Updated/Edited: 27 Mar 2015
A Biographical Sketch of
John Prouty Hamilton/Pepper (1833-1904)
of Brimfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts
by His Great-Great-Granddaughter
Teresa Anne (Hamilton/Pepper) Rust
Second Edition 2015
This book is dedicated to my children and Grandchildren:
Nathaniel, Rachel, Ethan, Abigail and Aidan
The facts found in this sketch are the culmination of many hours, days, weeks, months and years of research completed by a small but dedicated group of family historians which include myself, my Aunt Judy Clark and the late Doris Denton.
In 1984 I wrote a short biography of John Prouty Pepper as an assignment for a US History class at Canada College in Redwood City, California. I used my previous family research findings and just fleshed out the details of my 2nd great grandfather in his historical settings.
I started researching my family history in about 1978 when I was living on the California coast in Half Moon Bay. The Mormon church had a local family history library which was open to the public and I went there every week, for months. They had rolls of microfiche and microfiche readers where I sat and hand-copied my findings into notebooks. I started with what I knew and what I had been told by my parents and grandparents. It didn’t take me long to catch the genealogy bug. It was so fun looking for facts about my family, many of which no one really knew about any longer.
I had known about my family’s history in Kansas (not all of it) but didn’t really know that my Hamilton/Pepper ancestors were from Massachusetts and had been in Massachusetts for over 200 years, many from the earliest settlements in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colony.
In 1985 I organized the first Pepper Reunion in Cawker City, Kansas, which was where my Grandpa John was living. It was very successful and there were many reunions after that.
Over the years I would “do” research here and there, but for many years my boxes of papers sat dormant while I was rearing four children. In about 2002 I again opened up my boxes and started sorting through the notebooks and piles of papers I had collected over the years. Of course, now I had a computer and software to organize all of those facts, not to mention the Internet which has revolutionized genealogical research!
The following narrative is not meant to be an exhaustive biography, rather I consider it to be a biographical sketch, a work in progress, which I still hope to add to in years to come. My wish is that it will give you a better understanding and appreciation of your family roots.
Please do share with me any letters, anecdotes, documents, photos, or stories about the Hamilton/Peppers that you may have.
~Teresa in Redding, California
On a cold winter day a young couple welcomed their first child into their home. John Prouty Pepper was born in Brimfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts on 12 Dec 1833 to Porter and Persis Elvira (Dearth) Pepper. “Porter Pepper of Spencer and Persis Dearth” were married in Brimfield on 21 Jul 1833 by the Rev. Waite. Their first baby John was born less than five months since his parent’s marriage.
According to Marc McCutcheon’s book Everyday Life in the 1800’s, “the late 1700s and early 1800s were marked by a notably higher incidence of premarital sex than in later years…by the 1830s, premarital pregnancies dropped to 20 percent, and then to just 10 percent in the 1850s.” see page 205.
It is worth noting that the next marriage record in Brimfield is the marriage of a John Prouty of Providence, RI and Sarah B. Dearth on 5 Feb 1834. We know that Sarah B. Dearth is the sister of Persis and so we assume that our John Prouty Pepper born in Dec 1833 was named after this John Prouty, the soon to be brother-in-law of Porter and Persis.
The Prouty and Pepper families were, at times, neighbors. There is a land transaction on 29 Mar 1837, where “Porter Pepper of Brimfield, Yeoman,” (gives a mortgage on a two acre parcel of land) “to John Prouty of Brimfield, Yeoman.” “$200.00 payable in two yearly payments of 1/2 sum.” This is from land Porter had purchased from Dauphin Brown. (film 849207, p. 104)
John was born into a family descended from New England’s earliest settlers, mainly immigrants from East Anglia, England but also including a very Scottish paternal ancestor. Most of John’s ancestors had been in Massachusetts from the early-mid 17th Century.
John’s mother was a descendant of Samuel Bliss of Hartford, Connecticut, born about 1645 and his father was a descendant of John Hamilton born about 1636 in Scotland. Many of his ancestors had been living within a one hundred mile area for nearly 200 years. The distance to Brimfield from Boston is only a little over 65 miles. SEE: John’s Ancestral Surnames.
Just three months shy of his fourth birthday, on the 10th of September 1837, John’s Great-Grandmother Priscilla Cummings died. She had been born before the American Revolution on 3 Jan 1766. She was the daughter of Lieutenant Abraham Cummings and Jerusha (Brooks) Cummings. SEE: Mooar, Rev. George. The Cummings Memorial, A Genealogical History of the Descendants of Isaac Cummings, an Early Settler of Topsfield, Massachusetts (New York: B. F. Cummings, 1903), 75. His ancestors were Puritans, Separatists, Pilgrims, Quakers and a Scottish prisoner of war. They fought in the French and Indian Wars, King Philip’s War and the American Revolution. They were the adventurers and pioneers of Early America.
