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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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Adams and “Uncle Fairfield”

I’ve been reviewing the Boston 1775 postings related to the caucus, starting with this one from 2008. That quoted John Adams’s 1763 description of what he’d heard about the “Caucas Clubb” that met in Thomas Dawes’s attic. His list of members was: “Uncle Fairfield, Story, Ruddock, Adams, Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque Moles of others.”

I spotted local office-holders William Story, John Ruddock, Samuel Adams, and William Cooper, but for the first name on that list all I could write was:
I haven’t identified “Uncle Fairfield,” who was presumably one of John Adams’s uncles. [How’s that for historical detective work?]
Back in 1961, the editors of the first volume of the Papers of John Adams could only guess at that relationship and wrote, “JA frequently used ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’ for an older person vaguely related to himself.”

In a 1970 New England Quarterly article titled “The Caucus and Democracy in Colonial Boston,” G. B. Warden identified that man as William Fairfield (1692-1770), elected as one of Boston’s property assessors from 1742 to his death. Fairfield wasn’t John Adams’s uncle, said Warden—he was Samuel Adams’s uncle. He was a brother of Samuel Adams’s mother Mary, whose original surname is often rendered as “Fifield” or “Fyfield.”

But was that John Adams’s only relationship to “Uncle Fairfield”? On 30 May 1771 he wrote in his diary:
I rode this forenoon from little Cambridge [i.e., modern Allston-Brighton] to Brewers [tavern in Waltham], with Mr. Ruggles of Roxbury, the Butcher, and I find him my Relation.—His Mother, who is still living above 70, is Sister to my Grandmother, Aunt Fairfield, Aunt Sharp, and Aunt Ruggles of Rochester, and Parson Ruggles of Rochester, and the Butchers Father were Brothers, so that Tim and he are very near—both by fathers and Mothers side.
Decoded, that passage means that “Aunt Fairfield” and the butcher’s mother were both sisters of John Adams’s grandmother Ann (White) Boylston. And indeed, records show that in 1727 Elizabeth White (1697-1769) married William Fairfield of Boston. Thus, “Uncle Fairfield” was also John Adams’s great-uncle by marriage.

Furthermore, that conversation reveals that the butcher’s mother, “still living,” must have been Joanna (White) Ruggles (1701-1778). She had two sons, the younger one named Nathaniel—and what do you know? The Boston selectmen’s minutes show that an out-of-town butcher named Nathaniel Ruggles leased a stall in or beside Faneuil Hall market in the 1760s, and got into an ongoing dispute over whether he would sell hides to Boston tanners at a set price as his lease required.


Anonymous said...

After several years of doing my own genealogical research, I'm still wrapping my mind around the fact that there were fewer degrees of separation back then, what with a smaller population and frequent remarriage (often out of necessity) after the death of a spouse.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, and other factors producing a lot of interrelationships were large families (many more uncles and aunts) and the class factor. These Adams, Fairfield, Ruggles, and Smith families were all toward the top of Massachusetts society—not the very top, but they included Harvard graduates, professionals, and long-time office-holders. So of course they had to look for spouses within the same limited group.

Anonymous said...

I've got my hands full with two kids - I don't know what I would have done way back then! My 5th great-grandfather had fourteen children by three different wives; his third wife was also his stepsister's daughter (shudder!).