Errant in the Wilderness





Readers of this history will likely be familiar with the famous 19th century painting by George Henry Boughton, which depicts a group of Pilgrims in a procession to the meeting house. The procession is led by two men with muskets, behind which are a cloaked minister and his wife, and three women and two children that follow. They are flanked by stern looking men with muskets who peer intently into the woods surrounding them.  Inspired by a popular American history of the period, the inference from the painting is usually that this band of Pilgrims was wary of the local native American population. Yet the likelier concern among these and other early settlers were the packs of wolves that roamed early NewEngland. . William Wood wrote that “The wolves be in some respect different from them in other countries. It was never known yet that a wolf ever set upon a man or woman. Neither do they trouble horses or cows…” but he made no bones about the menace of wolves upon the early farms in New England:

“…swine, goats, and red calves, which they take for deer, be often destroyed by them…In the time of autumn and in the beginning of spring, these ravenous rangers do most frequent our English habitations, following the deer which come down to those parts”.

Wood described the wolves as “much like a mongrel, being big boned, lank paunched, deep breasted, having a thick neck and head, prick ears, and long snout, with dangerous teeth, long-staring hair, and a great bush tail….Many good dogs have been spoiled by them. Once a fair greyhound, hearing them at their howlings, run out to chide them, who was torn in piece before he could be rescued.”


To the Pilgrims and Puritan settlers, wolves seemed to move like ghosts through the new wilderness, silent and menacing. Their howls at night were unearthly to those who had perhaps learned of European legends,  and as John T. Coleman suggests, the biblical metaphors of the wolf suddenly came to light with the constant need to protect livestock. Wolves were seen as  “skulking criminals” that knew no end of greed and theft.

Bounties to protect livestock were usually among the first edicts in the early colonies. William Bradford would write from Plymouth in October of 1624 that

“The countrie is annoyed with foxes and wolves”.  Initially, a bounty of two pence was established per wolf “for the incouragement of persons to seeke the destruction of those ravenous creatures”. The problem persisted however, so much so that the bounty was abolished by 1633, and changed to five bushels of corn, a more valuable commodity in the colony, for one or more wolves that were destroyed. The fledgling community of Boston was also beset by the predators, for John Winthrop would write that in 1631, the wolves did much harm to calves and swine between Charles River and Mistic”.  Two years later he would note: “The wolves continued to do much hurt among our cattle”.

By 1641, it became law for each town to bait and set traps for wolves, and to

“look daily after wolf traps, under penalty”. In 1651, the colony sought assistance from Native Americans, providing a coat in trade for every wolf pelt brought into Plymouth. Boston enacted a bounty for wolves in November 1639, as Providence had early on. Roger Williams called them  “fierce, bloodsucking persecuters”, and enjoined every townsman to rid the area of wolves.

There is mention of granting one Tho. Roberts “a share of meadow laid out to him in ye swamp” where he could lay his “woolfe trapp”, but  the town did not officially create a bounty until the January  meeting in 1659, when it was ordered that

“…whosoever shall from this tyme forward kill any woolves, that they shall have for each woolfe, a halfe penny a head for each head of catell, they who kill the Wolfe to gather it vpp;, provided they kill them within Providence Limetes”[i]

One recipient of this bounty was Benjamin Hernton (Herndon), a nefarious citizen of the town who often quarreled with neighbors and the court alike, but was apparently a valued hunter. We find that in the October meeting of 1667, it was orderd that he should “receve according to ye Towne order Concerning wolves a halfe penny per head for all and Every of the Chattle in this Towne”.[ii]

The bounties were of considerable profit to some, the early town records show that in January of 1680, Thomas Fenner “come to ye office desirein that cognizance might be taken, they had (then) lately killed two wolves (within our townshippe)”.

David Whipple and Edward Inman also sought bounties in February of 1681. The following month, John Haughkines (Hawkins?) sought the bounty for a wolf he had killed. In December of 1683, John Mathuson also brought the head of a wolf to the council meeting.

The domestic livestock duly imported to New England proved unwieldy to maintain in the landscape of New England.  Fences were in constant need of repair, most of the colonies made it law that townsmen maintain their fences, but stray cattle and swine were always getting into the woods.

In the early days of the common, a community meadow for citizens livestock, wolves were a constant threat. Roger Williams helped large cattle and sheep owners acquire the Islands of Narragansett Bay, from the Sachems Canonicus, and Miantinomo, but the poor farms of Providence were still under siege. Despite the efforts of digging traps, the bounties offered, and even, as historian Joseph Adler noted, experimenting  “with exotic technologies like mackerel hooks and ‘wolf bullets with adder’s tongues’, the wolves continued to menace the settlers livestock.

