Yay! I’m now up on YouTube, too

My first-ever Zoom presentation is now available for streaming, thanks to the Whittier Birthplace Museum. The presentation on January 26, “Starting with a marriage certificate: Why Whittier was no stranger to Dover,” focused on the famed poet and abolitionist’s many connections to, well, my new book Quaking Dover.

For the full YouTube event, do take a look here.

John Greenleaf Whittier is hardly the central theme in the book, but for me, developing the topic for this show, along with the accompanying PowerPoint slideshow, another personal first, was fun.

If you’re a regular here at the Barn, you know I do lag behind on the tech front. One step at a time, right?

I didn’t expect an unusually itchy nose and scratchy throat resulting from our dry indoor air. So much for my up-in-the-corner-of-the-screen stage presence.

On top of that, with the PowerPoint up in front in me, I couldn’t see who was attending. Oh, well, I had my hands full anyway.

Earlier, behind the scenes, there was concern about a possible power outage on my end as unusually warm temperatures dropped below freezing amid heavy rain. We did have a contingency plan, just in case.

I’m so glad we didn’t need it.

Maybe I’m going soft, but I am viewing the Puritans in a fresh light

Readers of my new book are telling me how shocking they find the Puritans’ cruel persecution of the up-and-coming Quaker faith. That reaction is quickly followed with their disgust that the Puritans came to the New World for religious freedom but then refused it to others.

What we need to acknowledge, though, is how deeply our outlook is engrained with an expectation of freedom of speech and religion, something that would have been foreign to mindsets back in the 1600s. There, religion and politics were one, as in a one-party state. In England in the early 1600s, the king had the state church, what we know as Anglican or Episcopal, well under his thumb, while the Puritans had Parliament and its armies. It was a volatile mix, even before we get to New England, where my book is set.

I should emphasize that for us, as modern Americans, it’s all too easy to condemn Puritans as backwater bigots, when in fact they were radical progressives on many fronts. They were decidedly anti-monarchy and proto-democracy, and advanced a less feudal, more equitable economy and society. They championed education and literacy for men and women alike and founded Harvard College within their first six years in New England despite deep divisions within their attempt to establish a godly Utopia. Boston was even prepared to fire cannons at Royal Navy ships in the mid-1630s, had they arrived to revoke the colony’s charter, which the Puritans had obtained from the king in an end-run around the man who was responsible for New England’s development – Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the father of Maine and first cohead of New Hampshire, as you’ll find in my book. He definitely would have torpedoed their application. (Whew! The amassing details do thicken the plot, hard as they become to follow.) A Puritan wife could actually divorce her husband if he failed to fulfill her. And they loved their beer.

In other words, Puritans weren’t nearly as awful as we want to portray them today, even if they do come across as villains in my book, Quaking Dover.

Since its release, I’ve been coming to believe the Quakers pressed the Puritans simply for not going far enough in their reforms and intended Utopia. Historian Carla Gardina Pestana, in her wonderful “Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts,” even came to the conclusion that the Quakers (or Friends, as we more often refer to ourselves) went out of their way to provoke the Puritan authorities. Ouch, I’m thinking that’s true.

More recently, in revisiting Kenneth Carroll’s book “Quakerism on the Eastern Shore,” meaning Maryland, I felt affirmed by his statement, “Quakerism was, in some ways, an extreme form of Puritanism,” followed by, “It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that Quakerism, in its opening days in Maryland, reached into the centers of Puritanism … for a great number of its converts.”

Well, that latter point was surprising to me. I do see Friends blending Mennonite strands via the English General Baptists into what emerged.

~*~

While my book is focuses on New Hampshire and its adjacent provinces, I’m finding that religious restraints in the southern American English colonies of the time were far harsher than those in New England. For instance, a provocative essay by Marilynne Robinson, “One Manner of Law, the Religious Origins of American Liberalism” in the November Harper’s Magazine, notes that the under the repressive laws in Virginia the penalty for missing church services three times or speaking ill of the king was death, along with the harshest penalties for minor infractions of other laws. She adds there was no mention of trial or appeal and much of what we consider Common Law was nebulous. The Carolinas were just as extreme.

