Aunt Sarah Mac: Duxbury’s Cantankerous Poetess


Carte de visite of Aunt Sarah Mac, c. 1851

You did not want to get on the wrong side of Sarah McFarland (or McFarlin). She had a biting wit which she often delivered, on the spot, in rhyme. Despite her occasional caustic outbursts, however, she was a respected and much loved member of the community.  The memory of both her poems and good deeds far outlived her – making her a Duxbury icon for generations.

Aunt Sarah Mac, as she was widely known, was born in 1739 to William McFarland and Sarah Peterson. She received a public school education, such that is was for girls of the time, and proceeded to become a teacher herself. She remained unmarried and occupied a small house in the Millbrook area of town (near the corner Tremont and Alden Streets). As an older woman she was recognizable to all by her red cloak and black bonnet. To supplement her meagre income, she sold eggs, berries and milk from her cow, Blossom. She also often helped neighbors with the housekeeping and child care. In 1829 poverty forced her into the Alms House where she later died in 1831, at the age of 91.

She must have been exceptionally adept at the English language because she boasted that she could “answer every question put to her in rhyme.”[1] Anecdotes of her life and her poetry were resurrected in 1851 in Sarah Macs Budget, a newspaper issued as a vehicle to raise money for a monument to Rev. John Allyn, the town’s former minister. Its six pages, edited by Mrs. Ann Porter, the wife of Duxbury’s town doctor, John Porter, contained Sarah’s writing as well as reminiscences from those who still recalled her.  The Drew Archival Library has copies of the paper as well as Sarah’s original compositions in her own hand.

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Page of Sarah Mcfarland’s poetry, c. 1824

The following are a few examples of her poems:

When she was caught picking cranberries on private property she responded:

I am on old woman, seventy-one,
Cranberry law has just begun – 
Men make laws but I don’t mind ’em
I pick cranberries where I find ’em

When asked to live with a married man who had separated from his wife, she retorted:

To tell you the truth, I’m not like Ruth
Who’s gone to live with Sam Darling
If you expect to have me, disappointed you’ll be,
As long as I’m Sarah Macfarlin.
For be it known, I’d rather live alone
All the days of my life,
Than to have a man, if I know that I can
Who has got another wife
You’ve had a virtuous bride and you’ve set
her aside
And I think you’re a simple man –
But since it is so, it is best you should know,
You may get another if you can.

Her poetry also recognized deeper social issues, such as progress and the role of women. After visiting the new woolen factory in Duxbury she composed the following:

On the First Factory in the Town of Duxbury
And the only one I shall ever see
King Solomon says there was no new thing done,
Not in his day under the sun;
But if he was to come here, and take a full view.
Then he would avert there was something new.
Every generation grows wiser and wiser,
Except here and there a sordid old miser;
Sirs! I like this new way of carding and spinning;
It is a brave thing to favor the women –
And it is a thing that men ought to do;
Had it not been for the women, there would have been none of you.
And the Factory again, when I went to see them spin,
I may say with the Queen of Sheba of old,
That the half of your wisdom never was told;
You exceed Solomon in all his glory,
And I think I have told you a very true story;
And now, I suppose, very glad you would be,
If you had as many women as he :
But if they should come here to help you spin yarn,
I hope you’ll take care that you do them no harm;
For the very first yarn that ever was spun,
By weak hearted women it was then done;
Though they had not found out such a wonderful way,
To spin so may skeins in a day –
Yet, every woman she did her part,
To spin a covering for the Ark
You have another aim in view, as I do suppose.
You are spinning to have new to make yourselves clothes.
You do very well, sirs, they say to the least,
So, I wish you all prosperity and peace;
And it is my sincere desire,
That your factory may not take fire,
As some have done of late,
Which is a loss to the whole State –

Her will demonstrates she could be as kind as she was cantankerous. A portion reads as follows:

August the 24th AD 1824 BE IT KNOWN unto all Men whom it may concern that whereas I Sarah Mackfarland now of Duxbury having arrived at the age of eighty four the third day of last June and expect to die very soon have thought fit to leave these lines was my last will that ever may be found after my Body is laid under the ground and it is my will that my funeral may attended at the Meetinghouse and that I be buried as near the grave of my dear mother as may be room found. Now I shall dispose of my property…by virtue of this will give my under bed a straw bed with all the bed clothes and my wearing clothes to those Single Women in Duxbury Almshouse every woman that has no husband shall have an equal share and after my lawful debts and funeral charges are paid out of the purchase of my Household Stuff if there is anything left to the overplus if there be any I freely give to the Reverend Doctor John Allen my minister.

