Prudence wright and the women who guarded the bridge

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Third Printing

April 19, 1964

Copyright,1912, by Mary L. P, Shattuck


UR forefathers and foremothers met all the most trying experiences of pioneer life. They fought a grim battle, alone in the wilderness, rendering their intense love of freedom into terms of service and sacrifice. Contact with nature in the beauty of a rugged simplicity, rest from the artificial excitement of old world crowds and the established order grown hoary, made it possible for a new depth and strength of character to take root and grow, developing a new nation in the fullness of time.

It is not my purpose to recite the virtues and weaknesses of our Puritan ancestors, but to give a sketch of one little group that lived on these hills so familiar to us, their descendants. Their deeds of courage and self sacrifice are still repeated, but the half remembered details are fast slipping from our grasp since the story-tellers of past generations have ceased to prompt us.

The old gravel yard is also a sealed book to the youth who looks curiously over its walls at crumbling moss-covered stones whose quaint epitaphs tell them little or nothing of the long forgotten dead whose graves they mark.

No one can understand the sentiments and deeds of the Puritans and Loyalists of Colonial and Revolutionary times without some knowledge of their family connections and traditions, social positions, religious beliefs, political affiliations and the blend or antagonisms of opinions frequently resulting from intermarriages of those who came from widely differing social circles in England a short time previous.

They lived in a warfare of opinions and were necessarily intense and intolerant in their struggle for freedom of opinion, if they were Puritan.


of lively dispute. At length, in 1737, a royal commission met at Hampton Falls to decide the matter. The Royal Governor of Massachusetts and the members of the General Court went down in state. A humorist of the day describes their imposing appearance:

There is not a tradition or fact about the early life of these old New England homes that does not have its interest much enriched for us by our knowledge of the social, religious and political conditions that shaped its events.

This slight sketch is an attempt to gather the most reliable traditions and place them with related facts from records of the towns and families involved, in the hope that the effort will give a clearer picture of the people and events to which they refer-a bit of old town life seen in the glowing embers on hearthstones whose fires long since died out.

On October 16, 1673, the town of Dunstable, Massachusetts Bay Colony was incorporated by its General Court.

For more than sixty years this large tract of land, embracing about two hundred square miles, "equal in size to many an European dukedom," was believed to lie in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Dismemberment began in 1721, the northeast corner of Dunstable becoming a part of Londonderry. Later, parts of Dracut, Groton, Pepperell, Townsend, and towns of Tyngsboro and Dunstable in Massachusetts, the city of Nashua, the towns of Hollis and Hudson, and parts of Brookline, Milford, Amherst, Merrimack, Litchfield, Londonderry and Pelham in New Hampshire, were taken from this grant.

December 28, 1739, Dunstable West Parish, (now Hollis), was incorporated. There are twenty-nine names upon its first tax list. Most of these names are borne by descendants living in the township today.

The boundary line between the provinces of Massachusetts Bay Colony and New Hampshire was a matter

"At the head the lower house trotted two in a row,

Then all the higher house pranced after the low,

Then the Governor's coach galloped on like the wind,

And the last that came foremost were the troopers


But for all their brave array they did not "fix the right place for the line," so in 1740, the king, in council, decided the matter. When in 1741, the survey was made in accordance with the line determined by the king, the people of Dunstable, West Parish, (Hollis), found them­selves to their surprise and grief in New Hampshire, and their parish charter of no value. They had come almost without exception from towns in Massachusetts and their associations were with that colony. They had begun to build a meeting-house. By mutual consent they proceed­ed with their plans, and called Rev. Daniel Emerson to be their pastor, who signed an agreement to become such March 4, 1743. It was three years before the parish was incorporated as a town by Governor Wentworth, who named it Holles. Later the people changed the spelling to "Hollis," in honor of Thomas Hollis, a benefactor of Harvard College.

Massachusetts towns were chartered on condition that they would support a "learned and orthodox ministry." The governor of New Hampshire was an ardent supporter of the Established church and had no interest in the religious views of these settlers. He was more interested in enforcing the law that required towns to reserve the best white pine for the use of the royal navy. No doubt Hollis people would have preferred to cut their timber for meeting-houses rather than for his majesty's


"With prejudice strong, they had principles stronger,

They might well be allowed an occasional frown

Who brought Freedom up and the wilderness down,

A solemn demeanor was surely their right

Who had Nature and Satan and Indians to fight,"




ships. After the incorporation of the town, its citizens assumed the support of the church and minister.

The Rev. Daniel Emerson brought his young bride to a log parsonage of two rooms which he built near the site of the present commodious home of the Hollis pastor.

The thriving parish soon outgrew the little meeting­house and in 1748, a second building was erected on the same site, the spot where the present church stands. It was fifty feet long, forty-four feet wide and twenty-three feet post. It was a rude ,comfortless structure, seen through our eyes; it would have been such to them if they had thought about discomforts as we do.