Brimfield, a small New England village located sixty-six miles southwest of Boston, had been settled in 1701 by Englishman from Springfield, Massachusetts. Bordered by Warren to the north, Sturbridge to the east, Wales and Tolland to the south, and Monson and Palmer to the west, it formed part of the Thames and Connecticut River watershed. Today, it is possible to see what Brimfield was like between the years of 1790 and 1840, by visiting the historic and restored Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, less than seven miles from Brimfield.
At the time of John’s birth, America had been independent from Britain for 50 years and was still in the process of becoming a new nation. Many changes had greatly improved the nation’s industry. In 1794, the Cotton Gin, invented by Eli Whitney, had revolutionized the cleaning of cotton and drastically increased its production and exportation. Whitney also developed a process of manufacturing rifles with interchangeable parts which significantly increased production and demand for firearms. By 1833, transportation was now possible by steamboats, canals, turnpikes, and railroads, cutting travel time and expense. Huge numbers of immigrants had been arriving in America for some time. From John’s birth date to his twenty-seventh birthday the US Population more than doubled from 12,860,702 in 1830 to 31,443,321 in 1860. This combination of increased skilled-labor, innovative inventions, and capital, resulted in a great period of economic growth.
The Peppers were a middling-sort (middle-class) family, “neither conspicuously rich nor distressingly poor,” at various times employed in farming and shoe-making. Porter and Persis were most likely literate, having the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their simple education in combination with the Puritan work-ethic, which the Yankees were famous for, would have enabled them to provide a middle-class standard of living for their growing family. Their family continued to increase and John was soon joined by brother George Edward on 19 May 1835, sister Mehitable Dearth on 20 Jan 1838 and brother Henry H. on 31 Jul 1840.
In this year of 1840, we find John’s father, Porter, is counted in his first US Census as “head-of-household,” unfortunately his name is misspelled Peter, notice that his neighbor is John Prouty. Porter and Persis along with their three sons and one daughter are living in Brimfield. They are farming. Farmers of the time and area would have had livestock, such as: oxen, cows, swine, sheep, and horses. From the Palmer, Mass. Tax Records for 1832, we know that the approximate value of these animals were as follows: 1-oxen $31, 1-cow $25, 1-swine $4, and 1-sheep $2.
As well as caring for animals, a farmer’s life would include planting and harvesting feed crops, as well as grain and vegetables grown for the family’s use. Another popular cash crop of the time and area was Broom Corn “By about 1810, the sorghum used in brooms, had acquired a new name, Broom Corn, as the British called all seed bearing plants, “corn.” The sorghum also looks similar to the sweet corn plant, and its tassel had become the broom material still used in quality brooms today.” A farming family would be hard at work from sunup-to-sundown. But unlike the prairie farmers on the Western Frontier who experienced isolation, the New England village community was filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, as well as neighbors and friends.
John Prouty, being the eldest-son of a farmer, probably received a minimum of education, such as: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Letters written and received by John, during the American Civil War, show that he did benefit from the Massachusetts school system which had been well established by the 1830’s.
In 1837, an effort had been made to increase its educational standards. The Massachusetts Board of Education “doubled teachers’ salaries, built and repaired scores of school buildings, opened fifty high schools, and established a minimum school year of six months.”12
The new school system taught useful values as well as useful skills. “I was penetrated through every fiber of thought with the idea that idleness is a disgrace. It was taught with the alphabet and the spelling book, it was enforced by precept and example.” wrote Lucy Larcom, who attended New England schools during the 1830’s.13
Sometime after the birth of Porter’s last daughter, Persis Maria Pepper, in Brimfield on 26 Feb 1842, the Pepper family moved to Palmer, Hampden County, Massachusetts, where John’s youngest brother Thomas Dearth Pepper is born on 25 Mar 1844. Porter is found there on a tax record. He was paying his poll tax, “a tax levied on persons rather than on property,often as a requirement for voting.” 14
By 31 Jul 1850, we find the Pepper’s back in Brimfield for the Massachusetts census. Porter (38), John Prouty (16), George Edward (15), and Henry H. (10) are all working as shoemakers. Less than two weeks later on the 13th of August 1850, John Prouty is counted the second time in the 1850 Massachusetts census. This time he is in Warren, Mass., living with the family of David and Lydia Combs.