More Treasures from the Basement

 

As I hinted last time, the basement hasn’t finished yielding up its social history treasures, for along with the Franklin Institute minutes, two weeks ago we also rediscovered the accounts of the Young Mens Lyceum.  As a document of social history, it is impossible to underestimate the value of this remarkable record.

The Lyceum was a debating society, much like the earlier Franklin Institute.  But this time, the notation covers the years between 1840-1861, perhaps one of the most turbulent periods in United States history, often referred to as the “Silver Age.” For in addition to the much debated Mexican-American War, our  expanding nation was dealing with the growth of  industrialization, a rapid rise in immigration, and the slow fragmentation of the Union over the issue of slavery. You might think that the inhabitants of agrarian Southborough would  have worried more about the local weather than the political clouds in Washington, but thanks to this record, we now know that wasn’t at all the case.

Here’s a look at some of the debate topics, with a bit of historical context added in, to give you a better understanding of just how up-to-the-moment our citizenry was:

29 November 1842: Which is the most beneficial to the United States: commerce or agriculture? (Voted 6 to 2 for commerce)
This is a very interesting result for what was then entirely agricultural Southborough, and shows that the rising tides of industrialization were beginning to spread out along the lines of the new railroad. Within the next decade, in fact, Southborough would have its first large-scale mill at Cordaville.

The mills at Cordaville originally produced cheap cotton cloth for the Southern slave markets, and only later turned to woolen blanket production,  highly ironic considering the fierce abolitionist stance of many Southborough inhabitants.

21 March 1843:  Have females the right to active part in public affairs? (Voted yes) The Lyceum, unlike the Franklin Institute, also seems to have had  a female “editress,” whose job appears to have been gathering news-bits of the day for presentation to the members.

22 February 1844: Is it right or expedient to prosecute vendors of spirituous liquors? (Voted 5 to 4 yes.) 
Massachusetts was technically dry during this period, but sellers of hard liquor weren’t hard to find, and the close vote is indicative of the popular stance — publicly opposed but privately for.  The state would try various solutions until eventually agreeing to license liquor vendors in the 1870s. Southborough remained officially dry even longer, and our thirsty citizens needed to cross the river to Hopkinton, where  those in search of  liquor, cards and other pleasures could find several famed houses of mixed repute.

Henry Clay, the “Great Pacificator”

23 September 1844: Can abolitionists consistently vote for Henry Clay? (Voted 2-6 against)
1844 was a presidential election year, and Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, was running against Democrat James Polk. Polk, from Tennessee, was a slave owner. Clay, from Kentucky, had also owned slaves, but was considered “soft” on slavery as he decried the institution and favored gradual emancipation and repatriation of slaves to Africa — a view shared at the time by Abraham Lincoln. Southborough, however, was a hotbed of abolitionists, and true to their convictions, the Lyceum members could not bring themselves to support Clay, despite his carrying the rest of the state.

24 December 1844: Are rewards of merit conducive to the best interests of our common schools? (Voted 4-5 against)
Corporal punishment was still a favored means of discipline in our schools in 1844. This practice would change markedly over the next twenty years, as Southborough formed a school committee and introduced semi-permanent female teachers, as opposed to the previous system of interim male tutors. Note, too, the date: 24 December. Christmas as a major holiday was still decades away, to be popularized by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.

3 March 1847: Ought the so-called free states remain in the Union? (Voted not to remain.) A very hot topic, this question was debated again on October, 6th, 13th and 20th. The vote taken on the 20th, 9-1 to remain in the union, reversed the previous opinion. Still not settled, the question was taken up once more, on November 16th and 22nd, this time the results being far closer, 8 to 6 to remain. This back-and-forth is truly fascinating, as it reveals that Southerners weren’t the only ones contemplating secession — something that’s never mentioned in our history texts — and that the residents of Southborough were more or less divided on the question. Imagine if the North had seceded and left the South to its own devices!  Alternate historians have speculated that lacking the industrialized north, the Southern states would have looked to the Caribbean and Central America for resource markets, extending slavery throughout the region.  A very different world indeed….