The church was the center of all parish and town life, and was supported by a tax levied upon all the people. The minister was a liberally educated man, and as a rule, settled for life among the people who first called him to be their pastor.

The men who were fitted by education to conduct municipal affairs were selected for public office and were often prominent for several years, filling the offices in church and town or parish.

During the early years, School privileges were not so extensive as later, not from any indifference, but from necessity. Many people among those who were born in these frontier towns could not write. This was particularly true of the women of early colonial days. The favored children in this respect were found in the families of the ministers and of those who kept the town or parish rec­ords. They were taught by their parents. The brightest boys of the parish were fitted for college by the minister.

When the Indians were driven away, the clearing made, log houses built, the first rough roads opened, and the meeting-house built, then the pioneers began to provide for schools.

Saw mills followed, and later frame houses came for those who could afford them. Grist mills were few, far

between and very primitive, later than the Revolution. The small boy and a sack of grain were often put on the back of the old horse to go to the mill, ten or fifteen miles away.

Things we regard necessities, if we think about them, were matters of serious consideration. As late as 1780, Ebenezer Farley, of Hollis, was making preparations to raise his barn before haying time. He went to all the blacksmiths in the neighborhood to secure nails,-they were all hand-made then,-and found one pound. That would never do, so he killed a shoat weighing one hundred and forty pounds when dressed, mounted his horse with the carcass before him, and rode to Boston, converting it into hand-made shingle nails. On returning, he said to his sons, "Boys, we can afford but one nail to a shingle, so look where you drive it."

When Dunstable West Parish was occupied with its beginnings, Samuel Cumings was prominent as a leader in its affairs. According to Hayword's History of Hancock, N. H., Isaac Cummings came from England about the year 1630, to Topsfield, in the ship Sarah Ann.

In Bond's History of Watertown, Vol. 1, Isaac Cummins is recorded a proprietor in 1642.

His son John settled in Dunstable in 1684. He married Sarah Howlett, and both died in December of 1700.

Mr. Fox, in his History of Dunstable, records the fact that "Thomas, son of John" born 1659, married Priscilla Warner." Their seventh child was Samuel, born April 2, 1708, in Groton.

In Vol. 1, No. X, of Earliest Church Records in Groton, by Dr. Samuel Green, on page 27, is the following record: "1732-3 January 30th, Samuel Cummins to Prudence Lawrence, both of Groton."

Hollis records give the statement that Mr. and Mrs Cumins "owned the covenant" in 1733.

Prudence Lawrence Cumings was a direct descendant

of John Lawrence, the emigrant who died in Groton, July 11, 1667.

In the Genealogy of the family of John Lawrence, of Wisset in Suffolk, England, and in Watertown and Groton, Massachusetts, the ancestors of the family are traced through sixteen generations to Robert Lawrence born in 1150 A. D.

In the Records of West Parish, Dunstable, we learn something of their son Samuel Cumings. On the fifty second page of the first volume is this entry:

Mill stood in later years. His name frequently appears in the transactions of the church.

These facts will serve to introduce us to the father of Prudence Cumings. We may say that he was a man of social distinction in the community, a leader in municipal and church affairs, filling positions of trust and honor for many years, and representing his town in the Provincial court. He was the first justice of the peace in Hollis receiving his commission from the king. He was town clerk in twenty-two different years between 1746 and 1770, and a sergeant in the French and Indian war. He died January 18, 1772, when sixty-two years of age.

To Samuel Cumings and his wife were born six children-Mary, the oldest, April 22, 1734; Sibbell, November 1, 1736; Prudence, "born at ye Parish of West Dunstable, now Holles, November 26, 1740." She was accordingly born in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Dunstable West Parish. The establishment of the boundary line between the Province of New Hampshire and Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1741, annulled the parish charter granted by Middlesex County, leaving the settlement in New Hamp­shire without a charter for five years. By this division of territory, established in 1741, Prudence became an inhabitant of New Hampshire.

Samuel, their next child and first son, was born December 10, 1742. Where these children were baptized we do not know, probably in some private house where religious services were held.

The little meeting-house built in 1743, with "one Glass Window," soon proved too small, so in 1746, the people "Voted unanimously to build a meeting house 50 feet long, 44 feet wide and 23 feet posts in Height." This house had three doors, one on the south side of the building, one in the center of the east side and one opposite on the west. There were two rows of windows, the upper row

"At a regular meeting of ye Inhabts of ye West Parish in Dunstable afsembld on ye 13 of March 1743-4 Doct. Samn Comings being chosen Moderator &c." In the same meeting: "Voted and chose Doct. Saml Comings ye 2 Afsesor."

