Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Myth of George Danson

Often, it is difficult to determine where myth ends and history begins. One of the most fertile sources of local myth has been King Philip's War (1675-76), partly due to the lack of any comprehensive contemporary sources documenting Middleborough's experience during that conflict. And among the most persistent myths to have emerged from that war has been the legend of George Danson, which has come to be accepted as an historical fact.

The myth of George Danson was given widespread credibility with the 1906 publication of Thomas Weston's redoubtable History of the Town of Middleboro. Weston relates that Danson "was shot by the Indians upon the breaking out of King Philip's war, at the brook which bears his name [in East Middleborough]. He had been urged by John Tomson the night before to go to the garrison, but waited until morning. After starting, he stopped for his horse to drink when he was shot."

Weston seems to have culled this information from Samuel G. Drake's 1865 notated edition of Reverend William Hubbard's The History of the Indian Wars in New England, originally published in 1677. Drake, in turn, took the tradition from an earlier genealogy of the Thompson family which recorded: "The house of John Thomson was burnt by the Indians a certain evening. On the same evening a Mr. Danson, his neighbor, was shot on his horse and killed as he was letting his horse drink at a brook." This information, itself, is said to have been based upon a letter from John Thompson to Governor Winslow of Plymouth written about the time of the original incident in July, 1675.

Though Drake states that he is uncertain whether the Mr. Danson reportedly killed in 1675 is the same person as George Danson, Weston clearly believed them to be one and the same. Weston was untroubled by the fact that George Danson's name appeared on a list of Middleborough proprietors dated June 28, 1677 (nearly two years after Danson's presumed death in July, 1675), and he dismissed this inconsistency simply as carelessness on the part of the clerk who failed to make a timely record of the death.

Yet, there is one piece of information which completely subverts the Danson myth. It is an innocuous notice dated November 25, 1675, which originally was recorded in the Boston town records, and later was reprinted in Incidents of the First and Second Settlements of Worcester (1884) and the genealogical column of the Boston Evening Transcript in 1912. It reads: "George Danson & his wife quakers, haveinge a house burnt at Midleborowe in Plymouth patent lodgeth at John Warrens."

Clearly, George Danson was not killed during that early summer of 1675, and he removed to Boston with his wife following the evacuation of Middleborough, seeking refuge with John Warren. Later Boston records indicate that Danson engaged in trade as a "loaf-bread baker", petitioning with two other bakers for a loosening of the regulations governing the baking trade. Danson also appears in later records, being an early proprietor of Worcester where he became involved in a legal dispute in the mid-1680s over the control of certain property.

Who then, if anyone, was killed at Danson's Brook in July, 1675? Middleborough histories predating Weston, such as E. W. Peirce (1884) and Pratt & Eddy (1867), state uncategorically that the victim was Robert Danson. Pratt & Eddy write that "but one man was killed from Middleboro, in King Philip's War. His name was Robert Danson." Later, Ebenezer W. Peirce in his own History of Middleboro repeats Eddy’s claim. “Middleboro’ is said to have lost only one man, slain in King Philip’s war, and whose name was Robert Dauson [sic]. (Unfortunately, this statement fails to jibe with Hubbard's 1677 assertion that a J. Marks of Middleborough died at the outset of the war of complications resulting from a broken thigh bone, the result of a shot from a Native marksman).

Probably, we will never know the full truth behind the Danson myth. However, as is the case with many myths, the story behind George Danson's legend is equally fascinating and illuminating.

Most revealing is the fact that Danson and his wife were Quakers. At the time, Quakers in Plymouth Colony, and generally throughout New England, were reviled and rabidly persecuted. A 1658 meeting of the Commissioners of the United Colonies (which included Plymouth) labelled the Quakers "an accursed and pernicious sect of heretics," and proposed a range of punishments for various Quaker transgressions, including corporal punishment, imprisonment, branding, banishment and death. Though the laws against Quakers were rarely prosecuted to their full extent, being a Quaker meant almost always being an unwelcome outsider in a hostile Congragationalist-dominated society.

Danson seems to have spent only a short time in Middleborough - no more than two years - though records are scant. At the time he was elderly, describing himself in 1677 as "antient". What brought Danson to Middleborough, and what the reaction of his Congregational neighbors was to this Quaker are not known, but their attitude was probably not a disposing one. In October, 1674, Danson was fined forty shillings by the court at Plymouth for failing to keep the Sabbath, an offense which must have been reported by one of his Middleborough neighbors. Later, despite his age, in 1677 he would be twice whipped at Boston (where he died about 1692) for attending Quaker services.

