Alden House Historic Site – Duxbury, Massachusetts

This short history of the Alden property was written by Curator James W. Baker, and is a revised version of that was published in Alden House History: A Work in Progress (Duxbury, 2006). It appears on the website of the Alden House Historic Site.

The original link is — > HERE.


The events associated with the Mayflower voyage and the first year of settlement are well enough known to need no recapitulation here. The Mullins family was tragically struck by the “general sickness” that devastated the colony in the winter of 1620/21. William Mullins, his wife Alice, their son and their servant all died, leaving Priscilla an orphan. She married John Alden, whom Bradford describes as “being a hopful yong man was much desired, but left to his owne liking to go or stay when he came here, but he stayed and maryed here,” about 1622. Their marriage, immortalized in The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from an old family tradition, made them the most celebrated Pilgrim couple in history. They were assigned a house lot at the westerly end of the first street (now Town Square) where School Street is today in 1623 and several acres of farmland beyond what is now North Street. Their first home has been re-created at Plimoth Plantation as the second house on the left heading down the street from the Fort Meetinghouse. We may assume that the Aldens lived at the foot of the Fort (Burial) Hill until they moved permanently to their new property in what is now Duxbury around 1632. Their property in downtown Plymouth then reverted to the colony, as was true of any of the 1623 lots once their owners took up residence outside of Plymouth.


1627 Land Division and the Move to Blue Fish River

On 26 October 1626 a partnership of eight Plymouth leaders (including John Alden) and five London associates bought out the interests of the “merchant adventurers” (or venture capitalists) who had put up the funds to establish Plymouth colony. Having undertaken the debts of the colony onto themselves, the partners or “Undertakers” made an agreement with the other heads of households in Plymouth that they should be brought into the arrangement as “purchasers” or shareholders. The partners assumed a monopoly on trade with the Indians for six years, and the others agreed to each make an annual payment of three bushels of corn or six pounds of tobacco during that time. The Purchasers, as the combined group of 53 householders and London associates was known, then made the first permanent division of the assets of the colony. The original 1620 agreement between the colonists and the investors had stipulated that such a division would be made seven years after the Mayflower voyage. In May 1627, they divided the colony’s livestock into 12 lots of one milch cow and two she-goats each. Each lot was shared among 13 people—men, women and children.

The following January (1627/28)[1], every individual was allotted a share of 20 acres of land, creating family farms capable of maintaining the population. These allotments were located along the shore of the harbor from Eel River on the south to Powder Point at the north. Each property had access to the harbor so supplies could be transported to and from the outlying farms by water at a time when there were neither roads nor draft animals. The Aldens received about 100 acres in this division; 20 acres each to John, Priscilla, Elizabeth and John, Jr., with an additional share perhaps for Joseph who was born about 1627. Their property, which was among those furthest north along the bay (only the lands of Philip Delano and George Soule were further away from Plymouth Village), was not theirs by choice. The location of the 1627/28 grants was made by drawing lots, after which the area was surveyed to account for the appropriate number of acres. The Aldens were fortunate in their assignment, for as historian Dorothy Wentworth observed:

The Alden land was good, some cleared upland where the Indians had planted, some woodland, and a long stretch of fresh and salt meadow where hay could be cut. There was a fresh water stream, and at least one spring. It was a good farm[2].

We assume that John prepared the land for planting and began work on their new house in the spring of 1628, and that by 1629 or 1630 they were in seasonal residence on Blue Fish River and Houndsditch brook. For the first few years they had to return to Plymouth each week for the Sabbath, and spend the winters (when such travel became impractical) in their old house beneath Burial Hill. In 1632, the settlers at the northerly end of the harbor received permission to establish a separate parish and in 1637 that new parish became the town of Duxbury. The property the Aldens were given in 1627/28, with a few additions, is first described in the surviving records (the record of the 1627 division having been lost) January 1, 1637/38:

The bounds of the land of Mr. John Alden att Duxburrow, as it was layed forth by Gov. Bradford, Mr. Edward Winslow, Joshua Pratt, Edward Bangs, as followeth: from an old pine tree by the meddow, which meddow was afterward allotted unto mee, the said John Alden, and for the breadth of the said land butting upon and ranging allong the said Blew Fish River to a burnt walnut stump; and from thence to a walnut tree ranging from the abovesaid stump west north west, which was sum tim after run by Joshua Prate and Phillip Delano, Senior, unto a white oake tree, standing a little within the bounds of Phillip Delanoes land, there being a stump or root of that tree still remaining, and from thence for the breadth att the head, up to Greens Harbour, old path; and on the southerly side of the land bounded ptly with my owne meadow and with the land of Experience Mitchell toward the upper end. (Plymouth Colony Records, I, p. 73)

This survey is evidently based on the original 1627 division, even if some boundary markers had been damaged during the clearing of the area and the burning of brush and weeds. With a small parcel added the following September to bring the southerly bound in line with Houndsditch brook, the Alden farm assumed the dimensions it would retain until 1701. Eventually John’s Duxbury acreage amounted to about 169 acres.


First Duxbury Home Construction

John and Priscilla Alden’s second home—after the house in Plymouth—was located about 760 feet southeast [or perhaps further—see note below] of the present Alden House. There were the “ruins” of an old well visible on the property before 1840, but that location is now lost. This original site was well known and visited by interested people as early as the 18th century, such as Rev. Timothy Alden (to whom we are indebted for the earliest record of the “Courtship” story in 1814). A number of bricks, a halberd head and possibly other unrecorded artifacts were retrieved from the old Alden cellar hole in the 19th century. The site was first professionally excavated and documented by historical archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins in 1960.

Robbins’ investigation revealed that this early house had a foundation that measured about 10 ½ by 38 feet; with a cellar hole about 6 ½ feet square and 7 ½ feet deep at the westerly end. Many bricks and fragments of brick, which presumably made up the chimney, were found scattered throughout the excavation but no indication of a chimney base was found. There was a small depression in about the middle of the foundation that may have been the location of the hearth. There are a number of long narrow foundations of this sort from the early years that have been found archaeologically, which Robbins cites:

The long narrow house, 38′ by 10 ½ ‘, which was the first Alden house in Duxbury, was nearly 3 ⅔ times as long as it was wide. At Rocky Nook, just to the northerly side of the site of the John Howland house, there exists a long narrow stone foundation with measurements that are almost identical in size with the foundation for the first Alden house in Duxbury. And like the Alden foundation it runs east-west, and it appears as though a small root cellar exists within the site. John Jenny left Plymouth in 1628 and built his house here.
… Another interesting reference to the Pilgrims building long narrow buildings after they migrated from Plymouth to the outlying areas was revealed in the July, 1963 edition of  “News from Pilgrim Hall,” the Pilgrim Society bulletin. The Pilgrim Society had recently acquired the artifacts and the original plan made by James Hall of Duxbury when he excavated the site of the Miles Standish home in Duxbury in 1856 and 1857. Miss Dorothy Merrick, Director of the Pilgrim Society, sent me the dimensions of the two foundations that were uncovered by Mr. Hall. It is believed that the first Standish house burned about 1665, accounting for the second foundation at the site. One foundation was 60 ½ ‘ long and 16′ wide, its length being 3 ¾ times its width. The other Standish foundation was 54′ by 17′, its length being 3-1/6 times its width.
When I presented my concern about the narrowness of the first home John Alden had in Duxbury to Mr. J. Paul Hudson, Museum Curator, Colonial National Historical Park, Jamestown, Virginia, he answered, “Don’t worry too much about the house dimensions. One brick foundation excavated at Jamestown was 10 feet by 16 feet in size. Other foundations unearthed at Jamestown measured 10 ½’ by 17′; 11 ½’ by 21 ½’; and 11 ½’ x 35’9″.”[3]

