250 Years Ago, Danvers Moves towards Revolution

(In the Herald-Citizen 5/1/20)

Page House
The Page House with its rooftop porch where Sarah Page supposedly drank tea. Today it is the office and shop of the Danvers Historical Society. Author’s picture, 2020.

This month begins the 250th anniversary of the start of Danvers’ role in the American Revolution. While the 250th anniversary of the 1776 Declaration of Independence is not until 2026, the people of Danvers played important roles during the years leading up to the Revolution: protesting injustices, briefly (and unhappily) hosting the headquarters of the British Army in North America, declaring themselves independent from the king long before the Declaration of Independence, and answering the call to fight the British when they marched on Lexington – to say nothing of other events that occurred during and after the War for Independence.

May 1770 – 250 years ago this month – was an important turning point for Danvers because the town meeting passed a resolution against the importation of tea and began shaming those who continued to support His Majesty’s Government instead of local elected authority. As Parliament leveled more and more taxes on the colony without the agreement of the Massachusetts legislature, and without any colonial representation in Parliament, the people of Massachusetts protested against this unfair taxation without representation.

During the 1760s, patriotic merchants in Boston signed agreements not to import any taxed goods from Britain. The resulting economic harm forced Parliament to withdraw the taxes on many items – but not the tax on tea. On May 28, 1770 the men of Danvers gathered for a town meeting at the First Church to discuss the issue. Unanimously, they voted to boycott any merchant who imported British goods and agreed “That we will not drink any foreign tea ourselves, and use our best endeavors to prevent our families and those connected with them, from the use thereof” until the tax was repealed.

First Church - North Meetinghouse - DHC v2
The First Church of Danvers as it appeared in 1770, when the town meeting met there to vote on the tea ban. From Danvers Historical Collections, vol. 2

To emphasize their determination, a committee was elected to bring a copy of this town meeting resolution to residents and have every head of household sign it. If someone refused, the town meeting voted that “he shall be looked upon as an enemy to the liberties of the people, and shall have their name registered in the town [record] book.” Additionally, these resolutions were published in the local newspaper, the Essex Gazette, so that all were warned.

Because of this threatened humiliation and damage to one’s reputation, there seems to be only one recorded instance of someone publicly refusing to sign: A man named Isaac Wilson who lived in the southern part of Danvers, now Peabody. Due to his opposition, he was taunted about being a “Tory” (one who remained loyal to the king). Though, as the Revolution approached, a few other families in Danvers aligned themselves with the Tory side and remained loyal to the king, leaving town when the war began.

In addition to this example of outright opposition, some of the households that publicly signed the ban privately violated it. Tea was often bought in bulk, so why shouldn’t tea that a family had purchased before the ban be consumed? The tax had already been paid, so Britain received no further gain whether they drank it or dumped it out. Nineteenth-century historians note several instances of families acting this way, especially instances where wives decided to consume the tea they already had on hand with or without the knowledge of their husbands.

The most famous story of thwarting the tea ban in Danvers – though apparently kept secret at the time to not tarnish the family’s patriot reputation – was Sarah Page’s covert tea party on the roof of the Page House. This legend was enshrined in the poem “The Gambrel Roof” by Beverly writer Lucy Larcom (1824-1893), who knew Sarah Page’s granddaughter. Though potentially based on true events, Larcom’s poem is a romanticized version of the story that was published in 1874 during the lead up to the US Centennial in 1876.

Sarah Page’s husband Capt. Jeremiah Page was a Danvers militia officer and an ardent patriot who later fought in the Revolution. He agreed with the tea ban, and Larcom’s poem supposes that he said “none shall drink tea in my house.” One evening when her husband was out, Sarah Page is said to have invited several women from the neighborhood up to the porch atop the Page House’s gambrel roof, not doing so until sunset so that they would not be noticed. Larcom quotes Page as telling her friends, “Upon a house is not within it,” thereby finding a loophole around her husband’s directive.

The Page House remained in the family for two more generations, and was originally on Elm Street where “Instant Shoe Repair” and “Nine Elm” are today. Sarah Page’s daughter in-law Mary Page died in 1876 and her will put the property into a trust with the stipulation that once there were no longer any Page descendants to live there, the historic house was to be torn down. After Mary Page’s daughter Anne Lemist Page died in 1913, the trustee planned to demolish it according to her wishes.