4 November 1848: Can a true patriot vote for Cass or Taylor for President at the coming election?

1848 was another presidential election year, and this time the candidates were even less palatable to the Lyceum members. Taylor, though nominated by the Whigs as the hero of the Mexican-American War, shared none of their values. Cass, a Southern Democrat, (though he was born in New Hampshire) was equally unacceptable. That left former president Martin Van Buren, who

Results of the 1848 election

ran as an independent.  The record of the Lyceum says it all: “The question was discussed for an hour and half but with little earnestness owing to the fact that there being no one to oppose from principle, and it was then decided 4-1 in the negative.”  This result should give some heart to modern day residents: it appears that the 2016 election wasn’t the first  where voters went to the polls holding their noses.

24 January 1849: Which contains the greater evidence of a supreme being, nature or the bible? (Voted Nature 5-1)
Given the Pilgrim founding of Southborough, this is another really interesting result, as you might have expected  more traditional religious views, but it seems that our Lyceum members shared more than a little streak of transcendentalism.

28 February 1850: Which has been treated worse, the Indians or the Negros? (Voted 7-1 for the Indians)

20 February 1850:  Is it probable that the country will be benefited on the whole by the discovery of gold in California? (5 to 4 against)
Southborough wasn’t immune to the call of California gold, and the Society possesses a fascinating series of letters from a former resident who left to try his luck — but that’s a story for another day.

23 February 1850: Which is worst, the slanderer or the thief? (Voted 4 to 2 for the slanderer)

16 October 1850: Ought Massachusetts sustain the Fugitive Slave Bill? (Decided unanimously against)
The Fugitive Slave Act, part of Henry Clay’s Great Compromise of 1850, allowed anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave to be arrested on merely the claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The law was widely despised and resisted in the North, as the residents of Southborough clearly reveal here.

31 March 1852: Is a monarchical or republican form of government better adapted to the promotion of the arts and sciences? (Voted  3-10 for the republic)

Great Britain has just hosted the Crystal Palace Exhibition showcasing British industry and arts, and this question is undoubtedly the result of some nationalistic chaffing.  Americans would have to wait until the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 to see something similar.

22 December 1852: Should the annexation of Canada be encouraged? (8 to 6 for)
There was serious discussion in both the US and Canada (especially Quebec) about annexing all or part of Canada to the US, which wasn’t as far fetched as it sounds to us today. The Dominion of Canada had yet to be formed, and many viewed the territories to the north as ripe for acquisition, as the Alaska Purchase would confirm in 1867.

27 December 1859: Is the reading of fiction beneficial to society? (Voted no)
So much for Dickens! Interestingly, the Society, in conjunction with the Library, possesses the 1852 founding documentation (including book lists) for our Library, and its one of our future projects to study and digitize these records. It would be interesting to see exactly what books were considered “beneficial.”

3 January 1860: Is John Brown to be justified in his conduct at Harper’s Ferry? (Voted yes)
The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry was an effort by abolitionist John Brown to initiate an armed slave revolt by taking over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It was put down by the US Marines, and Brown, a long-time resident of Springfield Massachusetts, was tried and hung for treason. That the residents of Southborough would support this violent action is indicative of just how fiercely anti-slavery many of the Town residents had become.

24 January 1860. Is one nation justified in forcing civilization upon another? (Voted no)
An astoundingly modern view, given the nationalism of the Victorian age.

An extremely rare period view of Southborough, taken from the spire of Pilgrim Church.

26 March 1861: Should foreign immigration be encouraged? (Voted 15-6 no)
Hardly surprising in Southborough where the founding Yankees were beginning to feel the pressure of Irish immigration.

9 April 1861: The very last entry of this incredible record. The Civil War was about begin and soon many members would be putting courage to the same convictions they had earlier professed at the Lyceum.

“Owing to the small number present,” reads the record,  “it was thought best to have no discussion. Voted to adjourn sine die.”

And thus the golden age of Southborough’s debating societies came to a muted end, drowned out by the drums of civil war.

Neither the Town, nor the Nation,  would ever be quite the same again.

