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RTMDear Readers: My book is now in print, but my quest for more information about Edward Hitchcock continues. On this page I will periodically pass along new facts, insights, and anecdotes from my research that I hope will be of interest.  Sincerely,
  Bob McMaster

December 18, 2020


Geological Survey

Edward Hitchcock did nothing in life by halves. Each new task he undertook, each new assignment he accepted, he threw himself into with every ounce of strength he could muster. We can see this in the meticulous crafting of his sermons early in his career, his far-ranging travels in all seasons as an itinerant preacher, his intensive preparations for teaching chemistry at Amherst College, his ambitious pursuit of several state geological surveys, and his headlong rush to investigate those enigmatic fossil footmarks.

This trait in Edward Hitchcock, this indefatigable force, derived I believe from several sources within, intellectual curiosity, ambition, religious zeal, and a deeply-held conviction that his health depended on vigorous activity. Of course, throughout his adult life he was also convinced that his time was running out, his death was imminent. Of his “desponding nature” he wrote to Edward, Jr., late in life, “…it is this trait in my character [that] has enabled me to do what little I have done as a literary man.”

So it is no surprise to learn that within a month of receiving his commission to carry out the first geological survey of Massachusetts in 1830, Edward Hitchcock was off and running, notebook in one hand, mineralogical hammer in the other. Over the ensuing forty or so months, he visited every corner of the state, observing, recording, collecting specimens, and pondering the implications of his findings for his notions of geological history and God’s plan for earth. It proved to be a life-altering experience for Hitchcock and a pivotal event for American geology (See Chapter 14).

How was it possible, we might wonder, that he could give up his college and family obligations for so many weeks over those four field seasons? The college apparently was happy to accommodate him. And Orra’s steady hand and even temperament no doubt kept affairs under control on the home front. (Orra missed her husband, of that I have no doubt, but I can’t help but wonder whether his absence may have made running the household a bit easier!)

In reading Edward’s notebooks from those expeditions, I was fascinated both by the geological insights they offered and by some geographic curiosities revealed along the way. More than fifty of the state’s modern-day municipalities had not even been incorporated in 1830, including a number in western Massachusetts: Holyoke, Chicopee, Agawam, Hampden, and Erving. The names of several towns have since changed: Troy to Fall River, Ward to Auburn, Western to Warren, Gay Head to Aquinnah. And of course four towns that Edward visited not far from Amherst, Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott, are no longer, their territories having been inundated by the waters of the newly created Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. 

To get a sense of the scope and intensity of Edward’s first geological survey of Massachusetts, click on the map below to see an animation of his travels.

Geological Survey Map

October 22, 2020


Emily DickinsonThe Hitchcock monument in Amherst’s West Cemetery is one of the largest in the cemetery but by no means the most visited. That honor goes to Emily Dickinson, whose grave is situated just a few feet away from Edward and Orra’s. Almost any time you pass, you’re likely to meet one of Emily’s admirers paying their respects, or perhaps you’ll find some small tribute left for the Belle of Amherst – a bouquet of flowers, a lock of hair, or a handmade journal and pencil offered in the hope that the poetess might show her appreciation by inscribing a little verse from the beyond… “Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality….”

The Hitchcock
Anyone interested in the Hitchcocks will find Edward's and Orra’s names on a tall granite obelisk nearby along with daughter Mary and infant son Edward. (Little Edward was actually interred in Conway.) On the plinth is inscribed a Hitchcock epigram that aptly sums up the man: “The cross in nature and nature in the cross.”

Not far from the Hitchcock monument are the graves of Orra’s family, the Whites, marked by a row of badly eroded stones for her father, several of her brothers, and one sister, all of whom passed away decades before Orra. But one grave is missing here, that of Orra’s mother, Ruth Sherman White. And therein lies a small mystery.

Ruth Sherman was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1763.  She married Jarib White in 1794 and the couple first settled in Hadley before moving to Amherst. Ruth gave birth to eight children between 1794 and 1806. Jarib, a wealthy farmer and businessman and one of the early benefactors of Amherst College, died in 1821, as his stone in West Cemetery attests. But curiously, his wife’s grave is nowhere to be found.

While doing research for my book, I sought out information on the death and burial of Ruth from a number of sources without success. Even the Amherst Town Clerk’s office had no record of her death. Her name appears in several places in the Hitchcock family account book, showing that she lived with the Hitchcocks or nearby in the late 1830s (see Chapter 15). But still no mention of her death.

