The Construction of the New Meetinghouse: Old Ship Church

By Rosamund Conroy

Early New England meetinghouses were the hearts of towns, serving not only as places of worship but also municipal buildings and even forts or garrisons. These basic structures hosted a variety of activities—from town meetings and trials to baptisms—and the original settlers were generally prohibited from building their homes more than a half a mile away from their town’s meetinghouse.

Hingham’s first meetinghouse was constructed shortly after the incorporation of the town, on the site where the Hingham Heritage Museum and Visitor Center now stands. It had a palisade fence, a bell and was probably a rough-hewn, unheated timber structure, similar to many others of that time. 

In January 1679, perhaps in a nod to its growing population and increasing wealth, the town voted to replace the old meetinghouse and build a new one “with all convenient speed.” They established a small committee to visit other towns for ideas and by May 1680 (the new year being in March under the Julian calendar), the town voted to build the new meetinghouse—the structure we now know as Old Ship Church— “where the old one doth stand.”

The vote was split though and the location proved controversial, with several powerful freemen preferring a different site. Despite the discord, other aspects of the project proceeded and in August 1680, the town agreed the building’s dimensions. In October 1680, they established the rates (the contribution per man, proportional to their assessed wealth) for a project total of about £437—an enormous sum of money in those days. At nearly £16, the highest rate payer was Daniel Cushing Snr. Esq., while many of the younger or poorer men “promised” a £1 contribution, vowing to pay it at a future date.

An excerpt from the Daniel Cushing Manuscript (1680’s) showing the total rate collected for the meetinghouse. The selectmen listed above held opposing views as to where the meetinghouse should be situated. Only photocopies survive from this part of the manuscript.
(Hingham Historical Society archives/Photo: R. Conroy)

The next spring arrived yet the location continued to be a thorny issue. In May 1681, the General Court got involved and sent two members, William Stoughton and Joseph Dudley, to view both sites. (Interestingly, Dudley would later be widely reviled throughout the colony for his role in the short-lived government of Sir Edmund Andros.) The men found both locations unsuitable and disallowed the construction of the new meetinghouse in “either the old place or in the plaine.” Governor Simon Bradstreet and the magistrates ordered another town meeting to resolve the issue and directed the selectmen to give them a “speedy returne” about the outcome. 

A compromise was reached when Captain Joshua Hobart donated a parcel of land for the meetinghouse. It was near to the old site but presumably more agreeable to all parties and an affirmative vote was duly passed at the subsequent town meeting. The meetinghouse frame was raised over three days in July and its first use was civic, for a town meeting on January 5, 1681. At that meeting, a committee was established to agree upon the seating arrangements in the new meetinghouse—a complicated task that involved segregation by sex and ordering by social hierarchy. 

A few days later, on January 8, 1681, the new meetinghouse—now known as the Old Ship Church—held its first Sabbath service, a tradition that continues to this day.

 

An excerpt from the Daniel Cushing manuscript (1680’s) showing the rate that each man paid, plus their seat in the meetinghouse. Hinghamites sat on seats (benches), not pews and the order presumably applied to all occasions, civil or religious. Only photocopies survive from this part of the manuscript.
(Hingham Historical Society archives/Photo: R. Conroy)

Would you like to know more? For a general overview of life in seventeenth-century New England, Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer provides an interesting social history of the English folkways that shaped America’s colonies. Food buffs will enjoy reading America’s Founding Food by Stavely and Fitzgerald, whereas Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich provides a glimpse into the hidden world of Puritan women.

Primary source materials can be as engrossing as edited works and they often bring a particular historical period to life in unexpected ways. A wealth of seventeenth-century primary sources can be found locally (try the Hingham Historical Society, the Hingham Public Library or the Massachusetts Historical Society) as well as online (for example, in the digital records at the Massachusetts State Archives).

 

Searching Early Massachusetts Deeds from Home — For Free!

