Here to return to
OLD NEW ENGLAND TRAITS.
IT was the winter of 18—, between fifty and sixty years ago. Certainly the winters of New England began earlier and were more severe than they have seemed at a later period. After the fervid heat of summer has become subdued by the progressive changes of the season, no atmosphere could be clearer, purer, more exhilarating than the prevailing tone of our October days, and this kindly influence, as if by way of preparing the human frame for the gradual approach of winter, generally extends, with occasional stormy intermissions, through November, and often very far into the frosty domain of December itself. And such snow-storms as we once endured! It may be alleged, that distance of time forbids accuracy of comparison, and that masses of snow, which appeared vast to a child, would not seem so immense to a full-grown man, and were really no more huge than some of those with which winter nowadays envelopes the ground. But facts within my memory do not admit of such an explanation, for I distinctly recollect the driving storm which continued for days and piled its accumulating heaps against the front of our dwelling-place, so as entirely to cover the windows of the lower story of the house, and to rise above the main door which was of ordinary height, and that at length we were released from this imprisonment by means of an archway to that entrance, dug through the drift by the friendly efforts of an opposite neighbor. 1
Our deliverer was a superannuated seaman; inspired partly, no doubt, by the good-heartedness formerly, at least, thought to be characteristic of that class of men, and, partly, by respect for the memory of my father, who had been dead for some years, in the early prime of life, leaving behind him the best of reputations as a shipmaster and a man. Perhaps Tom Trudge had, at some time, sailed under him. I well remember the triumphant air with which this ancient mariner introduced himself into the kitchen, where all the family was assembled, doffing his tarpaulin, flourishing his shovel, , and cutting one or two capers, in token of his hilarity at the accomplishment of his somewhat arduous job. Of course, there were profuse thanks and congratulations on the occasion; but I recollect only, that, after the second glass of grog furnished by my mother, — a refreshment to which Tom was only too partial, — he executed another spring from the floor, snapped his fingers and cried, “Tired, ma’am! — not a bit of it! For all I’ve done to-day, by the blessed binnacle I should think nothing at all of jumping over a meetin-us, — yes, a meetin-us, ma’am!” to the amazement, at the idea of such a feat, of certainly all the younger fry who were present at the ceremony.
The town in which we lived was one of the very oldest of the New England settlements. Its situation is uncommonly beautiful, upon a slope descending from a moderately elevated ridge towards the bank of a noble river, which of late years has furnished more motive power to various manufacturing establishments in the towns and villages, which have sprung up on its borders, than any other stream in the world. At the time of which I write, there was not a mill throughout its whole extent. It is told, that Louis Philippe, when a fugitive in this country, in his youth, passing up the road which leads mostly along the margin of the river to a point where the first falls interrupt the navigation, pronounced the scenery the most beautiful he had ever seen. The river was then chiefly famous for the rafts of admirable timber which it sent down from the primeval forests above, for the construction of the unsurpassed ships built near the town, and for the commerce flourishing upon its bosom and extending to every quarter of the globe. It was idle enough, in comparison, at a later period.
Early in the present century, and for a long series of years in the past, no town on the American coast surpassed it in commercial enterprise and activity. The habits and traditions of the place were well calculated to nurse a hardy race of seamen, and their reputation for skill and courage was well known throughout the maritime world. Persons are very apt to look at some direct circumstance, nearest at hand, for the cause of events, which may after all result from much more remote contingencies. So, at first, in the days of the declining trade of the town, they said the obstruction to its commerce was owing to the sand-bar at the mouth of the river. But the bar had been there from time immemorial; and though it is true that modern-built vessels, with their cargoes, could not pass that barrier, as ships of lesser tonnage were formerly accustomed to do, yet the main cause for this decay of business was to be found in the growth of the capital of the State, and the greater facilities for the transaction of business which exist in larger than in smaller places.
But the bar itself was always of very dangerous passage in boisterous weather, and often the daring pilots of the station, than whom none upon the coast were more competent and courageous, were exposed to extreme peril, in their small craft, in returning to the river, when they had been on the look-out for inward-bound vessels in the bay.
