This section has been lightly edited from text prepared by Nancy Rexford, Director of Historic Northampton. Nancy draws on research done by Jane Slattery.
History of the House
The Parsons House has been dated by dendrochronology [a method of dating structures using tree rings] to 1719, a period when the land on which it stands was owned by Nathaniel Parsons (1686-1738). Nathaniel was a grandson of Joseph Parsons, who arrived in Northampton in 1655 and whose homelot included the area now bounded by Bridge Street, Market Street, Graves Avenue and Parsons Street. As built by Nathaniel, the house was a two-over-two room wood-frame building with a massive central chimney. It originally had small casement windows in 17th century style (old window openings have been located).
Nathaniel (1733-1807), son of Nathaniel the builder of the house, was only five years old when his father died. He lived in the house until his death and was responsible for expanding the house with a lean-to kitchen sometime in the late 18th century, possibly around 1785. It is this lean-to that is causing problems today.
Late 18th-century deeds also indicate the existence of at least one, possibly two barns in the younger Nathaniel’s era, now no longer standing and their exact location unknown. In addition to these, there seems to have been a previous house, probably built by Nathaniel’s father Jonathan, location unknown and built when the lot included all the land eastward to Parsons Street. It is possible that materials from this house were incorporated into one of the barns.
After the younger Nathaniel’s death in 1807, the house was sold and within a year it was owned by Chloe Wright and her stepson Ferdinand Hunt Wright. The Wrights expanded and modernized the house soon after they arrived, including new fenestration. The house we see today is basically the home they created. Their early 19th century sash windows were replaced with 2-over-2 paned windows in the later 19th century, and those windows were replaced in the mid-1970s with reproduction 12-over-12 windows (probably not quite correct for any period in this house).
The current back porch dates to the 20th century. In the 1970s and 80s it was screened in and very pleasant. Earlier than that, photographs show a shed-like room on what appears to be the same footprint.
The elder Nathaniel Parsons married twice, first in 1714, second in 1728. His first wife, Experience Wright, died in 1715, soon after the birth of her first and only child, who also died. He built our Parsons House about 1719, before he married Abigail Bunce in 1728. Nathaniel and Abigail had five children, but a set of twins born in 1730 both died in infancy. Nathaniel’s occupation is unknown but his probate inventory [a document listing one’s personal property at the time of death] shows an abundance of farming equipment. He also owned a regular saddle and a pillion saddle, which means both he and Abigail rode the two mares. There were two Bibles and a “considerable number of other books” which implies a degree of literacy although Abigail made her mark on the probate inventory. Someone in the house wore “a pair of specticles”. There were two beds and two chamber pots for five people [Nathaniel, Abigail and their two surviving children].
After the elder Nathaniel’s death in 1738, the house passed to his widow, Abigail, and the three children who survived infancy: Experience, Nathaniel and Elisha. According to current research:
- Experience (born 1729) lived in the house until her marriage in 1754. After her husband’s death in 1756, she returned home with her daughter Jerusha and lived there again until her second marriage in 1768.
- Elisha (born 1731) lived in the house at least until he married Lucy Alvord in 1770, and possibly longer. Three of his five children were born before 1779, when we know that he moved to South Street. He served for six weeks as a soldier in the American Revolution in Sep/Oct 1777.
- Nathaniel (born 1733) lived in the house until his death in 1807. He married Sarah Hunt in 1768. Seven of the nine children born between 1769 and 1782 lived past early infancy.
The mother, Abigail (born 1701) lived in the house until her death in 1789. If Elisha and Lucy lived in this house until 1779, there could have been as many as 16 people in four rooms: five adults and eleven children. Even if Elisha and Lucy moved out at the time of their marriage in 1770, by 1782 the household would have reached a total of ten (three adults and seven children).
