Lesson 2: Refinement in Deerfield:
The River Gods
2 class period (85 minutes each)
|Key Content Ideas Taught in this Lesson and
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
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|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
- Make a family chart for their Deerfield family.
- Articulate the varied roles typical for the
support of a small New England town.
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|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.
Primary and Secondary Sources:
- Letters by Jonathan Ashley to his daughter
(Found in the Digital Collection on American Centuries website)
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||Materials in Context
Class Period 1
- Initiate a conversation about the meaning
- 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
- 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
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?
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Results and presentation of River God research
on the American Centuries website and the written letter to a child.
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