In addition, the “RM” site excavated by Harry Hornblower on what is now the grounds of Plimoth Plantation (under the southwest corner of the modern bus parking lot) in 1941 and 1942 revealed a foundation whose “length, slightly more than sixty feet, matches exactly that of the Standish plan. It is impossible to determine the width with any precision, but it was probably between twelve and eighteen feet.”[4] This foundation had a small root cellar at one end, a central hearth, and another hearth at the opposite end. Despite this careful description, there have been some doubts about Robbins’ conclusions.


Construction of the Present Alden House

The next question is how long did the Aldens live in their earlier house before tearing it down and moving into the present Alden house? We do know that the older house excavated in 1960 did not burn down as was once thought, but was demolished and the cellar hole filled in, probably to prevent people or livestock falling into it by accident. What we do not know is when this occurred. This problem is of particular interest since the historical cachet of the existing house has long benefited from the assumption that John and Priscilla actually resided here before John’s death in 1687. We have no idea when Priscilla died, other than it was after 1650 when she is mentioned as still living by Gov. Bradford, and before 1687, as John does not mention or provide for her in his directions for the division of his property among their heirs.

The dimensions of the earlier Duxbury foundation suggested to Robbins that the building could conceivably have been moved from the original site and attached to the back or north side of the present house. For many years this assumption was accepted, but it has now been disputed by architectural historian Will Gwilliam, who made a thorough survey of the building (2002-2005) and discovered that the north side was not an independent freestanding structure. Instead, evidence points to the present Alden house’s southeast section—the “Great Room” and the “Master Chamber” above it—constituting the original house, to which the westerly and northerly sections were added later by Colonel John Alden (1681-1739).

There are several traditions concerning the construction of the present Alden house. The earliest is that Colonel John Alden built it at the beginning of the 18th century. Another tradition credits Jonathan Alden with building the house in 1653. As he was only 21 at the time and did not marry until 1672, this is highly improbable. The tradition stating that Colonel John Alden, who owned the property from 1703 to 1739, built the house was cited by Duxbury historian Justin Winsor in 1849 and confirmed by both Mary Ann Alden (Judah’s daughter) and Aunt Polly Alden in the 1870s. Recent archaeological and dendrochronological surveys suggest that the house is a very late 17th century or early 18th century structure. Neither study found any firm evidence of 17th century construction, but the location of the earliest dated rafters is suggestive. The earliest dated timbers (except perhaps for a sill under the “Buttery”) are the principle rafters on the west side of the house, which date from 1701 and 1711. This would appear to indicate that that section was added circa 1711, which suggests that the older easterly end was built before Colonel John Alden inherited the property, and almost certainly before his father died in 1697. The property was in legal limbo between 1697 and 1703 when Colonel John inherited it at age about 22, so no construction is likely then. The house and land was worth £309 in 1697. When Colonel John died in 1739, the estate was worth £2,684, of which the original farm was valued at £2,000. Part of this considerable increase could be accounted for by his having substantially added to the original two-room structure Will Gwilliam describes. Colonel John was married in 1709, so enlarging the old house two years later is quite plausible. The significant enlargement may have passed into local memory as his having entirely built the existing house. Taking all of the evidence into consideration—family lore, archaeology and dendrochronological dating—it would appear that the core of the present house was built by Jonathan Alden, probably before the death of his father John, perhaps around the time of his marriage in 1672 when he needed a home for his new family. We may have to relinquish the idea of Priscilla ever having lived in the existing Alden House, although it is certainly located upon the family property. Today, the Alden House, with its two and a half acres of land, has the distinction of being the unique instance of still belonging to the same family to which it was originally issued in the land division of 1627.

John and Priscilla Alden raised ten children on their farm in Duxbury: Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, Capt. John Alden, Joseph Alden, Sarah Alden Standish, Jonathan Alden, Ruth Alden Bass, Rebecca Alden, Mary Alden, Priscilla Alden, and David Alden. The soil was good and it became a successful farm. John Alden’s home is also where colonial officials met from time to time in the 1650s, suggesting that perhaps it was by then larger than the original little 10 ½ by 38 foot structure found by Robbins. After John died in 1687, his son Jonathan inherited the property. Jonathan died at age 65 in 1697, and Rev. Ichabod Wiswall delivered a graveside eulogy while the local militia company, in which Jonathan was a Captain, gave him a last salute. Graveside services were uncommon in New England at this time—the Pilgrims did not approve of such things and early funerals were conducted silently. Perhaps, as Ms. Wentworth speculates, the honor was offered because Mr. Wiswall was married to Jonathan’s niece, Priscilla Paybodie.

Jonathan’s son John was still a minor in 1697. Jonathan’s widow, Abigail (Hallett) Alden, managed the farm, and John had to wait until 1703 before he was given title by the Plymouth court. In the meantime, John’s sister Sarah married Thomas Southworth and the couple was given about twenty-five acres on the northwest corner of the Alden farm. This was the first division out of the original grant. John, who would be made a Colonel in the Duxbury militia before his death, rose steadily in the service of his town as moderator of the town meeting, selectman and representative to the General Court of Massachusetts in Boston. He was successful as a farmer and as a businessman, becoming quite wealthy before his death at 59.

The house Colonel John either built or inherited had at first just two rooms, with a chimneystack and fireplace on the westerly side. Like many Plymouth Colony farmhouses of the time, it faced south to take advantage of the winter sun. On the north side, there was probably a lean-to with a great sloping “saltbox” roof to buffer the northerly winter gales. The lean-to was used for storage and as a workshop. The lower room served a number of functions. It was kitchen, dining room, family room, and best chamber or bedroom all in one. The upper room was only a bedchamber, but guests might also be fed and entertained there as well, in the custom of the times.

Colonel John turned the little two-room house into a comfortable Georgian mansion between 1711 and 1733. The Great Room was made fashionable by doubling and plastering the walls on three sides, and installing fine wainscot paneling around the fireplace. The wide cooking hearth was made more suitable for a sitting room by being filled in at the sides. Older casement windows with diamond panes set in lead cames were replaced with up-and-down sash windows. A crushed shell plaster ceiling was added to hide the second-floor’s boards and joists. The floor was lowered as far as it would go (between rather than above the sills) to obtain as much headroom as possible. A fine corner cupboard was added near the fireplace, a second built-in cupboard fitted into the hollow wall space on the east side of the room, and a solid chair rail installed to prevent furniture from damaging the plaster. It was customary at this time to keep all the tables and chairs around the periphery of the room and only bring them out into the room when they were used.

