From Witch Trials to Praying Indians to Old Ship Church

“To All Christian People to whome this present instrument shall come Greeting,” this deed in our archives opens magisterially.  The date at the bottom is equally impressive:   July 4, 1690, “Anno Regni & Regina Guilielmi & Maria Secundi” (in the second year of the reign of King William and Queen Mary).  The deed is executed by William Stoughton, “of Dorchester in the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England,” and conveys several parcels of land in the vicinity of Broad Cove to Thomas Thaxter “of Hingham in the Colony aforesaid, yeoman.”  Stoughton is acting on behalf of “the Governor and Company established & residing in the Kingdome of England for the propagation of the Gospel to the Indians in New England &c.”

William Stoughton

William Stoughton

In addition to his service as a judge during the Salem witch trials (see our prior post about this document, “William Stoughton’s Seal”), and later service as first Chief Justice of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, Stoughton was Lieutenant Governor of the Colony in the 1680’s and early 1690’s.  Among his many other public positions was Commissioner, and later Treasurer to the Commissioners, of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America, a company chartered by Parliament in 1649 to support the conversion of New England’s native people.  The Company originally made investments in England and sent the income to the colonies, to be used to support conversion efforts, including John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Old Testament into the Massachusett language, the creation of settlements for the so-called “Praying Indians” (including present-day Stoughton, Mass.), and other missionary activities such as the creation of a short-lived “Indian College” at Harvard College.  (These efforts may be familiar to readers of the recent historical novel Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks.)

Eliot_BiblePoor returns on investments in England (including losses owing to the Great Fire in London) led the New England Company to start to send capital for investment in the colonies.  The task of finding suitable investments fell to Stoughton.  Two such investments, made in 1683, were loans of £50 each to Simon and Joshua Hobart of Hingham, sons of Captain Joshua Hobart, nephews of the Rev. Peter Hobart, and both identified as “mariners.”  The loans were secured by real estate in Hingham and, according to the legal structure of the day, evidenced by deeds conveying the parcels to Stoughton, upon the condition that if the greater sum of £66 was repaid four years hence, in 1687, the sale would be null and void.

It is not clear what happened to the younger Joshua Hobart’s land but, on July 4, 1690, Stoughton sold the land he had “purchased” from Simon Hobart to Thomas Thaxter, for the inappropriately small sum of £4.  In all likelihood, this sale to Thaxter was part of some larger transaction, of which we know nothing.

N__367777355How did Stoughton come to loan the New England Company’s funds to the Hobart brothers?  Stoughton had reason to be familiar with Hingham real estate in the early 1680’s.  In 1681, Hingham needed a new church, but a dispute arose about where to locate it.  The decision where to build what would become Old Ship Church was elevated to the General Court, which appointed an oversight committee, on which Stoughton served.  The Committee determined that the Church would be located on property purchased from Captain Joshua Hobart, adjacent to the parcels involved in the New England Company financing two years later.

From the Salem witch trials to the Praying Indians and back to Old Ship Church, this one old deed shows just what a small world 17th century Massachusetts Bay was.

A Resolution Reached At Town Meeting

ayrshireThe great thing about poking around in an archive as rich as ours at the Hingham Historical Society is that connections are there to be made.  Half the story might be in one document—and then the other half pops up.  A prior post on this blog (“An Appeal to Town Meeting”) was about the address of an unnamed 18th century farmer to Hingham’s Town Meeting.  The farmer had complained that he was unable to drive his livestock to pasture at the Great Lots, or bring off any produce, because  another Hingham farmer, Thomas Hersey, had built a stone wall across a public way.  The farmer had came to Town Meeting armed with evidence that, he claimed, proved that one hundred years previously the Town had authorized the laying out of a road to ensure the access to the very same Great Lots now blocked by Mr. Hersey.  And there the story ended.  The documents we were looking at were from the Hersey Family papers, and they left the identity of the petitioner and the outcome of the dispute unknown.

