Hingham’s First Glimpse of Frederick Douglass

On November 4, 1841, a young Frederick Douglass—only three years removed from slavery—gave one of his first recorded speeches at a meeting of the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society at the First Baptist Church here in Hingham.  On August 10, 1841, only three months earlier, Douglass had appeared on Nantucket Island, at a meeting of the island’s Anti-Slavery Society, where he first met William Lloyd Garrison and launched a career as an abolitionist lecturer and activist.

One item on the agenda at the Hingham meeting in November was a resolution to censure northern Protestant churches which practiced segregation. It was on this subject that Douglass spoke that day.

Frederick Douglass was not yet the legendary figure that he soon became in abolitionist circles—indeed, when he returned to Hingham three years later to speak at the Great Abolition Pic Nic held at Tranquility Grove, he was a “headliner” among the speakers.  But in November 1841, he was a relative unknown and was introduced to the Society as follows, as reported by Hingham’s local paper, the Patriot, on November 11th:

A colored man then rose, and was introduced to the meeting by Rev. Mr. May, [the Society’s] President, as Mr. Douglass.  It appears that he is a runaway slave, “about whom,” said Mr. May, “an interesting story might be told, but it is not expedient to make its details public.

Douglass later addressed the meeting at several points, including, again in the words of the Patriot, “allud[ing], with considerable wit, to the union between the churches of the North and the South . . . .”  This appears to be a reference to the short oration that was recorded, titled The Church and Prejudice.  It opened as follows:

At the South I was a member of the Methodist Church. When I came north, I thought one Sunday I would attend communion, at one of the churches of my denomination, in the town I was staying. The white people gathered round the altar, the blacks clustered by the door. After the good minister had served out the bread and wine to one portion of those near him, he said, “These may withdraw, and others come forward;” thus he proceeded till all the white members had been served. Then he took a long breath, and looking out towards the door, exclaimed, “Come up, colored friends, come up! for you know God is no respecter of persons!” I haven’t been there to see the sacraments taken since.

As he continued to speak of the Northern church (in New Bedford, where he had settled on coming north), the “wit” alluded to by the Patriot was on show.  Describing the charismatic experiences of certain parishioners, he told this story:

Another young lady fell into a trance. When she awoke, she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others—and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, “Oh! I didn’t go into the kitchen!”

The full text of the speech can be found here.

First Baptist Church, Hingham, Mass., c. 1885

The resolution concerning the stance of northern Protestant churches passed.  Douglass himself made a deep impression on the correspondent for the Hingham Patriot, as can be seen in this passage of his extended report on the Anti-Slavery Society’s meeting:

. . . [A]s Douglass stood there in manly attitude, with erect form and glistening eye and deep-toned voice, telling us that he had been secretly devising means to effect his release from bondage, we could not help thinking of Spartacus the Gladiator . . . .  A man of his shrewdness, and his power both intellectually and physically, must be poor stuff, thought we, to make a slave of.  At any rate, we would not like to be his master. . . .

He is very fluent in the use of language, choice and appropriate language too; and talks as well, for all that we could see, as men who spent all their days over books.  He is forcible, keen, and very sarcastic, and considering the poor advantage he must have had as a slave he is certainly a remarkable man.

The Hingham Patriot’s article can be found here.

A comment on the photograph at the top of this post.  It is the earliest image of Douglass, taken in 1841, the year he first came to Hingham.  Renee Graham wrote a wonderful piece on photographs of Douglass, including this image (from the collection of Greg French) for wbur.org.  It can be found here.  Her observation on this image:

. . . . Even in that first palm-sized photograph, Douglass seemed to fully understand the power of a single image. More than 150 years since it was taken, its ability to devastate has not been dulled.

Handsome and about 23, Douglass peers directly into the camera. His eyes blaze with fearless purpose and determination; he all but defies the viewer to look away. This, the photograph silently proclaims, is not a man to be trifled with. No mere runaway slave, Douglass is the face of freedom.

