John Hodges House, Salem, Mass

The house at 81 Essex Street, at the corner of Orange Street in Salem, around 1890-1914. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives.

The house in 2019:

The second half of the 18th century was a time of great prosperity for Salem because of its thriving maritime trade, and many of the town’s wealthy captains and merchants built fine houses such as this one. This house was built around 1750 by John Hodges, a ship captain who was about 26 years old at the time. Hodges had purchased this property a year earlier, the same year that he married Mary Manning. The couple subsequently raised eleven children here, four of whom died young. Of the surviving sons, five went on to become captains themselves, although two of them died at sea.

Their third child, Benjamin, became one of Salem’s leading captains in the late 18th century. He was a cousin of Elias Hasket Derby, one of the richest merchants in New England, and he frequently commanded Derby’s ships, including the Grand Turk and the Astrea, which were among the first American ships to trade with the far east. Later in his career, Benjamin Hodges was involved in the construction of the frigate USS Essex, the largest ship—and only warship—ever built in Salem. It was funded by subscription from residents of Salem, including Hodges, who also served on the building committee, and it was presented to the United States Navy in 1799. Also in 1799, Hodges was one of the founders of the East India Marine Society, which has since become the Peabody Essex Museum. He then became the organization’s first president, serving until his death in 1806.

Benjamin Hodges acquired this house from his father in 1788, and he lived here with his wife Hannah and their large family. Tragically, though, most of their children died young from tuberculosis, starting with an infant daughter in 1783. Their oldest child, Hannah, died of it in 1792 at the age of 13, followed by ten-year-old John in 1797, 12-year-old Margaret in 1803, 19-year-old Benjamin in 1804, and 14-year-old Sarah in 1812. Both parents also succumbed to the disease, with Benjamin dying in 1806 at the age of 52, and Hannah in 1814 at the age of 59. Only three of their children lived relatively long lives, and only one, Mary, married and had children.

Mary Hodges married William Silsbee in 1808, and the couple lived here in this house, possibly with Mary’s unmarried sisters Hannah and Elizabeth. Like Mary, William was also from a prominent Salem family. His older brother Nathaniel was a ship captain and merchant who later went on to have a successful political career, serving four years in the U. S. House of Representatives and nine years in the Senate. William was likewise a merchant, with ownership interests in a number of vessels. He and Mary had seven children, and he lived in Salem until his death in 1833 at the age of 53. Four years later, Mary and her sisters sold this house, and she died in 1851 at the age of 62.

The house was subsequently owned by Stephen Webb, the cashier of the Mercantile Bank in Salem. He is not to be confused with his contemporary, Stephen Palfrey Webb, whose unusual political career involved serving as mayor of Salem from 1842 to 1845, mayor of San Francisco from 1854 to 1855, and then mayor of Salem again from 1860 to 1862. The Stephen Webb who lived here was about 34 years old when he purchased the house in 1837, and he was still living here during the 1850 census, along with his wife Martha, their five children, and two Irish-born servants. The same census valued his real estate—which may have included more than just this house—at $8,100, equivalent to about $250,000 today.

Stephen Webb had apparently died by 1870, because that year Martha—who was identified on the deed as a widow—sold the house for $3,750 to Sarah Maria Benson, the widow of Captain Samuel Benson. She died two years later, and the 1872 city directory shows her son, George Wiggin Benson, living here. At the time, his household included his ten-year-old son Frank Weston Benson, who later went on to become a prominent Impressionist painter. The future artist would live in Salem for much of his life, but was apparently only in this house for a short time, because by the 1874 city directory his father had moved to a house on Forrester Street.

During the late 19th century the house was owned by Henry Meek, who served as city clerk and later owned a publishing company. He was 54 years old in the 1900 census, and he lived here with his wife Annie, his daughter Alice, and a servant. This was apparently Henry’s second marriage, since Annie was only five years older than his 24-year-old daughter. He died later in 1900, and in 1906 Annie and Alice sold this house to Emma J. Brady.

The first photo was likely taken at some point during or shortly after the Meek family’s ownership. It was taken by Frank Cousins, a Salem native and noted photographer who used his camera to document hundreds of historic buildings in Salem and elsewhere in the northeast. The exterior of the house appears to have been well-preserved at the time, and it would have provided Cousins with a good example of colonial-era Georgian architecture.

