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Blacks in Concord


It is hard to know many of the details of the lives of early enslaved African Americans in Concord, Massachusetts because they were, like white women and children, treated as property rather than as citizens of early Concord.  In the seventeenth century Concord was a subsistence farming community, so college educated intellectuals, such as ministers, lawyers, or doctors, appear to have often relied upon enslaved workers to maintain their households and farms.  But they didn’t tend to leave posterity their names or life details.

Concord’s founding minister, the Rev. Peter Bulkeley, and some subsequent First Parish in Concord ministers prior to the American Revolution, appear to have kept slaves at least some of the time.  The church record books include occasional references to enslaved members, but like white women and children, they were seated separately, and were not counted as full or paying members at the time.

The first previously enslaved African American to buy land in Concord was John Jack, born 1712, who built his homestead on swampland near the edge of Great Meadows.  Most of his life he was an enslaved farmhand for Benjamin Barron.  After Barron died in 1754, Jack worked for wages earning his freedom in 1761 and purchasing four acres of plowable land at the margins of Concord society.

George Tolman says: “Later he bought a lot of two and a half acres in the Great Meadow, upon which he built a house, and the spot has been occupied by [African American] families ever since, until a few years ago.”  A succession of often-related African American families lived around Great Meadows throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on land few others found worthwhile to build upon.  I’m told that until very recently some multigenerational Black Concordians still lived near “Asparagus Farm.”

Caesar Robbins, an enslaved African American, probably fought with the Concord militiamen on Punkatasset Hill on April 19, 1775.  In 1823, two of his children Susan and Peter, built a substantial two-family house near John Jacks’ former house site.  It is known to this day as the Robbins House and has been recently relocated to the Old North Bridge parking lot to be Concord’s first Black history museum.

On April 19, 1775 Rev. William Emerson seems to have had two enslaved persons, a male farmhand and a female housekeeper, living in the attic of the Old Manse and serving his growing family’s domestic needs.  A friend recently gave me a behind the scenes tour of the restored Old Manse, including a tour of the garret attic where visiting clergy, the household slaves, and the older children all slept.

In 1837, Susan Robbins Garrison became a founding member of the Concord Female Antislavery Society.  At their first meeting they voted to ask First Parish to remove restrictions of blacks to certain sections or pews of the Meeting House.  In 1862 the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society organized three hundred Concord school children to sign a petition to President Abraham Lincoln asking him to free all enslaved children.

After the American Civil War slavery was no longer practiced in Concord.  Susan’s daughter, Ellen Garrison, went on to be Concord’s leading African-American scholar, teacher, and activist.  Peter Hutchinson, a distant relative by marriage, lived in the Robbins house in Henry Thoreau’s time, serving local farmers as a day laborer and by slaughtering their pigs, a sort of work few others would willingly seek to do.

In Walden Thoreau describes his Walden Woods neighbors as being largely formerly enslaved African Americans, poor Irish immigrants, or the occasional transient indigenous person.  He writes of Freeman Brister and his apple orchard just northwest of Walden Pond.  Or “Cato Ingraham, slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman of Concord village, who built his slave a house, and gave him permission to live in Walden woods.”  And also, “Here, by the very corner of my [bean] field, still nearer town, Zilpha, a colored woman, had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk.”

There is much to be honored in Concord’s history.  We have been neither better nor worse than most Americans of our time and place.  Yet it is important that we acknowledge our past in helping to educate our children and ourselves about the future we envision.  For only by acknowledging our past can we hope to transcend it.  That is the ultimate message of the Concord transcendentalists for our time.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.


A New England Colonial town

My family heritage is about fifty percent White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) New Englanders with most of the rest being descended from Swedish immigrants who moved to Worcester in the late nineteenth century to work in the precision tool industry.

I am descended from the pilgrim John Alden, who helped to pacify and destroy the indigenous people of Cape Cod.  But I am also descended from the Marlboro farmer Abner Goodale who fought with the rebels at Concord’s Old North Bridge on April 19, 1775.  And also, the WASP loyalist Peter Collicutt, who defending king and country fled to Canada during the American revolution.  It is important we know the histories and heritage of our place in this world.

In the late 1620’s the Musketaquid river valley, where Concord would be founded, were open and idyllic pastures and farmlands previously cultivated by a tribe of the Massachusetts indigenous people.  It was twenty miles through the deep dark forest to the nearest settled WASP town, but there were remnants of the indigenous people living in this area and the occasional English hunter or beaver fur trapper.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 under a grant from the king as a Puritan theocracy.   The intention of Concord’s first settlers were to create a WASP heaven on earth, free from the religious and ethnic diversity and disputes of old England, free of the corruptions of non-Puritan religious beliefs.

