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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 3
Lesson 3

Agreeable to His Genius

History is the nation's memory and a historian is, in many ways, a detective who pieces together the evidence from the past into a coherent story. This quest can become compulsive and you can become driven -- friends will turn aside from you when you enter a room because you find you have developed only one thread of conversation -- by your research. When it all fits together, you are at first surprised and elated, but then you realize, "it happened, you didn't make it up," so it should fit together. But, conversely, if it happened, why is there almost always a missing piece?

"Agreeable to His Genius": A Study of an18th-century craftsman in Deerfield, Massachusetts, using primary source material.

This is the story of a man named John Partridge Bull, an 18th-century blacksmith and gunsmith. It is not the story of "the" blacksmith, because there is no such person, but of an individual who left a few traces in his lifetime, which began in 1731 and ended in 1813. In some ways, he was typical of other craftsmen of his period, and atypical in others. Think about both as we proceed today. I want to illustrate for you how you can bring a person back from the past, using primary documents to their full extent. You won't bring him back to life, of course, but you can learn a lot about him, about his town, his times, and his place in history.

When it came time to declare a thesis topic in graduate school, I decided I wanted to study an individual. Biographical history was very current then (and it still is today). One can learn a lot about the times -- economic, social, and political -- by studying an individual, if one can find enough sources. I was particular in that I wanted to study someone of the middling sort -- a craftsman. Much has been written about professionals, since their record keeping is more prolific and therefore more accessible. The craftsmen, however, are more anonymous and have often been slighted by scholars. They tend to emerge from history impersonally, as numbers or averages in aggregate studies of society.

It was, however, the craftsmen who built New England. It seemed logical to me that if I could understand the work that a man did, what his community was like, where he fit into the larger world at that time, and, if possible what he was like as an individual, I would know more about the man, the craft, and the time period.

Most craftsmen lived below the level of documentary evidence, consequently very little is known of their actual income. But John Partridge Bull (1731-1813) left an account book with information about his business transactions from 1768 to about 1788, a rich period in Deerfield's history.

Using his account book, I set out to discover something of his skills, his competence, his products, his community and himself. Bull left no will, and there was no inventory of his estate. But with the help of land records, probate records of relatives, town records, genealogical records, and contemporary accounts in Deerfield (including his record as a consumer), plus his house on the Street in Deerfield, I felt I had a chance to create a picture of the man and his craft.

The account book is truly a tangible still life of a business. It tells not only what the craftsman made and how the objects were valued, but who his customers were (and who they were not), what they ordered, and how they paid (or did not pay).

Back to the beginning -- to set the stage... Who was John Partridge Bull and, account book or no account book, was he worth the study?

John Partridge Bull's earliest years did not prepare him for the career of a blacksmith. His childhood years were not spent helping a father at the forge. His father, Nehemiah Bull, was a minister in Westfield, Massachusetts, who graduated from Yale College in 1723. His mother was Elizabeth Partridge, daughter of the Rev. William Williams, the prominent and prosperous minister of the church in Hatfield. John P. and his three brothers were gently raised and educated by tutors from the age of four. An inventory, taken of the elder Bull's estate, gives us a window into the kind of household the Westfield minister and his family had. In addition to "three Negro maids" and real estate above and beyond the houselot, there were five bedsteads, numerous chests, tables, chairs, and seven hives of bees.

When the Reverend Nehemiah Bull died in 1740 at age 39, his sons' lives were set on a different course than might have originally been intended. Rev. Bull left a will that spelled out his hopes and his expectations for his children:

... And my will is that my son William get well Educated in the Lattin Greek, tongues of Natural Philosophy and when he comes to be of A Suitable age to live with a Doctor and then he be put to some Skillful Physitian and that my other Children be well educated for such Imployment as shall be found agreeable to their Genius and Disposition.

This paragraph in the will was enough to engage my interest and insure that I would pursue the study of the future blacksmith.