Opposite the original “Great Room” to the west, a second downstairs room was added to serve as a formal parlor or best room. It was finely paneled as well, and the beams and posts covered either by the doubled front wall or beaded-edge “boxes” over the rough framing timbers. Why only the south wall was doubled and not the west or north walls we do not know. Here, too, the floor is laid lower to adjust for height lost through the plaster ceiling. On the northerly side of the house where the lean-to used to be, a fine new kitchen with rooms above was built. A separate kitchen flue was added to the chimneystack, and a little general-purpose room partitioned off at the west side.

Upstairs the biggest bedchamber had its own fireplace (the only one above the ground floor). On the north side, the second-story addition was divided into two bedchambers with a long “workroom” between them for women’s projects such as spinning, weaving and fiber processing. Stairs went up to the garret and those down to the new kitchen were enclosed in a “staircase”, i.e., a walled in space closing off the “pair of stairs” as they were then called to keep the kitchen’s heat out of the room above. Above the new parlor a fine new (but unheated) chamber was built.  
The house and its contents that he left to his son Samuel testifies to Colonel John’s comfortable lifestyle as an 18th century colonial gentleman. The inventory of his possessions taken at his death also provides clues to the arrangement of Colonel John’s home. The best bed was in the “biggest lower room,” the Great Room. The fashion of the day was to have the best bed in what we would think of as the family room. This allowed guests to admire what was usually the most costly piece of furniture in the house with its decorative curtain and tester. This also enabled the head of the family to enjoy the warmth of the great fireplace on retiring. The rest of the “bed furniture” was upstairs in the “chambers”, rooms we call “bedrooms” today. The “biggest chamber” (the Master Chamber) is listed next, then the “biggest westerly chamber” or what is now known as Henry’s Room, which contained the family loom. The bedstead and bedding in a little “northwest chamber” (now Aunt Polly’s Room) was worth £11, but the equally small “northe[a]st chamber” only contained bedding without a bedstead, worth £2, 5 shillings.

Whatever its construction dates, the house inherited in 1739 by Colonel John Alden’s oldest son Samuel Alden had essentially the same configuration we see today, except for the kitchen ell. However, Samuel never took advantage of his legacy. He had gone to sea as a boy and become a prosperous merchant. He married an English girl, Edith Read, and settled down in Bitton, Gloucestershire, where he died in 1757. In his will Samuel bequeathed the Alden farm, which he had mortgaged to Joshua Loring of Duxbury in 1741, to his brother Briggs.

When Colonel John died, Briggs was only 16. His mother Hannah died the following year later, and with Samuel in England, administration of the estate was assigned by the Plymouth courts to Benjamin Loring (Joshua’s brother) who had married Brigg’s sister Anna. Like his father, Briggs became a community leader in Duxbury, acting as magistrate, selectman and representative to the General Court, and serving as a major (and later a colonel) in the local militia. In 1741 he married Mercy Wadsworth. In 1768, Joshua Loring discharged the mortgage and Briggs became the owner of the land on which he had been born and lived all his life.

During the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, Briggs was both chairman of the Town meeting and representative to the colonial government in Boston. When he asked the people of Duxbury whether they intended to accept the new tax law or would try to prevent it being imposed, the consensus was that Duxbury would refuse to comply with the despised tax. Briggs returned to Boston with detailed instructions on opposing the Stamp Act. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, many meetings of the town officials took place in the Great Room of the Alden house. When war was declared, Briggs was too old to lead the troops in the field, but four of his sons answered the “Minute Man” call in April, 1775: Judah (24) as 2nd lieutenant, Nathaniel (23) as sergeant, Samuel (18) as a private and young Amherst (16) as a fifer. Samuel was killed in 1778 during the Penobscot campaign and Nathaniel moved to Maine (where the Aldens had land) after the war, so that only Judah and Amherst returned to Duxbury.

Judah had served with great bravery during the war, rising to the rank of Major in the Continental Army and becoming “an intimate and confidential friend of Washington.” Examples of their correspondence that survive attest to the closeness of the relationship. Judah did not return to the old home when he came back to Duxbury, however. He built a new house for himself and his wife, Welthea (Wadsworth) on the southeast corner of the Alden property. Judah’s house is still on the corner of Tremont and Alden Streets and is today part of the Duxbury Arts Complex property.

Amherst inherited his old boyhood home when Briggs died in 1796—Judah having already received his share (and two additional meadows), while Nathaniel got title to Alden land he occupied in Maine. Ms. Wentworth estimates that the farm was now about half the size it had been in Pilgrim John’s time with the 1701 Southworth parcel and Judah’s acreage were sectioned off. Amherst never married, but lived with his widowed mother and spinster sister Edith until he died in 1804 at 45.

With Amherst’s death, Major Judah Alden inherited the old house and the land associated with it, after all. Brigg’s widow Mercy and daughter Edith then occupied the old Alden House. Judah allowed two of his sons and their families to move into the house as well, perhaps after Mercy died in 1812. The elder son was John Alden (often called “John the Second” or “Storekeeper John” to differentiate him from the other Johns in the family line), who married Mary Winsor in 1811, and the younger was Briggs Alden II, who married Hannah James in 1817.

The Alden House was soon full of young voices. John and Mary (better known as “Aunt Polly”) had three children; John, Henry and Mary, while Briggs and Hannah had five who lived beyond infancy: William, Lydia, Judah, Samuel and Amherst. We assume that the two families shared the house in the same east-west division as subsequent generations did, and installed the partitions in the kitchen and the workroom. It was also most likely that the kitchen ell was added at this time after the old middle kitchen (the one we see today) was made into two dining rooms. There was a door from each dining room in the shared kitchen in the ell. The question of a divided inheritance was avoided when Briggs died before his father in 1840. When Judah passed on at the advanced age of 94 in 1845, John inherited the Alden house, while Brigg’s children received shares of the estate. Hannah had apparently moved to Plymouth where she died in 1850.

In addition to the old home, two barns, outbuildings and about twenty acres of land surrounding it (worth $1,633), John inherited a lifetime interest in a store Judah built next to his house in 1784. This was the first general store in Duxbury, and as Judah had no vocation as a retailer, John began tending the store for his father in 1799 when he was 14. He found this a congenial occupation and although there had been some thought of sending him to Harvard, John went on to spend some time at sea as “Captain John” before becoming “Storekeeper John.” He was 61 by the time his father died, and continued to work in the store (then owned by his sister Lucia), walking across the fields from his house to the corner of Tremont Street clad in an old plaid cloak and carrying a needle-work purse for the day’s receipts. He retired in ill health and closed the store when he was 80. Storekeeper John died in 1871, the year the Cohasset and Duxbury Railway laid its tracks along the north side of the Alden house (not that there was any connection between John’s passing and the trains, as they did not begin running until after his death).


