J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Thomas Sawin Homestead in Natick, 1692-?

This is the old Sawin house in Natick, photographed in 1936, from the American Antiquarian Society’s photographs of historical structures by Harriette Merrifield Forbes.

The oldest part of the house was reportedly built in 1696 by Thomas Sawin, who made a deal with the Christian Native community of Natick to set up a sawmill and gristmill for them. He legally lived in Sherborn for another two decades. The Sawins were among the first families of full British descent to settle among the Natick community. By 1745, however, the area had so many white inhabitants that they took over the government, and Natick became much like other Massachusetts towns.

During the alarm of 19 Apr 1775, the Sawin family and their Bacon in-laws were active in the Natick militia. According to traditions recorded by local historian Horace Mann (not that Horace Mann):
Thomas [Sawin], 3d, born in 1751, was called Ensign and Captain, and built the house near the brook about 1770. He married Abigail Bacon, of Dedham, in 1771, and was the father of Thomas and Martha, the founders of the Sawin Academy at Sherborn. He was a minute man in 1775 and a soldier in the Canada expedition of 1776. It was to this house that Abigail Bacon and her neice, Abigail Smith, came on the night of the 18th of April, 1775, to warn the Sawins of the marching of the British from Boston; and this house was a rendezvous of a portion of the Natick minute men.
Actually, while a local young woman named Abigail Bacon might have been involved in spreading the alarm on 18-19 April, Abigail Smith could not have been. In January, Boston 1775 reader John Russell showed me a document indicating that Smith was still only an infant then. Which makes two dramatic stories of the Revolution her descendants retold in the late 1800s that have proven untrue.

The surviving Sawin house, greatly expanded in 1791, sits on property now managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society as part of the Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary. The society can’t keep up the building and plans to demolish it.

On 14 April at 11:00 A.M., I’ve been told, there will be “A Call for a Prayer of Thanksgiving” at the house as described on this Facebook page. The organizers hope to save the structure from demolition, but whether it’s practical to preserve or move it is uncertain. This may be the house’s last Patriots’ Day.


Anonymous said...

I have located an 1850 US census in Trenton, NJ that declares Abigail Smith-Stafford's age to be 89 years old. That would put her dob at 1761, making her 14 at the time of "her ride". However, I have seen other records that might challenge this. An 1860 US census of Trenton NJ where she lived, has her at 90 yrs old. Her death record in Trenton in 1862 has her dead at aged 96 which would give her a dob of 1766, making her about 9 or 10 yrs old on the night that she accompanied her aunt Abigail Bacon, dau of Lt John Bacon and Abigail Sawin. I think that I would believe her death record, ahead of census records.
I'm interested in the documentation that has her born later than 1775.- George Sawin

J. L. Bell said...

John Russell kindly sent me the Revolutionary War Pension Application file of Abigail Smith’s husband, James B. Stafford. It includes an 1838 declaration from Abigail Stafford in which she wrote she was born in 1775. That birth date fits better with the ages of Smith’s parents and husband.

Later in Abigail Stafford’s life, retelling Revolutionary War experiences became important to her. By the 1850 and 1860 censuses, as you’ve found, she was reporting herself as significantly older. I suspect the wish for a Revolutionary link caused her to exaggerate or claim for herself some stories that she’d heard from relatives back when she was growing up in Massachusetts.

George said...

This is really interesting. I live in Natick and am a local roofing contractor in Natick, therefore I'm very interested in the rich history of the town and it's buildings. Thanks for the share, glad I found this!

C Chalman said...

Hi all
I'm Abigail Smith's greatx5 granddaughter and I have really conflicting records and information about her. James Bayard Stafford, her husband was born in/around 1748 going by my research and things i have been given by my family. If Abigail was born in/around 1775, that makes him 27 years older than her.

To J L Bell, I'd be curious to know who you have listed as Abigail's parents, as again, I have come up with two sets of conflicting information. I have information from a genealogy group I belong to that that her father was an Ephraim Bacon, but he doesn't tie in with Abigail and John Bacon.

