Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Dark Side of Old Salem

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.

Dark Winthrop

This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor:  If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popular The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

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Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!

Dark Old Salem

That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act,  Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.


On the Tavern Trail

I remain obsessed with colonial taverns, an obsession that stems from 1) the fact that Salem has several establishments called “taverns” which are not really taverns; 2) the loss of one spectacular tavern and “denaturing” of another on one of Salem’s most venerable and now saddest streets, and 3) my desire to learn how to create digital historical maps. I searched through this unwieldy blog of mine (which needs an index) and see that I’ve posted on taverns several times before, but here I go again. This particular post was prompted by a walk down Boston Street, once and still a major entryway into Salem, with many historic structures still standing—though much altered as “spotty” zoning has long been the rule. I don’t think that this street has been paved for decades, so it’s sort of a minefield if you’re in a car, so walking is preferable. Last week’s obsession was cemeteries, and so I wanted to see an old cemetery that is situated on the Salem-Peabody line on Boston Street: the Old South Cemetery, in which many members of the Trask family of Salem are buried as they owned considerable land in this area. As soon as I saw them all lined up in the cemetery, I thought of the “ancient” Trask family homestead which was once nearby, which for many years operated as the Black Horse Tavern, and on my walk back I passed by a much altered building which once served as the tavern of Daniel Frye: its McIntire interior woodwork and Zuber wallpaper was stripped out in the 1920s and sold to the Saint Louis Museum of Art, and now it is tattoo parlor with a fake palm in front, right next to a new housing development distinguished by a mishmash of architectural styles and liberal use of plastic.

Tavern Boston Street Cousins

Tavern Black Horse

Tavern Trask Interior

Tavern Trask Chest

20190819_104539Boston Street in the 1890s from the Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives as the Phillips Library, via Digital Commonwealth; the Trask Homestead/Black Horse Tavern on Boston Street—exterior and interior—in 1901, New England Historical and Genealogical Register Volume 55; the Symonds Chest which was once in the front parlor of the Trask homestead/Black Horse Tavern, Yale Digital Collections; 94-95 Boston Street, once Frye’s Tavern, now partly a tattoo parlor.

I’ve been working intermittently on a series of digital maps which can present Salem’s colonial history in a visual format and contain a lot of information in this blog: the end goal would be one map with many layers like this great prototype here. The work is slow as I’m on a steep learning curve with the software, and there is also a lot of content to uncover: so far I have working maps on Salem churches, houses where enslaved people resided, and taverns. The first topic is easy enough to research, but I need a lot more information to present the extent of slavery and hospitality in a substantive manner. There were a lot of taverns in colonial and early-19th century Salem, both licensed and unlicensed—and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to locate all of the latter! Despite the warning of the pastor of the First Church that “drunkards are excluded from the kingdom of heaven”, the number of taverns in Salem appears to have increased steadily over the century from 1670 to 1775, with many anecdotal complaints against their “excessive number” in the town records. According to Sharon Salinger’s Taverns and Drinking in Early America, “as a whole, Essex County averaged one tavern for every 219 people….[but] Salem town averaged one tavern for every 80 persons, a slightly higher proportion of drinking houses than the larger ports.” I’ve still got quite a bit of work to do to find all those taverns, but this is my working map:

Tavern Map

Tavern Key

It took me quite a while to figure out all the various “Ship” taverns and the myriad tavern names attached to the buildings I have labeled “Essex Place” in my key; I’ve got a lot of tavern-owner names, but not all the locations. Some of the descriptions fuel my obsession: the famous Sun Tavern is described as “rough cast”, or covered in rough plaster in which pebbles and glass shards were embedded in ornamental patterns, and I would love to find an image of the “Great Tavern with many peaks” which was said to resemble the Bradstreet House on Essex Street, itself transformed briefly into the Globe Tavern. Because I can’t find my perfectly-preserved tavern in Salem, I often look for them on road trips. Yesterday I drove west along part of the closest approximation of the old upper “Boston Post Road” between New York and Boston: routes 20, 9, 67, and 20 again from Waltham to Springfield. Along certain stretches of this route–the non-urban and suburban ones—you really feel as if you are on the old Post Road, a feeling that is intensified by the eighteenth-century mile markers along the way. I was looking for taverns but got a bit distracted by the markers: you would expect both to be in clear view but I was looking with 21st century eyes and often they were a bit “hidden” or off the beaten path. But that just makes the journey more alluring.

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Tavern Pease Forbes AAS

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Taverns and markers along the old Boston Post Road in central Massachusetts: the Golden Ball in Weston, Wayside Inn in Sudbury (easy to find!), Pease Tavern in Shrewsbury (and in a c. 1900 photograph by Harriette Merrifield Forbes at the American Antiquarian Society), where the markers were very easy to find, markers in Leicester, East Brookfield and West Brookfield, where “Ye Olde Tavern” is still very much alive and open. There was also a beautiful house for sale right at the head of West Brookfield common, which fulfills all my tavern fantasies–there’s even a ready-made post for the sign.


The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

Charter Street Forbes

Charter Cousins_00314 Lindall

Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

Charter First

Charter Cole

Charter Pratt

Charter James Jeffrey

The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


A Cemetery under Siege

The Agenda for the meeting of the Salem Cemetery Commission tonight includes a “Recommendation to Close Charter Street Cemetery during  October”. I support this recommendation, and urge others who do so to either attend the meeting or forward their thoughts to the Commission. Here is my letter.