Carroll, for his part, finds that in contrast to New England’s persecution of Quakers, “there may be a skeleton in the closet of the southern colonies also.” He remarks, “The intense persecution experienced by Friends in Virginia soon drove many of them into Maryland,” followed by a series of drastic laws that even kept Quakers from being allowed to enter the colony. “There was to be no challenge to the Established Church as the one religious institution in Virginia,” something that excluded Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics alike. Carroll then states, “The full nature and extent of persecution suffered by Quakers in Virginia is not known. … We do know that William Cole, of Maryland, and George Wilson, of England, were imprisoned in a ‘nasty stinking, dirty’ dungeon in Jamestown where Wilson was whipped and heavily chained so that ‘his flesh rotted from his bones and he died.’” A number of Indian converts to Quaker faith may have also been sentenced to death because of their conversions.  And Maryland for a while also imposed harsh persecution, including the banishment and whipping of Quaker “vagabonds” from constable to constable through the colony.

Among those in the south who had visited Dover were William Robinson, before his execution in Boston, and Alice Ambrose and Mary Tompkins, once they left the north.

This statue by Sylvia Shaw Judson sits in front of the Massachusetts statehouse with copies in Philadelphia and Richmond, Indiana. Mary Dyer was one of four Quaker missionaries hanged in Boston because of their faith. She’s the only one who hadn’t visited Dover, New Hampshire, although the site of the gallows later became known as Dover Street. As a fine point, she didn’t offer her life for religious freedom but rather as a sacrifice to a Truth she espoused.

~*~

To see how this played out in Dover, please turn to my book, Quaking Dover.

I, for one, would definitely like to see a fuller understanding of how religious liberty came about in the Southern colonies and also a presentation of how Puritans in New England evolved to emerge as, in one strand, as Unitarians.

About those taken into captivity

Learning of the length and bloodshed of border warfare between New England and New France comes as a surprise to many Americans.

One of the more startling facets is the tales of English hostages who were taken to Canada by Natives receiving payment for each person they brought north.

Some captives were ransomed by family and returned home, leaving the impression that the French were interested mostly in added revenue. You know, like legal piracy, or a landbound privateering. Maybe even as a kind of generous sympathy on behalf of the captors. Many, as I’m seeing, were wives.

Others, though, never returned, leaving the mysterious impression that they chose to remain, perhaps indulging in a more sensually rich culture than the Puritan world of their past. And perhaps some did.

The French were, however, at a distinct disadvantage in the colonial warfare and settlement. They were outnumbered by the British four to one, by many estimates. Or five to one, from another I’ve encountered.

One way for the French to build up their population was by immediately baptizing the Protestant captives into the Roman Catholic faith. For single women, this could soon be complicated by marriage and childbirth – she would not be allowed to take her children if she was “rescued” or “redeemed” and returned to New England, perhaps as a widow. Becoming a nun was another option.

Yes, further complicating the picture is the fact that some of the captives did in time become Catholic priests or monastics. As a consequence, there would be no place for them in New England without their renouncing that faith.

So far, I’ve come across no indications that the kidnapping ran in the other direction.

~*~

The definitive examination of the cases seems to be Emma Lewis Coleman’s two-volume New England Captives Carried to Canada between 1677 and 1760 during the French and Indian wars (published in 1925).

My book Quaking Dover presents two of the attacks, though there were other serious incidents in the town.

As I was saying about wanting to learn more?

The four original towns of New Hampshire differed from the start

For most of the first century, Dover dominated both New Hampshire and neighboring Maine.

It was the core of population, for one thing, as well as the oldest continuing settlement.

It also had significant water power, unlike Strawbery Banke, the future Portsmouth.

But Portsmouth, in turn, was closer to the Atlantic and had a viable harbor, leading it to become a center for adventure capitalists and merchants plying the ocean for trade at the same time Dover’s fishing focus diminished, in part a consequence of the sawdust in the water from the lumber trade.

Hampton (1636) and Exeter (1638) were both founded by men seeking religious freedom from Massachusetts. How’s that for a turn of affairs as well as a challenge to the argument that the latter was established in a quest for religious liberty while New Hampshire folks were interested only in lucrative gain?

Hampton long remained the most agricultural of the lot. Exeter did have water power for mills both there and in today’s Newmarket, yet it soon aligned with some powerful Puritan families. As did a elite portion of Hampton.

There were even the poor collected off the streets of London and shipped to New England, who may have then drifted northward.

Maine, meanwhile, began to coalesce around York, one town over from Dover.

Today, each of them remains somehow unique, within a New England identity.

Hampton, for instance, has a suburban sprawl feel with colonial touches. Exeter, with its prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, could easily be one of the old towns abutting Boston but yet isn’t. The novelist John Irving calls it Gravesend. Continuing on, Portsmouth is a magnet for wealthy residents and resembles wealthy port towns all along the New England coast. George Washington, after all, did both sleep and worship there. It definitely has a superiority complex. And Dover, once a major textile mills and railroad center, is taking off as a family-friendly town with a viable, pedestrian-welcoming, downtown. It has, to me, the most practical yet visionary community spirit.

