The Lane Family Seen Through 19th Century Deeds

Sometimes, even the most mundane documents give us deeper insight into the lives and relationships of Hingham’s oldest families. Such is the case with a collection of deeds and wills recently donated to the Historical Society by Philip S. Allen. The focus of the collection is the Lane family, one of Hingham’s oldest and most prominent, particularly well-known for Jared Lane, one of the town’s many talented coopers. The deeds and wills, however, cast light on Hannah Lane, the widow of Rufus Lane, Jared Lane’s brother and a painter who resided on South Street where the Hingham Water Company once stood.

After Rufus’ death in 1801, Hannah did not remarry. She enjoyed the use of her husband’s considerable personal and real estate, which she conveyed to her sons, Charles and Rufus, over the course of her 37 years as a widow. (When Rufus died, Charles and young Rufus had not inherited directly, having been only 11 and 13 at the time.)

The first deed from Hannah is dated 1811, ten years after Rufus’ death, and conveys to Charles and Rufus a small shop and its contents located on Town land near Elisha Cushing’s estate (now, 692 Main Street). Like later conveyances to Charles and Rufus, the shop was conveyed to them jointly. Charles and Rufus are described as “painters,” like their late father, and paid their mother $300 for this property.

Lane Deed (1811)

Hannah Lane’s 1811 Deed to sons Charles and Rufus Lane

Hannah later conveyed other real estate, with a house upon it, to Charles and Rufus jointly. In April 1824, they divided this property between them, by means of a Land Division Agreement, also in our collection. It is easy to tell the two are brothers just by the language used in the agreement. Like two young boys dividing a candy bar, they drew a very specific line down the center of the property—and through the house—with each brother getting half. The Agreement addresses the specific aspects of the house and property to which each is entitled—including entire rooms which are divided and split down the middle.

The brothers acquired other land over the years, and not always from their mother. Another deed in our collection, from January 1824, evidences their purchase of nearly three acres of woodland in the area of Hingham known as the “Third Division” (the area of Levitt Street, merging into present-day Wompatuck State Park) from the previously mentioned cooper Jared Lane and his wife Sarah for $133.33.

The brothers jointly owned the firm of R & C Lane, which was engaged in mackerel fishing and dealt in fishermen’s supplies, and they frequently sold property back and forth between them. One deed in the collection has Rufus buying land and “all the buildings upon it” on North Street from his brother Charles for the considerable sum—in 1833—of $2,700. As the years went by, their property holdings began to reflect their unique personal interests, but that didn’t stop their mother from continuing to sell to the two of them together. The final deed in this collection, dated March 1835, is from Hannah to her two sons—again jointly—conveying a shop and land at the junction of North and South Streets in Hingham Square, for $717.87.

The collection includes Hannah’s Last Will and Testament, written in 1835. Upon her death, in 1838, she bequeathed all of her remaining real estate not just to Charles and Rufus but also to her one surviving daughter, Sally, who had married Benjamin Parker of Boston in October 1814. (This was the sole mention of Sally in these Lane family documents.) She left her personal property to her eight grandchildren. The will of one of these grandchildren, Abigail, is the final record in this collection. Abigail’s will, made only three days after her grandmother died, leavers all of her personal and real estate to her cousins, Charles Lane, Jr. and Rufus Lane, Jr.

Battling “that Old Deluder, Satan” with a School

On April 6, 1714, a grand jury in Boston presented a series of charges against a number of individuals and entities.  Many of the offenses were exactly what we would expect from a group of 17th century Puritans:  “Richard Hancock of Boston for Selling Drink without license sundry times since last Session,” “Seth Smith of Boston for allowing unlawfull gaming,” “Nathaniel Ford of Weymouth for nott attending the publick worship of God,” and—a hat tip to Nathaniel Hawthorne—“Hannah Hall of Boston for fornication.”

MLD001One of the charges explains why this single-page manuscript came to Hingham, to be preserved in our archives:  “the Town of Hingham for not keeping a school according to law.”  This offense, as it turns out, is as characteristic of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans as the others charged on that day.

33447_2Education was very important to the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The first public school in this country, Boston Latin School, was established in Boston in 1635, and the nation’s first university, Harvard College, was founded in Cambridge the next year.  In 1642, Massachusetts passed a law requiring parents to ensure that their children could read English or face a fine.

This concern with education grew from the very roots of Protestant theology:  the belief that Christian laity had the right–and a duty–to read the Bible in the vernacular and participate directly in the affairs of the church.  These fundamental goals are explained explicitly in the preamble to Massachusetts’ 1647 statute, sometimes called “The Old Deluder Satan Act,” that shifted the responsibility of education onto the growing towns:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these later times by perswading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the Originall might be clowded by false glosses of Saint-seeming deceivers; and that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our fore-fathers in Church and Commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors: it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof;

That every Township in this Jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty Housholders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the Parents or Masters of such children, or by the Inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the Town shall appoint. . . .

And it is further ordered, that where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred Families or Housholders, they shall set up a Grammar-School, the Masters thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the Universitie. . . .

