A Tale of Two Boutwells
The Reverend William Thurston Boutwell has been in the Twin City news lately, as his house near Stillwater MN was saved from demolition and is being renovated.
The name “Boutwell” immediately caught my eye because a similarly named 19th-century gentleman figured large in the history of my former home town, Groton MA.
Were these two Boutwells related?
George Sewall Boutwell grew up near Groton, and worked in a store there as clerk and partner for 20 years. Oh, and he also served as a Representative and a Senator from Massachusetts, as Governor of that state, as the first head of Internal Revenue (under Lincoln), and as secretary of the Treasury (under Grant). He also mostly wrote and managed the ratification process for the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. And (as a staunch Abolitionist) was one of the core founders of the Republican Party. And was the floor manager for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
George Sewall Boutwell, 1818-1905. Photo circa 1851; Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes.
Boutwell’s house on Main Street in Groton (see photo below) is now the local historical society, and on the National Register of Historic Places. President Grant spoke to a crowd from its balcony. The store Boutwell worked in is — the house we used to live in, up the road in Groton.
The Rev. William Thurston Boutwell
This gentleman (woodcut at upper right) was born in 1803 in Lyndeborough NH. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1828 and then Andover Theological Seminary in 1831. Boutwell’s first posting as a newly minted Congregational minister was as a missionary to the Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwa) in the then nearly wild land of Minnesota. Boutwell journeyed to La Pointe on Mackinac Island and proceeded to learn the Ojibwa language. Just a year later, he was invited to accompany an expedition headed by Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie. This was to be an extensive tour of the northwest Indian nations. The party ended up discovering the source of the Mississippi River, whose location had been in dispute among the white men for decades. It was no particular mystery to the natives.
Schoolcraft wanted to name the source lake with something classical; he preferred Greek. No one in the party knew enough Greek but Boutwell had decent Latin. He translated “true head” as “veritas caput,” and the central letters from that phrase named Lake Itasca. (Here’s a brief account of my visit to the headwaters last year.)
Boutwell went on to found the first Presbyterian congregation in Stillwater MN — a community that continues to this day. He preached in a number of other churches in the area and the Congregationalists and Methodists in Stillwater also count Boutwell among their pioneer clergymen.
George Sewall Boutwell
Various sources, including this one at Google Books, describe George Boutwell’s early education, which ended when he was 13, and his taking a position in a store in Groton Center. He worked diligently in off hours, by all reports, to remedy his lack of formal schooling (there’s an echo of Lincoln here). Studying the law, Boutwell found a mentor in Bradford Russell Esq., a practitioner living upstairs from his store. He was set to take the bar exam at age 21 when the shopkeeper offered him a partnership in the large and profitable store; he accepted. Boutwell began his political career in 1839 and continued an association with the store until 1855.
No source I found names the shopkeeper who took on Boutwell or identifies the store by name. Considerable evidence points to the building having been what was called Gardner’s Store from 1787 into the 1840s, and the Gerrish Block from 1852. Our home in Groton was one of the two buildings making up the complex so named.
Rear of the 1787 Gerrish Block complex in current time. The masthead at the top of this page shows Groton’s Gibbet Hill, which was pretty much the view out of those windows in the rear of the “ell.”
The buildings were moved several times within the town (people did a lot of that in the 19th century). After 1818 our portion of the structure was moved across Main Street and attached to Gardner’s Store as an “ell.” It served as the post office for some years. In 1885 the main building was moved to its present location and converted to a residence, and the ell was moved and reattached (on the other side of the building this time) in the early 1920s, becoming a barn in this incarnation. It was renovated to living space in 1989. (The then owner had tried to have the work done in time for the house’s bicentennial in 1987, but difficulties with licenses slowed the process.) The names of two workmen are scribed into the cement of the 1920s-era foundation.
And the legend “Geo S Boutwell Groton” is (possibly) burned into a timber in the basement ceiling. My surmise is that George did this while still a teenage clerk in the store that was then called either Park and Woods or Park and Potter, in the early 1830s.
Boutwell signature (?) on a beam in the basement of our former house in Groton MA. It may be burned into the wood, but in fact the looseness of the script suggests a brush and (possibly) India ink. So there is no knowing when this legend was added or by whom.
So were Rev. William and George Boutwell related?
They were third cousins. (Click the image for a larger version.)
Genealogical chart showing the two Boutwells descending from a common ancestor in New England. Note that the name was variously spelled Boutell, Boutwell, Boutelle, etc., especially in and before the 18th century. Thanks to Ancestry.com for providing the resources that allowed me to figure this out.
Wonderful research (and presentation). This family has roots in both places, and now, so do you!
Your summary of G.S. Boutwell’s political career has roused my nostalgia for the era when “regular people” (as opposed to career politicians) held state and national offices. He had the income from the store, didn’t have to solicit funds from lobbyists.
(As a former student of US history I am confident there were other contemporary political challenges that I am glossing over.)
