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Situating Avery Forebears within the Larger Contexts of 17th Century Fashion, Fire & Flames, & Religious Worship

By Kate Dimancescu

In this piece, we shall immerse ourselves in 17th century history before weaving together threads of our shared Avery heritage past and present in and around the coastal city of New London, Connecticut. Our engaging travels back in time commence with 1600s fashion insights dispensed by Massachusetts based reenactor Axel Boy, who delivered them during a virtual talk delivered in March 2024 titled “Who Wore What? Clothing, Textiles and Dress Accessories in Plymouth Colony.” It was hosted by The Alden Kindred of America, whose description of his talk included such descriptive details as: “…independent researcher, reenactor and historical tailor Axel Boy…will use written, pictorial and archaeological evidence to offer a basic description of the clothing worn by the Pilgrims…Boy has been involved with reenacting both as a hobby and professionally for the past 25 years. Over the last ten years he has been focused on researching and reproducing clothing from the 16th and 17th centuries. He is a tailor for the New Plimoth Gard, a group of reenacts portraying the culture and militia of Plymouth Colony, c. 1621-1646.” (source ). What a perfect pairing-fashion history being conveyed by a fellow, who has early New England roots and each day is quite literally living history through his reenactment activities and period clothing projects. It may seem counterintuitive to focus on early Plymouth Colony fashions given that some of its earliest settlers had previously lived in Holland and were thus familiar with different fashions than those worn by our early 17th century Avery forebears based in the county of Devon, England; of course, our Avery forebears were also not Pilgrims and upon arrival in New England from England they settled in the separate English (Puritan) colony that was the Massachusetts Bay. Mr. Boy’s talk is being placed in the spotlight as it provided an opportunity to explore and help talk attendees move beyond visions of New England’s early colonists, both Pilgrim and Puritan, alike only attired in somber blacks and browns thus living lives seemingly largely devoid of color. Further impetus for sharing highlights from Mr. Boy’s virtual talk is a contextual one; fashion history insights shared via the talk both illustrate and facilitate the creation of a space in which to further understand, analyze, and discuss clothing, textiles, and even garment accessibility during the lifetimes of our 17th Century immigrant Avery forebears in New England and their children born there. One source of historical clothing information which Mr. Boy turns to for inspiration when crafting replica pieces of clothing are actual 17th century pieces of clothing discovered in various United Kingdom buildings; he referred virtual talk attendees to a website which discusses some such pieces; this website’s contents expand our collective knowledge of the range of clothing found hidden in buildings; the most well-known items frequently found hidden in the walls and chimneys of historic buildings cited are shoes. Mr. Boy also touched upon another aspect of fashion history which has relevance for those Avery descendants, who may have sought visual representations of what our Avery forebears wore during the early to mid 1600s both in England and New England. He discussed how surviving paintings of 17th century English men and women often depict wealthy and/or noble individuals wearing lavish outfits and accessories; whereas many Dutch artists during a 17th century “Golden Age” of painting often depicted individuals from many different socioeconomic backgrounds participating in community scenes thus offering ample opportunities nowadays to study a wide range of garments and styles beyond only those worn by wealthier members of society. Another primary source which Mr. Boy consults for additional visual representations of 17th century English clothing are surviving 17th century (printed) broadsheets as some depict men and women attired in a variety of garments and accessories such as hats and capes. Mr. Boy discussed the use of natural dyes which were accessible between 1620 and about 1640 thus providing a range of colors for clothing. Mr. Boy’s virtual talk was enhanced by the fact he draws fashion insights and inspiration from what he has learned and continues to learn about his own early colonial New England roots and from many years of experience he and his partner have devoted to the study and creation of replica period garments and accessories. One other point Mr. Boy made was how for quite some time clothing was imported to The Plymouth Colony from overseas and so he remarked that the mending not making of numerous pieces of clothing was more commonplace. Mr. Boy’s talk is one which The Alden Kindred of Americacan be viewed here: “Who Wore What? Clothing, Textiles and Dress Accessories in Plymouth Colony,”

Now we shall turn our attention away from 17th century fashion towards fire, flames, and fireproof boxes as the 130th anniversary of the destruction of The Hive of the Averys draws closer. To mark this upcoming milestone anniversary, we shall virtually travel not to Groton, Connecticut but to Houston, Texas and in particular to Houston Christian University’s Dunham Bible Museum; the reason for this destination is that on the museum’s webpage I found “Avery, James (b. 1620) and Joanne Greenslade,” listed “as part of “Family Records in the American Bible Collection.” Below their names was written “Description: 1581 Geneva Bible, published by Christopher Barker, London, England” (source: Amazed at the survival of this ancient Bible I sought more information on the Durham Bible Museum’s website. I was rewarded with an image of the Bible along with further information on a different one of the museum’s webpages; this one was dedicated to the “Earliest American Bibles” and it was there I found it stated that: “This 1581 Geneva Bible was brought to America by Christopher Avery in 1630-1640. Family tradition says Christopher and his ten-year-old son James were on the Arbella with John Winthrop. James Avery became a founder of Groton, Connecticut and was a prominent government and church leader. The Bible continued in the possession of James Avery and his descendants until placed on loan at The Dunham Bible Museum in 2013. Read more about the Avery Bible in a winning essay from the Piece of the Past contest by Emma Perry: Avery Bible: The Hearts of Children to Their Fathers.” (source). Emma Perry’s essay shares information about this particular Bible’s printer Christopher Barker and perspectives about members of the Avery family. I was riveted by what had been presented on the museum’s website; in particular, the Avery family Bible being featured in the museum’s online collection of “Earliest American Bibles,” which includes The Bay Psalm Book, which when it was sold at auction in 2013 became the most expensive publication sold at auction to date; its sale price was slightly over $14 million dollars, and The Eliot Indian Bible printed in 1663. The 1581 Geneva Bible (the Avery family’s Bible) was printed in London when Queen Elizabeth I sat on the English throne and now centuries later it was presented alongside significant other Bibles and publications. It (the Avery family’s Bible) witnessed centuries of history before making its most recent journey to The Dunham Bible Museum in Houston, Texas in 2013; this was the same year a copy of The Bay Psalm Book’s sale at auction set a record price. While studying the images displayed online by The Dunham Bible Museum of the 1581 Geneva Bible (the Avery family’s Bible) I pondered its survival on the voyage from England to New England in the company of Christopher and James Avery, its eventual residence in The Hive of the Averys of which it is said some of its timbers came from the building where Reverend Blinman once preached in New London, Colony of Connecticut; Blinman being a minister who inspired a group of colonists from present-day Gloucester, Massachusetts including James Avery and his family to relocate to New London. The Bible then later survived the fire which ravaged The Hive in July 1894; this was not all it endured and survived. I learned from Dr. Diana Severance, Director, Dunham Bible Museum last April (2023) that the Bible also survived another later fire in 1994 due to residing in a metal box; this fire eerily occurred one hundred years after fire consumed The Hive of the Averys. Dr. Severance shared the following commentary via email about this Bible: “How exciting that you are an Avery descendant! The initial title page is missing, with the text beginning with Genesis 1. The last page of Malachi is incomplete. The New Testament begins with “The summe of the whole Scripture of the books of the olde and New Testament and “Certaine questions and answeres touching the doctrine of Predestination…” Following Revelation, are “Two right profitable and fruitful Concordances,” and the metrical psalms by Sternhold and Hopkins (with the title page to the psalms partially missing).”