Unlike the previous owners, Emma Brady does not appear to have lived here in this house, and instead used it as a rental property. The 1910 census shows that, at the time, it was being rented by Charles M. Proctor, a 44-year-old meat salesman who lived here with his wife Mary, their children Harrison, Charles, Arthur, Clifford, Mildred, and Gladys, and Harrison’s wife Nina. Like his father, Harrison worked as a meat salesman, while Charles was a winder at an electric works and Arthur was a farm laborer.

By the 1920 census the house had changed hands again, and at this point it was being used as a four-family home. There were a total of 11 people listed here that year, four of whom were immigrants, with three from Quebec and one from Greece. Aside from two children, all of the residents were employed, including three leather workers, two cotton mill workers, two machinists, a cook, and a rooming house keeper.

Overall, this house saw a steady decline in the prosperity of its residents, as shown by the fact that the former home of one of Salem’s most prominent captains had become a four-family apartment building. This was a common occurrence throughout Salem during this period; it had peaked in its importance as a seaport at the turn of the 19th century, when it ranked among the top ten most populous cities and towns in the country. However, Salem’s shipping industry was badly hurt by both the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812, and its merchants never fully recovered. This led to a long period of economic stagnation, and the city saw only moderate population growth during the second half of the 19th century.

From a historic preservation standpoint, though, this was not entirely a bad thing. The lack of economic or population growth led to little demand for new construction, resulting in the survival of many historic buildings. Today, one of Salem’s most visible assets is its large number of well-preserved late 18th and early 19th century homes, including the John Hodges House here on Essex Street. Although it has undergone many changes in ownership and use over the past quarter of a millennium, it stands as a reminder of the city’s historic maritime past, with few significant differences from its appearance more than a century ago when the first photo was taken. It is now one of the contributing properties in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Derby House, Salem, Mass

The Derby House on Derby Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

Salem was at the peak of its prosperity as a seaport during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and perhaps no family better exemplified this golden age than the Derby family. The family patriarch was Richard Derby, a ship captain who lived most of his adult life in a house nearby at the corner of Derby and Herbert Streets. Derby eventually retired from sailing in 1757, and he spent the next few decades as a merchant here in Salem. He owned a fleet of ships, and in 1762 he began construction of Derby Wharf, which would eventually become the largest wharf in the port.

Richard and his wife Mary had three sons and three daughters. Two of their sons became ship captains, and the other son, Elias, joined his father in the merchant business. In 1761, at the age of 21, Elias married Elizabeth Crowninshield, and that same year his father began constructing this house for the newlyweds. The house was completed a year later, and it features a brick exterior with Georgian-style details, including a gambrel roof, which was typical for homes of this era. The architect and builder is unknown, although Joseph McIntire—father of the famous Salem architect Samuel McIntire—was apparently involved in the construction, because in 1762 Richard Derby paid him 40 shillings for unspecified work.

The house is situated on the north side of Derby Street, opposite Derby Wharf, where it overlooks the harbor. From here, Elias could keep a close eye on the activity at the wharf, which included the arrival of merchant ships and, during the American Revolution, privateers. He owned or held shares in about half of all the Salem privateers that preyed on British shipping during the war, and he made a significant profit from their success, while simultaneously benefitting the American war effort. Then, at the end of the war, these privateering ships were well-suited for conversion to merchant ships. This put Elias in a good position to expand foreign trade networks, and he became one of the first Americans to trade with China and other ports in southeast Asia.

By the late 18th century, Salem was the seventh-largest city or town in the country, along with being the richest on a per-capita basis. Elias Hasket Derby played a significant role in this prosperity, and he was regarded as one of the wealthiest merchants in New England at the time. Many years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne would famously give him the moniker “King Derby” in his prologue to The Scarlet Letter, in which Hawthorne recounted the glory days of Salem and contrasted them with the mid-19th century decline of the port city.

However, Elias and his wife Elizabeth did not live here in this house for his entire merchant career. They lived here through at least the early years of the Revolution, and raised their seven children here, but they appear to have moved elsewhere by around 1778. They were definitely gone by 1782, when they moved into a house closer to the center of Salem, at what is now the corner of Washington and Lynde Streets. Then, in 1799 they moved again, this time to a newly-built house designed by Charles Bulfinch. However, both Elias and Elizabeth died that same year, and that house was ultimately demolished in 1815 to build a new town hall.

