Thursday, September 24, 2009

Treasure Chest Thursday - Benjamin Franklin's Chest? or Pope Valuables Chest?

The Plimoth Plantation Reproduction of the Pope Chest

a detail of the workmanship inside the reproduced Pope Chest
copying the simple techniques used in the original chest
reproduction at the Plimoth Plantation Craft Center

This is my first contribution to Treasure Chest Thursday at GeneaBloggers, and I couldn’t resist the theme. There was a treasure chest beyond compare in my family tree, but unfortunately it wasn’t in my own attic. The distant cousins who cashed in on this treasure chest really have contributed not only to their own bank accounts, but to a great museum collection and to the living history at Plimoth Plantation.

Bethshua Folger and Joseph Pope were married in 1679 in Salem Village, now Danvers, Massachusetts. Joseph Pope paid a tax of four shilling, putting him in the top quarter of all the tax payers in Salem Village. His gravestone was described as a “pretentious stone of slate” by Jasper Marsh (Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Volume 10, page 93). Mr. and Mrs. Pope were central characters in the witchcraft trials, too. Joseph testified that he heard John Proctor (popularly known as the main character in “The Crucible”) say he would “Drive the Divell out” of one of the accused. Bethshua (also known as Bathsheba) claimed to be afflicted by the defendants, and during Martha Corey’s trial she threw her shoe and struck Corey in the head.

Joseph and Bethshua also owned a “valuables cabinet” made for them by the Salem Symonds furniture shop. Its provenance is impeccable, since it stayed in the same family for over three hundred years, and it is engraved with the initials JP and BF with the date 1679. It was passed along in the family as the “Franklin Chest” because of the fact that Bethshua’s sister, Abiah, was Benjamin Franklin’s mother. This myth helped to preserve the chest, which in my opinion is quite ugly. It might have been trashed or lost if not for the ongoing myth of a connection to Benjamin Franklin. It traveled around New England with the descendants, finally settling in Cape Cod until the family finally decided to auction it off.

On January 20, 2000 Christie’s Auction sold the Pope Valuable Chest to the Peabody Essex Museum for a record breaking $2,422,500.00 As descendants of the Pope family, but very distant cousins of the final owners of the chest, we all waited until it went on display at PEM, not ever having seen the chest before. The curator emailed me when it was catalogued, cleaned and ready for the public, and we all rushed down to Salem for the big reveal.

I was shocked to see how tiny it was, not really a piece of furniture but the size of a silverware chest. It was cracked, and the boards in the back were loose and warped. It had been painted garish colors that had faded, but were still visible. Except for it’s interesting family history, it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t pick up at a tag sale, let alone pay millions for at an auction.

Since the auction, I’ve come to love the chest. We visit it often at the Peabody Essex Museum, and even though it sits in a gallery with other more beautiful and exotic treasures from around the world it has become one of my favorite exhibits. At first it was displayed with a wonderful video describing it’s provenance and the famous auction, but now it sits alone with just a small tag describing it as an early American Salem antique. It has come home to Salem.

As an example of early American furniture, the Plimoth Plantation has permission for its artisans in the Crafts Center to reproduce the Pope Valuables Chest. They built the first two reproductions for the two siblings who auctioned off the chest, and now they have other samples on display at the museum in Plymouth. A wood carver explained to me the reasons why it represented a typical chest of the period, and typical techniques of the time, and the authentic paint schemes of the colonial era. I still think it’s simple, ugly and garish, but I also love it for the wonderful family connections!

Pope Lineage

Gen. 1. Joseph Pope, b. 1606 in probably Yorkshire, England, d. 1667 in Salem, Massachusetts; married first to Damaris (?); married second to Gertrude Shattuck. Eight children with his first wife.

Gen. 2. Joseph Pope, b. about 27 Oct 1650 in Salem, d. Feb 1711/12 in Salem; married in 1679 in Salem Village to Bethshua Folger, daughter of Peter Folger and Mary Morrill, b. about 1650 on Nantucket Island. Joseph and Bethshua are my 7x Great Grandparents. They had nine children, and I descend from their daughter Jerusha Pope (1695 - 1781) who married George Flint in 1713.


Folger Lineage

Gen. 1. John Folger, b. about 1590 in Diss, Norwich, Norfolk, England, d. about 1660 on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; married before 1618 in England to Meribah Gibbs, daughter of John Gibbs and Alice Elmy, b. about 1595, d. about 1635. Five children.

Gen. 2. Peter Folger, b. 1617 in Norfolk, England, d. 1690 in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard; married on 23 Jun. 1644 in Watertown, Massachusetts to Mary Morrill, b. about 1623 in England and d. 1704 on Nantucket. Twelve children.

Gen. 3. Bethshua Folger (see above)

Also Abiah Folger, b. 15 Aug. 1667 on Nantucket, d. 18 May 1752 in Boston; married on 25 Nov. 1689 at the Old South Church, Boston to Josiah Franklin, b. 23 Dec. 1657 in Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, d. 16 Jan 1744/45 in Boston. Abiah and Josiah Franklin are buried at the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, with a large monolith donated by their son, the statesman Benjamin Franklin.

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Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Wow! How great is it to have a family treasure exhibited in a museum? I agree with you in terms of its looks - not my thing but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

  2. Heather - I am so completely impressed with your entire presentation here! I searched under "Bethsua Folger Pope", trying to find the original article about the dower chest that I had tripped over some years ago. I found that article but I also found your article and am ever so grateful! Bethsua was my 7th great-grandmother and quite an interesting character. It's amazing to me to consider that she is aunt to Benjamin Franklin, who was know for his open-mindedness. Just goes to show 'ya - families are made up of all kinds of people!

    I just wanted to thank you for all your excellent and interesting work.

    1. I too am a direct descendant of Joseph Pope which makes this extremely interesting. Thank you! Virgil Pope

    2. Thank you for the interesting article. I am a direct descendant of Joseph Pope ( and one of his younger sons) Our "branch" left MA by way of CT then NY and ultimately Wisconsin since 1834.

  3. Me, too: Bethsua was my 7th great-grandmother, and I will go to Salem to see the chest this weekend. I visited the Shattucks at the Old Burying place in Watertown today. Thank you for the article.

  4. I am also a descendant of Joseph Pope my Great grandfather(8x)
    Rebecca Pope,Milwaukee,Wisconsin