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HITCHCOCKIANA


RTMDear Readers: My book is now in print, but my quest for more information about Edward Hitchcock continues. On this page I will periodically pass along new facts, insights, and anecdotes from my research that I hope will be of interest.  Sincerely,
  Bob McMaster




May 1, 2021

HITCHCOCK'S BASALTICK COLUMNS


Titan's
                    Piazza 1841Edward Hitchcock was only 22 years old when he published his first scientific paper, a short article appearing in the North-American Review entitled “Basaltick Columns.” It describes in just a few sentences a remarkable rock formation at the foot of Mount Holyoke in Hadley, Massachusetts, consisting of a series of vertical columns of basalt:

“These pillars are uniformly hexagonal prisms, varying in regularity, their sides being from eight to thirty inches wide…They form the side of the mountain for a distance of ten or twelve rods, and vary in height from sixty to more than a hundred feet. Their course inclines a little from the perpendicular, sloping gently towards the mountain.”

Some years later Hitchcock dubbed this formation “Titan’s Piazza”; another a short distance away on the shores of the Connecticut River he named “Titan’s Pier.” (It is said that the local names were previously the Devil’s Piazza and Devil’s Pier, but Hitchcock renamed them lest the Prince of Darkness be credited unjustly for part of God’s Creation.)

Such geological curiosities are not unusual in volcanic rock; they occur frequently in the traprock ridges up and down the Connecticut Valley. Similar structures make up the famous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Island. But the basaltic columns of Mount Holyoke are particularly well preserved and are rendered even more dramatic by the billowing tongues of basalt above that appear much like waves crashing on a beach.

Titan's
                      Piazza today

The explanation of those curious hexagonal columns has to do with the cooling process in molten lava. Some parts of a lava flow cool before others. As they cool the rock contracts and fractures. Those fractures often radiate along parallel lines. When cracks meet they often form 120 degree angles which results in hexagonal or six-sided shapes, although five-sided and seven-sided columns are also common. As to the overhanging billows, they are likely the result of lava that cooled more slowly, allowing gravity to shape the mass, not unlike molten wax oozing down the sides of a candle.

I visited “Titan’s Piazza” recently and was astonished at how beautifully those structures were preserved, just as Hitchcock saw them. The site is easily accessed from route 47, just a half mile or so south of the entrance to Skinner State Forest. But I could not help wondering how many visitors to Mount Holyoke ever got to see this remarkable formation. Then I read Hitchcock's description from his 1841 report on the geology of Massachusetts and realized I wasn’t the first to have that thought:

"While the summit of Holyoke attracts crowds of visiters, but very few I have reason to believe go to this Piazza: yet I have never known any one visit it who was not highly gratified."

Then Hitchcock gave credit where he believed it belonged for this marvel:

...How can one, who has any taste for Nature
in her most curious aspects,
remain uninterested as he stands there...

gazing, and takes into his mind and heart,

With undistracted reverence, the effect
Of those proportions, where the Almighty hand
That made the worlds, the Sovereign Architect,
Has deigned to work as if by human art.”




March 8, 2021

ROBERT L. HERBERT

1929-2020


Robert L. Herbert
One of the first sources I came across when I began my research on Edward Hitchcock was The Complete Correspondence of Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman, 1817-1863. I was at once awed by the scope of the manuscript that included transcriptions of some 250 letters between the two scientists. Equally impressive was the seventy-page introductory essay that placed Hitchcock and Silliman in the context of nineteenth century American science, tracing the evolution of their friendship and their views on science and religion over nearly half a century. The document was supported by no fewer than 670 footnotes, striking testimony to the thoroughness and attention to detail of its author, Robert L. Herbert, retired professor at Mount Holyoke College. At the time I was unfamiliar with Professor Herbert but guessed that he must be a geologist or historian of science. I was surprised to discover that that impressive opus was the work of an art historian.

Professor Herbert produced at least eight works related to the Hitchcocks between 2008 and 2014. Besides Complete Correspondence he transcribed two travel diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, edited an exquisite reproduction of her watercolor album, Fungi, Selecti Picti, authored an article on the artistic inclinations of Edward Hitchcock in the Massachusetts Historical Review, and co-authored biographies of three important contemporaries of Edward Hitchcock, Roswell Field, James Deane, and Dexter Marsh, in collaboration with Sarah L. Doyle and others. In 2011 he and Daria D'Arienzo, then archivist at Amherst College, co-authored Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Art and Science, a handsome volume that included a biography of the artist and a catalog of her paintings and drawings that appeared in an exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. (Bibliographic information for these works is provided below.)

