Just a piece of local history


IMG_2270In 1994, John Demos wrote “The Unredeemed Captive: a family story from early America.”  He traced the life of Eunice Williams, a captive from the 1704 French and Indian raid on the frontier town of Deerfield, MA.  An amazing story.  On a recent trip to Deerfield, I found another Demos book.

In 1996 the author was visiting an old friend in Cornwall, CT.  A dinner guest told a story claiming it’s “just a piece of local history.”  Demos was “transfixed.”  He pulled on the thread which unraveled a fascinating, tragic, story, local, national even international.  His book following years of research was “The Heathen School: a story of hope and betrayal in the age of the early republic” (2014). It documents his journey and tells the story he discovered.

Diane and I have passed through and stopped in Cornwall CT several times.  It’s picturesque, a covered bridge over the Housantonic River, historic houses, and a few crafts shops — a potter and cabinet maker. On our next visit, we will search for traces of “the heathen school.” That “piece of local history.”

In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries were active, attempting to convert non believers throughout the world.  One missionary group decided to establish a school for heathens in Cornwall.  It’s first student was a Hawaiian, Henry Obookiah.   Henry became a Christian and proselytized.  But he died prematurely and became an ikon, a martyr.

Henry and others from the Pacific islands came to America as baggage, part of the China Trade. Investors in New York, Boston and Philadelphia filled ships with American- European goods, including opium to trade for the silks, spices and arts of the Orient. Obookiah and other islanders were picked up on the side.


The Cornwall school would attempt to educate, civilize, and Christianize heathens — about 100 students from the Pacific islands, Asia, and American Indian tribes would attend.  The “experiment” as it would eventually be called, failed. The plan was for students to learn in Cornwall and then take Western, American, Christian values back to their home country. Few did. Some became caught up in American culture. Good intentions were easily drowned in alcohol. Or more seriously love and sex.

The Cornwall Heathen school failed; it lasted about a decade. The reason for failure was clear — inter-racial marriage. In the 1600s, the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was accepted, even celebrated. But by 1820 the marriage of an American Indian and a white girl was unacceptable.


John Ridge, son af a Cherokee chief was a good student and growing Christian. When he took sick he was nursed for an extended time in the house of the school steward, John Northrop. Northrup’s daughter, Sarah and John fell in love, would announce their plans to marry, upsetting family, the Cornwall community, missionary societies and the country at large. Her family eventually gave in. Sarah and John would  leave Cornwall and settle with the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. But in the next year another marriage in Cornwall would further rock  believers.

Elias Boudinot (another Cherokee, named after a NJ delegate to the Continental Congress) and Harriet Gold, daughter of a prominent Cornwall family, formed an attachment that would lead to marriage. This was too much for town residents and the mission community. The school was closed; and the experiment of educating heathens together in an American school wouldn’t be tried again. Elias and Harriet  followed John and Sarah to Georgia.


Ironically, not surprisingly, John and Elias were successful. Both become leaders among the Cherokees who were facing the “removal” policies of the Jackson administration. Both supported “removal” hoping it would help in the maintenance, the saving of Cherokee culture and traditions. Sadly, both were killed in Oklahoma, in 1839, by Cherokees angry at the treaty that signed away their Georgia homelands.



Harriet and Elias.

In addition to the “local history story,” I was taken in by Demos’s writing style. He describes his trips to Cornwall searching for  traces of the “heathen school.” He visits the Northrop house where John and Sarah fell in love. He finds the home of Col. Benjamin Gold and family during the time his daughter, Harriet, and Elias Boudinot formed an attachment. Other school buildings have been torn down. Interesting, Henry Obookiah, the first Hawaiian student was buried in the Cornwall cemetery with a large gravestone in 1818; his remains were dug up and removed to Hawaii in 1993. Demos also  travels to New Echota, Georgia, home of the Cherokee Nation.


The Gold House in Cornwall.

A footnote: in 1814 the Boston Missionary group, who sponsored Henry Obookiah and the Cornwall school, supported the education of Eleazer Williams, great grandson of Eunice Williams, the “unredeemed captive.”

Small world; local history.  Maybe some lessons for today.  You decide.


Open Hearth Cooking


A few days ago, I made Indian Pudding, a traditional New England dessert, a colonial-era treat.  I found the recipe in a pamphlet, “Open Hearth Cooking” that we bought at Historic Deerfield in March, 2014.

