Bidwell Lore – Reenacting an Early American Life

Welcome to week 70 of Bidwell Lore! We took a few weeks off while preparing for a takeover of the property by the British and Continental armies. Things have now gone back to normal and we are happy to be back with a new series for the next few weeks called “Reenacting an Early American Life” by our guest columnist, the esteemed Samuel Knight Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale University,  John Demos.

We know Adonijah Bidwell—first minister of Tyringham—mostly through his house (now the museum).  We can walk through the rooms that he walked through, feel their spatial qualities, enjoy the view out the south windows. That’s worth quite a lot, but…  if only we knew more! If only we could glimpse him in the midst of his very own everyday! If only we had his… diary. We’re pretty sure he kept one; there is a family tradition about that. But it hasn’t survived.

So: what to do? One possibility is what might be called “imaginative reconstruction”. We can begin with all that is known about the environment he inhabited: the landscape and other physical surroundings, the procedures that organized his community, the names and number of his neighbors. We can then go further, by way of the diaries kept by other ministers similarly situated (rural New England) during the same time period (1750-1800). Quite a few of those have been preserved (and, in some cases, published). There is a core of sameness to their contents—which means that the lives behind the diaries were similarly patterned. That, at any rate, is the underlying premise of the diary record I have tried to invent for Rev. Bidwell. A good many of its specific entries have been directly transposed from these other sources. Some have been suggested by known events in Tyringham at the time. All parts are presented in the language and idiom of the period. And all reflect my career-long struggle to grasp the contours of life in colonial America. 

My invention embraces two brief sections of Rev. Bidwell’s long life. The first is a week in the year 1752, soon after his arrival from Connecticut. The second is another week (1780) as he entered old age. 

This writing was initially prepared as a lecture in the summer program of the Bidwell House Museum (2016). It was subsequently published, with some additional commentary, in the academic journal Early American Literature (Volume 55. Number 1, 2019), pp. 7-19.

I hope Rev. Bidwell wouldn’t mind…

–John Demos, September 2021

Green field at Bidwell House Museum in summer

24 (Monday)…Unseasonably warm.
A.M. We ploughed ye north field. Hired neighbor Jackson’s Negro man Scipio to help. (1) John Kellogg lent his yoke of oxen. I went to Asa Allen’s for flax seed. Toward noon (being earnestly sent for) went to see Mrs. Esther Brewer, who was very ill of dysentery, etc.; prayed with her and family. Mr. Gershom Woodward kindly brings me a hogshead of cider; the cider is gratis………………
P.M. Town meeting to seat the meetinghouse. Some differences manifested; several contending with vehemence. (2) A most unhappy strife! A committee chosen to advise a method that must needs be conciliating, and prevent further complaint. May God graciously impart that wisdom that may be profitable to direct, under such trying circumstances. Mr. Hatch comes from Sheffield; brings gift of Mr. Ebenezer Erskine’s sermon on Psalms, 188,22, to which is added a number of sermons of the same eminent man from various texts. The book is very acceptable to me, and I am thankful for it. Toward sunset I rode to Mistress R.; our conversation of a piece with what it used to be. I mark her admirable conduct, her prudence and wisdom, her good manners, and her distinguishing respectfulness to me, which accompany her denials. After it grew late in the evening I rode home through the dark and the dirt. Town quiet; neighbors all abed. Ye moon is very high and full, and red color; portends remarkable providence.