It so happened that a schooner in which I was a passenger, when a youngster, was detained outside the bar, and was likely to be detained for several hours, waiting for the tide to make. A young pilot, accompanied by his still younger brother, came alongside in their whale-boat, and having some acquaintance with me invited me to sail with them to town; and, having been some time absent from home, I gladly accepted their offer. Their boat was under a single low sail. The breeze was fresh and the day fair, though I could not but be aware, as we bowled along towards the bar, that a retreating storm had left some indications of its past presence in the tossing foam that sprang upwards as the waves dashed upon that treacherous heap of shifting sand. The pilot sat in the stern-sheets of the dancing boat, steering steadily with an oar. His brother tended the sail, and I was crouched amidships. As we approached nearer the scene of commotion, our younger companion assumed a station in the bow of the boat and began to sound with an oar. This looked a little formidable to a landsman; and soon turning his head in the interval of hastily pushing his implement into the water, the bowsman called out to his brother, “Joe, are you going to try it?” Joe made no sign, but steered steadily on. Again and again the sounding oar went rapidly down, and I suppose at last to the bottom, and again the young man cried out with renewed energy, “Joe, are you going to try it?” Joe uttered no word, but chewing his quid, looked steadfastly forward. In a moment a heavy wave struck the boat, drenching us plentifully, but not filling her, and bounding up, staggering a little, she dashed on, and with another like slap or two, we were over and in fairly smooth water. Had the boat struck bottom, she would have been instantly dashed to pieces and we should have met the sad fate of others who, before and since, have been drowned and lost to sight forever in that seething tide.
In a conversation with a very eminent English novelist, of profounder skill and more permanent fame, in my opinion, than any other since Scott, he expressed his surprise at the solid aspect of the city of Boston, in which we had met, on the day after his arrival in this country, upon his first lecturing tour. He had enjoyed the best opportunities of viewing “men and cities,” not only in Europe, but in various parts of the farther East. I took the liberty of replying that Boston had been growing nearly two centuries and a half, and inquired if he expected to see wigwams, or even those slighter fabrics which betoken the earlier stages of advancing colonization. He said, “No, of course not; but it had quite as substantial an appearance as an English city.” But it is to be remembered that the persons who came to this country, at first, and from time to time, afterwards, were already civilized, and brought with them and transmitted to their descendants much of the knowledge and many of the habits, peculiarities, and even the traditions of their ancestors “at home.” Our town, too, looked old, though far from being so substantially built as Boston.
In fact, while reading the fragment of Scott’s autobiography of his earlier days, and Dean Ramsay’s “Reminiscences,” one might almost think that their descriptions of character and manners, in so ancient a city as Edinburgh, were in many respects but a recapitulation of popular ways and even of personal oddities in our own respectable American town. Especially, the great novelist’s vivid narrative of the desperate street conflicts between the lads of the several quarters of the “auld town,” revives many boyish recollections. In my youth, the division was into Northenders and Southenders; but as our own residence was in the central part of the town, we stood, as it were, between two fires. The conflicts usually took place in the winter, when the snow was on the ground, and though heartily engaged in, and sometimes quite too rough for play, were generally good-natured enough to avoid any very serious danger to life or limb. In the higher schools, the lads were drawn from every quarter of the town; but upon dismissal for the day, or upon the afternoons of Wednesday and Saturday, when no school was kept, the partisans of the several sections offered combat which was seldom refused. The usual weapons were snow-balls, which were sometimes, I regret to say, dipped in water and frozen over night, and kept in some secure place to await the expected battle, and occasionally a pebble, the missile commonly used by the Scottish combatants, was inserted, — a practice which was almost universally condemned. Very seldom did we come to a hand-fight, for a spirited “rush,” when either party felt strong enough for it, was almost always followed by a rapid retreat on the other side. But woe to the luckless stripling whose headlong courage carried him far in advance of his companions; for upon a sudden turn of affairs he was a captive, and down in an instant, and mercilessly “scrubbed” with snow by a dozen ready hands, until the rallying host of his compatriots advanced vigorously to the rescue. The normal alliance of us middle-men was with the Southenders, though a good deal rougher than ourselves; and in times of truce a solitary boy would walk a little gingerly through their quarter, as errands or family occasions led him that way. But the principal commercial interests centered in those parts of the town, and if, upon the breaking out of determined warfare, we could secure, in the capacity of leader, the services of some lubberly boy who had made a voyage, even a mere coasting trip, to sea, though I remember that these were sometimes far less adventurous in the field than those who had no experience of the perilous deep, the issue of the contest was not for a moment doubtful. The forces of our adversaries melted away, like the snow with which they fought, at the very presence of a champion supposed to be of such redoubted prowess. The dependence of those adverse combatants was rather upon some of the younger hangers-on at the ship-yards, in their territory, for such a casual auxiliary. Sometimes, the elements of military skill would be displayed. While the two forces were closely engaged, a flanking party would make a sudden rush up some short by-street, and then the complete demoralization and panic-flight of the warriors thus newly assailed was something truly disastrous to behold.
