Windham Life and Times – March 4, 2022

An Extraordinary African American Life: Nancy Gardner Prince (IV)

Nancy Gardner Prince continued to live in St. Petersburg, Russia where she made elegant children’s clothing “exquisitely crafted in the French and English styles,” that were purchased by the Czarina herself and other members at court. “The cold of climate did not agree with Nancy and after 9 1/2 years she departed St. Petersburg without her husband with the expectation he would follow shortly. She never saw him again. Nero Prince died in 1833 without returning to Boston.”

   Nancy Prince had no children of her own. “She held deep religious convictions apparently acquired from Backus (Tobias Wornton), her grandfather. She supported the anti-slavery movement. The remainder of her life was devoted to these missions, the anti-slavery movement, and the welfare of children; so important to her that it involved several trips to Jamaica and the West Indies. In Kingston, Jamacia she was an activist for children and here helped establish and orphanage.” 

    On her return from Russia, Nancy Prince “made her home at Rev. J.W. Holman’s, a Free Will Baptist until I sailed for Jamaica. There had been an anti-slavery society established by W.L. Garrison, Knapp and other philanthropists of the day. The design was the amelioration of the nominally free colored people of these States, and the emancipation of the slaves in other States. These meetings I attended with much pleasure, until a contention broke out among themselves; there has been a great change in some things, but much remains to be done; possibly I may not see so clearly as some, for the weight of Prejudice has again oppressed me, and were it not for the promises of God, one’s heart would fail, for He made man in his own image, in the image of God, created him male and female…”

    In her book she tells that “My mind, after the emancipation in the West Indies, was bent on going to Jamacia. A field of usefulness seemed spread out before me. While I was thinking about it, the Rev. Ingraham, who had spent several years there arrived in the city. He lectured in the city at the Marlboro Chapel, on the results arising from emancipation at the British Islands… He wished some one to go with him to his station, He called on me with the Rev. William Collier, to persuade me to go…I left America November, 16th, 1840 in the ship Scion, Captain Mansfield, bound for Jamaica…”     

    Prudence Fish, a historian of Gloucester describes Nancy Gardner’s story this way: “Just think about this story.  She was raised in the poorest conditions in Newburyport, then Gloucester.  Her life was a life of constant struggle and discomforts. In her younger days she endured cruel employers. Money Vose was an often cruel stepfather.  She was constantly worried about her siblings. Think of the financial burden she shouldered, the long walks to Salem and then to Boston in bad weather suffering frostbite in an effort to help feed her mother and siblings. Just think of young Nancy in the summer in Dogtown where she picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and whortleberries to peddle in Gloucester for money to feed the family. Then imagine the improbability of finding herself in St. Petersburg, Russia being presented to the czar sitting on his throne!  Consider the sights she saw; palaces in Russia, the cities of Europe she visited then living in the tropics with long ocean voyages back and forth.  It is hard to get one’s head around her story.  Imagine how she must have felt.”

     “Nancy Gardner Prince died in Boston in 1859. She was 60 years old. Her cause of death was listed as dropsy. That old fashioned term usually meant edema caused by congestive heart failure.”

      In discussing Black history with local historians, they emphasized to me that racism, poverty and injustice was the lot of basically all African Americans in New England in the 18th and 19th century. Certainly that was the case for many, even for those that rose above it. However, in my research, over and over again, I find incredible stories of New England Blacks moving beyond their adversity and lifting themselves up, demonstrating their perseverance and fortitude. The life of Nancy Gardiner Prince is one such story and the Lew family of Dracut/Lowell is another, and I’m sure there are many, many others yet to be rediscovered and told. The other finding that astonished me, was that many institutions, particularly religious institutions in New England were integrated. Nancy Gardner attended the white Congregationalist church in Gloucester with her grandfather, Tobias Wornton, who was “very active” and “well-respected.” The Lew family was active in the Pawtucket Church on Mammoth Road. Lew passed along the family’s musical gift to his children and the family was active in the church’s choir. It should also be noted that the church organized the first anti-slavery meeting in the area in 1832.” Here in Windham  there were pews provided for the African Americans. And we now understand that over 5,000 men of full or partial Black descent fought in an integrated army in the Revolutionary War. Later on, with the onset of the Abolitionist movement, African Americans began to establish their own institutions like churches in Boston and the Prince Hall African American Masonic Lodge. This all leads to my final point; we should never discard or hide our history because it is too “painful,” or “racist.” It is so important that we look at history through a neutral lens. If we are ever to understand who we are as a people and how we became who we are, history, in all of its gory and glorious details must be upheld and preserved. Black history was hidden in New England because it was inconvenient for the abolitionist with their religious fervor for freeing the slaves in the South to admit that some of their grandfathers had owned slaves. So all of this history that is just now being rediscovered was hidden with the same justification that is being used today to hide and destroy our common American experience. Growing up in a mostly white New England, my perception of Blacks in the cities was that they had come in the Great Northward Migration of the twentieth century. The fact is that many Black families have been in New England as long as mine and it’s important we understand this fact.  I am very thankful to the historians of local town historians who recorded New England’s African-American history, of which we would know very little without their care in recording history as it was.

Mrs. Prince ended her book with the poem…

The Hiding Place.

Amid this world’s tumultuous noise, For peace my soul to Jesus flies; If I’ve an interest in his grace, I want no other hiding place.

The world and all it charms is vain, Its wealth and honors I disdain: All its extensive aims embrace, Can ne’er afford a hiding place. A guilty, sinful heart is mine, Jesus unbounded love is thine! When I behold thy smiling face, Tis then I see my hiding place.