Deed Search Image 0 Old OrdinaryIf you are curious about property your Massachusetts ancestors or other persons of interest might have owned, there is a way to locate deeds online. All it takes is a free familysearch.org account and a little patience.

I have been researching The Old Ordinary, the Hingham Historical Society’s 1686 house museum at 21 Lincoln Street (aka “the road to Broad Cove”) in Hingham, and its former owners and have found on-line resources such as FamilySearch helpful.  I’ll use The Old Ordinary as my example for how to search early deeds on-line.

In order to set up an account, go to familysearch.org, where you will be asked to provide an email address, set up a password, and choose a userID.  (Make sure to write these down.) You will also be asked to provide some basic information to start “your” family tree but rest assured that information on any living persons remains private, and you don’t have to continue creating a family tree to do research on the site.

You will get a confirming email which you must respond to promptly, and you’re all set.

FamilySearch menus can be deeply nested. Rather than go through all of the menu items to find the deeds, just use your browser to search for: familysearch massachusetts deed search

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From the menu of results, choose: Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986 — FamilySearch.org

Click and on the next screen choose: Browse through 5,766,135 images.

Don’t be daunted!  On the next screen, you are presented with a list of the Commonwealth’s counties. When searching deeds, it’s important to know which county a town was in when it was registered.  For instance, Hingham was in Suffolk County from 1643 until 1803, at which point it became part of Plymouth County.   If I am researching the early years, I need to choose Suffolk County.

I am now presented with a long list of links arranged in two columns in the following order:

  • Deed indexes (grantee), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname in successive volumes
  • Deed indexes (grantor), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname, again in successive volumes
  • Deed books, containing the actual deeds, organized by years and volumes.

(A little terminology:  “grantors” are the sellers and “grantees” are the buyers.)

Deed Search Image 1The grantee and grantor index books help you locate a deed more quickly within a certain set of deed books.  As you will see below,  using them on-line is a little bit more cumbersome than using the physical index and deed books, but you do get to search from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule.

An advantage to researching older deeds is that the index books cover a huge span of years, so you don’t have to know exactly when a property changed hands.  For purposes of my example, I know that Francis Barker owned The Old Ordinary in the mid to late 1700s. He was both a grantee when he bought the property and a grantor when he sold.

To find the record of his purchase, I need the grantee index for the period 1639 to 1799 for grantees whose last names start with B

  • Deed index (grantee) 1639-1799 vol 1-2, A-B

A click on the link brings up image 1 of the index book. Now it’s a matter of jumping around in the book until I find Francis Barker. Surnames are listed alphabetically at the top of the page, and given names are listed in the second column.  I like to jump about 50 images at a time until I get close.  I find that records for Francis Barker start at image 211 and end at image 215.  Happily, the one I am looking for is the first entry, which shows that on 5 Jan 1741 Francis Barker (grantee) purchased from Samuel Gill (grantor) a property in Hingham on the Highway to Broad Cove one acre in size. For the actual deed I am directed to consult Deed Book 62 page 171.

Deed Search Image 3I navigate back to the main page for Suffolk County by clicking at the top of the page and find myself at the long list of index books and deed books,  I look for Deed Book 62 and choose the link for

  • Deeds 1740-1741 vol 61-62

Deed Search Image 2This file of 619 images has two volumes, so Volume 62 probably starts halfway through about image 310.  Now, I need to find page 171.  A little browsing shows that each “page” is actually the front and back of a sheet.  Page 171 is, in fact, on images 495 and 496.  There, you can see “Gill to Barker” in the left margin of the left page of image 496. I can read the deed on my screen and/or download or print it.

Deed Search Image 4

[A bonus is that the document immediately prior to this is the deed by which Samuel Gill—Francis Barker’s grantor—himself acquired The Old Ordinary from Baruch Jordan!]

To find the deed for the sale of the property, I would go back and look at the grantor index books and repeat the process.