In the aftermath of the bloody Pequot war, Roger Williams suggested that those captive Native Americans be “Divided and dispersed” with “a tribute of wolves heads be imposed on them etc. wch (with Submission) I conceave an incomparable way to Save much Cattell alive in the land.”  Towns encouraged farmers to “purchase hounds and mastiffs and train them to hunt wolves.”

A generation later, those dogs who had become strays, or were adopted into Indian packs were becoming a problem as well. An order of 1661 from the town of Providence assigned Valentine Whitman and Thomas Clemence to “go unto the Indians dwelling at Pomecansett, and unto those Indians living neere this Towne, and warne them to Take some course with theire Dogges, to Keep them from ffalling upon the Inglish cattell or else the must Expect to have theire Dogges Killed”.[iii]

Wood concluded that “they be the greatest inconvenience the country hath”, and reported that “These be killed daily in some place or other, either by the English or Indian, who have a certain rate for every head. Yet there is little hope of their utter destruction, the country being so spacious and they so numerous, traveling in the swamps by kennels. Sometimes ten or twelve are of a company.”[iv]

Such was the lore of the wolf in New England, that they would be used metaphorically to incite the colonialist’s worst fears during Philip’s war. Increase Mather, in what would become a well-known jeremiad, would prey upon the fear of these “perilous times…when men can scarcely look out of doors, but they are in danger of being seized upon by ravening Wolves, who lye in wait to shed blood, when men go not forth into the field, not walk by the way side, but the Sword of the Enemy, and fear is on every side”[v].

A single incident in the winter of 1742 would establish a young man’s reputation in his community, and open the door for him to become one of the officers of the American militia gathered at Bunker Hill. During that winter, a gray she-wolf, long reputed to be the last in Pomfret, Connecticut, continually attacked sheepfolds in the community. By December, twenty-four year old farmer Israel Putnam had lost seventy sheep. The townspeople had made several attempts to track or trap the wolf, and had even killed her offspring, but the she-wolf eluded them, even chewing off part of one claw, to escape a trap that winter.

Known to roam the woods west of Putnam’s farm, the farmer and five other men kept a constant vigil. One night after a light fall of snow, the wolf attacked again. The men followed her tracks all night to the Connecticut River, and backtracking toward Pomfret by morning’s light. About three miles from Putnam’s farm, seventeen year old John Sharp who had followed the bloodhounds before the older men, discovered the wolf’s lair, which lay among the granite crags and boulders of a hillside. Once the wolf’s location became known, people flocked to the site with guns and torches, and materials for smoking the wolf out.

For hours, it was a costly effort. Hounds that were sent in crawled out badly mauled by the she- wolf, the straw and sulfur lit at the entrance to the den failed to force her from her lair. The men stayed well after darkness fell, but none were compelled to enter the den themselves, until Putnam made the decision to crawl in with a rope tied to his ankle, which at the signal of a kick, would engage the the others to pull him from the lair.

His first crawled in with strips of bark used as a lighted torch to ascertain where the wolf lay. Her growls caused the frightened townsmen to drag Putnam from the cave to the extent where his shirt was pulled over his head, and his body scratched by the rocks and ice at the entrance. He entered again with his rifle loaded with nine buckshot and crept further into the lair than before. Putnam’s later biographer would tell the tale of how

“Holding it in one hand and a torch in the other, he advanced farther than before into the den and found the wolf even fiercer, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs. He fired at her just as she was evidently about to spring upon him. Being instantly pulled out, he refreshed himself and waited for the smoke to disappear out of the den. He then made a third venture.

When he approached the wolf this time he heard nothing from her and touching her nose with his torch, found that she was dead. He grasped her ears, kicked the rope and was drawn out, dragging his victim into the presence of the astonished and exultant people”.

The wolf was carried to a house a mile from the den and suspended from a wooden beam for display while the town held a “wolf jubilee” to celebrate Putnam’s accomplishment. The woods where the incident took place are preserved as “Wolf Den”park, where marked trails lead one to the lair and the brass plaque commemorating the event.

For most of the English who came to settle in North America, the weather was more extreme than they had endured in the old country towns. Even if you had lived upon the coast of southern England, the storms of New England were far fiercer in any season, lights and unexplained “wonders” often appeared in the sky, and the winters were especially harsh, with a bone-chilling cold.

On occasion, these events came to be so memorable as to be called “Remarkable Occurences” as Cotton Mather would name them in his Magnalia Christi Americana .