To save, if one my Lord engage, The world may laugh, and Satan rage: The powers of hell can ne’er erase My name from God’s own hiding place… Should dangers thick impede my course, O let my soul sustain no loss; Help me run the Christian race, And enter safe my hiding place.

Then with enlarged powers of love, I’ll triumph in redeeming grace; Eternal ages will I praise My Lord for such a hiding place.

Windham Life and Times February 25, 2022

An Extraordinary African American Life: Nancy Gardner Prince

Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseev’s 1824 painting of the St Petersburg flood. The Decemberist Revolt

  According to Environment and Society “The flood of November 7, 1824 was the greatest flood in the history of St Petersburg. Short-lived storms surges are not unusual in St. Petersburg, which is located on the delta of the river Neva, but this one far exceeded the normal levels. On the evening of 6 November 1824, a storm broke out over the Baltic Sea, abating only toward morning. It caused surges to move eastward up the Gulf of Finland, and at 10 A.M. the flooding began. By 2 P.M. the Neva was already returning to its curse. However, during the course of the flood the Neva’s water level reached a record height of 4.2 meters above sea level, making it the most destructive flood the city ad ever witnessed.”

     What follows is Nancy Gardner Price’s eyewitness account of the flood. St. Petersburg was inundated October 9th, 1824. The water rose sixteen feet in most parts of the city; many of the inhabitants were drowned. An Island between the city and Cronstradt, containing five hundred inhabitants, was inundated, and all were drowned, and great damage was done at Cronstradt. The morning of this day was fair; there was a high wind. Mr. Prince went early to the Palace, as it was his turn to serve; our children boarders were gone to school; our servant had gone of an errand. I heard a cry, and to my astonishment, when I looked out to see what was the matter, the waters covered the earth. I had not then learned the language, but I beckoned to the people to come in; the waters continued to rise until 10 o’clock, A. M. The waters were then within two inches of my window, when they ebbed and went out as fast as they had come in, leaving to our view a dreadful sight. The people who came into my house for their safety retired, and I was left alone. At four o’clock in the afternoon, there was darkness that might be felt, such as I had never experienced before. My situation was the more painful being alone, and not being able to speak. I waited until ten in the evening; I then took a lantern, and started to go to a neighbor’s, whose children went to the same school with my boarders. I made my way through a long yard, over the bodies of men and beasts, and when opposite their gate I sunk; I made one grasp, and the earth gave away; I grasped again, and fortunately got hold of the leg of a horse, that had been drowned. I drew myself up covered with mire, and made my way a little further, when I was knocked down by striking against a boat, that had been washed up and left by the retiring waters; and as I had lost my lantern, I was obliged to grope my way as I could, and feeling along the walk, I at last found the door that I aimed at. My family were safe, and they accompanied me home. At 12 o’clock, Mr. Prince came home, as no one was permitted to leave the Palace till his Majesty had viewed the city. In the morning the children and the girl returned, and I went to view the pit into which I had sunk. It was large enough to hold a dozen like myself, when the earth had caved in. Had not that horse been there, I should never again seen the light of day, and no one would have known my fate. Thus, through the providence of God, I escaped from the flood and the pit.

     “Decembrist were “any of the Russian revolutionaries who led an unsuccessful uprising on Dec. 14, 1825, and through their martyrdom provided a source of inspiration to succeeding generations of Russian dissidents. The Decembrists were primarily members of the upper classes who had military backgrounds; some had participated in the Russian occupation of France after the Napoleonic Wars…”

This is how Nancy Gardner Prince remembered the revolt: “January, 1826, the corpse of Alexander was brought in state, and was met three miles from the city by the nobles of the Court; and they formed a procession, and the body was brought in state into the building where the Imperial family were deposited. March, of the same year, the corpse of Elizabeth was brought in the same manner. Constantine was then king of Poland, he was next heir to the throne, and was unanimously voted by the people, but refused, and resigned the crown in favor of his brother Nicholas. The day appointed the people were ordered to assemble as usual, at the ringing of the bells; they rejected Nicholas, a sign was given by the leaders that was well understood, and the people, great and small rushed to the square and cried with one voice for Constantine. The Emperor with his prime minister, and city governor, rode into the midst of them entreating them to retire, without avail, they were obliged to order the cannons fired upon the mob; it was not known when they discharged them that the Emperor and his ministers were in the crowd. He was wonderfully preserved while both his friends and their horses were killed. There was a general seizing of all classes, who were taken into custody. The scene cannot be described; the bodies of the killed and mangled were cast into the river, and the snow and ice were stained with the blood of human victims as they were obliged to drive the cannon to and fro in the midst of the crowd. The bones of these wounded who might have been cured were crushed. The cannon are very large, drawn by eight horses trained for the purpose. The scene was awful; all business was stopped. This deep plot originated, 1814, in Germany, with the Russian nobility and German, under the pretense of the Free Mason’s lodge. When they returned home they increased their numbers and presented their chart to the Emperor for permission which was granted. In the year 1822, the Emperor being suspicious that all was not right took their chart from them. They carried it on in small parties, rapidly increasing, believing they would soon be able to destroy all the Imperial branches, and have a republican government. Had not this taken place undoubtedly they would have at last succeeded. So deep was the foundation of this plot laid, both males and females were engaged in it. The prison-houses were filled, and thirty of the leading men were put into solitary confinement, and twenty-six of the number died, four were burned. A stage was erected and faggots were placed underneath, each prisoner was secured by iron chains, presenting a most appalling sight to an eye-witness. A priest was in attendance to cheer their last dying moments, then fire was set to the faggots and these brave men were consumed. Others received the knout, and even the princesses and ladies of rank were imprisoned and flogged in their own habitations. Those that survived their punishment were banished to Siberia. The mode of banishment is very imposing and very heart-rending, severing them from all dear relatives and friends, for they are never permitted to take their children. When they arrive at the gate of the city, their first sight is a guard of soldiers, then wagons with provisions, then the noblemen in their banished apparel guarded, then each side conveyances for the females, then ladies in order guarded by soldiers…”