The differences are a subject well worth investigating. In the meantime, I’m keeping my focus on everything touching Dover.

It is, after all, the center of my new book and the city’s 400th anniversary as the oldest of all.

A few things that surprised me about early Dover

In researching my new book, Quaking Dover, new findings pointed me in fresh directions. Sometimes they came in examining something I knew a little about already. Here are a few:

  1. Dover was a wilder place than you’d expect. At one point, it was a haven for harassed leaders and dissidents from Massachusetts, and for decades its frontier was torn by massacres, raids, and scalpings — much longer than anywhere in the Wild West.
  2. Despite its upstream location on the Piscataqua River, Dover emerged as New England’s third oldest permanent settlement and the seventh oldest in the United States. That makes New Hampshire the second-oldest state in New England, rather than Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, or Vermont.
  3. The earliest mills were for sawing wood rather than grinding grain. Shipbuilding and shipping, requiring barrels and boxes, were major industries. Food could be imported.
  4. Dover nearly had the first Baptist church in America, but its minister fled town, along with some followers who established Piscataway, New Jersey — named for the Piscataqua River.
  5. Edward Starbuck, sire of the surname in the New World, was elder of the town church until he ran afoul of its practice of baptizing children and its objections to the length of his hair. He left Dover to become a founder of Nantucket, where his family became well-known Quakers. His son repeatedly returned to Dover.
  6. The Quaker movement arrived in Dover earlier than has been acknowledged. Two of the three men hanged in Boston had visited Dover less than a month before — the third had been in town the previous year. Shortly afterward, three women missionaries in Dover were tied to the tail of an ox cart, banished, and ordered whipped in every town to the south. Even so, a third of the population of Dover soon identified as Quaker.
  7. Women were coequals in the Quaker movement, illustrated by many of Dover’s recorded ministers over the years.
  8. Early settlement of Maine was largely across the river from Dover. Access by water was more like crossing the street nowadays. Kittery House, named after a manor in England, sat in today’s Eliot, opposite Dover Point. Its proprietor, Nicholas Shapleigh, gave crucial protection to Quakers. Dover Quaker Meeting had meetinghouses in both Eliot and Berwick, close to the homes and farms of many members. Later generations of Dover Friends fanned out across the state, where their surnames remain quite visible.
  9. John Greenleaf Whittier was famed across the country as an abolitionist and poet, but Whittier Falls and Whittier Street in Dover were named for his uncle. The poet’s mother, on the other hand, grew up as a member of Dover Meeting and married in its meetinghouse.
  10. Landmark Tuttle’s Red Barn, a popular market at what was proclaimed America’s oldest family-owned and operated farm, was home to generations of Quakers. That “oldest” distinction is challenged by descendants of Thomas and Rebecca Roberts, themselves with a Quaker identity and founders of the Piscataqua settlement itself.

Order your copy of Quaking Dover at your favorite bookstore. Or request it at your public library.

Must admit, since writing the book, I’m still learning

More accurately, I’ve become acutely aware of how much I still don’t know. Or even, does anyone see this fully?

The adage, “Write about what you know,” had me starting with my Quaker experience. But the adage should add, “Write about what you don’t know.” Frankly, that’s the part that’s exciting.

Think of it as working a puzzle, trying to figure out what goes in the gaps. You just don’t know without some hands-on trial and error. And perhaps a few friends or family members’ help.

From the other direction, I know a professional historian who quotes his mentor saying that if you think you have an answer nailed down, you’re badly mistaken.

I’ll spare you my list regarding the Quaking Dover project, for now.

 

Here’s wishing you all could be there

Stephen Sanfilippo is both a wonderful folk musician and a professional historian, two strands that weave together delightfully in his performances and recordings of maritime songs.

He’s a master of the sea chantey repertoire as well as many other seafaring tunes and lyrics – many of which, as he’ll explain, traveled far and wide into the American hinterlands but not back. He does prefer the spelling “chantey” and “chantey man,” for reasons I’ll leave to him to explain. And there are plenty of opportunities to sing along.

Here’s an invitation to his free appearance on Wednesday, January 25, at 6 pm at the Pembroke, Maine, public library, itself an appropriate venue. (I do love the stuffed birds displayed behind him.) The event will be followed by a series of more monthly concerts. Yay!

From his previous appearances here, I can acclaim this is one more facet of what makes living Way Downeast Maine so special to me.