Whiting Memorial Chapel Honored with Preservation Award

Each year, the Hingham Historical Society awards its W. Bradford Sprout, Jr., Architectural Award in recognition of a notable project involving the rehabilitation, restoration or preservation of an historic structure or property in the town of Hingham.  This past spring, at a “virtual” Annual Meeting of the Society, the award was presented  to the Trustees of High Street Cemetery for their restoration of Whiting Memorial Chapel.

Albert Turner Whiting in front of the newly constructed chapel, 1905.

Albert Turner Whiting commission this stone chapel, completed in 1905, in memory of his parents, Albert and Sarah Fearing Whiting, and his wife Harriet E. (Warren) Whiting, who died in January 1905, while the chapel was under construction. Whiting had already lost his only child, Helen, in 1891.  All are buried in High Street Cemetery.

Harriet Whiting Memorial Window.

J. Sumner Fowler, a Hingham resident and architect, designed Whiting Chapel. (He, too, is buried in High Street Cemetery.) The chapel is in the Gothic Revival style, popular nationally–think college campuses–although there are no other examples of the stye in Hingham.  The chapel was constructed of Weymouth seam-faced granite with Indiana limestone trimming.  It has a copper roof and double oak doors.

The interior features oak paneled walls and copious stained glass, including an ornate window in the apse, in memory of Whiting’s wife, Harriet E. (Warren) Whiting, who died in early 1905.

The Whitings (sometimes also Whitons)  were a large and important family in South Hingham.  Albert Whiting (Albert Turner’s father) built an Italianate Revival house that once stood at 1194 Main Street, just north of Queen Anne Corner.

Albert Whiting’s House at 1194 Main Street.

The elder Albert Whiting was a master mason, who was superintendent of stone work on many large public projects, including the Charlestown Navy Yard dry docks; Castle Island in South Boston; Fort Independence in Hull; and industrial canals for the Lowell Lock and Canal Co.  His son, Albert Turner Whiting, had a peripatetic youth, as his father’s trade required the family to move to these large building sites.  It is no wonder, then, that when the younger Albert came to commission a chapel in his parents’ honor, the result was one of Hingham’s only stone buildings.

Fowler, the architect, designed many well-known Hingham and South Shore buildings, including the former Town Offices at 14 Main Street and Ames Chapel in Hingham Cemetery, also recently restored.  That chapel could not be more different, though, having been designed in 1887 in the then-popular, richly ornamented Queen Anne style.

High Street Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in South Hingham. Its earliest extant headstone dates from 1688.  Through the mid-19th century, it was the responsibility of Hingham’s Second Parish.  It passed into private hands and was incorporated in 1855.

Restoration worked focused on interior and exterior wall repair due to leaks; floor repair; pew cleaning; and the repair and restoration of stained glass.  The oak doors and paneling were stripped and restained and an HVAC system was installed.  This work, performed by Ben Wilcox and Wilcox Construction, was funded by the Trustees’ endowment and a grant from the CPC.  The Trustees sought to restore the building for use for private events, and, as restored it comfortably seats 80.

The Trustees’ work makes a significant and beautiful building available to the Town, and for that we were pleased to honor the Trustees with the Sprout award.  Although outside of the public eye, owing to social distancing measures, the Trustees were awarded a plaque commemorating the award.  Special thanks to Aisling Gallery, which generously donated framing services, and Susan Kilmartin, for sharing her calligraphy skills.

Whiting Memorial Chapel in High Street Cemetery, 2019.

 

 

 

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).

 

Derby Day, Then and Now

Old Derby Academy, see from the North.  Postcard collection at the Hingham historical Society

Old Derby Academy.  (Hingham Historical Society)

Hingham residents know to watch for the early June procession through Hingham Square that kicks off Derby Academy’s graduation ceremonies. Boys in chapel dress and girls in white dresses march from the current Derby campus on Burditt Avenue down Fearing Road to New North Church, where the day’s ceremonies are conducted.  This tradition is almost as old as the Academy itself. Ever since the New North meetinghouse was erected in 1806, at least part of Derby’s end-of-year ceremonies have taken place in it.