These events, whether they be earthquakes, floods, violent storms, droughts, and even unexplained phenomena were brought upon the people of New England by God himself, and to each their was a purpose, and a puzzle for Puritan ministers to sort out.

In January of 1644, John Winthrop would record a series of unexplained events around Boston:

“(January )18.] About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor’s garden…and a week after the like was seen again. A light like a moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by divers godly persons”[vi].

Perhaps the most astounding of these events that Winthrop recorded, occurred on June 28, 1648 when “There appeared over the harbor at New Haven, in the evening, the form of a keel of a ship with three masts, to which were suddenly added all the tacking and sails, and presently after, upon the top of the poop, a man standing with one hand akimbo under his left side, and in his right hand a sword stretched out toward the sea. Then from the side of the ship which was from the town arose a great smoke, which covered all the ship, and in that smoke she vanished away; but some saw her keel sink into the water. This was seen by many, men and women, and it continued for about a quarter of an hour”[vii].

Secular writers, though no less faith-minded, wrote of the weather and these more unsettling events in a simple, matter of fact way, as goldsmith and horse breeder John Hull of Boston would record in 1662:

“The former part of this summer was a very great drought, insomuch that the grass and corn was so scorched, there was little likelihood of any harvest, and so as God seemed to shut out their prayers: but at last, elders being met, in a synodical way, to consult of matters ecclesiastical, they kept one day in fasting and prayer; and the Lord gave a speedy answer, and a full supply of rain and a pretty comfortable harvest.”[viii]

In July of 1665, he recorded another event of biblical proportions:

This summer multitudes of flying caterpillars arose out of the ground and from roots of corn, making such a noise that travelers must speak loud to hear one another; yet they only seized upon the trees in the wilderness…wheat generally blasted, and the blast this year took hold of Connecticut and New Haven; yet the Indian barley, pease, and rye were spared.”

The following month brought “a great hail storm; viz, at Linn, Wooburn, and Billirica. Some hail as big as duck’s eggs, many as pullets’ eggs, divers of them snagged like pike-bullets.”

By January of 1666, “the frosts were violent”, and “Charles River was passed on foot, and only the channel open before Boston”. There was a brief thaw, but again in early February, the river was “all frozen again down to the castle”[ix].

In October of 1672, Hull would record the event of “A very great easterly storm, and being about the full moon, brought in so great a tide as hath not been seen these thirty-six years; filled most of the cellars near the waterside; flowed more or less into many warehouses; greatly damnified many merchants in their goods and in their wharves; and one vessel cast away in Ipswidege Bay, going to Black Point, and seven persons drowned nearby”.

The diarist also recorded a number of remarkable occurrences that occurred during his lifetime. During the winter of 1662-1663, Hull wrote that there were

“several falls of deep snow” between November and February, and then on February 26th,   “in the evening, about six o’clock, there was an earthquake, that shook much for near one quarter of an hour”.

The following winter, “A comet with a blaze appeared about 8th of November and did not wholly disappear till about February”. That winter also saw the appearance of “a blazing star” in the last days of November.  Hull records that “most of the 11th & 12th mo. was very temperate; little frost, only not much clear sunshine. On the 19th of February, the winter did, as it were, begin again. A cold spring; no tree budded until the 1st of May”.

Weather would continue to remain a mysterious provenance in the lives of New Englanders for generations to come, and be tethered to biblical interpretations for nearly as long. Particularly alluring to these early diarists were the occasions of a lightening strike, a particular wonder as this was clearly a direct “bolt from heaven”.

In June of 1642, John Winthrop would record that “…in a great tempest of thunder and lightening, in the evening, the lightening struck the upper sail of the windmill in Boston by the ferry[x], and shattered it in many pieces…the miller being under the mill, upon the ground, chopping a piece of board, was struck dead, but company coming in, found him to breathe, so they carried him to an house, and within an hour or two he began to stir, and strove with such force, as six men could scarcely hold him down. The next day he came to his senses, but knew nothing of what had befallen him, but found himself very sore on divers parts of his body. His hair on one side of his head and beard was singed, one of his shoes torn off his foot, but his foot not hurt”.

John Hull would later record a few of these occurrences as well:

“March 23, 1667

Samuel Rugles of Roxbury, going up the meeting hill, was struck by lightening, – his two oxen and horse killed, a chest in the cart, with goods in it, burst in sundry places; himself coming off the cart, carried twenty feet from it, yet no abiding hurt”.