I never expected so much Donizetti

I’ve posted previously on the outstanding and often original finals’ week programming on Harvard’s student-run FM radio station. Each December and May, the regular schedule shifts to a few weeks of special blocks of classical, jazz, rock, folk, world, and many other strands of music I hadn’t even heard of for something the station has trademarked as Orgy, as in “Donizetti Orgy,” which I’ll explain. For accuracy, we should note that final exams really cover closer to two weeks or a tad more.

One year, for instance, they played everything Bob Dylan had recorded. A few years later, a much shorter sequence introduced many of us to Florence Price, a significant Black American woman composer who has since been receiving a posthumous flowering. The decisions are often based on anniversaries, as happened a few years ago when we got to hear everything Beethoven had ever written, in chronological order. Musically speaking, of course. I have no idea about his letters. A year ago, Schubert got the same treatment, meaning a lot of art songs in German, especially. That one nearly became an Orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose son once told classmates what his dad did for a living was make records. Let’s just say that many of these Orgies are highly eclectic.

I did raise my eyebrows in the last round when well over a hundred hours of airtime were devoted to the 225th anniversary of the birth of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, known largely for a dozen or so marvelously florid operas. Turns out he created nearly 70 operas plus symphonies, string quartets, concertos, piano scores, songs, and so on, which were presented, again chronologically, in big blocks over two weeks. Where do the programmers dig up all of the recordings? Is this really some Harvard grad student’s thesis project?

Donizetti (1797-1848) is renowned, along with Rossini and Bellini, for a specialized style of opera called bel canto, “beautiful singing,” which has had a major revival in the past half-century. Today its embellishments, soaring lines, and vocal athletics have become widely embraced, but back when I was first listening, it was all revolutionary. And, among the three, Donizetti was far and away the most prolific.

What made the series significant to me was the way it revealed an evolution over his 29-year career from formulaic provincial stage comedies to what we recognize as Romantic opera. It filled in a gap in operatic history for me, getting from us classical Mozart to gripping dramatic Verdi and beyond. Composing at fever pitch, Donizetti often churned out four new operas a year, many of them in one-act pieces plus others that recycled earlier material before he reached a more sustainable stride. Think of a rock band or pop artist turning out an album, which is only an hour or so compared to a three-hour opera. Or a movie composer, for that matter, who has to create a similar amount of music. Nobody does four a year, right?

In the broadcasts, Donizetti’s early works sounded serviceable but not memorable. They were built on strings of solo arias, choruses, and recitative, which I streamed while working on my own life. That would mean one character in the spotlight, exit stage, and then another. Laundry, cooking, vacuuming, or washing dishes anyone? You know, everyday stuff, with music in the background. Midway into the series and his career, though, the dramatic level rose immensely and caught me in my tracks, especially with the appearance of ensembles of simultaneous conflicting emotions and motivations. Yes, there were hints of things ahead, like the flash connecting one faintly familiar tenor aria with what would emerge later, with nine high C pings inserted as “Ah! Mes mis,” and eventually launch Luciano Pavarotti into international household fame in 1972. (We did hear him in that role around 6 am the final day, when “La Fille du Regiment” aired from a recording of London’s Covent Garden production with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge costarring.)

Quite simply, those were the flashes when I recognized we had crossed over into everything today’s operagoer anticipates, even with Mozart, Gluck, and Handel remaining glorious within their earlier realms.

Many of the Orgies really are once-in-a-lifetime events. With Donizetti, for example, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever again hear most of what was introduced. Simply tracking down rare pieces would be an overwhelming challenge.

Let’s see what May brings. Those kids at WHRB really do deliver.

Dover’s prominence in the early province is typically overlooked

Not only is Dover the oldest permanent settlement in New Hampshire, it’s also the largest city in the Seacoast region today, with more than 30,000 residents. The region, however, adds to way more.

An hour northeast of Boston and with proximity to both Atlantic Ocean rugged shoreline and beaches as well as New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Dover has also become the fastest-growing city in the Granite State.

The town originally encompassed what’s now Durham (home of the University of New Hampshire), Barrington, Lee, Madbury, Rollinsford, Somersworth, and parts of Newington and Rochester. It also interacted heavily with the earliest settlements of Maine across the Piscataqua River, back when fishing was a leading business, followed by logging and sawmilling.

Still, there has also been a longstanding rivalry with Portsmouth just downstream, ever since its enterprising merchants rose to the fore. You know, uppity. Well, they do have the Music Hall.

Dover, I’ll insist, has been more modest. I’ll refrain from adding more for now.

For perspective, the region today has more than a half-million residents.

I like to think the center of gravity is shifting back to Dover. We’ll see. In the meantime, there’s that big 400th anniversary to celebrate.

Please stand by, as they used to say on radio.