Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Happy 300th Birthday, Madame Sarah Langlee Hersey Derby

Today is the 300th anniversary of Madame Sarah Derby’s birth and a good time to post about a woman whose name looms large in Hingham history—and legend.

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Born Sarah Langlee, daughter of a Hingham tavern keeper, she married well—twice. Her first husband was Dr. Ezekiel Hersey, a prominent and affluent Hingham physician. After his death, she married Richard Derby, a wealthy ship captain and merchant from Salem. (Richard Derby built Salem’s Derby Wharf in the 1750s.) She outlived Captain Derby as well and returned to Hingham to live on the large farm she inherited from Dr. Hersey.

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Local legend created from this a “rags to riches” story (in their Hingham history Not All Has Changed, Francis and Lorena Hart dub Sarah Derby “Hingham’s legendary Cinderella”):  a beautiful young girl growing up poor on the islands of Hingham Harbor, whose names—Ragged, Sarah, and Langlee—described her as a young girl.  Edward Rowe Snow, in his History of the Harbor Islands, put to rest the idea that the islands were named after “ragged Sarah Langlee,” however; these islands bore those names on nautical charts as early as 1700–well before Sarah Langlee was born.

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

But her portrait (made in later years) suggests youthful beauty, as do perhaps the two good marriages.  When he died in 1770, Ezekiel Hersey left his substantial estate to his wife on the condition that she give £1000 to Harvard College.  Sarah Derby added to this her own bequest in the same amount, and together their gifts endowed the Hersey Professorships of the Theory and Practice of Physic and of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, laying the foundation for the establishment of Harvard Medical School.

She remarried, to Captain Richard Derby, in 1771.  It is also a common misconception that this second marriage is what made her a wealthy woman.  In fact, she waived her dower rights when she married Captain Derby, who left his fortune to his family and bequeathed to Sarah Derby only an annual income (and two slaves, also commonly glossed over in legend).

When she returned to Hingham in 1783, Madame Derby was persuaded to endow a new school for Hingham. The school would be co-educational (one of the first co-educational schools in the country) for the instruction of boys “in the Latin, Greek, English, and French languages, and the sciences of Mathematics and Geography” and girls “in writing, and in the English and French languages, arithmetic, andthe art of needlework in general.” As discussed in a prior post (“A Trip to the Principal’s Office—in 1799”), a single preceptor had the charge of both sexes, although a “sensible, discreet woman” taught the girls their needlework.

Sarah Derby's Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Sarah Derby’s Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Madam Derby died in 1784 and is buried in Hingham Cemetery, not far from the site of her school. She provided further funding for the school in her will and instructed that her clock and her portrait (the one appearing at the top of this post) be placed in the school building. The original school building was replaced, in 1818, by a Federal-style structure—Old Derby Academy, current home of our Hingham Historical Society.

MLD013One hundred years ago today, on April 18, 1914, the Town of Hingham joined Derby Academy in celebrating Madame Derby’s bicentennial. A “Birthday Celebration” was held in her honor at Loring Hall. The program for the evening’s entertainment, preserved in our archives, included a local chorus, the Martland Band, from Brockton, English and Latin declamations by alumni, and poetry, essays, and other literary and musical offerings.

Happy Birthday, Madame Derby!

 

MLD014

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.