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Sarah McFarland’s headstone in Mayflower Cemetery, Duxbury, MA

There were no funds at the time of her death to place a marker at her grave in Duxbury’s Mayflower Cemetery. Years later, some of her former pupils, including Capt. Gershom Bradford of our Bradford House Museum, erected a stone in her honor.









[1] “Sarah Mac,” Duxbury Clipper Anniversary Issue, May 8, 1975.


Fanny Lee: Girl Soldier in the Civil War

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Letter written by Fanny Lee, Bradford Family Collection

Fanny Lee, whose real name was Fannie E. Chamberlain, was one of the hundreds of women who enlisted to fight in the Civil War. She was 18 when she disguised herself as a boy and joined the 6th Ohio Cavalry alongside her cousin, George. She would have seen action in Virginia during the winter of 1863-1864.

It is unclear how she was discovered, or even her full story. Fanny seemed to be an expert at subterfuge. She told Charlotte and Lucia Bradford, nurses from Duxbury, that she was Fanny Lee, a war widow with no friends. They seemed to believe she was forced to leave the Army once her ruse was discovered. Lucia wrote in her notes, “a young woman taken from the army is sent here by the Provost Marshall.” However,  The Daily Ohio Statesman, a Columbus, OH, newspaper, claimed “she announced herself, disgusted with life as a trooper.” Whether she left of her own accord or was accidentally discovered, she was ill at the time and needed care. Not able to be treated at an all-male Union Army Hospital, she was sent to the United States Sanitary Commission’s Home for Wives and Mothers. It was here she met matron Charlotte Bradford and her sister, Lucia.

Fanny wanted to become a nurse and continue to serve her country, but the US Army wanted nothing more to do with a woman who had so “unsexed herself.” Once well enough to travel, she returned to Ohio. Shortly thereafter, Charlotte received a letter from her former patient. Fanny, with her hair growing out, had traded in her soldiers uniform for good and married John J. Butts in Summit, Ohio on July 28, 1864.

In her letter she wrote, “The soldier girl is now a soldier for life in the Brigade of

Fanny Lee002

Excerpt from Fanny’s (Fannie) Letter

The full transcription follows:

[illegible] Summit Co Ohio
August 20th 1864

Dear Friend

I wrote to you soon after I returned but receiving no answer I came to the conclusion that you had not received it I wrote twice to Mrs. Doresay before I received an answer. I have just received one form her in which she says it is the first time she has heard from me. I am now married to a young man of my acquaintance here I will send you a paper with my…[missing page]

…in the man for whom I procured a discharge is my cousin. I have often thought of you dear friend and of your sister and the many kind friends in Washington. I feel that I am greatly indebted to the Sanitary Commission and the kind people connected with it.

I have lost all my hair and the new has come out to about a inch long it is so very dark so almost as it was colored all the time of my masquerade in soldier attire. The weather is considerable cooler here then in Washington. I am very anxious to hear from you please write all the news I would like to know if any body was there to see me after I went away. Has Mrs. Vassar been there if there is any letters there for me please send them to my present address.

I hope you will write soon and not wait as long as I have it was not my fault for I wrote to you before I wrote six or seven letters and sent them to the Post-Office by a boy and I think now that he never mailed them at all. I am in better health than I was when I left Washington. Give my love to your sister and remember me to all my acquaintances there. Tell Mr. Wood that I never shall forget their kindness, do not forget to remember me to Valentine. I must now close my letter hoping it will find you all well as it leaves me. From you war loving friend.

Fanny E. Butts

P.S. You see that Lee was only an assumed name. You will see by the paper what my real name is.