Not all deeds were registered in a timely fashion, and some land transfers were not registered at all. Some property passed through wills and other means. But most are listed, and you can often learn a lot about an ancestor by searching to see what land holdings he (or sometimes she) might have had.

Some of the terms in land records are archaic. For help understanding them, see: http://www.directlinesoftware.com/legal.htm

For help in understanding deeds and other property records in general, see: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/U.S._Land_Records_Class_Handout

Happy hunting!

Ruth Litchfield Marsh (1893-1991), Hingham Visiting Nurse

Ruth Briggs Litchfield, 19 years old, 1912. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy

At the end of August 1918, the worldwide influenza pandemic hit the Boston area. Doctors and hospitals were overwhelmed. Red Cross volunteers and nurses stepped in to help. In Hingham, Ruth Litchfield Marsh, two years out of nursing school, worked throughout the crisis. She was 25 years old. It was through this experience that she became committed to public health, working over her long life with the Hingham Visiting Nurses Association and as a volunteer for South Shore Hospital.

 

Ruth, the elder of S. Frances and Wilbur Litchfield’s two daughters. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy.

Ruth was born in April 1893 at 11 Union Street, Hingham, the first of two daughters of Sarah Frances Briggs and Wilbur Trowbridge Litchfield. She lived most of her life on School Street. She married George Marsh in May 1919, had four children and many grandchildren. Her house and gardens were always beautifully kept and she always had time to bake a casserole for a neighbor, talk to a child, and teach sewing. When she died at 97 years old, she was remembered for her many contributions to the town:  Girl Scout leader, nurse, volunteer, member of the Women’s Alliance of the Old Ship Church.  She was my grand-aunt and I, as well as many others, remember her compassion and gentle sense of humor.  For more about the life of Ruth Litchfield Marsh, you can read: The House on School Street, Eight Generations, Two hundred and four years. One family.

 

 

To My Children

After recuperating from a wound suffered during the Saratoga Campaign at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts, Major General  Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental Army was well enough to rejoin George Washington in New York in early August 1778.  Although he did not yet know it, he would be given the command of the Southern Division of the Continental Army in September 1778.  He would not be home again for any period of time for five years.

When General Lincoln left Hingham, his wife Mary was recovering from smallpox.  His eldest son, Benjamin, Jr., was 22 and away from home, studying the law.  Six children were at home:  Molly, 20; Elizabeth, 19; Sarah, 17; Theodore, 15; Martin, 9; and Hannah, 5.  Molly, the oldest daughter, who is referenced in this letter, was intellectually disabled and lived with her parents throughout her adult life.

On July 28, 1778, en route to New York, the General penned this letter to his children:

My Children:

The ill health of some of you, joined to my great hurry, prevented my making some general observations to you relative to your future conduct before I left home—some of which are of the greatest importance.

In the first place you will never forget your God—the duty you owe to him as your creator, preserver and best benefactor.   The duty you owe to your neighbor and to your selves you will learn from divine revelation, which you will attentively study, and the example of our dear redeemer.

I must mention to you the peculiar state of your mother whose cares and burdens are greatly increased by my absence. I need not urge; I am sure your own feelings will always suggest to you the propriety of your lessening her cares, lightening her burden, and treating her with every mark of tenderness, duty. and respect.  Never wound her by doing a wrong action. You may safely confide in her advice.

I must in the next place recommend to your constant notice your sister Molly. Consider who made you to differ.  You owe her every attention.  Make her life as happy as in your power. Some are made strong to bear the infirmities of the weak.

You will love each other.  Those of you who are grown up will counsel those who are not. Never set an ill example before the little ones.  Encourage them to every act of goodness, charity, and benevolence by precept and example.

As our happiness is connected with the happiness of those about you, always watch over yourselves; let your deportment at all times be such, if possible, that even the malicious shall be constrained to acknowledge its fitness.