Aunt Polly, Captain Jack and Henry

Storekeeper John left the Alden house and its twenty acres to his wife, Mary “Aunt Polly” Alden. The land to the west went to John’s sisters Lucia and Mary Ann, while the greater part of the old Alden farm east of the house was acquired by Capt. David Cushman, who married John’s daughter Mary. The old couple had shared the house with their younger son Henry P. Alden and his family—his wife Sarah Ann (Woodward) and their four children, Lucia, Nellie, Cora and Henry B. Presumably the senior Aldens occupied the older (and larger) eastern side of the house and Henry’s family lived in the westerly half. John and Polly’s oldest son John—Capt. Jack—had gone to sea like many Duxbury boys, but unlike his father he continued as a mariner for fifty years, serving as mate on many vessels owned by the Hemenway brothers of Boston, including the Magellan, the Independence, the Loo Choo and the John Wells. He got his title “Captain” from running a packet boat called the Traveller  with regular service between Duxbury and Boston, but as he said later, “The railroad knocked the packeting business all to pieces.” Jack had married, but as he was away at sea much of the time, his wife Mary (Brewster) Alden and their children lived with her parents, apparently on St George Street. Jack became a widower in 1869, and at some point thereafter moved back into the family home.

Henry’s wife died before Jack “swallowed the anchor” and retired to the old family home in Duxbury. For about ten years the two old men lived in the Alden house with their mother, Aunt Polly, and perhaps some of Henry’s children. Polly gave up the bedroom (the Master Chamber) she had shared with her husband and moved into the small “northwest chamber” on Henry’s side of the house, turning the easterly side of the dwelling over to Capt. Jack.

During her lifetime, Aunt Polly had seen a number of changes in the way life was lived in southeastern Massachusetts. She and here sister-in-law Hannah were instrumental in closing up the old fireplace in what she referred to as the “middle kitchen” and installing an iron cooking stove in the ell. When she was newly married, women and girls still spent much of their time spinning and weaving in backrooms like the long workroom above the kitchen in the Alden house. By the time she was an old woman, few people spun thread or yarn or made their own butter any longer. Candles and betty lamps had been superseded by kerosene lanterns, and stoves were replacing fireplaces for both cooking and heating. Polly had both a kitchen stove and an “airtight” parlor stove for heat.

When Aunt Polly died in 1882 at age 93, she left her each of her sons half of the remaining Alden house and land. She seems to have known that they would not get along because she was very specific in what each would receive. Henry inherited half the house, the entire ell and all the land around the house, while Jack got half of the house and land west of the railroad tracks, and a woodlot as well. He also had the right to pass over Henry‘s property in specified ways:

I give to my son, John Alden, that part of my real estate lying on the westerly side of, and adjoining to the Duxbury and Cohasset Railroad, also my 7 acre wood lot, be there more or less, for his own use and disposal. I also give to my son, in consideration that he make no claim on my estate for any services rendered in my lifetime, the easterly half of the house in which I now live and to his heirs after his decease so long as the house shall stand; also the easterly half of the wood shed, also the privilege of using water from the well, also the right to pass to and fro from the house, shed and well, the usually travelled way, and to and from the street by the roadway. 
I also give to my son John the furniture and moveables in the easterly front room and chamber over the same, including my airtight and cooking stoves. 
I give to my son, Henry Alden, the remainder of my real estate lying on the easterly side and adjacent to the Duxbury and Cohasset Railroad, and the westerly half of the house and all the ell part, and the westerly half of the wood shed thereon (the land subject to the rights of son John as before mentioned), also the furniture and moveables in bed room below and old bureau in middle kitchen. (Edward S. Alden. Alden Homestead. Boston, MA: Alden Kindred of America, 1932, p. 17)

After their mother died, the two brothers apparently stayed on their own sides of the partitions dividing the east and west side of the house. For five years until Capt. Jack died in 1887, they sulked in their retreats, only having to deal with each other if Henry needed to use the front stairs or Jack the ell kitchen. Both he and Henry served in the Civil War in the 18th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry, Company E, so they had small pensions to live on. Capt. Jack reshingled his half of the roof (while Henry did not) and decorated his upstairs bedroom (the eastern half of the old workroom) with paint and wallpaper. Henry also had access to his ell through a low door leading from the house to the garret above the kitchen, and could climb down at the far end into the pantry.


Romance of the Homestead: John W. Alden and John T. Alden

Capt. Jack sold his half of the house (in which he continued to live until his death) in 1883 to his younger son Frank Alden, who mortgaged it for $100 in 1885. After Jack’s brother Henry died in 1891, the latter’s son Henry B. Alden inherited the westerly half of the house. However, the family member who was most interested in the old house and all it stood for was Capt. Jack’s oldest son, John Winsor Alden. John W., who had been a drummer boy in the Civil War, married Sylvia Burgess in 1866 and they had nine (surviving) children. After his father died, he rented the east side of the house from his brother Frank, and in 1892, he bought his cousin Henry’s side for $700. He took out a mortgage on the west side for $100 in 1894, and in 1896, he purchased Frank’s eastern half.

Unfortunately, John W. didn’t own the old Alden house for long. He did not have the resources to pay off the mortgages. His mortgage, as well as the one Frank had taken out earlier, had been transferred to a John Tolman Alden of St. Louis, Missouri. Right after John W. acquired Frank’s half of the house, title passed to John T. Alden, who apparently made a verbal agreement with John W. Alden that he and his family could continue to live in the old house. John T. Alden, with his brother Walter, was a wealthy manufacturer of fruit vinegar. John T. had learned of the house and, being fascinated with the Alden story, had undertaken to buy and preserve it. Photographs of the decaying house in the 1880s show that something had to be done if the house was not to be lost altogether. Happily the frame and foundation were solid even as the shingles, shutters and other elements rotted away.

John W. and John T. were not the only ones who treasured the Alden family homestead. In 1883, Charles L. Alden, a young Massachusetts business man saw the house in photographs by Augustus Alden of Boston taken in 1880 and went to Duxbury to see if he could acquire the property. He offered the brothers $1,200, but when it was discovered that Capt. Jack might receive a slightly greater share, Henry balked:

… the two brothers, John and Henry, were at sword’s points and would not sign any deed for fear one would get some advantage over the other. [Augustus] went down and tried to mutually arrange matters. John [Capt. Jack] was all right, but set as the everlasting hills, a regular Alden. Did you ever know an Alden to give up a good thing? Henry was ugly and sneaky. We found it was useless and gave up. (letter from A. Alden to J. T. Alden, July 16, 1896)

Apparently John T. Alden had dreams of turning the house into a museum filled with heirlooms under the management of John W. Alden, but this never materialized. He lost much of his fortune and his health shortly thereafter and by 1907 was no longer capable of doing anything for the Alden house. In November of that year, the newly formed Alden Kindred of America (organized in 1901 and legally incorporated in 1906) was able to buy the property from Mr. Alden’s representative and guardian, Gordon Southworth, for $300.


