Tag Archives: National Parks

Witness Houses

I was out and about in Lexington and Concord last week as my favorite nurseries are in that area, and between bouts of perusing plants I walked around Lexington Green and along the Battle Road at the Minute Man National Historic Park. In both locales you will see eighteenth-century “witness houses” which overlooked the opening acts of the Revolutionary War and now stand as physical reminders. The National Park Service also utilizes “witness trees” to enhance historical interpretation, particularly at Civil War sites. Certainly both the houses and the trees add to the ambiance of these historic landscapes, but their roles are much more important than that. The trees might bear scars, the houses might have served as refuges or makeshift hospitals: every physical remainder is a reference point or a touchstone. One can grasp their landmark status immediately by glancing at photographic records like Alexander Gardner’s photographic sketchbooks of the Civil War, which documented the contemporary significance of the Matthews House in Manassas and the Burnside Bridge in Antietam among other structures: the house still stands as does the sycamore tree by the bridge, connecting us to the past with their very presence.

Mathews House Gardner

Stone House

Burnside Bridge

witness-tree-sycamore-burnside-bridge-antietam-620Pages from Gardner’s Sketchbook, Volume One at Duke University Library’s Digital Repository; the Stone House and Burnside Bridge at Manassas National Battlefield Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

The importance of place—both in general and in many specific instances—can also be gleaned from accounts of the long process of reconciliation and remembrance following the Civil War. The grave of Calvin Townes, a Salem shoemaker who fought and was wounded with the valiant 1st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery at Spotsylvania, drew me into the heady history of memorialization for and by these men, who lost 55 of their comrades at the “engagement” at Harris Farm on May 19, 1864, and 484 men during the entire war. The surviving members of the Regiment met annually after the war, and raised funds for a monument on the battlefield near the farmhouse which was the focus of so much of their collective remembrance. The monument was dedicated in 1901; it endures but unfortunately Harris Farm does not, despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: it was purchased by a developer in 2014 and rather promptly demolished.

20190524_125006

1st regiment reunion at Salem Willows 1890

1st Regiment Monuments

Spotsylvania_HarrisFarmCalvin Townes of the First Regiment; the surviving Regiment at Salem Willows, 1890; Memorials at Spotsylvania and in the Essex Institute, from the History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917); the demolished Harris Farm.

Revolutionary remembrance does not seem as intense, or we don’t have as much evidence of its expressions. Nor do we have opportunities for dramatic photographic contrasts, but the witness houses of Lexington and Concord remind us that these 1775 battles took place within a very human context—-settlements, not barren battlefields. And they also played their roles within the narrative of events. In Lexington Center the houses are privately-owned, and located around the Green; along the Battle Road they are part of the public park.

20190523_114050

20190528_113457pixlr-3

20190528_114456The Munroe House on Lexington Green (which is presently for sale); the Smith House, Hartwell hearth and Tavern, Minute Man National Historic Park.

The term “witness” implies to something: an act or an event. Salem’s historic structures witnessed many events: the arrival of precious cargoes, military maneuvers, political parades, the progress of transportation technology, fires, men going off to war, hordes of Halloween revelers. But of course one event looms large over Salem’s long history: the Salem Witch Trials. There is only one surviving structure which “witnessed” that tragedy: the Jonathan Corwin House, better-known (unfortunately) as the Witch House. Despite Salem’s (unfortunate) dependence on the witch trade, it bears remembering that the Corwin house was not saved and restored by the City, but rather by Historic Salem, Inc., which was founded in 1944 for the purposes of saving the storied house (and its neighbor, the Bowditch House) from demolition due to the widening of Route 114, one of Salem’s major entrance corridors. After its slight relocation and restoration (or recreation? or creation?) by the Boston architect Gordon Robb, the Witch House opened to the public in 1948. Historic Salem, Inc. went on to play key roles in preventing full-scale urban redevelopment in the later 1960s and early 1970s and advocating for both preservation and sensitive redevelopment for decades—a particularly pressing responsibility now. This year marks its 75th anniversary, a notable achievement which will be celebrated this very weekend with an event at the Hawthorne Hotel. Come one and all, and congratulations to HSI!