In the meantime, the Derby family continued to own this house here on Derby Street for most of the late 18th century, before ultimately selling it to Henry Prince in 1796. Price, who apparently had begun renting the house from the Derbys as early as 1784, was a successful sea captain who sailed for some of Salem’s leading merchants, including Derby. He also played a role in the career of famed navigator and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch; Prince was the captain on Bowditch’s first voyage, departing Salem in 1795 aboard the Derby-owned Henry.

Like many prosperous captains, Prince subsequently became a merchant, and by the early 19th century he had ownership interests in a number of vessels, including the appropriately-named 219-ton ship Golden Age. However, by this point the golden age of Salem was already nearing its end. Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 severely damaged the American economy in general, but it was particularly devastating for Salem, which was dependent upon foreign trade. The War of 1812 caused further disruption to trade, and these financial hardships eventually forced Prince to sell both this house and his warehouse.

Various sources give somewhat different information as to when Prince lost his house, but in any case it was ultimately acquired by Henry Ropes, who married Henry Prince’s daughter Mary in 1821. Born in Salem in 1791, Ropes was the son of Captain George Ropes, who died at sea in 1807, and the brother of George Ropes Jr., a noted artist who specialized in maritime themes. Henry Ropes likewise became a ship captain, and made a number of voyages to India before retiring from the sea. He subsequently became involved in banking here in Salem, including serving for many years as the treasurer of the Salem Savings Bank.

Henry and Mary had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. Of their six children who survived to adulthood, most of them still died relatively young, with only two living past the age of 43. Henry died in 1861, but Mary continued to live her in her father’s old house until her own death in 1873. The 1870 census shows here with several generations of her family, including her only two living children, Joseph and Benjamin, who were both in their 30s and unmarried. She also shared the house with Priscilla, the widow of her oldest son George. Priscilla was 44 years old at the time, and she lived here with her daughters Priscilla and Mary, who appear to have been the only grandchildren of Henry and Mary Ropes who survived infancy.

Mary Ropes died in February 1873, and by late May the property, which was described in the Salem Register as consisting of a “two-story brick dwelling and other buildings and 22,000 square feet of land,” had been sold to Daniel Leahy for $6,700, or about $145,000 today. Leahy was an Irish immigrant who was about 26 years old at the time, and he moved in here with his wife Mary and their infant daughter Johanna. Just a few years earlier, during the 1870 census, the couple had been living in Peabody. According to the census, he worked as a laborer, had a personal estate of $150, and was unable to read or write.

The historical record does not seem to indicate how an illiterate immigrant laborer with $150 to his name in 1870 was able to, within three years, purchase a house that had once belonged to one of the wealthiest merchants in New England. However, this example serves to illustrate just how far Salem had fallen in prosperity since the days of “King Derby.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was no longer alive at this point, but if he had been he likely would have seen this as further proof of what he discussed in the prologue to The Scarlet Letter.

In any case, by the 1880 census Daniel and Mary were living here with a number of other family members. In addition to eight-year-old Johanna, they had a four-year-old son Thomas, and they also lived here with Daniel’s mother Johanna, his siblings Bartholomew, Michael, Mary, Catherine, and Margaret, and Bartholomew’s wife Catherine and infant son Patrick. Daniel and his two brothers all worked as stevedores, perhaps on the same wharves that Elias Hasket Derby had once built, and the three sisters worked in cotton mills. The family also had three young Irish women living here as boarders, all of whom also worked in cotton mills.

The Leahy family lived in this house until around the turn of the 20th century, but they continued to own the property for many years. The first photo was taken sometime around 1910, and that year’s census indicates that it was rented by two different families. In one unit was William and Annie Doyle, middle-aged Irish immigrants who lived here with their 11-year-old adopted daughter Agnes. In the other unit was John and Julia Szezechowicz, their four children, and John’s brother Bradislaw. They were all immigrants from Poland, arriving in the United States only three years earlier.

Over the years, the condition of the house steadily deteriorated, but it was ultimately acquired by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in 1927. Now known as Historic New England, this organization restored the house to its original appearance, and then in 1937 transferred it to the National Park Service. A year later, the house became part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which was established that year as the first national historic site in the country.