Having already previewed the 1581 Geneva Bible (the Avery family’s Bible) let us turn our attention to what else survived the flames which devoured The Hive of the Averys. One source of such information was The Durango Herald, which is described on its Instagram page as “a family-owned, award-winning newspaper serving La Plata County for more than 100 years;” its publishing history encompasses a courageous widow dedicated to sharing late 19th century news despite gun fires and sinister forces and also true stories of literal blood being shed. The Durango Herald discussed The Hive of the Averys nearly a decade ago in a piece which appeared in its “Nation & World” section titled “ ‘Avery hive’ yields artifacts from early America” written by Deborah Straszheim and dated Friday, July 25, 2014. Readers were apprised of the fact that, “Between 500 and 1,000 artifacts–some shards of glass or stone, others more readily recognizable – have been unearthed at the site of the house, also called the “Avery hive,” during digs over the last eight years. The house belonged to one of the founding families of Groton and was passed down through generations. It burned down in 1894. “We found a glass candlestick partially melted in the fire of 1894,” Davi said. “These people, who were truly pioneer people, who founded this area, who made it what it is and was, to hold some of these things puts you in a bridge with these people. It’s just marvelous.” ” (source). The article also touched upon what transpired the night of the fire: “At about 10 p.m. on Friday, July 20, 1894, an ember from a passing train ignited the roof of the house. The family had just time to escape in their nightclothes, according to an 1894 news article. Neighbors gathered to help but could do little without water, and the house burned down to ashes in 30 to 40 minutes. James Avery kept some road charts for the town of Groton, which the fire destroyed. Other documents were saved in fireproof safes, the article said. The only item from the house that remained intact was a mantle clock, Williams said.” Another source of information about what the flames did not consume that dry hot night in July 1894 came from The Day newspaper as found in its July 17, 2019 “Local News” section where a piece ran titled “History Revisited: A memorial to Groton’s Avery clan” written by Jim Streeter. In his article readers learned “After ensuring that his family members were safely out, [James] Avery picked up many of the more recent Groton records to carry from the house and then shut the doors to the safes. Within a short 30 minutes the landmark structure had been reduced to ashes, with only the two stone chimneys and the two safes remaining standing. Unfortunately, all abstracts and road charts were not in the safes and were destroyed by the fire. It took four days for the safes to cool down enough to enable them to be opened. Once opened, a total of forty-six books were discovered. Except for five books, all the remaining books containing Groton records were found to be in good condition. Although the fire had destroyed what was believed to be the oldest dwelling in the town, residents can be thankful that Town Clerk Avery had the forethought to have acquired the fireproof safes to store most of the town’s significant and historic records.” (source).

Before leaving our exploration of surviving traces and legacies of the 17th century behind, let us visit a historic site in New London, Connecticut, which sadly suffered greatly in January of this year. News services in Connecticut and across the country shared coverage of the dramatic and unexpected event which unfolded there and its aftermath. The event was described by Connecticut College’s student newspaper The Connecticut Voice on its website in a piece titled “Legacy Lives On: A New London Staple Collapses.” “On the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, the steeple of the First Congressional Church collapsed, causing a stir in New London. Adjacent to the church is Connecticut College’s Manwaring building, an off-campus housing option for upperclassmen students in downtown New London. No students were injured during the collapse and only one person, the church office manager, was within the church at the time and exited with no apparent injuries. As a result of the collapse, the city decided to tear down the entirety of the church due to too much damage done to the structure. Manwaring residents had to be moved during the demolition project.” (source). The loss of this church brought its history to the forefront for New Londoners, Connecticut College students, and individuals farther afield including me after I heard about the steeple’s collapse from a friend, who resides in Stonington, Connecticut. Coverage of the church’s steeple collapse provided by New Hampshire Public Radio on its website offered a window into worship during the period when our Avery forebears were living, working, and raising families in New London, Connecticut and then in what became the town of Groton, Connecticut, which was established in 1705 when it separated from the settlement of New London. On The New Hampshire Public Radio website there appears a piece titled “Despite collapse of historic New London church, hope remains strong.” Readers of this piece were informed that, “To the New London community, the height of the First Congregational Church’s Union Street steeple was a testament to the city’s resilience and storied past. Formed in New London in the 1600s, the church and state were not separated in New England and every resident’s taxes would go toward the church. “You could go to another church, but you were [still] supporting the Congregational Church. It was that dominant. It was that powerful,” said Tom Couser, the board president of New London Landmarks. In 1851, the First Congregational Church erected its Union Street location. Its towering size signified the city’s growing wealth as a whaling capital. In its heyday, the congregation’s Sunday afternoon crowd would fill the mansion-lined streets of State Street. The church also held civic importance. Its steeple’s bell was used to call people to meetings and sound fire alarms. Today, that steeple no longer mantels the New London skyline. On Jan. 25, the structure collapsed, rendering it permanently impaired. The masonry ruins remain on the Union Street property more than a month later. “It was a significant representation of the history of our city. The First Congregation[al], as it became more populous and affluent…built that magnificent structure,” said Michael Passero, mayor of New London. ‘We’ve lost a significant piece of our history with the collapse of the church.’ ” (source).