Detail from D.A. Dwiggins' map of Hingham, "The Old Place Names," 1935

Detail from “Historic Map of Hingham, Mass.,” Hingham Public Library Local History & Special Collections

But it turned out that the rest of the story was nearby, in our Thaxter Family papers, because the unhappy petitioner was John Thaxter, Sr., who left a memorandum describing the resolution reached at Town Meeting, together with the “true copy” of the 17th century Town Meeting vote upon which he relied.  John Thaxter presented the dispute to Town Meeting on December 17, 1794.  He presented evidence that in June 1694, almost exactly 100 years previously, Josiah Loring had complained to the Town Meeting that he could not access his own pasture at the Great Lots.  The solution he had proposed, which was accepted by the Town, was the laying out of a public way between Broad Cove Lane and Goles Lane (the “Turnpike”) adjacent to the Great Lots and the Squirrel Hill Lots.  According to Thaxter’s memorandum, written the next day, here is what happened:

At a Legal town meeting in Hingham June ye 19th 1794.  The within votes of the Town [i.e., the 1694 record] were presented to the Town by John Thaxter as a memorial that the high way from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street which has been passed & repassed on time immemorial is now stopped up by Thomas Hearsy erecting a stone wall across the same whereby said Thaxter is deprived from going to his pasture at great Lotts in a great measure.  As the meeting was thin the town thought there was a probability of said Thaxter & Hearsy settling the difficulty subsisting between them and they labored for an accommodation.  Said Thaxter then made said Hearsy a proposal.  As both of them had said they would not remove the wall, that if said Hearsy would send a hand he would another to remove the wall, which said Hearsy agreed to.  Then said Thaxter withdrew the memorial and nothing further was acted by the Town.  The wall was removed the next day.

So, with some encouragement (or pressure) from their neighbors, John Thaxter and Thomas Hersey settled their dispute, agreeing to share the job of removing the stone wall which Thaxter had proved was an obstruction on a public way.

Thaxter and Hersey were contemporaries, born two years apart in the early 1730s.  Hersey lived on Lincoln Street, Thaxter on South Street; both spent their entire lives in Hingham, except for military service and Thaxter’s years at Harvard College.  They must have known each other very well.  We don’t know what their personal relationship was or how this incident fit into it.  They have, however, provided us a glimpse into how local land use disputes were handled in a long-ago era.

William Stoughton’s Seal

Many of the documents in our archives bear the author or signer’s personal wax seal.  William Stoughton placed his personal seal at the bottom of a deed from 1690, by which he conveyed several parcels of land in Hingham to Thomas Thaxter.  The deed was witnessed by Thomas Mawdesley, who signed his name, and Peter Hicks, who placed his mark on the deed.  Two years later, Stoughton executed an acknowledgement at the bottom of the document that the document reflected his true act and deed, likely to prepare it for recording with the Suffolk Registry of Deeds.  Stoughton’s acknowledgement was witnessed by Samuel Sewall on July 30, 1692.

WilliamStoughton-personalseal

William Stoughton’s seal

Stoughton and Sewall were two of the seven judges whom Governor Phipps appointed to the infamous Court of Oyer and Terminer.  Between June and September 1692, this Court convicted 27 men and women in and around Salem of witchcraft and executed 20 of them.  Stoughton was chief justice, and he is remembered for his defense of the Court’s reliance on spectral evidence (a witness’ testimony that the accused’s specter had appeared and tormented him or her) to prove a demonic pact.  Sewall sat as the clerk of the court, and history remembers him more charitably because, in 1697, he acknowledged his responsibility and asked public forgiveness for his role in the witch trials.

