Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Ring of the Son of Thunder

Memento Mori ring cast as a memorial to
Rev. Samuel Dunbar, 1783. (Courtesy of Eldred’s Auction)
The simple inscription on the inside of a small gold ring tells an amazing story that reaches back over 300 years to the birth of Samuel Dunbar. The inside of the ring in a colonial script reads: “Rev’d Saml. Dunbar June 15, 1783 AE 78” and a makers mark “PR.”

For all purposes, know that when I write of Canton, I write of the place that began as Dorchester, became Stoughton, was divided into parishes, and ultimately became what we know as Canton in 1797.

A receipt from 1777 signed by Samuel Dunbar
in the collection of the Canton Historical Society
As this town grew, the need for ministerial guidance was at the forefront of this community. The town minister was as important, and perhaps even of greater importance as that of the town doctor or miller. Samuel Dunbar was born in Boston on October 2, 1704, and when he was 4, his father died. At a very early age he attracted the attention of the Reverend Cotton Mather. Mather held the strictest of religious doctrines, best exhibited by his views on witchcraft and the subsequent hangings at Salem. Under Mather’s guidance, Dunbar attended Boston Latin School and Harvard College. By 1727, the people of Canton reached out and sent letters of inquiry asking that the 23 year old accept a ministry over the Church of Christ in Stoughton.

Through the years in Canton, a handsome house was built on what is now Chapman Street. A family grew and the reverend became extremely influential in all things religious and politic. The image of the man in a “long black gown, his snow white bands, his flowing gray wig, his black short-clothes, his knee and shoe buckles” stir a very proper picture of a righteous man. Upon the death of a resident who had not been an attendant at church, Dunbar stood at the head of the coffin and turned to the surviving relatives and proclaimed that “his body was before them, but his soul was in hell.”

In his early ministry in Canton he was a staunch supporter of the Crown, as all were in the middle of the 18th century. Dunbar was of the highest moral character and most esteemed by the entire community. When the call of duty was made by the king in 1755, Dunbar, as chaplain, accompanied Richard Gridley and Paul Revere (then 21) to fight against the French at Crown Point.

The Doty Tavern depicted in an 1876
drawing for Potter’s American
Magazine (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Over the years, as discontent grew among the people of the colonies, the fiery reverend changed sides and vociferously supported the patriots’ cause. In fact, in 1774 Dunbar bore witness to the birth of liberty. On Tuesday, August 16, 1774, delegates from around the surrounding towns gathered at Doty Tavern, at the foot of the Blue Hill, to hold a “Congress.” This meeting would bring about the emancipation from the tyrannous hands of the king. What would become known as the Suffolk Resolves was first discussed at this meeting. Dunbar, against the advice of family, friends and fellow ministers, attended the meeting and opened with a prayer that was described as “the most extraordinary liberty prayer” ever heard. It would not be hard to imagine coming from a person who once prayed that God would “put a bit in their mouths and jerk them about, send a strong northeast gale, and dash them [the British fleet] to pieces on Cohasset Rock.”

Dunbar was an amazing man, and in the truest sense a patriot, alongside Adams, Hancock, Revere, and Warren. He was known alternatively as a “Son of Thunder” and a “Son of Consolation.” As the “eldest Son of Liberty,” Dunbar bore witness to an extraordinary time in our history, giving comfort during times of distress and thanks during times of triumph. Samuel Dunbar lived long enough to see victory and the birth of our nation.

The first minister to publicly read the Declaration of Independence from the pulpit died on June 15, 1783. It would take 13 days for the great man to die, in excruciating pain, yet surrounded by family and friends at his home in the Old Parsonage. Huntoon describes the scene: “As the shades of evening approached, his pulse became slower and his breath shorter…” An affectionate friend kneels and inquires upon the old man’s pain, to which the response is, “I have served a good Master, and he has not forsaken me.”

Samuel Dunbar’s Parsonage which once
stood on Chapman Street. (Courtesy of the
Canton Historical Society)
Dunbar’s obituary ran in the Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser on July 3, 1783. “They gather’d together, and with a generofity and tendernefs chearfully agreed to inter him at their common expence” continuing “the congregation, form’d in two ranks, proceeded from the dwelling houfe of the deceafed firft, the church next, then the deceafed borne by twelve principal men of the parifh, and the pall fupported by eight of the neighboring minifters.” Once committed to the grave, the obituary concluded, “The sweet remembrance of the just, Shall flourish when he sleeps in dust.”

And now to the ring. A recent caller from Cape Cod inquired as to what I knew of Dunbar, all of which I have related in this story. The initials “PR” intrigued me. Could this be … Paul Revere? In fact, this gold ring was most likely cast by the hands of the patriot and friend of Dunbar. As was the custom for the wealthy, a provision was made to quickly gather up gold and silver and have it cast into rings as a Memento Mori. These rings would be given as gifts to those closest friends as a way of signifying the importance of the man and as a literal reminder that you too shall “remember your mortality.”

A call to my friend, Nina Zannieri, the executive director of the Paul Revere House, confirmed, “It looks pretty good to us.” But, how does “pretty good” stack up? Digging further we found that in 1783 Paul Revere wrote in his day book that he cast eight rings for a single client, Capt. James Indicot. Zannieri writes, “It seems unlikely that is related to the one in your picture.”

What Zannieri did not immediately connect was the fact that Indicot was actually James Endicott — of Canton. James Endicott served as a captain in the Revolution at Lexington, Dorchester Heights, Cambridge, and Ticonderoga. Endicott was a friend of Revere; in fact, when Endicott’s house burned to the ground in 1806, it was Paul Revere who led the public financial campaign to rebuild the house against the impending winter. The brick house still stands on Washington Street, just past the high school.

Endicott, at 44 years old, was a rising and prominent citizen. A representative to the General Court, justice of the peace appointed by John Hancock, member of the committee that separated Canton from Stoughton, and the town treasurer, it was Endicott that placed an order for eight gold rings with Paul Revere. The daybook entry is made after May but before July 1783, and reads, in part, “to 8 Gold morn’g ring, weight 15.8 – 4 pounds, 4 shilling, 4 pence. Making ——- 1 pound, 6 shilling, 8 pence – Paid.” So, eight rings were cast about the same time as the death of Samuel Dunbar; one has survived.

On April 9 at Eldred’s Auction Gallery in East Dennis, we will see Paul Revere’s memorial gold ring cast for our second minister, Samuel Dunbar, hit the auction block. Presale estimates for this piece of our town’s history are between $4,000 and $8,000. History is alive and well — but at the right price.

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