Benjamin Munn’s Saga

Old friend Billy Wardwell and his cheerful, trademark smile, full gray beard extending to his chest, stopped by on a bright summer morning carrying a large, earth-tone, rectangular item from his car. On his way to 18 holes of vintage golf, he was clad in proper attire, right down to the bowtie and knickers that old, wood-shafted golfers wore.

What he lugged under his arm went back three generations deeper, to the first quarter of the 19th century.

Having picked up this bound volume of Greenfield Gazettes – dating back to the late Federal period, June 1, 1823 through June 1, 1825, plus one from 1817 – at South Deerfield bookbinder John Nove’s shop, he thought I may have an interest. He was right. I did. It’s still here, resting face-up on a leather ottoman in the study. It contains many little tidbits of interesting information that speak to the days of aspiring young Greenfield.

Anyone who’s read old newspapers knows that the local-news product is spotty at best, even poor notwithstanding staples like obituaries, legal notices and the occasional special-interest story. The latter are sparse. Most of the “news” is regurgitated from city newspapers dropped off at local taverns by mail stages and post riders.

Then, of course, there are the merchant’s advertisements, which give you a feel for what’s happening in the business district. In this case, you find familiar names to anyone who’s explored early 19th-century Greenfield – artisans like pewterer Samuel Pierce, cabinetmaker Daniel Clay, foundry man William Wilson, and painter George Washington Mark all trying to make a go of it.

Mixed in with the ads are bulletin-board, lost-and-found notices about livestock, purses and wallets, and even an occasional personal plea that strikes your funny bone. Try this one on for size, a notice that appears several times in 1823, headlined “Look Out!” in bold, black, attention-seeking letters. Posted by jilted husband Elijah Clark of Leyden and dated Aug. 13, it reads:

“Whereas my wife Lydia left my bed and board on the 18th of March last without any provocation, I do hereby forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on penalty of law.”

So, tell me, do you suppose Mr. Clark is a batterer? Just a thought. The first that came to mind.

Other than that, you’re apt to find detailed accounts of public hangings in New York City or Atlanta, piracy on the high seas, devastating city fires, or some scurrilous bank embezzlement scheme in Philadelphia or Newark, NJ.

Then, once in a while, you get a tale like the one brought to the paper by an anonymous local source who thought readers would be interested. Although it would be tough to chase down two hundred years later, I suspect the source could have been Deerfield historian Epaphras Hoyt, identified by Historic Deerfield Inc. as a man of affairs who served as High Sheriff of Franklin County from 1814 to 1831… also active as an author, surveyor, postmaster, justice of the peace, register of deeds, and major general in the Massachusetts militia during his long life of public service.

The source is irrelevant. It’s the story of Benjamin Munn that matters. Found dead on a road from Deerfield to Shelburne on the evening of July 26, 1824, this wayward joiner had a distinguished and mysterious past. He was, as they say in Chicopee, quite the boy, yet no youngster when he met his sudden hilltown demise.

Born Feb. 1, 1738 in Deerfield, Munn had been around, to say the least. I suppose a good Federal Period carpenter would never go hungry, and Munn was all that. Carpentry was in his blood, so to speak, he the third in a line of three Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin Munn.

Munn was also fifth-generation Connecticut Valley, dating back to namesake progenitor Benjamin Munn, a Hartford founder, Pequot War veteran and early Springfield resident who died there in 1675, probably killed by Indians. Son John Munn (b. 1652, Springfield) settled at Westfield and fought at the King Philip’s War Falls Fight (May 19, 1676).

John’s son Benjamin, our Benjamin’s grandfather (b. 1683, Westfield), was the first of the three consecutive Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin. He came to Deerfield with his mother and stepfather John Richards, the Deerfield schoolmaster who arrived before 1698, according to historian George Sheldon. Richards’ stepsons, brothers Benjamin and John Munn, joined their mom as the first of the family to live in Deerfield.

Benjamin I, his wife Thankful Nims, and their infant child survived the famous 1704 Indian attack in the family’s snow-covered, cellar home on the Richards lot. Thankful was the daughter of Deerfield’s Godfrey Nims, and removed to Northfield.