I am in haste, must close ,but cannot do it without saying again remember your God, love your fellow creatures, injure no person.

I am, with every wish for your present and future happiness, your affectionate father,

B. Lincoln

 

Three Herrings and a Pung Ride

When settlers first arrived in New England they had a lot to learn.  One of the first things was how to grow corn.  Native Americans taught the new settlers how to fertilize soil for the corn with “three herrings to a hill,” as Eleanor Roosevelt tells us in This is America, the 1942 photodocumentary she wrote with Hingham resident Frances Cooke Macgregor.

Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Macgregor worked together on the book at the suggestion of the publisher, G.P. Putnam Sons of New York.   The text was written by Mrs. Roosevelt and the photographs were taken by Mrs. Macgregor.  In January 1942 Eleanor came to Hingham to meet with Mrs MacGregor at her Stoddard Street home.  Frances Cooke Macgregor was a published author and photographer.  She had already taken many photographs for the book and she and Eleanor together decided upon those they both felt would be most effective.  The United States had just entered the Second World War and their hope was to produce a book that showed life in small town America and to help Americans understand what it was they were fighting for.

While in Hingham, according to an account of her visit in the Hingham Journal of January 8th 1942, Mrs. Roosevelt dropped in on a League of Women Voters meeting, chatting informally with members and answering their many questions at this time of uncertainty in the country.  The First Lady found Hingham’s architecture, a mix of old colonial mansions, gingerbread Victorians, and charming Cape Cod cottages, to be delightful and much copied in other parts of the country.  She is reputed to have described Hingham Main Street as the most beautiful Main Street in America.

When Mrs. Roosevelt saw Hingham, she felt she had found “a picture in miniature of the whole nation.”  One purpose of the book was to affirm what it meant to be an American, regardless of ethnicity, and Eleanor was thrilled to discover that the Hingham High School football squad that year had players whose families had come from eight different parts of the world and that Hingham was home to Dutch and Polish farmers, Italian shoe makers, and a German harness maker, amongst many others. In 1942 Hingham had a population of 8,000.  It still had 50 farms—but it also had a commuter train., and much of its population now travelled to work in Boston.  There were, of course, schools, churches of all kinds, and a public library with 28,000 volumes.  The Loring Hall movie theater would be showing Citizen Kane the following week.

Children played outside in the still plentiful open spaces.  A favorite winter activity was known here as pung-riding, a term unknown in most of the rest of the country.  A pung was a low box sleigh drawn by a horse. Often hay would be placed inside and the children would snuggle down to enjoy the ride.  The more adventurous would ride on the runners, jumping off one pung and onto another while both were gliding swiftly over the snow.

With Mrs. Roosevelt’s words and Mrs. Macgregor’s photographs, the women wanted to portray American ideals.  They hoped that all across the country ordinary people would recognize themselves in the descriptions of Hingham and its citizens and understand that their values and aspirations were also true of them.

A collection of Frances Cooke Macgregor’s photographs of Hingham—which she personally selected and gave to the Historical Society in the early 1990s—are currently on display at the Hingham Heritage Museum. A presentation of “Tea With Eleanor’ with the actress Sheryl Faye in the persona of Eleanor Roosevelt will take place at Hingham Heritage Museum on Saturday, November 16th at 3:00 pm.  Please click here to purchase tickets on-line or buy in advance at the Hingham Heritage Museum:  seating is limited.  We hope you’ll take advantage of the both of these opportunities to learn more about these remarkable women and their connection to Hingham.

Moving House

Back in 1946 there was a bit of a housing shortage. Hingham dentist Ross Vroom bought a two-story Garrison colonial house on Gallops Island and had it placed on a barge and floated over to World’s End. He had a cellar dug at 22 Seal Cove Road, and the house still sits there today.

Dr. Vroom was no stranger to having a good house moved. Back in 1933 he moved the stately “Squire Norton House” from its original location at 65 Main Street across Hingham Square to 47 Fearing Road and lived there for many years.

