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HEPSIBETH HEMENWAY

Portrait to be Permanently Installed in Fletcher Auditorium

This article is from the Winter/Spring 1999
Newsletter of the WORCESTER HISTORICAL MUSEUM
and printed here with their permission

On 28 March, Hepsibeth Bowman/Crosman Hemenway's portrait, which has been in the museum's collections for more than a century, will be permanently installed in the Fletcher Auditorium. The minutes of the Worcester Society of Antiquity's meeting on 1 December 1895 noted: "Librarian reported seventy-one additions, making special mention of ... a portrait of Hepzibah [sic] Hemenway, mother of Aunt Hannah Hemenway, [donated] by F.F. Hopkins."

Since the portrait is hardly a recent acquisition, why all the fuss now? Because Hepsibeth Hemenway was a Nipmuc Indian, the people upon whose homelands Worcester was built. The portrait, which dates to the 1840s, offers visitors a tangible reminder of the continued presence of Native Americans in Worcester.

Hepsibeth's portrait was painted at a time when Worcester was transforming from town to city. How did Hepsibeth fit into the economic and social world? Why was she painted? Who painted her? Why did the portrait come to the museum? The answers (or hints of them) are found in memories, antiquarian publications, and public records.

Late nineteenth century newspaper articles on Hepsibeth's daughter Hannah reveal that both women enjoyed local fame for making wedding cakes. One reporter who interviewed Hannah in 1890 explained: "Mrs. Hemenway was well known in her day and is remembered yet by the older families as a great cook and an excellent hand at making wedding cakes for the prominent people in those days and her services were always in demand.... Miss Hemenway for a long time followed in the footsteps of her mother." Aunt Hannah, as she was familiarly known by more than two generations of Worcesterites, had ties to high-society industrialists, and through her stories she provided connections to earlier times and people.

The protrait was in Hannah's possession when she died in 1891 or 98. She had bequeathed it to her brother Ebenezer, but as he predeceased her, it was included in the residue of her property, which was sold at auction. While there is not irrefutable proof, since the executor's account of settling Hannah's affairs was never filed, it is very likely that Frederick Hopkins purchased the painting and donated it to the Society to preserve it for posterity, a memorial to Aunt Hannah and her mother.

Hepsibeth's and Hannah's special niche in high-society industrial Worcester explains why the painting was preserved. But why was Hepsibeth painted, and who was she, really? The portrait, an extremely rare find, suggests this Native American woman enjoyed middle- or even upper-class status. The reality, however, was very different, as the records reveal.

Hepsibeth's Story

Hepsibeth was born in 1763, daughter of Lydia Bowman, a Nipmuc, and a white man whose surname was Crosman. Hepsibeth's father died in the Revolution, and her mother died a pauper in 1784. She supported herself by living and working as a servant in Timothy Paine's family until November 1789, when she married Revolutionary War veteran Jeffrey Hemenway. The couple had eight children. To help support the family, Hepsibeth cared for indigent women at town expense and worked as a laundress, the least desirable and lowest-paying occupation available to women. Salisbury family letters indicate that for more than 20 years, in all seasons, Hepsibeth traveled the several miles from her house on May Street to Lincoln Square to wash or iron. She did the same for many other households as well.

When Hepsibeth was widowed at 56, she rented out her small house and moved to an even smaller one adjoining the burial ground on Mechanic Street. This placed her in the commercial center, where work would be easier to obtain. She spent the rest of her days there. Although local memories center on her celebrated cakes, city directories indicate that until the last year of her life (1847), her primary occupation was taking in laundry.

In the 1840s, a dispute arose over the future of the Mechanic Street burial ground, which may explain who painted Hepsibeth Hemenway, and why. Those who wanted to remove the graveyard and its adjoining house to use the land more profitably complained that children played among the headstones, men socialized on its perimeters, and "it is seldom that one can pass along the lower end of Mechanic street without seeing clotheslines heavy laden swinging in all directions over the graves."

Artist Henry Woodward, who painted the Mechanic Street cemetery in 1846, depicted Hepsibeth's offending laundry in his sketches and on the final canvas. It seems probable the young artist became intrigued with Hepsibeth as he worked on these sketches. Her laundry, after all, was the subject of local ire and she was an Indian. He may have asked her to sit for him, and then given her the painting. Or, one of her patrons may have asked him or another artist to paint her portrait in return for services, or as a gift. It is impossible to know for certain. What is clear, however, is that she did not commission the painting, as portraiture was far beyond her economic means. Her clothing, too, was above her means, and was probably handed down to her from patrons.

The portrait, and the life behind it, tell a story that issustrates and reinforces the local Nipmuc experience, and the northeast Indian experience in general: persistence and endurance through adaptation and accommodation to ensure survival. Hepsibeth's is just one of the myriad specific histories that, woven together, make up the complex tapestry of the region's past.


Hepsibeth's Portrait & Article by Descendant Richard Massey

Hannah Hemenway Article (Hepsibeth's Daughter)

Lucinda (Hemenway) Cummings Article (Niece To Hannah)

To Hemenway Page & Other Links

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