Wicked New England- Who’s Your Favorite Historical Figure?

Jessie: In NH, shivering and finding mid-winter solace in days gone by.

Recently, as I was poking around the internet doing a little research for my work-in-progress, I ran across this article on something called The Great Snow. It was about a series of unusually brutal storms that occurred in New England back in 1717. I never had heard of this historical tidbit and it got me to thinking about the endurance of the New Englanders of the past. So today Wickeds, I wanted to ask each of you to tell us about your favorite historical New England figure, well-known or more obscure.

Liz: I’ve always been a Nathaniel Hawthorne fan. I’m a Salem, Mass. fanatic, and his ancestry is from Salem, including his great-great grandfather who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. I studied The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter in college and always enjoyed his dark style and the depths of his themes.

IMG_3600Sherry: Liz, Nathaniel Hawthorne is a favorite of mine too but more from his time spent in Concord. When I first heard we were thinking about this topic I couldn’t decide between Nathaniel, Paul Revere, and Louisa May Alcott. I settled on Louisa. While we lived in Bedford, Massachusetts I took all of our visitors to tour Orchard House in Concord. It’s where Louisa wrote Little Women (originally published as Part One and Part Two). She wrote from a desk her father built for her in her bedroom. If you are ever in the Concord area don’t miss touring the Orchard House. Louisa’s story is fascinating beyond her writing too.

IMG_3597She’s buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. On Authors Ridge in her family plot. A peaceful place to visit and you can also visit Nathaniel, Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Jessie: One of my favorites is Sarah Orne Jewett. She was raised in South Berwick, Maine, a little over twenty miles from my home. I love the way she was interested in celebrating the lives of everyday people in rural Maine. Her work showed common folk with real affection and she had a knack for creating strong female characters.

Edith: The more I learn about John Greenleaf Whittier for my historical mysteries, the more I JGWlike him. He was an ardent abolitionist and had his life threatened for his views. He had a twinkle in his eye and loved children – he wrote a poem about the tea party he and Celia Thaxter attended that was hosted by a six year old girl. And he was on the building committee for the same Friends Meetinghouse where I go and sit in silent expectant waiting on First Day. He wasn’t above poking fun at authority, he strongly supported the local library, and he had a back exit built into his study in his home (a couple of blocks from my own house) that he could duck out of if he spied an unwelcome visitor coming up the walk. What’s not to like?

Barb: Yes, Jessie, and what about the Year Without Summer in 1816? Because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia throwing dust into the atmosphere, there was a hard frost in every month of the year, including June, July and August and a major snow June 6th after crops had already been planted. Crops failed and what food there was expensive and hard to come by.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

I had a hard time with the assignment. New England offers so many people to choose from. The Pilgrims in their tiny boat. The heroes of the American Revolution. But I finally settled on Harriet Beecher Stowe. It’s apparently apocryphal that when Lincoln met her, he said, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war,” but it is unarguable that Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized public opinion. It was the bestselling novel of the 19th century and the second bestselling book, after the Bible. The book was not then, nor is it now, without its detractors, including James Baldwin who was among the first to condemn its stereotypes. On the other hand, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has more recently been a leader in its re-examination. Any book with that kind of impact will be widely debated over time. What tipped me, finally, into choosing Ms. Stowe, was her demonstration of the power of story to change the conversation and even to move history.

Readers, do you have a favorite figure from history?

28 Thoughts

  1. I have way too many favorite historical people, most of them in sixteenth century England, but for New England, in light of this winter’s weather, I’ll pick Chester Greenwood of Farmington, Maine, who is credited with inventing earmuffs. He patented and manufactured “ear protectors” for decades. He also invented a better mousetrap😉

  2. New England had a way of producing interesting people, I think, but for me, hands down? Abigail Adams. An admirable woman in every way. Though I do have a special place in my heart for Louisa May Alcott, and have for my whole life. I’ve been to Orchard House too.

  3. Hard question. (As an aside, I should say that I’m distantly related to almost everyone mentioned here, or by marriage). I think I’m going to go with John Chapman AKA Johnny Appleseed. Yes, I watched the Disney version at an impressionable age, but apart from the corny get-up (which may not have existed, or may have been a marketing ploy), the man was a shrewd and successful businessman, who built up a nursery business and then followed the westward migration, adding more nurseries as he went. BTW, the apples he was selling were more often used for making hard liquor than for eating. I’ve visited his grave in Indiana (yes, I know, there are several in different states, but I’ll stick to the Indiana one.)