Of course, the walk wasn’t always so long: when Old Derby Academy was the schoolhouse (from 1818 until the 1960s), the procession started on Main Street in Hingham Square.

New North Church, Hingham

New North Church. (Hingham Historical Society) 

A Hingham Journal article from 1861 describes what was the “annual exhibition” held partly in New North and partly in Loring Hall. In those days, the focus was not on the graduating class but rather on the progress made by the student body as a whole. “Scholars” of all grades demonstrated the fruits of a year’s hard work by presenting dialogues, original oratory, dramatic performances, and, of course, music. A needlework display in the basement of Loring Hall showcased the girls’ handiwork.  Exhibition programs from the 1833 and 1892 exhibitions, reproduced at the bottom of this post, differ in detail but not in overall conception or scope.

Loring Hall, Main Street, HIngham.   From the photograph collection at the HIngham Historical Society

Loring Hall. (Hingham Historical Society)

The Journal described the 1861 Derby Exhibition as “one of the most agreeable [days] of the season,” and it was truly a major social event. Derby Academy was Hingham’s only secondary school for much of the 19th century, and it continued to dominate our educational landscape for years afterward. The exhibition day was not just a chance for parents to see what their children had learned or for the oldest scholars to say goodbye in style: it was an opportunity for the entire community to come out, celebrate the onset of summer, hear a few interesting lectures, and listen to some good music.

Did the ’61 Journal have any complaints? “If we were disposed to criticize,” it remarked, “the speaking would have been more effective had it been less rapid.” However, “the music was excellent, the hall packed to the utmost,” and we can catch a modern-day echo of the buzz and bustle of this celebration when the Derby students make their way through the Square next week.

Derby Exhibition 1

Order of Exercises, Derby Academy Exhibition, May 22, 1833. (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892  (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892 (Hingham Historical Society)

Holy Ghosts

Former First Church of Christ Scientist, Hingham.  From the collection of the Hingham Historical Society

First Church of Christ Scientist, Hingham. Collection of the Hingham Historical Society

The recent sale of the First Church of Christ, Scientist building on Main Street and its conversion to a secular use is nothing Hingham hasn’t seen before.  Other former Hingham houses of worship remain in our midst, repurposed as private homes and office buildings. The First Universalist Church and Society, the Free Christian Mission, and the United Social Society of South Hingham have all, over the years, slipped from our consciousness, but their architectural ghosts remain on North Street, High Street, and Gardner Street.

First Universalist Church and Society.  From the collection of the Hingham Historical Society

First Universalist Church and Society in Hingham.  Collection of the Hingham Historical Society

In 1829, the First Universalist Church and Society of Hingham erected a meetinghouse on North Street. Universalists were liberal Protestants whose name reflected a central tenet of their faith:  unlike their Puritan forefathers, they believed that God granted salvation to all human beings.  (In 1961, the Universalist Church of America merged with the American Unitarian Association, forming the Unitarian Universalist (“UU”) Assocation, to which Hingham’s Old Ship Church belongs.)

The history of Hingham’s Universalist Church and Society is linked with the 19th century women’s movement. In 1868, Phebe A. Hanaford, its pastor, became the third woman to be ordained to the ministry in the United States—in the Universalist church on North Street. The ordination was performed by the Rev. Olympia Brown, the first woman in the United States to be ordained to the ministry and the pastor of the First Universalist Society of Weymouth.

Ordination of the Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford.  Collection of the Hingham Historical Society.

Ordination of the Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford. Collection of the Hingham Historical Society.

When Hanaford left the Hingham church to accept the Universalist pulpit in New Haven (and increase her abolitionist and suffragist activity), she was succeeded by the Rev. Daniel Livermore.  Livermore’s wife was the prominent abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer Mary Ashton Livermore.  Although the couple resided in Melrose, Mary Livermore, a sought-after speaker once dubbed “The Queen of the American Platform,” spoke from the Universalists’ North Street pulpit and elsewhere in Hingham in support of women’s rights and temperance.

