Friday, September 14, 2012

Henry Tufts, Black Sheep of an Otherwise Respectable Family

by guest blogger, Tom Tufts

I hope my Great-Grandfather forgives me. James Arthur Tufts I was a professor of English at Phillips Exeter Academy for 50 years and on local library boards to prevent Henry Tufts's book from being bought for the public to read. Henry was not an ancestor of mine and his book is what I call barely historical fiction. It tells the tale of his life of criminal activities and “sufferings”. Titled; A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine, in Substance, as Compiled from His Own Mouth. The printing shop that originally printed it was burned down on account of it but later it was edited and released by Edmund Lester Pearson in 1930 and in 1993 with an extensive introduction by Neal Keating.  It is available occasionally today from online sources. Some stated it was really written with Thomas Tash, a revolutionary hero and neighbor of Henry’s in Lee NH.

                                The story contains narrative of his first exploits stealing fruit from a neighbor’s orchard as a child and continues stealing whenever he needed throughout his life. He seemed proud of it, stole from his own family and found fault with those who would not lock things up. He fathered children with several women, even marrying them without leaving his previous wife. He joined the army and deserted when he got bored. After a time this all caught up with him and he often was jailed but prided himself with his ability to escape jails including Exeter, Dover, and in Maine and Massachusetts. He even was committed to death for offenses in Massachusetts and only was reprieved at the last moment and sent to the Castle prison in Boston. He later was moved to Salem where he escaped the last time fleeing to Maine where his wife and their children had established homes. He had spent time living with the Abenaki Indians to recover from an illness and learned the Indian method of medicine from Molly Ockett which he later performed for many others, perhaps making up for his many disgraces.

That is the short version. It barely details the full story. A quick internet search will bring up results for many books and articles where the book is mentioned. It is not bad if you look at it as entertainment or for a look into what life was like in the colonial era. The book Landmarks in Ancient Dover, New Hampshire by Mary Thompson describes him in her description of the Lee/Durham boundary line which ran through their farm. Notable Events in the History of Dover New Hampshire From the First Settlement in 1623 to 1865 by George Wadleigh is another. The full review of his book which I prefer appears in Harper's new monthly magazine Volume 76, Issues 451-456. This review by Thomas Wentworth Higginson really describes it better than I could. He details many of his exploits stealing horses and travelling the continent.

I would rather tell the story of the true Tufts family that is filled with leaders in many fields. They were teachers, preachers, soldiers, and farmers, and all respectable members of society. The book itself describes the family as Boston “Brahmin”. Most of us can trace our roots to Henry’s great-great- grandfather Peter Tufts who came to Charlestown Massachusetts from Norfolk County England around 1638. Henry’s grandfather was a respected Harvard educated preacher and his cousin Lieutenant Thomas Tufts of Greenland NH was one of the New Hampshire Militia in the siege of Louisburg Nova Scotia in 1745 and died from illness acquired there. Colonel Henry Tufts, no direct relation, and of a much later date was the first head of the US Army Criminal Investigation Division. Descendents of his family and his father’s family were early settlers of the Farmington NH area and Limington ME. I expect to greet many of them at the annual reunion in Middleton NH this month. There are many patriots and civic leaders in the families even today. A Dennis Robinson of recently reviewed the book with no reference to respectable Tufts. The best reference for this family is Tufts Kinsmen by Herbert Adams and the Tufts Kinsmen Association (2010 and earlier editions). It can be obtained by e-mailing

For more information: 

J. Dennis Robinson "Henry Tufts wrote First American Criminal Biography"

A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, now residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine, by Henry Tufts, printed by Samuel Bragg, 1807 (the original book can be seen at the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts and at the New York Public Library) 1993 reprint available.


Generation 1) Peter Tufts (1617 - 1700) m. Mary Pierce
Generation 2) Thomas Tufts (1883 - 1733) m. Mary Lynde
Generation 3) Henry Tufts (1716 - 1780) m. Mary Wedgewood
Generation 4) Henry Tufts was born 24 June 1748 in Newmarket, New Hamphsire, and died 31 January 1831 in Limerick, Maine.  He was married about 1770 in Durham, New Hampshire to Lydia Bickford, daughter of Joseph Bickford and Margery Unknown. In the Tufts Kinsman he is listed as "vagabond, soldier AR, Indian doctor".  

Copyright 2012 Heather Wilkinson Rojo and Tom Tufts


  1. I enjoyed this fascinating post. Here we seem to have the actual voice of a "black sheep." So be it -- this person too belongs to the vast and varied tapestry of human nature. It does take daring to reveal some of our ancestors as they actually were, when even today we are all haunted by the enormous pressure of "respectability." But life, and people, don't conform to our best intentions. I'd go further to say that we can all relate to colorful rapscallions like Henry Tufts -- why else do we create so many TV shows, novels, and movies full of such transgressive characters--and even worse. (We're even intrigued by monsters like Jack the Ripper.) It sounds as if Henry thought he was smart in outwitting other people (who wouldn't lock things up), and ingenious in learning Indian medicine. All such characters in history belong to somebody's family ! Thank you for the courage of this post. Assuming your great-grandfather is now elevated to a state of blessedness, I'm sure that from that perspective he would forgive you.

  2. Thank you for the thoughful post Mariann, I have decided that irregardless of it's accuracy, the book itslef now becomes a part of true history. As a professor of many years, Great Grandfather would agree to this. He would also correct my grammar. As entertainment I would agree people seem to like what you mention. The book is entertaining but I enjoy reading of greater Tufts and more historical accuracy. This clip from the Alstead NH history is one of the better ones I have found: “Down in Timothy Tufts’ home in Paper Mill Village, a boychild was destined to be a real father to thousands of boys at Phillips Exeter, never a president in name, but more a symbol of the academy than some who held that title; “just raking up after,” was the way this country boy was to sum up his great lifework.”
    New Hampshire Borns a Town
    Marion Nicholl Rawson 1942