The younger Nathaniel married Sarah Rust in 1768 when he was 35 and she was 29. They had nine children:
- Nathaniel 1769-1857 married Sarah King in 1801
- Luther 1771-18xx married Hadassah Hannah Brown in 1806
- Sarah Sally 1772-1802 married Moses Kingsley in in 1794
- Abigail 1774-1849 married Asahel Kingsley 1796
- Mary 1776-1857 married Preserved Bartlett in 1794
- Persis 1778-1810 married Phineas Sexton in 1809
- Twin 1781-1781
- Twin 1781-1781
- Eunice 1782-1863 married Joel Brown
His older brother Elisha married Lucy Alvord in 1770 when he was 39 and she was 30. They had five children:
- Lucy 1771-1847 married Calvin Clark
- Elisha 1774-1843 married Phebe Hulbert
- Clemence 1777- 1849 married Godolphin Patterson
- Jerusha (twin) 1779-1849 married John Parsons
- Stephen (twin) 1779-1848 married Zeruiah Pierce
Back in 1768, the year of the younger Nathaniel’s marriage and just before his sister Experience was about to marry for the second time, Nathaniel bought out her share of the family property. This presumably gave her a dowry to bring to her marriage and it began to consolidate Nathaniel’s title to the land. We are not sure when Nathaniel acquired full ownership of the property. Possibly Elisha sold his share to Nathaniel2 around 1779 when Elisha moved to a property on South Street, but for some reason, Elisha continued to pay taxes on the Bridge Street property until 1791, so the situation is not yet clear.
What we do know is that at some unknown date in the late 18th century, perhaps in 1785, the house was expanded in the common New England way by adding a lean-to extending the entire length of the back wall of the house. The main room in the lean-to was a kitchen with a new fireplace and bake oven, their flues extending into the main chimney stack. The late 18th century date is agreed on by all scholars, who note the rough-hewn frame, which was always intended to be cased, and the design of the fireplace, in which the bake oven is flush with the kitchen wall.
That the Parsons family needed more space in the 1770s and 1780s seems self-evident judging from the growing number of children, especially if Elisha’s family remained in the house until 1779. By the mid-1790s, however, Elisha and his family were gone, their mother Abigail had died, and three of the younger Nathaniel’s five daughters had married, presumably to form households elsewhere, so there was far less need for expansion by the last decade of the century. Thus, judging from the family demographics, a date in the 1770s or 1780s would be most plausible for the expansion of the house.
It is almost certain that the younger Nathaniel and his wife Sarah continued to live in the house until their deaths in 1806 and 1807 when he was about 74 and she was about 67. At that point his sons Nathaniel and Luther each sold their half of the house, and it passed out of the Parsons family. This implies that Nathaniel and Luther had bought the property primarily to clear their father’s debts and to ensure that their parents had a place to live independently in their old age, knowing that they could recoup their expense after their parents died.
Another small slice of the property, lying approximately where the U-shaped driveway between Parsons and Shepherd now is, appears on the 1853 Northampton map as belonging to W. A. Hawley. We are not sure how or when this small piece got separated out from the larger lots.
By 1808, after a series of intermediary transactions, one half of the house had been sold to Chloe Wright (1764-1854) and the other half to her step-son Ferdinand Hunt Wright (1790-1842, always known as Hunt Wright). Chloe was married to Daniel Wright (1755-1824), but the house was in her name, not his.
It appears that Daniel Wright, like his older brother Justus, was a loyalist during the American Revolution, and went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the war, returning after it was over in 1783. Daniel married his first wife, Roxana Hunt, in January 1784, just eleven days before their son Hunt was born. Two later children seem to have died in infancy and Roxana herself died early in 1791, when Hunt was just seven. Nine months after Roxana’s death, Daniel married Chloe Lyman. That same year, Daniel’s brother Justus died in England, leaving him the guardian for his brother’s five minor children. It is not yet known where the children and their mother lived, but most or all of Justus’s children were married before Daniel moved into the Parsons House.
