Humble Beginnings of the Shafter Dynasty (part 2)

How they died and who they were remain a mystery. When they died, James and his baby sister, Molly, suddenly became orphans. When asked his name, James replied “Shafter”. This was likely a mistake. The parents were evidently not landowners; therefore, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 1730s, there were no official records of them.

The story that follows comes from his grandson, Judge William Rufus Shafter of Townshend, Vermont, in 1857. His words are in quotes, annotated based on further research.

Main Street, Brattleboro VT early 1900’s. From old postcard.

Townshend, April 14th, 1857.

Impressed with the importance of leaving some record of the origin and genealogy of our family, for the benefit of those who may succeed us, and who may have curiosity or interest enough in the subject to examine it, and learn from whence they came, I have collected and leave on record the few historical facts that I have been able to collect.

It seems that our paternal ancestors came from the west of England. On the mother’s side is inherited pure Welsh blood.

Could the children have confused their name with something that sounded similar? Schaefter is close but unlikely since it is of German origin. Slaughter is also close and of English origin yet pronounced differently. There was a family named Slafter at the time, but the records make this unlikely.

Our great grandfather, with his wife, emigrated to this country, landing at Boston. They either brought two children with them, or they were born in due time after their arrival — -as they lived but a few years, and left no other issue. As they had expended all their substance in getting here, of necessity their orphan children were left dependent upon charity, and were sent to the almshouse, where it seems they remained a few years before they were of sufficient age to be otherwise disposed of.

“No other issue” means no other children; “expended all their substance” meaning their money. The majority of immigrants at the time paid for their travel to the colonies through indenture servitude upon arrival. The “almshouse” was an orphanage. “Otherwise disposed of” essentially meant they were sold off into servitude as laborers or domestic servants, which was the case for the Shafter children.

A farmer from the town of Framingham, Mass., visited the almshouse for the purpose of procuring a boy to assist him in his business. The Shafter boy was recommended to him, and he decided to take him on trial. When they attempted to separate him from his sister, who was his only associate and relative, the evidences of attachment were so strong as to become overpowering, and the benevolent feelings of the good man, silencing all consideration of pecuniary loss, he charitably concluded to take them both. So James and his little sister Molly went to Framingham, though we have no knowledge of dates.

The man with whom they went to live (we never learned his name) was satisfied with them. They lived with him until they were both married. James at the age of 19 or 20 married a young woman, Esther McMellen.

Records indicate that this 27-year-old bride was Esther Mellen, the daughter of Simon Mellen whose seven other children had likely left home by then. Baby Simon Shafter was born just four months later. It’s reasonable to assume that she was the proverbial farmer’s daughter. Legal age for men at the time was either 24 or 21.

Research by a modern Mellen descendent suggests that James and Esther were “of Oxford” when they announced their marriage. Oxford isn’t a neighboring town of Framingham, but Esther’s brother David and several maternal aunts and uncles lived in Oxford. Perhaps James and Esther moved to Oxford to live with family when she realized she was pregnant and to avoid stigma in Framingham. James was a minor, so he couldn’t set up his own household until he came of age, and when he did, they were in Oxford.

He continued to reside with his guardian until he became of age, and afterwards remained in the same vicinity, where most of his children were born, Simon, Lois, Molly, Esther, and Lydia. At this period he gathered up his little property and removed to Richmond, N. H., purchased a lot of land and commenced improvements.

It’s conceivable that Simon Mellen helped the young couple buy land. We would say they “moved” to Richmond instead of “removed” as written here. Richmond is just across the Massachusetts state line and was part of the controversial New Hampshire Land Grants by colonial governor Benning Wentworth. Ahead of his time, Wentworth’s land grants were “fee simple absolute” (“fee” as in “fief”) which is close to our current system of land ownership as compared to the feudal system whereby the Crown ultimately owned the land.

Here he had three more children born to him, James, Prudence, and Charity. He was a man of medium height, closely knit together, of high temper and indomitable perseverance. He continued the improvement of his farm as his means would allow for seven or eight years, keeping his large family together. At this time he was killed by the falling of a tree, leaving his family dependent on their own exertions. The eldest girls were then put out to places where they could support themselves, and Simon remained at home and took care of his mother and some of the younger children. He remained steady until he was about 19, when he became excessively fond of dancing, wrestling, and other kindred sports. About the age of 24 he joined the Continental army, holding the rank of captain. He died at Valley Forge of small-pox.