 

 

Newly Discovered Treasures from the Basement


So yesterday, as I was moving a pile of  boxes in the basement, still struggling to produce some semblance of order after our forced removal last year, I spied an uncatalogued carton labelled “School Papers.”

I eyed it dubiously, wondering if I should stop to look inside. It is SO easy to get sidetracked here for hours, and I was on a tight schedule.

But curiosity got the better of me, so I cleared off a spot on the basement table, and pulled up a chair. Amidst crumpled notices of 1950s Fay/Peter’s  graduation exercises and an early brochure for Algonquin Regional, I pulled out two cloth bound-books,  ledger shaped, roughly 6″ x 14″. At first I thought they were more store account-books (of which we have many) but then I opened one and began to read the flowing script on the front cover:

“The diffusion of moral intelligence and scientific research upon the exalted principles of Philanthropy is, or ought to be, the anxious desire of every heart devoted to wisdom…”

No ledger this!

Instead,  as I read further (and became totally sidetracked as I had feared) it turned out to be the meeting record of a group formed on New Year’s Day, 1828: the Southborough Franklin Society, with the soon to be famous Col. Francis B. Fay (the future founder of our town library) its first president.

So what was the nature of this club? Intrigued, I continued reading the spidery cursive. HOLY SMOKES!!  It was a debating society! Like Oxford, England, but here in Southborough!

It seems the  the group assembled twice a month to debate a chosen topic. Members were assigned to argue for and against, and then after both sides had made their cases,  the assembly voted yea or nay.  On the page I’ve chosen to illustrate above, the question for January 18, 1829, was: “Is the intelligence of man superior to that of woman?”

Hmmm. We’ll get back to that in a moment, But first, why all these exclamation points in my description?

I cannot begin to describe to you what a valuable social history document  this book is!!!!

Instead of just dry old financial figures, or land deeds, it contains the well reasoned thoughts and opinions of  actual inhabitants of 1820s Southborough! And, as it turns out, these people were hugely sophisticated thinkers at a very cosmopolitan level — all the more surprising  for a remote farming village that at the time that was a  grueling day’s travel from  anywhere of consequence.

Just read some of the debate topics:

  • Would an equal distribution of property have a tendency to increase the happiness of mankind? (Voted: yes)
  • Is a savage (Indian) or civilized life more happy? (Voted: civilized)
  • Would an increase on duties of domestic or foreign spirits have a tendency to avert the evils of intemperance?  (Voted: yes; then the group voted to ban “ardent spirits” from their meetings, but then voted to hold their next meeting at Mr Winchesters tavern. Go figure!)
  • Do mankind ever perform an act of disinterested benevolence? (Voted: no)
  • Are mankind by nature more prone to vice than virtue? (Voted, after two two-hour meetings: vice)
  • Would a railroad passing through this town from Boston to Albany be advantageous to this vicinity? (A prescient majority delcared yes, but the railroad would be another 9 years in the future.)
  • Are mankind free agents? (Split vote.)
  • Are capital punishments right, just or salutary? (No decision)
  • Ought the dissection of human subjects be sanctioned by law? (Tabled after an hour-long discussion)
  • Would the abolishment of all laws for the collection of debts be salutary? (Voted: no)

Wow! Wow! WOW! This is the equivalent of receiving a time-warp message from an 1828 focus group!!!!

So enough exclamations: I’m sure you now share my excitement at finding such a rare piece of Southborough history.  But to return to the beginning: what do you think was the answer to the first question, the one about the superiority of man or woman?

Well, it turns out the men of 1820s Southborough were truly savvy: having invited  guests of the gentler sex to that particular meeting (not their normal practice), they very wisely opted to let the women present decide. Result?

The women decided by ballot that the intelligence of woman is equal to that of man.

You heard it here first: women equal to men, Southborough 1829!

Oh, by the way. I earlier mentioned TWO books….

Stay tuned. It gets even better…

 

Mourning Paul Doucette

The Southborough Historical Society is tremendously saddened to learn of the death of Paul Doucette earlier this week. Paul was a long time member of the Southborough Historical Society, having served on its Board of Directors for many years. Paul was especially interested in the history of the Burnett Family’s Deerfoot Farm, which at one time was the largest employer in Southborough. He wrote and published a history of both the Burnett family and Deerfoot Farm. In 2004 the society honored Paul by dedicating the Deerfoot Farm exhibit and Burnett family collection located at the Historical Society Museum to him. His vast knowledge of this part of Southborough’s history as well as his keen wit will be sorely missed.

