These #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts are challenging: and it’s only February! Especially as I am drawn to the more “hidden” women: whose stories, it seems, you can only get to through men. I’ve been interested in Hannah Crowninshield (1789-1834) for a while: she was part of the large and dynamic Crowninshield family in its most powerful era, she was a “maker” and an artist, she was the protegee of the Reverend William Bentley, she was the wife of a naval commodore who married her younger sister after her untimely death. Fortunately we do have some things that she created that can, in effect, “speak” for her, because otherwise I could only shed light on Hannah through her father, her mentor, her husband, or a cat. My interest in Hannah actually began when I spotted a charming watercolor of a cat named Pompey, who accompanied her father and brother in their voyage across the Atlantic in the famous pleasure yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, built for their wealthy cousin George Crowninshield in 1816. Pompey was lost at sea on the voyage, “a victim to his patriotism.”
I needed to know who created this charming “memorial,” hanging in the reconstruction of Cleopatra’s Barge cabin at the Peabody Essex Museum, almost as soon as I saw it: Hannah Crowninshield (an attribution found at the Smithsonian, rather than the PEM), daughter of the ship’s captain. There are extant and unattributed portraits of her father Benjamin (known as “Sailor Ben” to distinguish him from other Benjamin Crowninshields) and brother “Philosopher Ben” in the collection of the PEM (though inaccessible in its spare database): did Hannah paint these?
Like many people of her era, we can see Hannah Crowninshield through the Reverend William Bentley’s eyes and diary. Actually we can “see” much more of Hannah than most of her contemporaries, as she and the Reverend were very close. They were next-door neighbors, living in two sides of what is now known as the Crowninshield-Bentley House: Bentley baptized Hannah, and married her to James Armstrong on March 29, 1819. His diary entry for that day indicates just how heartfelt his feelings were for her: this day I passed through the most interesting scene of my life. I came to the family of H. [Crowninshield] in 1791. In 1789 I had baptized Hannah, d. of Benj. and Mary Crowninshield, two years before I came into the family, tho I had before lived in a branch of it. As soon as Hannah was of age for instruction she was put into my care. She has rewarded it with her virtues & accomplishments. This day I delivered her in marriage to an officer of the Navy [Lieut. James Armstrong]. He is from Virginia, but to me unknown. What the prospects are I cannot guess. The event is not from my wishes or at my will. The sympathy was beyond description. The hundred I have united never gave such emotions. I knew nothing contrary to the hopes of the young man & that is the evil, that even this consolation is not borrowed from the ample means to render it happy, being rather my ignorance than my observation. The branches of the family were represented on the occasion & after the ceremonies H. retired to her Father’s in Danvers. The questions were Will she go to Virginia? It is said not, but the property was not then conveyed. Thus after nearly 30 years all our hopes are unknown. Why did not so accomplished a girl find a bosom friend in Salem. They who respected her did not dare to ask without means to support, and they who looked for fortune could not find it. All the domestic relations were not such as ambition could desire. I hope H. will be happy. It will be my happiness. My best wishes attend her. This rather anguished entry speaks to one of the most cherished relationships in the Reverend’s life, I believe.
PEM’s Bentley-Crowninshield House, which used to be located a bit further along (eastward) Essex Street.
But back to Hannah. Or Hannah and the Reverend. He refers to several of her compositions: an illustration for Marblehead mariner Ashley Bowen’s autobiographical journals, depicting his life as a ship’s voyage, a rather scary chalk drawing of 82-year-old Major-General John Stark, whom they visited in New Hampshire in 1810 (so scary that it was quite modified in lithographic and portrait form, but still, there are contemporary comments that it was “lifelike”), a reworked seventeenth-century portrait of Captain George Corwin which Bentley found “defaced,” and a much nicer watercolor portrait of James Tytler. All of these portraits are supposedly in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum according to Catalog of Portraits in the Essex Institute and the Catalog of American Portraits, but I can’t find any reference to them on the PEM’s site. It seems as if Hannah is indeed hiding—somewhere in the Peabody Essex Museum!
The Catalog of American Portraits, accessed via the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, lists the following portraits by Hannah Crowninshield as part of the PEM’s collection: a self-portrait, a portrait of the Reverend Bentley, and the portrait of James Tytler, in addition to a portrait of Simon Bradstreet in the collection of Historic New England. Hannah’s portrait of Scottish radical publisher/apothecary Tytler, who lived briefly (and died) in Salem, illustrates his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography page.
As I was writing this post up on Thursday morning, I did see that there were some materials on Hannah in the Benjamin Crowninshield Family Papers (MH16) at the Phillips Library up in Rowley, and thus a dilemma presented itself: do I have time to run up there before my grad class at 4:30 so I can do justice to Hannah in this post? What if I run up there and there’s not much to see? The answer to the first question was “no”, so I might have to provide an addendum to this post at a later date: and for local history afficionados like myself out there, never take for granted the luxury of a historical society/repository in your own town! For now, I can only discern this much about Hannah Crowninshield Armstrong: she and her husband did not confirm the Reverend Bentley’s worst fears and head to his native Virginia after their 1819 marriage, they did not have any children, and she died in May of 1834 at age 45, after which her husband married her younger sister Elizabeth. The dating of her works in the Catalog of American Portraits indicates that she continued to paint after her marriage—-but that’s about all the light I can shed on that time of her life at this point. The Peabody Essex Museum actually credits and showcases one of her works on its website, although you will never, never find it by searching on the website itself: only an external search engine will take you to it! It’s a painted work box made for her mother, and apparently the PEM also possesses a portable desk painted for her sister Maria (again–you will not find this at or through PEM but rather in Betsy Krief Salm’s Women’s Painted Furniture, 1780-1830. American Schoolgirl Art). I remain hopeful that some day, one day, the hidden figures of Salem history, both women and men, will have their day when the Peabody Essex Museum, decides to cast some light on them.
Hannah’s painted work box, made for her mother Mary Lambert Crowninshield, Peabody Essex Museum—this seems to exist only on an earlier incarnation of the PEM website here, and not the current one. You can really access much more of the collection–and much more information– if you search externally rather than through the current website.