Westborough Center Pastimes – May 17, 2024

An ad from an 1877 Westborough Directory for blacksmith services.

Westborough’s Blacksmiths

As a child, when my parents would take our family to craft fairs to sell their creations, I was given the freedom to wander among the various vendors on my own. Inevitably, I planted myself in front of a blacksmith, who demonstrated his technique while selling the metal items he made. I was fascinated by his ability to pound heated metal into the shape he wanted, and I sat for what seemed to be hours in the hope that he would throw me a cast-off nail that didn’t meet his standards. (One year, I finally summoned the courage to ask for one directly, and after he reluctantly fulfilled my request—he probably wanted me to buy one—I promptly lost and forgot about it. After all, what use was a faulty nail? Then again, what use was a handmade nail to a ten-year-old anyway?)

Blacksmiths were the automobile mechanics during the era of the horse. The diary of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, is full of accounts of him dropping by the house of Cornelius Cook, the town blacksmith, to have horseshoes fit on his horse. Here is one example from March 1, 1737: “It had been very Icy and now by a snow upon the Ice and it was very Slippery and Troublesome riding. I rode to Mr. Cook’s to fix my Horse.” He writes as if he is having a mechanic put snow tires on his car for the winter!

Blacksmiths use charcoal to heat up metal to the point where it can be pounded and shaped into the desired product and design. Air needs to be forced into the charcoal fire to bring it to a high-enough temperature to make the metal pliable. In colonial days, such a task was accomplished with an enormous bellows made out of a couple deerskins or a whole bull’s hide. Generally, apprentices had the job of pumping the bellows and making sure that the fire remained hot enough.

Blacksmiths mainly provided the necessary service of making and mounting horseshoes to horses’ hooves to protect them from cracking while walking and working on rough terrain. But blacksmiths also provided other important products and tasks: making nails, latches, hinges, and other hardware; sharpening plow blades; and repairing chains. The account book of Joshua Mellen, a Westborough blacksmith and farmer who worked during the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, records his activities between 1798 and 1802: shoeing horses and oxen, constructing or repairing fences, and making or fixing tools and farm equipment, such as scythes, shovels, and hoes. Like most people living at the time, Mellen took cash but also bartered for sugar, corn, liquor, and work as payment. Because their work and services were always in high demand, most blacksmiths did well economically.

The work of the blacksmith, however, was rarely inventive.  We often celebrate craft for its ingenuity and its product’s close connection to the person making it, but craft usually involves some kind of repetitive labor as well. Trades before the Industrial Revolution required even more repetitiveness and less inventiveness when it comes to craft, since artisans had to meet a standard expectation of form and function in what they created for their customers. Horseshoes all had the same shape, even if the size needed adjustment for the individual horse. Nails were needed in the hundreds, if not thousands, which meant performing the same operation to make one nail over and over again.

The Cantankerous Cornelius Cook

Westborough’s most colorful blacksmith, at least judging by extant historical records, is Cornelius Cook. His son, Tom Cook, the Westborough’s notorious criminal, is better known in town lore, but his father also created plenty of trouble in town.

On August 22, 1727, Cook married Eunice Forbush, the daughter of Thomas Forbush (sometimes Forbes) who owned land where the Willows sits now on the corner of Lyman and East Main Streets. The marriage that day was their second attempt, since Parkman had ridden out to marry them the day before, but Cook could not provide a legal certificate. With a storm brewing, Parkman got impatient waiting for Cook to go and secure one, so he walked home. He left his horse and requested that Cook bring it back to his house, which he did. My guess is that Parkman was trying to kill two birds with one stone: marry the couple and get his horse serviced by Cook.

The marriage may have been forced, because the couple first had to confess to the sin of fornication. Having done so, Parkman married the couple and then baptized their son, Jonathan. In 1732, Cook’s father-in-law deeded a house and four acres of land to the couple, which also sat close to the intersection of Lyman and East Main. This house later became known as “the Plaster House,” given the bluish-hued plaster that covered it. The house was razed about a decade ago and was replaced with a modern house with a similar blue color.