In 1671, he recorded a similar event that seemed to have biblical connotations, though it is clear he heard the story second-hand:

“June 5th…A man in Ipswich repeating a sermon, and because it was darkish, stood at a door or window as a flash of lightening stunned him; but no hurt. His bible being under his arm, the whole book of Revelation was carried away, and the other parts of the bible left untouched”.

What we know today as the “aurora borealis” was an unknown wonder to the settlers in New England. Commonly known as the Northern Lights, they long took on meaning as a sign from the heavens. On the evening of December 17, 1719, the appearance of the aurora borealis in Boston created a panic in the city, many seeing the lights as portending the end of the world. Nearly a decade later, minister John Comer of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote of an October night in 1728 when

“came on the most terrifying awful and amazing Northern light as ever was beheld in New England as I can learn. There was at the bottom of the horizon a very great brightness and over it an amazing red bow extending from North to East like a dreadful fire and many fiery spears, and the East was wonderfully lighted and some part of the appearance continued many hours and people were extremely terrified. Words can’t express ye awfulness of it. What God is about (to do) is only known to himself.”[xi]

For the majority of communities in early America, however, disease was always the deadliest of predators among them. Unfortunately for many settlers, 17th century medicine had not much progressed beyond the treatments prescribed by medieval doctors. As they would into the early part of the next century, scientist and doctors believed most fever and agues were due to miasmas, or noxious vapors that came from the moldering decay in swamps and stagnant water, the gasses from unburied garbage, and by the close of the century, the fumes from the dead on the battlefields

and woods affected by the Indian Wars.

The Pilgrims arrived with a boatload of sick travelers, mostly struck with scurvy for lack of much but a diet of salted meats and crackers. Those hundred or so that went ashore in December 1620, faced a difficult first winter. Governor William Bradford would write in his “ Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647”, that

“In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arose against some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others; but they were quelled  and overcome by the wisdome, patience, and just and equal carriage of things by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully in the maine. But that which was most sadd and unfortunate was, that in 2 or 3 months time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: and February, being the dead of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvie and other diseases, which this long voyage and their incomusate condition had brought upon them, so as ther dyed some times 2 or 3 a day, in the aforesaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained”[xii].

In January of 1621, the central house they had built on the settlement “by casualty caught fire”, and a number of settlers returned to the ship.  By then, Bradford writes,

“the sickness begane to fall sore amongst them, and the weather so bad as they could not make much sooner any dispatch. Againe, the Governor, and cheefe of them, seeing so many dye, and fall downe sick dayly, thought it no wisdom to send away the ship, their condition considered, and the danger they stood in from the Indians, till they could procure some shelter…The master and seamen likewise, though before they hasted the passengers a shore to be gone, now many of their men being dead…and of the rest many lay sick and weake, the master durst not put to sea, till he saw his men begine to recover, and the hart of winter over.”[xiii]

As it turned out, the feared danger from the Indians was tampered by the meeting of Tisquantum and subsequently with the Wampanoag who signed a pact of peace with the Pilgrims, and almost at once began efforts to aid them in survival, showing them how to plant corn and beans as they did, and to build weirs to catch fish for both eating, and fertilizing their crops. All methods, which the Pilgrims “found true by triall and experience”.

Still, the community was to suffer another blow in April when Governor John Carver “came out of the field very sick, it being a hott day; he complained of his head and lay downe, and within a few howers his sences failed, so as he never spake more till he dyed, which was within a few days after”. His wife would die but a few weeks later.

Turning again, to the diary of John Hull of Boston, his entries show that through the more than twenty years of events recorded, between 1657 and 1677, the colony suffered waves of illness nearly as constant as the seasons. During the summer of 1657, the goldsmith and elected selectman records that

“My boy, John Sanderson, complained of his head aching, and took his bed. A strong fever set on him; and, after seventeen days’ sore sickness, he departed this life…

My cousin Daniel Quincy was also cast upon his sick-bed, within a week after the other, and had also the fever, and was brought very low, but, through God’s favor, well recovered by the 17th of 8th(mid-August). My wife was ill when these first began to be sick; but it pleased God, as they sickened she strengthened; and he kept her, and my little daughter Hannah, that then sucked upon her, from any spice of the fever…”

By mid-August, Hull felt ill himself, but recovered. A month later his maid was

“taken sick with a strong fever; but the Lord was pleased to restore her to health in three or four days.”[xiv]

In late 1660, another sickness swept the town and Hull wrote, with no doubt relief, that “Our family was all partakers of the epidemical cold, but, through favor, very gently. Little Hannah lay two days without any mind to play or food. My wife continued four or five days with a great pain in her head and eyes; and most of us one or two days, exercised with pain either in the head, eyes, or throat.”