Of course, we enjoyed the ordinary boyish sports of boating, swimming, and skating in the season for it; or, of a pleasant afternoon, would roam away “over the hills,” as the phrase ran, huckleberrying, perhaps, or gathering penny-royal and other wild herbs for the old folks at home; to be dried and reserved for future occasions. For, in those days, a garret would hardly be considered complete, without bunches of these simples hanging from the beams by strings, or stored away in paper-bags. In the fall of the year, we had another resource, long since interdicted by the owners of farms in the neighborhood of populous towns. This was the pleasure of nutting; for the urchins of those days regarded these kinds of fruit, growing on trees in the fields, as a sort of ferae natura and free to every passer-by; though the more surly proprietors, even then, took much pains to circumvent and capture the lads, as they returned with their poles for beating the branches and with their loaded bags, borne by two or three of them, hanging by the middle across those implements. Sometimes, predatory bands proceeded in force and defied the farmer on his own ground. The story was told of one luckless individual who went nutting alone and was caught and imprisoned, for a time, in the cellar of the farm-house, but mischievously contrived to set all the taps of the cider-barrels running, before he was released. These excursions led us often to the Devil’s Den, an excavation in an abandoned ledge of limestone, in a solitary situation at some distance from the town, and guarded, now as then, by three rather spectral-looking Lombardy poplars, which to us boys had a sort of mystic and undefined significance. Here we procured bits of serpentine, interspersed with veins of rag-stone, as we denominated asbestos, which, strangely enough, we used to chew. I suppose that no boy ever went to that place alone, and a sort of solemn ceremony attended his first visit with his older playmates, to a scene bearing an appellation ominous enough to call up every vague dread of his youthful heart. The approach on these occasions was rather circuitous, through the pastures, until an elevated mass of stone, standing quite solitary, was reached, designated as “Pulpit Rock.” To the summit of this, the neophyte was required to climb, and there to repeat some accustomed formula, I fear not very reverent, by way of initiation, and supposed to be of power to avert any malign influences to which the unprepared intruder upon the premises of the nominal lord of the domain might otherwise be subjected. For these youngsters the ordinary means of education were abundantly supplied, and the girls, too, had their Academy for those who aspired to something beyond the common range; and when, at a later period, I became conversant with their circle, I must say that I have never known young ladies of better manners or more cultivated minds. As an evidence of more expansive benevolence than usual, and of profounder interest in the affairs of the great world abroad, I remember that when the class of students in Goldsmith’s Ancient History came to recitation, one young lady burst into a torrent of tears. The astonished teacher anxiously inquired into the cause of her emotion. In the midst of her sobs she ejaculated, “Oh, that good man, Socrates! To think they should have treated him so!” She was finally soothed; but considering that the incident in question was of a rather remote date, this ebullition of feeling evinced a generous sympathy with a victim of past injustice, truly worthy of a philanthropic mind.