Today, the Derby House is still part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. It is partially hidden behind the trees in the present-day view, but it stands as one of the many well-preserved historic 18th and early 19th century homes in Salem. In the rear of the house, the property also includes a formal garden, which is a recreation of the gardens that were typical for Salem merchants of this period. Just to the left of the house, outside of view in this scene, is the Benjamin Hawkes House, and beyond it is the Salem Custom House, both of which have likewise been restored as part of the national historic site.

Longfellow House Staircase, Cambridge, Mass

The main staircase in the Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in more detail in an earlier post, this house was built in 1759 for John Vassall, a wealthy sugar plantation owner who fled Cambridge just prior to the start of the American Revolution because of his loyalist sympathies. The patriot government then confiscated his property, and from July 1775 to April 1776 it was the residence and headquarters of George Washington, who had been given command of the Continental Army just before coming to Cambridge. Much of his strategic planning during the Siege of Boston was done here in the house, including his move to fortify Dorchester Heights in March 1776, which ultimately led to the British evacuation of Boston.

Aside from Washington, the other famous resident of this house was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He moved in here in 1837 as a boarder, when he was a 30-year-old Harvard professor and still a relatively obscure writer. His future father-in-law, Nathan Appleton, later purchased it as a wedding gift for Longfellow and his wife Fanny in 1843, and he went on to live here for the rest of his life. In total, he spent 45 years in this house, and most of his major works were written here, including Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “The Village Blacksmith.”

This staircase is located just inside the front door, so it would have been the first thing that guests of both Washington and Longfellow would have seen upon arriving in the house. Both of these famous residents had a number of notable visitors here, and for Washington these included his subordinate generals such as Horatio Gates, Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, and Nathanael Greene. Many of Longfellow’s prominent visitors were fellow literary figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Although not visible in this scene, the entry hall also features two doors at the base of the stairs, with one on the left and one on the right. The door to the left leads into the room at the southwest corner of the house, which was used by Washington as his reception room for his visitors, and by the Longfellows as their parlor. To the right, at the southeast corner, is where Washington had his dining room, and where he would have held his councils of war with his other generals. This room was later used by Longfellow as his study, and he wrote many of his famous works there.

Longfellow appreciated the history of his house and its association with Washington. When the general first arrived here in July 1775, the patriot leaders had great confidence in his abilities, but at that point his leadership had not yet been tested in battle. However, by the time Longfellow moved in more than 60 years later, Washington was revered as the father of his country, and he was the subject of countless works of art. In 1844, to recognize Washington’s time here in this house, Longfellow purchased a bust of Washington, which he placed here in the entry hall. It was a copy of one made by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1785, and, as these two photos show, it is still here next to the stairs, nearly 180 years later.

Longfellow’s daughter Alice had a similar respect for history and historic preservation, so after his death in 1882 she was careful to maintain both the interior and exterior appearances of the house. As a result, the first photo, which was taken around the 1910s, when Alice was still living here, probably reflects how it would have looked during Longfellow’s lifetime. Aside from the bust of Washington, the photo also includes several other antiques and works of art. On the left side are three paintings, and above them is a print of Washington on horseback that Longfellow acquired in 1864. In the upper center of the scene, on the landing, is a grandfather clock that he added there in 1877, five years before his death. As shown in the 2019 photo, all of these objects are still in the same location today.

For much of the 20th century, this house was run by the Longfellow House Trust. However, in 1972 the organization gave the house and its contents to the National Park Service, and it became the Longfellow House National Historic Site. It has since been renamed the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, but, as these photos show, not much else has changed here, and the house is open to the public for ranger-guided tours.

Longfellow House, Cambridge, Mass (2)

The Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, around 1890-1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:


As discussed in more detail in the previous post, this house was built in 1759 as the home of John Vassall, a 21-year-old sugar plantation heir. He lived here until 1774 when, as a loyalist, he and his family moved to the safety of British-occupied Boston shortly before the start of the American Revolution.

The Vassalls ultimately never returned here, and starting in the summer of 1775 their house was occupied by George Washington, who used it as his residence and headquarters during the siege of Boston. Washington remained here for nearly nine months, until after the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, and he departed on April in order to move the Continental Army to New York.