“The St. Petersburg Flood of 1824.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2014), no. 7. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. tersburg-flood-1824

Windham Life and Times – February 11, 2022

The Story of Nancy Gardner Prince 1799-1859 Part II

-MARRIED– In Boston, by the Rev. Thomas Paul at the African Church, Mr. Nero Prince, Chief Butler to the Emperor of all the Russia, to Miss Nancy Gardner, of Salem. Both persons of colour and dressed in Russian costume. As you read this, please remember this is an African-American couple travelling in 1824 through Europe.

     Nancy Gardner’s early life was consumed with taking care of both her mother and her siblings. “…after seven years of anxiety and toil I made up my mind to leave my country. September 1, 1823, Mr. Prince arrived from Russia February 15th, 1824, we were married, April 14th.” We embarked on board the Romulus, captain Epes Sargent commander, bound for Russia. May 24th, arrived at Elsinore (Denmark), left the same day for Copenhagen, where we remained twelve days. We visited the king’s palace, and several other extensive and beautiful buildings. We attended a number of entertainments, among the Danes and English, who were religious; observed their manners and customs were similar; they are attentive to strangers; the Sabbath is strictly observed; the principle religion is Lutheran and Calvinistic, but all persuasions are tolerated.  The languages are Dutch, French, and English. The Danes are very modest and kind, but like other nations, they know how to take advantage.”

     “We left Copenhagen the 7th of June, and arrived at Cronstadt on the 19th; left there the 21st for St. Petersburg, and in a few hours, we were happy to find ourselves at our place of destination, through the blessing of God, in good health, and soon made welcome from all quarters. We took lodgings with Mrs. Robinson, a native of our country, who was Patience Mott, of Providence, who left here in the year 1813, in the family of Alexander Gabriel, the man who was taken for Mr. Prince. There I spent six weeks very pleasantly, visiting and receiving friends, in the manner of the country.

     While there I attended two of their parties; there were various amusements in which I did not partake, which caused them much disappointment. I told them my religion did not allow for dancing or dice playing, which formed part of the amusements. As they were very strict in their religion, they indulged me in the same privilege. By the help of God I was ever enabled to preserve my stand.”

    “Mr. Prince was born in Marlborough, and lived in families in this city. In 1810, he went to Gloucester, and sailed with captain Theodore Stanwood, for Russia. He returned with him, and remained in his family, and at this time visited at my mother’s. He sailed with Captain Stanwood in 1812, for the last time. The Captain took with him his son Theodore, in order to place him in School in St. Petersburg. When the Captain sailed home, Mr. Prince went to serve the Princess Purtossof, one of the noble ladies of the Court. The palace where the royal family reside is called the court, or seat of government. This magnificent building is adorned with all the ornaments that possibly can be explained; there are hundred of people that inhabit it, besides the soldiers that guard it. There are several of these splendid edifices in the city and vicinity. The one I was presented in, was three miles from the city. After leaving the carriage, we entered the first ward; where the usual salutation by the guards was performed. As we passed through the beautiful hall, a door was opened by two colored men in official dress. The Emperor Alexander, stood on his throne, in his royal apparel. The throne is circular, elevated two steps from the floor, and covered with scarlet velvet, tasseled with gold; as I entered, the Emperor stepped forward with great politeness condescension, and welcomed me, and asked several questions; he then accompanied us to the Empress Elizabeth; she stood in dignity, and received me in the same manner the Emperor had. They presented me with a watch and other gifts. It was customary in those days, when anyone married, belonging to the court, to present them with gifts, according to their standard; there was no prejudice against color; there were there all castes, and the people of all nations, each in their place.”

    The number of colored men that filled this station were twenty (royal guards). When one dies, the number is immediately made up. Mr. Prince filled the place of one that had died. They serve in turns, four at a time, except on some great occasions, when all are employed. Provision is made for the families within or without the palace. Those without go to court at 8 o’clock in the morning; after breakfasting, they take their station in the halls, for the purpose of opening the doors, at signal given, when the Emperor and Empress pass.”

     “The earliest we hear of Americans of African descent in Russia occurs in the late 1700s when unnamed black sailors, common on American ships sailing abroad then, were mentioned as members of the crews whose vessels docked at Russian ports. In 1809, a manservant known simply as “Nelson” accompanied the family of future U.S. President John Quincy Adams when he traveled to St. Petersburg as U. S. Ambassador. A year later, Adams permitted Nelson to be employed in the service of Czar Nicholas I along with Alexander Gabriel, an AWOL ship’s cook whom the czar impulsively plucked out of a crowd in the Baltic port city of Kronstadt.” “In the Russian Empire, blacks were neither enslaved nor suffered discrimination. Furthermore, the costume of the Moors of the Imperial Court was the most sumptuous of all the court uniforms under the tsars. Russia didn’t have black slaves, or slaves of any kind, for that matter. (I have to object; serfs were little more than slaves.) All the labor needs of the ruling class were met through a system known as serfdom (unlike slaves, serfs owned property and were subjects under law). So, the first black people in Russia performed a different function – they were seen as an object of wonder, a curiosity and something exotic from overseas. The black imperial servants were known as “Araps” based on “Arab” or Moor.