It is still a town of stately mansions upon its principal street, and one more beautiful can scarcely be imagined. The magnificent elms, of the graceful American kind, which line its borders, have always been reckoned a feature of extraordinary beauty. Of late years, special means for supplying and preserving this elegant and useful kind of embellishment of the streets have been provided by the liberal bequest, for this purpose, of Mr. John Bromfield, a native of the town, but long a respected merchant at the capital of the State. A conspicuous house standing upon a gentle elevation, at some distance from the street, with pleasant grounds in its front and rear, was appropriately named by its original proprietor “Mount Rural,” though not, perhaps, with the most exact observance of the requirements of grammatical construction. Still, it has some authority for being considered idiomatic, for does not “Pilgrim’s Progress” tell us of the “Palace Beautiful?” And doubtless many other instances might be cited of the substitution of an adjective for a noun. At all events, the worthy owner, who built his house in the most approved style of former New England architecture, spacious, square, and with projecting windows in the roof, made some pretensions to classical allusion; for cultivating extensive gardens in the rear of his dwelling, he placed for an inscription on his front wall, —
“Miraturque novas frondes, et non sua poma,” —
a citation which, it is to be feared, would be taken rather as encouragement to mischievous urchins, if any of them understood it, rather than as a warning to abstain from the fruit.
Near the extremity of the opposite quarter of the town still stands an ancient edifice of solid stone, with a couple of stories of porch of the same material, approached by a lane, bordered with trees, leading some distance from the highway, and constituting, with some modern additions, the dwelling-place of a considerable farm. It boasts an age of more than two centuries, as appears by the figures above its entrance, and was apparently built for defence, when precautions against Indian incursions were thought necessary, though afterwards used as a powder-house; and tradition has it that, on one occasion, an explosion took place by night, which blew away a part of the side wall, lifted the bed on which a negro woman, the slave of the occupant, was asleep, bore her safely across the road, and planted her, bed and all, upon the spreading branches of an apple-tree, without injury. An early owner of the place was the ancestor of one of the recent Presidents of the United States, and it was known, until quite a modern period, as the PIERCE Farm.
Not many years ago, there still remained at the corner of a street, between the points just designated, one of those ancient houses not common in this country, the second story resting on heavy beams, which showed themselves in the outside walls, and the walls of the long, low dwelling filled in with a coat of dark plaster braced by wooden cross-pieces, :like those of Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford. The handsome houses before alluded to were the residences chiefly of merchants, or sea-captains, who had retired from their maritime or commercial occupations with a competence, or of prosperous professional persons. 2 But a competence in those frugal days was an insignificant sum in comparison with the fortunes of our own time, scarcely approaching the annual income of the shoddy-masters, who now regulate the avenues of social and so-called aristocratic life. Indeed, I was once informed by an old inhabitant, that the richest person in the town, near the close of the last century, was assessed upon only ten thousand dollars’ worth of personal property. But I think there must be some mistake in this statement, unless the rate of taxation was exceedingly low; for this same prosperous merchant devoted twenty times as much as that reputed capital to certain pious uses, during his protracted life-time, and still left forty times as much at his decease. Doubtless in those better days, the inevitable “rates” (“death and rates,” they used to say, “were certain”) were so small as to press but lightly upon the incomes of individuals in moderate circumstances, and the means of getting at the exact measure of a man’s worldly “worth,” had not reached their present degree of perfection. Indeed I may state, upon unquestionable authority, that, late in the first quarter of the present century, a highly respected trader of the town, who lived genteelly and was taxed upon a supposed capital of eighteen thousand dollars, waited upon the assessors and blandly told them, “Gentlemen, I have been more than usually prosperous the last year, and am willing you should tax me upon an additional thousand.” Such combined integrity and disinterestedness was the theme of universal commendation; but when the old gentleman went to another reckoning a few years afterwards, his heirs had the benefit of an estate nearer one hundred thousand dollars in value, than the limited capital which had contributed its quota to the public burdens. In a word, I have heard my Aunt Judith say, that in her youth it was usual for respectable young women to take service with more thriving neighbors or friends, for the annual allowance of their board and a single calico gown, at four and sixpence a yard, — as the price was before mills were established on our own ground.