Farewell, Paul.

Christmas, 1863

Recently I set myself the task of rehousing and cataloging the Francis B. Fay papers in our collection. I’ll be telling you more about these documents another time, as Francis B. Fay was one of Southborough’s more remarkable native sons, who among other notable deeds donated the money to start our  library, which for many decades bore his name. But, I digress… back to the papers.

Cataloguing is not exactly a mile-a-minute roller-coaster ride of fun. It can be tedious, because there is a lot of minutia involved, but it’s critical if we really intend to take effective stewardship of our Southborough history. Most of the Fay papers were pamphlets of one type or another — very early sermons (some dating back to 1820), political tracts, speeches, and various other bits and pieces saved during a productive life of public service spanning 7 decades. But tucked away in one of these pamphlets, carefully folded up but literally rotting away with age, was the auction notice you see above. These broadsheets were never intended to be preserved; they were printed on the cheapest of paper, and generally thrown away afterwards. But somehow this one survived, and despite its damaged state,  caught my attention because of the  line below “CONDITIONS OF SALE”:

The property will be sold without reserve as the subscriber is about to leave for the seat of WAR.”

“The seat of WAR”  Wow!

It’s not everyday you find a notice of someone auctioning their possessions in order to go fight in the Civil War. There are so many questions here. We know from the historical record that Marshall Whittemore lived on the corner of Boston Road and Framingham Road, in a Greek Revival cottage that is remarkably little changed. We know too he was married with children, and his profession was listed as farmer. So why was he selling his animals and farm equipment? To make provision for his family? How were they going to live while he was gone? What motivated him to enlist in the first place? He was not at all young — 41 — and the war had been raging for over two years. Something, though, prompted him to sell his precious goods the day after Christmas, and shortly thereafter, leave his home, wife, son, and daughter to fight for the Union.

Can you imagine how difficult that parting must have been? Heading off in a cold, dark December to god-knows-what fate?

Fortunately, thanks to other records in our collection, we know that our story has a happy ending.  Marshall Whittemore, now a private in a heavy artillery regiment, survived the disastrous battle of Newport Barracks where Union troops were overwhelmed 3-1 by Confederate forces. At the conclusion of hostilities, he was mustered out of the Army, returning to farm and family in Southborough where he lived peaceably for decades. He died in 1902 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery.

So the historical record is all neatly tucked up, but it leads to a final nagging question: why did Francis B. Fay decide to save this seemingly random broadsheet? Were the two men friends? Friends of friends? Distantly related? Or did Francis Fay simply admire the courage of a man who sold his most precious possessions, left his family, and headed off to war with the courage of his convictions. We’ll never know, but it’s something to remember as we fuss with ribbons and wrappings, fret over last-minute shopping, fume over holiday traffic, and worry endlessly about menus and decorations, that once upon a time, in a Southborough long, long ago, a certain courageous man named Marshall Whittemore gave up his home and hearth at Christmas, so that we of future generations could enjoy ours.

Thank you, Marshall. Thank you indeed.

And Merry Christmas.

Just Another Random Day in 1742


The more I get acquainted  with the Society’s collection, the more astounded I become. Here in tiny little Southborough, we have a world-class collection of items! Take the above, for example. This wonderfully preserved tome contains the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 that formally established the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Issued during the reign of William III and Mary II, the charter defined the government of the colony, whose lands were drawn from those previously belonging to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, and portions of the Province of New York, and included all of present-day Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia! The book also contains all the subsequent laws governing the province up to the date of its publication, 1742 — which makes surprisingly fascinating reading, with all the little do’s and don’ts of life in Colonial Massachusetts.

My point in showing this to you today is to point that we have many volunteer opportunities that grant hands-on experience with incredibly historic material just like the charter. It’s a volunteer experience really unparalleled anywhere else, as most other institutions keep volunteers well away from the actual collections.