I urge the Salem Cemetery Commission to authorize the complete closure of the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street during the month of October, when it is clearly exposed to unrelenting population pressures which threaten its vulnerable monuments and landscape. Certainly it is within the discretion of the Commission to authorize this closure and provide access to those who formally request it on a much more limited basis. Salem already has one closed cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation grants municipalities wide latitude in their recommendations for library stewardship, particularly for historic cemeteries located in urban areas. The City of Boston has closed nine of its 16 historic burying grounds.

The City of Salem is to be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years, including the ongoing restoration work at Charter Street funded by the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the safeguarding of this investment is certainly an important justification for the closure of the cemetery during October. Another reason, equally compelling, is the opportunity for the City to express reverence for a site that is not only historic, but sacred. The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.

As an educator, it concerns me to see any historical resource removed from public access. I wish that the Charter Street cemetery could serve as an authentic counterweight to the dramatic excesses of Haunted Happenings where visitors could learn from real remnants of the past but that can’t happen in an environment of crushing crowds and rampant irreverence; instead it is utilized as a textual backdrop for photographs at best and for more active endeavors at worst. Over the years, I have seen people eat, drink, sit, lie, jump, dance and skype on or near graves in Charter Street; I didn’t see the infamous diaper-changing incident but was not surprised. It’s lovely to trail behind individuals and families in April or June or even September as they read the inscriptions and revel in the sheer weight of the past that is so very evident in our most ancient cemetery, but that’s not possible in October. October in Salem is a time for a quite different type of revelry, and the Old Burying Point should not be its scene.

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20190812_125514The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.

Charter Street Linden Tea FlickrThe Old Burying Point in October via @Linden Tea on Flickr.

Update: last night the Cemetery Commission voted to continue the matter to its September 10 meeting. The Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries submitted a proposal to the Commission which you can see on their website: https://www.salemcemeteries.org/. This proposal calls for the Old Burying Point Cemetery to remain open during the week and be restricted to approved tour groups on the weekends. I have great respect for the Friends group, which has been advocating for better interpretation and preservation of the downtown cemeteries for several years, but I think I’ll stand by my statement and plea for complete closure during October: I have simply seen too much disrespectful behavior in the cemetery and I have the luxury of speaking only for myself rather than having to mitigate between different vested interests as the Friends group does. To me, Charter Street is a cemetery, rather than an “attraction”, and I think we owe the Dead and their families more respect than we do tourists accommodation. But Charter Street is also a public space, and a public process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to weigh in must govern its use, so I’m grateful to the Cemetery Commission for overseeing this process, and to all parties for their input.


Whirlwind Weekend

I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.

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20190811_151931Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).


Parachuting Perspectives

Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager!  This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.

Slavery

Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.

 

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Building Collage 2

Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.

 

Books Inn Civility

Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.

 

Books winship-m_hot-protestants

Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.

 

Climate change

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And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.


Pinnace in Port

The highlight of this year’s annual Salem Maritime Festival, hosted by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, was the Kalmar Nyckel, a reproduction seventeenth-century full-rigged pinnace built by the state of Delaware as a tribute to the Scandinavian founders of New Sweden, who were transported across the Atlantic on such a ship. While we’re all happy to have our own reproduction East Indiaman, the Friendship, back in Salem Harbor after a long spell away, the two ships called to mind a cardinalesque comparison with the brown and still-mastless Friendship looking like the drab female, and the colorful Kalmar Nyckel as the dashing male. Just to push the bird analogy a bit further, my husband referred to the latter as a “peacock” of a ship. And it is.

Pinnace CM

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I thought I knew what the word “pinnace” meant: a small ship’s boat, used for landing and other purposes which required a smaller size and more flexibility. Apparently the Dutch, the most innovative and productive shipbuilders of the seventeenth century, adapted the pinnace design to create a larger full-rigged version for war and trade, and the original Kalmar Nyckel and many of the ships you can see in all of those golden-age Dutch seascapes represent this innovation. The English built larger pinnaces as well: the first of many ships named The Defiance went head to head with Spanish galleons during the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Governor Winthrop reported that several daring Salem men took pinnaces all the way to Sable Island off Nova Scotia in search of “sea horses” (walruses) in the later 1630s.

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Pinnace Playing Card Collage

Pinnace RiggedCornelis Verbeeck, A Dutch Pinnace in Rough Seas, National Maritime Museum of the Netherlands; Armada cards from the later 17th century, Royal Museums Greenwich, Wenceslaus Hollar, view of the Tower with pinnace-rigged ships, 1637, British Museum.

So it was great to see a pinnace in Salem Harbor again, along with a reproduction Viking ship, and booths representing (and reproducing) all the traditional maritime crafts and various local organizations, along with myriad performers, on shore. Salem is very fortunate to have the constant institutional presence of Salem Maritime, whose staff operate all of its venues and initiatives (including the Salem Regional Visitor Center) in such a professional and engaging manner. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Custom House, and no building—-certainly not the Witch “Museum” or even a creation of Samuel McIntire— represents Salem’s multi-layered past better.

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