Yours Truly
Fannie Lee

The soldier girl is now a soldier for life in the Brigade of Matrimony. Do you have as much fun or noise there as when I was there I suppose Mrs. Cornwall was glad to get rid of me.


Parker F. Soule: Three Years a Cowboy

Letter from Parker F. Soule to his brother, Winthrop P. Soule, soon after arriving in Denver, Co. Oct. 19, 1882.

Letter from Parker F. Soule to his brother, Winthrop P. Soule, soon after arriving in Denver, Colorado. Oct. 19, 1882.

In October, 1882 a frail young man named Parker Fernando Soule checked into the St. James Hotel in Denver, Colorado. He was thin, just over 130 pounds, and most likely exhausted from his long and arduous journey from Boston. He had come, like thousands of Easterners before him, to find relief from the debilitating symptoms of tuberculosis. Known at the time as consumption because it slowly seemed to consume its victims, the disease had no known cure. Doctors, believing the arid climate of Colorado would alleviate their patients’ suffering and perhaps prolong their life, prescribed them to go west and rest.

At the time of his diagnosis, Parker was just twenty years old. It appears he was first sent to a sanatorium in New Hampshire, but this must have proved unsuccessful. Prior to that time he had spent most of his life in the towns surrounding Boston. He was born in 1861 to Lawrence P. Soule and Mercie B. Eldridge in Foxboro. His father, a native of Duxbury, MA, soon moved the family to Lawrence, MA where he became a successful mason and contractor. After the Great Fire of 1872 in Boston, Lawrence Soule relocated his family to Cambridge, MA where he could more easily become involved in the rebuilding of the capital city. In 1879 the Soules moved into a substantial brick house at 11 Russell Road in North Cambridge that still stands today and is on the National Historic Register. Parker and his siblings, Winthrop, Laura and Florence (Daisy) had all been well educated and, judging by the number of party invitations they received, quite popular. His illness must have been a shattering blow to this close-knit family.

After only a few days in Denver, Parker traveled to Colorado Springs. He found a place to stay with another Boston family who had moved to the area only the year before. Henry Webster Pope, like Parker, was suffering from consumption. He had brought his wife, son and brother, Abbott, to Colorado Springs and started the Pope Brothers Ranch. Parker wrote his own brother that he was keeping quiet, resting and had gained weight. He was looking to buy a horse for the winter although he thought it best not to try to work for a month or two. By Christmas he was healthy enough to work the “milk run” alongside Abbott Pope and was “feeling first-rate.”

Within eight months of his arrival in Colorado, Parker F. Soule was a new man. The dry western climate had seemingly cured him of tuberculosis. His tan, fit 160-pound frame would have been unrecognizable to his family back home. While he despaired that he had not earned much money, he wrote his brother, “I have secured in a great degree what I am out here for – my health. I never felt better I am sure in my life…” It was at this point that Parker also became a true cowboy. He had herded sheep on the Pope Brothers ranch and found it a distasteful occupation. But herding cattle was another matter altogether. The life suited him perfectly. He went out with the cows by 7am, came home to dinner at noon and then headed back out to “round them up” and bring them back to the corral. Often he was required to “cut out” a wild steer or bull, using his newly acquired riding skills. While out with the herd he would  lie in the grass or read while his pony grazed nearby. His day was usually done by 4:30pm. He also became adept at breaking in wild colts.

Instructions from Selden J. Richards to Parker F. Soule with brands to be found at the South Park Round Up, 1885.

Instructions from Selden J. Richards to Parker F. Soule with brands to be found at the South Park Round Up, 1885.

His talent as a cowboy and his overall health can be judged by his leading the South Park Round up for the Grand County Cattle and Land Company in July of 1885. Cattle at this time were left to graze freely over a vast range, miles wide, during the winter months. Left to their own devises, cattle from various herds would become mixed together. Round ups occurred in the spring or early summer months when the cattle would be separated once again and driven home. Brands allowed cowboys to pick out those cows that belonged to their ranch. Any new calves would be branded at this time as well. The list supplied by Selden J. Richards, Parker’s employer, shows just how many brands needed to be recognized in order to separate individual cattle from a herd of thousands. After the round up, Parker may have gone to find lost cows that had wandered as far as the Blue and Grand Rivers, twenty miles away.

