A rare survivor of New England’s earliest days testifies to the strength that forged a nation
When Joseph Capen moved to Topsfield, Massachusetts, in 1682 to become minister of the Congregational church there, his prospects did not seem bright. Two of the last three preachers had difficulties collecting their salaries, and another went on trial for intemperance. These conflicts degenerated into charges and countercharges of slander and drunkenness. Most of Topsfield’s population lived in one- or two-room houses that offered little protection from a New England winter—or from Indians, if they decided to resume the wars that had recently raged through the colony. Boundary disputes regularly set neighbor against neighbor and town against town, and, often enough, community gatherings such as militia drills would deteriorate into drunken brawls that ended in gunfire. Wolves roamed the streets of the town at night, stalking the hogs and sheep.
By the time Capen died, in 1725, however, Topsfield had put most of its early problems behind it. The busy, prosperous community had come to serve, along with other Massachusetts towns, as a functioning cog in the machinery of England’s expanding colonial empire. And though Capen himself was far from solely responsible for this great transformation, his role as the town’s religious leader made him, like other New England Puritan ministers, a leading actor in the development of a stable and increasingly modern social order in the Massachusetts colony.
Standing on a small rise near the Topsfield common and built entirely from local oak, stone, and clay, the Capen house almost literally grew out of the ground in which it was planted, unlike the more formal dwellings of a slightly later period, which often copied foreign models. Of the surviving seventeenth-century houses in New England, only Capen’s can be dated precisely (day and year are carved into a beam on the second floor); the frame was raised on June 8, 1683.
As in most New England houses, life in the Capen residence centered on the hall and its wide hearth. Here fire gave heat and light to the family and guests throughout all but the warmest months of the year. The work of spinning, weaving, brewing, tanning, and shoemaking, both for home use and for market, was done by the light of the hearth.
This arrangement of undifferentiated, multipurpose space was typical of every aspect of the early olonists’ world. Tables formed by boards laid across trestles could be rearranged quickly and easily to serve a variety of needs. Chests had no drawers to separate and categorize their contents. On the town’s common lands, which at one time encompassed fully five hundred acres, all the citizens of Topsfield pastured their live stock and gathered timber for building or for burning.
Areas reserved for private activities were rare anywhere in Topsfield. One of these was the parlor of the Capen house, considered the “best room” of the house. In typical colonial-New England fashion it lay opposite the hall on the other side of a massive chimney. Here the head of the family and his wife slept. Nearby stood the chest on which was commonly displayed the family’s Bible and silver plate. Special visitors were entertained in the parlor.
The large size of the Capen parlor suggests the fact that it was drafted into use for semipublic events as well. Shortly after the Reverend Capen’s arrival, John Gould, one of his parishioners, was charged by neighbors with uttering treasonous words against the king and was imprisoned in Boston on the basis of their testimony. At a meeting in Capen’s house, probably held in his parlor, the minister brought the two sides together and managed to achieve a reconciliation.
Topsfield hardly lacked social distinctions, of course. A small group of families in the town—the Goulds, Perkinses, Peabodys, Townes, and Averills—whose sons and daughters intermarried, owned the largest pieces of land, paid the most taxes, and held the highest positions in the government. They were the constables and clerks of the town meetings, the appointees to the court in Ipswich, the officers of the militia, and the highway surveyors, fence viewers, hogreeves, and tithingmen who oversaw almost every facet of the community’s day-to-day activities. They were frequently identified in the town records by their honorific titles of Mr., or Reverend, or Lieutenant, while everyone else is referred to simply by name or sometimes as “goodman,” “goodwife,” “commoner,” or “freeman.” Commoners sat on benches in the meetinghouse during Sunday services, the men on one side and their wives on the other, while the village elite sat with their families in their own pews nearest to the pulpit (and occasionally petitioned for the right to have windows cut in the wall of the meetinghouse next to their pews for light).