Long before he became interested in Edward and Orra White Hitchcock, Robert L. Herbert was a distinguished professor of art history at Yale University where he earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost scholars on the Impressionist period. He developed his own distinctive approach to art history, examining in depth the lives of the artists and the social and political context in which they lived and painted, thus infusing a once sterile field with flesh and blood. Upon his retirement from Yale in 1990, Professor Herbert joined his wife, historian Eugenia Herbert, at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Both retired in 1997 but remained in South Hadley where he pursued his interests in the out-of-doors and New England history. There too he was introduced to Orra White Hitchcock and her art, then to her husband Edward and his scientific, religious, and artistic sentiments.

Professor Herbert scoured the letters and diaries of Edward and Orra just as intensely as he had examined the lives and works of the great Impressionists, searching for subtle clues to their personalities. In his introduction to Orra's travel diaries, he exhibits this talent most strikingly. Orra, he asserts in the introduction, was a dutiful mother and wife, a devout Christian, and a doer of good deeds. But those hand-written manuscripts, intended for no one but herself, provide a rare opportunity to fill out our understanding of her personality. "Hidden from view until now," wrote Herbert, "her more complete self finally emerges from her diaries."

Orra's wry, self-deprecating humor comes through on the first page of her account of their European trip in 1850. As she settled into a tiny cabin on their transatlantic steamer in Boston, she managed to ascend to her tiny upper berth only with the aid of "a little Yankee ingenuity" and "a little boosting from my husband." While a lover of art, Herbert notes, she paid more attention to the lavish furnishings of Windsor Castle and figures of Madame Tussaud's waxworks than to the classical works of art they saw at the National Gallery and the British Museum. She was a good-hearted Christian, to be sure, and was shocked at the squalid conditions of life in rural Ireland at the time, but regularly attributed poverty there and elsewhere in Europe to Catholicism. She was not immune to the prejudices of her time, likening the dark skin of the black workers she saw in Richmond, Virginia, to the filthy streets they cleaned.

The differences in the personalities of Orra and Edward, noted Herbert, were clearly on display in contrasting letters written to their children while vacationing on the coast of Maine. Of an excursion to Plum Beach with a party of friends, Orra wrote, "There were two gentlemen with us and we ducked and spattered each other and had the greatest frolic you can imagine." Meanwhile her sometimes saturnine husband, writing of the same trip, could only report to his children that he was suffering greatly, first from the cold on one of the coastal islands, then from the intense heat back on the mainland. Orra's cup, it seems, was always half-full; Edward's was half-empty.
 
Robert L. Herbert passed away in Northampton on December 17, 2020, at the age of 91, just a month before my book went to press. I immediately decided to dedicate the book to him - it seemed the least I could do. After all, hardly a day passed during the four years of my research that I did not consult one of Professor Herbert's works. They were invaluable to me and I will always be grateful for his scholarship.


References

Herbert, Robert L. The Complete Correspondence of Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman, 1817-1863: The American Journal of Science and the Rise of American Geology, transcribed and annotated with an introductory essay. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, 2012, http://bit.ly/2m6vnxtHitch.

________ and Sarah L. Doyle. The Dinosaur Tracks of Dexter Marsh: Greenfield's Lost Museum, 1846-1853. Mount Holyoke College Institutional Digital Archive, 2013, http://hdl.handle.net/10166/3203.

________ and Sarah L. Doyle. Dr. James Deane of Greenfield: Edward Hitchcock's Rival Discoverer of Dinosaur Tracks. Mount Holyoke College Institutional Digital Archive, 2014, http://hdl.handle.net/10166/3529.

________. Fungi Selecti Picti, 1821: Watercolors by Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863). Northampton, Mass.: Smith College, 2011. The original album is held by Smith College Special Collections.

________, Sarah L. Doyle, Joel Fowler, Lynda Hodson Mayo, and Pamela Shoemaker. Roswell Field's Dinosaur Footprints, 1854-1880. Mount Holyoke College Institutional Digital Archive, 2013, http://hdl.handle.net/10166/3286

________. "The Sublime Landscapes of Western Massachusetts: Edward Hitchcock's Romantic Naturalism." Massachusetts Historical Review 12(2010): 70-99.