I cannot help referring more particularly to some of the families of the town, who imparted to it a well-founded reputation, not surpassed, if equaled, by that of any town or city in the land; for instance, there were the Lowells, who gave name, afterwards, to that wonderful city of spindles, which enjoys as world-wide a standing in the annals of manufacturing enterprise as the old-world Manchester of a long-anterior date, and one of whom, amid the desolate ruins of Luxor, struck by the hand of fatal disease, conceived the idea of establishing that noble Institute which bears his name, and will convey it to future grateful generations; a name, too, which has so resounded in the popular literature of the day. Then, there were the Jacksons, famous in mechanics and in two of the learned professions; Charles Jackson, the erudite and upright judge, and James Jackson, one of those skillful and truly benevolent physicians, whose memory is still in the hearts of many surviving patients. The Tyngs, too, resided there, long honorably connected with colonial history and still represented by descendants of national repute. Amongst other remarkable individuals was Jacob Perkins, the famous inventor, who at an advanced age ended his useful career with no little foreign celebrity in the great city of the world. I have read lately of his successful exhibition of his wonderful steam-gun, in the presence of the Duke of Wellington and other competent judges of the experiment, and know not what national prejudice, perhaps, or other casual reason, prevented its adoption. 3 In science, too, we had Master Nicholas Pike, an ancient magistrate, whose arithmetic held its ground throughout the country, until it was superseded by that of Master Michael Walsh, which received the high commendation of so capital a judge, in matters of calculation, as the old land-surveyor and finally head of the nation, Washington. Master Walsh was an Irishman by birth, though “caught young,” as Dr. Johnson remarked, to account for any distinction acquired by natives of Scotland; and he displayed much of that impulsive temperament imputed to the people of Erin’s Green Isle. He dressed in the old style, his gray hair gathered into a queue, and wearing top-boots to the last. He was an excellent classical scholar, as well as mathematician. The pupils he prepared for college did justice to his instructions, and some have acquired great eminence in the several professions and in the conduct of important national affairs. As an instance of his patriotic attachment to his adopted country, upon casually meeting, late in life, a certain writer of the town, after a cordial salutation, he added with a slight dash of the brogue, “I thank ye for the Red and the Blue! “The young person was a little taken aback, not remembering the allusion, for a moment, when the old gentleman repeated emphatically, — “The Red and the Blue, ye know — Tom Campbell.” It was in reference to a couple of stanzas, addressed to the United States by that great lyric poet, scarcely equaled in his day, namely: —
“United States! your banner wears
Two emblems; one of fame;
Reminds us of your shame!
“The white man’s liberty in types
Stands blazoned by your stars:
But what’s the meaning of your stripes?
They mean your negroes’ scars.”
To this the American had retorted: -
“TO THE ENGLISH FLAG.
“England! whence came each glowing hue,
That tints yon flag of ‘meteor’ light, 4 —
The streaming red, the deeper blue,
Crossed with the moonbeam’s pearly white?
“The blood and bruise, — the blue and red, —
Let Asia’s groaning millions speak!
The white,— it tells the color fled
From starving Erin’s pallid cheek!”
The verses were at first circulated as above set down. Campbell afterwards altered the two first lines of the second stanza into: —
“Your standard’s constellation types
White freedom by its stars,” etc., —
impairing it, as some will think, both in force and in whatever poetical expression it may have originally had. Poets are apt to make similar mistakes, frittering away the first glow of thought and language, in revision. Has not Tennyson thus injured “The ride of the six hundred?” and did not Campbell himself half spoil “Hohenlinden,” by taming its phraseology down into a supposed superfluous accuracy? For example, he first wrote, —
“‘Tis morn, but scarce yon lurid sun
Can pierce the war-clouds, rolling dun,” etc.
It occurred to him, or some “stop-watch critic” suggested, that the sun itself was not actually “lurid,” on that celebrated occasion, and he accordingly changed the expression to “level,” thus signifying a mere natural phenomenon; and, besides the sacrifice of a fine poetical expression, forgetting that the sun must have appeared actually “lurid “through the interposition of “the war-clouds, rolling dun.” Nor is this the only instance of misapplied fastidiousness in that splendid and stirring piece.
