Bidwell Lore – Love, Marriage, and Politics in the Early Republic, Part II

Welcome to week 23 of Bidwell Lore! Last week we began a three-part series about the lives of Barnabas and Mary. This week we will look at Mary’s biography in a lovely article written by Rick Wilcox.

In the parlor of the Bidwell House Museum, hanging in an honored location, is a portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell. The portrait was donated to the museum in 2014. In this installment of Barnabas and Mary’s story, I will seek to unveil Mary, and like her portrait, with its brush strokes and dabs of color, my goal is to flesh out the essence of a person with words, while also trying to capture the emotion of a painting from that written canvas of her life’s history.  As each painting needs a background and framing to support and give life to its subject, so too will I need to provide that background as I attempt to give you a sense of Mary Gray Bidwell as a person. Placing a paintbrush very lightly on the canvas of history I hope to take from the palette of life around her enough so that in your mind’s eye you will see a woman of uncommon intelligence and sophistication, who was more than an equal partner in a loving marriage.  While running a large and busy household, caring for her mother, educating her two children and a full-time live-in nephew, Mary was also meeting the many social obligations of the day, as well as managing Barnabas’ law office.  And in the middle of all of this, she still found time to write and provide support for her husband as he served in the state senate, congress, and as Attorney General of Massachusetts amid the political intrigue of the early Republic. I begin, like any other painter, by building up the background, layer by layer.

Portrait of Mary’s mother, Sarah Spring Gray, which hangs in the Museum parlor

Sarah Williams, the older sister of Ephraim Williams, Sr., married James Gray, Sr., a weaver of Hadley, and they had two sons, James and John Gray.  In February of 1749, James Gray, Sr., and his wife Sarah Williams Gray sold their land in Hadley, and in October of that year they purchased 200 acres [1] from their nephew Col. Ephraim Williams, Jr., at the north end of Stockbridge abutting Lenox.

Col. Ephraim Williams, Jr., died in 1755 during a battle of the French and Indian War. In his will he left 50 acres to his cousins, John and James Gray, Jr.  Ephraim Williams, Jr., also bequeathed money in his will to support a free school, which later became Williams College. The Williams family had married into the family of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, one of the “River Gods” of the Connecticut River Valley. Between them, the Stoddard, Williams, Dwight, and Partridge families, maintained political control over all of Western Massachusetts from the late 17th to the middle of the 18th century.

James Gray, Jr., married Sarah Spring, whose portrait (seen above) hangs next to Mary at the Bidwell House Museum.  Sarah’s life unfolds for us in The Panoplist and Missionary Magazine United, Conducted by an Association of Friends of Evangelical Truth, [2] for the year ending June 1, 1810:

A Sketch of the Life and Character of Mrs. Gray: Mrs. Gray daughter of Mr. Henry (and Kezia) Spring of Watertown, where she was born, February 25th 1737. She married February 5th 1761 to James Gray, Esq. of Stockbridge, in which town she resided from her marriage to her death, and during the sixteen years last years of her life in the family of her son in law Barnabas Bidwell, Esq. For more than forty years she sat under the ministry of her friend Rev. Stephen West[3]D.D. Her life was chequered with vicissitudes. Col. Gray, her husband, having served in the Revolutionary War, as Commissary General of the United States for the Northern Department, was obliged, by declining health, to resign that office, and quit the service. After a long and painful sickness, died of consumption, August 25, 1782[4]. By the circumstances of the times, his engagements in the army and his premature death, his affairs were so deranged, that his estate proved insolvent, and his widow was left quite poor and destitute. In the midst of this trial, her oldest daughter, Mrs. Sarah Hunt, a beautiful and lovely woman, in the prime of her life, fell into decline.
Mrs. Gray tended (daughter Sarah) in her last sickness, and closed her eyes, February 20th 1788. Her daughter Mary Gray, who in the meantime resided with her Uncle Dr. Marshall Spring was married to Mr. Bidwell and she became a member of their family, and enjoyed every attention and accommodation, which her heart could wish. But earthly joys are short lived. Satisfied with life, and humbly confiding in the mercy of God, through the atonement of the Savior, (Mrs Gray) waited with patience and pious resignation for the expected call from the eternal world, and on 26th October 1809, she died of apoplexy.”  

Portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell, hanging in the Museum Parlor

Into her mother’s world Mary Gray Bidwell was born 28 May 1764 at Stockbridge, Mass., the youngest daughter of Col. James Gray, Jr., and Sarah Spring Gray. Stockbridge in 1764 was still a frontier town. The Stockbridge Indians were still a presence, although the Rev. Stephen West would give over their missionary care to the Rev. John Sergeant, Jr., Mary Gray Bidwell’s cousin.
 
Little is known about Mary Gray Bidwell’s early life, but possibly due to her father’s insolvency, his illness, premature death, or maybe even seeking an opportunity for self-improvement, Mary was taken in by her mother’s brother, Dr. Marshall Spring [5], and resided with his family in Watertown, Massachusetts. What is clear is that she received an extraordinary education in the classics and had an uncommon grasp of the English language for a woman coming of age on the cusp of the 19th century in rural western Massachusetts. 
 
Like a preliminary sketch whose lines provide a base for a final portrait, the background information gives a sense of the world Mary lived in but does not always give us much of a sense of the person. It was a pilgrimage to the Bidwell House Museum where I sat with Mary Gray Bidwell and I thought how wonderfully the artist had captured her essence.
 
Drawn to the painting and reminded of the adage “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” I drank in a woman who begged to tell her own story. I knew then that only the letters [6] written by Mary to Barnabas could rescue me and reveal some of the person hidden by the shadows of time. The letters demonstrate Mary to be an erudite and sophisticated woman, while also providing a window into her close and loving relationship with Barnabas.  More importantly, her words would add color, scraping the dust of 200 years from the canvas of history and help give the breath of life to a yet unfinished and more meaningful self-portrait.
 
For now, pallet and brushes are laid aside until next week at which time we will let Mary tell her own story.


Next week we will share Part III of Love, Marriage, and Politics in the Early Republic

[1] Now Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra [2] Congregational Church
[3] Rev. West’s wife Elizabeth was James Gray, Sr.’s first cousin, and Ephraim Williams, Sr.’s sister
[4] Revolutionary War ended by treaty in 1783. British troops surrendered in October 1782
[5] Dr. Marshall Spring, 1741-1818, was Sarah’s brother and helped to bring his sister’s family to Stockbridge. He was graduated from Harvard in 1762 and studied medicine under his mother’s brother, Dr. Josiah Converse. Dr. Spring “was of high professional repute and eminent as a wit. When completely a Tory he arrived at the Battle of Lexington, yet devoted his best skill and care to the wounded earning the admiration and appreciation of all. At the election of  Jefferson he joined the popular party. He married first Mary, widow of Dr. Barnabas Binney, son of Barnabas Binney, a prominent merchant of Boston. There was one child, Marshall Binney Spring. Married second, 1797, Hannah Lee of Cambridge, Mass. His so,n Marshall Binney Spring, married Eliza Willing of Philadelphia, granddaughter of Thomas Willing, 1st President of the 1st Bank of the United States.
[6] Copies of the original letters, some of them transcribed and typed are in the Bidwell House Museum archives.