The Alden Kindred of America and Charles L. Alden.

The increasing interest in colonial history and genealogy in the 1890s that lead to the establishment of the Mayflower Descendant societies also inspired the founding of the Alden Kindred. Miss A. Ella Alden of  Middleboro conducted a correspondence campaign with as many Aldens as she could identify, urging them to attend a family reunion on September 11, 1901. About 150 people were at that first gathering in Highland Park in Avon, Massachusetts, when the decision was made to create a permanent organization, the Alden Kindred of America. The second reunion in 1902 was at the Alden house in Duxbury at the invitation of John W. Alden. In 1905, the Alden Kindred began a discussion about acquiring the property, which now consisted of about 2.7 acres. Nothing changed after the Kindred purchased the house in 1907, and John W. and Sylvia Alden continued to live there until 1920. John W. Alden worked as a gate tender for the railroad for many years. He had an avid interest in music, and even published popular musical compositions. He taught his children to play different instruments. “Sometimes while the family still occupied the Alden House, the place would jump with music. [John’s daughter] Sylvie, her dad and her brothers having another of their “jazz” sessions with piano, drums, flute and clarinet.” (Patriot Ledger, Nov. 23, 1977)

Charles L. Alden, treasurer and founding member of the Alden Kindred, never lost the enthusiasm for the Alden property that had inspired him to try to buy it in 1883. It was he who arranged the purchase from John T. Alden’s guardian. In 1909 he reported to the AKA Executive Committee that repairs to the shingles, corner boards and blinds had cost $135.  In November 1919, in anticipation of the Pilgrim Tercentenary celebration, the Executive Committee recorded:

Mr. Charles L. Alden reported that he had personally bought back from the Wright estate thirty-six acres of the original grant of land belonging to John Alden. Mr. Alden also reported that he had, at his own expense, restored the Alden House; that he had calcimined, painted and fixed up the house. Had old-fashioned brick tiles placed at the back door. One window was put in the pantry and the L roof covered with fireproof paper.

In October 1921, Charles was given a twenty-year lease on the house to continue improvements and manage it, at one dollar a year. He guaranteed that “the members of the Alden Kindred of America, Inc., individually or collectively shall have the right of entrance or assembly upon said premises at any time without charge or cost.” John W. and Sylvia Alden had moved out and Charles set about to make the house a public museum. Two sisters ran an antique business out of the house for a short time before the museum was ready.

Over the following few decades Mr. Alden spent an estimated $20,000 of his own money on the property. He refurbished the rooms and installed antiques from his own collection alongside the few pieces owned by the Kindred, as the John W. Alden family had few really old pieces of furniture left when they moved out. Charles L. Alden’s exhibition philosophy was to present the house as “a home that, from the first, has been inhabited by successive generations of the same family. The characteristic furnishings of each room thus appear to represent the best of what a continuing family of well-to-do people have accumulated in the course of three and a half centuries during which they have lived there” (Edward S. Alden Alden Homestead, 1932, p. 50), rather than “restore” the structure to some hypothetical original look that was common practice with historic colonial houses of the time.

He did restore one room, the old “middle kitchen,” on the advice of Wallace Nutting, the contemporary expert on historic house restoration and exhibition, in 1924. When this kitchen, built by Colonel John Alden, became obsolete with the addition of the kitchen ell, the old fireplace was boarded up and the room turned into two dining rooms, although the partition was apparently removed by John W. Alden. At Nutting’s suggestion Charles opened up the old fireplace and restored the external flue of the kitchen chimney that had been removed above the roof level. He also painstakingly removed the paint, plaster and wallpaper in the room to try to achieve the look of a kitchen during John and Priscilla’s lifetime. At that time everyone believed the entire house had been built in 1653. Unfortunately, as this room was actually early 18th century, it never had the bare wood typical of 17th century rooms. The removal of the original gray 18th century paint, plaster and lathe rendered the kitchen an early 20th century impression of a 17th century room, although it was nothing of the sort. We are fortunate; therefore, that Charles resisted the contemporary fashion of restoration for the rest of the house.

Charles L. Alden brought running water into the ell, closed off the old well, and added a modern bathroom on the northwest side of the house. He had the old house wired for electricity, with careful directions that the wires and outlets should be inconspicuous. As most of the walls were a single thickness, he installed the outlets in the floors and hid the wiring along the beams. There was also a toilet in the house itself, just above the new bathroom in a corner of the Workroom. In 1923 in an attempt to recoup some of his investment, he built a number of hencoops and a log cabin tearoom near the house. In those days everyone “knew” Pilgrims lived in log cabins, and ornamental tearooms were the fashionable alternative to the standard American “greasy spoon” lunch counter. Charles’ son Arthur and Arthur’s wife Marguerite (who researched and wrote an Alden House guide book) managed the museum and attended to the summer visitors for many years.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Alden sometimes stayed in the upper westerly rooms in the summer. These were never shown in early publicity shots or visited by guests (which was also true during John W. Alden’s residency), and the only interior door lock can still be seen on “Henry’s Room” today. In 1932 during the Great Depression, Arthur Alden lost his Ford dealership and home in Brockton, so his father allowed him and his family to move into the ell of the old house for a year or two. They used the bedrooms in the original house (but had to clear their things out when visitors arrived in the summer). In 1933, Charles built a simple frame structure as an “assembly hall” for the Alden membership and turned the log cabin into a summer residence.

Charles L. Alden renewed his lease for another 20 years in 1938, and the Arthur Aldens continued to manage the museum after his father’s death in 1943. This arrangement continued until the mid-1950s, when new officers in the Alden Kindred decided it was not satisfactory. Some members were apparently upset with the gift shop located in the Great Room and other perceived problems. The Kindred, which as an organization had declined in membership during the Depression and World War II, was enjoying a resurgence in 1953 or ‘54 when the idea of taking over the management of the house was proposed. In 1955, President Joseph P. Dring notified “the Alden heirs” (as the Kindred referred to Charles L. and Bessie Alden’s children) that the lease was invalid and they should plan to vacate the property. Charles L. Alden, Jr., pointed out that the greater part of the contents of the house actually belonged to them, and offered to sell the furnishings to the Alden Kindred at a considerable discount for $5,000. This offer was declined, as the Kindred ascertained that repairs on the house itself would take up all their funds. The contents of the house were sold at an auction conducted by local auctioneer Louis Cook in October 1955.