Windham Life and Times February 11, 2022

An Extraordinary African American Life: Nancy Gardner Prince 1799-1859 Part I

   It’s African American history month and I was looking through the archives  of the New Hampshire Historical Society when I came across a fascinating book;  A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Gardner Prince, which was published in 1853. The book intimately details the life and travels of Mrs. Prince, an African American woman, which totally deconstructs the monolithic, modern narrative of what it meant to be Black in America before the Civil War. In fact, the book shows that the African American community was diverse, varied and incredibly resourceful as it sought to define its own place in antebellum America and the broader world.

     Nancy Gardner Prince, was born September 15, 1799 and died in 1859. She was an African-American woman born free in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “…little is known of her early life. Her father, a seaman from Nantucket, died when she was an infant, leaving her in the care of her mother, who subsequently married several times. Nancy had six younger siblings, who she became responsible for supporting.”

     In February 15, 1824 she married Nero Prince, one of the founders of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. “Prince Hall Freemasonry is a branch of North American Freemasonry for African Americans founded by Prince Hall on September 29, 1784.” It is the oldest and largest predominantly African-American fraternity in the nation with over 300,000 initiated members. For the next few weeks I will present some excerpts from the book which highlight the incredible life of Nancy Gardner Prince.


     “I was born in Newburyport, September 15th, 1799. My mother was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts— the daughter of Tobias Wornton, or Backus, so called. He was stolen from Africa, when a lad, and was a slave of Captain Winthrop Sargent; but, although a slave, he fought for liberty. He was in the Revolutionary army, and fought at the battle of Bunker Hill. He often used to tell us, when little children, the evils of Slavery, and how he was stolen from his native land. Backus was very active in the Congregational Church and took Nancy to services there. My grandmother was an Indian of this country; she became a captive to the English, or their descendants. She served as a domestic to the Parsons family. My father, Thomas Gardner, was born in Nantucket; his parents were of African descent. He died in Newburyport when I was three months old. My mother was thus a second time a widow, with her two children, and she returned to Gloucester to her father. My mother married her third husband, by whom she had six children. My step-father was stolen from Africa, and while the vessel was at anchor in one of our Eastern ports, he succeeded in making his escape from his captors, by swimming ashore. I have often heard him tell the tale. Having some knowledge of the English language, he found no trouble to pass. There were two of them, and they found from observation they were in a free State. I have heard my father describe the beautiful moon-lit night when they launched their bodies into the deep for liberty. When they got upon soundings, their feet were pricked with a sea-plant that grew under water, they had to retreat, and, at last they reached the shore. When day began to break, they laid down under a fence, naked as the day they were born— soon they heard a rattling sound, and trembling, they looked to see what it meant. In a few minutes, a man with a broad-brimmed hat on, looked over the fence and cried out, ‘Halloo boys! You are from the ship at anchor? Trembling , we answered yes. He kindly took us by the hand, and told us not to fear, for we were safe. ‘Jump, boys’ said he, ‘into my cart,’ which we readily did. He turned about, and soon entered a large yard— we were taken to his house and carried to an apartment, where he brought us clothes and food, and cheered us up with every kindness. No search was made for us; it was supposed we were drowned , as many had jumped over-board on the voyage, thinking they could back home to Africa again. I have often heard my step-father boast how brave they were, and say they stood like men and saw the ship sail with less than half they stole from Africa. He was selling his bamboo baskets, when he was seized by white men, and put in a boat, and taken on board a ship that lay off; many such ships there were! He was called ‘Money Vose,’ and his name may be found on the Custom House books in Gloucester. His last voyage was with Captain Elias Davis, in the brig Romulus, belonging to Captain Fitz William Sargent, (father of painter John Singer Sargent), in whose employ he had been twelve years. During the war, the brig was taken by a British privateer, and he was pressed into service. He was sick with dropsy a long while, and died oppressed, in the English dominions. My mother was again left a widow, with an infant six weeks old, and seven other children.  When she heard of her husband’s death, she exclaimed, ‘I thought it; what shall I do with these children?’ She was young, inexperienced, with no hope in God, and without knowledge of her Saviour. Her grief, poverty, and responsibilities, were too much for her; she never again was  the mother that she had been before. I was, at this time in Captain F.W. Sargent’s family. I shall never forget the feelings I experienced, on hearing of the decease of my father-in-law (step-father) although he was not kind to me or my sister; but by industry a humble home was provided, for my mother and her younger children. Death had twice visited our family, in less  than three months.  My grandfather died before my father-in-law sailed. I thought I would go home a little while and try to comfort my mother, The three oldest children were put into families.” “My brother and myself stayed at home that Summer. We gathered berries and sold them in Gloucester; strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and whortleberries, were in abundance , in the stony environs, growing spontaneously. With the sale of these fruits my brother and myself nearly supported my mother and her children that Summer. My brother George, young as he was, caught fish and sold them, and ran errands, and was always watching for something to do, that might help his mother. At one time he went missing; we expected he was drowned; a search was made for him in the water; the neighbors were all on alert. Poor mother returned from a hard day’s work, supposing the boy was lost, was like a lunatic. The lad was supposed to have fallen from a wharf, where he was fishing. Our friends had all given up the search— it was eleven o’clock at night. Mother and I locked up the children and went round the harbor, to one Captain Warner, who traded in the Eastward (Maine). Mrs. Warner informed us that my brother came there in the morning, with his bundle, and they supposed that he was sent, as the Captain wished to take him with him. He went aboard, and the vessel sailed that afternoon. In three weeks, he came home, to the comfort of his mother and all of us. He bought back, for his pay, four feet of wood and three dollars…”

Prince Hall died December 4, 1807. His successor was Nero Prince who sailed to Russia in the year 1808, George Middleton succeeded him, 1808-1810, Peter Lew, Samuel H. Moody and then the well known John T. Hilton who recommended a Declaration of Independence from the English Grand Lodge in 1827, which the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done in 1772 and assumed powers and prerogatives as an Independent Grand Lodge.

