A Puritan Hero

Orchard House snowAbout a decade ago, I worked for a few years at the Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Best known as the home of Louisa May Alcott and the place where she wrote the classic novel, Little Women, the house has an impressive history of its own.  When I was there the 300-year-old building, renovated by Bronson Alcott in the 1850’s, was in the midst of a massive preservation project, so I had the opportunity to see, up-close, some of the details of the colonial construction.  Ever since, I’ve been fascinated not just by how historical houses are decorated, but how they’re constructed.

At that time, I was finishing work on my novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife, about the Transcendental circle in19th century Concord.  Little did I know that a few years later, I’d encounter the house again, as I researched a 17th-century Concord lawyer for my new novel, Flight of the Sparrow.

John Hoar, the man who built the home that the Alcotts purchased, was the colonial negotiator in the ransom of Mary Rowlandson.  He was the man who escorted her back to the English towns after her release.  Rowlandson writes about him in her narrative, and describes visiting his house on her return to Boston.

Despite his prominence in his own tumultuous time, Squire Hoar remains an obscure figure to us, hidden in the shadows of history. I had learned about some of his remarkable descendants when I was studying the Concord Transcendentalists, but there was little about the man himself – just the tantalizing suggestion he didn’t fit neatly into the Puritan mold.

When I began digging, I discovered a hero.

John Hoar was a principled and independent-minded man, who spoke his mind regardless of the consequences.  He began having trouble with the authorities in the mid-1660s when he tried to expose the judicial corruption of Massachusetts Bay magistrates.  He petitioned the governor for justice and received a hearing in October of 1665.  It probably did not surprise him when his complaints were ruled “groundless and unjust,” since some of the judges he accused were sitting on the court.  But even Hoar was surprised when they fined him and sentenced him to prison—to set an example for any who dared to challenge their authority.

Furious, Hoar stormed out of court.  When he was arrested and hauled back in, his bond was set at 100 pounds (an extraordinarily high fee for that time), and he was disbarred.

The next spring, Hoar petitioned the court for relief and he was released and his fine was reduced, but his lawyer’s standing was not restored.  Though he returned to Concord and his family, Hoar was not a man to remain silent.  He told his neighbors exactly what he thought about the authorities.  He was soon back in court, subjected to more fines, and the demand for a formal apology.  When he was released with a warning, he went back to practicing law – and criticizing the authorities.

In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, Hoar offered to protect a group of friendly

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Nipmucs who lived near Concord.  He set aside some of his own property and, at his own expense, built a workshop and palisade for their defense, and helped them harvest their food.

Some of Hoar’s Concord neighbors, frightened by the close proximity of natives, even though they were friendly, secretly contacted the army captain, Samuel Mosely, a man known for his brutality.

On a Sunday morning in February, Mosely and his soldiers marched into the meeting house. After worship he addressed the congregation.  He announced that he’d heard there were “some heathen in the town” that he believed were distressing people, and that if they wanted, he would remove them.  Most people said nothing, though “two or three” encouraged him.  So, over Hoar’s vigorous objections, he ordered his soldiers to break down the door and take the Indians.  They followed his orders, destroying Hoar’s property, seizing the Indians and plundering their food and clothing.  The Indians were then marched to Charlestown and sent to Deer Island.

But Hoar was not a man to be defeated.  In late April, he volunteered to negotiate with the Indians over Rowlandson’s ransom.  This was a remarkable act of courage, especially given the tenor of the times.  Even though Hoar was known to the natives, there was no guarantee that he would succeed in his efforts to secure Rowlandson’s release.  In fact, when he reached the Indian encampment at what is now Redemption Rock, shots were fired in his direction (over and under his horse), he was threatened with hanging, and was confined to a wetu for days before an agreement was reached.

But John Hoar had never let fear rule him, and he successfully negotiated Rowlandson’s release.  He returned to Concord and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Puritan authorities.

The next time you’re in Concord, Massachusetts, I urge you to visit Orchard House.  Not only to see the place where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote, but also to honor the memory of a man of persistence and principle—a Puritan hero.


Upon This Rock

RR2On a drizzly fall morning earlier this week, on my way back to Vermont from Providence, Rhode Island, I stopped at Redemption Rock, the site where Mary Rowlandson was ransomed back to the English by her Native American captors. The rock is located just off a narrow, wooded stretch of Route 140 in Princeton, Massachusetts, and it’s easy to miss.  It’s been awhile since I’ve visited, and like all outdoor places, its mood varies with the weather.  Even though it’s just a few yards from the road, the huge rock feels private, oddly safe.  Perhaps it’s the huge size of the rock.  It’s really a ledge outcropping, not a boulder, and it rises out of the ground gradually, as if emerging from the earth.  It reminds me of the prow of a ship cresting the waves.

The last time I was there, I was in the middle of writing Flight of the Sparrow, and I RR3spent my time trying to visualize what it must have looked like in the spring of 1676, the ledge at the top of a rise overlooking a large clearing filled with wetus.  This time, I breathed in the perfumes of wet autumn leaves and evergreens, and relished the soft cushion of pine needles under my shoes.  I noticed how the bright colors of the fallen leaves is enhanced, not diminished, by the rain.

Inscription – Click to enlarge

I thought of Mary coming to this place, near-starving and weary after weeks of walking.  I wondered if she actually stood on the rock while she was being ransomed.  The inscription carved into the south side of the rock in the 19th century reads:

Upon this rock May 2, 1676 was made the agreement for the ransom of Mrs Mary Rowlandson of Lancaster between the Indians and John Hoar of Concord. King Philip was with the Indians but refused his consent.

It’s certainly possible that the actual transfer took place on top of the rock. It’s a suitable setting for what must have been an important ceremony.  But what struck me is that the outcropping is such an easily identifiable landmark.

IRR4n a time long before GPS tracking and in a population lacking detailed maps of the area, natural features, especially ones unlikely to change over the years, were godsends.  A large rock outcropping on high land in the shadow of Mount Wachusett would have been easy to find – for both natives and English.  And it would also have been easy to remember.  As the years passed and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative was read and reread by succeeding generations, the site of her ransom became a concrete connection to an increasingly murky past.  There’s something that grounds you when you stand on the site of a momentous event in human history.

For me, it was both humbling and haunting.trees RR