On March 16, I’ll lead a workshop for SBWC on researching characters from early New England. Most everyday people left scant evidence of their daily lives, so recovering their stories and “fleshing out” their characters can be a challenge. The workshop will focus on a family from Revolutionary Lexington, using surviving documents to recreate settings, capture aspirations and motivations, and create a compelling narrative context.
Much of the research for recovering everyday people from the past is based on analyzing surviving records – the “accidental evidence” created by living, marrying, paying taxes, bearing children, owning land, trading with neighbors, and dying. Occasionally, we are fortunate to have the more intentional evidence of diaries, letters, newspapers, local histories, etc. In my book on early 19thcentury New England, I focused on the town of Boylston, and at one point developed the very different stories of six young people who came of age in the 1830s. Below is an excerpt of one young women’s story. Cassandra Hooper’s determined striving and sense of purpose would likely have disappeared into the “condescension of history” without special attention to the details of daily life captured in census, tax, vital church, and school records, land deeds, association files, and one woman’s journal of daily life. The following is excerpted from Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town(UNC Press, 2014), based on the diary and letters of Boylston matron Mary White.
“Cassandra Hooper and her siblings—three younger sisters and a brother—were not born in Boylston, and the circumstances of their coming there are somewhat curious. It seems it was firstborn Cassandra who led the way and opened the path for her siblings and parents to follow. She was a young woman of passionate determination, and she was driven to live a life that was something more than long.
“Cassandra grew up on her father’s farm in the Worcester County town of Oakham. There Isaac Hooper prospered, steadily adding to his family—and his acres—until he could count himself among the prosperous yeomen. Cassandra was apparently a bright and curious child, soon mastering what could be offered at her common school. Her father indulged her desire to learn, sending her to private academies where she studied under pioneering female educators. In her twenties, Cassandra’s credentials caught the attention of Samuel Slater, founder of Rhode Island’s cotton-mill complex, who engaged her to teach the school connected with his establishment.
“But while Cassandra was busy teaching—and, apparently, saving—her father was encountering difficulties. His estate dwindled until he was landless. It is possible that injury or poor health had rendered him incapable of farm work. Seeking shelter, the family arrived in Boylston at the peak of the town’s tumultuous era, taking up residence in a simple dwelling house on a one-acre parcel next to the old burying ground in center Boylston. What is rather astonishing, however, is that the house and lot was purchased not by father Isaac, but by daughter Cassandra. The thirty-year-old teacher, identified on the deed simply as “singlewoman,” was the rightful owner of her family’s shelter.
“The children, now mostly grown, set to work supporting their parents. Sister Avis, four years younger than Cassandra, went to New Ipswich Academy for a semester, then earned her keep teaching the common school in Boylston. Younger sisters Lydia and Eunice, in their late teens and twenties, braided straw and made straw bonnets to trade for credits at the town store. Young Charles became a shoemaker. The family, with Cassandra essentially as its independent economic head, struggled along, among the poorer but respectable members of the community.
“One of the families that welcomed the Hooper daughters warmly was the Whites [the subject family of the book]. Cassandra was a committed evangelical Christian, and from her arrival in 1830 she and her sisters Avis, Lydia, and Eunice were frequent visitors to the White’s elegant parlor, while matron Mary and her daughters returned those visits to the Hooper’s humble home. The nature of the visits is clear, as they were frequently made in company with the minister’s wife and other active evangelical women. Cassandra had apparently embraced evangelical Christianity before her arrival in Boylston; her younger sister Avis was “received to our Communion” along with eight other converts in March 1834; her sister Lydia made her public confession in October the same year. Though the family had fallen on hard times, their religious commitment marked them as genteel and pious folk and secured their respectability among Boylston’s better sort.
“Then, with no warning or advance preparations, Mary White made a surprise announcement in her diary. At the close of the afternoon service on the Sabbath of September 2, 1832, thirty-year-old Cassandra Hooper was married to a Mr. Bliss, and the couple left almost immediately to serve as missionaries to the Seneca Indians. They would continue in that work in western New York for the rest of their lives.
