Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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Historic Buildings of Coventry, CT

Fellow museum guide, interpreter, and teacher Dan Sterner travels all throughout Connecticut photographing the thousands of 18th and 19th century buildings that remain in our 163 towns. He posts the pictures with descriptions and historical information on his web site, town by town. Dan recently put up some pages about what’s to be found in Coventry, which was founded in 1712 and still has more than 400 old places, many in fine condition,  along its roads and byways. He generously agreed to permit me to link up to that page here on You’re History. I’m including the Coventry index here, but there’s a complete index of all the places he’s visited on Historic Buildings of Connecticut .

Thanks, Dan, great work!

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Buildings Index

Boston Turnpike
12 Brigham’s Tavern (1778)
1064 Nathaniel Root House (1809)
1630 Coventry Grange Hall (1834)
1746 Second Congregational Church (1847)
1747 Loomis-Pomeroy House (1833)
1804 Pomeroy Tavern (1801)

Bread & Milk Street
21 Jacob Wilson Tavern (1735)

Main Street
1129 Capron-Philips House (1864)
1134 Booth & Dimock Memorial Library (1913)
1141 Former Methodist Church (1867)
1171 First Congregational Church (1849)
1195 Coventry Visitors’ Center (1876)
1220 Bidwell Hotel (1822)
2011 Daniel Rust House (1731)

North River Road
290 John Turner House (1814)
941 Charles Hanover House (1825)

South Street
2187 Elias Sprague House (1821)
2299 Nathan Hale Homestead (1776)
2382 Strong-Porter House (1730)

CT History: The Glastonbury Cows Make History

When I was growing up, we used to joke that there were more cows in Glastonbury than people, and perhaps there were. That’s no longer the case, but this afternoon I came across this article, which made me smile. You go, girls!

 

From the newsletter of  New England Historical Society.

In the early days of the fight for women’s voting rights, Connecticut’s Glastonbury Cows were the stars of the show. In June of 1869 the tax collector in Glastonbury, Conn. asked two elderly sisters to pay their road tax early, which they did. Abby and Julia Smith were then surprised when the town accidentally billed them for the tax again in October.image
When they asked that the town correct the matter, the tax collector, Albert Crane, refused. When they tried to enter Town Meeting to raise the issue, they were turned away. And thus, two suffragettes were born.
The Smiths were wealthy, quite possibly the wealthiest home in Glastonbury. Their father was a one-time clergyman who pursued a career in law. He left his daughters a large land holding, investments and a farm. Their mother left them a sizable inheritance, as well.
The frustrated sisters paid the tax a second time, but they were furious about their lack of political power. They began attending women’s suffrage rallies. And with the passing years, their frustration grew. Their taxes were increased. And in 1874, they were told they could not let the tax go unpaid in exchange for a 12 percent interest charge – a courtesy afforded other taxpayers.
The Smiths became convinced that their taxes were only being increased on properties owned by women, and that they couldn’t delay payment because they were women. They became convinced that modern women needed a vote, and decided to stop paying taxes until they could.
“Taxation Without Representation,” was their rallying cry. The Smiths joined a group of women suffragist activists who chose taxes as their protest weapon of choice. Abby Smith was a regular writer on the topic:
“We have lately sent a day in celebrating the heroism of those who threw overboard the tea; but how trifling was the tea-tax, and how small the injustice to individuals compared with this one of our day!”
In 1874, the matter came to a head when the tax collector sized seven cows from the Smith sisters and auctioned them off to pay the taxes. The sisters used a straw buyer to retrieve most of the cows, and the story of the Glastonbury sisters and their cows went international.
As the story blossomed, it sparked heated newspaper columns. The Smith sisters’ critics argued that the pair were receiving all sorts of services in exchange for their money: roads, schools, police protection, etc. In one clumsy analogy, a writer noted they were like children, who also couldn’t vote. The arguments against the two only made their case stronger.
The supporters of the Smiths, on the other hand, took great pleasure in promoting their story. Those who didn’t see the rightness of the Smiths arguments were: “too stupid to think, too selfish to feel for others, or too cowardly to stand up for the right not yet lifted into popular recognition.’
The cows themselves, meanwhile, became celebrities and knickknacks woven out of their hair were hot sellers at fundraising bazaars that promoted voting rights for women. Julia published a popular book, Abby Smith and Her Cows. For several years through 1878 the process of seizing part of the sisters’ herd of Alderneys in lieu of tax payment and the Smiths buying them back continued.
Because of their Alderney cows, the Smiths were celebrated at rallies, testified to congress and were dinnertime conversation in homes across America. In 1878, at the age of 81, Abby died in July. In 1879, Julia, age 87, decided to marry for the first time, and her husband began paying the taxes on her property, and she repaid him. A compromise of love.
Julia Smith did not contain her feminism to tax protests and suffrage. She also published, in 1876, the only translation of the Bible written by a woman. Julia’s father was a student of the Sandemanian school of Christianity, which believed worship needed a conscious, mental act rather than being a spiritual matter. The apple apparently didn’t fall far from the tree.
Julia, curious about what might have been altered in the King James version of the Bible, decided to translate it herself from Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. Her texts were literal and made no effort to update the language or provide context to Biblical stories.
In 1881, tax collector Crane was voted from office. When the town charged that several thousand dollars were missing, he said his books had been stolen and he couldn’t square accounts. “I’m not surprised at anything he says,” Julia wrote.
In 1886, Julia died having relocated from Glastonbury to Hartford. Like many early suffrage agitators, she died without seeing women vote. It would be the 1890s before women were voting in some elections in Connecticut and 1920 before women voted nationwide.