Deerfield in north-central Massachusetts, was a frontier village, remembered in history books for a 1704 French and Indian raid. The town was almost wiped out; over 100 captives were taken back to French Canada.  The daughter of John Williams, Deerfield’s Puritan minister, decided to stay with her captors.  Eunice (age 8) became a Catholic, resisted family efforts to have her return home, married a Mohawk husband, visited Deerfield with her Indian family and lived as a Native American until her death at the age of 95.  The raid and Eunice’s story is told in John Demos’s “The Unredeemed Captive: a family story from early America”  (1995).

Deerfield residents had a strong sense of history.  In 1952 they created Historic Deerfield; in 1962 the town was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.  There are about a dozen old houses on the historic, mile long, Main Street.   There are also several museum buildings, a gift store, and the 1884 Deerfield Inn with Champy’s Restaurant and Tavern.

Deerfield Academy, one of several schools in town,  is a classic New England private prep school.  John McPhee wrote “The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield”  (1992).  Boyden took over the Deerfield country school in 1902 and built it into a classic New England academy like Andover and Exter.  I recently reread “The Headmaster.”  As an educator it’s an interesting lesson.   Boyden didn’t have any specific educational philosophy, he believed in doing right for “the boys” and strongly supported athletic competition. He was widely admired in the education community and his boys did well in life.

In 2014, our first year of retirement, we decided to take an open hearth cooking class in Deerfield.  We stayed in the Deerfield Inn, across the street from the Hall Tavern and visitor’s center — site for classes.    Eight students joined two instructors.  The hearth fire was blazing; hot coals were burning in the oven.  Ingredients for our class were laid out on rustic kitchen tables.  We were provided with historic receipts (recipes) and formed small groups to cook and bake.  Our menu was beef stew with winter vegetables, mashed root vegetables, French bread, applesauce and Indian pudding.


As we prepared the dishes, we learn about open hearth cooking.  We pre-heated cast iron pots.  Some (the stew pot) hung on a moving crane over the fire.  Others dishes could be cooked in a spider leg pot (hot coals under the pot).  Some things are cooked in a Dutch oven with hot coals under the pot and on the lid.  The apples (acidic) can’t be cooked in cast iron pot but do fine in a tin lined cast iron pot.  Bread is cooked in the bake oven, heated with coals which are removed before the bread is baked.

Since I am familiar with bread, I joined with the only other male in the class to make rye bread.  We scalded milk, butter, honey and salt.  Mixed it with flour, yeast and eggs.  We let the sponge rise and mixed in more flour, kneading for 10 minutes.  It was baked in a redware dish.   Reproduced redware is made without lead and safe for cooking; don’t cook in original, as it probably contains lead.  While our stew and bread cooked, we were given a tour of another kitchen with a wood-coal stove.  Back in the Tavern kitchen, we served and ate our efforts. Quite good.

This March we returned to Deerfield for another open hearth class.  The Deerfield Inn was comfortable; we had great meals in Champy’s; the class was different and fun.  Our menu  was based on the 1796 “American Cookery” cookbook by Amelia Simmons.  It is considered the first American cookbook, using American ingredients.  Our menu was stuffed chicken and vegetables — potatoes, carrots, parsnips — , cranberry sauce, winter squash-Apple pudding, slapjacks, and gingerbread.

I really like how the instructors just handed students the recipes (historic and translated) and say “go to it.”   Diane and I went for the slapjacks.  Milk, cornmeal, eggs, a bit of flour and salt.  Fried in a cast iron pan over the fire in a bit of lard; served with maple syrup.  Not bad.  The bread-seasoned stuffed chicken was cooked on a tin rotessier, made in Deerfield.  Par-boiled potatoes, carrots and parsnips were placed under the chickens, absorbing the drippings.  The squash apple pudding was cooked in a Dutch oven.  Gingerbread in the bake oven.  Cook, bake, wait, tour, and then eat.  A great meal.


In March, Deerfield is quiet.  This year we were there after a winter storm.  The ground was snow covered.  A walk through town was beautiful.  Quiet, at peace.  Champy’s was alive in the evening with a local tavern crowd.  The folowing day after after breakfast (one day home made corn beef hash, i.e. Left over from St. Patrick’s Day) we drove south through the Berkshires to the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, CT.

Another different but interesting quest; exploring the world of Joan of  Hammertown, an interior designer, and marketer, (echoes of Martha Steward), that Diane follows online.