When in September 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony sold the fur trapper Simon Willard, and a group of Puritan land investors, a six-square-mile parcel of indigenous land to form Concord at Musketaquid, they founded the First Parish Church in Concord to ensure orthodoxy among the WASP settlers.  In town meetings they divided up the land grant according to each family’s needs, paying careful attention to each having adequate land for housing, farming, haying, and woodlots.  This was a reformed model democracy in which only WASP male landowners were taxed or allowed to vote.

Of the six square miles the founders of Concord laid out for the village, less than two square miles at the center were given over to houses, shops, the common, and village activities.  Initially only WASP’s could be buried in the burying grounds.  Houses and shops ran along Main street.  The colonists dammed the Mill Brook at the site of an indigenous people’s fish weir to create a millpond with enough water pressure to mill wheat and corn.  This central village was surrounded by fields, which the farmers drained and ditched to grow all the food the town consumed in a year.  Enormous quantities of marsh grass were grown for livestock and domestic needs.  This was a tidy little Puritan English village in the midst of the dark and wild wilderness.

Concord didn’t stay that way for long.  Times were changing.  Within a generation, educated men living the life of the mind needed reliable farm hands to work their farms, and wealthy farmers without sufficient sons to work needed to hire men on a daily or permanent basis.  So small numbers of black slaves became part of Concord’s economy as early as the late seventeenth century.  Then during the eighteenth century growing numbers of non-WASP Europeans immigrated first to the growing industrial center of Boston, and eventually making their ways to the mills, factories, and farms of greater Concord.

By the nineteenth century freed African American slaves were living alongside Irish immigrants in the town’s non-settled wastelands in Estabrook Woods, Great Meadows, and around Walden Pond.  A large and growing colony of working class Irish Catholics settled Concord Junction, what would become West Concord, and became a reliable source of cheap labor for the factories, farms, and domestic labor needs of those living in Concord village.  Ralph and Lidian Emerson kept an Irish cook and housekeeper.

Loretta and I were among the earliest mixed-race couples settling in Concord in the 1980’s.  The demarcation between the WASP’s of Concord village and the Irish Catholics of West Concord, were still quite apparent, though the lines were beginning to blur.  Especially after the development of Conantum, bringing a much more ethically and racially diverse highly educated group to Concord, the town’s demographics began to shift.

According to the 2010 US census, while Concord is still 87% white, that includes 24% of English descent, 21% Irish, 11% Italian, 9% German, 5% French, 4% Scottish, and 26% mixed descent.  Plus 4% Asian, 4% Black, 4% Hispanic, and 1% indigenous or other descent.  And 11% of Concord residents are now foreign born.  While wealth and power in Concord is still disproportionately held in the hands of the old WASP families, we are gradually becoming a model American town.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident in Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.

Concord’s Indigenous People

For millennia indigenous people traveled long distances through the forest to live seasonally in Musketaquid.  After spring planting many tribes often summered along the Atlantic coast with its bountiful fish, clams and lobster.  It was a life in tune with nature and their environment.

In the early sixteenth century they began interacting with English fishermen and explorers. The indigenous people would trade with them along the shore then travel back up what we call the Merrimack and Concord rivers to Musketaquid, at the confluence of three rivers, in time for the late summer harvest.  The coming of the English and French explorers destroyed their world.

Members of the indigenous tribes in this area that became Concord numbered in the tens of thousands.  However, after European contact, a plague broke out among the indigenous people decimating their numbers.  By the 1630’s European plagues and diseases, and warfare with some of the English settlers, had reduced their numbers over 90% to a few hundred indigenous people.

In the early 1630’s William Wood was an English explorer, adventurer, and propagandist, who saw God’s hand in creating an opportunity in these deaths.  In 1632 he published a pamphlet in London encouraging Anglo-Saxon Protestant emigration to Massachusetts, and he included a map showing the confluence of these three rivers which he also labelled Musketaquid.  He described empty meadows and fields for the taking, ready to be easily cultivated.  He said God cleared this land for English colonists.

Simon Willard was an English beaver fur trapper, living in what is now Estabrook Woods among the indigenous people, before he co-founded the village of Concord in 1635, and moved to Nashawtuc Hill to live.  For the next two hundred years remnants of the indigenous people lingered in Concord.  Henry David Thoreau reported indigenous people living seasonally near the Botrycrim swamp in Estabrook Woods.  But they were just a small and transient group.

