Searching for Medad Curtis the Shaker took me down new research paths,
including finding accounts of his daring rescue of Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee.
Some sources said my husband‘s great-great-great-great grandfather Medad was a Shaker and others say he was the only non-Shaker buried in one of their cemeteries because he saved founder Mother Ann Lee from a mob. Which story was true? It’s a long story, but here it is with some unusual sources I found.
1. Medad Curtis in Published Family History
I first found Medad Curtis in Rose Mary Goodwin’s A Family Named Curtis, a family history privately printed in 1983. Born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, on 14 Apr 1740 and baptized on 18 May, Medad was the eighth of 11 known children of Captain Allyn Curtis and Ruth Torrington. Goodwin states Medad died in Coventry, Tolland, Connecticut, 20 May 1817. No sources or footnotes were provided, so I set out to see if Goodwin’s information was correct.
2. Published Marriage Records
Records of Medad’s third marriage were found in Frederic W. Bailey’s Early Connecticut Marriages as Found on Ancient Church Records Prior to 1800. (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997) and Vital Records of Great Barrington, Massachusetts to the year 1850. (Boston: New-England Historic Genealogical Society, 1904, p. 55). The latter is available as a free download at Google Books. (above).
3. Curtis/Curtiss Family Society Database
Medad’s marriage to Dinah Brigham was confirmed, along with two others, at the excellent Curtis surname database complete with sources and citations, available to members of the Curtis/Curtiss Family Society. All of the links in names in this post lead to individual entries in this well-run database with exclusive access to Curtis Society members. Consider searching for a surname society to join. No all of them are as well run and extensive as the Curtis group, but when they are, they can be a research goldmine.
About 1760, Medad married his first wife, Wealthy (?), and had two sons. About six years later, Medad married his second wife, Hannah (?) and had another son. According to the American Genealogist, Medad moved with his brother John to Great Barrington, Berkshire, Massachusetts, in 1776. Three years later in Great Barrington, Medad married his third and final wife, Dinah Tracy, née Brigham, who bore him a son, John, my husband’s great-great-great grandfather.
4. Published Shaker Histories
Dinah must have been the most patient and understanding of Medad’s three wives. Just four years after they married, Medad did indeed join the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. More commonly known as the Shakers, Believers lived a celibate and communal lifestyle, valuing simple living, pacifism, and equality of the sexes, while crafting beautiful and still-prized furniture and buildings. There is no record of Dinah Curtis joining the Shakers. By 1803, Medad was living at the Shaker Village in Hancock, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In Clara Endicott Sears’ Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916, pp. 133-140.), I found this account of Medad Curtis’s daring rescue of Mother Ann on 2 Sep 1783:
On Monday evening, September 1, Mother [Ann] and the Elders, with a considerable number of brethren and sisters, left Jabez Spencer’s to return to New Lebanon. … Thus they proceeded in a very joyful manner. Mother would often speak and say, ‘Brethren, be comfortable. Brethren, be joyful.’ The brethren as often replied, ‘We will, Mother.’ ….Thus they proceeded, and at length they arrived at Isaac Harlow’s in New Lebanon, eight miles from Spencer’s. Here they stopped for the night and put out their horses. After gathering into the house they again went forth in the worship of God with great zeal and powerful operations of various kinds….
Toward daylight the people retired to rest, but Mother and two young sisters (Hannah Kendall and Lucy Wood), with the Elders, went on about one mile further to George Darrow’s, the place where the meeting-house in New Lebanon now stands. Scarcely had the day begun to dawn when a mob began to collect, and soon after surrounded the house where Mother was, and a terrible scene of persecution ensued.
…The Believers collected as fast as the mob did and went into the house, which was soon nearly filled up. There were three outside doors to the house which were all guarded by the Believers. The mob commenced their acts of violence by attempting to force a passage into all the doors at once. The brethren who had the charge of the house forbid their entrance, and again urged the unlawfulness of such proceedings, but in vain; their conduct was like that of ravenous wolves among harmless sheep.
…After a considerable struggle, they succeeded in tearing down the ceiling of the room, seized Mother by her feet and dragged her in a shameful manner, through the parlor and kitchen, to the door. Elijah Harlow had made ready Mother’s carriage before the action commenced and sat in it before the door, where he had a fair view of the scene. Mother was pitched headlong into her carriage.
…In this manner they proceeded about sixty rods further, when they came to a narrow bridge across a small rivulet, upon the side of a steep hill which formed a dangerous precipice. Here the inhuman wretches attempted to overset the carriage, but were prevented by Medad Curtis, who at that instant saved the chair, but in the struggle, Thomas Law, who was the most active in the business, fell down the precipice. Law was afterwards heard to say, ‘I should have finished the old woman if it had not been for that devil of a Medad.’
Four other secondary sources repeated the story. Time to find some primary sources about Medad. I decided to start with the Hancock Shaker Village in Berkshire County, Mass., since I knew he had once lived in that county.
Medad Curtis Primary Source Death Record
The Hancock Shaker Village has a wonderful website and an even better database of Believers compiled from primary and secondary sources. Medad “saved Mother Ann’s life before joining the Shakers. Res[ided with] John Deming Family, Hancock, 1803. Died at Hancock 2d Family, 1817.05.20, age 76.
The volunteers at the Hancock Shaker Village Museum and Library were kind and eager to dig into their archives. They confirmed that “Medad Curtis became a Shaker residing in the Second Family of the Hancock Shakers, and thus buried in the Hancock Cemetery as a Shaker.” Their website notes:
Shaker “families” were organized with elders and eldresses, deacons and deaconesses, and trustees, overseen by the Ministry. A “family” in the Shaker community is a term that refers to a spiritual family, and the metaphor is extended as all men and women were called brothers and sisters within this family. Each family consisted of approximately one hundred Believers, and was made up of a dwelling, workshops and barns. The Hancock Shaker community included the Church, Second, East, West, North and South families. All families would gather together on Sundays at the Church family’s Meetinghouse for worship.
The volunteers also scanned the primary source shown at the top of this post, confirming Medad’s Shaker family, death, and burial. Searching for Medad Curtis the Shaker is now happily resolved. But I’m still interested in other sources documenting Medad’s lively life.
Grateful thanks to the women who volunteer at the Hancock Shaker Village archives for their help, to the Curtis/Curtiss Family Society, and to Dinah Brigham Tracy Curtis for having a son with Medad Curtis, before he took up a celibate religious life.
And for organizing your research records – both paper and digital – try my six-folder archival system. After all, who has more primary sources than archivists?
Click here for posts about other unusual records to use in genealogy research.