I’ve noticed in other comments that your blog has inspired people to visit the places you write about! Now I’m feeling it too. At least in La Crosse I will be much closer to the source of the Mississippi than I usually am! (New Orleans is the location from which I have most frequently appreciated it.)
Yes, in the 1830s the country was still recognizably similar to the vision of the Founders, with farmers and yeomen comprising an educated and informed electorate and ordinary (white, male) citizens taking time out to serve in government. The industrialization of the country was well under way, but by 1840 only 11% of the population lived in cities, and still only 18% in the Northeast.
As always, Keith, I so enjoy your observations! I also love history and reading about said history from a master of the English language.
When I ponder how difficult English is to learn, I am in awe of our immigrants who have mastered it. I am sure glad that I didn’t have to learn it as a second language!
Thanks Linda! As a friend of mine once said, “I’m a master of the English language. It lies bleeding at my feet.” 😛
Here’s an interesting note from Samuel Abbott Green’s 1894 book, An Historical Sketch of Groton, Massachusetts, 1655-1890:
Great stuff, as always.
A few observations/questions.
1. Wow, that family sure had some longevity genes! John Boutell lived to be 100, for one instance, and his wife made it to 93. These are not lifespans I associate with people born in the 1600’s.
2. Any idea whether Willam Thurston attempted to write the Ojibwa language? Here on Martha’s Vineyard there’s an ongoing program to revive the Wampanoag language. A key source is a version of the Eliot Bible that was translated into Wapanoag by Experience Mayhew.
Thanks John. Yes, I wondered about that longevity — checked John Boutell at two different sources and they agreed that he had died at 100. That had to have been vanishingly rare back then. This page says it was rare even as late as 1940! “Roughly 1 person in every 6,000 reach their 100th birthday today. Fifty years ago, only 1 person in every 67,000 reached the century mark.”
I don’t know about Rev. Wm. and his language studies; will see what I can find. I know that now Ojibwa is written using the English alphabet, and somewhat phonetically from what I have seen (which is mostly the English transcriptions of religious hymns in that language).
(Now that I look, Wikipedia says: “…no standard writing system [is] used to represent all dialects. Ojibwe dialects have been written in numerous ways over a period of several centuries, with the development of different written traditions reflecting a range of influences from the orthographic practices of other languages.” The one I have encountered seems to be “the double vowel system, attributed to Charles Fiero.”)
John — I found an account of Rev. Wm. Boutwell’s life and ministry in the Journal of Presbyterian History (who knew?). You’ll need a Jstor account to read that. Boutwell worked with the Indians for 15 years at Leech Lake and up around what became Duluth; but it seems he didn’t do much with the Ojibwa language. His wife was 1/4 Ojibwe and spoke the language as a native, as well as English and French. Boutwell seems to have considered it his main job to entice or cajole the Indians into the modern white man’s lifestyle and economy; he learned of their rituals and beliefs but apparently found no good in them. Such mores were not to be built upon but instead stamped out and replaced. There was no sense, in Boutwell or the organization that sent him, that one could be Christian without also living like a white man. To modern eyes, not an admirable attitude.
I just added a photo of the (possible) Boutwell inscription or signature from the basement of my old house, courtesy of the current owner.
Great article, good read. Many researchers miss the fact that George Sewall Boutwell and Ulyssess Grant were also distant cousins, although I don’t believe they ever realized it during their lifetimes. Their common ancestor was Robert White, who lived in the County of Essex, England.
Thanks David, really interesting. Of course George went to work in the Grant administration.
I have to ask: are you a descendent of George? Or how do you connect with that line? As far as I can see his two children had no issue.
And I’m curious how you came across this article.
[ Note added 2019-07-25: David replied privately that he is a third cousin five times removed from both George and Rev. William. He found this blog post via Brent Peterson of the Washington County (Stillwater) Historical Society, from whom we shall hear more below. ]
A friend commented on a private mailing list that Rev. Boutwell’s Latin may not have been all that impressive:
I’ll take my friend’s word for it, as my own “small Latin” is decades in the past. It surprises me that the Rev. Boutwell would make such an elementary error in Latin grammar. He had, after all, a fine education. And Brent Peterson of the Washington County (Stillwater) Historical Society confirmed to me privately by email that Rev. Boutwell’s classical education was rigorous and his facility with languages was strong.
Which all leads me to believe that the conventional origin story for the name of Lake Itasca has been fudged a bit. My supposition is that Rev. Boutwell and the expedition leader, Schoolcraft, put their heads together and came up with a reasonably euphonious name, which had the virtue of sounding vaguely “Indian.” Schoolcraft in fact was known for this kind of naming.
I came across your site and look forward to sharing information. I’m writing a biography of George S. Boutwell, who was a cousin of my great, great, grandfather, Rodney Cleaves Boutwell (1811-1889) of Lyndeborough, NH – William Thurston was one of Rodney’s many sons – but not my direct ancestor. Info on my book is at jeffreyboutwell.com. George was a fascinating public figure in American life, a close friend of Lincoln and Grant, impeacher of Andrew Johnson, and interacting with American Presidents from Martin van Buren in 1839 to Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.