Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blog Caroling – James Pierpont and Jingle Bells

Thank you to the Footnote Maven for sponsoring this year’s Blog Caroling event. We are invited to blog our favorite Christmas Carol, but instead, as a genealogist, I’m writing about a connection between the family tree and a well known Christmas song. It is also the story of a family divided by politics and geography.

James Lord Pierpont was born 25 April 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts, and died 5 August 1893 in Winter Haven Florida. He served in the First George Cavalry during the Civil War, and wrote patriotic hymns for the confederacy. This is ironic because his father was a well known Massachusetts abolitionist. However, it was more common than not for families to be divided in opinions on the war, even in New England. His father was a Unitarian pastor, and served as chaplain for the 22nd Massachusetts Regiment.

James and his brother, The Rev. John Pierpont, Jr., removed to Valdosta, near Savannah, Georgia in 1853. John was the pastor of a Unitarian church, and James the organist.

James Pierpont missed the New England winters whilst living down south, and he wrote the popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” in 1857. During his childhood in Medford, Massachusetts, where his father was a pastor, sleigh racing took place on High Street between Medford and Malden, Massachusetts, and the memory prompted his song

Massachusetts and Georgia both say they are the birthplaces of Jingle Bells. There is a plaque on the side of a building at 19 High Street in Medford, Massachusetts commemorating the “birthplace” of Jingle Bells. It was first recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1898, showing how popular this tune was even right after its inception. It has been recorded by pop stars, bands and orchestras all over the world in countless languages. It was the first song performed in space on 16 December 1965 when astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sang it on board Gemini 6. The simple, catchy tune is probably the first Christmas carol you learned as a child, too.

For genealogical reasons, it is also interesting to note that James Lord Pierpont was the uncle of the famous banker J. Pierpont Morgan. James’s sister, Julia, was Morgan’s mother. Another interesting coincidence is that the popular Christmas carol “Over the River and Through the Wood” was written by Lydia Maria Child, who was born in Medford. Both were Unitarians.

In researching my Wilkinson, Gore and other Boston ancestors I was repeatedly looking up cousins and in-laws in the 2007 Pierpont compiled genealogy by NEHGS’s Helen Schatvet Ullmann. It was through this book that I read about all the fascinating Pierponts in history.

The original 1857 lyrics to Jingle Bells:

Dashing through the snow, In a one-horse open sleigh,
O'er the hills we go, Laughing all the way.
Bells on bobtail ring, Making spirits bright,
Oh what sport to ride and sing A sleighing song tonight.

: chorus :
Jingle bells, jingle bells, Jingle all the way!
O what joy it is to ride In a one-horse open sleigh.

A day or two ago I thought I'd take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank And we got upset
: chorus :

A day or two ago, the story I must tell
I went out on the snow and on my back I fell
A gent was riding by in a one-horse open sleigh
He laughed as there I sprawling lie but quickly drove away
: chorus :

Now the ground is white. Go it while you're young
Take the girls tonight and sing this sleighing song
Just get a bobtailed bay,two forty is his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh and crack! You'll take the lead.

: chorus : [from]

For more information:

Reverend John Pierpont’s papers (father of James L. Pierpoint) are archived at the William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.

J. Pierpont, “One Horse Open Sleigh”, Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., deposited 1857 in the Library of Congress Man Who Wrote Jingle Bells” by Albert S. Pendleton for the Valdosta, Georgia Museum newsletter “YesterDay and Today” Volume XXXVIII, page 6.

The Pierponts of Roxbury, Massachusetts, by Helen Schatvet Ullmann, Boston: Newbury Street Press, 2007
Last year I wrote about the less well known song "Christmas in Boston" for the 2009 Blog Caroling event, you can read about it here at
Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Agree with Marian, fascinating.

  2. That makes three of us! Loved reading this one, Heather.

  3. What a great story. And the full lyrics. I have a good friend in Medford and can imagine the original scene. And Pierpont wrote patriotic hymns for the Confederacy and moved to Georgia? Whoa. And I'm learning for the first time that the Unitarian Church goes back to the 1800s. Probably further. Our madrigral group sang all our concerts in the Unitarian Church of Westport, CT. Very small world!