In 1741, relations between Cook and Parkman and the Church erupted in animosity when Cook was charged with “undue Conduct and Language” (Westborough Church Records, June 28, 1741). On October 9, Cook was called to the Church to mount a “Declaration and Defence.” After doing so, the Church Council passed the following votes:

1. That the Church is not satisfyed with the Declaration made by Cornelius Cook, respecting his Guiltiness of the matter of Complaint made against him. Nem. Contrad.

2. That Cornelius Cook is, in the Judgment of the Church guilty of profane swearing; and Expects his Humiliation before he enjoy Special Privileges in the Church.

They concluded the meeting “with Prayer and the Blessing.”

Tensions between Cook and the Church continued. In January 26, 1743, Cook read a paper to the Church, “in which he hopd he was truly humble and sensible of his Sin in profane Swearing and prayd God and his people to forgive him etc.” After reading the paper, he was asked if he had anything to add, and

he told the Church (in Substance) that he doubted whether he was in a State of Grace at the Time of his taking Said Oath, and was in Doubt whether he ought to take it: but insisted that he was not guilty of taking it in the manner that the Church had understood it; was in no passion etc., but as well as he could in the fear of God – [As an?] act of worship: But as all his Family prayers, public attendances etc. were then profane, so was this also, and he could not judge it any otherwise etc. Upon which the Church debated and then passd were the following Votes —

  1. If the Confession offered by Cornelius Cook was satisfactory they were desird to manifest it by lifting up their hands.

To which No Hand was seen.

  1. If it was the Churchs mind to defer further proceeding with him by way of Censure for the present out of Tenderness and Compassion to him.

Almost a year and a half later, Cook finally “offerd a Confession of his Sin of profane Swearing and was restord.”

Still, Cook could not let the matter go. While in conversation with Parkman on September 11, 1744, “without any Sign of Provocation,” Cook “bitterly told me that he had been more abus’d by me, and by my wife and Children than ever he had been abus’d in All his Life.” The exchange clearly rattled Parkman, because he referred back to this admonishment again in his diary almost a year and a half later after Cook refused to shake hands with him after a bitter exchange between the two.

After this episode, tragedy began to fall on the Cook family. In August, 1746, “Fever and Flux” began to circulate and hit various families in town. Within three days, three of Cook’s eleven children (a twelfth seemed to have died at birth) died of the illness. By the middle of October, Parkman records that 24 children had died in town, with Cook’s Lydia being the first of them.

The hard times continued. On October 28, 1753, Cook appealed to the town for monetary support after learning that his two sons, Robert and Stephen, were imprisoned and tried for killing a Native American in Stockbridge. In 1760, Cook and his wife left Westborough and moved to Wrentham. Five years later, on December 4, 1765, Parkman received an update on the family: “We have not only Sorrowfull News of the Death of Mr. Cornelius Cook, once of this Town; but of the sad Condition of Several of his sons — That Daniel is hanged, and that Thomas has been condemned and has broke Jayl. It occasioned sorrowfull Reflections on Such vicious Lives!”

Westborough’s Last Blacksmiths

As late as 1918, two blacksmiths continued to practice in Westborough: Homer J. Pariseau on 8 Main Street and the “Estate” of George J. Jackson on 26 Cross Street. Helen Blois Schuhmann recalls as a child, probably around 1910, being fascinated with the work of George Jackson, and she provides, to my knowledge, a final account of a blacksmith in town:

I was born at 11 Ruggles St. and lived there the greatest part of my life. Jackson’s Blacksmith Shop was a big item to the youngsters in that area. Mr. Jackson lived at 16 Ruggles St. and the corner lot from there to 22 Cross Street was owned by him and his blacksmith shop founded on that area. Near the sidewalk was a large flat stone where metal tires were attached to the wooden wheels of wagons. When the truck from Bartlett Box Co. came to the shop with bundles of kindling, we knew that meant a busy time. The wooden wheel was placed on the stone, the metal tire was brought from the fire of kindling by two men with large gongs and quickly attached to the wooden wheel. Then water poured on from the hose quickly to be sure the hot metal could not burn any of the wooden wheel. That created a heavy smoke and suddenly that was the end of our watching. But one could go into the shop and watch the blacksmiths shoe horses. Mr. Jackson was very kind to us but each one was told where he or she could stand and observe. We obeyed his instructions for no one wanted to be deprived of an occasional visit to the blacksmith shop.