Windham Life and Times – January 28, 2022

Windham Native Sons – Thomas and John Nesmith (Part III)

Washington Square in the Belvidere section of Lowell was popular with the wealthy residents who located there. The high elevation helped them to avoid the stench of the productive mills that was the foundation of their wealth.

    “Located in Belvidere, the Washington Square Historic District was Lowell’s earliest fashionable neighborhood. It was one of the city’s first subdivisions and was home to many prominent early citizens. The focal point of the district was one of Lowell’s earliest public parks, Washington Square, today known as Kittredge Park and the neighborhood was where the Italianate style of architecture first appeared in Lowell….In 1831, prominent residents John and Thomas Nesmith purchased the 150 acre estate of Judge Edward Livermore in Tewksbury and hired Boston’s Alexander Wadsworth to layout streets, house lots, and a small park known as Washington Square.  Wadsworth’s plan for Washington Square was very formal with a double row of trees surrounding the park and residents were required to plant shade trees at 20 foot intervals along the streets.  The main street through the neighborhood was named Nesmith Street after the brothers and with its 60 foot width and ten foot wide sidewalks became Lowell’s first boulevard. By 1834 the area had been annexed to Lowell from Tewksbury with most of the district’s residences erected in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1865, the area was largely developed with the location high above the city and its picturesque views being a highly desirable address.”

   “Here, let me remark, we find perhaps the most important secret of the success of the two brothers. They were widow’s sons. They learned to bear the yoke in their youth. They were early called to bear burdens and assume responsibilities. A widowed mother, five brothers and sisters younger than themselves, called for aid and sympathy, and early led them to assume the duties and bearing of men. It is truly remarkable how many leaders of men are widow’s sons…” The Nesmith’s bought the 150 acres in Lowell for $25,000. “…After purchasing this land the Nesmiths proceeded to lay out the appropriate streets…The investment proved a very remunerative one, for the building lots were very eligible, and the purchase having been made only nine years after the formation of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, which started the first mills in Lowell, the Nesmiths reaped the full benefit of the rapid growth of the new and prosperous city. Their fortunes were now secure. The wealth was large and honorably made…”

   “The two brothers were not alike, and I will close this article by recalling a few prominent characteristics of each. On coming to Lowell in 1845 and settling in Belvidere, I had the good fortune to have both of them as near neighbors, and to receive from them many favors for which I shall ever be grateful. Thomas through life was known for those affable and courtly manners which marked the gentleman of the old school. Though in the last of his life he sough quiet seclusion of home, persistently avoiding almost all participation in public affairs…He was enterprising in business and was the man who, in 1813 brought the first wagon to the town of Windham. He had a taste for military affairs, and a short experience in a soldier’s life. In the War of 1812 he was enlisted as a solider for three months, and served as third lieutenant in Capt. Bradley’s company stationed at Portsmouth. In 1820, when thirty-four years of age, he was chosen colonel of the eight regiment of New Hampshire militia. But after coming to Lowell and serving two years as a member of the city government, I know of no public office, either civil or military which he ever held. He was however a director of the Merchants Bank and a member of the Old Resident’s Association. It is to the honor of both the head and heart of Col. Nesmith that in his last will he left to the town of Windham the sum of $3,000 for the founding and perpetuating a public library. $1,000 to the High Street Church Sabbath School in Lowell…and a $25,000 fund in support of the poor in Lowell…”

    “John Nesmith, who was younger by five years than Thomas, possessed a mind far more speculative and aspiring than that of his brother. He had left home, as we have seen, when only fourteen years of age, and knew more of strangers and had enjoyed less of home life. His spirit was inquisitive and aggressive. Besides caring well for his large estate he was a student and inventor. He devoted his off hours to philosophical and mechanical studies. He was enthusiastic, versatile. He invented machines, one, for example , for making wire fence and the other for making shawl fringe…Mr. Nesmith was far more of a moralist than a politician. The temperance and anti-slavery causes found in him a life-long friend and liberal contributor to their pecuniary support. I well remember a meeting of the leading temperance men in Lowell in his office, at which he took the noble position, that men of humble means and small earnings,  should not be expected to sustain pecuniarily these great moral enterprises, but the wealthy from their abundance should freely and cheerfully bear these expenses, and lift the burden from the shoulders of those who needed all their slender means for support of their families. Few rich men are wont to talk like that, and few rich men give so generously and cheerfully as he did.”

     “Mr. Nesmith possessed and ardent and aggressive nature. His convictions were positive, and it was hard for him meekly to bear the opposition of those who differed from him. He even sometimes defied public opinion, and it cannot with truth be said that he had no enemies to question his sincerity and judge him severely. The great amount of real estate owned by him brought him in contact with a great number of tenants and debtors who presented many opportunities for criticism and complaint. In his declining years he was not a man to give up labor, to retire to a quiet domestic life and sit down in the easy chair of old age. He worked while strength lasted. At his home he spent freely to make that home one of comfort and even beauty. His graperies and hot-houses, his fruit trees and shrubbery, his lawn adorned with noble ornamental shade trees, all  attest to his tender care for the happiness of those he loved, his fine taste and his love of the beautiful. His will makes handsome provisions for the foundation of the ‘Nesmith Fund’ for the maintenance of the indigent blind of New Hampshire, and also for a public park in the town for Franklin in that state. He died in 1869, at the age of seventy-six years. His brother Thomas survived him only a few months.” 

