John Demos revives Colonial voices


TYRINGHAM -- As a 10-year-old, John Demos envisioned writing novels. A long-time American history professor, the Samuel Knight Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale University has instead written eight books on early American life from the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth in 1620 to the 1800s, primarily based on letters, diaries, documents and publications he has researched during his career.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, at Tyringham Union Church, those writings of American colonists will come alive in "Early American Voices," sponsored by the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey.

Demos has prepared a reading of 17th- and 18th- century letters, diaries and other writings from the founder of Springfield, a missionary to the Mohicans in Stockbridge and other local and regional historical figures.

He said he hopes the presentation will morph into a theatrical production a year from now.

"It's more like a play than a lecture ... which eventually we'll have performed by professional actors next summer," Demos said during an interview in his historic home in Tyringham.

Demos wants strong audience feedback by pinpointing weaknesses and suggesting improvements to the first draft of his presentation.

"People think history is writing about a dead past," he said. "The readings are about making it seem vivid and immediate, about the people who lived 300 years ago."

"Early American Voices" is Bidwell House Museum's latest -- and somewhat unique -- effort to engage the public in lively discussion of early American life in the region, which is at the core of its mission, said Executive Director Barbara Palmer.

"The museum's history talks always include a lively question and answer time, and the museum offers hands-on workshops or guided hikes that allow participants to experience our historic landscape or a particular craft," Palmer said. "John's work-in-progress approach ... fits well into our educational mission, allowing us to see a historian at work in eliciting a story from original sources."

"Early American Voices" stiches together 25 to 30 documents, creating a time line starting with Christopher Columbus' voyages to the New World more than 500 years ago, narrowing the focus to North America, New England and finally Tyringham.

"Columbus kept very good documents," Demos noted

The earliest colonial American document Demos will present is the deed William Pynchon drew up in 1636 to buy land belonging to the Agawam that would become Springfield. A founder of Roxbury near Boston, Pynchon moved west because of the fertile soil of the Connecticut Valley. Demos said the deed provides good insight into the initial relationship between the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers and the American Indians.

In exchange for the land, Pynchon provided the Agawam with coats, hatchets, knives, wampum -- shell beads eastern American Indians used as money -- and continued access to hunt and fish the land they were selling.

"Early on, the settlers agreed with what the [American Indians] wanted, but that didn't last for very long," Demos said.

As the colony expanded at the expense of the people who had always lived there, they began to retaliate, making the incoming settlers afraid.

Demos' voices will include "A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson," published in 1682. Rowlandson recalls being held hostage for ransom following a raid on Lancaster on Feb. 10, 1675. The attackers killed 13 people and took at least 24 others captive, including Rowlandson and her three children, who were released for ransom three months later. Demos said Rowlandson's story was America's first bestselling book, having gone to print four times in its first year.

"She tells you how they survived the kidnapping," he said. "For example, she says they
didn't pay attention to how the food the captors gave them tasted awful -- you have to eat it."

Stories from Colonial settlers who lived with the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples varied, as Demos knows well. He has also written a book, separately from this presentation, called "The Unredeemed Captive," telling the story of Eunice Kanenstenhawi Williams. Taken as a girl by Mohawk troops after an attack on Deerfield, she chose to stay with the Mohawk people she knew, married a Mohawk man and raised a family with him.

As Demos moves into the 1700s, the voices will include Rev. Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" he delivered to his Northampton congregation, before becoming the missionary to the Stockbridge Indians in the 1750s.

The readings draw to a close with passages from early town records in Tyringham as kept by Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, who resided in the Bidwell House during the 1750s.

"It's mostly regulations about upkeep of roadways, division of fields, repairs on the meetinghouse, etc.," Demos said. "It gives the flavor of life at ground level."

Since Demos, 75, and his wife moved to Tyringham 20 years ago, the community has been an inspiration for his writing, especially the late 1700's house the couple bought near the center of town.

"This is my dream house that I thought I would never have," he said. "The first thing I noticed was the old fireplace originally used for cooking. I get a feeling when the fire's burning on those cold winter nights that I'm back 200 years ago."

If you go ...

What: History Talk: Early American Voices with John Demos, Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University,
sponsored by Bidwell
House Museum

When: 10 a.m.
Saturday, Aug. 23

Where: Tyringham Union Church, Main Road, Tyringham

Admission: $15

Information: (413) 528-6888 or


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