Historian Drake wrote of revolution-era JP in 1878

August 13, 2010
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JP History

Reprinted below are excerpts from the tenth chapter of the book “The Town of Roxbury, Massachusetts: Its Memorable Persons and Places, Its History and Antiquities With Numerous Illustrations of Its Old Landmarks and Noted Personages” by Francis S. Drake. It was published by Drake in October 1878 and appears in its entirety at the Jamaica Plain Historical Society web site (www.jphs.org).

In the chapter, Drake describes some of the leading citizens of Jamaica Plain in the period shortly before and after the War of Independence, These include John Hancock, whose flamboyant signature adorns the Declaration of Independence, and Samuel Adams, rabble rouser and brewer. In addition to outlining the accomplishments of the two eminent patriots, Drake offers colorful sketches that give the reader a feel for the real life men the behind the historical personages. Punctuation and usage rules have changed somewhat since Drake wrote his book.

Between 1630 and May 1851, which includes the period Drake writes about, Jamaica Plain was within the bounds of the Town, then the City, of Roxbury. Then it was part of the Town of West Roxbury until January 1874, when it was annexed to the City of Boston.

Jamaica Plain is one of the loveliest spots in New England. It abounds in springs and books, and its soil, light and gravelly, is easily cultivated. Environed as it is by beautifully sloping hills, forming a complete basin, the place is almost entirely sheltered from east winds, and on account of its peculiar salubriousness, has been called the “American Montpelier.”

For fifty years its death rate averaged but one to one hundred. Its inhabitants were in the olden time principally well-to-do farmers, and until recently it was a market-garden for the supply of vegetables for Boston.

Originally called the “Pond Plain,” it had as early as 1667 received its present designation, as appears by Hugh Thomas’s conveyance of his property here for the benefit of a school, “to the people at the Jamaica end of the town of Roxbury.” It is undoubtedly a slander upon the good people of this locality to assert that it derives its name from their fondness for “Jamaica” rum, and that they preferred it “plain.” However, this may be, the fact that the island of Jamaica had not long before been taken by Cromwell from the Spaniards, and that its rum, sugar, and other products had already found their way to the adjacent port of Boston, is certainly suggestive. The nomenclature in question may, notwithstanding ingenious theorizing, be safely referred to the desire to commemorate Cromwell’s valuable acquisition.

On the right, just above the Monument on Centre Street… was the country seat of John Hancock after he resigned the presidency of the Congress, more recently the estate of Nathaniel Curtis, and now the home of Mr. Curtis’s widow. It was bought by Hancock of Dr. Lemuel Hayward, who received it for seven or eight shares in Long Wharf, then valued at only fifty dollars a share but at which the doctor’s decease were appraised at one hundred thousand dollars. The present house was built in the year 1800, by Thomas Hancock, nephew of the governor whose cottage of one story and a half occupied the grounds in front of it. One who saw Gov. Hancock in June, 1782, while a resident of Jamaica Plain, relates that:

“…Though only forty-five, he had the appearance of advanced age. He had been repeatedly and severely afflicted with the gout, probably owing in part to the custom of drinking punch, a common practice in high circles in those days. He was nearly six feet in height and of thin person, stooping a little, and apparently enfeebled by disease. His manners were very gracious, of the old style of dignified complaisance. His face had been very handsome. Dress was then adapted quite as much to be ornamental as useful. Gentlemen wore wigs when abroad, and commonly caps when at home. At this time, about noon, Hancock was dressed in a red velvet cap, within which was one of fine linen. The latter was turned up over the lower edge of the velvet one, two, or three inches. He wore a blue damask gown lined with silk, a white stock, white satin embroidered waistcoat, black satin small-clothes, white silk stockings, and red morocco slippers.”

It was a general practice in genteel families to have a tankard of punch made in the morning, and placed in a cooler when the season required it. At this visit, Hancock took from the hearth a full tankard, and drank first himself, and then offered it to those present. His equipage was splendid, and such as is not customary at this day. His apparel was handsomely embroidered with gold and silver lace and other decorations fashionable among men of fortune at that period, and he rode, especially upon public occasion, with six beautiful bay horses, attended by servants in livery. He wore a scarlet coat with ruffles on his sleeves, which soon became the prevailing fashion; and it is related of Dr. Nathan Jacques, of West Newbury, the famous pedestrian, that he walked all the way to Boston in one day to procure cloth for a coat like that of Hancock, and returned with it under his arm and on foot.”

Hancock’s removal from Jamaica Plain to Boston was occasioned by a quarrel with Rev. Dr. Gordon, which arose in this wise. He had been a treasurer of Harvard College from 1773 to 1777, and had neglected to adjust his account, greatly to the detriment of the institution. At a meeting of the overseers of whom Dr. Gordon was one, that gentleman spoke his mind upon the singular neglect of the treasurer so plainly and in so gross a manner as to mortally offend Hancock, who ceased all intercourse with him, and at once removed to Boston.

The son of Samuel Adams [who died at the age of 37] bequeathed to him [Samuel Adams] his claims for services as surgeon during the Revolutionary war, and in May, 1794, the patriot expended a considerable portion of the amount in the purchase of the Peacock Tavern estate and forty acres of land with the buildings thereon, “late the property of Lemuel Child.” Here the aged patriot resided during his gubernatorial term, and for the brief remainder of his days made it a summer residence. It was commonly said that had not the death of an only son relieved his latter-day poverty, Samuel Adams would have been obliged to claim a burial at the hand of charity or at the public expense.

Samuel Adams, the author of the scheme that organized the Revolution,—the committees of correspondence, —was of common size, with a muscular form, light blue eyes, light complexion, and was erect in person. He wore a tie wig, cocked hat, and red cloak. His manner was very serious. At the close of his life and probably from his early days he had a tremulous motion of the head, which probably added to the solemnity of his eloquence, as this was in some measure associated with his voice. Duponceau, the eminent jurist, who, while at Boston as secretary to Baron Steuben, made the acquaintance of many distinguished persons, relates this anecdote. “I shall never forget,” he says, “the compliment paid me by Samuel Adams on his discovering my republican principles. ‘Where,’ said he ‘did you learn all that?’ ‘In France,’ I replied, ‘In France? that is impossible.’ Then recovering himself, he added, ‘Well, because a man was born in a stable it is no reason why he should be a horse.’ I thought to myself,’ adds the polite Frenchman, ‘that in matters of compliment they ordered things better in France.’”

Edited by Michael Fahey.

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