Windham Life and Times January 21, 2022

Photograph of the John Nesmith house Lowell MA. Taken about 1910 by Herbert Horne.

Windham Native Sons – The Brothers John and Thomas Nesmith Part 2

Lieutenant Governor John Nesmith was born in Windham August 3, 1793. Till his twenty-nineth year his life was intimately connected with the history of Windham, and he actively mingled in its affairs. He was prominent in politics, and acted as treasurer in 1819-20, and represented the town in the General Court in 1821. In 1822 he removed to Derry. The story of his life will be found in the following article, which I take from the Annual Cyclopedia (1869), written by John Bell Bouton.     

    “John Nesmith, one of the most enterprising and successful of New England manufacturers, was born in Windham, N.H., August 3, 1893; died October 15, 1869. Mr. Nesmith commenced life a poor boy, and had only common advantages of education at that time. At fourteen years of age he was placed in a country store, and served an apprenticeship of five years, after which, in connection with his brother Thomas, he went into business for himself. As soon as their cash capital and enlarged credit would warrant the adventure, the brothers removed to New York, and built up an extensive and highly remunerative trade. In 1831, foreseeing the future importance of Lowell, Mass., as a manufacturing center, they settled in that place, invested largely in real estate, and identified themselves with every measure calculated to advance the growth and prosperity of the home of their adoption. Mr. Nesmith’s peculiar tastes and talents soon enlisted him in the manufacture of blankets, flannels, printing-cloths, sheetings, and other textile fabrics, and from thenceforth that was his principle pursuit. He became the agent for, or as owner was interested in, mills in Lowell, Dracut, Chelmsford, Hooksett, and other places, and managed those enterprises with almost unvarying success. He was a large stockholder in the Merrimack Woolen Mills Company.”

     “Appreciating more than any other man the natural advantages of the water-powers which have made Lowell what she is, he bethought himself of securing the supply of water in Winnipesaukee and Squam Lakes in New Hampshire as reservoirs for the Lowell mills in dry seasons, and letting it into the Merrimack by artificial channels. This brilliant conception was at first scouted as impracticable by manufacturers along the river, but Mr. Nesmith, satisfied that they would at last require additional water, bought the right to use both those lakes for the purpose named, and the manufacturers were before long obliged to purchase it from him. Mr. Nesmith was the first to discern the natural fitness of the site now occupied by the flourishing city of Lawrence, on the Merrimack, for a a manufacturing point, and made heavy purchases of land on both sides of the river, securing also the necessary charter to control water-power. About 1844, his bold scheme attracted the attention that it deserved from Boston capitalists, and factories began to rise at Lawrence as if by magic, and that city has since most amply vindicated the wisdom of its real founder.” 

    “While Mr. Nesmith was carrying on these multifarious and arduous undertakings, he devoted his odd hours to philosophical and mechanical studies, in which he became much more than an amateur. Several of his discoveries and inventions were of great importance and value,—among others, the well known machinery for making wire-fence and shawl fringe. Though naturally averse to mingling in politics, and never stooping to the acts by which popularity is often won, he was elected to various offices in the city government of Lowell, where his sound practical sense and extraordinary business capacity were acknowledged and prized by his fellow-citizens without distinction of party… He was lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1862; declined re-election in 1863, and was afterwards appointed United States collector of internal revenue for his district, which office he filled ably and acceptably until his resignation, twelve days before his death. Mr. Nesmith’s attachment to the principles of his party was that of a moralist rather than a partisan, and he never ceased to command the respect of his political opponents. The temperance cause in Massachusetts early engaged his hearty support and liberal contributions and he was for some time a vice-president of the State Alliance. From the large fortune acquired by his tact and industry, he made generous donations to many objects of charity and benevolence which won his sympathy, and was invariably hospitable and kind to his friends and neighbors. In his domestic relations he was especially tender and affectionate. His will made handsome provision for the foundation of the ‘Nesmith Fund’ for the care, support, education and maintenance of the indigent blind of New Hampshire…”

     “The secrets of Mr. Nesmith’s career may easily be found, not more in his high mental endowments, than in his unflagging industry, his indomitable perseverance, his strict integrity. And the concentration of all his faculties and energies on the successive objects in hand, and those temperate and well-ordered habits of life which down to its close preserved his mind in all its youth and buoyancy. He offered a rare illustration of what an active intellect may accomplish, aided by courage and fixity of purpose, and animated by the principles of truth, justice and honor.”

   “Mr. Nesmith married June 1825, Mary-Ann daughter of Samuel Bell, of Chester, N.H. She died at St Augustine, Florida, February 26, 1831, at 28 years of age leaving two children. He married second, Eliza Thom, daughter of John Bell, of Chester. She died at Lowell, Sept. 4, 1836 at age 30 leaving two children. He married his third wife, Oct. 19, 1840, Harriet Rebecca, daughter of Aaron Mansur, of Lowell.

Nesmith House, Lowell MA.

Windham Life and Times – January 14, 2022

Windham’s Native Sons

The Brothers John and Thomas Nesmith

    The Nesmith brothers, John and Thomas, were two of Windham’s most successful native sons, making a fortune speculating on and investing in the mill cities of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts. The two brothers grew up with a full exposure to business as their father John Nesmith was a local merchant in Windham.