Works Cited

* * *

The Historical Society Spring Bazaar

Don’t miss the Westborough Historical Society’s annual Spring Bazaar on Saturday, June 1, 2024 at the Westborough Historical Society, 13 Parkman Street. Discover unexpected treasures—antiques, jewelry, books—at bargain prices!

You can also drop off any donations at the Westborough Historical Society, 13 Parkman Street, from 1-3 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29; Thursday, May 30; or Friday, May 31.

* * *

American Toad (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

I just cleaned out my garage, but I kept the butterfly nets that my daughters used when we would walk down to the pond in our neighborhood to go “frogging,” even though both girls have grown up and left the house. After all, who knows if another set of young visitors may end up at our house someday and need a fun activity? But after reading Annie Reid’s “Songsters with Warts,” I now have to stop and ask myself: were we catching frogs or toads? Now, I may have to pull one of those nets off the rack and head to the pond to find out.

May, of course, is when nature suddenly springs to life. Learn more about what to expect to see this month in Reid’s Nature Notes for May.

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – March 15, 2024

National Straw Works – Sewing Hall, ca. 1885

Let’s Consider Craft in Westborough

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

—Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860) from Leaves of Grass

What does Westborough make?

The question came to me as I read Craft: An American History by Glenn Adamson and realized that while Westborough history can be framed in many ways, exploring our town’s culture and history through the lens of craft could be particularly fruitful. After all, our history includes Eli Whitney, the once imposing National Straw Works factory, the sleigh industry, the Bay State Abrasives Company, even the current Amazon robotics factory can arguably fall under the rubric of “the history of craft in Westborough.”

But even more, craft promotes values that our society could really use right now:

  • Craft unites people. When people engage together in an activity that involves using their hands, political and other differences suddenly cease to matter.
  • Craft is inclusive. All cultures engage in craft. When we share the crafts that we practice with others, we open ourselves up to cross-fertilization in techniques, ideas, and culture.
  • Craft is not limited by age. Children regularly do “craft projects” in school. Teens find more sophisticated ways to express their creativity, such as decorating their clothing or their rooms. And adults engage in craft both in work and play. Craft is truly intergenerational.
  • Craft teaches us the importance of education and community. We may be able to practice a craft on our own, but we become better when someone more skilled than we are teaches us how to improve. Craft knowledge is communal knowledge that has been developed over time. Craft manifestly demonstrates that when we work together as a community, we can create something better and more meaningful than we could on our own.
  • Craft forces us into discussing the value of work and what “quality” means. Practicing a craft forces us to acknowledge our weaknesses and faults, but it also offers us a path towards regular improvement over time. Craft involves a lot of hard work, but through it we learn and experience how time, effort, and consistency lead to better results.
  • Craft provides an alternative to our digital culture. While working with our hands on a craft, we are not holding our phones or sitting at a computer.
  • Craft requires us to focus on our work, not on ourselves. As we focus our minds on the physical activity in front of us, we are able to clear away our everyday worries and concerns during the time when we are working on a craft.
  • Craft opens up new possibilities for creativity. Creativity is a mindset, and the more times we can practice putting ourselves into that mindset, the more creative we become in other aspects of our lives.
  • Craft adds beauty to the world. We can all certainly use more beauty in our lives!
  • Craft is an important element of what it means to be human. Human beings are creative creatures. When we engage in work, figure out how to improve what we are doing, and then teach what we have learned to others, we are performing a series of activities that is distinctly human and in doing so we become fuller human beings.

I have quoted the Walt Whitman poem that starts this newsletter before, but it is worth considering the poem again, both because I love it and because it shows us what happens when we stop to appreciate how we all work together to sing the song of Westborough’s history and culture. In the coming months, I will be thinking and writing about the history and practice of craft here in Westborough and do so by following the spirit and principles of craft itself: by studying what has been said and done about craft before, by enlisting in necessary trial-and-error to find relevant topics and information, by moving forward despite temporary failures, and by respecting tradition while at the same time putting my personal spin on what I create. My goal is to craft an inclusive tapestry of Westborough’s history and culture by looking at some of the people who make things in our town, both in the past and today.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

* * *

Pamela Vaccari – Pink Little Boat

What’s on the Library’s Walls?