Nehemiah Bull had appointed two executors: his "dear and loving wife" and her only brother, Oliver Partridge of Hatfield. Bull instructed them to sell the Westfield house lot and buildings. The money was to be used to discharge his debts and to maintain the widow "so long as she shall continue my widow and what remains thereof afterwards to be divided equally to my children."

[The will and inventory are recorded in the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds, Northampton, MA; box 22, no. 16. The property sale is recorded in the Hamden County Land Records Book in Springfield, MA; book X, pp. 516-517.]

Where did the family go? The mother was in her mid-30s, the four boys were aged 11, 9, 7, and 2, and there was a girl, age 5. A clue appeared in the deed that recorded the sale of the Westfield house in 1742. It described the sellers as Oliver Partridge and Mrs. Elizabeth Bull as "both of Hatfield." Elizabeth Bull probably had taken her young family back to Hatfield to live with her mother and her brother Oliver and his family. That meant 10 in the household -- the oldest being Mrs. Edward Partridge, 59, and the youngest being the 2-month-old child of Oliver and his wife.

The record is empty -- so far as I can tell -- for the next seven years.

Since I knew -- because of the account book -- that Mr. Bull became a blacksmith with a specialty in gunsmithing, and that boys were generally apprenticed for the trades at about age 12, I began looking for traces of a gunsmith in the vicinity of Hatfield in the 1740s. I didn't have to look far or for long.

The pre-eminent gunsmith in all of western Massachusetts was Seth Pomeroy (1706-1777) of Northampton. Pomeroy descended from a long line of gunsmiths beginning in Dorset, England in 1636. It seemed logical that John Bull's training must have been provided by Pomeroy in the nearby shire town of Northampton. I felt much more confident about this when I found Bull's name -- copied out by George Sheldon in his History of Deerfield -- along with 28 others in a list of those "who went to Deerfield August 1748." The commander of the troop of 29 was Lt. Seth Pomeroy. It would be logical for Bull to enlist, at age 17, to serve specifically under a man whom he already regarded as a leader.

I went to Northampton to the Historical Society where the Pomeroy account books are owned and began to search for Bull's name anywhere in the book to place him in Northampton. I found no mention of the apprenticeship, which was not a surprise, but I did have a ‘eureka' one day when I saw that he had settled an account with Pomeroy for his Uncle Oliver Partridge of Hatfield. This told me his ties were still in the area, with his uncle in Hatfield and with Pomeroy in Northampton.

But where would he work? In 1752, Bull is 21 and probably ready to set out on his own. The shire town of Northampton, where he received his training, is closed to him as a future site for his craft. Seth Pomeroy, his master, is still active in the trade and furthermore, has two sons who will vie for ownership of the gunsmithing shop. Custom dictated that a craftsman not set up his business in the same town as his master.

I believe that by 1754 he was in the Salisbury Hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A loose slip of paper in the pages of the account book, dated 1754, contains a list of names with what appear to be debts. The names were unfamiliar to me as Connecticut River Valley names, so I began to search more widely, thinking they might be in the "western reaches." Bull's brother William had followed his father's directive and had become a doctor. He was living in the Berkshire town of Sheffield, and his Uncle Oliver owned hundreds of acres in that untamed, and largely unpopulated portion of Massachusetts.

The names proved to be from Berkshire County -- town histories bore that out. Iron foundries operating in the region might have lured him. Young Mr. Bull was interested enough to go to Berkshire County and to conduct business there, but he did not elect to settle.

In 1755, the next year, a military expedition placed John Partridge Bull among Deerfield people and again in the company of Seth Pomeroy. Colonel Israel Williams, one of the River Gods of Hatfield, appointed Bull to be Armorer to Ephraim Williams' regiment. He was 24. In the same company were two members of the Williams family from Deerfield -- Dr. Thomas, the surgeon, and Elijah, the commissary. The job of an armorer was to keep the small arms in good repair; small arms included everything smaller than a cannon. It was a tribute to Bull's expertise to be placed in such a position -- some recognition for the appointment to the position must also be given to his Hatfield kinship connections to the Partridges.