Losing a house in which two local figures prominent during the Revolution lived would have been a tragedy, and the still relatively new Danvers Historical Society sued to oppose the will. The Essex County Probate Court sided with the Historical Society, and allowed the organization to purchase the house from the estate to preserve it, which it did in August 1914. The Page House was later moved a short distance around the corner to Page Street where it stands as the Society’s office and book shop, still with its gambrel roof and porch atop it.

 

Original location of Page House - DHC v3
Original location of the Page House shown along Elm Street at bottom. It’s second location is labelled along Page Street as “Danvers Historical Society.” From Danvers Historical Collections, vol. 3.

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Sources:

Addison, Daniel Dulany. Lucy Larcom: Life, Letters, and Diary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.

Gill, Eliza M. “Distinguished Guests and Residents of Medford.” The Medford Historical Register 16, no. 1 (January 1913): 1–14.

Larcom, Lucy. The Poetical Works of Lucy Larcom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884.

“Newspaper Items Relating to Danvers.” In The Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, 1:61–64. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers Historical Society, 1913.

Nichols, Andrew. “The Original Lot of Col. Jeremiah Page.” In The Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, 3:101–9. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers Historical Society, 1915.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Journal Article Published – “Skeletons in the Closet: How the Actions of the Salem Witch Trials Victims’ Families in 1692 Affected Later Memorialization.”

My article, “Skeletons in the Closet,” appeared in this fall’s issue of the New England Journal of History:

Skeletons in the Closet – Gagnon

Gagnon, Daniel A. “Skeletons in the Closet: How the Actions of the Salem Witch Trials Victims’ Families in 1692 Affected Later Memorialization.” The New England Journal of History 75/76, no. 2/1 (Spring/Fall 2019): 32–73.

 

The Salem Village Parsonage

(In the Herald-Citizen, 11/15/2019)

Parsonage Foundation - Dan Gagnon
(The parsonage foundation. Author’s photo).

During the winter of 1691-1692, the house grew cold as the stockpile of wood dwindled and snow piled up outside. The Salem Village minister, Rev. Samuel Parris was not being paid as promised. Worse, his claim of ownership to the parsonage, the house in which he and his family lived while he was minister of the church in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), was disputed. The minister and his family were very anxious about their future.

The stuffy air inside the house was punctuated by a shriek, then two, before the scraping of furniture on the wooden floor was heard as Betty Parris, the minister’s daughter, crawled under tables and chairs, still screaming. Soon, Rev. Parris’ niece Abigail Williams joined in too. Something frightening was happening in Salem Village.

Parris - Mass Historical
(The only known image of Rev. Samuel Parris, Massachusetts Historical Society: http://www.masshist.org/database/3732).

The Salem Village parsonage was ground zero for the 1692 Salem Village Witch-Hunt, during which almost 200 innocent people were accused of witchcraft – the impossible crime of signing a contract with the Devil in return for supernatural powers. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death, and at least five died in jail. The chaos began with the two girls in the minister’s household having so-called “fits,” during which they screamed, contorted, and claimed that they were being attacked by specters – ghostly images of the alleged witches. Not long after these fits began in the parsonage, young women, middle-aged women, and adult men across Salem Village began acting similarly, and Parris’ Caribbean slave Tituba was the first accused of witchcraft.

Several years prior to the witch-hunt, Rev. Parris was hired as the minister in Salem Village, in the hope that he could calm a community that had fought contentiously with its previous ministers – disputes that grew serious enough to involve the courts, the Massachusetts legislature, and surrounding churches.

Though, calm was elusive. Several Villagers showed their disapproval of the new minister by withholding their taxes, which were used to pay his salary. For his part, Parris undermined the calm by apparently attempting to change the terms of his contract only months after being hired. As was typical, he was given the use of the 1681 parsonage building while he served as minister, though it remained owned by the community.

But, Parris wanted ownership of the house. A merchant in Boston and landholder in Barbados prior to coming to Salem Village, he sought the economic security that came with land ownership. His supporters organized either a secret town meeting, or at least a very poorly-attended one, that voted to give Parris ownership of the parsonage house. When this deception was revealed in the months before the witch-hunt, it caused anger across Salem Village.

During the witch-hunt, Parris testified against several of the innocent accused including Rebecca Nurse, whose family farm remains on Pine St. in Danvers. After the witch-hunt, Nurse’s family fought to remove Parris as the Village minister due to his role in the witch-hunt. The family wrote of Parris in a later court document, “Mr. Parris, by these practices and principles, has been the beginner and procurer of the sorest afflictions, not of this village only, but to this whole country, that ever did befall them.” Parris was forced out in 1697 finally ending his controversial tenure as minister. Prior to his departure, his wife Elizabeth passed away and was buried in what is now the Wadsworth Cemetery on Summer St.