We are currently looking for volunteers to:

• help catalogue our book collection
• help organize and re-house our collection of objects
• help catalogue and re-house our paper and photo archives, and prepare this material for online presentation

No previous experience is necessary, other than a general knowledge of Mac operating systems, and a love of history.  If you’re interested in helping out, let us know.

On the Indian Trail, Literally

Indian Trails of the 17th and 18th centuries

In preparation for expanding the Native American presence at the Museum, I’ve been reading a wonderful book Indian New England before the Mayflower and I came across a very interesting map: “A compilation of certain recorded northern New England Indian trails and villages of the 17th and 18th centuries.” Something about this looked really familiar, so using one of the online map overlay services, I decided to place the Indian trail map over the modern road grid in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Wow!

Now I have long known that Main Street and Cordaville Roads in Southborough follow Indian trails, but I didn’t realize so did most of our existing major highways. It’s like the Roman roads in Italy!

Some examples from a cursory review:

Rt 1A its entire length
Rt 2 west of Worcester to the NY border
Rt 3 all the way to the Cape, and from Lowell to Nashua NH
Rt 6A entire length
Rts 7 and 8 (in western Mass) their entire length
Rt 10 from Vermont to Connecticut
Rt. 16 between Webster and Watertown
Rt 20 its entire length
Rt 30 most of its length
Rt 44 entire length
Rt 84 to Hartford and New York
Rt 91 through Springfield
Rt 95 all the way to NYC
Rts 110 and 117 majority of route
Rt 126/135­ between Hopkinton and Wayland

I am sure there are others. Take a minute and explore for yourself; just click on any map below to expand.  (Or, you can try the slider version of the map, HERE, using the slider in the upper right hand corner labeled “Indian Map” CAREFUL: IT GETS ADDICTIVE)

I suppose in many ways this should have been self-intuitive, as foot paths became cart-paths that became roads that became highways. But somehow, in our European bias, I think many of us (including me) always imagined the first Pilgrims hacking their way through virgin woodland, creating those paths. But the reality is that the Pilgrims and their successors had stepped into a land that had been tended, cultivated and very much altered by Native Americans for thousands of years. The cleared planting fields were already there, as were the fishing camps and weirs, the tended hunting grounds, even the settlement places. But most fatally for the Indian, the well marked land routes were there too, leading the Europeans ever westward with relative ease — to the eventual doom of their civilization.

Something to think about next time you are stuck in traffic…

Indian Trails with Modern Towns. The circles indicate documented Indian settlements
Indian Trails Superimposed on Modern Roadways
Modern Map

Who Says History Isn’t Fun?

Watch the 1868 Southborough fire engine, the Falcon, strut her stuff, with the help of enthusiastic Heritage Day volunteers.  Fortunately our services weren’t required professionally, because we soon discovered pumping is hard work!

SOUTHBOROUGH HISTORICAL SOCIETY BRINGS A LITTLE HERITAGE BACK TO HERITAGE DAY

Southborough’s 1868 Fire Engine, the Falcon

More than a century ago, Southborough’s fires were fought by a handtub named the Falcon. A handtub is a hand pumped fire engine that shoots water over 200 feet — a major improvement over water tossed from a bucket! The Falcon was built in 1868, and purchased by the town of Southborough for $150 in 1896 after a series of deadly fires.

This coming Heritage Day, October 9th, residents will be able to see the Falcon in the parade, as well as watch a live demonstration — thanks to our firefighters — in front of the Southborough Historical Society Museum at noon. The Museum, which is half-way through its renewal process, will be open until 2, displaying its first two new exhibits in a decade: The Printed Word in Southborough: 1847 – the Present; and the 17th Century Sawin Family Papers 

Michael Weishan, current President of the Society, is working with board members to expand the Society’s mission and promote the educational and cultural value of the museum’s collection. “We have one of the most spectacular collections in the area, and it’s high time we put it to work showcasing the almost 4000 years of habitation in the place we now call Southborough.”

The Society invites all residents to stop by and watch the Falcon demonstration and learn something new about our town.

Find out more about Southborough’s history at www.southboroughhistory.org.