Bull marched with Pomeroy to Albany, New York on May 31, 1755, and from there, with other New England regiments, in July to Lake George. The English had been plotting to carry the war with the French to Canada. In Massachusetts, Governor Shirley was planning an expeditionary force against the French at Crown Point. A victory at Lake Champlain was seen by militia chiefs as a way to secure the frontiers of Hampshire County.

The disastrous "bloody morning scout" of September 8, 1755, meant death to many in the company, including Col. Ephraim Williams, the man for whom Williams College was later named. Lt. Col. Pomeroy was Hampshire County's only surviving officer. Hampshire County, in 1755 included the present Hampden and Franklin Counties and stretched from the present Vermont boundary to that of Connecticut. The men returned home in November and Bull's tour of duty ended December 10, after 36 weeks and five days.

John Partridge Bull reenlisted again in April 1756. I found his name on a list in the back of the account book kept by Deerfield storekeeper and commissary, Elijah Williams. It noted supplies issued by Williams, naming 1 lb. powder, 1 lb. lead, and 3 flints. The militiamen themselves generally supplied the firearms and were issued the ammunition. There were 40 men on the account book list, 13 of whom were from Deerfield. Bull signed to serve until October 18, and was appointed armorer for the line of forts by Col. Israel Williams. I expected to find him located at one of the forts, outposts that dotted the border between Massachusetts and Vermont.

He did not, however, move to the forts. Where then did he live? The answer was found in an entry in the account book of storekeeper and military commissary Elijah Williams, dated June 7, 1756. It states "John Partridge Bull began to bord." Within three weeks a debit entry appears, a purchase of nails to "Bull's shop." It would seem his work as armorer was being carried out in a shop on Elijah Williams' land on the Ministry lot just west of and facing the Common. [Elijah Williams (1712-1771) was the youngest son of the Reverend John Williams by his second wife, Abigail Bissell of Hartford, and inherited his father's homestead when the minister died in 1729.]

Bull had an active account with Elijah Williams store. In the first two months he bought 68 files -- one of the major necessary tools for a smith. He also purchased 13 ounces of brass, useful for gun fittings. He was young, 25 years old, and single, and accounts prove he purchased brandy, flip, punch, wine several times a week to drink on the premises. He also purchased material for clothing, plus thread and buttons that he would take to the local tailor, John Russell, for sewing into a coat and breeches.

His enlistment ended October 18, but he reenlisted the next day for what would be his last service in the military. The purchases recorded in Elijah Williams' account book illustrate he was in Deerfield at least 15 days of each month. When his military career ended, January 23, 1757, he had served 18_ months over the course of nine years; from 1748, age 17, to 1757, age 26.

John Partridge Bull stayed in Deerfield. A craftsman's decision settle is a two-sided one: First, the craftsman must make his selection of a community considering his needs and expectations; Secondly, the town must also pass judgment. Towns would have ceased to exist without a continuous supply of new people, especially qualified artisans. Bull had kinship ties to two prominent families in Deerfield, the Williamses and the Ashleys. (Jonathan Ashley was the minister, had been born in Westfield and his wife was the half sister of Bull's grandmother.) In an agricultural community, a blacksmith was important, and Bull's specialized training as a gunsmith made him doubly appealing. Though he had trained in Northampton, it was not possible to set up there. Pomeroy was still the town's gunsmith and his sons, Quartus and Simeon, would fight over who would follow him. The other two smiths who worked in Deerfield had their own specialties, and neither was a gunsmith.

The making and the mending of guns that Bull did in the early years in Deerfield were recorded, not in Bull's account book, but in that of Elijah Williams, illustrating that Bull was working for Elijah and had not yet established his own business. In August 1757, Bull was credited with mending the guns of three different customers and on the 10th of August he delivered "one Gun Small Sort," worth 40s or 2 pounds, to Joseph Stebbins (1718-1797), who lived north of the Common in Deerfield.