Hingham’s Universalist Church disbanded in 1929.  After several commercial uses in the early and mid-20th century, the building still stands as a private residence.

Illustration from Bouve, et al., History of the Town of Hingham (1893)

Illustration from Bouve, et al., History of the Town of Hingham (1893)

In 1872, the Town of Hingham voted to allow the Free Christian Mission to build a chapel at the corner of High Street and Ward Street. The Free Christian Mission was a religious society formed by families of color who lived in and near what was often referred to as the village of “Tuttleville.”  After meeting in private homes  for a year, John Tuttle and others petitioned the Town of Hingham to allow them to build a chapel on vacant, town-owned land on the corner of High Street and Ward Street.  In 1872, a special Town Committee recommended that the Town allow the petition, in words with a ring of paternalism:

The advantages which follow an attendance upon public worship are apparent to nearly every candid and thinking person. A community is not only improved in intelligence, virtue, and happiness thereby, but with those characteristics come a more earnest recognition and maintenance of law and order, as well as an increased interest in the prosperity and general welfare of society. . . .

At the present time a number of our fellow citizens desire to establish another church. With their associates they number about one hundred persons, the majority of whom reside on Ward and High Streets, or in the vicinity. They have held meetings during the past year at their residences, and these meetings have been very well-attended . . ..

Photograph of the Free Christian Mission.  From the collection of the Hingham Historical Society

Undated photograph of the Free Christian Mission. From the collection of the Hingham Historical Society

The Free Christian Mission, at some points also called Mt. Zion Chapel, embraced the covenant of the “Second Advent” or imminent second coming of Christ. Adventism, an evangelical branch of Protestantism, grew in popularity after the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s.

The Free Christian Mission disbanded in the early 20th century.  As with the Universalist Church, the building was put to  a succession of secular uses.  It was for some time an antiques store and is currently a dentist’s office.

While “Liberty Plain” and the South Hingham neighborhoods along Gardner, Whiting, and Derby Streets were formally part of Hingham’s Second Parish, it was a long trip up Main Street for services.  In 1891, two sisters, Sara Chubbuck and Anna Belcher, were instrumental in the formation of the United Social Society of South Hingham, which ran a Sunday School and offered worship services to families in this southernmost part of Hingham.  After the Society spent a year in an unheated woodenware factory on Gardner Street, it erected a chapel at the corner of Gardner and Derby Streets for Sunday School and worship services.  This building, too, survived its congregation; it is now a private residence on lower Gardner Street near Farm Hill Lane, not far from its original location.

Our Religious Pamphlets Collection

Up in the archives, we have been busy indexing a collection of over 300 different religious pamphlets from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Most of these soft-cover, professionally printed booklets contain a single sermon given in a Hingham or South Shore church, although there are also religious tracts, catechisms, devotional literature, and Sunday School texts.  There is even a pamphlet of marital advice to husbands and wives.

Pulpit in Old Ship Church (1941 photograph from Branzetti, Historic American Buildings Survey)

Pulpit in Old Ship Church (1941 photograph from Branzetti, Historic American Buildings Survey)

Our religious pamphlet collection provides a useful complement to the Hingham church records preserved both in our archives and at other institutions.  They tell an important story of the development of Protestant Christianity in this small corner of the country from the Great Awakening to the rise of liberal Christianity and Unitarianism to the evangelical reaction of the Second Great Awakening.  As the 19th century progressed, social issues such as abolition, temperance, and social inequality increasingly became the subject of sermons in Hingham and South Shore pulpits.