Son Benjamin II (born 1709, Deerfield) married Mary Wait, daughter of “Brave” Benjamin Wait of Hatfield, a famous Indian fighter and scout who was a victim of Deerfield’s 1704 Meadow Fight. Benjamin II and Mary produced our Benjamin, born 1738 in Deerfield. Benjamin’s first cousin John (b. 1741, son of John, Benjamin) was one of the first permanent settlers in the part of Deerfield that became Greenfield, then Gill. The family operated the ferry there, retaining the property around Munn’s Ferry Road into the mid-20th century.

Our Benjamin Munn was a French and Indian War soldier of distinction, having served from about 1755 to 1760 under commanding officers the likes of legendary Israel Putnam and Robert Rogers (of Rogers Rangers fame) in the Lake George-Fort Ticonderoga-Crown Point-Lake Champlain theater.

Surviving the perilous frontier campaigns, Munn married Patty Bartlett of Northampton, where they lived briefly before packing up for Sudbury and opening a tavern. From that post, he answered the 1775 call from Cambridge to fight the British at Bunker Hill before, soon thereafter headed to the Maine frontier due to “pecuniary embarrassments” (financial difficulties, in the current lexicon), and then to Nova Scotia, leaving his wife wondering where he fled. An unsubstantiated online report on one of the genealogical sites claims he was, like convicted brother Phineas, a Tory, but that seems dubious given his Bunker Hill service.

Although little appears to be known of Munn’s Nova Scotia life, he surely carved out an identity as a carpenter and faded from the memory of Deerfield friends and neighbors. Then, a half-century later, in 1822, out of the clear blue sky, presumed long dead by most who had known him as a young man, Munn returned to his native town without warning, like a ghost from the past.

According to the anonymous newspaper informant, Munn’s circuitous trip home had been chronicled in an 1822 Gazette, which I did not chase down. It was a journey worthy of acclaim, if not local folklore. The 84-year-old man had walked some 100 miles to a ship anchored in Halifax port, sailed to Boston and proceeded to hoof it another 100 more miles home to Deerfield.

There, his widowed younger sister Lydia Bradley was living on The Street, while another younger widowed sister, Mary Joiner, was living in Shelburne, either at a home she had shared with late husband Edward Joiner, or possibly with son William Joiner and daughter-in-law Content (Bardwell) Joiner. Content was the daughter of Ebenezer Bardwell, an early settler of Foxtown (the southeastern Shelburne/Bardwells Ferry area). Both Edward and Mary died in Shelburne. The Deerfield Joiners (also spelled Joyner in some records) can be confusing to follow due to the fact that there were two Edwards and two Williams.

Regardless of where Mary lived in Shelburne, it’s safe to assume that it was in Foxtown, and that the route from Deerfield would have crossed the Deerfield River to Wisdom, then up either Old Albany or Hawks roads to the western hills. The newspaper doesn’t identify the road Munn traveled, perhaps suggesting readers would know the route.

Then again, maybe it was just shoddy reporting, always a possibility.

In Deerfield, Munn likely bunked with sister Lydia. By the time of his phantom return, his ex-wife, who had presumed herself a widow and married Timothy Parsons of Northampton, had herself been dead for five years. Anyway, according to the Aug. 3, 1824 Gazette account, Munn left Deerfield on foot to visit his Shelburne sister. The day was Monday. Witnesses had seen him along the way before he was later found dead by the side of the road that evening. He had walked about 10 miles before expiring.

There were reports of rain and hail storms passing through the hills that day. The coroner ruled death by natural causes. The newspaper correspondent praised Munn as a walker with “remarkable power of limbs for traveling… Few young men walked with greater ease or rapidity.” He was 86.

So, there you have it – the tale of Travelin’ Man Benjamin Munn, the former Rogers Ranger, found dead over an embankment along the road to his sister’s Shelburne home on July 24, 1824. Although there seems to be no record of his final resting place, you can bet the farm it’s not far away. Proud Benjamin most likely wanted to return home to die and be buried where he was born. He made it.

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