Joshua Hempstead throughout his long life in colonial New England pursued many business activities, some of which carried perils almost unimaginable today. Misfortune could strike at any time, and the early colonists knew well the vicissitudes of life.
He was a model New Englander of the era, a devout, hard-working tradesman, dedicated to his family and to his community.
Hempstead worked as a surveyor, shipwright, gravestone carver, lawyer, local official and — always — a farmer. Like 90 percent of colonial New England men, he could read and write, and he kept a diary for most of his life. He used it to keep track of his many business and civic activities. He noted the weather, baptisms, engagements, deaths, military trainings, court sessions, ship traffic, town meetings, thanksgivings, fasts, feasts and his travels. The New London County Historical Society published it in 1901. Historians for many years used it for its references to events like the Boston fire of 1711 and the Great Awakening of the 1740s.
As historians got more interested in the lives of ordinary people, the diary drew more attention. Today, the Connecticut Historical Society views his diary as an important source about colonial life in Connecticut.
Joshua Hempstead was born Sept. 1, 1678 in New London, the only son of Joshua Hempstead and Elizabeth Larrabee. His grandfather, Robert Hempstead, had entailed the house to his oldest son. That meant oldest sons in perpetuity would inherit the entire estate.
Joshua’s father, a wheelwright, died when he was only 10, and Joshua inherited the house. His descendants lived in the house until 1937.
As a boy he entered into apprenticeship with a shipwright, then the aristocrats of the wood-turning trades. Around 1698 he married Abigail Bailey of Long Island. They had nine children. Abigail died in 1716 a few days after giving birth to their last child. Joshua Hempstead never remarried, but reared the children with the help of relatives and women hired to help with the housework.
Joshua Hempstead, 1711
New London had been founded in 1646 by John Winthrop the Younger, son of the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts colony, and several dozen planters of the middling sort. One of them was Joshua Hempstead’s grandfather.
The young Winthrop died in 1676, and his sons inherited his vast landholdings. Joshua Hempstead acted as their agent, managing their affairs when the head of the family was away.
New London grew into a busy village of farmers, merchants, shipbuilders and mariners. The town did a brisk trade with the West Indies, and Hempstead often notes the arrival and departure of ships from Barbadoes. Within 50 years the population would grow to more than 3,000 people.
In 1711, Hempstead had a growing family, a farm and civic responsibilities. During the fall of that year he had to harvest his crops and work on building a ship while serving on a jury.
Oct. 2, 1711 I picked out Corn & made a Platform to Lay ye husks on & I gathered some corn. A great fire in Boston this night.
He continued to gather and husk corn.
It took five days to find out more. On Sunday, Oct. 7, 1711 he wrote,
mr white Preached in ye forenoon & mr. Hunting in ye afternoon. the sad news came of a great fire in Boston burnt from ye School house Lane to Almost ye heart of ye Town Dock both sides ye Street about 100 houses burnt & 8 or 9 sons Lost.
Death in 1716
John Winthrop the Younger practiced medicine on the side when he wasn’t governing a colony. He diagnosed and medicated about 500 Connecticut residents. His son Wait followed in his footsteps, serving both as governor and doctoring on the side. On August 4, he tried to heal Joshua’s wife, Abigail, who had given birth to their ninth child, Mary, on July 29.
On Aug. 4, 1716 he wrote,
I was in ye yard about Town al day. my wife very Ill. Mr. Winthrop come to visit her in ye Evening used means for her Relief & Mr Miller Let her blood in.
On Sunday, Aug. 5, he wrote,
my Dear Wife Died about half an hour before Sunrise. I was at home al day except in the Evening I went to ye burying place.
Her body was buried about 2 p.m. the next day. He carried the newborn baby to Mary Trumans at night to Nurse. The next day he went to look for a nurse.
Two days later he noted that his 17-year-old son Joshua had taken ill with a sore throat and fever.
On Friday, Oct. 10:
my Dutyfull Son Joshua Died about Noon like a Lamb being 17 years & 20 days old a pattern of patience.
He buried Joshua next to his mother. All three now rest in New London’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.
Joshua Hempstead, 1724
At the age of 46 he decided to travel to Stonington, Conn., to deliver gravestones and pick up some cider. Today the trip is a 20-minute drive. In 1724, it took quite a bit longer, even by boat, the preferred method of transportation along the coast in those days.