The mystery was finally solved by Edward Hitchcock, Jr. in his memoirs (more on those fascinating volumes in a future post). "Doc" Hitchcock, as he was known during his half a century on the Amherst faculty, writes of attending his grandmother’s funeral at the home of her daughter-in-law, Caroline White Sprague. Caroline, the wife of Jay White, lived briefly with the Hitchcocks in Amherst after her husband’s death. In 1829 she married Reverend Daniel G. Sprague; the couple lived for a time in Hampton, Connecticut.

I contacted Hampton Town Clerk Leslie Wertam who located the hand-written burial record for Ruth White. She died on November 5, 1839, in Hampton at the age of 76. The line above her name carries the death record for the Spragues’ 19-month old son, Henry W. Sprague, who passed away only a week earlier. Her grave in North Cemetery is marked by a small, nondescript stone - no words of praise, no mementos of tribute from admirers, just a simple inscription: RUTH WHITE BORN JULY 1763 DIED NOV 5 1890.

The memory of Emily Dickinson is held dear by many even 135 years after her death. Edward and Orra Hitchcock have been honored as well, not perhaps with the passion of Emily's followers, but by scholars of history, science, religion, and art.

But Ruth Sherman White has never been afforded her due. She was neither a scientist nor a philosopher nor an artist, so far as we know. What we do know is that she devoted a good part of her adult life to caring for children, first her own, three of whom died before their first birthdays. Then she helped care for her grandchildren. And finally, in the last year of her life, she traveled from Amherst to Hampton, Connecticut, to assist in the care of the Sprague children. It may well be that she succumbed to the same illness that took little Henry, her daughter-in-law’s son. Whatever the cause of her death, it is clear that Ruth Sherman White gave her all for her family.

Requiesce in pace, Ruth

October 15, 2020   


MeetinghouseThe Pilgrims, as we all learned at an early age, came to the New World to escape religious persecution. When Massachusetts enacted its first constitution in 1781, the right to worship God according to one’s conscience was further enshrined. A few years later the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to their religious beliefs and prohibited government interference in religion.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that, even in Edward Hitchcock’s time some forty years after enactment of its constitution, Massachusetts had one official religion, Congregationalism. In those times the Congregational church in a Massachusetts town was referred to as “the meetinghouse.” Not only was it a house of worship, it was also the seat of town government, the place where town meetings were held. Furthermore, the minister’s salary was funded by taxes collected from every resident, believer or nonbeliever. Thus when Edward Hitchcock was hired as “Colleague Pastor” in Conway, Massachusetts, in 1821, the decision to hire him was made by the church membership, but approval of his salary had to be secured at a Town Meeting (see Chapter 7).

With the “Religious Freedom Acts” of 1811 and 1824, the legislature did allow members of other churches to have their Minister’s Tax abated, so long as they could prove they were supporting that church. In the records of the town of Conway for the 1820s you can find page after page filled with statements of residents attesting to their membership in another church for that very purpose. See for example this entry in the records of the Conway town clerk for 1827:

Conway Town
    (Image source: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1972)

“To whom it may concern this certifies that Mr. Daniel Woodward Jr. is a member of the Baptist society in Ashfield and Buckland and doth attend publick worship with us on the Lord’s day and doth contribute to the support of the Gospel with us.  Enos Smith, Pastor of the Church, Buckland August 17 1827, Recorded Oct 29 1827, By David Childs town clerk”
In those times there was no exemption for nonbelievers; by default their taxes went to the Congregational church. Just a few years after that entry, the Congregational church was officially “disestablished” when the Eleventh Amendment to the Massachusetts State Constitution was passed in 1833. Massachusetts was the last state to do so.

When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by long words and anxious to know the longest word in the English language. My parents helped me to find the answer, not an easy task in the “Pre-Google Era”: the longest English word was antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course I had no idea what it meant back then and to be honest, it wasn’t until I began my research on Edward Hitchcock that I came to understand a little better. In the late nineteenth century, some activists in Great Britain began a movement to "disestablish" the Church of England - they were known as disestablishmentarians. Soon another movement arose in opposition to disestablishment, and naturally it came to be known as antidisestablishmentarianism. It must have have been a challenge, fitting that name on lapel pins, lawn signs, or whatever devices were used in those days to promote a political cause. Nevertheless, the "Antis" prevailed; to this day the Anglican church is the official state church of the United Kingdom.