Both of these photos are from the archives of the Hingham Historical Society.

A Letter from Home: Easterly Winds and Death

Old letters open a window to the past. There isn’t a genealogist or historian who doesn’t yearn for them. And for good reason: letters carry the voices of our ancestors, they tell us a story. They illuminate our history.

One such letter, written on May 1, 1830 by Hingham resident Benjamin Thomas, Jr., to his uncle Martin Cushing in Maine, contains “sorrowful” news. It relates the death of Martin’s older brother Adna, who died the day before. The story it tells is of working conditions, medical knowledge, and a community caring for its own.

By way of background, Martin and Adna, sons of Isaac and Mary Cushing, were born in Hingham in 1788 and 1785, respectively. Descended from Matthew, the first Cushing to settle in town, they grew up in Hingham Centre, working on the family farm and in the sawmill. As adults, they entered the trades: Adna became a stonemason, Martin a bricklayer. In 1810, Adna married Sarah Leavitt and built a house at what is now 63 Pleasant Street; within a decade, he had moved his family to Leominster. Martin married Susan Thomas and moved to Maine.

In the letter, Benjamin recounts the facts of Adna’s death. He does not indulge in emotion or offer sympathy. From it, we learn that, in the winter of 1830, Adna worked indoors as a stone mason and that “the dust gave him a bad cough.” We learn that spring brought bad weather: there were “3 weeks of easterly winds and mist, by which [Adna] took a bad cold.” We learn that at the tail end of April, while working on a job in Charlestown, Adna fell violently ill and died. We learn he “labored” within days of his death.

When he died, his body “was brought to Hingham by a sail boat,” and “he was buried from M. & F. Burrs house” on the day of his death.

What the letter doesn’t tell us is that Adna was only 44 years old when he died. It doesn’t say how his wife and children learned of his death. Knowing he was buried the day he died, we understand that he was in the ground before most people knew he was dead. We see that immediately following his death a group of friends or co-workers carried his body from Charlestown to Hingham by sailboat. We know the news was rushed to Hingham Centre, and that the Fearing Burrs opened their home for an unexpected funeral. We realize that, in a matter of hours, a coffin was acquired, a gravedigger found, and a minister fetched. We are left to imagine the ripples of grief that spread across the villages and towns as friends and family heard the news.

Martin died seven years after his brother and is buried in Maine. How the letter survived is not clear as his widow is believed to have remarried and moved west, but it was handed down through the Cushing family. Thanks to the letter, we have a better idea of what it was like to live in Hingham in 1830.

Endnotes

Benjamin Thomas Jr. (1799-1854) was a nephew of Susan (Thomas) Cushing, Martin Cushing’s wife. He was the son of her brother, a gunsmith who lived in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III (Genealogical), 1893. Pub. by the Town.

A copy of the letter from Benjamin Thomas Jr. to Martin Cushing was shared with me by researcher Margie von Marenholtz.

Adna Cushing (1785-1830) and Martin Cushing (1788-1837) were two of Deacon Isaac and Mary (Jones) Cushing’s seven children.

The Capt. Adna Cushing house at 63 Pleasant Street was built in 1811, according to the Hingham Historical Commission, Inventory of Historic, Architectural and Archaeological Assets. On Adna’s move to Leomister, see Cushing, James Stevenson. The genealogy of the Cushing family, an account of the ancestors and descendants of Matthew Cushing, who came to America in 1638.1905. Montreal, The Perrault Printing Co.

On M. & F. Burr’s house: Fearing Burr Sr. (1778-1866) had a store and home in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III. Ibid. Adna is buried with his parents and his wife in Hingham Centre Cemetery. Note: His gravestone says he was 45 years old when he died; he was 44, in his 45th year.

Martin Cushing died 20 May 1837. “Maine Deaths and Burials, 1841-1910,” database, FamilySearch, Feb. 2018.