Under New Management

The Alden Kindred then took direct charge for the first time. The wallpaper was removed throughout the now-empty house, the walls sprayed with disinfectant, and painted white. Some reshingling was done on the roof, and the plumbing and electrical wiring in the main house was removed. The hencoops, garage and bathroom addition were torn down. The house was jacked up, the front sill replaced and the front entrance way rebuilt. A trumpet vine that was tearing away shingles was cut back. The Kindred also applied for tax-exempt status for the house, which they received in 1956. The leading figure in this stage of the Alden House’s history was Helen Delano Howe. Acting as museum benefactor and moving force behind the changes that occurred, Mrs. Howe was instrumental in overseeing the restoration and refurnishing of the house, personally underwriting various acquisitions, repairs and projects.

The Alden House was closed to the public for these repairs but opened in time for the arrival of Mayflower II in June 1957. The new room exhibits were sparse at first, and instead of Charles L. Alden’s concept of a house showing continuous occupation, a restored date of circa 1810 was decided upon. Although the rationale is not made explicit, this appears to be a date for which antiques could still be gotten cheaply enough and in sufficient quantity to make refurnishing feasible. A steady stream of artifact donations came in from Alden family members and soon enough antiques were acquired to replace those that had been sold in the auction. The house opened to the public with local high school girls as guides.

The most significant contemporary project was the archaeological excavation (April – October, 1960) of the “First Site” conducted by Roland Wells Robbins. Although the general location of the earlier house was known, it wasn’t until Mr. Robbins conducted his excavation that the exact placement and configuration was discovered. Robbins’ very thorough survey greatly increased the understanding of the earlier dwelling’s design while the artifactual remains cast more light on the Aldens’ possessions and material culture. Robbins’ findings were published in his account of the excavation, Pilgrim John Alden’s Progress (1969) and plans were made to stabilize the old foundation as an Alden memorial.

Further restoration of the existing house was undertaken in the 1960s. The unused chimney was touched up and capped with stainless steel in 1965. The old woodshed on the northeast corner of the house was removed and the entryway turned into a “butt’ry” or pantry. The justification for this new little room is unknown. Perhaps as both the Winslow House in Marshfield and the Harlow House in Plymouth had a room filled with early household gadgets called a “buttery”, it was felt the Aldens should have one as well. This project took a number of years, and the “butt’ry” was finally completed in 1969. Charles L. Alden’s log cabin, which was in a perilous state of disrepair as well as an embarrassment from the realization that Pilgrims didn’t use log cabins after all, was torn down in 1971—except for the caretaker’s apartment at the rear. As the back wall of the old cabin was also the front of the apartment, it and the huge fieldstone fireplace embedded in it were by necessity retained, resulting in the odd situation of the interior face of the fireplace on the exterior of the cottage. In 1972, Chris and Heidi DeLowery moved into the cabin to act as caretakers for the property. Chris would dependably maintain the house and grounds for over thirty years, until 2004.

Much of the Alden House, both inside and out, was painted in shades of gray, perhaps due to the contemporary fashion for displaying artifacts against a neutral background. On the other hand, surviving samples of the original paint in different rooms are either blue-gray or gray-green. Exceptions to this new universal color scheme were the unrestored “Workroom” (left untouched to show evidence of the partition, then thought to be Capt. Jack and Henry’s innovation), the little chamber over the entrance hall with its newspaper “undercoat” displaying the dates of 1812 and 1813, Charles’ restored Kitchen and the new “Butt’ry,” which was painted a reddish orange. Visitors were shown through the house by paid “hostesses” and occasional volunteers under the guidance of Ellen Fellows, a retired Duxbury teacher.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Alden House settled into a comfortable routine as an historic house museum and location of the Alden Kindred of America’s annual meeting. Tourism numbers decreased slightly when Plimoth Plantation drew off potential visitors from the smaller and older Pilgrim attractions, and the new limited-access Route 3 enabled people to easily speed from Boston to Cape Cod, bypassing the attractions on Route 3-A. Repairs and maintenance became routine, and the pace of artifact acquisition slowed to a trickle. However, the volunteers who kept the house going recognized that the existing state of affairs could not continue without some important changes.

The structural condition of the Alden House was found to be satisfactory (although the ell needed work) when inspected in 1989, but the caretakers’ cottage, decaying assembly hall and small toilet building presented a challenge. There was discussion of replacing all of them with a single building and repairs on the assembly hall were postponed in view of this eventuality. Alternative solutions included the possible acquisition of an historic barn on the neighboring Cushman property (which had been the easterly end of the original Alden farm) or the purchase of the “yellow house,” a modern house built on the old railroad right of way immediately west of the Alden House. Neither of these options proved feasible so work went ahead on the design of a new building. The intent was to have the new support structure resemble a barn to indicate the property’s long agricultural history.

The ell was completely renovated in 1992, including a new floor and joists. It had been a storage area and refuge for the guides, but now the old kitchen sinks and cabinets were removed, and the room opened to the public as a museum shop, complete with glass display cases. The guides were allotted the space behind the northerly partition as their break area. The well beside the ell was given a new enclosure and a new sign installed at the end of the driveway.

Mrs. Howe died in 1992 and bequeathed $20,000 towards the building project. The Kindred decided to build a barn-like support structure where an old “wood shed” (not the one attached to the house) or barn had stood on the slope northeast of the house. This had been taken down in the 1890s after it was struck by lightning. The first design proposed a two-story 90′ x 45′ structure combining the caretaker’s quarters (on the top floor), a large 2,700 sq. ft. meeting hall, gift shop and office on the first floor, and a mixed use area below on the basement level. The estimated cost was $800,000. In the end, a more modest design for a 40′ x 20′ single story structure with a basement level by Hingham architect William Thayer costing about $150,000 was chosen, and the caretaker’s cabin was retained. Before the Alden Barn progressed beyond the planning stage, however, the last of Charles L. Alden’s improvements was lost in January 1996 when the assembly hall collapsed under the weight of a record snowfall.

In 1994, an important milestone was reached when the Alden House hired its first professional full-time employee, Director Elln Hagney. Until then, volunteers and low-paid seasonal help had sustained the historic house function. Ms. Hagney, who had worked at the Lowell Heritage State Park, took over the management of the house and grounds. She contacted the University of Massachusetts for an archaeological survey of the property in preparation for the construction of the new Alden Barn. She also improved docent training and scheduled special public events such as a two-day autumn festival that brought together craft demonstrations, military re-enactors and livestock from nine museums in 1995 and was attended by 600 people. In 1996 the museum docents were provided with improved costumes, the Massachusetts Society of Colonial Dames presented the Alden House with a bronze plaque honoring it as the residence of John and Priscilla, and another well-received autumn festival was held.

Elln Hagney moved on in 1997 and the museum director’s responsibilities were divided between past Alden Kindred president, Robert Edmunds, as Director, and a former Marshfield librarian, Linda Ashley, as Curator. The ten teen-age guides that year were of both sexes, although these were not scheduled simultaneously. Much of the staff’s energy was focused on the construction of the new “Barn” with its attendant archaeological surveys and fundraising, and on the approaching Alden Kindred centennial. Groundbreaking for the Barn took place on 18 October 1997. The building was impressively constructed in a traditional timber frame manner that enhanced the interior barn motif by the Benson Woodworking Company. The frame was raised on 18 April 1998, and the building was ready for occupancy the following year. Many people contributed towards the Alden Barn, from major benefactors such as John Alden Williamson and his sister Priscilla Alden Higgins to those families, groups and individuals who bought a brick in the new walkway for $35 each.