A Leisurely Day in the Life of Southborough, May 1, 1897

(click to enlarge)

Working with a collection as rich and diverse as the Society’s has constant rewards. Take this letter for instance, written to Susie R. Ingalls, of Cambridge Massachusetts, by her daughter Mabel. It records an idyllic May Day long ago, in an age long past.

Southborough  May 1, 1897

My dear Mamma

We arrived here Friday morning as half past eight after a very tiresome night. The boat arrived at New London at twelve o’clock but the train did not go until five minutes after four — arriving at Worcester at 6:55. We had no trouble at all changing cars as someone would show us right to the car even offering to carry our bundles.  I like it here very much. Mr. Burnett’s house is very much after the style of Mr. Beecher’s house at Peekskill. Auntie was very excited when we came, rushing to the door and losing her cap as I have often heard you tell of. Friday afternoon I went for a drive with Mary and Charlie Jimmerson and we were caught in a heavy thunder shower and the horse was afraid so we drove into a barn and stayed about an hour; we had a box of candy and had a real nice time. Mary’s father has given them a row boat which was a great surprise so we thought that would be an idea for a name, so it will be named “The Surprise.” We are going out in it every day and yesterday I tried rowing. Saturday afternoon Susie Sawin and her cousin George came; you  certainly would not take him for a teacher. He is an awful one to carry on — he plagues Auntie so gets she real angry in a good-natured way. He put the clock back and it got into about the shape our back parlor clock used to be and [he] did not get up until we were all through breakfast, so we put cayenne pepper in his oysters and coffee. Susie and Mary are both splendid, and so is Cousin Charlie’s wife; she looks young, not much over thirty, and goes around rowing and makes it just as pleasant as she can for everyone and she does not do any work except cooking; she calls Auntie “mother” and they all just love her. Last night we all went to an entertainment at the town hall. It was singers and a short play in which Mary was ‘Bridget’ and Mrs. Sawin took part. This is an awful place for clothes — the dog will run to meet us and jump up and get his dirty paws all over you. Alice stays at the mill all day and goes to ride with Harry a great deal. The Burnett’s were expecting the Vanderbilts but we did not see them come. Alice, Harry, Susie, Mary and I have just come home from church. George stayed home to shave. Alice and I sleep together in the front room. Mrs. Sawin is going to show us her room and all the things she got as presents. Auntie say she will be terribly disappointed if you do not come up and that we have to got to make a long visit at Riverside. She is going to give Alice money for a canary bird, and Susie Sawin has got a pair of shoes 4 1/2 and she wears a 5 so I guess that Auntie will send them to you. I guess I most close now as the table is set for dinner. So goodbye with much love to all, your loving daughter, Mabel

PS We are going to hang George a May basket tonight.

 

There are so many fascinating hints and clues about the times in this letter! The reference to taking the boat to New London, for instance, recalls an age when it was easier and far more comfortable to get to central Massachusetts from New York City by taking the night ferry than by taking the hodgepodge of competing rail lines. (The famed Boston consist of the 20th Century Limited wouldn’t arrive until 1902, for example.) And where precisely is Mabel staying? Obviously at one of the Burnett Houses, but which — the Burnett Mansion, or Edward Burnett’s house across Stony Brook?  That would tell us who Auntie is.

And then there is that fascinating reference to “Mr. Beecher’s House in Peekskill.” It turns out Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist, had a summer house in Peekskill, New York, which was a famous stop on the underground railroad. The house, which was described in a 2001 New York Times article when the building was proposed for a museum, still exists, though the museum project never went forward.  Take a look for yourself: it does rather look like a mini- Burnett mansion.

(NOTE 9.21/17  One of our board members, Deborah Costine, pointed out this probably wasn’t the house Mabel was referring too, but rather THIS ONE  which makes more sense, due to its country setting and resemblance to the now destroyed Edward Burnett House.)

The Sawin’s are now more of a known quantity, of course, since our recent discovery of their historic family documents.  But oysters for breakfast? It seems so: check out this recipe for Oysters a la Thorndike, listed in the 1896 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook.