Then, there was the Rev. Dr. Spring, father of that celebrated clergyman, Dr. Gardiner Spring, of New York. He had been a chaplain in the army of the Revolution; and when I, as a boy, pulled off my cap to him in the street, I fancied there was something a little military in his polite salute in return. The good Doctor held to what were called Hopkinsian tenets, a special form of strict orthodoxy; and it was alleged that, differing from the ordinary practice of religious people in the town, and construing literally the record of the Creation, “The evening and the morning were the first day,” — the Saturday evening was observed with primitive strictness in the family, while on Sunday evening, after sunset, the excellent matron assumed her knitting-work, or attended to whatever secular occupation she chose. I have often thought, and it seems likely, that the name of Swett — that of one of the most eminent and excellent physicians of his day, in our community, and who in fact fell a sacrifice to the faithful discharge of his professional duty — was the same as Schwedt, borne by the Prince de Schwedt, well known at the court of Frederick of Prussia (so called) the Great. The good Doctor examined the throat of a yellow fever patient, in a vessel lying at quarantine ground in the river, and inhaling his infectious breath, went home declaring he had taken the disease, of which he shortly died. The efforts and liberality of his son, the late Colonel Samuel Swett, in promoting the establishment of the Public Library of the town, though himself long a resident in the capital of the State, will forever endear his memory to the inhabitants. The daughter of another distinguished physician, Dr. Sawyer, was Mrs. George Lee, who gained no little reputation by her “Lives of the Ancient Painters,” and especially by a book which attained great popularity under the title of “Three Experiments of Living.” I should do great injustice to a list of noted personages — to some of whom allusion is made elsewhere in these pages, and which might be extended, if consistent with the objects of this work, were I to omit mention of a lady, Miss Hannah F. Gould, whose poetical productions gained her well-deserved applause and many friends, and some of whose highly pleasing verses still retain their hold upon public esteem. Reflectively, too, we might claim some share in the distinction of the most popular American poet of our own day; for the direct ancestors of Longfellow were natives of our immediate vicinage. I had no intention, certainly, of offering any tribute to the living in these memorials of the past; but one name inevitably suggests itself, better known on ‘Change, in London, than in the place of his birth. I speak of William Wheelwright, a lad, at the period to which these sketches refer, long resident abroad, though occasionally brought home by the obligations and affections of family ties, to whose enterprise, and arduous, untiring pursuit of his object are owing steam navigation and railway lines in the southern part of this Continent, and to whose praise the whole South American coast will respond.
There were others and many, of high personal character and local reputation, and not a few of strongly marked characteristics, whose names, perhaps, would scarcely sound familiar to modern ears; but I cannot pass over one wealthy merchant, distinguished for his strong common sense and decided individuality, as well as for a success in business scarcely equaled in this country, in his day, — the well-known William Bartlett, to whose judicious bounty the chief theological seminary of the State and its principal Academy for the instruction of youth owe so much toward the assurance of their permanent foundation.
Nor should the memory of Oliver Putnam fail of a record, who, long absent from his native town, provided by his will for a generous bequest, upon which a Free School of the highest character has been long established. Nor should due tribute be forgotten in honor of George Peabody, who, remembering those days of his youth which were passed in acquiring habits of business in the place, distinguished its Public Library by a munificent gift.
There had been many other men of marked character and great local influence: Tracys, Daltons, Greenleafs, Davenports, Hoopers, Bradburys, Johnsons, Coffins, Bromfields, Crosses; and many more, doubtless, might be thought worthy of mention. Among those named above, Nathaniel Tracy was one of the wealthiest merchants of his day, elsewhere referred to in this narrative as suffering immense losses by his advances to the government, when its needs were great and its credit was low, and in other ways. Tristram Dalton was a Senator of the United States from Massachusetts, in the First Congress under the Constitution; and Theophilus Bradbury, afterwards appointed to the bench of the supreme court of the State, was a member of the Federal House of Representatives during a part of Washington’s administration. Indeed, from some of the early inhabitants of the town are descended not a few of the principal families in the capital of the State; .and its representatives, by some tie of original or later connection, are scattered throughout the whole country.
