Meet Benoni Stebbins, Puritan Bad Boy

I first became intrigued by Benoni Stebbins when I read a story about his early life that someone had posted on Ancestry.com. But the more I read about Benoni and his life and times, the more I realized that he was just one small player in a fascinating, and much larger global conflict. When I first started researching his story, it seemed to me that if his life were a movie, it would be a lighthearted comedy adventure, starring a young Mel Gibson, or maybe a handsome and snarky Chris Pratt, as the lead character. But as I continued reading about him, I began to consider his story as more of a bloody-fight-to-the-death Quentin Tarantino film instead.

The Setting

Benoni was born June 23, 1655, in Springfield, Massachusetts, but the first time he appears in the public record he’s living 20 miles to the north, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I hesitate to call this a town, or even a village; the best you could call it would be a small settlement, with a palisade built around it to keep foes and wild animals at bay. I would say that in 1655, pretty much *anything* outside of Boston would have been the wild frontier, and Northampton was about 100 miles due west of Boston. In other words, this was pretty much the edge of civilization for the people who lived there at the time.

The reality of the day was that these settlers from England were pitted against two enemies; the native Americans, who of course had first dibs on the land, and the French, who were struggling to establish dominance in the New World. Massacres were carried out by all three factions in the fight, and unfortunately, it was a perilous time and place to be alive.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The initial story about Benoni that caught my attention was a variation on an age-old tale: a bored adolescent kid wants to run away and join the circus. Except this was 1667 Massachusetts, and the circus was Canada. I think that when we read the cold, hard facts of history, it’s easy to speculate about why people may have done what they did, but the truth is, in the absence of a written record, we have no clue as to what motivates people. In this case, we are left with the legal artifacts and have to guess at the “why”. This is what we know for sure: Benoni, and two boys named James Bennet and Godfrey Nims were found guilty of sneaking into someone’s home while the rest of the community was at church, and stealing “24 shillings and 7 in wampum”. The plan was to use the money to pay Quanquelatt, a local Native, to guide them to Canada. The boys were found out, ordered to return the money, and were punished, probably in full view of the community. Quanquelatt received 20 lashes, and Benoni, James and Godfrey each got 11. Benoni’s older brother John received 15 lashes for good measure, because he apparently knew about the plan, but didn’t rat out his brother. The scheme to run away seems to have been dropped at this point.

When I first read this story, the initial thought that came to my mind was, “wow, things really haven’t changed much in 350 years, have they?”. I guess we’ve always been wired to look over the next horizon? Boys will be boys? I don’t know. It’s just not the type of story that you’d expect from the strictly Puritan society of the time. (My ancestors seem to have had a knack for inviting trouble, though.)

Counter-Culture , 1670’s Style

While this may have been the end of Benoni’s plan to run away to Canada, apparently he was still having trouble towing the Puritan party line. He shows up in court records two more times for bucking the system. In 1676, at age 21, he is fined for “wearing his hair too long”. Wait – didn’t everyone have long hair back then? The history nerd in me is dying to know how long was “too long”? A few inches? Half a foot? You would think that the Powers That Be would be too consumed with worry about the next Indian attack to deal with a defiant hippy, but apparently not.

In 1677 Benoni married the young widow Mary Bennet. Mary was none other than the widow of Benoni’s old partner in crime, James Bennet. The following year, in 1678, Mary was fined 10 shillings for violating the sumptuary laws. Before reading about this incident, I had no idea what the sumptuary laws were, or that they had existed at all. According to researcher Susan McGowan Titus, the sumptuary laws were:

“designed to regulate extravagant expenditures and to prevent people of lower social status from wearing clothing made of expensive materials considered appropriate only for persons of high social status. Sumptuary laws in Massachusetts were primarily concerned with preserving social status. Certain people were entitled to wear silk; other people weren’t”.

The record states that Benoni refused to pay Mary’s fine, and apparently earned his own fine for “openly affronting the Court”.

Can’t you just see it? Maybe Benoni had killed an extra beaver or two that winter, and sold enough fur to buy his bride a bolt of fabric to make a nice dress, instead of the usual drab homespun. He wasn’t the type of guy who was going to let someone tell him that she couldn’t wear it. I really wish I knew the details of this story. I’ll never get to meet this guy, but I kind of like him (and his long hair). He was a protester way before protesting was cool. And he wasn’t just talk. He knew from personal experience what going against the establishment would mean. He probably had the scars on his back to prove it.

Stay tuned for the next blog post, when we’ll get to the Quentin Tarentino part of the story. Life on the frontier wasn’t all fun and games.

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