The library is currently showing artwork by Pamela Vaccari, who works at the Evangelical Congregational Church here in Westborough. Vaccari is a graduate of the Montserrat School of Art and specializes in using fiber and mixed media. In some of the works on display, she uses wool and a felting technique to create landscapes and seascapes that have three-dimensional textures on a two-dimensional surface. You can view her work in the Adult section of the library until the end of April.

* * *

Scavenger Hunt

Take a stroll through downtown Westborough and provide feedback about how to improve it, all at the same time! The Planning Department has created an interactive Downtown Scavenger Hunt, which takes you on a 1.2 mile walk through Westborough and asks for feedback on how to improve specific areas at various points along the way. It’s a fun way to learn more about Westborough and to provide useful data about how to make the downtown safer and more enjoyable.

You can learn more information about the scavenger hunt and access it here: https://www.westboroughma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=99.

* * *

A male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and blue-spotted salamanders. Now that spring is finally beginning to arrive, these animals are among the first to usher in some color and counteract the drab gray that we have been living with all winter.

Learn more about these three animals and the flora and fauna of early spring in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for March.

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – February 16, 2024


This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

The Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs Today and Some Reflections on the Series

In 1976, the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially recognized the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs. A few years later, the Chair of the Commission and Nipmuc tribal sachem, Zara Ciscoe Brough, spearheaded an idea to create a self-sufficient Indian community on land that was once home to the Grafton State Hospital and that partly crossed over into Westborough. The goal was to put in place “a self-supporting farming community for local Indians” that would include crops, cattle, and gardens, along with the means to offer food and shelter to transient Indians. Settlement plans also included social and cultural activities for Indians and non-Indians alike, and residences would be made available for members of the Nipmuc or any other Indian tribe.

Local Indian leaders originally hoped to receive 500 acres of hospital land to house 400 Indians in an agrarian village. But after the state deeded much of the property to Tufts University to create a veterinary school, they lowered their sights to “whatever the state will give us.” In the end, the Nipmuc Indians, who at one time had lived on this land for thousands of years, did not receive any of this land from the state to help benefit their community. Before the land was deeded to Tufts, it was under consideration to house a 150-bed medium-security prison until heavy push-back by local residents prevented this plan from moving forward.

After securing state recognition, in 1980 the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs began to seek federal recognition, but in 2004 their federal application was denied. The main basis for the denial rested on the conclusions of John M. Earle’s 1861 race-based survey of Native American tribes in Massachusetts: because the Nipmucs had historically been grouped together geographically with African-Americans, mainly in Worcester, for reasons that had to do with class and race throughout the nineteenth century, inevitable intermarriage between the two groups disqualified the Nipmuc from constituting a cohesive tribe. So even in the twenty-first century, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to uphold race, rather than tribal and familial tradition, as the overriding standard to meet for tribal recognition. Ultimately, the traditionally open and welcoming culture of Native Americans undermined their petition in favor of outdated, nineteenth-century European conceptions that prioritized race as the main means for categorizing human beings.

Indians did not simply fade away and disappear once Europeans landed on their shores. Indeed, in his recent book, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, Pekka Hämäläinen reminds us that the Native American people controlled much of North America up until the late 19th century. Even though the Hassanamisco Reservation in Grafton occupies a mere three acres, the land itself is unique to Massachusetts in that it has never been owned or occupied by non-native people and has been owned solely by the Nipmuc tribe over the past 400 years of European presence. Today, the website of the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs says that they have nearly 600 members, all of whom work hard “to preserve and promote their culture, language, and values,” despite all of the obstacles that were, and continue to be, placed in front of them. In their practice of resilience, they are following the tradition of their ancestors, who also struggled to maintain their identity and connection to their land after the first arrival of Europeans.

Conclusions and Reflections on this Series

I often argue that when we look back in history, we cannot and should not assume that the people who lived back then think like we do today. We have to try to put ourselves in their mindset and let go of ours if we truly want to understand their culture and times. Giving up our current ideological and political frameworks and trying to adopt the ones that were in play during the time and place that is in question is one of the most difficult, but necessary, steps when doing history. At the same time, we have to recognize that the people back then were, well, people, people who sometimes held contradictory beliefs and often disagreed with one another, both between and even within coherent groups—just like today. We have to be willing to recognize the complexity of the human experience and be willing to face that complexity when we look back in history.