If the structure of the village government was clearly laid out, so was the structure of the New England house. Its supporting posts and beams were not hidden from view behind paneling, wainscoting, or cornices; its surfaces and intersections might be decorated, but they were never obscured. The massive summer beams that supported the chambers above were sometimes painted red and displayed elaborate chamfers and stops. At the Capen house the overhangs, pendants, and brackets (which had already passed out of style in England) announced the craftsman’s work as well as the house’s structural dynamic. The front door became art, with decorative patterns formed by the nails that held its layers together. Furnishings were embellished with massive turnings from the joiner’s lathes, their various parts exaggerated by carvings, scorings, incisions, and paint. The aesthetic eschewed any overall scheme. There was no attempt at symmetry or harmony of parts. Individual elements were what they were, and for that they were celebrated.
During the years of Capen’s ministry, the affairs of the town grew more orderly, and Topsfield learned how to govern itself. By 1729 all the common lands had been divided and distributed among the citizens in proportion to the amount of taxes they paid. Disputes continued to arise, of course, but now they were peacefully resolved within the community, often under Capen’s guidance. In 1703 the town’s growing stability was marked by the building of a big new meetinghouse, holding more pews and galleries than the original one. Even the prowling wolves eventually disappeared from Topsfield, perhaps chased off by men trying to collect the ten-shilling bounty awarded for each one brought back dead.
Topsfield’s strong sense of its own identity showed in the changing layout of the town. The old meetinghouse had been nearly a mile from Capen’s house, at a site convenient for parishioners from both Topsfield and the neighboring town of Boxford. The new building stood across from the Capen house, on the edge of the training field, all that remained of Topsfield’s common lands. Around this field, other churches and a town hall eventually were built, most in the nineteenth century, and the common began to provide a focus for the town’s activities.
Shortly after the Topsfield Historical Society bought the Capen house, they set about a very thorough restoration. The house’s framing timbers and fireplaces are original, and so is the entry, called the porch. But some elements were completely redone, as is demonstrated on this page, and in the process designs were borrowed from other houses of the period. Today we would go back to existing evidence to fashion the windows, doors, and chimney of such a venerable place, but in 1913 that notion simply was not afloat.
Steep roofs, small, heat-conserving windows, and the second-story overhang are signs of New England settlers’ houses, based on those of late-medieval England. The overhang may have been a way of strengthening the house’s frame, but that isn’t clear, even today. Yet the device certainly carved a powerful, even willful, silhouette that says, “I will stand through the centuries.”
Still, it was no Eden. The grounds of the new meetinghouse held stocks for the punishment of wrongdoers, as had the old. Poor people continued to be forced out of town, probably in ever increasing numbers. And political rights were still restricted to property owners who were longtime inhabitants and church members.
Years later scholars would speculate that Topsfield grew up around the green, but the reality was just the opposite; the village had actually been formed years before its seemingly eternal common.
By contrast, the Capen house really was an echo of an earlier time. “If Parson Capen’s house could be transported overseas and planted somewhere in the little Essex hamlet of Toppesfield,” one architectural historian has written, “it would harmonize perfectly with the pleasant rolling country, the thatched cottages and the sturdy oak trees of the district of England which was the real cradle of the Pilgrim Fathers.” And Reverend Capen’s Sunday sermons, which discovered the meaning of the community in stories from the Bible, were also a kind of invention that gave New World settlers a sense of destiny.
Certainly, by the early years of the eighteenth century Topsfield and other Massachusetts towns were prepared to play their monumentally important roles. The social and political structures of such towns and villages in turn strengthened the network of local representatives to lower houses of assembly, not just in Massachusetts but in virtually all the colonies. This grass-roots experience with independence was critical in creating a rhetoric in opposition to the authority of monarchical government. In all the events that helped set the country free from Britain, Topsfield played an important role. Sixty-three Topsfield men stood at Lexington Common on April 19, 1775, among them ten Goulds, thirteen Townes, and sixteen Perkinses.