     John Nesmith (the father) was born on March 29,1762 and lived on the family homestead in Windham which consisted of over 400 acres. He succeeded his father on the homestead in town, and with him lived his aged mother. The original house was  “a roomy old place, consisting of 17 rooms, with a store attached, and a large hall connected with it, which was a famous place for balls and dances in ‘ye olden time.’ A respectable assortment of goods was kept in the store, and a good business done. Mr. Nesmith was successful as a business man. He had just returned from Newburyport, where he had purchased goods, when he was taken with his last sickness, of which he died in a few days, at age of 44 years. His death occurred February 20, 1806, leaving a widow and nine children.  John would have been thirteen at the time of his father’s death, and Thomas would have been eighteen. Luckily for the family, the matriarch, Lucy Martin Nesmith, “possessed remarkable business abilities” which her sons inherited. “Though lame, and obliged to use a crutch, she was able to perform more than most of women. Her portrait is now in the possession of descendants, pictures a face beautiful in expression and of strongly marked character. With the aid of her sons she carried on the store for a few years, until her second marriage to Deacon Daniel McKeen, November 4, 1820. She took her two younger children with her to her new home, the others remaining on the homestead with the grandmother. After the death of Deacon McKeen, November 4, 1820, she returned to her old home, where she remained till near the close of her life.”

     Thomas Nesmith was the favorite of his grandmother, who after the departure of his mother became the head of the Nesmith household in Windham. Morrison says, “Being named for his grandfather, he was especially dear to the heart of his long-widowed grandmother. With whom much of his early life was spent. His education was such as could be obtained from the district schools, and the high school, now Pinkerton Academy, in Derry, taught at that time by Mr. Samuel Burnham.”

     ‘His father dying at the age of forty-four, leaving a family of nine children, his mother decided to continue the store which her husband had operated in one of the rooms of their own home. In this additional labor she had the assistance of her older boys, and here Thomas remained until about 1810, when he went into business for himself.”

     Morrison continues, “The importation of linen in those days being altogether inadequate to the demand for it, the thread, as well as cloth was spun and woven in various households throughout the country towns. Through this home industry, Thomas thought he saw a way to lay the foundation of a fortune. Buying a horse and one of those primitive two two-wheeled carts then in use, he collected thread, carried it home to his grandmother to color, and his sisters to make into skeins; then took it with the cloth to Lynn, and other large towns, where it found a ready sale. By this means, at the end of a few years he had accumulated six thousand dollars, and could engage his business somewhat. He hired a room, in 1815, of Robert Clark, near the meeting-house in Windham, in which he opened a store with his brother John, with whom he associated as long as he remained in active business. During this period of life he took an active part in the affairs of Windham, and acted as town clerk in 1821.” Six Thousand dollars was a small fortune in the early 19th century, earned with intelligence, hard work, perseverance and overcoming  adversity while trained by the example of his father and remarkable mother.

    “In 1822, Mr. James Nesmith took the Windham store, and the brothers Thomas and John, removed to Derry, occupying the old store of Patterson & Choate, now a dwelling-house. It was during this period of his life that Mr. Nesmith met Lucinda Fay, whom he married May 20, 1832. She was then in Derry as principal of the Adams Female Seminary, and was a woman possessing a fine, strong religious nature, as well as much personal beauty. She was the daughter of Winslow and Betsey (Colburn) Fay, and was born in Lebanon, N.H., June 12, 1810, and was educated at Miss Grant’s school in Ipswich, Mass.” (For those of you keeping up and who are good at math, she was 22 years younger than Mr. Nesmith, he being 44 and she 22. I guess, sometimes, money can buy love…)

     “ Mr. John Nesmith after this went into the commission business in New York City, where he was soon joined by Thomas, but they remained there only a short time. The Livermore estate in Lowell was advertised for sale, (150 prime acres) and the brothers decided at once to purchase it and live permanently in that city. (Belvidere Historic District) Mr. Nesmith was never afterwards connected with any active business outside his own private affairs. What Mr. Nesmith’s special characteristics were, may be told by an old friend and neighbor: ‘To great diligence, he through life added sound judgement and forethought, which produced very remarkable results of gain with small percentage of loss. He accumulated a large estate, but only by regular business transactions. He defrauded no man and left no enemies. His integrity was not questioned and his moral and courteous bearing made him a pattern man in business affairs, a good citizen and neighbor, a gentleman in social life.’ When he went to Lowell, manufacturing corporations and city institutions were just  assuming tangible forms.  He was a member of the city government the first two years of its existence, and helped forward many enterprises that were struggling into being. 

Windham Life and Times – January 7, 2022

Windham Native Sons: Milton A. Clyde

    Most of us in town remember the Clyde family because of the pond named after them on their farm which has now become open space. Many sons and daughters of Windham families left town to make their fortune in the wider world. Milton A. Clyde (1816-1875) was one of those people and his rags to riches story is the stuff of the American dream in the nineteenth century.  He became rich building railroads.

The  firm  of  Stone  &  Clyde  took numerous  small  contracts  for  stone-work  on  the  road  west  of Springfield, and,  on  the  completion  of  the  road  to  Albany,  Mr. Clyde  located  in  Springfield,  and  contracted  to  fill  an  old meadow  east  of  Main  Street,  where  the  Boston  &  Albany freight-yard  and  side-tracks  are  now  located.  Stone  &  Clyde then  took  a  contract  for  grading  on  the  Hartford  &  Springfield Railroad,  and  in  1843  they  contracted  for  the  stonework on  that  railroad.  Mr.  Clyde  was  connected  with  the building  of  the  Niagara  Falls  &  Buffalo  Railroad.  In  1853-4 he  built  the  Hampshire  &  Hampden  Railroad  from  Westfield to Northampton.

     About  this  time  he  became  associated  with  Sidney  Dillon, now  president  of  the  Union  Pacific  Railroad,  under  the  firm name  of  Dillon,  Clyde  &  Co.,  and  from  that  time  till  his  death Mr.  Clyde  was  the  working  manager.  This  firm  was  one  of  the greatest  contracting  companies  in  the  United  States.