If we want to go beyond tired stereotypes about Native Americans and view them as people rather than as caricatures, we have to be willing to see them in all of their complexity. Even though Native American culture values community and promotes peaceful understanding, this same culture also has had people who disagree and sometimes even fight with one another. Native Americans have at times acted nobly, and at others times pettily, just like everyone else in the world. They have revered the environment in which they live, but they have also committed acts that were destructive to it, such as overhunting the giant mammals of North America thousands of years ago or, more recently, the beaver in response to European market demands. But if we are going to embrace learning about Native Americans and all of their complexity, we also have to be willing to apply this same framework to the settlers who encroached on Native land by seeking to understand their contradictions and complexity. In other words, holding up either group as an embodiment of a transcendent moral standard in order to score political points today is doomed to failure in the face of historical accuracy.

Researching and writing about the meeting of Native American and European cultures has made me a better person. Learning how the worldviews of both groups shaped their lifestyles, decision-making, and interactions has helped me to understand more precisely the many ways that human beings can come together and organize themselves. I find a lot about Native American epistemology and philosophy—much of which was new to me before I started researching and writing this series—to be appealing. And I wonder what would have happened if Europeans had arrived in North America with more curious minds rather than with avarice and insularity guiding their actions. What if Europeans came to America with a realistic expectation of living side-by-side with Native people, rather than claiming the “open and unoccupied” land as their own, and if both groups were able to use their varied knowledge and experiences to improve all of their living situations in North America? What would that result have looked like? Unfortunately, we cannot turn back the clock and change what happened in the past, but we can learn from the past and then try to adopt what we like and avoid or change what we do not.

I often say that asking the question of what it means to be American is one of the most American things that we do. Unlike older countries and cultures that have long traditions, our American culture and society is in a constant process of “becoming,” which is what makes our country so dynamic and exciting. But even as we begin to see how Native Americans have influenced American society and culture more than we normally have given them credit, Native American history still forces us to confront the question of what it means to be American in uncomfortable ways. Today, we celebrate the great diversity of people in our country, but that diversity was enabled by taking land from Native Americans to create, in essence, a new space where people can find refuge and opportunity from every part of the world. The cultural dynamism that we now enjoy was built on the sins that Europeans perpetrated on Native Americans starting when they first arrived in North America. But Native Americans and their history can also guide us into realizing and defining what it truly and uniquely means to be an American.

My hope is that this series serves as a beginning for exploring Native American history on its own terms within the context of Westborough history. I am not a traditional historian, so there are many details about this history that I left unexplored. What is clear, however, is that when we talk about Westborough history, we must start with Nipmuc history. And once we go down that path, we more clearly see how four migration patterns, each one tied to a specific economic practice or development, have shaped Westborough and its people over time.

The first group to inhabit the area where we live were Native Americans, who arrived here eight to ten thousand years ago as hunter-gatherers and who at some point also engaged in polyculture planting, an agricultural practice that works closely with native plants and the natural environment to optimize food production. The second migration wave was the English starting in the 17th century and proceeding through much of the 18th century. This migration pattern brought European agriculture to the “New World” where domesticated animals helped clear the land for monoculture planting (that is, single crops planted on individual fields) of both native and European-imported crops. The third migration took place in the 19th century, when Irish and French-Canadians came to Westborough to work in the factories that sprung up after a railroad was built through the center of town. And today as part of the fourth migration, people from South Asia and other parts of that continent are moving to Westborough to work in the technology and medical industries in our region.

What makes living in Westborough so interesting is that the history of these four migration periods are still visible to us and that we continue to tell stories about them to each other. To this end, we owe it to ourselves and to history to tell a more accurate narrative about Native American life in Westborough than we have up until now. We do not need to rely on tales with dubious origins to tell the “Native American story of Westborough.” We can instead read Curtiss R. Hoffman’s book about his archaeological studies of the Nipmuc Indians; look closely and critically at the land grants that were used to justify taking away and limiting Native American access to the very land where they used to live; and turn to Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s diary and similar resources for more reliable insight into how early members of our town continued to interact with Native Americans throughout the Colonial Period, all the while keeping in mind that these accounts come from the perspective of a Congregational minister.