Two miles further south, across the Old North Bridge, are the fields of the Old Manse, built on the site of an indigenous people’s village.  While living there Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “The site is identified by the spear and arrow heads, the chisels, and other implements of war, labor, and the chase, which the plough turns up from the soil.”  Only their remains were left there.

A short distance away, on high ground overlooking Borden Pond, was the campground of the Nipmuc Tribe of the Algonquin nation.  It has the oldest signs of human habitation in the Concord area, going back at least eleven thousand years, and as late as the eighteenth century was still used occasionally by remaining members of that tribe.  For many years anyone with a sharp eye could find their leaf shaped spear points, arrow heads, and grinding mortars there.

But the greatest volume of indigenous artifacts comes from their clam feasts.  Just beyond Emerson Hospital is the assisted living complex Newbury Court.  Throughout the nineteenth century this site was known as Clamshell Bank and was Concord’s most prolific pre-colonial archaeological site.  Archaeologists estimate, based upon the mounds of clam shells left behind, that as many as twelve thousand native people joined in these clam feasts some years.

By the end of the seventeenth century the last fifty-eight indigenous people permanently residing in Concord, the so called Nashoba Praying Indians, were rounded up by colonial soldiers, imprisoned in Boston Harbor, and those who did not die were sold into slavery.  This is perhaps Concord’s original sin.  We often try to tell the story differently, but the Anglo-Saxon colonials coming to this land led to the indigenous peoples’ deaths and destruction.  To make peace with our past we must own our history before we can truly commune with Musketaquid’s wildness.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.



being transcendentalist today

I was doing my walking meditation around Walden Pond one day this past winter when I came upon a  park ranger who is a friend of mine.  She asked me what do I say when asked if there are any transcendentalists living in Concord today?  I said I’m one.  Thus began a conversation that resulted in my giving a forty five minute talk on being transcendentalist today at the new Walden Pond Visitor’s Center on the Sunday afternoon of April school vacation week.   Here is the link to that talk if you are interested in how a modern transcendentalist engages Concord’s wildness.

Hidden Sunrise

Traveling in the high Himalayas is as remarkable for what is seen as for what remains unseen.  This is a magical and obscure place which continually challenges one’s faith and imagination.

After a few days spent exploring around Kathmandu our bus ascends the switchback trails, clinging to the mountainside, and semi-paved roadway, to rise in elevation nearly a mile above the valley to Club Himalaya Nagarkot in the Bhaktapur district.

I’ve come to experience the mountain sunrise so have requested a guest room with a large glass sliding door looking out onto a small balcony facing due east.  We look down upon the small ravine in which this village sits, and across the expansive Kathmandu valley beyond to the Himalayan mountain range in the far distance.

That night there is rain and lightning on the mountains so I now have limited expectations for the coming of the dawn.  But I leave the curtains and the glass slide open for first light.

The morning birds begin to sing just after 5:15 am when it still dark.  Then a faint pink band of light spreads across distant mountain ranges which are largely obscured by fog.  The fog begins to climb up our little ravine on cat’s paws.

The hidden sun creates a pillar of pink light just above it as it’s light is reflected off the dense clouds.  As the fog begins to lift we can see the valley below more clearly and even a small faint blue patch in the western sky.  The first rooster crows, the day is about to begin.

But a quiet northeastern breeze emerges bringing waves of fog back into the valley and our small ravine.  The pink light, and even the faint blue, is all absorbed into a darker shade of grey.

Over the next ten minutes the sun continues to rise, but we cannot see it, as it is obscured within a dense fog.  It becomes a hidden sunrise, cloud covered whereabouts unknown, surrounding us in divine mystery.  The breeze shifts, the rain returns, but by 5:45 am the drama of the beginning of the day has passed completely.  The cosmic significance of parts unseen yet truly there.


Nepal and Bhutan

My first book SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing took twenty months to go from concept through eleven drafts to published author.  It has been on the market for about seven months now and seems to have found its audience, exceeding my admittedly modest expectations.  But before it was even published i had the genesis for my second book.

Over the last eighteen months Spiritual Pilgrim: Mystic Journeys of Pilgrimage has gone through thirteen drafts.  Today I sent the final manuscript to my publisher for proofing and interior design with a planned launch date of September 2018.  Hurrah!  Having spent 18 months reflecting, remembering, dreaming, and writing about spiritual pilgrimages, it feels like time for me to go into the mystic once again and embrace the divine mystery on its own terms.

