one reason the European colonists began importing enslaved people of African and Caribbean descent.

10-jonathansaywardProsperity and Politics

The house Jonathan Sayward purchased from his father consisted of two rooms over two rooms with a central chimney and was typical of many houses built in that coastal town in the first half of the eighteenth century. The style is derived from local building traditions, not from the more formal designs in the English architectural pattern books that were used elsewhere in the colonies at the time.

Jonathan Sayward referred to himself in deeds and other documents as a trader, a coaster, and a mariner. In 1744 Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts commissioned him to command the sloop Sea Flower in the expedition against Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which resulted in the capture of the French fortress of Louisburg in 1745. By about 1760 Sayward had built up a substantial shipping business, and in succeeding years he was involved in the lumber trade with the West Indies and the fur trade with Canada. He sponsored ships voyages to the West Indies trading in enslaved people.

His business contacts were strengthened by the marriage of his only child, Sarah, to the aspiring merchant Nathaniel Barrell – a brother of the better-known Boston merchant Joseph Barrell. In 1763 Nathaniel and Sarah Barrell (or Sally, as she was called) moved a few miles up the York River from Sayward-Wheeler House to a farm Sayward owned on Beech Ridge.

As Sayward’s wealth grew, so did his civic involvement. In 1761 he was appointed Justice of the Peace, in 1768 Justice of the Quorum, and from 1766 to 1768 he was given the great honor of representing York in the General Court in Boston.

Sayward made improvements to the residence. According to the diary he began in 1760 and kept almost until his death, in November 1761 he paid £45 to Samuel Sewell, a local joiner, for work on the house. This work probably included installing the paneling, which survives in the parlor and the chamber above it. He added a first-floor bedroom and a new kitchen, converting the old kitchen into a sitting room.

A turning point for Sayward and the American Colonies came in June 1768, when the General Court took a vote on whether or not to rescind a letter it had issued the winter before inviting the other colonial governments to join Massachusetts in forming a common body to oppose certain British duties and taxes. The letter was a clear sign of growing colonial resistance to British rule and the royal government ordered it be rescinded. Sayward was pessimistic about the ability of the colonies to unite and he feared they would pay dearly at the hands of the mother country should they try. He had opposed the letter and was among only seventeen of the 107 members of the General Court who voted to rescind, as the royal governor ordered. The seventeen “Rescinders,” as they were called, came under bitter attack in newspapers, broadsides, and caricatures. Sayward wrote in his diary, “we are treated with all contempt.” In a drawing by Paul Revere, the “Rescinders,” including Sayward, were caricatured being driven into hell by the devil.

Not surprisingly, Sayward was not re-elected to the General Court after this incident, but he continued his civic involvement, serving as both Special Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and Judge Probate of York County in the 1770s. During these years, Sayward’s diary entries reflect his continued dismay at the disrespect shown the royal government in Massachusetts and his growing worries about the future of the colonies. Sayward was particularly upset by the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 and argued vehemently against York’s approval of the “actions in Boston” in a two-day town meeting. He even sparred good-naturedly with the visiting John Adams during a dinner party in York later that year, urging Adams to be cautious in his “expedition to Congress.”

During this time, at least one enslaved man, Cato, was living and working at the household. In 1769, Cato attempted to escape but was recaptured.

By 1773, a second enslaved man, Prince, was living and working at the household. A young, enslaved woman, Dinah, was living and working at the Robert Rose Tavern, a little over one mile from the house.

In the 1770s, Prince, Cato, and Dinah would have been exposed to heated discussion and rising excitement about liberty and independence from England, and to actual conflicts between American colonists and British military in Portsmouth.

In essence a Loyalist, Sayward’s personal safety was in danger as revolutionary fervor grew. He narrowly eluded harm on a number of occasions. In October 1774, for example, Sayward heard a rumor that he was to be “mobbed.”

Sayward described 1775 as a “year of many trials.” It was a year in which his wife of thirty-nine years, Sarah Mitchell Sayward died, he was stripped of his civic positions, and he was sequestered in York. His confinement restricted his ability to conduct business and his finances suffered. He wrote in his diary on May 12, 1777, “I heard the Clock every Hour last night. Little or no Sleep.”

In 1780, Prince and Dinah were married. In 1781, Prince achieved manumission by enlisting with the Continental Army—without Sayward’s consent.

In 1779 Sayward married his second wife, Elizabeth Plummer of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the 1780s and 1790s he often visited friends in Boston and entertained others at his house in York. He noted in his diary in 1788 that his estate was diminishing, but he continued to take on apprentices to work in his warehouses. One of these was his eldest grandson and namesake, Jonathan Sayward Barrell, who attended Dummer Academy in Newbury, Massachusetts, and then returned to York in 1786 to work for his grandfather. In 1795 Sayward Barrell, as he was called, married Elizabeth Sayward’s niece Mary Plummer, and set out to establish himself as a prosperous merchant.

In 1783, Prince returned from the war a free man and found employment. Prince and Dinah lived in a dwelling near the Sayward household. According to his diary, Sayward had the house constructed for them.

In the same year, Cato purchased his freedom from Sayward for $275.