Even better, we can investigate projects that seek to recover early Nipmuc history, such as the Reclaiming Heritage: Digitizing Early Nipmuc Histories from Colonial Documents, a joint project between members of the Nipmuc community and the American Antiquarian Society. Or we can look for ways to interact with the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs today, such as attending one of their Powwows. When we engage in consulting these kinds of resources, the history that results is far more interesting and connects much more to our lives today than continuing to tell a rote package of nineteenth-century “Native American” stories about Westborough, stories that minimize the complexity of Native American culture and experience and ultimately serve to valorize European presence on the land where we live today.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

* * *

See the New Exhibit on The Round Table

Stop by the library to check out a new exhibit on The Round Table, a literary and social club that began in the nineteenth century in Westborough and lasted for well over one hundred years. The club met on a regular basis throughout each year at member homes to learn about and discuss a host of topics, including literature, politics, culture, and social concerns. The club even ventured into holding theatrical events and gathered outdoors for picnics during warmer months. The exhibit is in the display case in front of the Westborough Center and includes programs and pictures at various points in the club’s history.

* * *

WPL Bookmobile – 2/3/1977

The Digitization of Westborough’s Historical Photographs Are Headed to Completion

Since arriving in my position as the Local History Librarian here in the Westborough Public Library, I have periodically been engaged in digitizing our Historical Photographs, but the sheer size of the collection has meant that I have only been able to make limited headway into completing the project.

Now, thanks to an unexpected windfall of grant money from the Internet Archive and its Community Webs program to fund digitization activities, we have decided to send both our Historical Photographs and our Historical Postcard collections out to a vendor to complete the digitization of these collections. During the time when they are away, these collections will, of course, be unavailable, except for a sizeable number of images that I had already digitized and put online in the Westborough Digital Repository. But once the digitization of these collections is completed at some point in the spring, everyone will have free and easy access to all of these historic images through their computers.

* * *

Photo Courtesy of Garry Kessler

A Valentine’s Day Visitor?

Did Pepé Le Pew pay you a visit on Valentine’s Day this past week looking for some love from you—or from that of your cat? Okay, maybe Pepé Le Pew himself did not make a guest appearance on your doorstep. But such a visit by another skunk would not have been entirely implausible, says Annie Reid in one of her past Nature Notes essays, given that skunks come out for mating season around mid-February.

Learn what other wildlife you should look out for this month in Reid’s Nature Notes for February.

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – July 21, 2023

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Trade and the Global Economy, Part II:  New Economic Relations and the Case of the Beaver

As the arrival of Europeans in North America began to increase at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so did the number of European-made goods. The appearance of these objects created a new system of intercultural commerce that changed everyday life for Native Americans, which had already been profoundly altered from the devasting effects of disease.

In the early years of this cross-cultural trade, Native Americans adapted many of the European goods that they acquired to fit their own lifestyles, mainly by treating these goods as raw materials. Copper kettles were likely to be cut up into smaller pieces to make jewelry, tools, or weapons. Axe heads and knives were used to make needles, awls, and other sharp tools. (Native Americans had already developed an efficient system of using fire to down trees, so axes, which required a great deal of physical labor to use, were of limited value to them for this purpose.)

Trade is meant to benefit both parties engaged in it, and that was the case for Native Americans here. Flint and steel made lighting fires much easier, and metal ladles and kettles opened up new cooking possibilities. European goods also made life aesthetically richer for Native Americans. The influx of glass, needles, thread, and cloth led to creations of elaborate beadwork, and anything carved from wood, antler, or stone could now become much more complex with iron knives and similar tools. As woolen and linen textiles entered into circulation, Indian dress became showier and more stylish. Despite stories of incompetence by Native Americans when it came to trade—we already noted in an early newsletter the oft-told story of how they “sold” Manhattan to the Dutch for a few baubles—they were actually shrewd negotiators, and their tastes and lifestyles often ended up driving the design of European goods that were created for them.

