Denizens: A Narrative of Captain George Denison and His New England Contemporaries

review by Bob Banning

In about 40 essays, Denizens offers a series of narratives showing how the author’s seventeenth-century southern New England ancestors participated in the history of their times. In reading the book, we learn about a variety of features of life in those times in parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, including a few things about food, drink, and agriculture.

One of the author’s ancestor’s, William Cheseborough, settled land including salt marshes on the banks of Wequetequock Cove, in present-day Stonington, Connecticut, because “salt marsh hay was prized as a food source for livestock until grazing pastures could be established.” Online, I found various sources expressing concern about the health of salt marshes of the Northeast. In early colonial times, the health, and even survival, of human beings may have depended on using salt marsh hay for fodder.

From an agricultural perspective, probably the most interesting passages in the book were the ones that discussed New Englanders’ relationship with their apples. When Europeans first arrived, the only apples they found here were crabapples, but soon colonists began taking apple seeds and scions from England and grafting English varieties onto native rootstock. They chose to propagate varieties on the basis of productivity, beauty, flavor, and ability to store well through long, harsh New England winters.

The author discovered evidence that one influential variety, Denison Redding, may have “gotten its start as a scion brought from England [in the mid-seventeenth century] by Ann Borodell Denison,” one of her ancestors. The fruit was described as “small, beautiful, and very pleasant.” Through research, the author found one remaining tree of this variety on a farm in Pawcatuck, Connecticut.

In the eyes of many New Englanders, however, the highest use of apples may have been to make cider—especially, hard cider. The author quotes a 1901 book as explaining, “English grains did not thrive well those first few years of settlement, and were costly to import, so New Englanders soon drifted from beer-drinking to cider-drinking.” Cider soon became cheap, plentiful, and the most popular beverage in the region. In the most remarkable quote I read in Denizens, the author cites the same 1901 work of history describing the population’s infatuation with hard cider: “All the colonists drank cider, old and young, and in all places. . . . Infants in arms drank mulled hard cider at night, a beverage which would kill a modern babe. It was supplied to students at Harvard and Yale colleges… Old men began the day with a quart or more of hard cider before breakfast. Delicate women drank hard cider…All laborers in the field drank it in great draughts.”
If producing fruit for cider was the highest use of apple trees, perhaps their lowest function was a certain work of decomposition performed by their roots: we learn that an apple tree ate the bones of Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century religious leader who founded Rhode Island; and those of his wife. According to an 1871 publication titled The Apple Culturist, when Williams’s descendants decided to move his and his wife’s remains from their original location, near an apple tree, they found that one of the tree’s roots “had pushed its way through the earth till it reached the precise spot occupied by the skull of Roger Williams. There, making a turn, as if going around the skull, it followed the direction of the backbone to the hips.” And so on. Rev. and Mrs. Williams’s bones were gone, displaced by roots. “The fact proved conclusively,” said The Apple Culturist, “that bones, even of human beings, are an excellent fertilizer for fruit-trees.”

The author also researched the flowers grown by her ancestors and learned that lilacs from Europe were being grown in New England within a few years of the landing of the Mayflower in 1620. She read documents telling that a passenger on the Mayflower had brought lilacs from Holland and grew them in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and that lilacs thought to be from England were growing near the home of one of her ancestors in Stonington, Connecticut, as early as 1629.

Here I’ve reviewed the portions of Denizens that I think would be of most interest to readers of The Natural Farmer, but for history buffs, Denizens affords a wealth of additional information about life in southern New England in the seventeenth century, including abundant quotations from primary sources most of us don’t have access to. It would also be an excellent resource for purchase by the libraries of towns, cities, colleges, and universities throughout the region.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.