Rebecca Dickinson
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Rebecca Dickinson

Independence for a New England Woman

Marla Miller

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Rebecca Dickinson

Independence for a New England Woman

Marla Miller

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About This Book

Rebecca Dickinson's powerful voice, captured through excerpts from the pages of her journal, allows colonial and revolutionary-era New England to come alive. Dickinson's life illustrates the dilemmas faced by many Americans in the decades before, during, and after the American Revolution, as well as the paradoxes presented by an unmarried woman who earned her own living and made her own way in the small town where she was born. Rebecca Dickinson: Independence for a New England Woman, uses Dickinson's world as a lens to introduce readers to the everyday experience of living in the colonial era and the social, cultural, and economic challenges faced in the transformative decades surrounding the American Revolution.

About the Lives of American Women series: selected and edited by renowned women's historian Carol Berkin, these brief biographies are designed for use in undergraduate courses. Rather than a comprehensive approach, each biography focuses instead on a particular aspect of a women's life that is emblematic of her time, or which made her a pivotal figure in the era. The emphasis is on a 'good read', featuring accessible writing and compelling narratives, without sacrificing sound scholarship and academic integrity. Primary sources at the end of each biography reveal the subject's perspective in her own words. Study questions and an annotated bibliography support the student reader.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2018
ISBN
9780429977459
1
Origins and Awakenings
Rebecca Dickinson was born in July 1738, the oldest daughter of farmer and dairyman Moses Dickinson and Anna Smith Dickinson. Following tradition, her proud parents named her after her grandmother, Rebecca Barrett Wright Dickinson. The town where Rebecca was born—Hatfield, Massachusetts—had been thriving since the 1660s on rich farmlands fed by the Connecticut River. Hatfield began as a tiny outpost on the western edge of England’s North American colonies. By the time Rebecca was a small girl playing with her sisters in her family’s farmyard, it was a prosperous farming village called home by some of the most powerful men in New England.
The world that Rebecca Dickinson knew in childhood was framed by two great concerns: security in this life and in the life to come. On the one hand, colonists on the far margins of England’s expanding empire lived in a constant state of tension with both the Native peoples (whom they eagerly displaced) and their powerful European allies (the French, who settled just to the north in Canada). On the other hand, English families had become acutely worried about their prospects of getting into heaven. They feared that their Puritan forebears’ efforts to create a godly community had in fact gone wrong. Hatfield had been forged by more than a half century of political, military, and religious upheaval. Although its location on some maps of the day may have made it appear to be on the periphery of the Crown’s global concerns, that very position put it at the heart of the imperial maelstrom. By the time she reached her twelfth birthday, Rebecca Dickinson surely understood her town’s volatile eighty-year history and her place in it.
Though Hatfield would become home to some of Massachusetts’s most influential citizens, it was never especially large and remained about the same size throughout Dickinson’s lifetime. The population in the year of her birth is not documented, but in 1765, when Rebecca was twenty-seven, residents of Hatfield (which then included the villages of Whately and Williamsburg) numbered 803; by the time Massachusetts declared its independence eleven years later, Whately and Williamsburg had broken away as separate towns, leaving just 582 people in Hatfield proper. In 1790, when Dickinson was fifty-two, the first U.S. census recorded 703 people inhabiting 103 houses; ten years later, only about 100 residents and 20 more houses had been added.
A description of Hatfield written a few years after Dickinson’s death gives us a glimpse of the character and reputation of the town. Timothy Dwight, a Yale-educated clergyman, traveled around New England, observing the towns and villages of the early republic. “Hatfield,” he wrote, “is built chiefly on two streets: the principal running north and south near a mile, the other about as far east and west. The houses are generally decent, and a small number in a better style.”1 Dwight noticed something else about the village: “The inhabitants have for a long period been conspicuous for uniformity of character. They have less intercourse with their neighbors than those of most other places. An air of silence and retirement appears everywhere. Except travelers, few persons are seen abroad besides those who are employed about their daily business. This seclusion probably renders them less agreeable to strangers, but certainly contributes to their prosperity. Accordingly, few farming towns are equally distinguished either for their property or their thrift.”
In 1738 Moses Dickinson had distinguished himself for neither property nor thrift. Tax and probate records suggest that he was a man of average means who farmed, keeping dairy cows and raising mostly grains on about fifteen and a half acres of land. But what he lacked in prosperity he made up for in pedigree. As Rebecca Dickinson was growing up, she was safe in the knowledge that she belonged: her ancestors, both the Dickinsons and the Waites, had been among the very first to settle along what eventually became Hatfield’s main street.