________. A Woman of Amherst: the Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850. New York, iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

________ and Daria D'Arienzo. Orra White Hitchcock: an Amherst Woman of Art and Science. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2011.


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February 1, 2021


THE HITCHCOCK PROGENY: THREE GENERATIONS


Tree In an 1823 sermon entitled “Duties of Children” delivered by Reverend Edward Hitchcock in Conway, Massachusetts, he reminded the youth of his church that nearly half of them would perish by the age of twelve (see Chapter 8). He was not exaggerating. Childhood was a hazardous time of life in those days; illnesses such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid fever, dysentery, and pneumonia were widespread and essentially untreatable. Edward and Orra lost two young sons, a 2-year-old in 1824 and an infant who died within a few hours of birth in 1832.

The six Hitchcock children that survived to adulthood lived remarkably long lives, three into their eighties – well beyond the average lifespan of Americans of that period. This may seem surprising considering their father’s lifelong battle with poor health. Perhaps his children were fortunate to inherit their mother’s vigor and emotional stability rather than their father’s frailty and mercuric disposition.

As to the Hitchcocks’ twenty grandchildren, seven perished before the age of six. But those who survived childhood lived relatively long lives, eight into their seventies or eighties. As to the third generation, Edward and Orra’s ten great-grandchildren, nearly all were born after 1890. There were no childhood deaths in this generation. Eight of the ten lived longer than seventy years.

Aside from the scourge of childhood ailments, the three generations of Hitchcock descendants enjoyed many advantages. They grew up in stable homes in prosperous and forward-thinking communities such as Amherst, Massachusetts, Hanover, New Hampshire, and Orange, New Jersey. They were well-educated. Nearly all the males attended either Amherst or Yale while the females were enrolled at Mount Holyoke, Smith, Pratt Institute, or Cooper-Union. Several earned graduate degrees. Three male descendants pursued careers as scientists and college professors, two as engineers, two as medical doctors, two as attorneys, two as stockbrokers. At least five Hitchcock women were teachers, two artists, one a nurse, and one a social worker.

Several Hitchcock descendants earned reputations as leaders in their fields: Edward Hitchcock, Jr., in human anatomy and physical education, Charles H. Hitchcock in geology, Jane E. Hitchcock in community nursing, Edward B. Hitchcock in journalism, and Charles Hitchcock Allen in chemistry. Charles B. Storrs served in the New Jersey state legislature. Dr. John S. Hitchcock distinguished himself as head of the Massachusetts Division of Communicable Diseases during the influenza epidemic in 1919. At least three Hitchcock men served in the armed forces.

In The Descendants of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock, I present brief biographical sketches of each of the couple’s thirty-eight children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I am indebted to a number of archives and newspaper for photographs, obituaries, and other documents which are attached. Readers who find errors on those pages or have additional information to offer are welcome to submit them to me at robertmcmaster24@gmail.com.



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December 18
, 2020


EDWARD'S MASSACHUSETTS GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
1830-1833



Geological Survey


Edward Hitchcock did nothing in life by halves. Each new task he undertook, each new assignment he accepted, he threw himself into with every ounce of strength he could muster. We can see this in the meticulous crafting of his sermons early in his career, his far-ranging travels in all seasons as an itinerant preacher, his intensive preparations for teaching chemistry at Amherst College, his ambitious pursuit of several state geological surveys, and his headlong rush to investigate those enigmatic fossil footmarks.

This trait in Edward Hitchcock, this indefatigable force, derived I believe from several sources within, intellectual curiosity, ambition, religious zeal, and a deeply-held conviction that his health depended on vigorous activity. Of course, throughout his adult life he was also convinced that his time was running out, his death was imminent. Of his "desponding nature" he wrote to Edward, Jr., late in life, "It is this trait in my character [that] has enabled me to do what little I have done as a literary man."

So it is no surprise to learn that within a month of receiving his commission to carry out the first geological survey of Massachusetts in 1830, Edward Hitchcock was off and running, notebook in one hand, mineralogical hammer in the other. Over the ensuing forty or so months, he visited every corner of the state, observing, recording, collecting specimens, and pondering the implications of his findings for his notions of geological history and God's plan for earth. It proved to be a life-altering experience for Hitchcock and a pivotal event for American geology (See Chapter 14).