Four years later, Hull would note in a January entry that “about this time began an epidemical cold, and scarcely missed a touch of any; and many people were laid low by it, a fever setting in with it upon many…but it pleased the Lord that few died”.

Hull’s father would die in July of 1666 “being two days before taken with a flux, and then with violent cramp in his legs and burning at his heart”. The following fall season and winter would bring the greatest fear to the community:

“Dec. 10th, 11th  Sam. Paddy fell sick of the small-pox. He went to his mother’s house; but there I provided for him…. Joseph Green had a very few…Jer. Drummer fell ill of the same disease…Deborah Bell had a few, and, about a month after, had them pretty full”. Most recovered within a few weeks, but then January 1st, Hull would write anxiously

“my wife taken ill of the small-pox, having had about twelve day’s trouble with a hot humor in her neck and shoulders; and together with the pox which came, she had much trouble in her head by vapors from matrix and spleen, much impeding sleep, oftentimes fainting of spirits, beating of the heart”.

His son and daughter were also taken ill, but all “through the mercy of God”, recovered much to his relief: “The Lord enlarge my heart, and all mine, with praise to his great name” Hull wrote when the ordeal was over.

Small-pox during the colonial period was the “most dreaded of the scourges that afflict mankind”[xv]. Historically, smallpox killed over twenty-five percent of those infected during an outbreak, often devastating whole communities; though there were other troubling illnesses as well, such as measles, chicken-pox,  diptheria, cholera, and yellow fever that could grow to epidemic proportions.[xvi] In late 1672,

Hull would record that

“This summer, very many in most parts of the country, from east to west, from south to north, were taken with agues, and it proved mortal to many…And at the later end of the year, about October, some was thought to have spotted fever in Ipswige, Wenham, and Salem…Sundry persons died in September and October of voiding much blood and some worms, persons of grown age and young men…”

Five years later, the small-pox would return, beginning in December with the death of Mr. Thomas Shepherd, the Minister of Charlestown, and continuing through the spring:

“June 6. A public fast in this Colony. The small-pox since they first began, had seized upon about_[   ] persons; and about forty persons were dead of that disease. In Charltown, about so many also died since it began there, being in 5th month, ’77 to this time. About two hundred persons had had the disease there…

June 22. Mr. Edmund Brown, pastor of the church at Sudbury, died.

Sept. 22. To this time, there were about eighty persons of Charltown that died of the small-pox, and about seven hundred that have had the disease.

Oct. 3. To this time, there was about one hundred and eighty persons had died in Boston of the small-pox, in a little above a year’s space since the disease began.”

Hull records that the disease continued through the fall, taking among many others, Samuel Symonds, the deputy governor, the senior pastor of the third church in Boston, as well as three ministers of the nearby communities of Wethersfield and Hingham. In Woburn in late December, “One David Wyman,…taken with the small-pox, was distracted, and ran out of his bed barefoot, in his shirt, five miles to a friends house. There was put into bed, but after died.”

Another epidemic illness swept the colony in 1685, when

“The Court having taken into their serious consideration, that in respect of afflictive Sicknesses in many Places, and some Threatening of Scarcity as to the necessary food, and upon other Accounts also, we are under solemn Frowns of the Divine Providence…Do therefore appoint the Sixteenth of July next, to be set apart as a Day of publick Humiliation by Fasting and Prayer throughout this Colony…And do hereby prohibit the Inhabitants of this Jurisdiction all servile Labour upon the said Day.”

As was common in times of any crisis, the Puritans turned to fasting and prayer seeking forgiveness and divine intervention in healing these sicknesses that many ministers intoned as a punishment from God for their sin. This incantation would survive in America well after European nations began experimenting with cow-pox Inoculations. The practice in the west caused a great stir among the licensed medical practitioners as well, and for decades, medical doctors opposed to the new methods, and ministers who clung to Puritan doctrine would share a strange, but steadfast alliance that would allow waves of illness to continue to sweep the New England communities for generations.

Another small pox epidemic hit the colony in 1689-1690, and then twelve years later,in 1702,  a siege struck Boston again.

The disease was then absent for nineteen years, but would come back with a vengeance. Sixteen year old seminary student John Comer would write of the epidemic:

“April 1721 The latter end of this month the small pox was brought into Boston, which was exceeding surprising to me. The first man who brought it in died…the distemper prevailing in town, some of ye youth of my acquaintance were taken away by death.”