It was during this time that Parker’s older brother, Winthrop, made a visit. The brothers had not seen each other in almost three years. Not only had Parker changed physically but his bearing must have been different as well. The youth that had come out west as an emaciated store clerk was now a hale and hearty cowboy, familiar with riding over rough country and sleeping under the stars. Perhaps forgetting that his brother spent his days behind a desk, Parker at first directed Winthrop to get a saddle, “put on a flannel shirt and an old pair of breeches and come along” to the round up. As though realizing the unsuitability of this request, Parker amended his instructions in the same letter, writing, “the more I think of you going to Fairplay, the less I like the plan…I think the best way will be for you to come to the Springs and to Pope’s Ranch and wait for me …”

Winthrop Soule was impressed enough with what he saw that he seriously considered going into the cattle business with his younger brother. In a letter dated Sept. 21, 1885 from Boston he asked Parker to let him know if the plan was feasible. It was apparently not. Instead, Parker returned to Massachusetts by the end of 1885. The reason for his giving up his life in Colorado is a mystery, although love may have had something to do with it. It is just as well that brothers did not invest in their own ranch. The harsh winter of 1886-1887 caused what is known as the “Big Die-Up” of cattle which killed 90% of the herds, millions of cows. The mild winters experienced during Parker’s time in Colorado had led ranchers to erroneously believe that cattle could survive foraging on their own across the plains during the winter months. When the severe winter left feet of snow on the plains and temperatures well below freezing, the cows starved. Encroaching civilization, overgrazing and an economic downturn also contributed to the collapse of many firms. Ranching, as Parker had known it, became a thing of the past.

Summer homes of Parker F. Soule and Lawrence P. Soule at xxx and xxx Powder Point Ave., Duxbury, MA.

Summer homes of Parker F. Soule and Lawrence P. Soule at 236 and 244 Powder Point Ave., Duxbury, MA. Built 1897-1899.

Parker F. Soule was married on February 25, 1886 to Luceba Dorr Kingsley, the daughter of wealthy politician and philanthropist, in Cambridge, MA. Two days later, on his ranch in Colorado Springs, Parker’s former host, Herbert W. Pope, succumbed to the disease that Parker had so fantastically evaded. Parker would not take his second-chance at life for granted. In 1887 he joined his father in business and together, as L. P. Soule and Son, they were responsible for constructing many of the buildings that dotted the Boston city skyline, including the Shawmut National Bank, the First National Bank, the Commonwealth Trust and the Boston Stock Exchange Building. Some of the beautiful Boston Back Bay and Brookline homes of the era were built by them as well. Parker and his first wife had one daughter, Priscilla Bradford Soule (1897-1986). After Luceba’s death, Parker married Julia Ann Whitten in 1904. Together they had Parker F. Soule, Jr. (1907-1975) Lawrence P. Soule, II (1909-1959) and Julianna W. Soule (1912-1969). The family lived at 49 Hawthorne Street in Cambridge but during the summer months they spent time at their vacation compound on Powder Point Avenue in Duxbury, MA on land that Parker’s progenitor, the Pilgrim George Soule, had once owned. Defying all odds, Parker F. Soule lived to be eighty-nine years old, dying in 1950. He is buried along with his family in Mayflower Cemetery in Duxbury.


Letter cited are found in the Parker F. Soule Collection.





News of Lincoln’s Assasination in the Drew Archival Library

New York Herald, April 15, 1865. Bradford Family Collection.

New York Herald, April 15, 1865. Bradford Family Collection.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, April 15, 1865, many American’s awoke to the news that President Lincoln had been shot in Ford’s Theater the night before. In the Drew Archives’ collections we have a number of journals and letters that speak of this tragic event. Some written days after, when the news finally filtered to those far afield. Lincoln’s death was devastating to many Northerners, especially coming so close on the heels of the joyous celebrations following the surrender at Appomattox.