I linger somewhat longer and lovingly upon this preliminary part of whatever story I may have to tell, because I am aware of nothing in the literature of New England which furnishes precisely similar reminiscences, and because pictures of past manners, if truthfully portrayed, can hardly fail to be both interesting and useful. We heard plentiful stories, in our youth, of a higher style of living in colonial days, of coaches kept by the upper class of citizens; of their slaves, ‘whom we knew in their emancipated condition as gardeners and waiters in general; of the cocked hats, the gold-embroidered garments, the laced ruffles of the gentlemen, and the highly ornamented, but rather stiff garniture in which the ladies with their powdered heads saw fit to array themselves, as they now present themselves to us on the living canvas of Copley. It was in the handsome residence of Mr. Dalton, long after his decease, that I saw hangings of gilded morocco leather on the walls of the principal room, — a substitute for the wall-paper in common use, and which I have never seen or heard of in any other instance, in the United States.
Our collector of the customs was peculiarly one of this class of gentlemen of the old school. He was a person of very warm temperament and of remarkable characteristics; an ardent Democrat, who, upon the accession of President Jefferson, had succeeded Colonel W—, the first collector of the port, appointed by Washington, under whom he had served with distinction in the Revolutionary War. The residence of the latter, and the office of customs itself, in those simpler days, were in the house which was afterwards the birthplace of the writer of these sketches. To that war the successor of the old soldier principally owed a large fortune, which he had accumulated as the result of his privateering adventures; and it is said that the prizes came in so plentifully, that once he lifted up his hand and declared, “O Lord, it is enough!” However this may be, it is certain that not long afterwards his riches gradually vanished, and he was compelled to seek and obtained the office upon which he supported his declining days. Though “aristocratic” enough in his own personal character and demeanor, he was not naturally in much favor with the grandees of the old Federal town; but they stood in awe of him, nevertheless; for he had been very rich, and in his less prosperous days was still a person of the most impulsive and resolute spirit. His appearance in public was very marked. His person was manly and his countenance singularly striking. He dressed in black, his small-clothes terminating in white cotton stockings down to his gouty foot. On his white head, decorated with a queue, was his three-cornered hat. He seemed to take a pride in walking up the principal business street of the town, at the time of high “’Change,” and paying attention to no one, to utter his not always very conciliatory thoughts aloud, in regard to his contemporaries and matters in general, as he threw out sideways the gouty foot aforesaid, on his way to the one o’clock dinner, which was the fashion of the time.
But the Revolutionary War exhausted the fortunes of many prosperous men of the day; and the story is told of one very rich merchant, who could drive in his own carriage several days’ journey — when such a journey over difficult roads was hardly so much as could be accomplished by “the hollow, pampered jades of Asia,” — and sleep in his own house every night. He lent immense sums, for the time, to the Revolutionary government, received what he could recover in depreciated currency, and failed. At the period of my narrative, the country was suffering from the consequences of another war, and the once active commerce of the old town was reduced to the lowest ebb. It was then that active emigration began from the sterile soil of New England — since rendered so much more productive by intelligent cultivation — to the fertile region known as “The Ohio;” just as, not much more than half a century ago, people talked of “The Coos country” in New Hampshire, and within a few years we spoke of the “Far West,” brought at length within the compass of ordinary travel and civilization.
As a picture of the rigors and extremities, I fear only too common, of early New England life, among its hardy agricultural population, I present extracts of a letter received from a venerable friend, a few years ago, who from the depths of poverty, having emigrated in his youth to wild lands not very far West, had risen to comparative wealth, which he devoted to useful purposes. In fact, the son of an extremely poor Vermont farmer became, by his own energy and integrity, the possessor of a competent fortune, which enabled him, with views far surpassing the immediate claims of this transitory world, to build a church and to establish a flourishing educational institution, destined long, I trust, to dispense infinite blessings to future generations. Thus, after some preliminary matter, he proceeds to say, under date of March 16, 1866: —
“My father was one of the poor men of Vermont. When I was a small boy I have pealed many a birch broom for a sixpence. 5 My Father could get one shilling for what he made, take them on his back, carry them four or five miles, sell them, bring home a little meal, or a little bread, sometimes a half bushel Potatoes. My mother would go two or three miles, and do a washing, bring home at night a loaf of wry bread, and a small peace was all we had for supper and a smaller Piece in the morning. Sometimes we was allowed one Potato roasted. in the ashes — no Hearth in the old log-House.