While many older Bostonians had been exposed to the disease during the earlier epidemics, and were thus immune from infection, the smallpox ravaged the very young who had grown in the now prosperous city. As historians Stanley Aronson and Lucille Newman explain,

“those younger than nineteen years had never encountered smallpox; and as each smallpox-free day passed, some of the older people with immunity died of unrelated causes while newborns were continually added to the local population of susceptibles. Thus, as the interval between smallpox epidemics lengthened, the fraction of the population with immunity to smallpox diminished, the number of susceptibles increased, and the likelihood of a major epidemic heightened. “

The disease had been brought into town in April by the British ship Seahorse, when a number of her crewmen became afflicted while the ship lay in port. Despite frantic efforts to quarantine those infected, by May the citizens of Boston were becoming ill, and minister Cotton Mather would note that “The grievous calamity of the small pox has now entered the town.” It was during this outbreak that Cotton Mather would make a significant shift from the long intoned Puritan remedies of prayer and attending of the patient by a bedside cleric.

This long time practice of minster as “physician” had occurred, especially in rural areas, for the simple reason that the clergy installed in the community was often the most learned among the them. Such authority was not lost on many of the city-bred and educated ministers. When Cotton Mather intoned his support for the efforts of inoculation, the clergy beyond the reach and influence of his pulpit refused to be persuaded, and continued to admonished the practice in their sermons and competing pamphlets as the outbreak progressed. But the clergy were not the only authority to resist the efforts to inoculate citizens. Many of the physicians of the time railed against the practice as well, despite the promising experiments in Europe and in Turkey as well.

One brave Boston physician named Zabdiel Boylston administered the vaccine to his own six year old son, as well as his “negro man Jack” and a young African-American boy just two and a half years old. Nearby residents who knew the doctor soon came for vaccines as well. Such was the outcry over the practice in much of the city that Boylston was nearly lynched, but of the nearly two hundred and fifty people the doctor inoculated, only six died; compared to the 800 that refused vaccination and perished.

The stubbornness of the medical authorities, as well as the rooted clergymen and their influence on parishoners practices,  would cause years of needless suffering and death in many New England communities.

This position of the clergy also meant that legions of young ministers were dispatched into New England towns and villages with the same indoctrination. No matter how learned they might personally become, the  church long held them to this time worn doctrine of prayer and visitation, rather than inoculation, and often upheld the clergy in a supervisory role to the town doctor.

This must have been a singular struggle for young clergy, being brought into an age with a heightened awareness of science and the growing progress of medicine in European schools. Even in a well-toned community, young minister John Green would find that administering to the sick would be a  almost daily part of his duties as minister to Salem village.

In January 2, 1702, the twenty-six year old minister would write:

”Old William Buckly dyed this evening. He was at ye meeting last Sabbath and died with ye cold ( I fear ) for want of comfort and good tending. Lord forgive. He was about 80 years old  I visited him and prayed with him on Monday and also ye evening before he dyed. He was very poor, but I hope had not his portion in this life”[xvii].

In May of that year, he himself felt “very faint and ill and preached with difficulty” at Sabbath. In mid-August, he noted that it was a “sickly time”, and visited a Mr. Andrews a few days later who was “very ill”.   At the beginning of December we find

“Dec. 3. Cold. Mr. Andrews dyed in ye night  of ye small pox”.

Green’s diary is often sparsely worded, with many entries a single sentence, or abbreviated notations. Some entries are spaced weeks or even months apart, though most hold a few notations for each month of the year.   

Minister John Comer’s diary reveals that tending to the sick through visits and prayer were an equal challenge to his young ministry in Swansea, Massachusetts, and then Newport, Rhode Island. Having survived a bout with smallpox as a young student, he felt “obliged to serve God in a more eminent manner yn heretofore, and looking on myself as having ye vows of God lying on me to serve him in ye ways of his Holy Institutions and more especially in ye commemoration of his dying love at his table.”

After a short time in Swansea, Comer married a Newport woman and in February of 1726, accepted a ministry at the First Church in the town.  On December 21st the twenty-one year old minister would write “This year has been a year of great exercise to me. I have been as it were in a furnace of affliction. The difficulty in my flock has been heart wounding, and almost sometimes confounding, but I see God’s grace is sufficient for me.”

The young minister was awakened to the hardships of New England life, for during that year alone,  of his community, “there were 6 lost, there were 6 drowned, accidentally as some term it, one kill’d with thunder, one kill’d in a well, one found dead with his neck broke.”