Hatfield owed its existence to the larger Protestant Reformation that had transformed Europe, and the whole of the Atlantic world, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Beginning in the 1560s a movement eventually known as Puritanism rocked England. These reformers hoped to “purify” the Church of England, an institution they felt had become hopelessly corrupt, tainted by unnecessary rituals and fraudulent beliefs. Their back-to-basics movement hoped to restore the integrity of the faith. The Bible, they asserted, and not priests, should be the ultimate source of spiritual authority. Followers of the radical reformer John Calvin (including New England Calvinists like Rebecca Dickinson, two centuries later) came to embrace five core beliefs: the “total depravity,” or inherent sinfulness, of humankind; one’s inability to affect in any way whether or not one was among the “elect” whom God had already chosen for eternal life; the limited nature of Christ’s atonement, which was a sacrifice made only for the predetermined elect, not for everyone; the irresistible nature of grace (meaning that just as people cannot achieve status among the elect if not predestined for it, neither can they deny it if they are); and the “perseverance of the saints”—that is, the idea that once a person has been saved, nothing can happen to change that.
For some Puritans the opportunity presented by England’s colonization in North America was too good to pass up: Why try to repair the flaws of England, when a blank slate awaited in the New World? They could begin again, and this time they would get it right.
The men and women whose passionate commitment to their faith led them in the 1630s to the shores of New England believed that the eyes of the world were upon them. They would be a “city on a hill,” a great experiment that would model the true religion for their European counterparts. Because so much was at stake, the families and religious leaders who came to New England were alert to any threat to their project. Disputes over theological issues—seemingly minute and inscrutable conflicts to us today, but with implications for all of heaven and earth at the time—split old communities and gave birth to new ones, driving settlement in early New England. In the series of events that led to the founding of Hatfield, followers of Reverend Thomas Hooker left Cambridge, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in 1636 settled at Hartford in Connecticut. Two decades later another group, guided in part by the Reverend John Russell, leader of a congregation in Wethersfield, also departed for new, fresh ground. Russell’s followers were spurred by several controversies surrounding baptism and church membership, debates that would soon come to be associated with the “Half-way Covenant,” which allowed children whose parents were not full members of the church—that is, not yet proven to be among the “elect”—to be baptized nevertheless. In 1659 a number of families followed Russell to a new settlement to the north, a place straddling the Connecticut River in the Nolwottog (also known as Norwottock and Nonotuck; Nolwottog is used in this book) homeland. The English had purchased the land from the Nolwottog, but did not immediately displace them. Umpanchala, Chickwallop, and Quonquont, the sachems or leaders who negotiated this transaction, reserved for their own people the right to plant, harvest, hunt, and fish there. (A century later Rebecca Dickinson may have purchased baskets or herbal medicine from Indians who remained in their homeland long after these deeds were signed.) The English named the new place Hadley, after Hadleigh in Suffolk County, England.
Although Hadley was created at least in part through vigorous theological debate, the founding of Hatfield was less dramatic. Several of the families who had joined the Hadley migration in 1659 had settled on lands on the west side of the Connecticut River. In time residents on that side of the river found it troublesome to attend meetings in the town center, so they petitioned for permission to form their own, independent community. Hadley’s leadership tried to resist their neighbors’ effort to break away, but geography and demography weighed against them, and Hatfield was established as a separate town in 1670, taking its own name from a place in England’s Hertfordshire County.
Like many towns on the western fringe of Britain’s empire, Hatfield quickly found itself involved in warfare. The newly established town enjoyed only a few years of peace before the conflict known as King Philip’s War began in southern New England and spread quickly up the Connecticut River. The valley’s Nolwottog and their neighbors had a common history of trade and alliance with other Native peoples in New England, including the Mohegan and Pequot to the south, the Nipmuc and Wampanoag to the east, and the Abenakis to the north. All of these groups experienced the growing pressure of losing land, but for the most part they had been able to live peacefully alongside the English for more than fifty years. Those who chose to remain on lands acquired by the English had to conform to English laws and convert to Christianity, which produced other kinds of social and cultural stress. These pressures erupted into violence in 1675 after the murder of John Sassamon, a Christian Indian who served as a translator and intermediary between the English and the Wampanoag. The English arrested, convicted, and executed three Wampanoag men for the crime. The Wampanoag protested that this usurped their right to pursue justice according to their own laws. A Wampanoag attack on the town of Taunton, Massachusetts, led to a loose intertribal alliance, with Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pequot, Abenaki, and other tribes taking a stand to drive out the encroaching English. King Philip’s (or Metacom’s) War, its name reflecting the Wampanoag sachem’s leadership, became the first in a series of Anglo-Abenaki wars to erupt between the late seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth century.
