This project, to breathe life into the New England colonial past, was an exercise in “reading between the lines” and working where inductive and deductive logic cross paths. I’ve taken my direction from historian Ronald Takaki, who wrote A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (2008). He uses microhistory to illuminate the larger issues of the American story. What makes his history so readable—the minutia—will hopefully serve the same purpose in this fiction. The irony of writing fiction about a white European family and paying homage to an historian of Japanese-Hawaiian ancestry who imparted American history from the immigrants’ point of view is not lost on me. Too often the ‘founders’ of New England are not seen as immigrants now. However, I seek to add them back to the lists at the same time I tip my hat to including gender-driven views that have been excluded in past histories. Last, I seek to imitate Takaki’s skill in reconstructing history from cultural objects that in themselves are unimportant.
William Sherborn, the fictional immigrant who arrives in Watertown, Massachusetts is the one character to which all the others fall heirs. He’s the kingpin for eleven following narratives. To construct his persona, I extrapolated what facts I could from Lemuel Shattuck’s book, Memorials of the Descendants of William Shattuck: The Progenitor of the Families in America That Have Borne His Name (Boston, 1855). Sherborn’s prototype William Shattuck was a voting member of the Watertown council. As such, he had to be a professing, covenanted Puritan, a member of the church, and own land. In the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, to be a full member of the church, he would have professed an epiphanal conversion to his faith. Someone professing such a conversion usually lived in devotion to Puritan principles, however imperfectly.
I was able to establish his status in the community from the Watertown Council records; the meeting minutes date back to its beginning in 1630 and have been released in digital format. Thus, I could see from mentions what services he had performed for Watertown as well as get a feel for the changes in the society as the council leadership evolved.
Likewise, I used the will published in 1672 to build Sherborn’s character and the relationships with his wife and children. We know from Lemuel Shattuck’s book that William Shattuck wrote and signed the will in sound mind on his sickbed, eleven days before he died. He had waited to the last to write this will. It was signed by adjoining neighbors (according to the Watertown map of original allotments), who were by his own words, ‘loving friends.’ The will was executed by his wife and witnessed by the Council Clerk.
I took poetic license with the will, deriving from it the relationship that he had with his wife Susanna, and even her character. She was a unique woman of her time as she signed the first prenuptial agreement when she remarried after William’s death. One could assume she had some say in William’s original bequest. In his will, he grants her the use of his house on the hill until his two youngest sons turn twenty-one. That statement is followed by a badly worded clause he will give her four pounds a year “if she marry” or “if she marry not.” I play with the language to create a conversation between the two on his sickbed, when Susanna bargains with him to keep the house if she marries again.
The will also informed me that he had favored his son William, as might be expected of a father whose son follows in his footsteps. He split his Waltham farm and meadowland between the older boys, Philip and William, but sweetened the bequest to the latter with his “loome and its appertinences” and a young horse. William was employed in Captain Prentice’s cavalry at the time, and the horse could have been specially trained for military use.
I derived a troubled relationship with his oldest son John from the will as well. William gives John a cash equivalent of the land he bequeaths to William and Philip, but only after his mother’s death, and then, annually in four equal parts. John never appears in Council meeting minutes or on the church member rosters, which is notable for the oldest son. John only names his third boy after his father. I took these as signs that John had a poor connection to William. A letter from Reverend Sherman to Magistrate Danforth in Boston and Daniel Gookin’s account of a meeting in Charlestown, also belittle John’s character, which could change his Puritan father’s affections
Oddly, William bequeaths three pounds to his married children, to be distributed a month after his death, but six additional pounds to his “son” Samuel Church (in fact his son-in-law). His sixteen-year-old daughter Rebecca had married Samuel Church, a man twice her age, with only one child issuing before the couple disappear from records. The facts were rich with implications any novelist would leap to convey.
For the rest, I’ve sought to uphold some historical accuracy without replicating it. The inventory for the will helped establish how the house might be furnished and the tools they might use, as well as expect for their class. I haven’t attempted to reproduce the differences in language, though I may slip in an occasional ‘aye’ for an England-born character, or 17th century syntax. I use the names of people who occupied the town during the period, changing names only if needed to clarify the text. It’s difficult to write conversations when all the characters share the same name—both of William’s close friends are named John for example—or when a family may have three generations of ‘John’ or ‘Mary’ in the same room at once. In instances when I don’t have biographical information, I have invented the townspeople’s characters and descriptions.
Drawing on my childhood experiences, when I briefly lived with a family who practiced a Christian fundamentalist faith, I have tried to construct the religious life that the family might have led. I weave this into my research on Puritan mores and published sermons from the period. Also drawing on childhood experiences (living on a farm with no indoor plumbing and attending a one-room rural schoolhouse), I aim to reproduce from memory this colonial family’s life conditions.
Although I followed a twentieth century Native American (NA) shaman for many years and can draw upon ritual ceremonies such as Lakota sweat lodges, Yuwipi ceremonies, baby blessings, and sun dances, I confess that I have little knowledge of east coast Algonquin ceremonies that were practiced in the seventeenth century. I did find a journal description of an Algonquin sweat lodge. I know that Indian excavations in Mexico have sweat lodges and draw from that inference that sweat lodges were universal in NA history. Likewise, I presume some other rituals might have been practiced in the past. Unfortunately, little of aboriginal culture has been recorded, though the captivity narratives do help. I cannot claim I am writing a cogent NA history.
The project has been for me a thrilling adventure, in that marrying the facts of history to the extraneous scraps of information I’m using to build the characters is like solving a picture puzzle; the facts of our history provide the picture but fitting in one interlocking puzzle piece (the tip of a feather against a blue sky) is the work at hand. I can hope that these novels share not only what I learn but my joy in searching for historical truth.
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