Mr. Cumings never studied medicine, but knowledge of simple remedies and natural skill made his services of value in a time when physicians were not so numerous as they now are. Mr. Cumings' name appears on a peti­tion of the inhabitants of the parish asking the provincial government to grant six garrison houses and twenty-five soldiers for its defense against the Indians. He was moderator of the first town meeting and by the citizens in that meeting was chosen town clerk and one of the board of selectmen.

The next year he presented the petition of the citizens of Hollis to Governor Wentworth, asking for legislation that would compel absent land owners to pay their tax for the support of the minister.

In the One Pine Tree Hill controversy famous in early Hollis history, Esquire Cumings was an able defender of Hollis interests as he also was in the long controversy with the mother town about a bridge where Runnell's



in order due and meet, the privileged pew men and their wives no doubt enjoying their distinction, the minister's family in the "Good Hansom Pew," the deacons in small clothes, long stockings, bright buckles, ruffled shirts and becoming gravity, occupied their "Convenient seat."
The Rev. Daniel Emerson stood on the floor in front or the broad aisle to receive Esquire Cumings and the infant son, carried probably by the nurse.

There was neither upholstery nor paint in the audience room, no heat save that in the women's foot stoves, a somewhat frowned upon luxury. There were no flowers except the little human flower in his long white christening robe that swept Esquire Cuming's knees as he held the infant. Let us hope that the pale December sunlight shone through the south windows when Parson Emerson sprinkled the icy cold water on his head and named him Benjamin.

With the other members of the family, Prudence looked on from the family pew by the west door and she no doubt expected a cry from the baby at his cold reception into the church. We will hope he soon found himself in the warm shelter of his mother's arms.

When Prudence was eight or nine years old she could do what was required of a well taught little girl. She could knit socks for her father, sew patchwork for wool quilts of pieces cut from cloth of her mother's dyeing and weaving, she could overhand the seam in a sheet and her sampler was finished.

She had learned the shorter catechism standing at her mother's knee, and afterward she diligently conned the Westminster catechism, hoping to answer without the mistake of a single word when Parson Emerson came to catechize the children, and, a most prized accomplishment, she could write.

When she played, the same traits appeared in her that we see in children the world over, regardless of their

being above the galleries. The pulpit faced the south door, the broad aisle run from the south door to the pulpit.

Thomas, the fifth child of Mr. Cumings, was born August 21, 1748. Benjamin, the youngest, born November 25, 1757, was probably baptized in this new meeting-house.

The "Pew Ground," as the space next to the walls was called, had been sold to those who paid the highest taxes, provided they together paid £200 premium for the privilege of building their own pews on this space of honor. The men thus privileged were called "pew men," and their wives could sit with them in their pews.

Mr. Enoch Hunt paid first premium £ 23, and took first choice. Samuel Cumings had thirteenth choice £ 9 10s, and took the space for the first pew at the left of the west door.

The pew before the pulpit was a "Good Hansom Pew" for the minister's family. There were "good Hansom stairs to go to the pulpit," and "Convenient Deacon seats." The space not occupied with pews was filled with benches for the accommodation of those who could not aspire to the dignity of being pew men. The building was unpainted, covered with split clapboards, and neither blinds, porches, steeple nor chimney broke the severe outline of this typical Puritan meeting-house.

All roads led from its doorsteps out over the town. They were little more than bridle paths cut through forests to stump covered clearings, where log houses were still the rule.

Esquire Cumings lived near the meeting-house on the spot which Mrs. Levi Abbott's residence now occupies. This homestead has always been in the possession of descendants of Samuel Cumings.

Some Sunday very soon after November twenty-fifth, Samuel Cuming's youngest son was carried from this home to the meeting-house. The congregation was assembled



parents' customs. She loved form, color and construction. One bright June day, after she had finished her after noon stint of sewing,-it was stitching the wrist bands for a shirt, in which she had made not a single mistake, two threads back, two forward in each stitch,-and her mother had praised her work after careful inspection and rewarded her with well earned playtime, she went out into the yard, taking with her a much prized sheet of white paper which Esquire Cumings had given to his little daughter for her careful attention to his ink horn. Her mother, as a special favor, loaned her scissors to Prudence. The child folded and cut her paper, squeezed the juices from leaves and flowers and laid on the colors without a brush. This little "love box" was carefully put away among her few treasures and has passed from daughter to daughter for a hundred and fifty years. It is folded much as a little daughter of today would fold a box sitting behind her kindergarten table.