J. L. Bell said...

Part of the problem is that Abigail (Smith) Stafford wrote different things at different times. On 29 Oct 1838 she signed a document, part of an application for James Stafford's pension, that stated she was born in 1775. On 20 Feb 1861 she told the government she had helped to melt the family pewter to make bullets in 1775.

James Stafford's age also differed from one document to the next, though he was usually more approximate in how he described it. In 1832 he said he was about 75 years old, which means he was born around 1757. But he doesn't seem to have claimed a definite birth date.

C Chalman said...

Thanks for replying so quickly :)

James had also claimed that his step mother was Commodore John Barry's mother, and that is how he ended up serving on the Alliance, although I have found nothing to support this.

I live in New Zealand, so unfortunately have no way of getting to any libraries or anything in New Jersey to go through documents, and can only work off what I can find on the internet. But it does sound like the family talked themselves up a lot!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I'm sorry to say that some Stafford family members told stories that don't hold up under scrutiny. They said they owned the flag from John Paul Jones's Bonhomme Richard and proffered a letter from the Continental Congress’s Marine Committee dated 13 Dec 1784 as evidence for that. Unfortunately, that was five years after the Congress had dissolved its Marine Committee, and the letter shows other signs of being written in the late 1800s. A good article about that here.

C Chalman said...

I have found citation for Phebe Bacon's birth (Nov 3 1757) which means that Abigail most certainly was lying about her age in later years.

The flag story is kind of hilarious, I can't believe how dodgy my family was!

iguild said...

If you look at page 54 of this book on the history of Natick it seems to explain the "mystery" of Abigail Smith...there were 2 Abigail Smiths. https://books.google.com/books?id=2obj1m6Gi70C&pg=PA6&lpg=PA6&dq=%22Historical,+nat.+hist.+and+LIb.+Soc%27y+of+South+Natick%22&source=bl&ots=EgEYiIxgDW&sig=ACfU3U0BOURecjrtie8RLLWUlffg4M30yA&hl=en&ppis=_c&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFhMSQ_vHlAhVok-AKHTVSA9YQ6AEwAHoECAEQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Historical%2C%20nat.%20hist.%20and%20LIb.%20Soc'y%20of%20South%20Natick%22&f=false

J. L. Bell said...

That history of Natick mentions Abigail Smith on this page, and it appears to refer to only one person—the woman who married James Stafford and made exaggerated claims later in life. By the 1880s, when Horace Mann wrote, the family lore had been circulating in local histories for a while, but the primary sources and pension records were still hard to obtain.

The name "Abigail Smith" was very common then. The woman John Adams married was Abigail Smith, as was their daughter after she married. So there might well have been more than one Abigail Smith around Natick in 1775. The problem is that this Abigail (Smith) Stafford as an adult claimed different ages at different times, and she and her family told some Revolutionary stories that are demonstrably false. That makes her story of the 1775 alarm more dubious than the typical family or local lore.

iguild said...

Hmm...I see that I may have read the passage incorrectly. Was this the same Abigail Smith Stafford that this chapter refers to on page 86? Apparently she was named after Abigail Smith who married John Quincy Adams? I would be interested in your take on this account. https://books.google.com/books?id=5BQ7AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA88&lpg=PA88&dq=Abigail+(Smith)+Stafford&source=bl&ots=3sXvE_AqXH&sig=ACfU3U0go2wkYU01_auKkW0hxc1kC5XAlQ&hl=en&ppis=_c&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjPyueqnPLlAhWOT98KHZ5UBWUQ6AEwAXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Abigail%20(Smith)%20Stafford&f=false

J. L. Bell said...

That article from Abigail Smith Stafford’s daughter in New Jersey is the earliest full accounting of the family lore, as I recall. It’s the source for many later authors. However, it’s not reliable.

For example, that article claims that Abigail Smith was a niece of Abigail (Smith) Adams, second First Lady of the U.S. of A. (and mother, not husband, of John Quincy Adams). The famous Abigail Adams didn’t have a brother named Henry. Moving to New Jersey apparently allowed Abigail Smith Stafford and her descendants to create a new background for her.