The appearance of the signatures of both of these Salem judges on the deed in our archives makes it a curiosity, as does Stoughton’s wax seal–the very same seal which Stoughton placed on the death warrants of the condemned witches..  However, the date of Sewall’s acknowledgement, July 30, 1692, is what really makes the document intriguing.  The Court of Oyer and Terminer was appointed in May 1692 and started sitting in June of that year.  The first to be tried for witchcraft was Bridget Bishop; she was convicted and hanged on June 10.   On June 29 and 30, 1692, five women—Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes—were tried and convicted; they were hanged on July 19.   Four men and one woman—George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Jacobs, Sr., and John Proctor—were convicted on August 5, 1692, and this group was hanged on August 19.  Stoughton acknowledged the conveyance of property to Thaxter and had Sewall witness it right in the midst of all this terrible activity.

Two men in public life took a few minutes to tend to their other, more mundane responsibilities during an extraordinary period in their lives and our history.  The document in our archives is not “important” and does not teach us about the Salem witch trials.  It is affecting because it forces us to think of these severe, black-clad Salem judges as individuals.

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

William Stoughton

William Stoughton

A Letter From Daphney

Among the Deborah Barker letters to Christian Barnes in our archives (see post of October 28) is a well-worn manuscript dated May 13, 1787.  It is signed “Daphney,” and was originally indexed as authored by “Daphne Barker.”  Indeed, Deborah Barker’s frequent references to Daphne in her own letters call up the image of an elderly aunt who visits her Hingham relations from time to time.

But there is no Daphne in the Barker family tree.  We started looking at the Barnes family and, before long, realized that Daphne was the Barnes’ former slave, left behind when Loyalists Henry and Christian Barnes fled to England in 1775.

The letter is in Deborah Barker’s handwriting, but the voice is unmistakably Daphne’s.  She updates her former mistress on local news and describes a general economic malaise: “Everybody is very poor.  The streets are full of beggars and the people steal so that the jails are full.”  She fills Mrs. Barnes in on her Boston friends—and she is not afraid to dish the dirt.  “Mrs. Howe,” she writes, “was at Boston this winter.  She came in a shay.  She is grown as big as a great ox.”  When she saw Mrs. Howe, Daphne writes, she “enquired after Dolly Gate and Mrs. How told she had gone up to near Rutland and had another child by a married man.”   “John Parker’s sister Polly,” she reports, “went up to see him and came home with a child but no husband.”

Daphne is vocal in her complaints about the support she is receiving from the General Court, which became responsible for her after it confiscated the Barnes’ Marlborough estate.  Simon Stow, a Marlborough lawyer, “has the care of your estate in Marlbro’ and he never came to town till March and I believe I should have froze if Mr. Parker and Mr. Green had not sent me some wood.  Mr. Stow came to town in March & gave me a little fag of wood that he gave four shillings for and he has not been in town since.”

Daphney's letter to Christian Barnes, May 13, 1787 (Hingham Historical Society archives)

Daphney’s letter to Christian Barnes, May 13, 1787 (Hingham Historical Society archives)

When Daphne wrote this letter, she was living on Rowe’s Lane in Boston (near today’s Bedford Street), renting from a black woman named Venus, according to legislative records at the Massachusetts Archives.  Deborah Barker did not approve:  she wrote that the money the General Court set aside for Daphne “would be a very comfortable support . . . could she be prevailed upon to live anywhere but in a negro house . . . .”

Daphne appears to have come to Hingham in the summer, as reflected in repeated references in Deborah Barkers’ letters:   “[Daphne] continues her annual visits to Hingham and we are fond of seeing her” (Aug. 5, 1783); “I expect [Daphne] every day as I promised to write for her as soon as I returned from my journey” (June 1788); “she spent a month with us the summer past but grew impatient to go home” (Nov. 12, 1790).  The letter in our archives was undoubtedly written on one of Daphne’s visits to Hingham.

Further research is needed to discover what Daphne’s ties were to Hingham.  Was she related to one of the Barkers’ slaves?  Was she raised on the South Shore?  Even without full context, her letter allows us to hear the voice of an individual which might otherwise have been lost and to ponder relationships we have trouble understanding.