The descriptor “closely knit together” is unfamiliar to me. Is it “high strung” or “stoic”? Likewise, does “high temper” mean “tolerant” or “volatile”? Of course, “indomitable perseverance” translates to modern usage and will be evident as this story unfolds.

The elder James died at age 36 (1766) when his oldest son was 12 and the youngest barely one. When Simon died during the Revolutionary War, the younger James was only 19. Presumably, the other children (some were young adults, but unmarried) went to other homes in some form of servitude.

Molly, the orphan sister, married a man by the name of Chubb, and is supposed to have removed to Vermont.

Molly was the elder James’ sister. I cannot confirm the Chubb family or whether they lived near Athens, Vermont, where several family members eventually settled.

Lois, the eldest daughter, married John White, and settled in Weathersfield, Vt. She had three sons and several daughters, one of whom married a Mr. Haskel, and lived near what was called Weathersfield Bow.

Mollie, the next girl, married Ellis Thayer, and settled in Brookline, Vt. Subsequently they removed to Newfane, Vt.

Esther married Benjamin Thrasher and settled in Athens.

Lydia married Enoch Phylips and settled in Essex, N. Y.

Prudence married Jeremiah Bowers and settled in Richmond, this State.

Charity married Jabez Whipple and settled in Athens.

The writer of this was well acquainted with his aunts, and known them to have been possessed of much more than an ordinary share of intellect, of unrivaled energy, and a perseverance that knows no discouragement.

The elder James Shafter and wife were buried in Winchester, Mass. Thus it appears that up to the third generation there was only one male child to perpetuate the name, bearing the name of his predecessor, James.

The elder James had no middle name. His son, the younger James, was given the middle name McMellen which suggests they thought his mother’s maiden name was McMellen rather than Mellen. Since his brother Simon died in 1778, James McMellen Shafter is the only one to carry on the Shafter name. Hereafter, I’ll call him James.

As such, he alone would transmit to posterity, hence it becomes more important that a more particular and extended account of him and his family should be left on record for future generations, whereby they may be able to trace their family name to the same common origin, for it is not improbable that, years hence, this brief and simple narrative, trifling as it may seem in the day of its nativity, may be found copied into the genealogical records of many a family, who otherwise would have been unable to do so.

At the dispersion of the family at the death of their father James (the fifth child) was put to live with Mr. Dodge, who it seems proved to be a hard, unfeeling man. He was a tanner by trade, so he clothed James in sheepskin clothes, which was perhaps the best he could do for him, and not particularly injurious to the boy, as in the coldest weather he was not allowed to come near the fire, but was compelled to sit on the lowest round of the ladder. Short allowance of food, and that of the most simple kind, together with constant employment in the most servile drudgery, considering his age (only seven years) and his unprotected state, aroused the sympathies of the surrounding inhabitants.

This sounds like child abuse — long before child labor laws. Fortunately, the neighbors noticed and stepped forward. Despite this experience, he would remain close to his siblings and establish a tight-knit relationship among the next generation of Shafters.

The result was, they took him away, and placed him in the family of Deacon Jewett, who proved a kind protector, guarding his helplessness and giving him such counsel as his age and circumstances required. Subsequently, he was to live with Mr. John Alexander He kept a public house in Winchester. James remained with him till he was of age. Mr. Alexander was an easy, inefficient sort of a man, and preferred sitting in his chair and playing with his thumbs to engaging in any more active employment.

As a “public house” is a pub, and Mr. Alexander was content to twiddle his thumbs; we might suspect that he drank a bit. It’s quite generous to be described as an inefficient sort of man!

His wife, however, possessed unusual conversational powers, which she not infrequently exercised for the special benefit of her husband, who would sit for hours apparently unmoved under the storm of words that would make a common man’s hair stand on end.

This description was passed down in family lore. It must have left quite an impression.