By October of 1758, Bull was ready to be married. He was 27, an average marrying age for a man in the 18th century. Elijah Williams's account book records: "John Partridge Bull left bord October 4, 1758." And the next day, on October 5, he married Mary Catlin, aged 22, of Deerfield, daughter of Captain John Catlin, the officer who had charge of the line of forts extending from Northfield to Pontoosuc, and his wife, Mary (Munn) Catlin. Capt. Catlin died a little more than a week before the wedding, but the ceremony proceeded as planned. Wedding plans and ceremonies could be more casual than today; witness this account of Elihu Ashley's marriage to Polly Williams on November 2, 1775 from Elihu's Journal. Elihu (1750-1817) was the son of the Rev. Jonathan Ashley, second minister in Deerfield and his wife, Polly, (1752-1831).

"...came to Catlins about two. I took Dinner with them, came home from here. I went to my Dadas and fixt myself for the Marriage, return'd here again about Seven, had my Brothers and Sisters and Lt Catlin here to Drink Tea, which being over the Knot was tied by the Rev'd Jona Ashley. The Compo [company] tarried till Ten then went away. I sat up till Eleven and then to Bed."

I do not find a reference to Bull's own shop until April 1759, six months after the marriage, when a line in Elijah Williams's account book indicated that that he, Williams, paid Elijah Arms for shingles for "Bull's shop." Also in 1759, Mr. and Mrs. John P. Bull were admitted to communion. This is recorded in the church records and suggests the couple's intent to stay in the community.

When the sequestered land along Albany Road was sold "to accommodate Tradesmen" in the spring of 1760, Bull purchased 2 parcels -- a _ acre lot and a _ acre lot -- for which he paid 29 pounds, 6 pence. He was 29 years old and now a man of property. Where did he get the money to buy land and the money to build a house?

On June 12, 1760, he received -- after nearly 20 years -- his inheritance from his father's estate, 83 pounds, 8 pence. Why nearly 20 years after the Reverend Nehemiah Bull's death was the estate finally settled? The youngest brother, Nehemiah, had reached the age of 21, and the estate could legally be divided.

The 1760s were uncertain economically in Deerfield and in other towns of New England. Deerfield had prospered in the '50s, thanks to a demand for supplies to support the war effort. Peace, although welcome, does not always foster a lively economy. No one paid his bills to the gunsmith in the 1760s. Cash may have been in short supply, but Bull paid his bill to Elijah Williams in July 1762 with "2 Johannes" -- Portuguese gold coins the equivalent of 4 pounds, 6 pence. He also paid his bill "in full" to John Russell, in 1764 and 1768, with 1 pound, 14 shillings and "a pair of tongues" [tongs]. Bull was forced to take out a mortgage in 1768, and the document names, as collateral, "house, gunsmith or blacksmith shop, and a small barn."

In the "lost census" (now found) of 1765, Deerfield is listed as having 85 houses and 123 families, with adult population (male and female over 16 yrs) of 356. Northampton, the shire town, 15 miles to the south, had a population of 674, with 203 families in 188 houses.

The 1771 Massachusetts Tax is an exceedingly valuable resource in the pre-Revolution times. It reveals that of the 89 taxpaying residents living in Deerfield that year, 73 were wealthier than Bull. Cash was never in abundance, but the barter system allowed for a fairly comfortable situation. Bull's best years were in the 1770s, as his gunsmithing tasks increased steadily. Between 1773 and 1780, he made 312 repairs to firearms, mainly to the gunlock, the most complex part. To break it down, I am listing the number of repairs he made each year. Can you see that a war is coming and that although many had guns, they were not in very good repair?

1771 -- 16
1772 -- 22
1773 -- 36
1774 -- 71
1775 -- 88

The total account book income in a span of 20 years was 223 pounds, 18 shillings, 8 pence -- 35 percent of the total was derived from guns.

Like farmers, artisans conducted their business with little exchange of actual money. Credit was the rule in the times, but there was no formal institution to regulate the exchange or articulate the rules. Instead the informal barter system was in place. It required, in addition to faith and trust in one's neighbors, a well-developed system of record-keeping. The debts were computed in terms of monetary equivalents according to the prevailing standards of value, and were then recorded as so many pounds, shillings, and pence owed.