As with most new technologies, the influx of new European goods also resulted in unintended consequences. Traditional death practices were altered by becoming more elaborate as the dead became interred with more beautiful creations made possible by European tools. Muskets, gun flints, ammunition, and other weapons altered balances of power among Native American tribes—and also created a dependency on these weapons to maintain a tribe’s power. In this way, an influx of prestige goods from Europe upended Native American society and politics, where status was no longer measured symbolically with a handful of objects, such as wampum, but by possession of desirable European goods. Over time, Native American life became dependent on economic and trade ties with Europe as imported tools and weapons became critical to them for agriculture, hunting, and building construction. This dependence also eroded what had been considered traditional craft skills, such as the making of flint arrowheads, stone tools, and ceramic pots. From now on, all of these objects had to be purchased.

Of course, trade requires that one party gives back to the other something that is considered to be of equal value. Early on, fur became one of the most valuable commodities that Native Americans could provide to Europeans. Ultimately, the fur trade led to steep declines in New England’s furbearing mammals, which severely altered the ecosystem on which Native Americans depended and consequently led them to abandon many of the ecological practices that had guided their existence for thousands of years. No animal suffered as much in this regard as the beaver.

Beavers entered the global marketplace of spices, silk, and cotton as broad-brimmed felt hats made from their pelts became fashionable signifiers for wealthy, upper-class merchants in Europe. Who better to satisfy such a high demand for beaver skin than Native Americans, who knew intimate, working details about much of the environment around them? Beavers were particularly vulnerable to the concentrated hunting that now targeted them, mainly because they had low reproductive rates and their sedentary habits made it easy to find and trap them. The means by which Native Americans captured beavers could be brutal. I am not going to recount any of their methods here for both space and decency, but if you are curious, you can find a description of their hunting practices by a French Jesuit in 1634 here.

Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler

European demand for beaver pelts led to overhunting, so beavers were eliminated from large areas of New England as early as the 1640s. Given the profound role that beavers play in shaping the ecosystem around them by building dams, their removal as a species led to widespread transformations in the environment. The formation of ponds by beavers slows water flow and keeps organic material from washing away. These waters create feeding grounds for fish and waterfowl, and the organic material kept in the ecosystem increases vegetation that provides forage for larger forest animals. But as the beaver dens emptied and their dams collapsed, the exposed, rich soils became thriving meadows, which created an entirely new ecosystem. Unfortunately, these changes all cut into the number of food resources that crucially fed Native people.

As the land became altered and increasingly uninhabitable by Native Americans, the Bay Colony found that more permanent wealth beyond the fur trade could be had by acquiring land. As beaver traps were now set further and further afield, the land where the beavers used to live was no longer economically viable for Native Americans and so they were more willing to sell it to the English to help pay debts for the European goods they now relied upon.

The case of the beaver illustrates how intertwined economics and the North American ecosystem were and how this intertwining had profound ramifications for Native American and European relations in New England. Colonists who first entered North America saw an abundance of resources and assumed that this cornucopia could supply unlimited wealth by continually harvesting from it and sending the bounty back to Europe as commodities. They did not realize that this economic and ecological practice was self-destructive, that there is a limit to how much the land can be exploited in this way. Once this limit was reached, it forced both the ecosystem and the economy into new relationships. As William Cronon notes in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, “By integrating New England ecosystems into an ultimately global capitalist economy, colonists and Indians together began a dynamic and unstable process of ecological change which had in no way ended by 1800. We live with their legacy today.”

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

* * *

Head into the forest and sing along with the wood thrush. (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

“The closer we can get to the natural world, the sooner we start to realize we are not separate. And that when we create, we are not just expressing our unique individuality, but our seamless connection to an infinite oneness.”

—Rick Rubin, executive record producer, from his book, The Creative Act (p. 52)

Get closer to the natural world and unleash your creativity by reading Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for July.

* * *

The Farmer’s Market is Up and Running!

The Westborough Farmer’s Market has returned and is open every Thursday afternoon from 2:00- 6:00 p.m. in front of the Congregation B’nai Shalom on 117 East Main Street. Stop by to purchase your favorite veggies, enjoy a light snack, and listen to some music.

If you enjoy the Farmer’s Market, why not volunteer? You can sign up to help make this popular summer event a success!

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

How Does History Connect Westborough and India?: Global Trade

Note: The following is the third in a series of eleven weekly posts that present my attempt to answer the question, “How does history connect Westborough and India?” See the Introduction for an overview of the series and to start reading it from the beginning.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Global Trade

British intention to exploit the resources of North America in the early seventeenth century did not go as originally planned. Discovery of gold and silver never panned out, since there was little to find or take from the native population, and the natural resources available in New England turned out to be similar to those back in Britain.