Daniel’s second marriage to Chloe Lyman produced four girls between 1794 and 1802. In 1808, when Daniel and Chloe moved into the Parsons House, one of these girls was already dead. Another died soon after, at the age of seven, and a third in 1818 at age 22. Only the eldest, Fannie, lived to old age. Daniel’s son by his first marriage, Hunt Wright, was about 24 and unmarried when he acquired the other half of the Parsons House.
In 1811, at the age of 27, Hunt Wright married Olive Ames (1793-1889). They had three girls:
- Elizabeth or Eliza Chapman (1816-1857?)
- Roxana—always known as Anna—(1822 or 1823-1909)
- Mary Ann (1824-1895)
About the time of this marriage, according to family tradition (supported by recent analysis), “an ell was built, containing a new kitchen with the great fireplace and bake oven of that time. A new well was dug, the lean-to [roof] was taken away, making better rooms upstairs; the leaded sashes were removed and the tiny six-inch panes of wavy glass put in.”
The addition of a second floor over the lean-to kitchen completely changed the roof line, moving the ridge farther back and making the roof less steep. About the same time, an ell with a kitchen was added on the north side, a new room was added on the west, and a small extension added on the east to accommodate a fireplace. In addition, the old casement windows were replaced with sash windows in their current locations. Late 19th-century photographs show an enclosed shed-like structure on the back of the main house in an area that is now a simple early 20th century porch. It is also possible that the north ell was once longer than it is now.
Hunt Wright died in 1842 of “intemperance” and his half of the house passed to his wife and children. We have an inventory of furnishings in the house taken at the time of Hunt Wright’s death. The enumeration includes “1 Soup Terrene, broken,” which could conceivably be in the ground behind the house. It is possible that the family experienced some economic hardship after Hunt Wright’s death, since by 1850 the family had dispersed to live elsewhere.
What we do know is that Olive Wright and her youngest daughter Mary lived in the house until at least 1848, when Mary married Theodore Bliss, a bookseller (1822-1910), and went to live in Philadelphia. Their courtship and wedding in the old house about 1843-44 are described in Theodore Bliss’s interesting memoirs:
My opportunities for cultivating any friendship with a young lady were very limited, but on Sunday evenings Mary Wright and her sister Anna received many visitors. It was a musical evening. Mary sang soprano and her sister alto Anna played the accompaniment on a quaint old piano one of the earliest styles of this instrument and a group of young men and girls gathered about and sang music that was very attractive to one at least of their hearers. These were the sweet old sentimental songs of Tom Moore, older ballads and melodies long ago forgotten, except as they live in memory and in the hearts of the very few men and women now living who heard them in that far off youth. It was a great pleasure to me to listen to this music, but I had no voice for singing or knowledge of the art and therefore was not of the group about the piano. For this reason perhaps the scene is impressed all the more vividly on my recollection—the ancient low ceiled room with its simple old time furniture, the play of light and shade from the lamplight on young fresh faces, the melody of old fashioned music to the words of that quaint sentimental poetry of a past century. Singing classes were held in the Town Hall and after the store was closed at nine o clock in the evening I would join the audience in the Hall and accompany the Misses Wright back to their home.
My intimacy with Mary Wright continued for several months until a year had passed and the other young men of our circle began to recognize the fact that I was rather entitled to more of Mary’s attention than they could hope for. We were together always on social occasions. Together we drove through the beautiful land about our home down by the river under Mount Holyoke, through the meadows along old stage roads that ran from village to village each with its wide common and elm shaded street. From rocky narrow roads in the hill country we looked down on the wide spaces of the meadow land and broad sweep of the Connecticut with the circling hills from where Mount Toby lifts its flattened summit near Sunderland to the heights above far off Southampton. My opportunities for these excursions were of necessity very infrequent owing to the requirements of business, but holidays came as I have described at such intervals that we could journey together through the season of spring blossoms could view the leafy foliage of summer and the changing tints of autumn until the leaves fell and winter gave its chances for sleigh rides and skating. This intimacy and close association could be understood by us and our neighbors to indicate one fact alone, that we were engaged and expected to become man and wife.