Hingham town records reference schoolteachers and a school building as early as the mid-1600s.  According to Francis Lincoln’s chapter on education in the 1893 History of the Town of Hingham, the increasing size of the town led to disagreements as early as 1708 and 1709 over where the school should be held.  Second Precinct—later Cohasset—wanted a rotation, so that school would sometimes meet in its area, as did “Great Plain”—South Hingham.  But there is no suggestion that HIngham’s school was ever closed.  Indeed, in a comprehensive list of the schoolmasters in Hingham from 1670 on, Lincoln reports that Jonathan Cushing was the schoolmaster from 1712-1713, after which the 1712 Harvard College graduate became the minister in Dover, New Hampshire.  Twenty-year old Job Cushing, Harvard College Class of 1714 succeeded him, remaining four year before becoming the first minister of the Shrewsbury church.

Bottom of documentPerhaps there was a lapse while the Town waited for Job Cushing to graduate.  There may have been complaints.  17th century grand juries could “present” charges based on their own knowledge and did not, as today, have to wait to be asked to hand down an indictment.  Was a disgruntled Hingham parent on that grand jury?  Perhaps we will learn more as we continue to dig through the archives.

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.

Widow Sarah Humphrey’s Discharge

A sad, tattered scrap of paper in our archives lets us see the effect on families of the colonial era’s high mortality rate–here the untimely passing first of a father and then of a child.

Title Widow Sarah Humphrey's DischargeSarah Humphrey was 32 years old and the mother of six living children (aged 11, 10, 8, 5, 2, and 4 months) when her husband Ebenezer died in 1745 at age 41.  Ebenezer Humphrey had been a weaver and a descendent of Hingham’s first settlers.  The family lived on High Street and appears to have been fairly well off (the inventory of his estate listed real and personal property worth £494).

Cropped top of Discharge The document is Sarah’s sworn statement discharging John Thaxter from any further obligations as the court-appointed guardian of her daughter Rachel.  Rachel had died at the age of 17 and John Thaxter had returned to Sarah the property which he had held on Rachel’s behalf.  Sarah provided Thaxter a receipt acknowledging his full performance of his obligations:

 Rec’d of Captain John Thaxter the sum of six pounds four shillings and three pence.  He was guardian to my daughter Rachel Humphrey a minor dec’d which sum is the whole of the money in His Hands belonging to s’d dec’d minor.  Rec’d of him all s’d Rachel dec’d wearing appearell and what of Household Stuff or Goods that were in his possession and I do hereby for my self my Heirs acquit and discharge Him the s’d John his Heirs from s’d dec’d Estate having rec’d the whole of s’d dec’d Estate that was committed to his trust & care.  In testimony whereof I have sett my Hand & Seal this twenty second day of June A.D. 1758.

£6:4:3.                         Sarah Humphrey  (Her Mark)

Signed sealed in presence of

/s/ Welcome Lincoln

/s/ Hannah Barker

Sarah Humphrey Her MarkWhy was Thaxter named Rachel’s guardian (and the guardian of her younger siblings Mary and Ebenezer)?  The answer lies in colonial laws of property and inheritance that are very different than those with which we are familiar today.  Although Ebenezer Humphrey’s estate was relatively large, he did not leave a will.  Under Massachusetts law at that time, Ebenezer’s six children—not his wife—were his heirs.  Sarah was afforded a “dower share,” that is, the right to the use of one-third of her husband’s estate during her widowhood, but she did not own any of it.  It was very common, then, to appoint a guardian to take charge of the childrens’ inheritance during the years of their minority.

As administratrix of Ebenezer’s estate, Sarah accounted to the Probate Court in 1746 for amounts she had paid out of the estate, including the payment of Ebenezer’s debts, the “many implements of household allowed the widow,” and the expense of “maintaining and cloathing of three children . . . one of them 5 years, one 2 years, and one 4 months” for a year after her husband’s death.  Why just the younger three?  Perhaps her older children had been “put out” to work or learn a trade.  Perhaps they lived with relatives.  Probate records confirm that John Thaxter was appointed guardian of the three younger children in 1757, 12 years after Ebenezer’s death, for the express purpose of safeguarding what each of them had inherited from their father.  Why such a delay?  Had money started to run short?  The eldest child, Benjamin, had turned 21 the year before and Rachel’s big sisters, Hannah and Susanna, had just married.  Perhaps Benjamin, who was entitled to his share of the estate upon his majority, or Hannah’s or Susanna’s new husbands had raised questions about Sarah’s stewardship of her childrens’ inheritance.

We do not have any written discharge of John Thaxter as guardian of Rachel’s younger siblings, but his role as guardian was almost complete.  Ebenezer died in 1762 and Mary married in 1764.  Sarah Humphrey never remarried.  Having survived three of her seven children, she died, aged 70, in 1784.

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.

The Royal Navy’s “Eyes on the Prize”

The Betsey, surrounded by seven French corsairs.  Anonymous, 1797.  Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA.

The Betsey, surrounded by seven French corsairs. Anonymous, 1797. Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA.

The European powers were at war in the 1790’s and first years of the 19th century, and their war at sea posed obstacles to the United States’ young merchant fleet.   British seizure of American merchant ships and their cargoes and impressment of U.S. sailors into naval service was famously one cause of the War of 1812.

