Monday, January 11, 2010

The Illiterate Colonel


Joshua Burnham of Milford, New Hampshire

Last week I blogged about Colonel Joshua Burnham, and the fine mansion house he built in Milford, New Hampshire. His house was later sold to the Hutchinson family. Because of their fame as singers, I’ve been able to find many documents about my ancestor the Colonel. You would think that as a Revolutionary War officer, and as someone wealthy enough to build a large estate, he would have left documents for me, the future genealogist, to uncover. But that is not the case with Joshua Burnham.

In my family tree I can count eleven Joshua Burnhams. The Burnham family goes back in time to the Thomas Burnham who arrived on the “Planter” and he settled in Ipswich. Colonel Joshua Burnham was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1754, and he married Jemima Wyman in 1779. He removed to Milford, New Hampshire as a young man, before the start of the American Revolutionary War.

Colonel Burnham first served as a private in the New Hampshire Militia at Milford, under Captain Josiah Crosby and Colonel James Read. He enlisted in April 1775 (probably at the time of the Lexington alarm) was at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He also served in New York, Philadelphia and Canada, and was discharged after four years, lame in one of his ankles. In 1819 he was issued a veteran’s pension. He signed his name, but other people wrote out his application for him. These records were available through the National Archives, and are not unusual. But there was more about Joshua Burnham that I found later.

I went over to Milford to look in the town library’s genealogy room, to see if there was more information about the Burnham family. Milford isn’t far from Londonderry, and I was able to chat up the librarians and town clerk at the town hall. Everyone told me that the Burnham house was still standing, and the family graveyard was nearby. This was good news! And the library had tons of Hutchinson family information, which turned out to be helpful in my Burnham search.

The land where he built his house was originally his father’s land in 1772. The Colonel Burnham house was originally built as a hotel, on the road to Lyndeborough. His plans for the house may have been influenced by some of the mansion houses he saw down South during the War. The ceilings were 13 feet high and there is a front to back hallway with doors at both the front and back of the house, which is not a traditional New England design. He didn’t have enough money to go into the hotel business, so he sold it to Jesse Hutchinson who finished it as a family home for his large family (sixteen children!) It is still standing on North River Road, privately owned, and is known locally as Colonel Burnham’s Tavern.

Colonel Burnham moved into “a little red house on the hill” for his retirement years. He was a frequent visitor to the Hutchinson homestead, and was offered free access to the apple orchards. According to John Wallace Hutchinson in his book “The Story of the Hutchinsons”: “…this honorable old gentleman would be seen going and coming with his pockets full, and they were pockets! They were like bags, and he could carry almost half a peck in each one. He would come over, fill his pockets, and then trudge along towards home.” The Hutchinson family named one of their sons Joshua in his honor.

The Hutchinson family eventually became quite famous and removed to Lynn, Massachusetts. The old homestead in New Hampshire became a summer retreat. The Hutchinsons were celebrities, and friends of P. T. Barnum, he was invited to the house and General Tom Thumb drove his small coach and ponies “through the front door, which is nearly four feet wide, and then down the wide (twelve foot) hallway in which there is a steamboat staircase.” (from the Milford Town History) This sounds like a typical P. T. Barnum publicity stunt! The Hutchinson family sold the house in 1949.

Also from John Wallace Hutchinson: “In those early days among the pioneers, education was sometimes neglected. The colonel, though passing through seven years of renown as a discreet officer, could not write his own name, and while in business kept his accounts by characters. For instance, having sold cheese to a person, he would make a mark of that portion of cheese that that man received. His funeral was the first that I had ever witnessed, and the impression was depressingly suggestive. He died at the age of ninety-three; and engraved as an epitaph upon his tombstone, were these words composed by Brother Joshua:
“’Soldier of the Revolution, zealous in his country's cause,
Faithful to the constitution and obedient to its laws.’”

Thus I was able to obtain a wonderful portrait of Joshua Burnham, not by his own words, but in the biographies and memoirs of a completely different family- the Hutchinsons.

My Burnham Lineage:

Generation 1: Thomas Burnham, born about 1623 in England; died on 19 June 1694 in the Chebacco Parish, Ipswich, Massachusetts; married in June 1645 to Mary Lawrence, daughter of Thomas Lawrence and Joan Antrobus, died 27 March 1715 in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Generation 2: John Burnham, born about 1648, died 12 January 1703/4 in the Chebacco Parish; married on 6 June 1668 to Elizabeth Wells, daughter of Thomas Wells and Abigail Warner, born 31 July 1646 in Ipswich, died 9 June 1731.

Generation 3: Thomas Burnham, born 30 September 1673 in Ipswich, died 16 December 1748; married on 30 September 1700 in Ipswich to Susannah Boardman, born 1681, died 1748.

Generation 4: Stephen Burnham, born about 1715 in the Chebacco Parish, died about 1790 probably in Milford, New Hampshire; married on 16 August 1735 in Ipswich to Mary Andrews, daughter of Thomas Andrews and Mary Smith, born about 1712 in Ipswich.

Generation 5: Joshua Burnham, born 26 January 1754 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, died 7 June 1835 in Milford; married on 21 January 1779 to Jemima Wyman, daughter of Increase Wyman and Catherine Unknown, born on 10 February 1757 in Billerica, Massachusetts, died on 6 September 1843 in South Boston, Massachusetts.

Generation 6: Jemima Burnham, born 9 May 1783 in Milford, died on 5 August 1868 at 88 Emerson St., South Boston; married on 22 November 1810 in Boston to Romanus Emerson, son of John Emerson and Katherine Eaton, born 1 September 1782 in Townsend, Massachusetts, died 10 October 1852 in South Boston.

From here my lineage follows the Emerson surname…
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For more information:

“Old Houses of Milford” compiled in a notebook for Wadleigh Memorial Library, Milford, New Hampshire

“The Story of the Hutchinsons” by John Wallace Hutchinson, 1896 (see pages 8 – 10 for the information on Colonel Joshua Burnham)

“The History of Milford” by George A. Ramsdell, Rumford Press, Concord, New Hampshire, 1901, page 783
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Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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Update May 18, 2010

A reader sent me the following information "I was researching my ancestor Stephen Clark of Epping New Hampshire, when I came across your story about Col. Burnham, who was in the Revolutionary War. He seems to be the only Col. so I concluded that he was the one you were calling, "Illiterate." I have proof that he wasn't. My copier doesn't scan good enough to be able to e-mail the page that I copied last summer when researching at the DAR library in Washingon, DC.

It is page 242 in the State of New Hampshire "Rolls of the Soldiers in the Revolutionary War 1775-1777." Hammond, editor. 1885
It reads:

"[Winter Hill Companies, December, 1775.]
Col. Burnhams report of the Company's recruited in New Hampshire
To the Hon. the Committee of Safety In the Colony of New Hampshire.
Return of the Companies of New Hampshire Militia in the Continental Army December 1775--"

This is followed by a table listing all the towns by name with the higher ranking officers names from each town and a count of all of the lower ranking officers and soldiers.

This doesn't look like something an illiterate person could have been able to do or been able to put his name on, if he were illiterate and couldn't verify the accuracy of the info himself."

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