I had now reached the years of manhood. When I was twenty one years old my relations with Mr. Butler would cease. But my old employer was not willing to part from me as he had done with his other clerks when the term of apprenticeship had ended. He urged me to remain with him for eight months longer agreeing to give me a salary at the rate of five hundred dollars per year. I was glad to accept his proposal as this money enabled me to pay off all the debts that I had contracted except one obligation of some importance. Mr. Butler obtained an offer for my services after I should leave him from the prominent publishing house of Little & Brown of Boston. I had however the offer of another position from his brother Mr. E.H. Butler, a publisher and bookseller of Philadelphia. . . .
I concluded to accept the offer of a position in this company. I was now brought face to face with a very painful situation. My debts were all paid with one important exception. I had absolutely no capital or financial backing. The opportunity of a career was before me but I must win success by my own efforts alone. How could I ask Mary to share this uncertain future? How could I ask her to wait for me through perhaps an uncertain length of years until I was in position to give her a home? Her character and personal appearance were such that many opportunities for a really brilliant marriage might be presented by men well worthy of her trust and affection. What right had I to stand in their way by binding her to an agreement which the uncertainties of life might never permit to be fulfilled? Considering these circumstances, I adopted a line of action that seemed to me the only honorable one. I told Mary the crisis that had arisen in our lives. I told her that we must break off all association together that could in any way curtail her absolute freedom of choice in regard to matrimony. Perhaps it was a cruel thing to do. I could see no other way that was at the same time just and honorable. And so we parted. And so ended the days of my romance and of my youth. Before me in the years that were coming was a man’s work to do in the competitions and conflicts of business. . . .
My close application to business developed many acquaintances among the members of the publishing and bookselling trade but I did not make many social friendships. One reason for my avoidance of society was the memory of a sweet girl in far Northampton. She was always in my thoughts although no letters passed between us, and on the few occasions when I visited my old home we never met. Before returning to Philadelphia on those infrequent and brief visits to Northampton I never failed to walk out Bridge Street and see the cozy little old house shaded with elms where Mary lived. It was a very wretched heartsick man that each time turned away and took the long journey back to Philadelphia. . . .
Three years had passed since I had seen Mary Wright I had never written to her and she had been too independent and high spirited to send me any communication. It was now when my affairs seemed well established that I went to Northampton, not to take my customary lonely walk out Bridge Street and leave the town sad and heavyhearted, but to stop at the pleasant little old house under the great elm and tell Mary Wright the story of my long silence and the years of waiting. I had no reason to believe that her heart might be free or that she had retained even a feeling of interest for me. It was the time of the year when in the happy past we had driven over the valley roads and across the uplands in the cool air of New England’s autumn. Again the landscape was ablaze with the changing colors that precede the bleakness of winter. Yet this autumn was to be a renewal of life, a springtime of the soul even among the falling leaves.
Our wedding took place on the seventh of February 1848. It was an important social event for our town and circle of acquaintances. There can be no doubt that this climax of our friendship had been hoped for by these good people and that in their opinion the course of love had been unduly and unreasonably broken. I can believe that my conduct had been regarded with severe disapproval and certainly had been misunderstood. It was a large and happy company that gathered in the quaint low ceiled rooms of the old house. Mary’s friends had decorated the interior very tastefully. My old employer Mr. J.H. Butler and Mr. Henshaw Bates son of the senator acted as masters of ceremony. The hour was eleven o’clock in the morning. The minister was Rev. E.S. Swift of the Old Church. Afterwards there were simple refreshments, wine and cake, in the plain custom of those days. How long ago it all seems to me as the scenes develop themselves in my memory. And how long ago it is in reality. Sixty one years have passed away since then. Of all the gay company scarcely one remains in this life. About one o clock on that happy day Mary and I left Northampton accompanied by my brother George and his wife who had come for the occasion from New York. Greatly to our surprise we found a special car at the station arranged for by our good friends in which a laughing jolly party of them went with us as far as Springfield. Here they left us with every expression of good wishes for our welfare and happiness.