Joseph Richardson's "A Sermon in Two Parts," delivered Sunday, June 28, 1856

Joseph Richardson’s “A Sermon in Two Parts,” delivered Sunday, June 28, 1856

Preaching—whether written or delivered from the pulpit—was popular in 19th century Hingham, as the many multiple copies in our collection of certain “favorites” by local preachers Joseph Richardson (Pastor of First Parish or “Old Ship” Church from 1805to 1868) and Oliver Stearns (Pastor of Third Parish or “New North” Church from 1839 to 1856) attest.  Many of our copies of the sermons of Ebenezer Gay (Pastor of First Parish from 1718 to 1787) are reprints, demonstrating that he retained an audience for his sermons 50 years after his death.

Even in the mid-19th century, attending Sunday church services in Hingham was an all-day affair, and preaching was a central part of the services in our Protestant churches.  (The pulpit of Old Ship Church in the photo at the top of this post attests to this.) These sermons are long by contemporary standards, most of them 25-30 pages long.  A number of the sermons are in two parts:  one for the morning service and one for the afternoon. They are dense and closely-argued, raising the unhappy suspicion that our ancestors’ attention spans, or at least their listening skills, were better developed than our own.

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Sunday, June 28, 1858. The morning’s sermon . . .

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. . . and the afternoon’s sermon

The Rev. Phebe Hanaford

March is Women’s History Month and a perfect time to talk about the Rev. Phebe Hanaford, a fascinating woman whose connection with Hingham is not widely known.

First Universalist Church and Society, Hingham. 

This photograph from our archives is of the Meeting House of the First Universalist Society in Hingham.  The building remains standing as a private home on North Street—albeit without the wonderful “crown.”  It was built in 1829 by a group of Hingham adherents of Universalism, a liberal Protestant Christian faith which, like Unitarianism, gained adherents in New England as a reaction to the strict Puritanism of the area’s early settlers.  Universalists believed in universal salvation:  that all human souls—not just the Elect—achieve salvation through Christ.  Their liberal theology was matched with liberal social views, and in the mid-19th century, the Universalists were one of the few Protestant denominations to ordain women to the ministry.

Phebe Hanaford, born Phebe Ann Coffin on Nantucket, was the first woman ordained to the ministry of any Christian denomination in Massachusetts–and only the third in the United States. That signal event occurred on February 19, 1868 at the Universalist Meeting House pictured above in Hingham, after Hanaford had served as that church’s pastor for around 18 months.  Sermons were preached by the Rev. Olympia Brown, the first woman minister in the United States and at that time pastor of the Universalist church in Weymouth, and the Rev. John Greenleaf Adams who preached on the text, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Hanaford was popular as the part-time pastor in Hingham.  The Star in the West, a monthly Universalist publication, wrote at the time of her ordination:

Educated in the good old fashioned way, she had the bible from Genesis to Revelation at her tongue’s end; having common sense and a good heart she understood our faith. And when the question about pastoral labor was put [in the examination for ordination], the chairman of the committee of the Hingham society, where she has been preaching for a year, stated she had done it more effectually than any man they had had for the last twenty years!

She stayed in Hingham (while also preaching at the Universalist Church in Waltham) until 1870, commuting by horse and buggy from the Reading home she shared with her husband and two children.  In 1870, she accepted a call to the First Universalist Church and Society at New Haven, taking her children with her but leaving her husband behind.  From then on, in parishes in New Haven and Jersey City, New Jersey, she shared her home with a woman named Ellen Miles.

hanaford

Phebe Hanaford

Hanaford had been active in the abolition movement in the 1860s and after the Civil War became an increasingly well-know activist in the women’s suffrage movement.  She lost her pulpit in Jersey City in a controversy that stemmed partially from her outspoken involvement in the suffrage movement but also partially from her then-unorthodox domestic arrangements (contemporary newspaper articles referred to Miles as “the minister’s wife”).  She did not have a parish of her own again, but she wrote and spoke and remained active in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements.  In the public sphere, she presided at the funerals of both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Closer to home, she had the opportunity, unprecedented for a woman of her time, to give the blessing at her son’s ordination to the Congregational ministry and to perform her daughter’s marriage.

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.