     One  of  their  earlier  operations  —  a  most  profitable  one,  too— was  the  “great  fill”  on  the  Lake  Shore  Railroad  between Cleveland,  O.,  and  Erie,  Pa.  Afterwards  they  were  engaged  in similar  operations  on  the  New  Jersey  Central  Railroad.  The firm  of  Dillon,  Clyde  &  Co.  were  also  heavy  contractors  on  the still  unfinished  portion  of  the  Boston,  Hartford  &  Erie  Railroad between Waterbury and  Fishkill,  on  which  they  were  engaged for  several  years.  Some  years  ago  Mr.  Clyde  built  the  first Hartford  reservoir,  and  recently  the  firm  of  Dillon,  Clyde  &  Co. built  the  Connecticut  Valley  road  from  Hartford  to  Saybrook. They  also  built  the  Rockville  branch  of  the  Providence  &  Fishkill road  and  the  Springfield  &  Providence  Railroad  from  Providence to  Pascoag,  R.  I.,  in  which  Mr.  Clyde  was  a  director.

“Work on the project (the New York Central from Grand Central station.) began in fall 1872. The first contract was awarded to Fairchild and Ward and the Watson Manufacturing Company for the section between 45th Street and 49th Street. The preexisting track level in this section was maintained as the streets crossed over the line via iron bridges. The project north of 48th Street was completed by Dillon, Clyde & Company, which submitted the winning bid of $6,395,070 (equivalent to $138,151,000 in 2020). The contract for the project had been awarded on August 1, 1872. The contract for the section between 79th Street and the Harlem River was awarded to them on November 11. On January 14, 1873, the contract for the work between 49th Street and 79th Street was awarded to Dillon, Clyde & Company, which provided the only bid lower than that expected by the New York City Board of Estimate. The contract called for the project’s completion in two years. This section had been put up for bid, but since none of the bids were satisfactory, the bidding process was reopened.” Wikipedia. The Clyde house, 33 Pearl Street, Springfield MA., was modest considering Mr. Clyde’s wealth.

But  the  great  work  of  Mr.  Clyde’s  life  was  the  tunneling  and building  of  the famous  underground  railroad  in  New  York  City for  the  New  York  &  New  Haven”,  New  York  Central  &  Hudson River,  and  the  Harlem  Railroads,  from  the  Grand  Central  depot at  Forty-second  Street,  to  the  north  end  of  Manhattan  Island,  a distance  of  some  eight  miles.  The  greater  part  of  the  excavation was  made  through  solid  rock,  of  width  sufficient  to  accommodate the  tracks  of  all  the  roads,  and  from  twenty  to  forty  or  fifty  feet in  depth. The  contract  price  for  this  great  work  was  $15,800,000 while the  extras  swelled  the  sum  to  16,000,000.  The  success  of  this enterprise  was  very  largely  due  to  Mr.  Clyde’s  wonderful  executive ability,  which  was  ever  the  marked  feature  of  his  life.  It was  a  common  remark  among  contractors,  that  Mr.  Clyde  could do  a  job  cheaper  than  any  other  man  in  the  United  State of  an  iron constitution,  he  spared  neither  himself  nor  his  men in  carrying  out  his  enterprises. While  superintending  this  work  he  took  a  severe  cold,  which prostrated  him  with  congestion  of  the  spine,  which  terminated fatally.  While  engaged  upon  a  contract  on  the  Fall  River Railroad  (now  Old  Colony),  he  met  the  lady  whom  he  married four  years  later. He  married  Caroline-Valentine  Read,  of  Fall  River,  Mass.,  Jan.30, 1848.  She  was  b.  at  Fall  River,  March  20,  1825,  and  was  the daughter  of  Joseph-E. and Sybil Valentine  Read.  She  now  res. in  Springfield,  Mass. Mr. Clyde’s grandson, Milton Clyde Long died on the Titanic when it sank. His obituary in Railroad Age noted that, “Mr. Clyde leaves a widow and two daughters, who will probably inherit a handsome fortune.”

This all rather interesting considering the large stone causeway in Windham known as London Bridge, was located on the Clyde property. The question becomes whether the Clyde family was responsible for its construction?

Windham Life and Times December 31, 2021

Where are we headed and who is leading us?

     Best Wishes for 2022. Hopefully, we will still be allowed to laugh. From George Carlin (1931-2008), prophetic words for out times, “They’ll get it all from you sooner or later ‘cause they own this %@#$ place. It’s a big club and you ain’t in it. You are not in the big club. By the way, it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table is tilted, folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. Good, honest, hard-working people: white collar, blue collar, it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on…”  

     (Snow Scenes from Searles Castle.)

Windham Life and Times – December 24, 2021

My Christmas in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Another Christmas is here again, so I began musing about the toys and traditions that were Christmas for us in the 1960’s-70’s. If you grew up then you’ll remember the Marx plays sets: Fort Apache, the gas station, the Flintstones set and of course those beloved World War II plastic soldiers. We loved the solider sets because we could play with them in our sand pile during the summer blowing the soldiers and tanks up with fireworks in a gale of smoke and fire and sand, which we imagined was pretty close to real life battle. Damn that was fun; and me and my brother still have all our fingers. Imagine that!

   Of course, the tree had to be thoroughly modern and adorned with copious amounts of lead tinsel to brighten it up. 

     My favorite Christmas present ever, was the year (1970), that I got my Honda CT 70. I had saved from working all summer and had half the cost. My parents covered the rest and I had my beloved bike for Christmas.  I was in eighth grade and that bike meant freedom to me. It let me travel the woods and wood roads all over Windham. Never got that much “trail play” though… I wonder where she hung out?