How was it possible, we might wonder, that he could give up his college and family obligations for so many weeks over those four field seasons? The college apparently was happy to accommodate him. And Orra's steady hand and even temperament no doubt kept affairs under control on the home front. (Orra missed her husband, of that I have no doubt, but I can't help but wonder whether his absence may have made running the household a bit easier!)

In reading Edward's notebooks from those expeditions, I was fascinated both by the geological insights they offered and by some geographic curiosities revealed along the way. More than fifty of the state's modern-day municipalities had not even been incorporated in 1830, including a number in western Massachusetts: Holyoke, Chicopee, Agawam, Hampden, and Erving. The names of several towns have since changed: Troy to Fall River, Ward to Auburn, Western to Warren, Gay Head to Aquinnah. And of course four towns that Edward visited not far from Amherst, Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott, are no longer, their territories having been inundated by the waters of the newly created Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. 

To get a sense of the scope and intensity of Edward's first geological survey of Massachusetts, click on the map below to see an animation of his travels.

Geological Survey Map






October 22, 2020

RUTH SHERMAN WHITE: REQUIESCE IN PACE

Emily DickinsonThe Hitchcock monument in Amherst's West Cemetery is one of the largest in the cemetery but by no means the most visited. That honor goes to Emily Dickinson, whose grave is situated just a few feet away from Edward and Orra's. Almost any time you pass, you're likely to meet one of Emily's admirers paying their respects, or perhaps you'll find some small tribute left for the "Belle of Amherst," a bouquet of flowers, a lock of hair, or a handmade journal and pencil offered in the hope that the poetess might show her appreciation by inscribing a little verse from the beyond: "Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality."

The Hitchcock
                    monument
Anyone interested in the Hitchcocks will find Edward's and Orra's names on a tall granite obelisk nearby along with daughter Mary and infant son Edward. (Little Edward was actually interred in Conway.) On the plinth is inscribed a Hitchcock epigram that aptly sums up the man: "The cross in nature and nature in the cross."




Not far from the Hitchcock monument are the graves of Orra's family, the Whites, marked by a row of badly eroded stones for her father, several of her brothers, and one sister, all of whom passed away decades before Orra. But one grave is missing here, that of Orra's mother, Ruth Sherman White. And therein lies a small mystery.

Ruth Sherman was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1763.  She married Jarib White in 1794 and the couple first settled in Hadley before moving to Amherst. Ruth gave birth to eight children between 1794 and 1806. Jarib, a wealthy farmer and businessman and one of the early benefactors of Amherst College, died in 1821, as his stone in West Cemetery attests. But curiously, his wife's grave is nowhere to be found.

While doing research for my book, I sought out information on the death and burial of Ruth from a number of sources without success. Even the Amherst Town Clerk's office had no record of her death. Her name appears in several places in the Hitchcock family account book, showing that she lived with the Hitchcocks or nearby in the late 1830s (see Chapter 15). But still no mention of her death.

The mystery was finally solved by Edward Hitchcock, Jr. in his memoirs (more on those fascinating volumes in a future post). "Doc" Hitchcock, as he was known during his half a century on the Amherst faculty, writes of attending his grandmother's funeral at the home of her daughter-in-law, Caroline White Sprague. Caroline, the wife of Jay White, lived briefly with the Hitchcocks in Amherst after her husband's death. In 1829 she married Reverend Daniel G. Sprague; the couple lived for a time in Hampton, Connecticut.

I contacted Hampton Town Clerk Leslie Wertam who located the hand-written burial record for Ruth White. She died on November 5, 1839, in Hampton at the age of 76. The line above her name carries the death record for the Spragues' 19-month old son, Henry W. Sprague, who passed away only a week earlier. Her grave in North Cemetery is marked by a small, nondescript stone - no words of praise, no mementos of tribute from admirers, just a simple inscription: RUTH WHITE BORN JULY 1763 DIED NOV 5 1890.

The memory of Emily Dickinson is held dear by many even 135 years after her death. Edward and Orra Hitchcock have been honored as well, not perhaps with the passion of Emily's followers, but by scholars of history, science, religion, and art.