Captain Edward Baker was at sea when the assassination occurred. His journal entry for the April 15th, not surprisingly, makes no mention of the shooting. On April 19th Baker and his crew received papers bearing the news of Lee’s surrender ten days before. Baker wrote, “such glorious news is almost overpowering. My greatest desire, to tell the truth, was to go away by myself and have a long hearty cry, that was the way I was affected.”  After this entry, the pages in this journal were full. His next journal entry begins in a new book and is dated April 24th, 1865:

Capt. Edward Baker diary page, April 1865. Capt. Edward Baker Collection.

Capt. Edward Baker diary page, April 1865. Capt. Edward Baker Collection.

“This day our souls have been harrowed up as seldom in a lifetime, as great national calamities affect people. The “Katahdin” came in with her flag at half mast, and we soon learned that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated!!! Shot through the head, in Ford’s theatre!! Secretary Seward while lying on a sick bed, had his throat cut, but he was no killed…a terrible and overwhelming affair.”

Like Captain Baker, brothers Gershom and Laurence Bradford did not hear of the tragedy on the 15th, but days later. Twenty-three year old Laurence was in the Navy and had spent April 15th in Richmond, VA, witnessing the somber mood of the citizens of that Southern capitol as General Lee rode through the streets. On the 16th Laurence visited Fort Darling and made no mention of the President’s death. It wasn’t until days later that he learned exactly what had occurred:

Journal of Laurence Bradford, Bradford Family Collection

Journal of Laurence Bradford, Bradford Family Collection

“Sailed for Fortress Monroe where we arrived on the morning of the 17th. Carried down orders for every vessel to commence and fire a gun every half hour from sunrise to sunset, in honor of the president.

April 18, 1865 Tuesday. First got the particulars of the president’s death – that he was assassinated by J W Booth in Ford’s theatre Washington.”

Laurence described the scene in Norfolk, VA on April19th, the day of Lincoln’s funeral:

“the city was draped in mourning – everywhere was the grief of the people apparent in sorrow for the death, and in respect for the memory – of this preserver of the Republic. Whose confidence in his abilities and admiration for his character, had twice given him their greatest gift.”

Gershom Bradford, Laurence’s older brother, served in the U. S. Coastal Survey during the Civil War. From April 15th – 18th Gershom was busy repairing vessels and doing other assigned tasks in South Carolina. On the 19th, in Charleston Harbor, he wrote the following mention in his pocket diary:

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Gershom Bradford II Journal, Bradford Family Collection

“Heard of President’s death. Minute guns fired.”

Charlotte Bradford was the Matron of the United States Sanitary Commission’s Home for Wives and Mothers in Washington, DC when she received the news. She did not record events every day, so it is not surprising that it took her over a week before she wrote of Lincoln’s death:

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Diary of Charlotte Bradford (2), Bradford Family Collection

“April 28. The President murdered and buried. I believe there never has been a person so universally lamented. All the black material in the city used in a few hours to drape the houses. Immense crowds to see the body and at the funeral. In N. York there were said to be 150,000 went in to look at the corpse.”

Finally, in a letter dated April 30th, Eden Sampson of Duxbury wrote to his son, Sgt. Horace E. Sampson, of the death of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth:

Excerpt from Eden Sampson Letter, April 30, [1865], Cushman Family Collection

Excerpt from Eden Sampson Letter, April 30, [1865], Cushman Family Collection

“That Damned Scamp of a Booth has come to his end and I am glad he is dead. If he had bin cort alive he wold have cost the Country a pile money so that thing settled up on a square…”

The Valentines of Emma M. Drew

Valentine to Emma Drew, signed "Rose Bud" 8" x 10". c. 1850

Valentine to Emma Drew, signed “Rose Bud”
8″ x 10″ c. 1850-1852

As tomorrow is Valentines day, it is the perfect time to highlight some of the lovely valentines in our collections.  Sending messages of affection was not always done in the commercialized fashion of today. In the mid-19th century you were more likely to receive a hand illustrated missive with a heartfelt original poem. The delicate paper on which they were written often imitated intricate lace. These precious keepsakes could be treasured for a lifetime.