Comer conducted “missionary work” in outlying towns such as Sutton, Leicestor, Middleborough, and other places.[xviii] He also visited and preached to prisoners in Bristol as he continued to work in Newport, administering to his aging parishoners there, conducting funerals, and visiting the sick, a task which often taxed him physically as well as spiritually. One entry from 1729 reads:

“This day I being sent for to ye almshouse by Mrs. Steadman being ye sick; went and prayed with her. She seemed in great terror about her soul. She expressed great fear of death. O, said she with great anguish, I am afraid to die, I am afraid. O may I have my work well done”.

Comer saw outbreaks of fever and agues throughout his years of ministry, as well as the small pox which continued its deadly visitations. In May of 1729, the minister recorded “This day the town was mightily alarmed by ye death of a stranger at ye house of Mays Nichols, tavern keeper…it appeared to those yt inspected the body to be ye small of wh he died. By order of authority he was with utmost dispatched buried…”

Nichols wife, and a Narragansett servant were dispatched to a quarantined hospital on Goat Island. The tavern keeper’s wife recovered, the Indian girl died. The outbreak placed Comer in a melancholy mood, recording epitaphs from the graves in the common burial ground, and “a most unaccountable piece of wickedness” that came in news from Block Island, of

“A negro man belonging to Capt. Simon Ray of Block Island being in Newport, in ye heart of ye town, a man being an utter stranger to ye sd negro gave him a letter and charged him to give it to his master himself, which accordingly he did; and upon his opening it it was a blank, with sundry scabs (as is supposed,) taken from some person sick of ye small pox. In surprise he threw it on ye floor immediarely, and ye maid of ye house took it up and burnt it. O wt wickedness is lodged in ye heart of man…”[xix]

The minister continued in Newport until 1731, recording dutifully those he visited that were sick and dying, the funerals he conducted, and the visits with grieving families.  John Comer would remove to Rehobeth that year, having contracted consumption, and died less than three years later.

Outbreaks of smallpox would recur in Boston in 1751, 1764, and 1775, though through these years the idea of inoculation was slowly taking hold. One of the first scientifically minded and influential American’s lent his voice to the debate in 1759 in a written introduction to “Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America”. Benjamin Franklin had long regretted his decision to not inoculate his son in 1736 and lost him. Such was the shadow that fell over his life after his boy’s death that  he promoted the treatment vigorously.

Other medical perils came with the vigorous expansion of the China trade and the pursuit of the whale in the Pacific Ocean in the late 18th century, home ports of New England were suddenly exposed to new diseases, of which there were scarcely a clue for a cure.

Yellow Fever made its appearance in New England during the late summer of 1797.  In Providence, Rhode Island in mid-August of that year, the schooner Betsy anchored on the south side of India Pont, and lingered for two weeks. She had come from St. Nicholas Mole in the Island of Haiti, and two men had died with fever during the passage, but the Captain kept that from authorities. As the Betsy had come upriver, she had taken on Nicholas Windsor of Seekonk, who was on his way to the Providence market with bushels of vegetables.  On his return home, Nicholas fell ill and died of a “billous fever” within the week. The crew of the vessel had sent laundry and bedding to be washed at the “long House” at the corner of Wickenden and South Main Streets.

Within days, numerous people had fallen ill. By the end of the outbreak, thirty-six people would die. Another sixteen mortalities occurred in Bristol, Rhode Island, with an outbreak the same year.[xx]

Providence would see recurring outbreaks in 1803, 1805, and again in 1820.

Though these physical ailments would come to prove a common factor in everyday colonial life, the more uncommon occurrence of mental illness, rattled the nerves of clergy and common citizens alike. Most cases were individuals whose desperation was borne from hardship-whether poverty or loss of a loved one, though if one had the misfortune to be a widow in early New England, the two often went hand in hand. Such was the case of Margaret Goodwin of Providence, who in March of 1651, was found  “in distraction” after the death of her husband Adam. Six men of the towne were appointed to “take care…of Goodwin’s wife during her time

of distraction”.  Her possessions were sold to settle her debts, and the remaining

goods were given to the towne in exchange for her care. Such care seemed to be minimal at best, save for her being allowed to remain in her husband’s house, as she

was found dead in their home, seven years later on March 4, 1657. A “jury” of twelve

men were sent to investigate the death and reported to the towne assembly that

“So neare as we can judge, that either the terribleness of the crack of Thunder on the second or third of the month, or the coldness of the night, being she was naked, did kill her”. [xxi]

The long, cold winters that settlers in New England endured often meant death for those most frail, either from disease as we have seen, or from the effects upon a mentally ill person of the bleakness and desolation during those months of snow and ice, with little sun beneath an almost constant mackerel sky.