Prince died of tuberculosis in 1789. Dinah never remarried. She applied for and received a widow’s pension 49 years later, in 1838. She died in an alms house in York at the age of 101, in 1845.

There is as yet no information about Cato’s life after achieving manumission. Because the name Cato was a common among enslaved males of the era, and because Cato was deprived of a surname, research is difficult.

Having married his second wife, Elizabeth Plummer in 1779, Sayward died in 1797. He left the house and its contents to his grandson and namesake, Jonathan Sayward Barrell who, married Elizabeth Plummer Sayward’s niece Mary Plummer, set out to establish himself as a prosperous merchant.

5-parlor1890-tifPoverty, Veneration, and Preservation

When Jonathan Sayward died on May 8, 1797, at the age of eighty-four, he bequeathed to his grandson, Jonathan Sayward Barrell, his house and its contents. Specifically mentioned in the will were the tall-case clock, a map of North America, and the “Family & other Pictures.” He provided his wife Elizabeth with the use of the northwest part of the house during her widowhood and gave her outright enough furniture for her comfort.

Sayward Barrell’s ill luck as a merchant kept the house from being much altered during the nineteenth century. Fragments of wallpaper of the Federal period and a few pieces of Federal furniture indicate that the house was to some extent redecorated in the early years of the nineteenth century. However, Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 destroyed Barrell’s financial stability, and he started to operate a local store.

The eight Barrell children were well educated, but money was in short supply and it was a constant struggle to keep the house in the family. In 1822 Barrell was forced to mortgage the house to Theodore Lyman, a friend who was living in Waltham, Massachusetts (see Historic New England’s Lyman Estate). It continued to be mortgaged to members of the family or friends until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1822 Barrell sold to his daughter Elizabeth most of the furnishings in the house in order to pay the legacies from an estate of which he was executor. The primary documentation for the furnishings in the house today is the list of objects in that sale and the objects listed in Jonathan Sayward’s will.

Elizabeth Barrell and her sister Mary took on the responsibilities of the household early in life. Their mother died in 1814 and their stepmother, Anna Plummer (their mother’s sister), in 1826. They remained at home after their brothers left, and cared for their father until his death in 1857. Through the generosity of their brother Joseph, they received the title to the house in 1841. With the money received from the sale of Jonathan Sayward’s sawmill in 1859, they made repairs to the house and some alterations to the ell. The alterations included carving out a new east-facing entry hall from the large kitchen. With the addition of the new entry, the sisters re-oriented the house away from the water and toward the street.

Elizabeth and Mary Barrell took great pride in showing the house of their “venerable ancestor” to visitors, and it is apparent that their reverence for it prevented them from even rearranging objects within the house, especially in the parlor. At Mary Barrell’s death in 1889, the house was left to her only nephew, George Octavius Barrell (1849-1900). The inventory of her estate indicates that a sofa, a rocking chair, and stoves were the few furnishings that had been added since the list made in 1822.

1-sayward-wheelerhouse_historyFamily Summer Home

In 1900 the house and contents were purchased by Elizabeth Cheever Wheeler, a direct descendant of Jonathan Sayward who had visited the house frequently when it was occupied by the Barrell sisters. Without detracting from the architectural integrity of the exterior, she added a porch and dormers on the ell to accommodate bathrooms. The character of the interior was retained as well, although the woodwork was painted white, the walls were re-papered, and straw matting was laid on floors. Mrs. Wheeler and her family summered in the house until 1977.

1-sayward-wheelerhouse_historyBecoming a Museum

In 1977 Elizabeth Cheever Wheeler’s heirs presented Sayward-Wheeler House to Historic New England, then known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, respecting her desire that the house and contents be preserved “as a unified whole.” Historic New England formally opened the house to the public on July 8, 1978.

Collections on Display

Side Chair

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Sally Sayward Barrell (1738-1805)

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Tall Case Clock

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Tea Chest

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Charger

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Portrait of Jonathan Sayward (1713-1797)

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Property FAQs

Find out about accessibility, photography policy, and more.

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  • Can I park at the museum?

    Sayward-Wheeler House is located on a narrow side street. Visitors may park on the street or side lawn of the house.

  • Are there restrooms available?

    Yes. There is a restroom in the house available to museum visitors.

  • Is the museum accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Sayward-Wheeler House has not been equipped with accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first-floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are always welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I take photographs at the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • Can I visit the grounds at any time?

    The museum grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk. York’s popular Fisherman’s Walk path runs through the yard of the house and visitors are encouraged to explore it.

  • Are dogs allowed on the property?

    Historic New England welcomes responsible pet owners to enjoy our grounds. Dogs must be on a leash and under control at all times. Dog waste must be picked up and properly disposed of, off the property.

  • Do we need to take a tour or can we just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • Are there restaurants nearby?

    There are many dining options nearby in York Village and York Harbor.

  • How can I book a group tour? What is the cost?

    The cost for a group of eight or more is $1 off the regular admission price. Please call 207-384-2454 or email Sayward-Wheeler House to arrange a group tour.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • Do you provide admission discounts for EBT cardholders?

    EBT cardholders from all fifty states can show their card for $2 admission to house tours for up to four guests per card.

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