Any rural householder at any given time would owe and be owed by many of his neighbors. Actually, the mutual indebtedness acted as powerful social cement. Ideally, local debts were always collectible and some customers continually brought in cash, goods, and labor in payment. Others incurred debts that were carried for years before any effort to settle was made. Few men had the assets sufficient to settle all their debts on demand, and to most, economic survival meant not being called upon to settle frequently -- or, worst of all, unexpectedly.

Most of Bull's customers made some effort to settle their accounts in the years of the account book, 1768 to 1788. He collected on 80 percent of his accounts -- 190 out of 239 customers made payments. Not all, of course, paid in full. Actually, only 61 of the 190 who paid, settled in full. The most common method of payment was in goods: produce, building materials, fuel, and scrap metal. Food or household products included dairy, grain, fruits, and meat, plus candles, tobacco, and rum. Cash was the medium for only 22 percent, or 45 of his customers.

Labor, believed by many scholars to have been the dominant means of payment in this time period, constituted only 6.8 percent of the total -- 16 of the 190 who settled. Bull probably did not encourage labor as a means of exchange. He was not farming in Deerfield. (The 120 acres he bought from his wife's brothers was in Shelburne.) In addition, he had three sons who were old enough in the 1770s to help him in the shop, and whom he "loaned out" for his own labor payments. A craftsman was obliged to structure his own debit system, if he was to survive.

During the busy years in his shop, men like Simeon Burt (b. 1733) assisted him. One year, he notified the Selectmen that he had "taken into my house John Holden, the son of Caleb Holden, aged 12 years." The Holdens were from Pepperell. Notifying the Selectmen of a stranger in town was customary in the 18th century when it was the norm for everyone to live in family units. Accounting for its citizens was one task assigned to the Board of Selectmen.

After 1761 and the death of his wife, Mary, at age 45, Bull's life began to change. He devoted more of his time to agricultural work. In addition to the ordinary tasks of mending guns and locks, making a spring for a door lock, and casting a pewter ink pot for John Williams, son of Elijah, he also "drove plow" for Mr. Williams for 10 days and "took up flax" at Carter's Land (West Deerfield). Driving the plow for a day earned Bull 2 shillings; if he made a fire shovel, it paid him 2 shillings, 4 pence. "One day's work in the garden" was worth 1 shilling, 4 pence.

The Bull's oldest son, William, born 1761, was sent to Yale like his grandfather and served in the militia in the Revolution. Already trained as a blacksmith by his father, he apprenticed to a physician in Lanesborough, where his Uncle Nehemiah Bull was a justice of the peace. He then became a doctor. John P. Bull was easing back from blacksmithing and gravitating towards farming. He had no aging parents to consider and his two oldest children, Elizabeth and William, had married. His responsibilities were to himself and his unmarried children: Molly, Oliver and Samuel, all of whom were in their 20s. By the spring of 1789, the Bull family had left Deerfield and was established on the 120 acres of land John purchased from the Catlin brothers in the 1760s. It was on the north half of Deerfield's additional land grant, by then a part of Shelburne. He had been listed in Shelburne's tax list as a non-resident since 1781.

Bull's Deerfield house was rented to Dr. William Stoddard Williams, who recorded that fact in his daybook ... "moved my Family into Mr. J.P. Bull's House for 1 Year April 8, 1789." For each of the next 5 years, Dr. Williams paid Bull 100 shillings (5 pounds) for the rent of the house. On June 2, 1794, "John Partridge Bull of Shelburn, Gunsmith [sold the house] to Wm Stoddard Williams of Deerfield, Physician [for] 166 pounds."

Bull died 24 December 1813 at the home of his son Dr. William Bull of Shelburne. The date is recorded, as was so much of his life, in an account book, in this case that of Dr. William Stoddard Williams of Deerfield. The terse line reads, " J.P. Bull mort."


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