Witch HOuse HNE

Witch House 1947

Witch House 1940sThe Jonathan Corwin (Witch) House, in all of its incarnations in an early 20th century postcard, Historic New England; in 1947 as restored by Gordon Robb and Historic Salem, Inc., and photographed by Harry Sampson, and in the tourist attraction in the 1950s, Arthur Griffin via Digital Commonwealth.


Scottish Prisoners of War in Salem

One of the most impressive historical remembrance projects of recent years is the Scottish Soldiers Project initiated by the University of Durham’s Department of Archaeology after human remains were found in mass graves on the grounds of Durham Cathedral in 2013. After intensive archaeological and documentary analysis, it was confirmed that these were the remains of the prisoners of war transported from Scotland after one of the British Civil Wars’ bloodiest battles, the Battle of Dunbar, a hour-long rout which occurred on September 3, 1650. Following their defeat by Oliver Cromwell’s well-seasoned troops, thousands of Scottish prisoners of war embarked on a death march to Durham, where (if they survived) they would experience disease and deprivation, with as many as 1700 men dying over the next year. These are the bodies buried in unmarked graves uncovered five years ago, and re-interred in a much more respectful ceremony just last week. A smaller group of Dunbar survivors—about 150 men–escaped the exhaustive miseries of Durham through another kind of  turmoil: transport across the Atlantic into indentured servitude in the New World. Following the English Revolution’s very last battle, the Battle of Worcester (exactly one year to the day later), more Scottish captives followed in their wake.

Scottish Prisoners of War Dunbar 1661 BM

Scottish Prisoners Worcester Dutch 1661 BM

Scottish Prisoners BodiesofEvidencewebsiteimage

Scottish Prisoners Burial1661 Dutch prints of the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester a decade before, British Museum; the remains near Durham Cathedral, and the reburial ceremony on May 18, BBC News.

As you can read on the project blog, an initiative that began as scholarly, and even scientific, became and remains very personal, assimilating the contributions of thousands (?) of descendants of the Scottish prisoners in the United States, and most particularly here in New England, as a band of Dunbar survivors were transported to Massachusetts Bay where they began their North American lives as bond labor at the Saugus (then Hammersmith) Iron Works north of Boston or in sawmills in southern Maine. Another 272 men were transported to Massachusetts as “servants” in November of 1651, and dispensed to their “positions” by Charlestown merchant Thomas Kemble. After these Scottish prisoners of war served their terms of 6-8 years of forced labor, they were free to establish new lives elsewhere—and so they contributed to an evolving New British community and identity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site.

At least four of the seventeenth-century Scottish prisoners of war found their way to Salem after their indentures were completed: Allester Mackmallen (Alester M’Milan) came to Salem in 1657 and never left, as did apparently his neighbor from back home, Allister Greimes (Grimes), George Darling operated a tavern in the vicinity of “Coy Pond” on the Salem-Marblehead line, and Philip McIntire settled ultimately in nearby Reading but was notably the great-great-grandfather of Salem’s iconic architect, Samuel McIntire. All of these men were imprisoned at Dunbar and marched to Durham–and beyond. My colleague Emerson Baker contributed to the Scottish Soldiers Project in a big way, and while he notes their original “alien” identity in Puritan Massachusetts, he also recognizes their ability to succeed and assimilate, particularly in the southern Maine region which would become known as “Berwick” after the town adjacent to Dunbar. It’s the same for the Scottish soldiers of Salem: though Greimes would be the beneficiary of public charity during the final years of his life, both Mackmallen and Darling left considerable property to their heirs. There’s a Darling Street in Marblehead and a whole historic district named after Samuel (and Philip) McIntire. These prisoners of war made their mark, in a world not of their choosing.

Scottish Prisoners Essex Antiquarian Volume 13

Mcintire collageThe Darling property in Sidney Perley’s Essex Antiquarian, Volume 13; Prints of Benjamin Blyth’s pastel portrait of Samuel McIntire, 1786, and McIntire’s rendering of the Ezekiel Hersey Derby House on Essex Street–originals in the Peabody Essex Museum, of course.

Appendix: The site manage of Historic New England’s Boardman House tells me that it was long identified as the “Scotch House” and the barracks for the Scottish prisoners of war working at the nearby Iron Works. It was actually built in 1692, on a site adjacent to where the real barracks was situated.

Scotch House

The Scotch House MarkerBoardman House and Mass. Tercentenary Commission marker, 1930s, Library of Congress.


%d bloggers like this: