“I was just stunned by these letters. They were so beautiful. It was one of those earthquake moments.”
Anne D. Emerson comes from a line of people deeply entwined with the history of the Valley. Most notably among them is her great-grandfather, Erastus Hopkins.
Anyone acquainted with Northampton in the 1800’s will recognize the name. Hopkins was an activist, a Presbyterian minister, a founder of the Free Soil movement, creator of the Connecticut River Railroad, and agent of the Underground Railroad. You can read his speeches condemning the expansion of slavery, and support of the Free Soil Movement. However, little attention has been paid to the man’s social life.
But in 2001, Emerson discovered a different side of Hopkins. While attending a conference at the Mass Historical Society, she decided to take a look through some old family documents on file there. Among them were letters that Erastus Hopkins had written to his daughters.
“I was just stunned by these letters. They were so beautiful. It was one of those earthquake moments,” she said in an interview on April 10th. “His letters were… extremely intimate, caring, and very spiritual.” She read and cherished these scraps of her history, but had no time to do anything with them.
It wasn’t until Emerson retired in 2008 that she went in search of the deeper truths of Erastus. Her search turned up an overwhelming wealth of history. With the help of the internet, she was able to connect with an astonishing number of people who had papers and letters, portraits and stories. “These days when you do historical research you can go online and new things will always pop up,” she said of the quest, “It’s endless, what’s out there. It’s what you make of all of it, and the connections that are interesting.”
The new sources led her all over the Valley, and even to Canada. She visited Chatham, Ontario, and the small community of Buxton. This is the type of community that her great-grandfather helped people run away to. It is still present today.
Through extensive research, Emerson built her understanding of Northampton as it was in the mid-1850’s. She became familiar with the home-life of Erastus’ family, the rural tightness of the community, and the neighbors with numerous children. You can visit the site at 101 King Street, near the bike path that was once a railroad; a railroad that Hopkins helped create. It was a house that runaway slaves hid in the attic of. Most people drive by the site and have no idea how close they are to something so fantastic.
Her search turned up an overwhelming wealth of history. With the help of the internet, she was able to connect with an astonishing number of people who had papers and letters, portraits and stories.
Erastus had a son-in-law named Kendall Emerson. His house still stands in Amherst, visible to those who pass but often overlooked. Kendall, who was Anne’s grandfather, was the best friend of Gilbert Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s nephew. Both boys contracted typhoid fever after playing in a tainted puddle. It was that fever that claimed young Gilbert’s life. Emily Dickinson, distraught, began writing notes to Kendall. Some of those notes appear in Emerson’s upcoming book.
Past meets present as the book chronicles Emerson’s ongoing correspondence with her young cousin Linc. Linc is schizophrenic, and currently in jail for killing somebody. Emerson says that she was unsure what to write to this cousin she barely knew, and even how to write a proper letter in the age of texts and tweets. So she sent copies of Erastus’ letters to Linc. It became the core of their correspondence.
“It was particularly ironic because Erastus was a leader in getting the Northampton State Hospital built,” adds Emerson. “It was probably in response to Dorthea Dix’s campaign in the 1840’s to get the mentally ill out of prisons”. The hospital may have been demolished in 2006, but that debate lives on.
Her story is one of Old Northampton. It is one of compassion, exploration, and connection. It introduces another side of Erastus Hopkins: the orator, activist, and father.
Emerson’s book will be available through Levellers Press starting April 15th.
Her book launch will be held on Tuesday 21st at Historic Northampton.
Photo: Self-Portrait courtesy of Anne D. Emerson