All in all, Mabel’s letter is wonderful reminder of an age long lost, when Southborough was not only a bucolic farming community, but also a summer retreat of the New York and Boston elite.

 

 

SHS Announces the Discovery of Priceless 17th Century Documents

The Southborough Historical Society is absolutely thrilled to announce the discovery of 13 exceedingly rare early 17th-century documents relating to the Sawin family of Southborough. The items record, among other matters, the 1656 layout of the village of Praying Indians at Natick, the 1686 sale of 5 acres of land there for the construction of a mill by Thomas Sawin, and subsequent grants and transactions. These documents are critically important to our local area history, as they detail the early interactions between the newly arrived settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the native peoples of this region, the Nipmuc tribe. The Nipmuc, almost entirely forgotten today, had lived throughout central Massachusetts for thousands of years, including sites in Southborough. In fact, the basic layout of Southborough along the lines of Route 30 and Cordaville Road follows the fishing and hunting trails, farming fields and camps sites established by the Nipmuc people many centuries ago.

The 1659 deed laying out the grant of land to the Praying Indians of Natick

The Nipmuc initially welcomed the English to the area, believing there was “enough land for all.” However, tensions rose quickly, as English settlers began proselytize the natives, as well as impose their rigid system of land division on the formerly nomadic tribe. The English held the view that any “empty” land could be assigned to specific owners and enclosed for cattle and other grazing animals, while the itinerant Nipmuc felt that the land must remain open for the common good. Add to the mix the Europeans’ introduction of firearms and alcohol to the native peoples, and an already difficult situation became highly volatile. Our 1656 document is witness to this growing conflict, as it defines the borders of the Natick Village of “Praying Indians”— members of the Nipmuc tribe who had adopted Christianity and European ways —  while conveniently and simultaneously opening up surrounding areas for English settlement. Eventually there were a dozen or so of these Praying Indian villages, including at Marlborough, which led directly to the founding of Southborough. Needless to say, this quasi-coerced religious conversion and assignment to specific “villages” (which the white peoples would later term “reservations”) was resented by the majority of Nipmuc who remained faithful to their traditional ways. The inevitable conflict came in 1675, when the Nipmuc and their allies rose up against the English. The subsequent bloody conflict, essentially a battle fought to determine supremacy between two conflicting cultures, came to be called King Phillips War and marks the birth of one nation, and the death of another.

For the English, who were fighting for their vision of a Christianized New World, the war meant the loss of 1 out of every 10 military age men; 1000 civilian casualties; the complete destruction of 12 of the region’s towns; attacks on half the others; (including Marlborough and Sudbury) and damage to farms, mills and other property sufficient to set the colony’s economy back two decades. Fought entirely without English aid, King Philip’s War also marked the beginning of an American identity separate to that of Europe.


The 1685 deed to Thomas Sawin, sealed and signed by the four elders of the Natick Village.

For the Nipmuc and their regional allies, it meant not only the extermination of their way of life, but their virtual extinction.  Those who didn’t flee were slaughtered by the thousands, and at the end of the conflict the remaining native survivors of the area were rounded up by the English — including the Christianized Indians of Natick and the other Praying Towns — and interned on Deer Island in Boston Harbor where they were left to die of starvation and disease. Hundreds of others were sold into slavery. Eventually, a small number returned to their former homes to live under English rule, but the viability of their culture had been destroyed. Our 1685 document, the Thomas Sawin deed, is an extremely rare survivor of this postwar period, and gives a rare glimpse of what life was like at Natick ten years after King Phillip’s War. The diminished Nipmuc, who had since become accustomed to eating ground corn, were desirous of a mill in their village. So they invited Thomas Sawin, who had already built a mill at Sherbourne, to come live among them and set up a mill. Their offer was 50 acres of land on the stipulation that he and his heirs and assigns were to maintain the mill forever, and that there was to be no other corn-mill built in town without the consent of  Thomas Sawin, his heirs and assigns. Thomas Sawin kept his word, built the mill, and lived peaceably among the natives for the rest of his life, but even more importantly, he became an advocate for native rights at the Massachusetts General Court. This progressive stance would remain the hallmark of the Sawin family,  as we shall see.