But Ruth Sherman White has never been afforded her due. She was neither a scientist nor a philosopher nor an artist, so far as we know. What we do know is that she devoted a good part of her adult life to caring for children, first her own, three of whom died before their first birthdays. Then she helped care for her grandchildren. And finally, in the last year of her life, she traveled from Amherst to Hampton, Connecticut, to assist in the care of the Sprague children. It may well be that she succumbed to the same illness that took little Henry, her daughter-in-law's son. Whatever the cause of her death, it is clear that Ruth Sherman White gave her all for her family.

Requiesce in pace, Ruth
.






October 15, 2020   

FREEDOM OF RELIGION, MASSACHUSETTS STYLE

MeetinghouseThe Pilgrims, as we all learned at an early age, came to the New World to escape religious persecution. When Massachusetts enacted its first constitution in 1781, the right to worship God according to one's conscience was further enshrined. A few years later the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to their religious beliefs and prohibited government interference in religion.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that, even in Edward Hitchcock's time some forty years after enactment of its constitution, Massachusetts had one official religion, Congregationalism. In those times the Congregational church in a Massachusetts town was referred to as "the meetinghouse." Not only was it a house of worship, it was also the seat of town government, the place where town meetings were held. Furthermore, the minister's salary was funded by taxes collected from every resident, believer or nonbeliever. Thus when Edward Hitchcock was hired as "Colleague Pastor" in Conway, Massachusetts, in 1821, the decision to hire him was made by the church membership, but approval of his salary had to be secured at a Town Meeting (see Chapter 7).

With the "Religious Freedom Acts" of 1811 and 1824, the legislature did allow members of other churches to have their Minister's Tax abated, so long as they could prove they were supporting that church. In the records of the town of Conway for the 1820s you can find page after page filled with statements of residents attesting to their membership in another church for that very purpose. See for example this entry in the records of the Conway town clerk for 1827:

Conway Town
                      Records
  (Image source: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1972)

"To whom it may concern this certifies that Mr. Daniel Woodward Jr. is a member of the Baptist society in Ashfield and Buckland and doth attend publick worship with us on the Lord's day and doth contribute to the support of the Gospel with us.  Enos Smith, Pastor of the Church, Buckland August 17 1827, Recorded Oct 29 1827, By David Childs town clerk"
         
In those times there was no exemption for nonbelievers; by default their taxes went to the Congregational church. Just a few years after that entry, the Congregational church was officially "disestablished" when the Eleventh Amendment to the Massachusetts State Constitution was passed in 1833. Massachusetts was the last state to do so.

When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by long words and anxious to know the longest word in the English language. My parents helped me to find the answer, not an easy task in the "Pre-Google Era": the longest English word was antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course I had no idea what it meant back then and to be honest, it wasn't until I began my research on Edward Hitchcock that I came to understand a little better. In the late nineteenth century, some activists in Great Britain began a movement to "disestablish" the Church of England - they were known as disestablishmentarians. Soon another movement arose in opposition to disestablishment, and naturally it came to be known as antidisestablishmentarianism. It must have have been a challenge, fitting that name on lapel pins, lawn signs, or whatever devices were used in those days to promote a political cause. Nevertheless, the "Antis" prevailed; to this day the Anglican church is the official state church of the United Kingdom.






October 8, 2020 

FUNGAL FORAGING ON CRICKET HILL

One of the most beautiful works of art by Orra White Hitchcock was one of her earliest creations. "Fungi, Selecti Picti" is an album of 100 miniature watercolors of mushrooms and mosses found by her and Edward in the forests and fields of their new hometown, Conway, Massachusetts, in 1821 (see Chapter 7). They found the sheep pastures and forests of Cricket Hill on the south side of town especially rich and they visited the area again and again during that project. 


Fungi


A century and a half later, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was home to two world-renown experts on mushrooms, Drs. Margaret E. and Howard E. Bigelow. The couple lived in Conway at the time. When they hosted mycologists from around the world, they often took them out for some recreational fungal foraging. According to one acquaintance, Cricket Hill was their favorite destination. Whether the Bigelows discovered the richness of the Cricket Hill mycoflora on their own or learned about it from the work of the Hitchcocks is not known.