Mary was not the only Wright daughter to marry. We believe that the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, had been married since about 1840 (possibly as early as 1832), but her history has been more difficult to trace. One theory is that her family went to Indiana. Another puts them in Canada. We know that Elizabeth had a son Levi F. Adams, who was alive in 1872, because he is mentioned on a deed, but at this point, we do not believe they were part of the Bridge Street household after Eliza’s marriage.
The middle daughter, Roxana (always called Anna), went to work as a governess in Alabama and Virginia in the 1840s. At that period, becoming a governess was a career more likely to be chosen out of economic necessity than as a vocation. Indeed, instead of returning to live with her mother, who was left alone after Mary’s marriage in 1848, Anna remained in the south earning a living, and her mother went to live with her sister Frances (Mrs. George Barrett) in New Hampshire. But when Theodore and Mary Bliss were able to purchase their own home in Philadelphia about 1850-51, Anna came back to live with them. Like many newly-married couples of the period, Mary and Theodore had first lived in a boarding house and could not have invited Anna to join them. But when Theodore mentions the new house in his memoir (Theodore Bliss, Publisher and Bookseller), he adds that “early in wedded life Mary’s sister Anna Wright became a member our household. She had enjoyed a most interesting experience as governess in some Southern families and knew much of life passed on those great remote plantations in Alabama and amid more comfort in Virginia.” During Theodore’s account of the Civil War years, he notes, “My sister-in-law Anna Wright took great interest in the organized work of the women of the city to meet incoming trains at the Cooper Shop Station where the soldiers arrived from the North or South. Here food in ample supply was ever ready for distribution and what the men appreciated almost as much friendly words of cheer or welcome or encouragement from the ladies in attendance. Anna worked also in the hospitals visiting the sick and wounded writing letters for them buying little delicacies ever ready with a cheery word. The men did not always appreciate the kindly attention and yet it was rare that they failed in this respect. At the Turner’s Lane Hospital Anna had noted a very handsome officer who was utterly bored to rebellion by the attentions of the lady visitors. One of these angels of the ward drifted into the room glanced about for a moment and glided to the officer’s bedside. “My poor sufferer! What can I do for you?” “Go away! Go away! I don t want anything,” growled the handsome son of Mars. “Oh but surely I can do something to allay your pain.” “No you can’t. All I want is to be let alone!” “Let me bathe your face,” pleads the angel. “All right go ahead and do it, but if you do you’ll be the fifteenth woman that has washed my face this morning.”
After the breakup of Hunt Wright’s household in 1848, his elderly step-mother Chloe Wright and her unmarried daughter Fannie continued to live in the other half of the house (they lived in the ell, though it is not clear exactly how the rooms were divided). Chloe died in 1854 at the age of 90, and it is logical to assume that she left her share of the house to her unmarried daughter Fannie, who we believe lived there until her death in 1869.
Post-1850 Residents of the House
Sergeant Family (renters, c. 1848-1863 or 1869)
Before 1850, probably by 1848, the half of the house belonging to Olive and her daughters was rented out to the family of George Sergeant. George Sergeant was born in 1820. His wife Lydia Ann Clark was born about 1821. They were married about 1847 and had seven children, most or all of whom were born while they lived in the Parsons-Wright house:
- Katherine DeForest 1848-1923
- Mary L 1850-1935
- Charles Spencer 1852-1938, married Bessie Blake, had children, died in Florida
- Gertrude W 1856-1915 married Walter Watson
- Helen C 1858-1942
- George Henry 1860-1923
- Caroline (Crully) Belle 1862-1955 (a c. 1901 photo shows her with a cat)
In March 1863, Lydia Clark Sergeant bought out her siblings’ interest in the nearby house at #82 Bridge Street, which had been willed to them by an aunt in 1861. Lydia died later in 1863, leaving the house to her children, and at some point in the 1860s the family left #58 Bridge and moved to #82, three doors down. According to http://www.MassHistoricBuildings.com, the house at #82 Bridge Street was remodeled by architect William Fenno Pratt in 1869.
