Early Americans were English by birth and culture, and assumed that the balance of power between king, elite and commoners stabilized society. As it was “at home” in Britain, so it was in the colonies: the lower orders were deferential to the higher, defined pretty much by wealth. But higher than almost anyone, in New England, was the minister. When the Rev. Cotton Mather could address the magistrates of the Massachusetts General Court with “Syres! I have a message from God unto you!” we get the picture. After all, who is going to argue with the Lord?
The church itself had more influence than the General Court (legislature). Only its male members could vote on either church or town business, and they were careful about who was admitted to membership. Early on the churches tested applicants based on their virtue and their spiritual life: had they experienced contact with the Divine? Calvinist to the core, the first comers had no doubts about God’s election of Saints (themselves). All of them had experienced the presence of God personally. Here’s how it worked:
- Agitations of the soul lead to the sinner’s deep sense of humiliation at his condition.
- The stricken sinner attempts to redress the wrongs he has done through obedience to the covenant of works. He turns to good works as a remedy, but this effort fails and he is brought to deeper despair.
- The sinner experiences abject despair and misery. He sees all his efforts as vain and inconsequential before a perfect God.
- At the most abject moment of despair, the soul begins to understand God’s grace and is elevated to an appreciation of it.
- Gratitude causes the sinner to live a life of obedience and thanksgiving, although human nature and pride may cause the sinner to backslide and to rely on his own will and works once again. Because of this temptation, individuals must continually monitor their spiritual state and repeat the process of conversion if necessary.
And so the Puritan theocracy moved forward…
But what about the kids? What if they didn’t experience conversion? If members of the next generation couldn’t show evidence that the Lord had elected them to be saved, the church would no longer be running the town – or the legislature. Both would fall into the hands of the ungodly.
Tune in next week to find out what was done about it.
Someone had to take care of the women, usually the oldest male of her husband’s family. The widow had 1/3 dower right in the property owned by her husband, but a widow such as Hannah Deems, whose husband was lost at Monmouth, whose parents had perished in Mohawk country, and who had been “read out” of Quaker Meeting because of marrying a Congregationalist – there was no one. The Vendue had been used before, and fairly frequently to care for the indigent of the towns. During this time period, though, there were probably so many widows that it warranted a name of its own: The Widow’s Vendue.
I think the most humiliating thing about the Vendue is that the person who bid the least won the auction. No one was bidding for the widow – it was a question of how low the bidder could go, how little he could accept for her upkeep without a serious loss to the well-being of himself. The town, of course, paid as little as possible.
So Hannah Deems was willing to accept Seth Adams, walking home from war, who offered to take her with him to Barnstable. Thus begins Chapter One, with Hannah escaping the frying pan (the vendue) and choosing the fire (Seth) instead.
Seth’s place had been unattended during the war, and had probably not been especially well tended before it. His house was a one-room cabin, and this sketch is how I envision it, barren and alone in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.
“The door was unlocked, and Hannah wondered that Adams would leave his home without even bothering to secure it. Inside she saw why. There was nothing to take. There was a fireplace in the middle of the room, the frame of a cot without a mattress tucked behind it. A table and chair occupied one corner; rows of empty shelves lined the back wall. A ladder beside the fireplace reached to the loft – and that was all. It was dark and smelled moldy from lack of use.”
And thus a start has been made in making Molly who she is – a young girl who sees what can happen when there is no one to depend on.
So many readers were appalled to think that widows might actually have been auctioned off that I checked it out on the web, (unavailable to me when writing the first edition in 1975) and found that this had been a common practice from the beginning.
“Poor residents, such as widows, the disabled and the mentally ill, were placed with local families who would be paid by the Overseers to provide them meat, drink, washing, lodging, mending & nursing Suitable and find all their Clothing that is necessary for one year from the date, and return them as well clothed as they took them.” In these cases, care of the indigent was “auctioned off” to the lowest bidder.” Robert C. Hughes, who is the Town Historian for Huntington, NY. http://huntingtonhistory.com/
For two centuries, Massachusetts towns were responsible for supporting those who could not support themselves. Sometimes this meant providing necessities, such as clothing, firewood, or food. Other times, a household was compensated for taking in an indigent man, woman, or child.