Cricket Hill
                          1910

(From Deane Lee, Conway 1767-1967,
Town of Conway, 1967)
 


In autumn 1981, my wife, Nancy Mosher McMaster, then a graduate student, enrolled in a mycology course at UMass taught by Margaret Bigelow. One of the first sites they visited was Cricket Hill, much of which by then had been set aside as Conway State Forest. Professor Bigelow and her students wandered through the forest collecting specimens and placing them in large wicker baskets. Back in the laboratory at UMass, they immediately dissected, examined, and drew each fungal treasure before it was reduced to an oozing, gelatinous mass.

Orra's original album came to Smith College thanks to the generosity of the Hitchcock's youngest daughter, Emily Hitchcock Terry (see Chapter 27), and may be viewed in the Smith College Archives. In 2011 Smith published a reproduction of the album, Fungi Selecti Picti, 1821, edited by art historian Robert L. Herbert. 






October 1, 2020   

THE HITCHCOCK HOUSE IN CONWAY

Edward and Orra Hitchcock moved to Conway, Massachusetts, in June 1821, within days of Edward's installation as the junior pastor of the Conway church. They lived in that town for four years, and the house they eventually purchased from John and Nancy Williams still stands on Whately Road. But that purchase did not take place until May 1824, as the deed in the Franklin County Registry of Deeds attests. This raises the interesting question, where did the Hitchcocks live for the first three years of Edward's Conway pastorate?

Hitchcock
                      House in ConwayI have found no specific references to the Hitchcocks' housing from 1821 to 1824, but I have come across several hints that suggest that they may have lived in the Williams house for a time before they purchased it. In an 1825 letter Edward makes reference to "the house" in which they lived in Conway, implying that they lived in just one house in that town. Furthermore, the deed drawn up in 1824 makes mention of the Hitchcocks' well, a hint that they may already have lived there long enough to dig a well.

Edward's predecessor, the Reverend John Emerson (who by the way was the great uncle of Ralph Waldo Emerson), lived in a home on Baptist Hill on the north side of town. That house is referred to in several places as the church parsonage, but deeds show that it was actually owned by Reverend Emerson and his wife.

In investigating later ownership of the Hitchcock house I discovered that while the church never purchased a home for a pastor in those days, on several occasions church members purchased a house that was subsequently occupied by the pastor and in at least one instance eventually bought by the pastor. So it seems possible that John Williams, who was a church deacon, and his wife provided that house to the Hitchcocks, or perhaps agreed to board them, until they could buy it.

Epaphroditus
                      ChampionWhen the Hitchcocks finally purchased the house on Whately Road, the records indicate that they purchased it from John and Nancy Williams, but made mortgage payments to one Epaphroditus Champion. Champion was a wealthy businessman from Connecticut who had long-time business ties with John Williams. Williams's journal shows that he was in debt to Champion and agreed to have the proceeds from the sale of the house go directly to Champion.
                        

One other amusing note has to do with the name "Epaphroditus." Champion was much admired by John Williams. When John and his wife had a son, they named him Epaphroditus Williams. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down Epaphroditus Williams, where he lived, married, children, date of death, etc., without luck ¦until I discovered that shortly after he turned 21 he changed his name. Who can blame him!

(Note: Many thanks to Sarah Williams of the Conway Historical Commission for assisting me in tracking ownership of the Hitchcock house. I am also indebted to Historic Northampton for providing access to the papers of John Williams.)




September 21, 2020   

HITCHCOCK'S GIANT BOWLDERS

In the course of my research I was astonished to learn that in November 1856 Edward Hitchcock agreed to undertake a geological survey of the state of Vermont. He had spent several decades earlier in life surveying Massachusetts. Now, at age 63, he had agreed to survey the Green Mountain State, nearly as large as Massachusetts and with far more rugged terrain. Furthermore, three geologists had undertaken the project before him...all three died before completing the work. What, we might ask, was he thinking?

In his final report on the Vermont project (see Chapters 23 and 24), Hitchcock devotes several pages to some of the interesting natural features of the state of Vermont. Prominent among these are two very large glacial erratics - "bowlders" he called them - one in Whitingham, a small town on the Vermont-Massachusetts state line, the other just a few miles away in Florida, Massachusetts. 