Incidents of suicide appear periodically in the journals of early New Englanders, as in John Hull’s diary when he writes in solemn perplexity:

“One Elizabeth Bishop, who had lived, according to visible appearance, both maid, wife, and three times a widow, under many no small trials and now about fifty years of age, in good and very commendable repute for Christianity as well as family and neighborly civility, yet cast herself this morning, as soon as up, into a well; was drowned: all her profession issued in such a snuff…”

Samuel Sewall would record these incidents as well, as with his entry of April 4, 1688:

“At night Sam Marion’s wife hanged herself in the chamber, fastening a cord to the rafter-joice. Two or three swear she was distracted, and had been for some time, and so she was buried in the burying place.”[xxii]

Minister John Comer would also diligently record these unfortunate events, such as a pair of entries during that difficult first year he served in Newport, Rhode Island reveal:

“Septemr (1726)     About ye middle of this month one Hannah Suderick, a disconsolate young woman, as is supposed, drowned herself about 11 of ye o’clock at night. …And in ye afternoon of ye next day one Catherine Cook attempted ye like action, but was discovered after she had fallen down in ye water; but upon examination before Edward Thirston (Thurston), Assistant, and Job Lawton, Justice of ye Peace, she seemed to be under ye power of Satan in a very awful manner.”[xxiii]

In January of 1728, he would record that

“This night Mary Dye went and drowned herself as the Jewry (Jury) gave it; but most concluded she was murthered by her husband. One of her arms was broke and on yt arm appeared 10 black and blue stripes. She was not found until (incomplete)…If she drowned herself, her husband’s ill carriage was the cause.”

Of course it was not only distracted or “disconsolate” woman who committed suicide, men also took their lives, though more often to escape punishment for wrongs they had done, though some too fell into despair for unknown reasons

Samuel Sewall’s diary records an incident in February of 1723:

“Saturday, February the First…John Valentine Esq. went out in the morning to speak with Mr. Auchmuty but found him not at home. He staid so long before he returned home that his family grew uneasy, and sent to many places in the town to enquire after him. At last they searched his own house from chamber to chamber and closet to Closet. At last Mr. Bowdoin look’d into the cockloft in the north end of the house, that has no light but from the stairs; and there, by his Candlelight, saw him hanging…”[xxiv]

The aforementioned minister Comer, then ailing, but still serving as pastor of a newly founded Baptist church, recorded on March 27th 1732 that “This day in the town of Rehoboth, one Joshua Abel cut his own throat with a razor about sunrise. He had been ill in body for some time”[xxv].

Whatever the causes that lay at the heart of these self-inflicted deaths, their effect was carried in part by the fears and desperation many felt in the dark period after King Philips war. Conflicts in the northern territories continued well after the last battle in Southern New England. Many of the young women that showed signs of trauma and “possession” to the Salem authorities in 1692, were survivors of Indian raids on the small wilderness towns in the areas we now call Vermont and Maine.

Local violence was increasing as well, as indicated in our previous chapter. How the colonial authorities dealt with this increase of lawlessness and its causes, would weave it’s own blood-dark thread through the fabric of the New England tapestry.

[i] “Early Records of the Town of Providence” Vol. 1 p. 122

[ii] Ibid. Vol. 3 p. 110

[iii] Ibid. Vol. 3  p. 7

[iv] Wood, William “”New England’s Prospect” pp 45-46

[v] Mather, Increase  ”Exhortation”  p. 179

[vi] Winthrop, John “Winthrop’s Journal History of New England” Vol. 2  p. 156

[vii] Ibid. Vol. 2,  p. 346

[viii] Hull, John “Diary of…” p.206

[ix] Ibid. p. 220

[x] According to Hosmer’s footnote, the mill was located on Copp’s Hill, opposite Charlestown.

[xi] Comer, John “John Comer’s Diary” p. 112

[xii] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1642” p. 192

[xiii] Ibid. p. 215

[xiv] “Memoir and Diary of John Hull” p. 148

[xv] Footnote from John Combers Diary p. 20

[xvi] See “Revolutionary Medicine”

[xvii] Diary of Rev. Joseph Green, of Salem Village. p. 220-221

[xviii] See James W. Willmarth’s introduction to John Comer’s diary.

[xix] “The Diary of John Comer” pp. 106-107

[xx] “History of Yellow Fever in Providence” The Providence Journal, September 23, 1878

[xxi] Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. 2 pp. 56, 104.

[xxii] The Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 53

[xxiii] Diary of John Comer, p. 42

[xxiv] Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 177

[xxv] Diary of John Comer p. 121

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
This entry was posted in Native American history. Bookmark the permalink.

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