The ell was again reshingled in 1998. A “haunted Halloween” event and “cold turkey” tours given in the unheated house on the day after Thanksgiving extended the public year into the late fall. New museum shop products included an “Alden Family Cookbook” by Kerri Schofield Lawson and an Alden afghan bearing family names and imagery, including the barn raising. The staffing changed again when Charles Coombs was hired as Director and Bonnie Chandler Conant as Administrative Assistant and Acting Curator in the summer of 1999.


Into A New Millennium

Although a routine commemoration might have acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the first meeting in 1901, the excitement surrounding the turn of the Millennium resulted in the observation of the 100th actual meeting in August 2000 as the major event. Over a five-day period, more than 340 Alden descendants descended on the old homestead for a variety of interesting activities ranging from a cruise to Provincetown, where in 1620 (as “Cape Cod Harbor”) John and Priscilla first saw their new country, to a dinner of 17th century “Pilgrim” cuisine at Plimoth Plantation and a valedictory address by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University.

Energized by the success of the reunion and inspired by Mr. Edmund’s “VisionQuest” session at that meeting, the Alden Kindred attempted to launch a $2 million capital campaign for further improvements to the Alden House Historic Site, such as the new farm design, the acquisition of the Gibson property just east of the House and the construction of a new assembly hall or pavilion. The University of Rhode Island volunteered a landscape and exhibit design that emphasized the historical usage of the Alden property, and John’s vocation as a cooper or barrel maker. However, this proved premature. In 2002 a more pragmatic approach towards development was adopted. Director Charles Coombs successfully applied to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a conservation and preservation grant to conduct conservation assessments of the Alden House and its collections. Historical architect Willard Gwilliam, former Director of Architecture, Engineering and Maintenance for Colonial Williamsburg (and an Alden descendant), conducted a comprehensive architectural survey of the house, including bringing in a team of dendrochronologists to try to assess the age of the structure. Christine Thompson of Robert Mussey Associates evaluated the artifact collection and provided a conservation plan for future preservation.   
Mr. Coombs resigned in the summer of 2002, and his responsibilities were assumed by Alden Ringquist as Acting Director and by Genealogist Alicia Crane Williams as Acting Curator. Dr. Thomas McCarthy, now Professor of Environmental, Business, and Consumer History at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis was made official Historian for the Kindred and began the process of acquiring National Landmark status for the Alden House Historic Site. Graduate student Thomas Doyle took on the daunting task of sorting out the Alden Kindred records and established an excellent archival system that greatly facilitated research into the history of the Kindred and the Alden property. Progress towards the more professional management of the Alden House continued with a grant from the American Association of Museums for their Museum Assessment Program. In December, 2002 James W. Baker, former Director of Research at Plimoth Plantation, was hired as Curator, and began by revising the traditional interpretation of the Alden House. In 2003, two American Association of Museums professionals analyzed the management and procedures of the Alden House and made a report on how the continued professional development of the museum might best be carried out.

More importantly, the long-term conservation of the Alden House was advanced by a campaign to repair the massive central chimneystack, which had been suffering ice-induced spalling of brickwork and external parging, and crumbling clay-based mortar. Estimated costs were set at about $80,000. In June 2005, Jack Peet & Associates of Williamsburg, Virginia, experts in historic brickwork restoration, were able to remove the inappropriate steel cap which was trapping moisture in the chimney, and replaced decayed bricks and unsuitable cement mortar with appropriate true clay bricks and authentic lime mortar. The project was funded through Kindred member donations and a generous grant of $43,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The following winter work began on badly deteriorated window sashes that required not only recaulking and painting, but also restoration of the frames and woodwork. In addition, UV filter film was added to the individual panes during the restoration effort to help protect the interiors and furnishings of the rooms. The Alden House Historic Site was fortunate in this instance to be awarded a grant of $30,000 from the Duxbury Community Preservation Committee fund, and work was completed in May, 2008.


Was the “First House” a “Long House”?

The evidence for posthole structures are “post molds,” which are simply dark spots in the sandy subsoil where the lower end of a wooden post once was buried and which later rotted away, leaving a dark residue where the wood had been. Excavators who were only looking for stone foundations may have ignored post molds such as these, as New England “posthole” or “earthfast” construction was not know about in 1960. Yet Robbins did remove the topsoil from a wide area around the Alden site, and found a flat stone surrounded by bricks that appeared to have been the base for some sort of post or support (such as might have been placed under a post whose embedded end had rotted away). There was only one of these stones, and as Robbins was by past experience more interested in foundations and footings that the average archaeologist of the time who was more concerned with buried artifacts, it is perhaps unlikely that he would not have noticed any post molds in the vicinity. The resolution of this possibility must wait until another excavation is undertaken, which, unless Robbins’ work obliterated the evidence of post molds, may or may not prove that the long house wasn’t “long” after all. Given Robbins’ detailed and professional work on the Alden site, however, we will assume that the first Duxbury house was indeed small, narrow and long.


When Was The Alden House Built?

Justin Winsor states that there were in fact three Alden houses, each built further west from the former. “He [John Alden] built his house on a rise of land, near Eagle-tree pond, and the site is still identified to the eastward of the present building, near the dike; and here was his well, which long since having been filled up, it is now with difficulty that its precise situation is found. The second house stood a little further to the westward; and the present house, which was erected by his grandson, Col. John Alden, stands still further towards the west, which is now occupied by a descendant of the sixth generation” (Justin Winsor, History of Duxbury, p.57-58). If this is accurate, and as we only know of two house sites – the “1627” site excavated by Robbins and the present house itself—the question arises whether the so-called 1627 site is in fact the earliest or were the well, mentioned both by Winsor and Rev. Timothy Alden, and first house further east than the pond dam where “Eagle Tree Pond” is. Alternately, was/is there another foundation between the two known sites (perhaps destroyed by the leveling of the playing field in the 1960s)?  In 1908 Ebenezer Alden noted: “ One tradition is that the first house was destroyed by fire. If this be true, it is probable that the second was torn down, to make room for its more pretentious successor. The exact date of the building of the present house is a subject of discussion. The most generally accepted date is 1653” (Brockton Times, 6 August 1908). More to our purpose, however, is the possibility that the existing house was built by Jonathan Alden and enlarged by his son Colonel John Alden, or even built by Colonel John in its entirety.