In September 1675 there were attacks on several towns in the Connecticut River Valley, including Hadley and Deerfield, by raiding parties of Nipmucs from central Massachusetts (and perhaps local Pocumtucks and Nolwottogs as well). In mid-October 1675 the fighting came to Hatfield. War continued over the winter and into the spring. In the summer a series of decisive victories turned the tide in favor of the colonists. In August 1676 a band of Englishmen and their Native allies found and killed Metacom, cutting off his head and displaying it in Plymouth for some twenty years thereafter.
However, in northern New England, from the Hatfield area up to Vermont and stretching east to New Hampshire, Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, other groups with little or no connection to Metacom attempted to drive the English from their respective homelands. A series of raids continued for about two years after Metacom’s death. In September 1677 Hatfield was attacked by a force of Pocumtucks and Nolwottogs who had taken refuge in Canada, and several English settlers were killed. The Natives took several colonists prisoner and transported them back north. Among seventeen colonists walking to Canada that fall was a woman named Martha Waite, along with her three small daughters, Mary, age five; Martha, age four; and Sarah, age two.
Pregnant at the time of her capture, Martha Waite delivered her child while still a hostage. She named her daughter Canada “as a living memorial of this captivity.”2 (Another mother who gave birth during this time christened her child “Captivity,” ensuring that neither the child nor her community would ever forget the dramatic events that surrounded her entrance onto the world stage.) After about eight months English negotiators working with the Native forces’ French allies secured the captives’ release. The surviving prisoners returned to Hatfield. Canada Waite eventually married and became mother and later grandmother to a number of children, including Rebecca Dickinson.
These conflicts in Hatfield and its environs were not merely local; in fact, they were not even regional. The violence that began with King Philip’s War became inextricably entangled with other disputes in what was nothing less than a global struggle for dominance over the North American mainland and Caribbean islands, a vast area today considered part of the “Atlantic world.” Both England and France had long been working to establish control of the northern section (Spain having claimed the vast territory to the south, up to and around what is today the Gulf Coast and the western United States) of the so-called New World. In addition to several islands in the Caribbean Sea, England claimed a vast area stretching along the eastern seaboard of the North American mainland, from what are now the Carolinas through much of what is today Maine and into the interior to the various mountain ranges that hindered further settlement. Meanwhile “New France” flourished along and north of the St. Lawrence River, in lands around the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi and along the Gulf coast, while France and Britain competed for Newfoundland and Hudson Bay. Alliances with Native nations were an essential element of that international chess match. As the two European empires fought to maintain supremacy, the peoples who had already long occupied the territory faced impossible choices. What course was the surest path to survival? Alliance—with whom? Warfare—with whom? As France and England vied for control, wars between the European superpowers erupted in New England and drew in Native allies. For communities like Hatfield, these wars were also in part religious wars, because the “papist” French were the longtime rivals of Protestant England. Narratives of warfare and captivity written by former captives like Mary Rowlendson and in jeremiads from ministers like Increase Mather only strengthened their view of themselves as a chosen people, tested by God.
Dickinson’s grandmother did not need her unusual name to remember her community’s vulnerable position in that world. Hatfield continued to experience violence in these decades. Just six years after Canada Waite’s 1696 wedding to Joseph Smith, the Third Anglo-Abenaki War, or Queen Anne’s War, began. The English monarch declared war on France, and fighting spread to New England the following year. When Deerfield was attacked by French and Native forces in February 1704, Smith, with other men from the town, rushed to defend it, but they were unable to save Canada’s father. England and France made peace through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but the French did not inform their Abenaki allies that as part of the deal they had given England lands claimed by the Abenaki. This led to another Anglo-Abenaki War, in the 1720s, in which the Abenaki had to fight without the help of their erstwhile French allies. This war was really a series of conflicts better known by their local names, such as Grey Lock’s War in western Massachusetts (named for an Abenaki chief) and Father Rasle’s War in Maine (named for the Jesuit priest who was killed at Norridgewock in 1724 during an English attack).