Recently I set out to relocate Hitchcock's bowlders. I soon learned that just as there are those who enjoy seeking out very large trees to hug, there are also big rock aficionados. Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, I found that both of Hitchcock's erratics were well known to modern day boulder enthusiasts.

My quest began on a snowmobile trail in the Atherton Meadows Wildlife Management Area in Whitingham with a map of the refuge in hand. Less than a mile north of route 100, as I approached the highest point in the refuge, I spotted what looked at first like the roof of a large house or barn looming in the distance. As I drew closer I realized that I was seeing the top of a boulder, a very large boulder, a very, VERY large boulder. Soon I was standing awestruck before the Green Mountain Giant.

Green
                      Mountain Giant woodcut
Woodcut from Hitchcock's Vermont survey report



The Green
                      Mountain Giant
The Green Mountain Giant today


In Hitchcock's words:

"The most gigantic specimen with which we have met, lies on the naked ledges on a high hill on the farm of Jonathan Dix, in the west part of Whitingham. From this hill we look westerly into the valley of Deerfield river, which must be over 500 feet deep and from the character of the rock, corresponding to that of the Green Mountains (a highly micaceous gneiss), we feel sure that the bowlder was transported across this valley. Yet its length is 40 feet; its horizontal circumference 125 feet; its average width 32 feet; its cubic contents 40,000 feet, and its weight 3400 tons...Until a larger bowlder shall be found, we propose for this one the name of Green Mountain Giant."

(Source: Hitchcock, et al., Report on the Geology of Vermont. 2 vols. Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1861, p. 59)



Just fifteen miles southwest of Whitingham and perched on one of the highest ridges in Massachusetts is the ironically-named town of Florida. An unmarked trail leaves route 2 just a mile or so above the Hairpin Turn. The route is an old logging road that has been badly rutted by all-terrain vehicles, but in less than a mile I had another encounter of the glacial kind. This "bowlder" Hitchcock dubbed "The Vermonter" as he explains:


The Vermonter  
Woodcut from Hitchcock's Vermont survey report


The Vermonter
The "Vermonter" today



"There is one bowlder of this granite, however, which from its size and situation we would point out, although it has been carried a little distance over the line into Massachusetts. Ascending Hoosac Mountain from North Adams into Florida on the Greenfield road, and turning northerly at its top so as to pass near the edge of the mountain a mile and a half in an unfrequented path, we come at length, in the midst of the woods, upon the huge bowlder of Stamford granite figured below from a hasty sketch. It lies nearly all out of the ground, resting on the ledges of slate beneath the thin soil. Its height is 15 feet, and it is 76 feet in circumference, weighing by estimation 510 tons...On its northwest side rises Oak Hill, which is some 200 feet higher than the bowlder, and where the granite is in place, from which some agency has torn it off and transported it many miles across the intervening valley 1300 feet deep."
(Source: Hitchcock, et al., Report on the Geology of Vermont. 2 vols. Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1861, p. 57)


That he refers to "some agency" responsible for carrying such an enormous boulder a distance of several miles shows that, even in 1861 when the report was written, Edward Hitchcock was still unconvinced of Agassiz's "glacial theory."

It is amazing to me that these two ancient artifacts are still intact and surrounded by wild lands. The landscape in those two locations has changed little since Hitchcock's time except, of course, for the forests. In his day nearly all of southern New England had been deforested and converted to pastureland.

If you would like to visit these two Hitchcock landmarks, you'll want to locate them on a map using the coordinates below. The trails are not marked, and muddy ruts and trees blown down across the path are all part of the adventure. Both boulders are visible on the Google Earth® view of May 10 2014.


Green Mountain Giant:   42° 46' 29.32" N   72° 54' 7.42" W

The Vermonter:   42° 42' 27.74" N   73° 3' 33.71" W


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Home

Transcriptions

Resources

About the Book




 
Previous Posts



March 8, 2021
Tribute to Robert L. Herbert

February 1, 2021
The Hitchcock Progeny


December 18, 2020
Edward's Massachusetts
Geological Survey


October 15, 2020
Ruth Sherman White:
Requiesce in Pace

 
October 15, 2020
Freedom of Religion,
Massachusetts Style


October 8, 2020
Fungal Foraging on
Cricket Hill


October 1, 2020
The Hitchcock House in Conway


September 21, 2020
Hitchcock's Giant Bowlders








































 
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