George Sergeant died in 1876, leaving seven children, age 14 to 28. Preliminary research suggests that only one of the girls ever married. That was Gertrude, who married Walter Watson of the Wildwood family (Walters little blue dress is on display in the gallery right now). The other girls were buried with their maiden names. Helen and Caroline gave many items to Historic Northampton. No evidence yet found that George married, but Charles married Elizabeth (Bessie) Blake and had children. He died in Florida in 1938, but his children are listed with the seven children of George and Lydia in a 1943 quitclaim deed that transferred the house to John and Marion Berestka.
The family of Mary and Theodore came back from Philadelphia to visit in the summers, suggesting that they were on good terms with Fannie and/or the Sergeants. The visiting Bliss children must have played with the Sergeant children and also with little Thomas Shepherd next door, as they were all much the same age. Mary and Theodore’s son Arthur was born in Northampton in 1859, the same summer that Theodore first noticed the symptoms of serious rheumatoid arthritis, which was to cripple him entirely.
It seems likely that when Chloe Wright’s daughter Fannie died in 1869, she left her half of the house either to Olive or to Olive’s daughter Anna. Anna was apparently the first to return to the old house as by 1873, “Mrs. Anna Wright” is listed as living on Bridge Street in the city directory. At some point between 1876 and 1880, Olive Ames Wright also returned, and during the 1880s, the city directories consider “Mrs. F. H. Wright” to be the head of the household. Olive died in 1889, and Anna continued to live there until her own death in 1909.
Calvin Kingsley Family, Renters
After the Sergeant family moved out of the front of the house, another family may have rented the house in the later 1860s and 1870s but this family has not yet been identified.
Calvin Kingsley (1839-1905), an employee of the railroad, was listed as residing at #58 Bridge Street in the 1882-83 city directory, and he continues to be listed in the directories as living there through the year of his death in 1905. Findagrave has fairly full information about him. He was the youngest child of Lyman and Caroline Strong Kingsley of Northampton. He served in the Civil War, Company C, 10th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers. He applied for certification as an invalid in 1879, a few months after his marriage to Harriet Electa Nims (1845-1918) of Conway. She was 34 and he was 39. They seem never to have had children. Calvin Kingsley worked at the freight depot for the NH & N Railroad Company and eventually became a foreman. He was junior vice-commander in the W. L. Baker Post No. 86, G. A. R. Harriet Nims Kingsley lived to 1918, but does not appear in the Northampton directories after her husband’s death, so perhaps she returned to her family in Conway.
When Anna died in 1909, she left the 58 Bridge Street property to her sister Mary’s children, Anna Catherine (1848-1941), Arthur (1859-1913), and Edgar (1867-1942). Three other Bliss siblings (Mattie, Theodore and Caroline) had died earlier than Anna Wright so they were not included in the will.
Anna Catherine came to live in her namesake’s old house in 1910. Photographs show her sitting in the front part of the house, not the ell, but she had a companion and aide who may have lived in the ell. It was Anna Catherine who “decided” that the house had belonged to Cornet Joseph Parsons and had been built in 1658 and she ignored the opinions of other local Parsons family members who preserved a more accurate memory of the house’s origins. She was an interesting lady in her own right, spent time in Europe, and daringly smoked behind her parasol when she was young.
Edgar and Arthur gave up their interest in the house to their sister, who had never married. She installed the central heating and lived in the house until her death in 1941 at the age of 91. It was Anna Catherine Bliss who, responding to the insistent encouragement of her neighbor Mrs. Thomas Shepherd, finally left the house to Historic Northampton, giving the museum its first real home.