It’s Halloween again: The Real Ghost of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale is remembered today as the 21 year old volunteer spy who was hanged in New York by the British in 1776. I often used to wonder how someone facing imminent death could come up with such last words as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” After I joined the staff at the Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry, CT, where Nathan was born and grew up, I learned that, while a student at Yale, Hale studied ancient cultures and may have acted in the play “Cato”, by Joseph Addison, which is all about dying for one’s country. Nathan’s words were probably a quote or a paraphrase from that play, which would have been instantly recognized by any educated man, English or American. When Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death”, he was quoting from the same play.

Nathan was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City, the exact site of which is unknown to this day. While there are numerous little anecdotes about Hale family ghosts, I’ve never heard any about Nathan himself. But there is a kind of ghost or shade of him that can be easily seen by anyone on the 2nd floor of his family’s home. This is the story.

Nathan was not the only Hale son to die as a result of the War for Independence. Five of his 7 brothers also fought with the army, and his older brother Joseph, who was fortunate enough to return home and father 3 daughters, died several years later. Joseph had been a prisoner of war for a time, held captive in one of the infamous British prison ships anchored off New Jersey. Prisoners who survived often suffered lingering illnesses of various types, and it’s believed that Joseph brought consumption (tuberculosis) home, a disease that was notoriously contagious, and that killed him and, as the years passed, the greater part of the Hale family.

After Joseph’s early death, his widow came to live with her husband’s family at Hale Homestead, staying with her 3 little girls until her remarriage. At that time, for reasons unknown, one of the daughters, Rebecca, remained behind in Coventry. She grew up on the farm, leaving only at the time of her marriage around 1800. By the time she returned once more to Coventry, she was getting on in years. She left a letter telling an intriguing story from her childhood. Rebecca wrote that, on the back of her chamber door was a “shadow portrait” of her by-then famous Uncle Nathan. When she visited the house, now owned by strangers, she looked for the image, but, to her great disappointment, it had been painted over. Rebecca’s letter describes her disappointment and her belief that it was gone forever.

Some 70 years later, the man who restored the house to its 18th century style was shown Rebecca’s letter. Immediately he started hunting for this mysterious image, and when he had the paint removed from the door, (Rebecca described its location), a silhouette etched into the wood in pencil came to light.

It seems strange to modern thinking that someone would draw on a door this way, but it actually seems to have been customary among English families. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about a mother who took her son’s silhouette upon a wal, before he left for war.

But is this really a likeness of Nathan Hale? Who knows – you can draw your own conclusion. But I’m pretty positive that it’s either his likeness or one of his brothers’. At any rate, every time I show the mystery man to visitors, I feel Nate’s presence, at least in spirit.

More on Connecticut’s Witch Trials

imageFrom Coastal Connecticut magazine, an article dealing with witch scares in 17th century Connecticut. The author, Tom Sobolesky, interviewed me by phone last Friday, in connection with our upcoming Witches and Tombstones tours at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. As per usual, he didn’t get everything quite right, but here is his take on what actually happened.