October 8, 2020 


One of the most beautiful works of art by Orra White Hitchcock was one of her earliest creations. "Fungi, Selecti Picti" is an album of 100 miniature watercolors of mushrooms and mosses found by her and Edward in the forests and fields of their new hometown, Conway, Massachusetts, in 1821 (see Chapter 7). They found the sheep pastures and forests of Cricket Hill on the south side of town especially rich and they visited the area again and again during that project. 


A century and a half later, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was home to two world-renown experts on mushrooms, Drs. Margaret E. and Howard E. Bigelow. The couple lived in Conway at the time. When they hosted mycologists from around the world, they often took them out for some recreational fungal foraging. According to one acquaintance, Cricket Hill was their favorite destination. Whether the Bigelows discovered the richness of the Cricket Hill mycoflora on their own or learned about it from the work of the Hitchcocks is not known.

Cricket Hill

(From Deane Lee, Conway 1767-1967,
Town of Conway, 1967)

In autumn 1981, my wife, Nancy Mosher McMaster, then a graduate student, enrolled in a mycology course at UMass taught by Margaret Bigelow. One of the first sites they visited was Cricket Hill, much of which by then had been set aside as Conway State Forest. Professor Bigelow and her students wandered through the forest collecting specimens and placing them in large wicker baskets. Back in the laboratory at UMass, they immediately dissected, examined, and drew each fungal treasure before it was reduced to an oozing, gelatinous mass.

Orra's original album came to Smith College thanks to the generosity of the Hitchcock's youngest daughter, Emily Hitchcock Terry (see Chapter 27), and may be viewed in the Smith College Archives. In 2011 Smith published a reproduction of the album, Fungi Selecti Picti, 1821, edited by art historian Robert L. Herbert. 

October 1, 2020   


Edward and Orra Hitchcock moved to Conway, Massachusetts, in June 1821, within days of Edward's installation as the junior pastor of the Conway church. They lived in that town for four years, and the house they eventually purchased from John and Nancy Williams still stands on Whately Road. But that purchase did not take place until May 1824, as the deed in the Franklin County Registry of Deeds attests. This raises the interesting question, where did the Hitchcocks live for the first three years of Edward's Conway pastorate?

                      House in ConwayI have found no specific references to the Hitchcocks’ housing from 1821 to 1824, but I have come across several hints that suggest that they may have lived in the Williams house for a time before they purchased it. In an 1825 letter Edward makes reference to "the house" in which they lived in Conway, implying that they lived in just one house in that town. Furthermore, the deed drawn up in 1824 makes mention of the Hitchcocks’ well, a hint that they may already have lived there long enough to dig a well.

Edward's predecessor, the Reverend John Emerson (who by the way was the great uncle of Ralph Waldo Emerson), lived in a home on Baptist Hill on the north side of town. That house is referred to in several places as the church parsonage, but deeds show that it was actually owned by Reverend Emerson and his wife.

In investigating later ownership of the Hitchcock house I discovered that while the church never purchased a home for a pastor in those days, on several occasions church members purchased a house that was subsequently occupied by the pastor and in at least one instance eventually bought by the pastor. So it seems possible that John Williams, who was a church deacon, and his wife provided that house to the Hitchcocks, or perhaps agreed to board them, until they could buy it.

Epaphroditus ChampionWhen the Hitchcocks finally purchased the house on Whately Road, the records indicate that they purchased it from John and Nancy Williams, but made mortgage payments to one Epaphroditus Champion. Champion was a wealthy businessman from Connecticut who had long-time business ties with John Williams. Williams's journal shows that he was in debt to Champion and agreed to have the proceeds from the sale of the house go directly to Champion.

One other amusing note has to do with the name "Epaphroditus." Champion was much admired by John Williams. When John and his wife had a son, they named him Epaphroditus Williams. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down Epaphroditus Williams, where he lived, married, children, date of death, etc., without luck…until I discovered that shortly after he turned 21 he changed his name. Who can blame him!

(Note: Many thanks to Sarah Williams of the Conway Historical Commission for assisting me in tracking ownership of the Hitchcock house.)

September 21, 2020   


In the course of my research I was astonished to learn that in November 1856 Edward Hitchcock agreed to undertake a geological survey of the state of Vermont. He had spent several decades earlier in life surveying Massachusetts. Now, at age 63, he had agreed to survey the Green Mountain State, nearly as large as Massachusetts and with far more rugged terrain. Furthermore, three geologists had undertaken the project before him...all three died before completing the work. What, we might ask, was he thinking?