James’ diligence and activity gave entire satisfaction to madam, so that he became an especial favorite with her, and in time became the efficient substitute for the old man in all the business transactions of the concern. At the age of 17 he was drafted into the New Hampshire Militia, and ordered to the defence [defense] of his country at Bunker Hill, but with his companions, arrived too late to participate in the memorable transaction of that important event. How long he remained enrolled I have no knowledge. He afterwards took an active part in the Battle of Bennington, and discharged his musket sixteen times before the enemy gave way, stormed and scaled the breastworks, behind which the Hessians were ranged, and drove them from the ground, and afterwards, in company with a few volunteers, fought and kept at bay 500 of them until the darkness of the night compelled them to quit the field. He was at the battle of the Cedars of Lake Champlain, but owing to the cowardice of the commanding officer the little troop were surrendered prisoners of war to the British and Indians, who stripped and robbed them of everything that was of any value. James had two crowns in his pocket which he was unwilling to part with for the benefit of the victorious yellow-skin.

Hessians were Germans who were fighting for the British. I can only assume that “yellow-skin” refers to the Native American captor, as does “sable majesty” below. The point of the following story is probably one of bravery in the face of the enemy rather than risking one's life for ten shillings.

Watching his opportunity, and taking advantage of the general confusion, he crept carefully down into the cellar and covered them over with dirt in an obscure corner. At this point, turning his eye to the stairway, he beheld a stalwart Indian with his tomahawk raised, peering into the darkness. James, satisfied by his manner that he did not see him, suppressing his breath and keeping as much as possible in the shadow of the wall, approached as near his sable majesty as he could, then with a catamount spring, bounded by him, giving him at the same time a thrust in the stomach, whilst the click of the tomahawk against the wall possibly reminded him that his gait upstairs was in fact a “stitch in time.” He was kept a prisoner for fourteen days, and, with others, was exchanged and furnished with guns. After his return to Winchester he continued in his former employment until he was 21 years of age, which was September 15, 1780.

In 1777, Vermont declared its independence. Recall the controversial Wentworth Land Grants (also called the New Hampshire Land Grants). They were controversial because they benefited Wentworth financially, but also because the State of New York had issued land grants on the same properties. Nonetheless, for £20 you could purchase six square miles of land (24,000 acres) and, after meeting certain requirements, be granted a charter for a town. This land, of course, had belonged to Native Americans for millennia. Nonetheless, it was common for a group of men to join together and purchase a grant. These were often resold or reverted to the state if the requirements of settlement were not met. For example, in 1763 Seth Oak (or Oakes) bought in with a group to start a settlement called Lunenberg, Vermont, but sold his interest before he even arrived there, for a glass of grog. But Seth would try again. Now let's rejoin young James Shafter.

There were several travelers put up there over night whom we may subsequently have occasion to mention. The minor, having now become a man, like other young men wishing to provide a home for himself, had intended to start the next morning for Otter Creek or the West side of the Green Mountains. It being cloudy in the morning, with strong indications of rain, he concluded to postpone his departure until fair weather. About nine o’clock, however, the vapors dispersed, and he shouldered his axe and his small wallet, and bade adieu to all the home he had, with a determined purpose to find and prepare a place for himself in the then wilderness of Vermont.

Being young and active, he overtook the elderly gentlemen who started in the morning, and very naturally fell into conversation with them, as to their destination and objects. He learned that they were from Winchendon, and were going to examine a gore of uninhabited land lying between Grafton (then called Tomlinson) and Westminster and Townshend. They persuaded him to join them, which he at last consented to do. Learning the name of the last settler on the route (where they intended to stop) he went ahead. On his arrival at the place agreed upon (the house of Mr. Ellis), about two miles N. E. of the present “Cambridge Port,” he found him engaged in building a stone chimney for a small log house. He cheerfully went to work to help back stone (as they had no team) and worked for his board till the rest of his party came up, when they all started for the promised land.

After rambling over the territory, which was an unbroken wilderness, they concluded to stick their stakes and make their pitches, preference being given to seniority. Jonathan Perham (called after, Governor), being the eldest had first right. He chose a lot on the West line of Westminster, covering a handsome lot of meadow, also a number of acres of dry, sandy knolls, which proved valuable for its adaptedness to the growth of Indian corn. Samuel Bagley took the next lot West, which made one of the best farms in town. Seth Oak took the third lot in the same range, which was also a most excellent piece of land. He was the first justice of peace in town. Jonathan Foster took the next lot West, which made four in the same range. He died about 1790, and the lot was divided and fell into other hands. Eighty acres of it are still owned by the heirs of J. Shafter. James Shafter, as he was the youngest of the pioneers, came last for his turn. He chose the next range due North of the “Foster lot.” It was a good situation, covered with hard timber, and the depth and richness of the soil gave assurance of a bountiful harvest.