Boston was unusual; it had opened the first almshouse in the colonies in 1664 (although it continued to place 80 percent of the town’s poor through vendue).
Naturally, being paid to take in a poor widow didn’t mean that the lowest bidder had unlimited access to the woman involved — but Hannah was conveniently isolated in Barnstable. No one even knew she was there — and Seth had not acquired her through vendue, after all. She’d willingly gone with him…
She’d have probably been better off if she had accepted the auction. But, of course, there was the problem of being humiliated in front of people who had rejected both her and her family.
So, let’s start with Molly’s mother, Hannah Deems. We know that to be auctioned at the Dartmouth town meeting would have been an unbearable humiliation for her. But before she has to face it, along comes Seth Adams, a war veteran walking home. There must have been many of these men who needed food and shelter, and they were accommodated according to whatever was available. Seth was given both at the farm of George Gorman, where Hannah had been working.
Details like topography didn’t bother me when I was writing 35 years ago, but since I can verify things on the internet, I took the time to check: would Seth have “passed through” Dartmouth (where Gorman’s farm was located) on his way home?
(If you aren’t interested in these kinds of details, tune in next week!)
Here’s the portion of the seaboard that we’re involved with just now:
The red ball represents Yorktown, and you can see Cape Cod, just below Boston.
Seth (and all the soldiers from New England) would have had to walk west of the Chesapeake Bay and north, unless they crossed over and went up the east side. They’d have passed through the Philadelphia environs, and once north of Philadelphia, on to New York and then the Connecticut coast —
There’s Narragansett Bay —
It, too, would have to be crossed, and by the time he did (in whatever manner was possible) Seth would have certainly gone through Dartmouth (just above “town” on the Narragansett Town Beach map) because he was headed for New Bedford, Wareham, and eventually, Barnstable,
which you can get the sense of by “hitching” this map to the one above.
I’m tired just thinking about it.
So you decided to take a look! Perhaps you’ll find out if there’s anything here you’d enjoy thinking about, or perhaps even talking about, with each other and with me. The Kingsland Series is a launch site that offers a perspective on our history as Americans. There’s plenty to talk about!
My books explore relationships, too, how they begin and develop, how the personal stories of my characters shape their responses to their world and keeps them on a certain path whether they recognize it or not. Just as do yours and mine.
Whether we recognize it or not.
I’ll blog about the books in the Kingsland Series individually — the people who inhabit them, the times in which they are inhabited, what’s fact and what’s fiction and how national and international politics affect the characters in the series.
I’ll add pictures of the landmarks on Cape Cod that helped to form the backdrop of each novel and pictures, photos and clip art that helps us all to understand the details better. I’ll try to include a graphic of some sort each time I blog. Since the series is so firmly rooted in history, it shouldn’t be hard.
Do you think, maybe, Molly’s clock looked something like this? It was mahogany, as I remember, and she considered it an old friend. Of all the things she sold in order to save the house, it was probably losing the clock that bothered her most. It stood for so much – respectability, wealth, stability.
I’m using it now because in this post I want to think about time — that is, the best time to post. I’m told that I should publish them twice or three times a week, but unless you tell me otherwise, I won’t. So far I’m finding that it takes quite a while to put together something I can be happy about. I’d be embarrassed to admit how long it took to upload this clock picture, and I wouldn’t want to have to confront that problem any more often than once a week! Besides, if I published three times a week, you’d get tired of me, and I’d get tired of myself! Even twice a week seems a little daunting, just now.
But I do think it’s a good idea to publish on some sort of schedule, and so I’m thinking Wednesday would be good, and if something interferes with that, then I still have Thursday before the weekend crowds everything else out. If there’s something you want to talk about more often than that, fine. But unless I hear otherwise, I’ll meet you here on Wednesday or Thursday nights.
See you then….