In his final report on the Vermont project (see Chapters 23 and 24), Hitchcock devotes several pages to some of the interesting natural features of the state of Vermont. Prominent among these are two very large glacial erratics - "bowlders" he called them - one in Whitingham, a small town on the Vermont-Massachusetts state line, the other just a few miles away in Florida, Massachusetts. 

Recently I set out to relocate Hitchcock's bowlders. I soon learned that just as there are those who enjoy seeking out very large trees to hug, there are also big rock aficionados. Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, I found that both of Hitchcock's erratics were well known to modern day boulder enthusiasts.

My quest began on a snowmobile trail in the Atherton Meadows Wildlife Management Area in Whitingham with a map of the refuge in hand. Less than a mile north of route 100, as I approached the highest point in the refuge, I spotted what looked at first like the roof of a large house or barn looming in the distance. As I drew closer I realized that I was seeing the top of a boulder, a very large boulder, a very, VERY large boulder. Soon I was standing awestruck before the Green Mountain Giant.

                      Mountain Giant woodcut
Woodcut from Hitchcock's Vermont survey report

The Green
                      Mountain Giant
The Green Mountain Giant today

In Hitchcock's words:

"The most gigantic specimen with which we have met, lies on the naked ledges on a high hill on the farm of Jonathan Dix, in the west part of Whitingham. From this hill we look westerly into the valley of Deerfield river, which must be over 500 feet deep and from the character of the rock, corresponding to that of the Green Mountains (a highly micaceous gneiss), we feel sure that the bowlder was transported across this valley. Yet its length is 40 feet; its horizontal circumference 125 feet; its average width 32 feet; its cubic contents 40,000 feet, and its weight 3400 tons...Until a larger bowlder shall be found, we propose for this one the name of Green Mountain Giant."

(Source: Hitchcock, et al., Report on the Geology of Vermont. 2 vols. Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1861, p. 59)

Just fifteen miles southwest of Whitingham and perched on one of the highest ridges in Massachusetts is the ironically-named town of Florida. An unmarked trail leaves route 2 just a mile or so above the Hairpin Turn. The route is an old logging road that has been badly rutted by all-terrain vehicles, but in less than a mile I had another encounter of the glacial kind. This "bowlder" Hitchcock dubbed "The Vermonter" as he explains:

The Vermonter  
Woodcut from Hitchcock's Vermont survey report

The Vermonter
The "Vermonter" today

"There is one bowlder of this granite, however, which from its size and situation we would point out, although it has been carried a little distance over the line into Massachusetts. Ascending Hoosac Mountain from North Adams into Florida on the Greenfield road, and turning northerly at its top so as to pass near the edge of the mountain a mile and a half in an unfrequented path, we come at length, in the midst of the woods, upon the huge bowlder of Stamford granite figured below from a hasty sketch. It lies nearly all out of the ground, resting on the ledges of slate beneath the thin soil. Its height is 15 feet, and it is 76 feet in circumference, weighing by estimation 510 tons...On its northwest side rises Oak Hill, which is some 200 feet higher than the bowlder, and where the granite is in place, from which some agency has torn it off and transported it many miles across the intervening valley 1300 feet deep."
(Source: Hitchcock, et al., Report on the Geology of Vermont. 2 vols. Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1861, p. 57)

That he refers to "some agency" responsible for carrying such an enormous boulder a distance of several miles shows that, even in 1861 when the report was written, Edward Hitchcock was still unconvinced of Agassiz's "glacial theory."

It is amazing to me that these two ancient artifacts are still intact and surrounded by wild lands. The landscape in those two locations has changed little since Hitchcock's time except, of course, for the forests. In his day nearly all of southern New England had been deforested and converted to pastureland.

If you would like to visit these two Hitchcock landmarks, you'll want to locate them on a map using the coordinates below. The trails are not marked, and muddy ruts and trees blown down across the path are all part of the adventure. Both boulders are visible on the Google Earth® view of May 10 2014.

Green Mountain Giant:   42° 46' 29.32" N   72° 54' 7.42" W

The Vermonter:   42° 42' 27.74" N   73° 3' 33.71" W

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Previous Posts

October 15, 2020
Ruth Sherman White:
Requiesce in Pace

October 15, 2020
Freedom of Religion,
Massachusetts Style

October 8, 2020
Fungal Foraging on
Cricket Hill

October 1, 2020
The Hitchcock House in Conway

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