They procured the assistance of a man from Westminster by the name of Hooker, who was the fortunate possessor of a compass, with which, and the accompaniment of an elm bark chain, they were enabled to separate and designate claims. James commenced chopping, and felled about three-fourths of an acre, when a dry limb fell upon his shoulder and so disabled him that he returned to Winchester and remained all winter. The next year he returned, enlarged his operations, built a small house, sowed a nursery of apple trees, etc. In 1783 he was married to Miss Abigail Johnson, by Seth Oak, Esq. She came to Athens with Capt. Ezra Chaffee from Old Woodstock, having lost her parents when she was a child.

Like Shafter, Captain Chaffee came to Athens the previous year to build a cabin and then returned the following year with his family. It’s coincidental — to me anyway — that Shafter married a woman who also lost her parents at an early age.

From early meeting records, we know that the settlers met as often as twice a week. Consistently among them in the town of Athens were Solomon Harvey and Jonathan Perham as key leaders, but also Micah Read, Seth Oak, and James Shafter despite his relative youth.

As James had obtained some military skill, growing out of his experience in the war of the Revolution, he was promoted to the rank of major in the militia of Vermont. He was also a strong and devoted politician of the school of 1800, and denounced the war of 1812 as unnecessary. He was a prominent business man in all town affairs, and represented it for about twenty years in the Legislature of the State.

This last recollection is attributed to William’s daughter, Mary, sometime later but prior to 1890. Perhaps “the school of 1800” had some meaning back then that has since been lost. She may have referred to the presidential election of 1800 which was the first significant transfer of power between two parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalist (John Adams) lost to the Democratic-Republican (Thomas Jefferson) and the Federalists would all but disappear after the War of 1812. The Electoral College vote resulted in a tie between Jefferson and his VP candidate, Aaron Burr. Back then, all presidential and vice-presidential candidates were on the ballot together. Whoever got the most votes became president and whoever came in second became vice-president — regardless of party. (The 12th Amendment changed that.) So the tie-breaker went to the House of Representatives for a vote. The rhetoric presaged the 2020 election (talk of insurrection, military intervention, secession, and back-room deals) but ultimately the House of Representatives voted in favor of Jefferson.

Federalists, and most New Englanders, were against the War of 1812. Since the Federalist party eventually dissolved, I interpret her comments to mean James was a Federalist. The overriding observation, though, is that the family was very involved in politics. If twenty years is an accurate number, then he was an active politician during the influential years of his children.

James Shafter, died January 9, 1816, aged 57 years.

Abigail Shafter, his wife, died March 14, 1830, aged 78 years.

On the 10th of January, 1784, their eldest child was born and was christened Atalanta, after the noted vessel of that name. She died June 28, 1862, aged 78 years.

Wm. R. Shafter, born January 30, 1786; died March 1, 1864, aged 78 years.

John L. Shafter, born September 2, 1787; died February, 1868, aged 81 years.

Mary Shafter, born 1792, died September 29, 1855, aged 63 years.

There were two other children born between John and Mary; both died in infancy.

Beginning in 1786 (age 27), James would serve seven terms in the Vermont State legislature. His last term was in 1813 when his 27-year-old son William Rufus Shafter — author of the story, above — had already begun his law career. William served as county judge for several years, served in the Vermont State Legislature from 1828 to 1830, and was a member of the Vermont Constitutional Convention in 1836. Two of William’s sons would also serve in the Vermont State Legislature: James McMellen Shafter (1841–1842) and Oscar Lovell Shafter (1853).

These three generations of Shafters in the Vermont Legislature only qualify as a “dynasty” in a pedantic sense, if at all. Certainly, the family started with nothing — even making up their own name — but proved an “indomitable perseverance” that would serve subsequent generations well.

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Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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Todd Nelson

Todd Nelson

Engineer, sustainability, indigenous history, analog electronics history and anything that supports my belief that bikes can save the world.

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