My mother has stirred butter in a tea-cup with the point of a knife, to keep her little children from starving. My Father had about half acre of oats — poor fence — the old cow got in the oats and died. Then came the pinch — we as little children had to flee to the woods to get something to sustain life — no schools, no meetings — nothing but hunger and despair. I lived with my Father until I was twenty-one years old. After I was sixteen my Father improved a little in living. When I was a little over twenty-one I got me a wife — we was both Poor — three knifes, three forks, three teacups, three chairs, a poor bed — hardly could we keep house. But our courage was good —my wife always standing by me, through all my trouble and trials — shoulder to shoulder — heart & hand, from the day of our marriage until the day of her Death. No man never had a better wife than I had — always kind to the Poor and to all her relations. She is now in the Grave Yard, and my judgment is, she is well prepared for the next world — and for the good feeling I have had for her for over fifty-six years, I have Erected a monument over her grave weighing 7 tons, and twenty-one feet high — it is a splendid monument — cost me over $600.00.
“On the Eighth day of last July the Bishop confirmed 28 in our Church at the everything in good order — the singing was complete — my Voice is still heard above all the singers and I still stand at the head of the choir — I am only 77. — On the 16th day of last October, Previous notice being given, the wardens and Vestry met at my house — one minister was also present, a Lawyer being called to do the business. At 2 o’clock, P. M. I commenced handing over Deeds of land, Buildings, Bonds, mortgages, money & furniture, to the amount of nineteen thousand and five hundred Dollars, the use and interest only to be used for the Church and the — Institute; but in case there should be a failure of the Church & school, for seven years, at any one time, then the Property to go back to my Heirs.
“I have been schooling from 7 to 11 Poor children, yearly — I am now not schooling as many — my school is doing well — we have a good minister and he is a good Preacher. The Church is doing well. I am now commencing one more building, 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and three stories high, for the convenience of more room for Boarders in the — Institute.
“I wrung more Bells at the fall of Richmond than any man in the United States, which they was all purchased with one man’s money — 7 was the number, 4 large ones & 3 small ones -- it is true I was a little opposed to the War — but no matter. The Brick Church and the Buildings I built for the — Institute now with Interest cost me now over $43,000. They are all Paid for and I am out of Debt. I have furnished every stick of wood for the Church, and have carried the most of it in since it was built. I still wring the Bells on all occasions.” etc. etc.
1 As I set down these reminiscences I observe the following paragraph in a Boston daily paper of November 27, 1872: ‑
“NOVEMBER SNOW. Fifty-two years ago to-day there were twenty-eight inches of snow on a level in the vicinity of Portsmouth, N. H.”
2 The late Mr. George Wood, of Washington, a native of our town, in some highly interesting Memorabilia, formerly published, says: “The aristocracy were not on High Street, as now, but on Water Street, and more at the South than the North end, as the old houses give evidence to this day. The Johnsons, Jacksons, Davenports, Coffins, Greenleafs, Bartletts, Pierces, Hoopers, Tappans, Todds, Carters, Lunts, Marquands, and others of wealth, were on Water Street or near it. There were their grand houses and fine gardens, and it was not till they thought of retiring from business that they removed to the West-end or up-town, as gradually as they always do in all places.”
3 After resigning his office of judge, which he had held for only a few years, but administered with extraordinary ability and integrity, Judge Jackson went abroad for relaxation, and a letter from a gentleman in London to a friend on this side the water says, — “Two of your townsmen, Judge Jackson and Jacob Perkins, now fill the public eye of England, and are the subjects of public and private conversation.”
4 “The meteor flag of England,” etc. Campbell. “Ye mariners of England.”
5 These brooms are made by peeling strips from the stump, which are fastened below.