That Colonel John might have built the house was attested to by Mary Ann Alden and Aunt Polly Alden: “From information obtained from Miss Mary Ann Alden, daughter of Major Judah Alden, and from Mrs. Mary (Winsor), wife of Capt. John, her brother [i.e., Mary Ann’s brother], I believe the house to have been built as Mr. Winsor states, by Colonel. John Alden, they both stating the fact. They also believe that the house was partially built of timber from the original mansion, and that the ell of the present house was probably part of the first residence of the Pilgrim, —it having, since my remembrance, a diamond-pane window, set in lead sash.” This testimony apparently dates to the 1870s or early 1880s (Edward T. Barker, in First Triennial Report of the Alden Kindred of America, 1904, p. 12), and the leaded sash is mentioned in the February 1877 issue of Harper’s Monthly.

In 2003, a team of dendrochronologists (scientists who date the age of timbers through samples of the annual growth rings in the wood) took samples from a number of structural members in the house. Unfortunately they were not able to secure enough sample “cores” to confidently date the construction of the house. About 10 samples are needed to make a reliable estimate of the date of construction of a complex building. To be datable, a timber should be at least of 80 years growth, and have a surviving “wain edge” (i.e., the rounded outer surface just below the bark layer of the tree). In addition, the wain surface must be accessible so that a large hollow drill can take a core sample. Most of the Alden House timbers were either squared off so that the wain was lost, or too close to a wall or floor to be drilled. None of the principle posts or beams in the oldest part of the house could be sampled—only a few secondary timbers such as floor joists and principal rafters. None of the timbers sampled were from trees over 50 years old, and therefore could not be securely dated. Those that were sampled returned dates of 1711, 1701, 1777 (or 1837), and 1852, while a joist under the floor of the “Great Room” dated to 1733. The Buttery sill might be from 1629 (± 7 years), which would suggest re-use from the earlier house. On the other hand, it could also be circa 1691(± 7 years), as there are not enough rings to be sure of the dating. If that last date is correct, this would further indicate Jonathan Alden built the first section.

In addition, the results of the archaeological survey undertaken by the University of Massachusetts around the house in 1995 in preparation to the construction of the Barn found no 17th century artifacts. “The project area was tested through the excavation of 59 shovel test pits (STPs). Forty-nine of the 59 STPs contained historic artifacts. All 23 STPs around the house contained historic artifacts dating from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. A posthole and post mold also was identified in this area near the house.  The flat expanse extending from Alden Street to the house contained extremely few artifacts and no features. Twenty-two STPs (test pits) were excavated south of the house. Very few historic or prehistoric artifacts were recovered in this area. No unequivocal evidence of seventeenth century material culture was identified. [emphasis added] However, since seventeenth-century material assemblages typically contain very few goods and no stratigraphic disturbance was identified, seventeenth-century deposits may remain intact in the project area, particularly under the house itself” (Mullins & Mulholland, Archeological Site Locational Survey for a Proposed Barn, &c., 1996). It should also be kept in mind that Abbott Lowell Cummings, who surveyed the structure in the early 1970s, declared it to have been constructed in a “single build” (i.e., all built at one time) about 1700, and that both the “Alexander Standish” and the Major John Bradford houses have recently been re-dated to the early 18th century. Alexander was therefore not a resident in his purported house either.

An arguable construction sequence based on these surveys might therefore be that the core was built ca. 1691 by Jonathan Alden after John and Priscilla had died. The 1711 date, if we look at it as the approximate date of the enlargement of the house, accords with the local tradition that the house was built by Colonel. John Alden. He inherited the Alden farm in 1703 and married Hannah Briggs of Scituate in 1709, and enlarged his home two or three years later. The single early 17th century date of the Buttery sill, and that is debatable, would indicate that timber from the “1628” house was reused in this process. The dates (1777 or 1837, and 1852) of the easterly rafters therefore reflect repairs rather than construction, as we know the main house as it stands now was in place in 1739, thanks to the room-by-room inventory. It is possible that the puzzling raising of the ceiling joists on the easterly side of the house (about 4 inches) occurred in the 19th century for whatever reason, which then called for the replacement of the easterly principle rafters.

If Will Gwilliam’s assumptions are correct and the house was built in two stages, with the second occurring during Colonel John Alden’s tenure. It was then that the northern and western sections were added to an earlier freestanding core containing the Great Room and Master Chamber.  Evidence for this hypothesis are the 1733 floor joist, the three doubled outer walls of the Great Room and various details of the framing. Since the paneling fits the present height of the room, it was evidently added at the same time the joists were replaced. The outer wall (made from vertical pine boards in typical Plymouth Colony style), now hidden behind the inner double wall, is plastered—indicating that it was once the only wall in the room as in the Master Chamber above, and that the inner wall is a later modification. Similarly, there is no reason for a step if the floors were all installed at the same time. If the house was first enlarged around 1711, it could have been considerably improved internally 22 years later by Colonel John.

The other local tradition noted in Rev. John Alden in The Story of a Pilgrim Family (1890), p. 64, that the house was built by Jonathan Alden (1632-1697) could be accounted for by the construction of the two room core structure, which is unarguably older than the rafters above it indicate. We have no samples from the framing timbers, which cannot be as easily replaced as a rafter or joist. If the ell and/or the core structure (the Great Room and Master Chamber) were built  during Jonathan’s lifetime, and the substantial additions later mistakenly remembered as Colonel John’s construction of a new house, then it would be arguable that Jonathan built part of the current building. That this was done before Pilgrim John’s death in 1687 is possible, if the new house was built for Jonathan and family after his marriage in 1672. The two houses could also have existed contemporaneously, so that the family lived in the older house while the new one was under construction, but it is equally possible that John’s death preceded the demolition of his old house and the construction of the new one (if there are in fact only two house sites).

The three-house sequence offered by Winsor could also account for the tradition of the house being built in 1653. The date might refer to the second of the three rather than the last. This would also explain the house’s use first recorded use as a colonial meeting place in 1657 and after. This was a family tradition, and first appears in an 1880s newspaper interview with Capt. Jack Alden (1813-1887): “Many years ago, he said, while repairing the sills, they had taken out a board with the date 1653 on it … Old Jonathan built it; had been in the family ever since.” This mysterious board was mentioned in 1901 in Augustus Alden’s Pilgrim Alden, p. 179: “Near this corner cupboard [in the Great Room] or closet is a panel which, being raised, you may see the date of the erection of the house, ‘1653,’ cut into the planking.” but this has never been seen since. Until we discover evidence to support such conjectures, a conservative post-1672 date for the present house may be the most supportable interpretation.


[1] The old English Julian calendar began the year on Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation), the 25th of March, so January was considered the 11th month, not the first. When they spoke of January 1627, it was in our reckoning, January 1628. Many writers, unaware of this, have stated that John built his first house in 1627, but that is highly unlikely, as it would have to be before the end of March, and the division actually occurred in 1628 from our modern perspective.

[2] Dorothy Wentworh. The Alden Family in the Alden House. Duxbury: The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, 1980, p. 13.

[3] Roland Wells Robbins. Pilgrim John Alden’s Progress: Archaeological Excavations in Duxbury. Plymouth: The Pilgrim Society, 1969, pp. 48-49.

[4] James Deetz. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1977. p. 97.


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