“The suddenness of Cassandra’s change in station has an explanation. Most missionaries from New England (those sent to the Native American West as well as those who ventured overseas) went under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Since their first emissaries set sail for Hawaii in 1812, the ABCFM had insisted almost without exception that their male missionaries be married men. It was unrealistic to place an unmarried man among the unrestrained sexuality of native cultures, they reasoned, lest “the powerful law of nature” overcome his better self. In addition to satisfying his sexual needs, a wife would provide domestic services, maintain the missionary’s household in the midst of wilderness, and serve as a model of domestic life for heathen women. In addition, she could teach native women and children, if her domestic duties allowed. So men who aspired to missionary work, after completing a rigorous course of training that generally kept them cloistered within all-male institutions, faced an additional daunting proviso: between the time they were approved and the time their ship sailed or stage departed, they needed to secure the hand of a woman willing to leave her world behind and embark on a religious mission with a relative stranger, bound for life.
“The ABCFM, aware of the difficulties this created, acted as matchmaker throughout the Northeast, pairing evangelical women with missionary aspirants. The ABCFM sustained a network of contacts, “usually ministers and college teachers, who supplied a confidential listing of women who might consent to marry missionaries under the necessary circumstance, women who were ‘missionary-minded’ as well as being young, pious, educated, fit, and reasonably good looking.” There was one further qualification: most had to be ready and willing to leave immediately, perhaps forever. Barely two weeks after Cassandra’s wedding, Mary noted that she had “called at Mr. Hooper’s this evening & took leave of their daughter Bliss who was about to go to Cattaraugus Station [missionary village of the Seneca] with her husband to instruct the Indians. May they be instrumental of much good.” Six days later, requisite bride in hand, Rev. Asher Bliss was ordained a missionary by the ABCFM.
“While the risks of such a matrimonial contract seem extraordinary, in truth there was much to recommend the pairing. Cassandra Hooper was an intelligent, well-educated, and purposeful woman of thirty; she had attended to her family’s well-being; she felt compelled to be up and doing, as Mary White so often put it, to spread the gospel. She joined herself to another New Englander of like age and education. (Asher Bliss had graduated from Amherst in the class of 1829 before entering Andover Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in the autumn of 1832.) Like his wife, he shared a deep commitment to evangelical Christianity and to spreading the gospel. Both secured the independent and purpose-driven life they sought—but could achieve only together.
“Cassandra and her new husband had settled among the Seneca by November that year. When they arrived, there were but two or three framed buildings on the reservation, the rest being the log and bark huts of the Seneca. Here they went to housekeeping, and stayed for the next thirty years. Together they bore six children. Reverend Bliss was remembered for elevating the material as well as the spiritual condition of his charges, helping them to “build comfortable houses and barns, fences and cultivate their land, set out fruit trees, etc. . . . he effected a wonderful improvement among them in these respects.” (Whether the Seneca agreed that their domestication was an improvement is uncertain.) Cassandra also played a purposeful role, “a lady of fine personal traits of character, deeply beloved by her associates, and by the Indians to whom she was so long a benefactress.”
“Cassandra’s younger sister Avis, a frequent visitor to the White family home, followed her eldest sister’s path. In 1837, after a semester spent at New Ipswich Academy, Avis returned to Boylston to wed the Rev. Gilbert Rockwood, who was then appointed missionary to the Tuscarora Indians in Niagara County, New York. On November second of that year, Mary noted in her diary, “I called at Mr. Hooper’s. Took my leave of Miss Avis who was soon expecting to be married to a Mr. Rockwood and go as missionaries to the Tuscarora Mission.” Mary’s wording yields two insights: Mr. Rockwood was unknown to the people of Boylston—and likely to Avis as well, another example of missionary matchmaking. But more important, Mary noted that bothAvis and her husband to be were to “go as missionaries,” that she, and likely Avis as well, considered the required wife to be every bit as much a missionary as the ordained husband. The Rockwoods worked among the Tuscarora for over a quarter century and all their children were born on the reservation. They were credited with bringing temperance—and Anglo ways—to the Native people they served.
“Despite their limited means and their circumscribed female sphere, Cassandra and Avis Hooper succeeded in blazing paths of purpose and, as Mary would say, “enlarging their sphere of usefulness.” In their drive to improve self and society they evinced the animating spirit of Boylston during these transformative years. Justified by faith, they pioneered a new model of female behavior: an active role in the public sphere. They also fundamentally transformed traditional family order and patriarchal authority.
Cassandra Hooper Bliss is just one life among the thousands of those everyday people who made history. The March 16 workshop will explore how to find and interpret the evidence for others.