This house went through several different owners in the late 18th century before being purchased by Andrew Craigie around 1792. Craigie had been the first apothecary general of the Continental Army during the war, and he lived here until his death in 1819. His widow Elizabeth continued to live here until she died in 1841, and during this time she took on boarders, including a young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who moved into the house in 1837.

The famous poet ultimately became the owner of the house when, in 1843, he married Fanny Appleton and her father Nathan purchased it and gave it to them as a wedding gift. Longfellow went on to write nearly all of his major works here in this house, and he also frequently entertained distinguished visitors here, among them Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde. His wife Fanny died here in 1861 from burns that she suffered after her dress caught fire, but Longfellow continued to live here for the rest of his life, until his death in 1882 at the age of 75.

By the time the first photo was taken around the 1890s, his daughter Alice was still living here. She was a philanthropist and also an advocate of historic preservation, and during her ownership she maintained the house in its historic condition, on both the interior and exterior. The 1900 census, which was probably recorded soon after the photo was taken, shows here living here alone, with the exception of three servants.

Alice lived here until her death in 1928, and for much of the 20th century the house was preserved by the Longfellow House Trust. This organization ultimately donated the property to the National Park Service, and it became the Longfellow National Historic Site. It has since been renamed the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, and it is still open to visitors for guided tours. As these two photos show, the house has seen hardly any exterior change from this angle since the first photo was taken more than 120 years ago.

Longfellow House, Cambridge, Mass

The Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

This elegant Georgian-style mansion was built in 1759 as the home of John Vassall, a wealthy young man whose family owned a number of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Vassall was born in 1738, but his mother died just a year later, and his father died when he was only nine. As the only son, he inherited his father’s wealth, and he was subsequently raised by his grandfather Spencer Phips, the longtime lieutenant governor of colonial Massachusetts.

His inheritance had included 56 acres of land here in Cambridge, and he wasted little time in improving the property after coming of age. In 1759, at the age of 21, he had his father’s old house demolished, and he replaced it with this home here on Brattle Street, located about a half mile west of the center of Cambridge. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Oliver, whose brother Thomas later served as the colonial lieutenant governor. The couple went on to live here until 1774, and during this time they had seven children, one of whom died in infancy.

The Vassalls lived here at a time when slavery was still legal in Massachusetts. Although slavery was not widespread in the colony, it was not uncommon for wealthy families to have several enslaved domestic servants. In the case of the Vassalls, though, they had at least seven slaves living here at this house, which was an unusually large number for colonial Massachusetts. This reflected the significant wealth of the Vassall family, which itself was largely derived from enslaved labor on the family’s sugar plantations.

As both the grandson and brother-in-law of high-ranking royal officials, as well as being a wealthy landowner with holdings in other colonies, John Vassall remained loyal to the British crown in the years leading up to the American Revolution. However, as tensions escalated by the mid-1770s, the Vassalls decided to relocate to the relative safety of Boston, leaving their country estate here in Cambridge in the care of their slaves. They intended to return once the situation improved, but they ultimately evacuated Boston with the rest of the British fleet in March 1776. They made their way first to Halifax and then to England, where they continued to prosper despite having all of their Massachusetts property confiscated.

In the meantime, while the Vassalls were still residing in Boston, Cambridge became the main encampment of the Continental Army, thanks to its location directly across the Charles River from Boston. From here, the army laid siege to Boston, confining the British to what was, at the time, a geographically small seaport town on a narrow peninsula in the middle of the harbor. At the start of the siege in the spring of 1775, the colonial forces consisted primarily of local militia companies, but on June 14 the Continental Congress in Philadelphia established the Continental Army, and a day later Virginia delegate George Washington was appointed as its commander-in-chief.

Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2, and he initially set up his headquarters at the Wadsworth House, which was the residence of the Harvard president. He stayed there for two weeks, but on July 16 he moved here to the vacated Vassall house. This move was likely motivated in part by the fact that, at the previous house, he had to share space with General Charles Lee, and also with the Harvard president. The Vassall house was also a quieter place, further from the town center and away from the main army encampments, and Washington may have also preferred it because, in part, it resembled his own home in Virginia. Like Mount Vernon, the house was situated on a large estate, surrounded by farmland tended by slaves, and it likewise offered a view of a major river, in this case the Charles River.