Emma Marinda Drew received a number of valentine messages while still a single young girl in Duxbury, MA. Emma was born in 1834, the daughter Capt. Joshua Drew and Marinda Wadsworth. Four years later her brother, Daniel, was born on St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. Duxbury mariners did not often take their wives to sea, but it was not unheard of and baby Daniel is not the only Duxbury infant born abroad. Emma may have traveled with her parents on this voyage or, more likely, she was left in the care of one of the many Drew or Wadsworth relations in town. Her youngest siblings, Flora (b. 1840) and Joshua (b. 1844), were both born on the terra firma of Duxbury.

The valentines given to Emma in the collection all date from 1850-1852, when she was between sixteen and eighteen years old – the perfect age for courting. During the mid-19th century, just as today, girls would hand their best friends

Emma Drew Valentine, 1850

Emma Drew Valentine, 1850

valentines as well. No doubt the majority of the poems in the collection came from Emma’s closest female companions. They also follow the tradition of secret valentines, forcing the recipient to guess at the sender identity. In one, the anonymous author writes:

If thou should’st guess me, do not tell.

But in thy heart the secret keep

And when thine eyes are closed in sleep;

And visions on thy slumber shine

Then dream I am your valentine

I particularly like the verse that uses the imagery of the sea and sailing – perfect for a seacoast town like Duxbury:

Emma Drew Valentine. c. 1850

Emma Drew Valentine. c. 1850

I love the ship the gallant ship

That bounding o’er the bay

With compass true, like I & You

To Hymen points the way

My heart heaves like her snowy sails

All bending to the breeze;

And when safe from wreck and

boisterous gale, My heart may know some ease;

Yet in storm or calm oh!

Why repine thou art my faithful valentine

Emma Drew Valentine, c. 1850-1852

Emma Drew Valentine, c. 1850-1852

Emma married Lyman Drew, a musician and music teacher, on August 16, 1855. The couple had one child, Mary Lyman Drew, born in 1858.  In 1881 Emma and Lyman purchased an old house at 152 Marshall Street in the Standish Shore area of town. The house was perfectly situated to be an attractive boarding house and indeed it became a popular destination. It was close to the beach and the Myles Standish Hotel and a only short walk from the newly erected (although not complete) Myles Standish Monument.

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Emma became a widow in 1887 when Lyman died but she continued to run the boarding house until 1907. She then became a boarder herself, moving to the home an acquaintance on Chestnut Street.  Emma M. Drew died in 1913 at the age of 79.

Charlotte Williams Hemenway: Runaway Slave Aboard the Ship Plato

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

Except of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith to Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

Excerpt of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith while in Baltimore to his wife, Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

The story of Charlotte Williams Hemenway, a runaway slave (or indentured servant), captured and jailed in Baltimore, MD in 1816 is one that you have probably not heard.  In fact, if it were not for a brief mention of her tale in a letter written by Captain Jonathan Smith (1780-1843) to his wife, Zilpah Drew Smith, found in the Smith McLaughlin Collection, her story might have been lost. The following is an excerpt from that letter, dated July 29, 1816:

“…I am going to tell you a romantic tale that will rather surprise you as it is founded on facts, I suppose that you recollect the boy that I shipped to go in the Plato after the war, that I told you left me in Baltimore, if you recollect his name was Charles Hemenway, that same person was discovered to be a girl & was put in jail for a runaway where she now is. [1] I have been before a Justice & gave my opinion that she was free, & there is Quaker here that is endeavoring to get her out of jail. She says that her name is Charlotte Williams Hemenway. You may depend that I was not a little surprised to see him metamorphed, he had made one voyage from here to the West Indies. I hope that the poor thing will get clear for she is in a bad [torn page]. It is really funny that I should ship a woman for a man, I will look out better for the time to come…”[2]

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

There is not much to go on in this story to help ascertain Charlotte’s origins or even whether she was black or white. There are clues that could lead to either conclusion. In an earlier letter, written June 15, 1814, Smith mentioned the slaves he saw in Charleston, SC. His opinion of them was not very high. Not knowing the make-up of his crew, I can’t say whether he was more open minded when it came to freedmen as sailors, but had Charles/Charlotte been of African descent, it seems probable that Smith would have mentioned it to his wife. On the other hand, indentured servitude was not as wide-spread in the early 19th century as it had been during the colonial period. If Charlotte were merely a white servant, she would have been able to blend easily into Baltimore – making it far less likely that she would have been caught. It is also curious that a Quaker would trouble themselves with an indentured servant. So, the jury is still out, but my best guess is she was a runaway slave or, according to her, being mistaken for one.

