Where Were We in 1670?

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Mary Anne Zak

Mary Anne Zak

Southfield, the settlement on the southern border of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, joined Westfield and Northfield as satellites of colonial Springfield. The first syllable of Southfield was pronounced like the first syllable of southern. Southfield eventually elided into Suffield.

In the colony chartered by King Charles I of England as a stock trading company, Suffield petitioned the Massachusetts Bay Court to incorporate it as a civic and religious entity. Officially established as such on October 12, 1670, Suffield remained in Massachusetts until 1749 when the Town’s petition to join Connecticut was accepted by that colony. (Massachusetts didn’t immediately agree.) The change shows in the pocket on the map of the Connecticut-Massachusetts State Line between Suffield and Granby.

In October 2020, Suffield will celebrate the 350th Anniversary of its incorporation. Behind this deceptively simple statement lie innumerable minute historical details. Read The Documentary History of Suffield in the Colony and Province of the Massachusetts Bay In New England, 1660-1749, collected, transcribed and published by Hezekiah Spencer Sheldon in 1888.

The Documentary History is a priceless compilation.

Writing before the age of computers, Hezekiah Sheldon copied in longhand documents he traced to Bay Colony courts in Boston, Northampton and Springfield. Collecting and studying them, Sheldon wrote history enhanced by his encyclopedic knowledge of local lore and tradition, carefully citing sources. Dedicating The Documentary History on December 25, 1876, Sheldon called it “a labor of love.”

Given the date on which Sheldon wrote his dedication, contemporary readers might consider the manuscript a Christmas gift. But except in ethnic Catholic communities, Christmas was not usually observed in New England in the late 19th century. Stores and post offices remained open for business. Sheldon’s “labor of love” was timeless, mirroring the affection with which he served Suffield throughout his life.

Hezekiah Sheldon was a generous community leader from a prominent family. He served the Town as a legislator; he has been serving the town as historian for nearly two centuries, ongoing.

Considering ways to celebrate Suffield’s 2020 anniversary, some commission and historical society members have suggested that The Documentary History be reprinted along with Biography of a Town: Suffield, Connecticut, 1670-1970, by Robert Hayden Alcorn, 1970

The two histories differ markedly. A lively raconteur, Bob Alcorn acknowledged in his introduction to Biography that he was not a historian. He was a published writer, author of No Bugles for Spies: Tales of the OSS about his career in WWII; of Riding High about his equestrian experiences in England; and of The Count of Gramercy Park: The Story of Gerald Chapman, Gangster.

The late Hawley Rising was town historian and a member of the 300th anniversary research committee. Bob Alcorn wrote that Hawley took on many special assignments ranging “…the whole three hundred years on special request assignments. He has done the drudging pursuit of the elusive date, fact or episode necessary to accuracy…A direct descendant of one of the earliest settlers of Suffield, quiet, retiring, modest but persevering, he has given untold hours of his time to this task… he deserve(s) the gratitude of all who read this book.”

Serving on the research committee with Hawley were the late Elizabeth Biggerstaff, her cousin, the late Elizabeth Bawn, the late Eleanor Smith, and this writer. Also doing extensive research were members of other anniversary committees, all acknowledged in the introduction to the book.

Researched by many, Biography of a Town was written exclusively by Bob Alcorn. Its latter pages interestingly illustrated, the book shares insights positive and negative about Town policies, families, politics, religion and human nature. Diminishing its value as academic research, its content is not documented as published history must be documented today, but many have found it entertaining.

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