Rebecca Dickinson, then, arrived in a world that between the 1677 raid on Hatfield and her birth in 1738 had been punctuated by warfare. In the fall of 1737 Anna Smith, the seventh child of Joseph Smith and Canada Waite, married Moses Dickinson. The Dickinsons, like the Waites and the Smiths, were among Hatfield’s earliest settlers. Moses Dickinson was twenty-six years old, and Anna was twenty-five, when they wed. Rebecca arrived in a timely fashion, nine months later. In 1738, when baby Rebecca—named for the grandmother with whom Moses and Anna were probably living at the time she was born—took her first infant breaths, Hatfield was enjoying a welcome period of calm. Following the close of this fourth Anglo-Abenaki War, the town had enjoyed several years of development and expansion. (Fighting among the British, the French, and their Native allies erupted again in 1744 and continued throughout much of the 1740s, affecting Deerfield in 1746, but this conflict had relatively little impact in and around Hatfield.) When Rebecca was eleven Canada Waite Smith died, taking part of her community’s memory of the events surrounding her captivity with her. The age of settlement was giving way to real establishment and stability, a time of relative peace that would set the stage for the town’s midcentury prosperity.
During these years a group of local leaders emerged who came to be called River Gods: a handful of influential, intermarried families (including the Williams and Partridge families in Hatfield) from towns along the Connecticut River who held the most important political, military, and ecclesiastical positions in the valley. But while the Williamses and Patridges were feathering their well-appointed nests, so were newlyweds Moses and Anna Dickinson, although theirs was a smaller and more modest one in a red house just a stone’s throw from the Congregational meetinghouse. With two broad stories facing the street and a single-story lean-to addition in the rear, houses in this style reminded people of the slanted wall-mounted boxes used to preserve salt, and “saltbox” is the term still used today for such dwellings. The home was crowded. Moses acquired the house, in which he had been raised, in 1742, when his seventy-three-year-old father Samuel, in consideration of the love and affection he held for his children Moses and Benoni, transferred ownership of the family homestead to his sons, providing that they agree to comfortably support and care for him and his wife for the remainder of their lives. Moses and Anna would raise their own young family while caring for Moses’s parents as they aged.
After Rebecca’s birth, five more children followed: Samuel, Martha, Miriam, Anna, and Irene. Rebecca was the oldest child in a family of six, the first to enter school, the first to embark on an apprenticeship, the first to mark all of the milestones that accompanied childhood and youth in eighteenth-century New England.
It appears that the fairly crowded Dickinson household included another person as well. A series of entries in town records suggests that Moses and Anna were routinely credited for “keeping” Dorothy Allis, an older woman who was apparently unable to support herself. In colonial Massachusetts towns provided relief to indigent neighbors by placing them in the care of a local family and then reimbursing that family from public funds for the expense of the additional room and board. Dorothy Allis was one of a small number of women living on town support in the early years of Rebecca’s life. It appears that she remained a member of the Dickinson household until at least 1750, when Rebecca turned twelve, and so was a fixture throughout her childhood. Unlike other women on public support in those years, Allis was able to earn her keep. Moses Dickinson’s debits to the town for Allis’s care were offset by credits for her labor. Many years later, when Rebecca began to worry about her own ability to support herself, the specter of women like Dorothy Allis would weigh heavily on her mind.
If Moses Dickinson was the head of Rebecca’s temporal family, his household received its spiritual guidance from the Reverend Timothy Woodbridge. A Connecticut native and Yale College graduate, Woodbridge was installed at the Hatfield Congregational Church in 1739, just after Rebecca was born. He first served as an associate minister, appointed to help the aging Reverend William Williams for a few years. After Williams died, Woodbridge assumed control of the pulpit. Despite Rebecca’s observation that Reverend Woodbridge was “never gifted in the ministerial way,” she would later refer to him as her “spiritual father,” whose piety was like a “burning and shining light” to her and her community (March 8, 1789).
Ministerial gifts became the subject of serious scrutiny during the early years of Rebecca’s life, when events now called the Great Awakening swept over New England. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of religion in Dickinson’s world. The First Congregational Church in Hatfield (only the fourth established in western Massachusetts) was, and would long remain, the only church in town. But in the 1730s and 1740s it confronted both the joys and the challenges presented by widespread religious enthusiasm.
The men and women of Northampton, Massachusetts, a comparatively large community bordering Hatfield to the south, witnessed in the mid-1730s an eruption of spiritual emotion, which the Reverend Jonathan Edwards fueled from his pulpit. As the decade progressed, the spiritual “awakening” spread to other towns nearby. In 1735 Hatfield’s Rev. William Williams reported that a “general concern” about godly living was transforming the countryside, that “vain and idle company is left; and an air of seriousness to be observed; c...

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