Whatever her heritage and reason for bondage, there is one thing that is perfectly clear, Charlotte Williams Hemenway was a remarkable woman – both clever and brave.  To have disguised herself as a man and shipped out on the Plato, an 87 foot vessel, for weeks without her true sex being revealed is the stuff of adventure stories.

My hope is that this article will find its way onto the computer screen of someone who has more information on Charlotte Hemenway , perhaps a researcher or descendent,  and we will learn the rest of her story.

[1] Plato was a ship built in Duxbury in 1811. The master carpenter was Charles Drew (brother-in-law of Capt. Jonathan Smith). It was owned by Reuben Drew (another brother-in-law), Charles Drew, Jonathan Smith and Joshua Magoon.  It was used as a merchant vessel, making frequent voyages to European markets.  After the Drews sold her, the Plato became a whaling vessel and wrecked in 1842 off of Montauk, NY.

[2] I have transcribed the letter with corrected punctuation and spelling. The original writing can be seen in the photograph accompanying this blog article.

A December in Duxbury, 1841

Letter by William P. Webster  Jan. 1, 1842 Gift of John and Polly Nash

Letter by William P. Webster
Jan. 1, 1842
Gift of John and Polly Nash

Carolyn Ravenscroft – Archivist

I have many “favorite” letters at the Drew Archival Library, but one, written on New Year’s Day, 1842, by a young teacher named William Pingrey Webster, is the holiday-themed correspondence I like best.  It is interesting for many reasons – it is witty, tells of seasonal happenings and mentions some Duxbury folk by name, but perhaps the reason I place it so high on my list of wonderful letters is because William wrote it on an extremely large piece of 28” x 40” paper, filling every bit of it. In a time when postage was paid by the recipient, we can only imagine the joke that was played on William’s unsuspecting brother, Walter R. Webster, when the large missive was delivered to his Plymouth, NH home.   William’s sense of humor is sprinkled throughout the letter, some allusions we understand and some short-hand comments are clearly inside jokes between the brothers that we cannot possible decipher.

William P. Webster was born in 1817 in Bridgewater, NH to Walter Raleigh Webster and Betsy Pingrey. When he was twenty-two years old he did what so many educated young men did during that time, he set out to become a teacher. Being an educator in the 1830’s and 40’s in America was often a temporary, itinerant job for men. It was something they did prior to establishing themselves in a more lucrative and, as teaching younger children increasingly became the domain of women, more masculine career.  Men in their late teens and early twenties would often arrive in a town and advertise for pupils or go door to door looking for families that had children in need of tutoring. In the case

Certificate issued by Town of Duxbury, 1839 stating William P. Webster is qualified to teach.

Certificate issued by Town of Duxbury, 1839 stating William P. Webster is qualified to teach.

of William P. Webster, he was hired by the town of Duxbury to teach in one of its public school districts in 1839. Interestingly, at the time of this letter, he had just started a new position at a school that had “been used to a Democratic form of government heretofore .” My guess is that he took over the Point School, the home of the first Student Government, after its former teacher, Edmund Gifford, had moved on [see Journal of the Point School].  The boys in his class were rambunctious and rang the bell hard enough crack it, but teaching did have its advantages, for William was able to “get acquainted with all the ‘pretty’ girls.”