IMG_1838
(Photograph of Elizabeth Parris’ headstone, 2019. Author’s photo).

Subsequent Village ministers lived in the parsonage for almost a century. When Rev. Peter Clark was the minister during the mid-1700s, his young neighbor Samuel Holten lived with the minister and his family in the parsonage so that he could be tutored by Clark. Holten went on to become a judge, member of the Continental Congress, and signer of the Articles of Confederation. He served temporarily as President of Congress under the Articles and later became a member of the U.S. Congress after the Constitution was ratified.

The original 1681 parsonage was torn down in 1784, with a newer section of the house moved to a different location. Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth replaced it with a grand new Georgian house for the ministry, what is today 73 Centre St. Meanwhile, the original parsonage site was abandoned, the cellar holes were filled in, and it was used as a field for grazing horses. Over time, the exact location of the site was lost to history.

Cousins 1891 Parsonage JPEG - Digital Commonwealth
(A photograph from 1891 of what was believed to be the area of the 1681 parsonage site. Frank Cousins, Danvers Site of Reverend Samuel Parris House, 1891, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA).

Cousins - Wadsworth House 73 Centre
(The new 1784 Parsonage, 73 Centre St., Danvers as seen c. 1891. Frank Cousins, Danvers, Centre Street, Wadsworth house, c.1891, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives, 606. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA).

It was not until the early 1970s that then-Curator of the Danvers Historical Society Richard B. Trask, along with members of the Society, the town Historical Commission, and other interested locals began a search for the parsonage site. After using the 17th century Salem Village Record Book, along with 18th century maps, the probable site was located in the yard of Alfred Hutchinson, a local teacher. Partnering with archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins, whose prior work included Thomas Jefferson’s birthplace, Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, and the Saugus Iron Works, the site was investigated and stone foundations were found.

Hutchinson permitted the excavation of this section of his yard, and about a dozen volunteers worked tirelessly on the site. As the stone foundation was uncovered, more than 30,000 artifacts were discovered, including 17th and 18th century coins, cutlery, pipe bowls from the 1660s, a metal plate bearing the initials of Samuel and Elizabeth Parris, and many wine bottle fragments, some of which had Parris’ initials on them.

The more that was found, the greater the interest and the need for volunteers. The original volunteers were joined in Hutchinson’s backyard by hundreds of locals who helped sift, dig, and sort found items.  This excavation became a community effort that yielded significant finds from one of the most important sites in colonial American history.

Today, the site is town-owned and open to the public via a cart path next to 67 Centre St. Possibly the most photographed site in Danvers, the parsonage cellars are featured in many history books, and frequently appear on television programs about the witch-hunt.

IMG_0503
(Sign at 67 Centre St.)

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(Path from the parsonage site to the street).

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Parsonage Foundation - Dan Gagnon

 

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Sources

Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds. Salem Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

First Church of Danvers Congregational. Church Record Book Belonging to Salem Village, 1689-1845.

Gragg, Larry. A Quest for Security: The Life of Samuel Parris, 1653-1720. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

McKern, Sharon S. “They’re Digging up Witch Lore in Salem.” Science Digest, May 1971.

Salem Village. “A Book of Record of the Severall Publique Transactions of the Inhabitants of Salem Village Vulgarly Called The Farmes.” Edited by Harriet S. Tapley. Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society 13 (1925): 91–122; 14 (1926): 65-99; 16 (1928): 60-80.

Trask, Richard B. “History of the Salem Village Church Record Book.” Danvers Archival Center at the Peabody Institute Library, September 15, 2015. https://www.danverslibrary.org/archive/village-church-record-book/.

Trask, Richard B. “Raising the Devil.” Yankee Magazine, May 1972.

Upcoming Presentation: Legacies of Rebecca Nurse and George Jacobs Sr., post-1692

At the invitation of the Danvers Historical Society, I will be presenting some of my research on the legacies of witch trials victims Rebecca Nurse and George Jacobs Sr., especially focusing on the differences in how they were later memorialized by their descendants and the community.

The presentation will be at Tapley Memorial Hall on Page St. in Danvers on the evening of May 16, 2019. More details to come. Check https://www.danvershistory.org/events/events.html for updates.