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, January 10, 2021

The Mystery of Dr. Martyn

As I described yesterday, in the late 1760s Nathaniel Martyn held a respected position in rural Massachusetts society.

Youngest son of the minister at Northborough, he had become a physician and landowner in Harvard and married a young woman from Bolton. They had two young children. When they needed household help, the Harvard selectmen had assured Boston officials that Dr. Martyn was a suitable person to raise an orphan boy from the port town.

And then Dr. Martyn ran away. The Rev. Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough, who had seen Nathaniel Martyn grow up, wrote in his diary on 16 Aug 1770 that the physician had “absconded.” His wife had returned to her parents with the two little children.

When I read that in the excellent Ebenezer Parkman Project website, I hoped to find other sources that filled out the Martyn family’s story. Was there another woman? Another man? Money troubles? Religious conversion? Psychiatric difficulty? I’m sad to say that I haven’t found any further comment on why Dr. Martyn left his family.

I unearthed only two tenuous leads. In the 1921 book Northborough History, the Rev. Josiah Coleman Kent wrote that Nathaniel Martyn “resided for a time in Harvard, and later went south.” That could refer to the family’s move to Bolton, just south of Harvard, or it could refer to a longer journey. This statement came with no indication of its source, and of course Kent was publishing a century and a half after the event.

That statement is, however, consistent with the one other reference to a Dr. Nathaniel Martyn in North America that I’ve found after 1770. In 1775 Robert Hodge and Frederick Shober of New York published a collection of theological essays by the Rev. Dr. Hugh Knox, and the list of subscribers included Dr. Nathaniel Martyn of Hertford, North Carolina.

As for the family Martyn left behind, information about his wife Anna and son Nathaniel is sparse. But in 1790 his daughter, then twenty-three years old, married George Caryl from the Harvard College class of 1788. Caryl was like Pamela’s father in a couple of ways: youngest son of a town minister and trained in medicine, in his case under Dr. Samuel Willard of Uxbridge.

But unlike Nathaniel Martyn, Dr. George Caryl was firmly attached to his native soil. He brought his bride home to his father’s house in the part of Dedham that would become the town of Dover in 1836. Caryl was the only doctor in that district for a long time, and he also had patients in neighboring towns.

George and Pamela Caryl had nine children between 1797 and 1808, four surviving to adulthood. Inheriting the family homestead, Dr. Caryl lived and worked in Dover until 1829. His widow lived on until 1855.

The Caryl family house, shown above, is now owned by the Dover Historical Society.

TOMORROW: What about the orphan boy?

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