Notice of Moses Sawin’s Abolitionist Meeting at Southborough, published in The Liberator, 3 December 1847

So how did these remarkable documents wind up in Southborough? Well, long story short, the answer was the response to another epic battle in American history, the fight against slavery. Fast forward 148 years to 1833 where Moses Sawin is still running his grandfather Thomas’ mill at Natick:

To quote the 1876 History of Southborough by Dexter Newton:

“When the clarion notes of William Lloyd Garrison rang through the land calling the nation to repentance for supporting and main­taining chattel slavery, Mr. Moses Sawin did not hesitate to enlist in the great cause of humanity. He was convinced it was a sin against God and a crime against his brother man.

He had the courage to ask the members of the church to which he belonged to testify against the sin; when his request was rejected he refused to commune with them as a church of Christ, and when, for this refusal, they cast him out of the church, he exultantly quoted to them the words of Christ, viz.: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” He was especially gratified that he had lived to see slavery entirely abolished; it was what he had long labored for and sought. But the crowning glory of his latter days was in hearing his former opponents acknowledge the righteousness of his cause, and labor earnestly with him in the overthrow of American slavery.”

So translated to the modern vernacular: Moses Sawin became such an vocal abolitionist that when his fellow Natick church members tired of him and tossed him out, he picked up stakes and moved to Southborough. As Newton relates:

Moses Sawin purchased the grist and saw-mill and a small lot of land situate one-half mile west of Town Hall, in Southborough, of Deacon Gabriel Parker, in 1833. The year following he bought of said Parker seven acres of land adjoining same, and on south side of Mill Pond, and built thereon a spacious dwelling-house, barn and other buildings. The estate is now owned and occupied by Charles B. Sawin, youngest of his three surviving sons. (The sawmill and house are long gone, but were located just south of the MDC damn on Deerfoot Road, which in many ways mimics the Sawin damn and mill pond of old.)

And then comes the kicker:

Said Moses Sawin possessed and carefully preserved through life the curious old deed, signed and sealed by the Indian chiefs of whom his said ancestor purchased the land. They are now in possession of said C. B. Sawin, at the old home-stead, where antiquarians and others interested in curious legal documents can examine them.

And thus, our amazing trove of documents!

 

The Sawin Mill at Southborough. It sat on Deerfoot road just south of the MDC dam.

 

The Sawin family remained active in Southborough right up until the 1960s, owning the still extant brick building on Boston Road, now home to Falconi Oil, which was once their feed store. They owned too a large house at 10 Latisquama Road. It seems that when the last Sawin descendants left Southborough sometime in the 70s, they donated their precious family papers to the Southborough Historical Society. The various documents had by then been bound into an innocuous leather volume appropriately labeled Sawin Family Documents, but without any text or explanation. As such, it was dutifully placed on a basement storage shelf, and promptly forgotten.  Then came the 2015 flood, and  these priceless documents narrowly missed inundation. Returned to the Museum from temporary storage this spring, it wasn’t until we began the arduous process of unpacking, rehousing and cataloguing the material did we discover the true value of what had been sitting on our shelves for 50 years. Today, the 13 documents have been carefully removed from their leather binding, which was showing signs of mold, carefully rehoused in archival envelopes, and stored in our new climate-controlled safe.

George Sawin, direct lineal descendant of Thomas and Moses Sawin, inspecting the documents in the newly re-opened Museum conference room

So what’s next? Well, first of all we will digitize these documents and share them with the world. We’ve already been in touch George Sawin, who leads the Sawin Family Association, who’s come to see documents at the Museum, and who, coincidentally, is spearheading the preservation of Thomas Sawin’s endangered 18th century homestead, which still graces the banks of the Charles River at Natick. Next, partially based on this amazing trove, we’ve applied for funding for a new traveling exhibit, “The Nipmuc, the English, and New England’s First Forgotten War” which will debut at the museum in the fall of 2018 and then travel to local area schools and institutions.

The importance of this find can’t be understated. The documents are of Smithsonian-level quality and importance, incredibly rare paper survivors from the earliest days of our nation. We are honored to be their conservators — which we can only do with your continued help and generous support.

 

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