This brings us now to connections between the history of the First Church in New London and our forebear Captain James Avery as they were established in a “Historical Sketch” which was, as I understood it, a portion of a more expansive piece titled “THE FIRST ORGANIZED CHURCH IN NEW LONDON COUNTY: AN HISTORICAL STUDY By Hon. RICHARD A. WHEELER,” which was, “Read before the New London County Historical Society, at its Annual Meeting, Nov. 26th, 1877.” (source). In this historical sketch, Wheeler stated to his audience, “During the year 1669 Mr. Miner makes this entry in his diary June 30th, saying “that I was at New London and had testimony from the Church for me and my wife being owned to be under their watch.” His testimony was given to him in writing and is recorded in his diary and is as follows, viz.: “These are to signify to all whom it may concern, that we whose names are underwritten, being members of the Church of Christ at New London, do own Thomas Miner and his wife members with us, and under our care and watch, and they do live for aught we know or hear as become Christians.” JAMES AVERY, WILLIAM DOUGLASS, In the name and behalf of the Church. New London, June 30th, 1669.” (Source). What makes this particular quote engaging from both historical and genealogical standpoints is that we have statements taken from Thomas Minor’s surviving 17th century diary. Reading about history as it was described by an eyewitness, in this case Minor, truly makes the past come alive (for me reading what Minor, who was another maternal forebear of mine, wrote about a religious moment in time in the Colony of Connecticut and his mention of Captain James Avery were both welcome discoveries made when writing this article. Please note that Captain James Avery’s name was indicated by me in italics above and in the quoted section below so as to be rendered more readily visible to readers of this piece). Wheeler then went on to state to his assembled audience: “Mr. Bradstreet’s records of the first Church of New London commences October 5th, 1670, which, according to Trumbull’s history of Connecticut, was the day of his ordination; but Thomas Miner in his diary simply says that Mr. Bradstreet was ordained October 1st, 1670. Previous to this Mr. Miner says under date of July 27th, 1670, “that I and my wife were at New London, and Goodman Royce and Goodman Haugh were received into the Church there.” Who will say, in view of these diary records of Mr. Miner, that no church existed in New London before October 1st, 1670; and further, Mr. Blinman after he left New London and in contemplation of his return back to England in 1659, sold his house and lot at New London to William Addis, and his farm at Harbor’s Mouth to John Tinker. . .Thus we have testimony of Mr. Blinman, Mr. Bruen, Mr. Miner, Mr. Douglass and Capt. James Avery, that a Church existed in New London before 1670, and we may add Mr. Bradstreet’s first record in proof, for he uses the simple caption “Members of the Church,” not the persons who began the Church, or were embodied in the organization of the Church.” (source).

To conclude, our exploration of our Avery heritage initially unfolded via a discussion of 17th century fashion and then moved on to examine the Avery family’s Bible, which has remarkably survived two fires that we know of in its long history, and lastly we consumed commentary concerning the collapse of a steeple and the subsequent removal of a historic church in New London, Connecticut. Let us part ways now bearing the knowledge that church steeples are also in the literary spotlight as 2024 progresses. When this piece was being written one of the most popular non-fiction books in England was Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church by Peter Ross. As previously mentioned, on this side of The Atlantic Ocean, in January 2024 the steeple of The First Congregational Church in New London collapsing led to the recognition and acknowledgement that “the church also held civic importance. Its steeple’s bell was used to call people to meetings and sound fire alarms. Today, that steeple no longer mantels the New London skyline.” (source). Parting thoughts come now from the long dorment quill of John Donne, who was an English contemporary of our Avery forebears, a dean of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the author of a piece known as “Meditation XVII,” which he included in his larger publication titled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions published four hundred years ago in 1624. It is within the body of “Meditation XVII“ that timeless words of Donne’s may be found“…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…”(source). With such profound musings so comes to a close our explorations of the past; sadly ours must be a silent parting as the bells of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London were destroyed in 1666 during The Great Fire of London and the bells of First Congregational Church in New London can no longer toll due to its steeple collapsing and the subsequent removal of the remainder of the church.

Author Bio: Katherine “Kate” Dimancescu is a descendant of Joanne (Greenslade) and Captain James Avery through three of their children. She is the author of two (in due course to be three) non-fiction historical & genealogical narratives. Outside of her work as an author and independent researcher, she serves on the board of The Ancient Burying Ground Association in Hartford, CT; her maternal forebears Dorothy (Bird) and Thomas Lord and Captain George Denison were buried in The Ancient Burying Ground, which is the city’s oldest burial ground having been established not too long after the arrival of English colonists in the 17th Century.

Painting of the Avery "Hive"