25 (Tuesday)…Fog at sunrise; then fair.
A.M. Planting corn with the help of Jacob Brown. Moved ye bees over brook. John Chadwick here about ye sheep, and I completed a bargain with him. I gave my large steer & 10 lbs., and paid him ye bills in hand. Went to Capt. Slater’s to see his wife who is sick with fever—prayed with her. Reproved him for his absence from public worship. Ephraim S. calls to inform me that on Monday was deceased Mr. Benjamin Bradshaw of ye 3rd Township. May God graciously support us under his holy stroke. William Hale brings more wood, and brings his own account which I cope and cost up. We find that now he has brought enough to make up 20 cords. We part in peace. Thomas Orton dined here with wife and son. My maid Lucy prepared beef and dumplings; a pleasant repast………………
P.M. I catechize at ye meeting house: five boys, nine girls (3). May ye word bless their young hearts. After catechizing I married Joshua Warren, Junior to Eunice Thomas; he gives me 1 lb., ten shillings. Elizur Whitney stops here on his way from Stockbridge. Read part of Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius. Thus far it appears to be a very useful, quickening book. I have reason to bless God, and would heartily do so, for the eminent writings of that pious and learned man. I had a very sudden turn of sharp pain in my side after dinner, but through mercy I recovered. Ah! What sad grounds of severe reflection upon myself for my wretched negligence and unfaithfulness! How great the need of renewing and fixing my resolutions of reformation. But especially of crying unto God for pardon of what is past, and grace to assist and quicken me henceforward!

26 (Wednesday)…
A.M. Storms of rain, The winds more than ordinarily violent. Last night old Mr. Warren’s barn was blown down near Hop Brook. A man narrowly escaped drowning in ye river at Stockbridge, the water being so deep, the current being so strong, and ye winds so impetuous. Remained indoors, closely engaged in my preparations for ye Sabbath. I improved part of sermon on Psalms 147, 1, 7 to page 7, and wrote additions on loose papers. May a Divine power accompany and render ye word effectual, and especially to my own soul!
P.M. Weather calms. Rode to 3rd township; funeral  of ye late Mr. Bradshaw. My neighbors Jackson and Brewer accompanied me. The deceased was a bright example of diligence and industry, truth and faithfulness to his word, and exact honesty in his calling. To which add a singular manly and heroic spirit. Visited old Mrs. Graves; she very low in spirit and sometimes hysteric. I read part of Perkins’ Cases of Conscience.  At eve I walked to see Mistress R. She gave me her company until very late. Her conversation very friendly and with diverse expressions of singular regard. Yet she still denies me.

27 (Thursday)…Weather mild.
A.M. Visited Capt. Isaac Garfield who is grown exceedingly bad again: may the Lord preserve and comfort. Visited ye wife of Ezekiel Thomas, and proceeded to Mr. Warren to see their desolations! Barn in ruin! A sorrowful sight! I desire to sympathize. Returned to Capt. Garfield; he died this noontime, a great loss to all ye town and church. Sent 9 yards of serge to Deacon Jackson’s; his wife to make me a great coat. My sheep so disorderly I was forced to ask neighbor Brewer to assist in finding of them in ye swamp toward Stockbridge. He takes them to Squire Williams’ pasture till after shearing. Samuel Sedgwick dined here with his lady and talked about the late grant of yet town to first proprietors, the in justice of it, etc., and about singing. (4) He brought an extraordinary present of butter!
P.M. I wrote sundry letters, particularly to Rev. Dr. Thomas Clap, my worthy tutor in ye college. The Lord be praised for ye example of such righteous and serviceable men! Henry Bright rode here from Westfield: says a murder was committed the night before last at Chebacco Neck, of a countryman, two clubs lying by him. At eve I was miserably dull & unfit for anything. The little sleep and multitude of heavy cares & trouble have made me very soggy & incapable of any laudable exertion.

The diary continues next week….

(1) I imagine this man to be a slave. It was a common practice in early New England to give enslaved persons forenames derived from classical antiquity.
(2) The members of every New England congregation were “seated” according to careful plan. The guiding principle was social rank—town leaders and other of high status in the front, ordinary fold in the middle, the poor and disreputable to the rear. These arrangements were in the hands of special committees chosen for the purpose and were subject to approval by the townspeople as a whole. Quite frequently they were a source of contention.
(3) Periodically New England ministers would instruct local children in the principles of Christianity by the method known as catechizing. This involved a special form of question-and-answer exchange.
(4) In the early middle decades of the eighteenth century New England church congregations were roiled by controversy over the proper method of hymn singing. One side favored an in-unison approach, the other a more individual and spontaneous approach.