    1. My grandparents had an orchard (definitely not used for hard liquor) on their farm in Missouri and when I was young I always imagined Johnny having a hand in it.

  4. The favorites that always jump into my mind are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Disney. (You know I had to work him in there, somehow, right?) Not that any of them are from New England, however.

    I’m not sure I can come up with a New England historical figure who isn’t already on the list, but I do find it fun that so many of you chose authors. New England has a rich heritage of writers.

  5. Liz, Nathaniel Hawthorne is my favorite, too. It was a struggle, however, to choose him about the other possibilities especially John Greenleaf Whittier for reasons similar to those Edith mentioned.

    But my heart lives in Salem and the neighborhoods where Hawthorne lived and frequented. The memory of many of my ancestors lives on there and are connected in many ways to Hawthorne and others simply because of shared space in the once ago small village and seaport. I grew up hearing stories of the town that were taken almost with a sense of expectation. I wish I could describe the feeling better but it’s too hard. If I call it entitlement that sounds like a criticism. Yet it is a sense of responsibility and right to a certain ownership that can’t exist without recognizing the rights responsibilities of others to that same historic ownership.

    For centuries members of my family lived within a few small blocks of the House of Seven Gables. Hawthorne wrote about our families in his stories. My ninth great-grandfather, Robert Paine, was foreman of the grand jury that served the court of Hawthorn’s grandfather—the grandfather whose reputation he ran from by changing the spelling of his name in order to distance himself from those terrible days. If your history runs back to those days in Salem you will feel the intergenerational passing of the guilt that people still confront and deal with in ways that run from the silly to the spiritual.

    Until I started researching the history for my current manuscript I had no idea how deep my connections and those of my friends and neighbors we’re set there. I have been introduced to an entirely new piece of community and individual history and can’t get enough of Mr. Hawthorne.

    1. And, Liz—I love that you’re writing about Salem and looking forward to seeing how it plays out in your book!

    2. We should definitely talk! I’m working on a book involving Salem at the moment and kind of re-discovered an ancestor I’d known but never really considered. He was one of the good guys, whose mother-in-law and her two sisters were all accused (the sisters were hung–you can probably figure out who). But my 9x great-grandfather not only testified on behalf of the accused in court, but when he saw how the wind was blowing in 1693, packed up several extended families and moved to a new area, where they settled happily. I am so proud of him!

    3. I know more about Hawthorne from his Concord years because I loved touring the Old Manse as much as I loved going to the Orchard House. His love story with Sophia and the fact that they etched messages to each other on the glass windows that are still there touched my heart. Having Thoreau as a gardener wasn’t too bad either.

      1. Sherry, I love the Manning Manse. When I was a little girl there was a restaurant there where are my mother worked as a baker. I used to visit frequently and had the run the place. I think when she and her son died the lease reverted to the family—not sure. There are many Mannings still living in Billerica. One descendent lived in a couple of houses from us in the Riverdale area and closer to the Shawsheen rather than the Concord River. It’s an incredible history when you consider the families especially that most who I knew back then did not know their own heritage. I didn’t know my own until very recently. If people would study their family history as history cannot reject it as “just genealogy” we would preserve a larger heritage of our collective history.

    4. Reine, I love Salem! So far I haven’t found a way to fit it in the books I’m writing now, but I definitely have plans to make it a part of a story in the future. I’m kind of obsessed with it 🙂

      1. Looks like we should have a Salem post! I’d be curious to know how many so-called-witch descendants we have among our readers. And we do have “wicked” in our name! I can’t say I know Salem well, but then, my protagonist has never seen in.

      2. Liz, Salem is the place to be obsessed about if there is any in our history. It is a place that reveals who the people were who settled that area. By studying the history of Salem and writing stories of the people we are connected to all the other histories of the time. I believe that all the big questions we have of the 17th century are revealed there. Any topic you want to write about and any story of the area then called Salem can reveal the biggest issues of the day that were played out there in early Salem from slavery—a topic I am focused on in a story I am now writing—to orchards, trade with China, lived religion, politics, education, law and the courts, witchcraft real and imagined, and… are simply focused and endless.

      3. Sheila, your protagonist could probably find her way to visiting Salem by following the path of the Irish of 17th-century Salem and Boston. 🙂 there were Irish in both areas at the time of the witch trials where some were hanged including at least one on Boston Common. I’m not sure where she lived, but a number of the accused we’re transported from Salem to Boston for trial and execution there. I would love to see the Wickeds do a Salem post!

      4. I should have said some were accused. I didn’t mean to imply that a larger number of Irish were executed for witchcraft.

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