Quakers never figured in Middleborough history as they did in such other towns as Rochester and Dartmouth. However, the history underlying the myth of George Danson reveals the forgotten presence of Quakers in Middleborough, prompting us not only to question the previously assumed religious homogeneity of the 17th century community of Middleborough, but to confront the community's capacity for religious tolerance, as well.

The folklore generally states that Danson failed to heed his neighbor John Thompson’s urgings to take refuge in the garrison house at what is now Middleborough center. Equally noted is the fact that Danson also remained behind when the Thompsons made the weekly journey to Plymouth on the Sabbath. Given Danson’s Quakerism, it is not surprising that he failed to accompany the Thompsons to Congregational worship at Plymouth and remained behind in Middleborough.

Quakers and Puritans held conflicting world views at the time. While many Quakers saw the hostility of the Natives as a consequence of Puritanical persecution of Quakers and other Dissenters who failed to fall in line with the Puritan orthodoxy, Puritans contrarily regarded Quakers as heretics who provoked the wrath of God Whose punishment came in the form of Native violence.

Seen in such a context, Thompson’s encouragement of Danson to seek shelter in the Middleborough garrison reflects a more realistic world view on the part of Thompson who clearly understood that the coming conflict would be one largely drawn upon racial lines between English and Native, with the English Dansons being regarded as enemies to the Natives despite their Quaker leanings. Further, Thompson’s petitions indicate a compassion and moral responsibility on his part that would not permit him to abandon a neighbor in danger, despite his holding views likely to have been deemed heretical.

Additionally, the Dansons’ adherence to Quakerism also explains their delayed decision to join the remainder of the town at the Middleborough garrison. Quakers, at the time, tended to take a relatively benign view of local Natives, refusing to regard them as threatening or hostile, and in the Quaker world view, the English (or at least the English Quakers) had little to fear from the Native people. Unfortunately, this view was perhaps na├»ve, given the rapid deterioration in relations between the English and the Natives. By 1675, this faith on the part of Danson may have appeared misplaced, seemingly culminating in his son’s death, and leading inevitably to the creation of the Danson myth.

Burning of Brookfield, Massachusetts, engraving, date unknown.
Both before and particularly after King Philip's War (1675-76), the vast majority of English regarded the Native peoples as savages, depicting them as such in engravings like the one above meant to document the war. Holding a contrary view were Quakers like George Danson who undoubtedly sympathized with the Natives as a fellow persecuted minority.
Danson's Brook and Thompson Street, Middleborough, photograph, c. 1904
The scene captures Thompson Street looking north from Danson's Brook, the course of which is marked in the foreground by the wooden railings on either side of the roadway. It is reputedly at this spot that Robert Danson was killed by Natives while watering his horse at the start of King Philip's War.

Title Page, A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, Called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God, 1661.
Edward Burrough's 1661 work was written as a rebuttal of the Massachusetts General Court's defense of its persecution of Quakers. The pamphlet constitutes a stark expose of the harsh treatment meted out to religious minorities by the Massachusetts Bay Colony up to 1661, with punishments including death.

Blake, Francis E. Incidents of the First and Second Settlements of Worcester. Worcester, MA; Franklin P. Rice, 1884.
Celebration of the Two Hundreth Anniversary of the Naming of Worcester, October 14 and 15, 1884. Worcester, MA: City of Worcester, 1885.
Hubbard, William. The History of the Indian Wars in New England. Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1845.
Peirce, Ebenezer W. "History of Middleboro'" in D. Hamilton Hurd. History of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. Philadelphia, PA: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1884.
Pratt, Stillman B. and Zachariah Eddy. "Middleboro." in The Plymouth County Directory and Historical Register of the Old Colony. Middleborough, MA: Stillman B. Pratt & Co., 1867.
Weston, Thomas. History of the Town of Middleborough, Massachusetts. Middleborough, MA: Town of Middleborough, 1906.


Anonymous said...

I have read most of the early accounts of Middleborough, and appreciate the high level of scholarship that you bring to the study of this region. Thanks for correcting the record and giving us this fascinating story!

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