The British lack of success in America was mirrored on the other side of the globe when their goods failed to generate much trade interest in India and other parts of Asia. The manufacturing skill of the British fell far below that of Eastern artisans, and the woolens and linens produced in England paled next to the luxurious cottons and silks made in India. Still, Britain’s advantageous geography off the western shore of continental Europe put them at the crossroads of major sea-going trade routes, and so the country was well positioned to serve as a geographic connector between the Old and New Worlds.

Once the British used their naval superiority to gain command of the seas, they turned their attention to becoming players in the booming global commodities trade. In the West, they took the raw materials they acquired in the Americas—such as tobacco from Virginia and sugar from the Caribbean—manufactured them into processed goods back in England, and then exported the goods to continental Europe and other countries around the world. In the East, the East India Company inserted itself into trade between India and China by acquiring cotton in the former and selling it to the latter for tea, which was then shipped to England and colonial America.

By the nineteenth century, British domination in world trade and shipping allowed more and more local manufacturers to tap into global markets. When the National Straw Hat Factory in Westborough became an international company by distributing its hats throughout the world beginning in the late nineteenth century, it could do so only because the British first created a global trade network that connected India with North America beginning in the seventeenth century.

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album,
by Bichitr (active between ca. 1615 – 1640)
(Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bichitr_-_Jahangir_Preferring_a_Sufi_Shaikh_to_Kings,_from_the_St._Petersburg_album_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)

In this image of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor, King James I sits below the emperor as third in the hierarchy, with both Shaikh Salim, an Islamic mystic, and the Ottoman Emperor above him. Bichitr, the artist of the work, sits at the bottom in a self-portrait.

National Straw Works, ca. 1880s
(Westborough Center for History and Culture, Westborough Public Library)

The National Straw Works (1871-1917) located on East Main Street in Westborough, MA, near where the Bay State Commons sits today, exported straw hats and other straw goods throughout the world. Such markets were first created by the British and other European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

* * *

Read the next post in the series: Settlement and Colonization.

Westborough-India Series Bibliography

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Bunker, Nick. An Empire on the Edge. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Collingham, Lizzie. Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Darwin, John. Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter. Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Schama, Simon. Civilizations. PBS television series, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/civilizations/home/.

Vaver, Anthony. The Rebellion Begins: Westborough and the Start of the American Revolution. Westborough, MA: Pickpocket Publishing, 2017.

Wilson, Jon. The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.

Westborough Spotlight: Horace Abbott By Paul Bebchick

Editor’s Note: “Westborough Spotlight” is a series of profiles of Westborough residents, new and old. Have an idea for a “Westborough Spotlight”? Let us know by e-mailing avaver@town.westborough.ma.us.

Horace Abbott, 1880

Did you know a Westborough resident played an important part in the American Civil War by building the iron clad war ship, the Monitor, for the U.S. Navy?

Horace Abbott (1806-1887) started his career in a small blacksmith shop on South Street in 1829. There he learned the trade of forging and before long took over the business. In 1834, Abbott was offered a position in Baltimore as foreman of a large iron forging plant that manufactured forgings for steamboats, locomotives, and car axles. By 1861 he owned the largest iron plate mill in the United States.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Government commissioned Capt. John Ericsson, a Swedish scientist, to draw up plans to build a war vessel with a revolving turret and armored construction. After Congress accepted Ericsson’s plans, a request went out for interested parties to offer bids to build the ship. The plans called for a vessel that was armored with five layers of one-inch iron plate, floated at the water line, and was powered by a steam engine driving screw. On her deck would be a single revolving turret with a canon. Abbott had the largest forging plant in the country at the time, and his company was the only one that could handle the forging and plating requirements within the designated timeframe of one year. In the end, this new design concept helped end the Civil War by preventing the South from destroying the comparatively helpless wooden ships of the North.

The Victorious Union Gunboat ‘Monitor’ (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

After the war, Abbott helped establish the First and Second National Bank of Baltimore. For the skill and energy he displayed in producing plating for the Monitor and many other ships, he received high commendations from the Navy Department.