Fear of Witches in Early Connecticut

Decades before Salem’s witch panic, the fear of witches (wiccaphobia) in early Connecticut was pervasive and contagious. In fact, the state executed more women accused of witchcraft than anyplace else in the colonies. “One of the hardest things for people to understand today,” Connecticut’s State Historian, Walter Woodward, explained to the Litchfield County Times in 2001, “is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil. The world was a different place then. It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”

In this boiling atmosphere, nine women and two men were marched to the gallows in Connecticut. Two married couples, including John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, were among those to meet the hangman. Documentation of their case is thin, but what exists says that John was arrested and fined for bartering a gun with a Native American. Their indictment is similar to many of the time: “thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan . . .”

They were hung in Hartford in 1651.

Before the Carringtons, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was whipped for theft and, in 1648, confessed to murdering a child. Her indictment included licentiousness, in addition to familiarity with Satan. While in prison, Johnson had a baby boy. Since she didn’t meet the hangman’s noose until 1650, some historians speculate that the baby’s father was the jailer’s son. Linda Pagliuco, a guide at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, who has done a lot of research on the era, conveyed this theory. That son of the head jailer consented to raise the child, and this was agreed to by the court.

The topic of the Wethersfield witches will be covered in a Witches and Tombstones Tour hosted by Webb-Deane-Stevens on October 24 & 25. Reservations are advised.

In that era of fear, neighbors didn’t trust neighbors and looked down on you even if you were struggling. “People were not charitable,” says Pagliuco. “They didn’t like for their neighbor to need charitable assistance.” Many of the women accused were poor. If you were suspected of witchcraft, those neighbors could comprise the jury. If the court’s verdict didn’t call for punishment, the neighbors themselves might inflict it.

The colonial governor, John Winthrop Jr., also believed in witchcraft, but was more skeptical of the specific allegations and thought that the lax evidentiary court standards of that time were insufficient. A newly released book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, by Walter Woodward, traces how Connecticut’s settlement was influenced by witchcraft, religion, local tribes and more.

“Winthrop was a man ahead of his time,” Pagliuco says. “He dabbled in magic and alchemy,” – things that would make women suspicious. But because he was from a prominent family, he would not be targeted.

The colonists’ attitudes about religion and witchcraft are in sharp contrast to the positions attributed to the present day practice of Wicca. According to wicca.com, “Satan, or the devil, has absolutely no place in Wicca or witchcraft,” and it, “does not engage itself in criticizing the beliefs of other people…Witches do object to religions that attempt to suppress the religious beliefs of others.”

Pagliuco likens today’s bullying to the witch paranoia, saying people are called names or harassed for being perceived as different, just as women were back then. “If you become unpopular, something bad could happen to you. If you’re different and make someone mad,” they may come after you. “If you look at the mechanisms, it’s similar but with a different vocabulary.”

Resources for Further Study

A full list of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut (and their verdicts) is contained in a report by the Office of Legislative Research, 2006-R-0718. Other sources to research the history of the state’s witchcraft hysteria can be found on the state library website.

A full transcript of the 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 can be found within this link – (note: you have to scroll about ⅔ of the way through to get to the portion on witchcraft). Copies of supporting documents that were submitted to the committee, including written requests for forgiveness from several present day descendants, can be found here. Included are charts tracing the lineage of two of the descendants, and a brief by UConn history professor, Lawrence Goodheart.

Suggested books on this topic include, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R. G. Tomlinson, and The Devil on the Shape of a Woman, by Carol F. Karlsen

Fall’s Coming, But Not Just Yet

On this beautiful late August afternoon, during the lull between tour groups at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT,  I took a stroll around the museum grounds and noticed quite a few early signs of autumn, which is still three weeks away. Out came my iPhone and I photographed my favorites. Fall is a very evocative season in these parts, actually my favorite, for its warm, dry days and chilly evenings, not to mention the riot of color that surrounds us out here in the country. But that’s still in the future, and today I took much pleasure in the experiencing the last third of our current summer.

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Goldenrod begins to bloom in late July to reach its peak around now, bright and full for a few more days before it begins to turn brown. Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod is not a plant that causes allergies. Up with goldenrod, down with ragweed!

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The corn is a high as an elephant’s eye….

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Hops! Just about ready for picking, but not enough, alas, to make beer.

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Pokeweed, with its prolific crop of berries about to turn purple. I like to use this with school groups, to make ink for our spy class documents.

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Our junior docents are already hard at work preparing for our haunted corn maze, which takes place on late September, early October weekend evenings. Especially fun when there’s no moon, which makes the maze even darker and spookier. First the props, then the costumes. It’s their favorite event of the year, and possibly our most popular.

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Plants for dyeing: Comfrey

comfreyI’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.