Whatever his reasons for choosing this house, the George Washington who arrived here in July 1775 was in many ways very different from the man who would ultimately come to be known as the father of his country. Although widely respected and celebrated with enthusiasm here in Cambridge, Washington was still a relatively young man at 43. Up to this point, his military career was limited to serving as a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. His wartime service had been distinguished but not overly remarkable, yet by the summer of 1775 he was viewed by many patriots as the best choice to lead the newly-organized army.

This house served as Washington’s residence and headquarters throughout the rest of the siege of Boston, until after the British evacuated the town in March 1776. During this time, the house was a busy place, with Washington regularly receiving high-ranking officers and other important visitors. For a time, General Horatio Gates also lived here, and Martha Washington arrived here to live with her husband in December 1775. In addition, Washington’s councils of war were held here, probably in the dining room, which was apparently located in the front room on the right side of the house. These meetings were attended by his top generals, including such notable figures as Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, and Nathanael Greene.

It was also here at this house that, in the fall of 1775, Washington received a poem written by Phillis Wheatley. A few years earlier, while still enslaved, she had become the first published African American poet in the American colonies. By 1775 she had gained her freedom, and she continued to write poems, many of which gave praise to notable public figures. In her poem to Washington, she described the conflict between Britain and the colonies, and wrote in glowing terms about Washington being “first and place and honours,” and “Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,” before concluding with four lines that foreshadowed his future as the leader of the new country:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

Washington did not immediately respond to Wheatley, but in early 1776 he finally wrote back to her, praising her abilities by writing, “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” Then, in a rather remarkable offer for a southern slaveowner to extend to a recently-emancipated slave, Washington invited Wheatley to visit his headquarters, writing “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.” Whether or not Wheatley actually visited him here is unknown; it is possible that she may have, but if so there are no surviving contemporary accounts of it.

During his time in Cambridge, Washington did not fight any major battles, although the idea of assaulting British-occupied Boston was a frequent topic of discussion here at his councils of war. In the end, though, the decisive move that ended the siege of Boston came on March 4, 1776, when the Continental Army, in the course of a single night, secretly fortified Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston.

The cannons on the hill made the British position in Boston untenable, forcing their commander, General William Howe, to choose between abandoning the town or risking a Bunker Hill-style assault on Dorchester Heights. He considered the latter option, and Washington was actually counting on this, as he hoped to attack Boston from Cambridge while the majority of Howe’s army was at Dorchester. However, Howe ultimately decided to evacuate Boston, and Washington allowed his fleet to sail away unharmed under the condition that the British not burn the town.

The British sailed away on March 17, on a day that is still celebrated in Boston as Evacuation Day. Washington remained here at his headquarters for the next few weeks, before leaving on April 4. He and his army would subsequently head south to New York City, to defend it from an anticipated attack by Howe’s army. The remainder of 1776 would prove to be a difficult time for Washington, who suffered a series of defeats in the late summer and fall. These were “the times that try men’s souls,” as Thomas Paine put it, and after his success here in Boston, Washington would not experience another major victory until Trenton in late December. Still, despite these difficulties, Washington maintained the respect of the majority of his soldiers, and his leadership would prove instrumental in the ultimate success of the American Revolution.

In the meantime, after Washington’s departure the house had several different owners in the late 18th century. Merchant Nathaniel Tracy owned it from 1781 to 1786, and then another merchant, Thomas Russell, owned it until 1791, It was then purchased by Andrew Craigie, a noted apothecary who had served as the first Apothecary General of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He married his wife Elizabeth in 1793, and he lived here until his death in 1819. During this time, he improved the house and the surrounding grounds, and he frequently held lavish parties here, with attendees such as Prince Edward, who was the father of Queen Victoria.

After Craigie’s death, his widow Elizabeth continued to live here for the rest of her life. In order to reduce her expenses, she took in boarders during much of this time. These included historian Jared Sparks, politician Edward Everett, and most notably, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was a 30-year-old Harvard professor when he moved into a room here in 1837, and he had recently been widowed after the death of his young wife Mary less than two years earlier.

