Circulating Myths in Early America

We recently enjoyed an opportunity to collaborate with Texas Christian University. We have been digitizing our archives, and often the papers we’re working with are difficult to decipher due to age, condition, media, and orthography. The students in Dr. Theresa Gaul's American Literature seminar class transcribed our 200-year-old Andrew Bulger Papers, and they made some interesting discoveries. A selection of the students blogs will be posted to the museum’s feed over the next few days.

This post is by Abigail Fransen, a Masters student in English at Texas Christian University. She is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies.

—Jon Frembling, Archivist, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Pages 26–30 of the Andrew Bulger Papers take an interesting detour from the rest of the collection’s contents. These pages tell the story of a church bell from a British church in Colonial America taken hostage by the French yet later recovered by British through the help of neighboring Native Americans. Surprisingly, the entire section detailing the bell’s loss and retrieval had been copied verbatim from a short story, called “The Bell of St. Regis,” that circulated in periodicals during the mid-nineteenth century. While it would have been exciting to discover a new event in American history, I realized that this incident speaks to how national myths get circulated.

clipboard01_0.jpg^ Jean-Baptiste Scotin (1678–17__), Canadians Go to War on Snowshoes (ca. 1700), National Archives of Canada

First, there is some semblance of historical truth in “The Bell of St. Regis.” The events took place during the Deerfield Massacre of 1704, in which French and Indian forces attacked the British settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts, an event which sparked Queen Anne’s War. Sixteen percent of the colonists at Deerfield were killed, and a third were taken captive. Several accounts of the raid have been published, including Rev. John Williams’s The Redeemed Captive (1707), in which Williams, a Puritan minister taken captive, argues that Deerfield’s moral laxity made it vulnerable to evil.

However, as multiple sources point out, there is nothing to suggest the specific events of “The Bell of St. Regis” actually took place. In 1870, George Sheldon, a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, investigated various claims regarding the events and ultimately concluded that “Nothing, then, seems to me more likely than that Williams invented the alleged tradition of the Deerfield or St. Regis bell; but, however originated, it seems quite clear to me that the truth of the story is not sustained by the evidence now known." Williams here refers not to Rev. John Williams but Rev. Eleazer Williams, a Canadian missionary. Francis Parkman, an American historian and author, wrote of meeting Eleazer Williams and decided “The story of the ’Bell of St. Regis’ is probably another of his inventions.” Both Sheldon and Parkman agree that no evidence supports there being a bell at St. Regis or even that St. Regis had been founded as early as the Deerfield Massacre. Parkman does, however, give us a clue as to how the story got circulated. It appears American author Epaphras Hoyt heard Williams’s story and included his own version of it in his own series of Antiquarian Researches (1814). Canadian author John Galt then created his own version of the story, which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (1830). The story can be found in various other periodicals, often anonymously.

While we may not know how Bulger came across “The Bell of St. Regis” or why he decided to reproduce it in this way, its inclusion in his papers is important. For one, it shows how national myths get cultivated and dispersed. Second, Bulger’s interest in this myth, in the midst of his own relationship with French and Native American populations, shows how stories such as “The Bell of St. Regis” continued to be relevant in the United States, even a century later.

Howard H. Peckham, “Williams, John,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, eds. George W. Brown and Ramsay Cook (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1982)

George T. Davis, "May Meeting, 1870. Letter Relating to William Pynchon; 'St Regis. Bell,'" Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 11 (1869–1870): 311–321.

Francis Parkman, “The Sack of Deerfield,” in The Francis Parkman Reader, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York, New York: De Capo Press, 1998): 389–390.