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, December 31, 2019

Mrs. Nathaniel Balch and Family

On 15 July 1758, the young lawyer Robert Treat Paine referred in his diary to Molly Fletcher. On other pages around that time he wrote about Mary, Molly, Miss Fletcher, and “Miss Molly.” He was quite interested.

The editors of Paine’s papers have guessed that he also addressed letters to Mary Fletcher of Boston using the playful pseudonym “Lavinia,” as in this letter from January 1757. The young Paine liked to compose long, detailed metaphors in his letters.

Mary Fletcher was born in 1730, a year before Paine. Her father was a ship’s captain, William Fletcher. When Mary was fifteen, Capt. Fletcher sailed his Boston Packet brigantine northeast as part of the colony’s expedition against Louisburg. In August 1745 he helped to capture a French ship carrying £300,000 in gold and silver, part of a very successful war.

Robert Treat Paine’s last surviving letter to “Lavinia” was in 1760. Three years later, Mary Fletcher married the hatter Nathaniel Balch. She was thirty-three years old and he was twenty-eight. At the time he was establishing his business in Providence, Rhode Island. Their first baby was born there exactly nine months later. In 1765 the family moved back to Boston, where both parents grew up. They had four more children before the new war began.

The first two of those children were boys, Nathaniel, Jr., and William. Both joined the U.S. Army as junior officers after the Revolutionary War, and William died in the Battle of the Wabash or “St. Clair’s Defeat.” Nathaniel mustered out safely and succeeded his father in the hat trade.

In December 1789 the Rev. Samuel Stillman (shown above) presided over a double wedding of his children Mary and Benjamin to Nathaniel Balch, Jr., and his sister Mary. (Mary Balch thus became Mary Stillman, and Mary Stillman became Mary Balch.) During the Quasi-War of 1798, Nathaniel, Jr., received a federal military commission as captain and started to recruit a company, but there was no fighting.

Mary (Fletcher) Balch died in 1797, aged sixty-seven. The 10 October Massachusetts Mercury carried this eulogy:
In her character were combined all that sincerity candor and benevolence, which form the basis of solid friendship; in her social relations she was attentive, kind and affectionate; her friends, however painful the event, have the consolatory reflection, that her release from a destressing existence below, has introduced her to a state of happiness beyond the grave, lasting as her spiritual nature, and ample in its powers of reception.
Her widowed husband lived another eleven years, serving on the Boston board of health, as a trustee of the Humane Society, and even once as a Federalist candidate for the legislature. At the end of September 1808, the New-England Palladium published this notice:
A correspondent has favored us with the following Obituary Notice of the late NATHANIEL BALCH, Esquire, who died the 18th inst. [i.e., of this month] aged 73.

“As a husband, parent and friend, and in the various walks of domestic life, his conduct was exemplary.—He was also a very useful citizen, industrious and liberal, a lover of order and his country’s constitution.—Possessed of an uncommon share of wit and humour, tempered with discretion and improved by good sense, his company was courted by his contemporaries of the first ranks in society.—And, though in younger life he contributed much to social enjoyment, yet he neglected not his more essential avocations; for he was truly a man of business.––In riper years he declared his Christian Faith, and sanctioned it by charitable deeds.—Many are the mourners who feel his loss, and bless his memory.”
The author of those lines was Robert Treat Paine.

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