I’ve just scheduled my Uber to pick me up in twelve hours and take me to Logan airport to embark on a pilgrimage to Nepal and Bhutan.  We will begin by visiting the Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, and Pashupatinath temples in Kathmandu.  Then off to the rural parts of Nepal before flying on to Thimphu, Bhutan to study and reflect upon Tantric Buddhism.  I have been planning trip for almost a year, and it feels good to finally be underway, especially having just finished the manuscript for my second book.  May blessings abound for all sentient beings.

April 19, 1775

This is the tale of intrigue you perhaps never heard behind the battle that morning of April 19, 1775.  Rebellious English colonists had been preparing for this day for months.  On February 1st the Second (illegal) Massachusetts Provincial Congress, with John Hancock presiding, called for the rebellion’s growing military supplies to be gathered and stored in Concord.  By March 9th General Gage, Massachusetts’ Military Governor, had a complete list of quantities and types of weapons stored there, and where exactly each item was hidden.  Many weapons were stored on the farm of Colonial Militia Col. James Barrett.

On March 20th Gage sent two British soldiers in disguise to Concord to meet with those citizens loyal to king and country to plan the route for a military excursion to destroy the weapons and military supplies.  They dined and spent the night with Daniel Bliss, a prominent lawyer and son of the former minister of the village church, First Parish in Concord.  Concord had been turned into an armed camp, with fourteen pieces of cannon, a large magazine of powder and cartridges, and ten men standing guard over the town at night.  Midway through dinner Bliss was informed by a neighbor that he would be run out of town if he was still there in the morning.   Mr. Bliss fled to Boston and would never be seen in Concord again.

On April 2nd a ship arrived in Marblehead carrying word of secret orders being delivered to General Gage to arrest the rebel leaders and to dispatch a military force to confiscate the weapons and supplies.  The Provincial Congress ordered Paul Revere to establish a network of spies and rebel look-outs to monitor troop movements.  John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and most known rebels in Boston fled to the countryside.   Hancock and Adams moved in with Hancock’s kin Rev. Jonas Clarke near Lexington Green.

So, when 766 British regulars set out after dark on April 18, with secret orders to arrest Hancock and Adams and capture the weapons in Concord, nobody was surprised.  The rebel minutemen militias had been training for this day for weeks.  In March the British spies had mapped the route over the frozen terrain, but now the soldiers endured a miserable seventeen-mile forced night march through the muck and marshes of New England during mud season.  Riding a little ahead of them Paul Revere warned Hancock and Adams so around 3:30 am they escaped by carriage to the relative safety of Woburn.

Late into the night rebel riders were arousing local militia even while the supplies were being quietly spirited out to more remote farms for safe keeping.  You can imagine the frustration of the military officers as they arrived on Lexington Green around 5 am, not only to find the rebel leaders escaped, but also Lexington militia defiantly armed and standing there.  A shot rang out, a skirmish ensued, and eight rebels lay dead, with another ten wounded.  The British troops must have been even more frustrated as they approached Concord and heard the First Parish church bell ringing out the alarm of their arrival.

The British troops entered Concord about 7:30 am.  About 150 rebels from Concord, Lincoln and Acton were already standing on the ridge above town where they had hoisted a rebel liberty flag.  The British troops quickly captured the ridge without shots being fired.  The greatly outnumbered rebels fell back across the North Bridge to take up their positions on Punketasset Hill.  The soldiers secured the bridge and searched for the now non-existent military supplies.  It might have ended there.  But it didn’t.

The tired troops found very little weaponry in town so in frustration began burning some empty cannon carriages and other objects which the April winds whipped to soaring flames threatening to set the whole town on fire.  The rebels on Punkataset Hill saw what looked like the town going up in flames.  And the militias of Bedford, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Westford, and Littleton had now arrived meaning the rebels finally outnumbered the British regulars.  A skirmish broke out at the bridge.  Shots were fired.   A few dead on both sides.  The British soldiers withdrew back to Concord center to regroup.

But the war had begun.  Now as the British troops formed up to march back to Boston, the colonial militias ran ahead of them to ambush and destroy them.  Of the three thousand seven hundred rebel militia who mustered that day, only 49 died and 42 were wounded.  Of the more than one thousand nine hundred British soldiers who eventually took to the field, 65 died and 181 were wounded.  Rebel Minutemen beat the world’s strongest army.  This outsized victory for the rebel forces launched the American Revolution.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime Concord resident. He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.