At the time, Longfellow had barely begun his literary career. His first book, Outre-Mer, had been published in 1835, but it was here in this house that Longfellow would establish himself as one of the leading writers of 19th century America. His next major works, the novel Hyperion and poetry collection Voices of the Night, were written here, and were published in 1839. Around this time, he was courting Fanny Appleton, the daughter of prominent merchant Nathan Appleton. He and Fanny ultimately married in 1843, two years after the death of Elizabeth Craigie, and Appleton purchased the house from her heirs as a wedding gift for Longfellow.

Henry and Fanny Longfellow both lived here for the rest of their lives, and during this time they had six children, one of whom died young. He wrote most of his works here, including his famous epic poems Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, along with notable shorter poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Village Blacksmith.” However, this house was also the site of a tragedy when, in 1861, Fanny died from severe burns after her dress caught on fire. Henry was also badly burned while trying to extinguish the flames, and this resulted in him growing his famous beard in order to hide the scars on his face.

Because Longfellow was such a famous literary figure during his lifetime, he frequently received notable guests here at his house. He had a close friendship with Senator Charles Sumner, who was a frequent visitor here. Other prominent local visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with foreigners such as British novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, Swedish singer Jenny Lind, British actress Fanny Kemble, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. Dickens actually visited the house several times in November 1867 during his American tour, including for Thanksgiving dinner on November 28.

Longfellow died in 1882 at the age of 75, after having lived here for 45 years. The house would remain in his family for many more years, though, and his daughter Alice was still living here when the first photo was taken around the 1910s. She was 59 years old when the 1910 census was taken, and she was listed as living here alone except for three servants. Alice was involved in a number of philanthropic causes and historic preservation efforts, including working with other family members to establish the Longfellow House Trust, which preserved the family home and its contents.

The Longfellow House Trust continued to maintain the house long after Alice Longfellow’s death in 1928, and in 1962 the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Then, ten years later, the organization donated it to the National Park Service. The property became the Longfellow National Historic Site, and it has been open to visitors ever since, although in 2010 it was renamed the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Today, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and it survives not only as an excellent example of colonial-era Georgian architecture, but also as an important connection to both George Washington and to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Peacefield, Quincy, Mass

Peacefield, the former home of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, at 135 Adams Street in Quincy, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, John Adams was born in a house that still stands a little more than a mile south of here on Franklin Street in Quincy. Then, as an adult, he and his wife Abigail lived in a house next door to his birthplace, where their son John Quincy Adams was born in 1767. Tat modest saltbox-style farmhouse was their home throughout John Adams’s early political career and the American Revolution, although he was frequently away on government business, including spending most of the Revolution overseas as a diplomat.

After the end of the war, Abigail Adams traveled to Europe with Nabby, arriving in 1784 and reuniting with her husband and John Quincy. The family then spent the next four years in Europe, first in Paris and then in London. During this time, they grew accustomed to living in large, fashionable houses in these cities, so in 1787 they decided to upgrade their living situation back home by purchasing this house, including 80 acres of farmland, on modern-day Adams Street. They were still living in Europe at the time, but they moved into the house upon their return to America a year later.

The house itself dated back to 1731, when the original portion of the building was constructed as the home of Leonard Vassall, a sugar plantation owner from Jamaica. He had died in 1737, but his daughter Anna Borland subsequently inherited the property, and she and her husband John used it as a summer residence. However, she was a loyalist, so she fled to England at the start of the war, and the house was empty for most of the Revolution. She later recovered the property, and her son Leonard ultimately sold it to Adams in 1787 for 600 pounds.

The Adamses had apparently recalled the house as having been one of the finest residences in the town, but they were somewhat disappointed after having purchased it sight unseen from overseas. Although its Georgian architecture was an improvement from their old saltbox house, it was still small, consisting of just six rooms in what is now the left side of the front facade of the house. It was also in poor condition after having been vacant for so long, and it required significant work.

Less than a month after their return to America, Abigail wrote a letter to her daughter Nabby, in which she described the rather dismal condition of the house:

But we have come into a house not half repaired, and I own myself most sadly disappointed. In height and breadth, it feels like a wren’s house. Ever since I came, we have had such a swarm of carpenters, masons, farmers, as have almost distracted me—every thing all at once, with miserable assistance. In short, I have been ready to wish I had left all my furniture behind. The length of the voyage and heat of the ship greatly injured it; some we cannot get up, and the shocking state of the house has obliged me to open it in the garret.

