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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Friday, May 04, 2007

Phillis Wheatley Writes about Christopher Seider

Both in the 1770s and now, one of the most famous inhabitants of Revolutionary Boston was Phillis Wheatley. Sold into slavery in West Africa, she arrived in Massachusetts in 1761 at the age of about seven (to judge by the baby teeth she was missing). The tailor John Wheatley purchased the little girl as a servant for his wife Susannah, who renamed her Phillis. She learned to read so quickly that the family started to provide more lessons and books. In 1767 Phillis published her first poem in a Newport newspaper. In 1773 the Wheatleys legally emancipated her, after the publication of a collection of thirty-seven of her poems in London.

Wheatley wrote a lot of her verse in response to events of the day: the death of the Rev. George Whitefield, the death of someone’s child, the Boston Massacre, &c. She wrote odes to famous men, from the Earl of Dartmouth, Britain’s Secretary of State, to George Washington, commander of the army that opposed Dartmouth. She wrote lots of pious pronouncements. This wasn’t a period for introspective, personal poetry, and Wheatley wasn’t a particularly introspective, personal poet. (Her letters are more revealing.)

Among the subjects Wheatley chose was the boy Christopher Seider, killed by a Customs officer on 22 Feb 1770. That poem didn’t appear in the 1773 collection, probably because it was too tied to Boston events for a wider audience and perhaps because it was too controversial. But a manuscript remained, and it was published in The New England Quarterly in 1970. It now appears in Wheatley’s Collected Works.

On the death of Mr Snider
Murder’d by Richardson

In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed
To clear the country of the hated brood
He whet his courage for the common good
Long hid before, a vile infernal here
Prevents Achilles in his mid career
Where’er this fury darts his Poisonous breath
All are endanger’d to the Shafts of death.
The generous Sires beheld the fatal wound
Saw their Young champion gasping on the ground
They rais’d him up. but to each present ear
What martial glories did his tongue declare
The wretch appal’d no longer can dispise
But from the Striking victim turns his eyes
When this young martial genius did appear
The Tory chiefs no longer could forbear.
Ripe for destruction, see the wretches doom
He waits the curses of the age to come
In vain he flies, by Justice Swiftly chaced
With unexpected infamy disgraced
Be Richardson for ever banish’d here
The grand Usurpers bravely vaunted Heir.
We bring the body from the wat’ry bower
To lodge it where it shall remove no more
Snider behold with what Majestic Love
The Illustrious retinue begins to move
With Secret rage fair freedoms foes beneath
See in thy corse ev’n Majesty in Death
Wheatley spelled the boy’s name “Snider,” as it appeared in some newspapers (but not in the family baptismal records). The praise for Seider as a martyr also came right out of the newspapers, and even the phrase “martial genius” reflects their comment on what was found in the boy’s pockets. All in all, it’s a remarkably overblown bit of verse.


Robert S. Paul said...

It's amazing that she had such a grasp of the language even as a freed slave. Far better than many college-educated people today, even ones born with silver spoons in their mouths.

J. L. Bell said...

It's quite clear from what the Wheatley family wrote about her that Phillis Wheatley was a genius with a prodigious understanding of language. To their credit, they encouraged and enabled her talents when she was growing up instead of feeling threatened.

Unknown said...

As a researcher who loves this website, I want to make a note that respelling Snider's name here as Seider is extremely unhelpful because it is confusing. The note of his name being different should be said somewhere in the article as a historical fact, but there is no justice in trying to bring it back, as it were, especially because you don't have evidence that he wanted his name to remain in the German form. As a fellow American with German heritage, I do not want anyone trying to say my name with the German pronunciation because it's confusing, and would run the risk of excluding me from conversing with my fellow Americans. Please don't similarly run the risk of excluding Snider his place in America by trying to reassert his Germanness for him, when in all likelihood he would not have objected to the new American spelling.

J. L. Bell said...

In the eighteenth century, spelling was more haphazard than it is now, and many people’s names (not just non-English immigrants) appear in various forms. When I research people for Boston 1775 and find multiple spellings, I try to locate people’s own signatures or other records they were involved in creating and use spellings found there, figuring those reflect what they preferred.

Sometimes there’s a much more popular rendering of the name found elsewhere. Pvt. Edward Montgomery of the Massacre is in Massachusetts court records as “Hugh Montgomery,” and Cpl. William Wemyss is down as “Wemms,” so I use both versions in my tags. Gen. Steuben and his American contemporaries refer to him as “de Steuben,” but most later authors say “von Steuben,” so I punted and just tagged him as “Steuben.” On the other hand, the Marquis de le Fayette, namesake of Fayetteville, is remembered so thoroughly as Lafayette that I adopted that spelling.

In the case of Christopher Seider, some newspapers called him “Snider,” as this posting said. The implication of the “some” is that some newspaper did not; the Whig newspapers that had the most to say about the boy called him Seider. This posting also noted that the family’s baptism and other vital records, which are the closest thing we have from them directly, used the spelling Seider. I’ve therefore adopted that spelling as the most accurate. Again, my tag includes both spellings, and postings like this explain the discrepancy when it’s germane.

That said, I find the complaint above logically baffling. We have no idea of what Christopher Seider would have preferred to be called because he was killed before he turned twelve. We do have clues to what his parents chose from the family records. For the British of Boston, both “Seider” and “Snider” were German names. British writers consistently referred to Christopher as a “German boy,” even though he had been born in Braintree. There’s no reason to think one spelling was more German than the other.

Christopher’s father’s name was first recorded in Maine as “Seiter,” so we could even take the later forms “Seider” and “Syder” as Anglicized. Christopher’s mother’s first surname was “Hartwick,” but that family name also appears in records as “Hardwick,” “Hartwig,” “Hardwig,” and even “Harskrthin” (if we believe that transcription). Again, spellings were various at the time.