At the time of Benjamin's baptism Prudence was eighteen, and possessed the varied accomplishments of a capable young woman who lived on the frontier in the home of a well-to-do family of influence in the community. She could spin, weave and dye linen and woolen cloths for all household purposes, she knew all the steps from the flax and the fleece to the completed garments. Her knitting needles were always bright-girls in those days knitted a pillow case full of stockings before they were married. She could dip and mould candles, mould bullets and buck shot and pewter spoons. She could handle the flint-lock, net, spear and fishline with skill. She probably never skated, but she knew how to wear snowshoes. She was mistress of a horse, but she never drove, because there were no carriages in Hollis until long after she left town. She knew the processes for preserving meats, making soap and braiding mats and hats.

As an accomplished cook she could make bean porridge,

prepare the boiled dish, cook meats and fish, cook corn meal, rye and wheat, boil cider, make apple jack, prepare the cooking soda which she used from corn cob ashes, boil sap into syrup and sugar. She was accomplish­ed in the art of sand scouring, able to sweep a mast graceful pattern in the sand on the living room floor. The ox teams returning from market in Boston brought luxuries for the well-to-do family of Esquire Cumings, Madam would see that her daughter had a chest full of linen as a part of her wedding outfit, quilts and braided mats would not be wanting and I think she told her husband one day when he started for Boston, to bring home a light ,colored broadcloth for a cloak and silk for a gown. The squire probably added a plume for his daughter's new Dunstable straw, some lace for her neck, and perhaps the first pair of Boston shoes. I am sure the indulgent father-what father will not be indulgent under such circumstances?-remembered Prudence's whispered reminder, made as he started for Boston, to bring her a gay ribbon, long mitts and a fan.

In due time this entry was made on Hollis records: "Prudence Cumings born at the parish of West Dunstable now Holles Nov. 26, 1740 and married to David Wright of Pepperell Dec. 28, 1761."

On her wedding day she probably mounted the horse behind her husband and rode to her new home in Pepperell. She was twenty-one years of age, David was twenty-six.

David Wright was of the fifth generation in America. John the emigrant was born in England in 1601. He was one of the original settlers and first town officers in Wo­burn and prominent in town and church affairs until his death.

His son John lived in Chelmsford, married Abigail Warren of Weymouth, his grandson Samuel came to Groton



"at ye west end of ye house south of the west door."

"Groton West Parish Jan 19 1742 At a Leagal meeting of ye Parish &c. Chose SamI Wright Treasurer"-"Groton West Parish febory ye 16 1742 at a legal meeting of ye Inhabitants &c 4st voted that Saml Wright, Wm Spalding, Richard Warner be a comtee to Provid Preaching till ye last day of April next."

March 15 1742 Chos Samul Wright

Clerk of ye Parish also Treasurer.

At this first meeting in Groton West Parish it was voted to build a meeting-house "forty feet long, thirty feet wide and twenty feet post." It was also voted to dispose of the pew ground to those entitled to buy it, provided they built the "Ministerial Pew."

Sometime passed before the people agreed upon a location for the meeting-house, the choice of the present 1 site of the First Parish church was finally made, the building erected and the "Pew Ground" sold. Samuel Wright had eighth choice and took the space

and married Hannah Lawrence, their second child was David.

There was kinship between David and Prudence through their mothers. I find the following entry on the first page of records of Groton West Parish, now Pepperell:


his hand writing. He held the same position in Groton West Parish that Samuel Cumings held in Dunstable West Parish.

When the meeting-house was completed the church called Rev. Joseph Emerson, a son of Rev. Joseph Emerson of Mendon to be the pastor. He was chaplain with Sir William Pepperrell at Louisburg in 1745 and died a patriot's death October 29, 1775. One of his brothers was William, pastor in Concord. His brother John was settled in Conway, Franklin County. Their only sister Hannah was married to their cousin, Daniel Emerson, of Hollis. The four men were graduated from Harvard College and lived and died with their first parishes.

Their influence was a very important factor in the preparation of their people for the part which they took in the opening events of the Revolution, and it is not too much to say that they left a lasting impress upon the towns deserving the title by which they were known and are still remembered-"The Patriots' Preachers."

When David Wright brought his young bride to PepperelI, Rev. Joseph Emerson had been pastor of its church eighteen years.

For the next fourteen years Prudence no doubt, gladdened her husband's home, cared for her children, was a leader among the young matrons of the town, listened to Parson Emerson's stirring sermons, visited her kinfolk in Groton and Hollis, and had the satisfaction of seeing her husband begin to follow his father into the public life of the town.

When the first edition of this story was printed, one of the grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Wright, Deacon Alvah Wright, of Groton, was living. He remembered his grandparents as very old people, who sometimes visited his father and mother when he was a child, and he remembered that his grandmother had "snapping black eyes," and was of medium size.


Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Wright were original members of the church in Groton West Parish, Mr. Wright being "dismissed from the chh in Groton to be laid in the Foundation Of the chh in Groton West Parish." Mr. Wright was the first treasurer of Groton West Parish and its clerk for some years. These early records of Pepperell are in

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