On Nov. 12, 1724, Joshua Hempstead set out for Stonington with his son Stephen. He reported in his diary, as usual, on the weather. It started out fair, but didn’t stay that way.
I Set out for Stonington in Jos Coits Longboat with Stephen in order to fetch Cyder. I carried 10 pr gravestones. 7 for Wm Wheeler, 1 for Ebe Wms & 2 pr Not Sold. ye Wind was high about W S W & a great Sea that I dare not venture Round Long point. I put in for Mumford’s. But got on the flatts was forced to put most of the Stones overboard & yt got a Shore. Lay out al night under a Hay Stack.
The weather improved the next day, and Hempstead and his son visited the famously hospitable George Mumford. Wrote Hempstead:
In ye Morn wee went up to Mumfords on Mr Winthrops farm Stayed for the Tide to Rise got ye Stones in about 2 Clock & got up with them about 6. I Lodged at Mr Wms & Stephen at Bennats with John.
Adam Jackson, 1727
On Sept. 21, 1727, Joshua Hempstead bought a slave, Adam Jackson, for 85 pounds.
“I bot Adam for £ 85,” he wrote.
It wasn’t unusual for people in coastal New England towns to own an enslaved person or two. Nearby Rhode Island, the slave-trading capital of New England, provided a steady supply of kidnapped Africans to work in bondage.
Jackson, born in Africa, lived in the Hempstead house with him for 30 years. His children did too, as well as other members of Hempstead’s family.
They worked side by side.
On a cold spring day in 1728, “I was on the Island with Nathll & adam cutting wood.”
In July of 1730, “wee Carted the Ld of hay to Stewarts & Carted 2 Ld in the lot & Stackt it & mowed the oats only my Self & Adam.”
In the fall of 1747, “In the foren[oon] I went to mamacock with adam & Jonat & finisht Raking the Salt hay.”
And as late as 1754, when Hempstead was 75, “helpt adam Load up 4 pr of gravestones at Picketts wharf…”
James Davenport, 1743
Many New England towns were caught up in religious fervor called the First Great Awakening during the 1730s and 1740s. A cross-eyed English minister named George Whitefield helped start it all, touring the colonies to give fiery speeches.
James Davenport and others followed in Whitefield’s footsteps. They preached that people could find salvation through spiritual rebirth – a rebirth that started with public weeping, groaning and howling. A Yale graduate from Stamford, Davenport’s career nosedived when he threw his pants into a bonfire of the vanities in New London.
Joshua Hempstead took notice of Davenport and his followers, who called themselves New Lights. The preacher did not impress Hempstead when he went to hear him on Feb. 27, 1743.
I went to Town to Meeting to hear Mr Davenport, but it was Scarcely worth the hearing. the praying was without form or Comelyness. it was dificult to distinguish between his praying & preaching for it was all Meer Confused medly. he had no Text nor Boble visable, no Doctrine, uses, nor Improvement nor anything Else that was Regular…he Calld the people to Sing a New Song &c forevermore 30 or 40 times Imediately following as fast as one word could follow after another 30 or 40 times or more & yn Something Else & then over with it again. I cant Relate the Inconsistance of it.
George Washington, 1756
Hempstead died on Dec. 22, 1758, 17 years before the American Revolution started. He did, however, catch a glimpse of a 24-year-old George Washington, who rode through town during the French and Indian War.
The sight of Washington in New London on March 8, 1756, caused him to wax unusually descriptive.
Col. Washington is returned from Boston and gone to Long Island, in Power’s sloop; he had also two boats to carry six horses and his retinue; all bound to Virginia. He hath been to advise with Governor Shirley, or to be directed by him, as he is chief general of the American forces.
By then Hempstead had trouble with his hearing. On Aug. 20, 1756, he recorded a trip to the doctor in his diary:
fryd 20 fair. In the foren(oon) I rid out & Joshua to John Stubbins’s & Wm Manwarings & there had Doctor Wm Hough to Try to help me in hearing. he Seringed my Ears & drew out a Large gob of Ear wax out of my Right Ear & then I could heard my Watch click which I could not before. Chappel & adam finish Stacking the last hay att the Lowerend of the Lot.
This story was updated in 2021. Images: Joshua Hempstead House By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35972709.