icon for Home page
icon for Kid's Home page
icon for Digital Collection
icon for Activities
icon for Turns Exhibit
icon for In the Classroom
icon for Chronologies
icon for My Collection

In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview
Lessons: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15

Lesson 2: Refinement in Deerfield: The River Gods

Lesson Central Questions:

In This Lesson:

What is meant by "refinement"? What are the indicators of refinement in a community? What were the indicators of refinement in Deerfield?

Lesson Length
Key Ideas

Lesson Length

2 class period (85 minutes each)

top of page

Key Content Ideas Taught in this Lesson and Teacher Background

In the early 1700s "River Gods" or "Mansion People" were names given to the wealthy families who lived in villages and towns along the Connecticut River Valley. The same seven names appear repeatedly in these communities: Ashley, Dwight, Partridge, Porter, Pynchon, Stoddard, Williams. The River Gods emphasis was on kinship, group cohesion, and cultural leadership. These families set the tone and indicated by their lifestyles what was fashionable and refined. Because of their location and the sources of their relatively limited income, the River Gods lacked some of the more obvious methods of displaying their wealth. Farming kept them close to the soil. They did build houses with elaborate Connecticut Valley double doors with surrounds that resembled stone, or they added these doorways to existing houses. One of their architectural signatures was an elaborate announcement of power above their front doorway, the flowing broken-scroll pediment.

One of the River God families, the Williams, provides a model for describing activity often seen at the national level. The family initially immigrated from England to Roxbury, Massachusetts. Subsequent generations moved inland to varied locations such as Hatfield, Stockbridge, Deerfield, and Wethersfield, Connecticut. The kinship connection provided means of exchange of ideas, goods, and eventually markets. In one example, grafts from fruit trees in Roxbury were used to improve the variety of the orchards in Deerfield.

New agricultural innovations began in Deerfield during this time. Improvements in agriculture such as manuring the fields and cradling grain created surpluses that could be marketed throughout the colony, often using the Connecticut River for transportation. Stall-fed oxen provided a lucrative source of income. The cattle were pastured in the hill towns during the summer, allowing the rich fields of the valley to be cultivated with valuable farm products. In the fall, the cattle were returned, fattened in the barns for market and then driven there by drovers. This new commercial activity opened up new markets and contacts beyond the small communities. The resulting wealth provided demands for domestic goods that in turn provided opportunities for local craftsmen, storekeepers, and taverns. Deerfield was maturing.

Teacher Background Essay: The Age of Refinement

top of page

Intended Learning Outcomes

Students will understand:

  • Deerfield became prosperous because of the river trade and improved agricultural practices. This prosperity led to increased refinement.
  • Deerfield people were generally literate, and gathered information through
    lyceums, newspapers, libraries, and interaction with others in clubs and societies.
  • Education was important to the people of Deerfield. In addition to support of local primary schools, they chartered an academy in 1797 for the purpose of secondary education.
  • Transportation and communication improved. The central government in Boston expanded the "world view" in Deerfield, heightening their interest in consumer goods.
  • Deerfield was a complex community with members taking on a variety of roles and jobs, i.e. servant, craftsman, housewife, clergy, and apprentice.
  • Deerfield families had strong kinship ties with other families along the Connecticut River.

Students will be able to:

  • Make connections between the changing ideals of "decencies" of life and new modes of behavior and consumption, resulting in what is known as the middle class.
  • Use information gained from this and other periods to develop a continuum showing the growth of the Deerfield community.
  • Make a family chart for their Deerfield family.
  • Articulate the varied roles typical for the support of a small New England town.

top of page

In Preparation for Teaching

Read Teacher Background Essay: The Age of Refinement

Further Background Reading

Bushman, Richard. Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. New York: Abrams, 1989.

Sweeney, Kevin. "From Wilderness to Arcadian Vale: Material Life in the Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1760."The Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820." Hartford: The Wadsworth Antheneum, 1985. Pp. 17-27.

Sweeney, Kevin. "River Gods in the Making: the Williamses of Western MA." Dublin Seminar Series: Bay and the River. Boston, Boston University, 1981.

Sweeney, Kevin. "Mansion People: Kinship, Class, and Architecture in Western Massachusetts in the Mid Eighteenth Century." Winterthur Portfolio (Winter 1984).

Zea, Philip. Pursuing Refinement in Rural New England. Deerfield, Massachusetts: Historic Deerfield, 1997.

top of page


Primary and Secondary Sources:

  1. Letters by Jonathan Ashley to his daughter (Found in the Digital Collection on American Centuries website)

top of page

Activities Materials in Context

Class Period 1

  • Initiate a conversation about the meaning of "refinement".
  • Read one of the essays on the River Gods and discuss how this distinctive group of people set itself apart from the rest of the settlers in the Connecticut River Valley.
  • Discuss the reasons for this group’s economic well-being, using the Williams family as an example.
  • Discuss their politics, and the motivations for these politics.


List the names of the River God families. Go to the Digital Collection. Using the family name as a keyword, accompanied by a range of appropriate dates for this period, see what objects that you can find that would suggest refinement. Make a collection to share with the class at the next meeting. Do enough research to be able to clearly present the item in its context.

Class Period 2:

  • Share results of research on River Gods and their artifacts on the American Centuries website.
  • Instruct students to read in class: Zea, Philip. Pursuing Refinement in Rural New England. Follow with a discussion.
  • Instruct students to transcribe two letters by Jonathan Ashley to his daughter in Boston.
  • Interpret and discuss the letters in the context of the period.
  • Suggested questions: What were the motivations for Ashley to send his daughter to Boston? Do people have similar motivations today? Were the admonitions given to his daughter plausible? How would the environment of Boston, a port city, compare to that of the Connecticut River Valley?


Write a letter to a child who is soon going to live in a large city. What advice would you give to him/her?


top of page



Results and presentation of River God research on the American Centuries website and the written letter to a child.

top of page

button for Side by Side Viewingbutton for Glossarybutton for Printing Helpbutton for How to Read Old Documents



Home | Online Collection | Things To Do | Turns Exhibit | Classroom | Chronologies | My Collection
About This Site | Site Index | Site Search | Feedback