The law of the United States, France, and other European powers distinguished between a neutral vessel and one sailing under the flag of an enemy state, but 18th century British law—as applied by the Royal Navy and privateers—allowed “enemy goods” or “contraband” on a neutral vessel to be seized as a “prize.”

In 1797, Britain was at war with revolutionary France and its ally Spain.  In April of that year, the American merchant ship West Point was en route from Charleston to Havana when it was seized by three British Navy vessels, HMS Squirrel, HMS La Raison, and H.M. Brig Swallow.  They escorted the West Point to port at Nassau, “in order that the cargo might be adjudged and condemned as lawful prize to the captors.”  A libel in admiralty was filed on behalf of the commanders, officers, and crew of the three  vessels, who would participate directly in any recovery.  The commanders claimed “[t]he Cargo of the American Brigantine West Point and every thing on board of her ladened and contained subject to condemnation and inspection as being contraband” or property which “at the time of capture belonged to the king of Spain or his vassals or subjects or some person or persons inhabiting within the territory of Spain.”

The Admiralty Court examined evidence including markings on the goods, invoices, bills of lading, and statements from the crew and, on May 3, 1797, issued its decision, preserved in our archives.  Some but not all of the cargo was awarded to the British officers as their “prize.”  The Court held the libel supported (i.e., it decided that the Americans had not been able to prove that the seizure was unlawful) as to three categories of property.

First, the British were awarded a portion of the ship’s cargo, including 110 pieces of “osnaburg,” a coarse linen cloth manufactured in Britain; 45 iron pots, a barrel of earthenware, and a crate of cheese.  These goods had no customs mark and the ship’s captain could not produce any invoices or bills of lading for them.  Second, they were awarded a “large trunk of sundry articles” belonging to the unfortunate but otherwise unidentified “Francisco Selgado,” as well as other items owned by West Point crew members who presumably were Spanish subjects.  Third, and probably most valuable, they were awarded 19 coils of rigging cordage, 153 barrels of tar, 17 barrels of pitch, 1 bundle of steel, and 9 casks of lead which, the Court found, were being shipped by the American crew “contrary to their neutrality as subjects of the United States.”  These items presumably fell into the category of “contraband,” or items of material assistance to Spain’s war efforts.

From the naval officers who populate Jane Austen’s novels to Horatio Hornblower to Master and Commander, the figure of the ambitious young man joining the Royal Navy to make his fortune is a familiar one.  The “prize” system helped those men accomplish that end.  The officers of the Swallow, Squirrel, and La Raison did gain from the seizure of the West Point, although none of them made a fortune that day.

An Appeal to Town Meeting

The terminology used in these 18th century manuscripts will be familiar to any contemporary participant in Hingham’s Town Meeting:  “Mr. Moderator,” the first opens, “As I requested the article in the warrant we are now upon to be inserted, [I] suppose it is expected I should shew for what reason it is inserted . . . .”  We do not know who is addressing Town Meeting or who made these notes, but we understand immediately what’s happening.

The speaker explains that he enjoys the use of 27 acres of land at “Great Lotts,” half “tillage and mowing land” and half pasture, “to no part of either of which can I carry any manure or bring off any produce or drive my oxen or cows but upon sufferance.”  The problem, as he describes it, is that when the town laid out the “Great Lotts” and “Squirrel Hill Lott” one hundred years previously, the intention had been to lay out a road running between Goles Lane and Broad Cove Street, to allow access to the lots.  (Broad Cove Street is now called Lincoln Street and Goles Lane, also formerly called the Turnpike, is now Beal Street.  The Great Lots were survivals of the practice, in the earliest days of settlement, of assigning settlers planting lots and pasture at a far remove from the thickly-settled residential center of town.)

A town committee was appointed, the speaker claims, to lay out this road, and ¾ of its roughly one-mile route was fenced.  The task was not completed, however, and recently Thomas Hersey had built a stone wall where the road ran across his property.  For the speaker, the stakes were high:  “if I cannot get to my Land [I] shall be reduced to the hard necessity of keep[ing] two cows & driving my oxen to the worlds end & keep[ing] a horse the greater part of the summer at the barn.”

It demonstrates just how old our town is that this 18th century Hingham farmer was basing his argument on what he claimed were the Town’s mid-17th century actions.  Remarkably, he appears to have had documentary evidence to support his contention.  A second set of notes in the same handwriting, perhaps of a second application to the Town, opens:

Mr. Moderator.  What I propose by Laying before the Town the record that has now been read is to shew the sentiments of the Town respecting a highway from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street 100 years ago, which the Inhabitants have passed  & repassed since time immemorial but is now entirely stopped up by Mr. Thomas Hersey . . . .

Hingham’s town seal pays tribute to the four pillars upon which the town was founded and grew:  Church, School, Train-Band (the militia), and Town-Meeting.  These two manuscripts remind us of the central role played by Town Meeting, which, as the legislative branch of our municipal government, has offered individual citizens a direct voice in municipal government for close to four centuries.