Over time, though, the house, which John Adams named Peacefield, became a suitable residence for the family. It was steadily expanded, including a large addition on the right side of the house, and Abigail oversaw much of this work herself, as John Adams spent most of the 1790s in Philadelphia. There, he served as the first vice president from 1789 to 1797, and then as the second president, succeeding George Washington after the strongly-contested 1796 election between himself and political rival Thomas Jefferson.

During his presidency, the United States capital city shifted from Philadelphia to Washington, D. C. As a result, Adams became the first president to live in the White House, moving in on November 1, 1800. However, his say there was short; that fall, he lost the election to Thomas Jefferson, and he left Washington early on the morning of March 4, 1801 bound for Quincy, just hours before his successor was inaugurated.

Adams largely retired from public life once he returned to Quincy, focusing instead on farming his land here at Peacefield. He avoided making public statements in opposition to Jefferson, and the two men ultimately renewed their friendship and began a frequent exchange of letters after the end of Jefferson’s presidency. However, this period was also a time of personal troubles for Adams. His son Charles had died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1800 at the age of 30, and his son Thomas had similar problems with alcoholism. Then, his daughter Nabby died of breast cancer in 1813, and his wife Abigail died of typhoid fever in 1818.

This left John Quincy Adams as his only surviving child. His son technically owned Peacefield, having purchased it from John Adams when his father had financial troubles in 1803. At the time, John Quincy Adams was a U. S. senator from Massachusetts, and he subsequently became Secretary of State under James Monroe, serving from 1817 to 1825. John Adams lived long enough to see his son elected president in 1824, but he ultimately died halfway through John Quincy Adams’s term, on July 4, 1826, at the age of 90. In one of the most unusual coincidences in American history, Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Like his father, John Quincy Adams proved to be a one-term president after losing the election of 1828. He then returned to Peacefield here in Quincy, but his life in politics was hardly over by this point. Despite a relatively average presidency, he went on to have one of the most successful careers of any former president, serving in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1831 until his death in 1848. During this time, he was one of the leading opponents of slavery in Congress, and in his final years one of his colleagues in the House was a young Abraham Lincoln, who served as a pallbearer at Adams’s funeral.

In another more unfortunate parallel between himself and his father, John Quincy Adams also had three sons, two of whom lived troubled lives, struggled with alcoholism, and died young. His oldest son, George Washington Adams, died in 1829 at the age of 28 from an apparent suicide, and his second son, John Adams II, died five years later. Only his youngest son, Charles Francis Adams Sr., outlived him, and he inherited Peacefield after John Quincy Adams’s death.

Charles Francis Adams had a successful career in politics, serving in the state legislature before being elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1858. He was re-elected in 1860, but soon resigned after Abraham Lincoln appointed him as ambassador to the United Kingdom, a diplomatic post that both his father and grandfather had once held. In this capacity, Adams played an important role in keeping the United Kingdom neutral during the Civil War, preventing them from giving aid or diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.

During his time at Peacefield, Adams continued to make improvements, including the construction of the Stone Library adjacent to the main house. This building, which stands just out of view on the far left side of this scene, was built in accordance with John Quincy Adams’s wishes and completed in 1873. Designed to be fireproof, the building houses over 12,000 collected by several generations of the Adams family, along with other important family papers and documents.

Charles Francis Adams died in 1886, and his sons Henry and Brooks were the fourth and last generation to live here at Peacefield. Both were alive when the first photo was taken, and it was around this time that Henry completed his famous memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, although it would not be published until after his death in 1918. In the meantime, Brooks continued to live here until his death in 1927, 140 years after his great grandfather had purchased the property.

During his ownership, Brooks Adams had steadily sold off most of the property, and by the time he died Peacefield consisted of just four acres surrounding the house. He had no children to inherit the house, so the other Adams family descendants formed the Adams Memorial Society, and opened the house to the public as a museum. This organization ran it for nearly 20 years, before ultimately transferring it to the National Park Service in 1946.

Originally named the Adams Mansion National Historic Site, it was later renamed the Adams National Historical Park, and it now includes the nearby birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Throughout this time, Peacefield has remained well-preserved, and today this exterior view looks nearly identical to its appearance more than a century ago, aside from the brick portion of the fence on the right side. Along with both birthplace houses, Peacefield is still open to the public, with guided tours of the main house and the Stone Library.