When we decided to dedicate blog posts to the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in East Haddam, one topic was high on the list to cover: What was Nathan’s time here like?
This is what we in the museum business like to call a Big Question, one of “history’s mysteries,” because we really don’t know the answer. And we wondered why. Nathan Hale, after all, is one of the most written-about figures of the Revolutionary period. His first biography was written in 1776, in the form of a broadside ballad commemorating his ill-fated spy mission. He continued to be celebrated by biographers, playwrights, and historians throughout the 19th century, and was arguably more of a “name” than even such luminaries as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (whose biographies were published after Nathan’s).
However, the authors who have written Hale biographies barely mention his time in East Haddam, or not at all. Those that do, tell us he was a schoolteacher at the First Society school house from October 1773 to about March 1774, and generally bored. While some Hale scholars will grudgingly acknowledge that East Haddam in the 1770s was a place of “much wealth and business activity (Jean Christie Root, Nathan Hale, p. 30, pub. 1915),” they focus on Nathan’s apparent dissatisfaction with his first teaching post. His friend and Yale classmate William Robinson wrote to him in January 1773, saying, “I am at a loss to determine whether you are yet in this Land of the living, or removed to some far distant & to us unknown region; but thus much I am certain of, that if you departed this life at Modos [East Haddam was often referred to as Moodus or Modos], you stood but a narrow chance for gaining a better.” M. William Phelps, in his biography Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (2008), surmises that Hale must have been sleeping on the floor of the school house, “hardly bigger than a toolshed” (p. 35).
If Nathan really were sleeping on the floor of the school house, East Haddam must have been a wilderness indeed. It’s hard to imagine a Yale scholar agreeing to take a job that left him a step above vagrancy, when he could simply return to his family’s home in Coventry and live in relative comfort while he looked for suitable employment. Something did not ring true to us.
So we began a summer of exploration into the topic. Admittedly, there is a lot more to be done, and we could turn this into a lifelong pursuit of Nathan Hale as so many before us have. But what we’ve learned, and surmised, is enough to yield a clearer picture of Nathan Hale in East Haddam.
We started by formulating three specific questions: How did Nathan land the East Haddam teaching job? Where did he live? And, what was East Haddam like in 1773-74? The second question, surprisingly, turned out to be the easiest to answer. The third was a little more difficult, and the first is a matter of conjecture, since we’ve found no documentary evidence, but we have a viable working theory. To conduct our research, we relied on known documentary sources, such as George Dudley Seymour’s Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, and on primary and secondary information, particularly from the Rathbun Free Memorial Library in East Haddam, as well as Google books. (Have you discovered Google books yet? They have an amazing digital library of rare and out of print books, with more being added daily.)
In our next post, we’ll tell you about how we learned where Nathan Hale was living in East Haddam. Stay tuned for more!