Pilgrim Hall, c. 1870

Pilgrim Hall, c. 1870

In his spare time William was quite busy. From the vivid descriptions of his activities during the month of December we really get a glimpse of a typical South Shore holiday season during the antebellum period.  On December 22nd, he and his friend, Inman (also a teacher in Duxbury), took a two hour sleigh ride with friends to Plymouth to enjoy the festivities surrounding  Forefather’s Day, the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims.[1]  All the men met at Pilgrim Hall, “a very large room full of Indian antiquities and all the old ‘trumpery’ that the Pilgrims brought with them” and proceeded, escorted by the Standish Guards, to the Unitarian Church. There they heard a rousing speech on the “foremothers” by Joseph R. Chandler, Esq. of Philadelphia. Dining at Pilgrim Hall following the ceremony cost $2, a price too rich for William. He and Inman went to the Pilgrim House instead where they ate turkey. [2] A ball that evening was also far too costly for the young teacher – at $3 a ticket he had to turn down a young Plymouth lady who invited him, noting to his brother, “tis a trouble to be poor.” A dancing party the same evening in his own neighborhood probably took some of the sting out of his straitened circumstances.

The following Saturday evening, William attended the Christmas celebration at the Universalist church on Washington Street in Duxbury which was “’jock full’ and very neatly trimmed with evergreen.”[3] Religion was a bit more fluid during this period and members of various Protestant denominations would frequent each other’s meetings. A particularly good visiting minister at any church was always an event not to be missed no matter what your affiliation. William went half the time to the Unitarian Church and the other half to the Universalists – where he could also see Methodists.

Washington Street, Duxbury with Seth Sprague, Jr. House, c. 1870.

Washington Street, Duxbury with Seth Sprague, Jr. House, c. 1870.

Temperance meetings took up much of William’s time during December. The Temperance movement was quite popular in Duxbury with between 400-500 members of the local chapter. Included in this number were at least half a dozen sea captains who gave up drink. According to William, these “old topers will come out and sign the pledge and tell their experience, then we cheer them – I never enjoyed myself better in any meetings.”  Seth Sprague, Jr., one of the most substantial men in town and a Massachusetts State Senator, never missed a meeting. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for William to have purveyors of spirits in his immediate family – both his brother and father operated the Webster Tavern in Bridgewater, NH. They would have had a hard time with the business in Duxbury, as William advised them, “alcohol does not show his head here, if he does they pounce upon him.”

William was also a member the Duxbury Lyceum, also known as the Debating Society of Duxbury. The Lyceum was formed in 1832 by a group of mostly young men and women who gathered together to argue popular topics of the day. During December 1841, the little group considered the questions, “Ought parents to choose the partners for their children” (William spoke in the affirmative); “Is there anything improper on a ladies making a proposition to a gentleman for marriage,” (William supported the negative); and, “Are early marriages advisable” (William would have spoken for the affirmative if it had not been too cold to attend). Much of his arguments were definitely made with a bit of tongue in cheek.  In addition to his debating, he attended a singing school held two evenings a week.

William was looking forward to 1842. He already had an invitations to dine with  Capt. George P. Richardson, a wealthy retired sea captain, and also to share a clam dinner with his old roommate. His days of being a “pedagogue” were numbered as he was planning to “set a pole and let it fall and then follow it.” He ends his letter with “wishing you all a new happy new year – please remember me to all that take the pains to enquire.”

Now, it is incumbent upon me to tell you what became of our humorous friend. I debated whether to write this article without mentioning William’s future and let you all believe that his pole pointed toward a long life filled with many more holidays. But, I knew there would be at least a few among you who would be unsatisfied with that, so I will tell you what became of him. William’s death came just two years after this letter was written, when he was a mere 27 years old. He died of consumption (tuberculosis), a disease that was far too common in the  19th and early 20th centuries and took many lives. He is buried in the Webster Cross cemetery in Bridgewater, NH.  But, I prefer not to dwell on that and would rather image our young jokester as he was on New Year’s day in 1842, bent over a overly large piece of paper, chuckling to himself as he recounted his December in Duxbury.

[1] Forefather’s Day is still celebrated in Plymouth by the Pilgrim Society/Pilgrim Hall Museum and the Old Colony Club. See’_Day and

[2] Pilgrim House was a hotel on the corner of Main and Middle Streets in downtown Plymouth established by Danville Bryant in 1834. It burned on June 20, 1846. At the time of William Webster’s turkey dinner, the hotel was owned by Francis J. Goddard. In 1856 Union Hall was built on the site.

[3] See A Christmas Romance in Duxbury for more history on the local Unitarian Church.