Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Weathervane Wednesday - Weathervane by Shem Drowne, at the Massachusetts Historical Society

I have seen another Shem Drowne weathervane recently, and just last week the Boston Globe announced a Southeby's auction of a newly discovered sixth weathervane by Drowne!  This is fantastic news about the earliest documented weathervane maker in the United States.  Shem Drowne (1683 - 1774) is most famous for his grasshopper weathervane above Faneuil Hall in Boston, and very few weathervanes have been documented to be his work.  These six weathervanes are among the most prized in the US.  To discover a new one is historical!  

The sixth Drowne weathervane discovered recently was a copy of the Faneuil Hall grasshopper and originally was installed on Peter Faneuil's house in Boston.  Later it was installed on a barn in New Hampshire (location has not been disclosed) for many years, and then owned by a family in New Jersey.  Experts have traced the provenance of this weathervane back to Shem Drowne.  The story is fascinating and you can read about it HERE at the Boston Globe (subscription might be needed) or HERE in a shorter version at an antiques website.  It will be auctioned by Southeby's in New York City on January 23, and is expected to fetch over $300,000! 

The archer weathervane photographed here for this blog post resides at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It originally was installed over the Province House in Boston around 1716, and it depicts an indigenous person with a bow and arrow.  This symbol was inpired by the Native American figure on the Massachusetts Bay seal (1629).  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Legends of Province House" and featured "Drowne's Wooden Image" as a gilded weathervane. Did you read Johnny Tremaine (by Esther Forbes) as a child? The first paragraphs feature this weathervane, too, and mention its glass eye! 

Province House was built in 1679 for Peter Sargeant, a Boston merchant.  It was later the royal governor's residence (for the following royal governors: Samuel Shute (who signed the Shute petition for Nutfield), William Shirley, Thomas Pownall, Francis Bernard, Thomas Gage, and William Howe).  When the new Massachusetts State House was built after the Revolutionary War the Province House was donated to the Massachusetts General Hospital, but destroyed in a fire by 1864. The weathervane and the royal coat of arms survived the fire.  You can still see the brick front steps that were part of this house on Province Street in downtown Boston.

A descendant of the founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital donated this weathervane to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1876.  In 1991 it was on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts alongside the Faneuil grasshopper weathervane during a restoration of the Old State House. This archer weathervane used to hang in the lobby of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but now it is on the wall in an office, out of public view.

Fortunately, one of my good college friends is a fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  With her assistance I was able to visit this weathervane in the private office.  It is one of the few weathervanes I have been able to visit up close, instead of using a zoom lens on a camera or binoculars!  There are guided art tours of the Massachusetts Historical Society every Saturday at 10am, free to the public, which includes seeing this weathervane.  Please contact the MHS for more information about the tour. 

Drowne’s  other five weather vanes are the famous grasshopper above Faneuil Hall, the weather cock on top of the Congregational Church in Cambridge, a weathercock on display at the Museum of Old Newbury, and the banner shaped weathervane on the steeple of the Old North Church in Boston. I have not seen the Newbury weathervane (yet!).  Only three are still installed outdoors, the rest are part of indoor collections. 

My genealogical connection to Shem Drowne has inspired me to start blogging about local weathervanes, and weathervanes from all over New England, and sometimes around the world.  At this date in 2023 I have written about almost 500 weathervanes, and Vincent has photographed nearly all of them (I try but I'm not as good a photographer). Many people following my blog have wondered why a genealogy blog features weathervanes.  Now you know!   

The Drowne family lived in Kittery, Maine, where Shem was born in 1683.  His father, Leonard Drowne, an immigrant from England, was a shipbuilder.  He moved his family from Kittery, Maine to the safety of Boston during the French and Indian War.  Leonard is buried at the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End.   It was here, in the North End, that Shem Drowne began his trade as a tinsmith.  He was also a deacon at the First Baptist Church, where many of my other ancestors belonged, and can be found in the marriage and church records at this same time period.

Here is a genealogical chart showing my kinship to Shem Drowne, weathervane maker.

                                Walter Abbott m. Sarah Steward
           I                                                                  I
Elizabeth Abbott m. Leonard Drown  m. Mary Abbott m. William Caverly
          I                                                                                        I
Shem Drowne m. Katherine Clarke                Elizabeth Caverly m. Thomas Wilkinson
                                                                         James Wilkinson m. Hannah Mead
                                                                          William Wilkinson m. Mercy Nason
                                                                          Aaron Wilkinson m. Mercy F. Wilson
                                                                         Robert Wilson Wilkinson m. Phebe Munroe
                                                                         Albert Munroe Wilkinson m. Isabella Bill
                                (my grandparents) Donald Munroe Wilkinson m. Bertha Roberts

Also, Mary Drowne, a sister of Shem Drowne, born about 1693 and died 24 January 1732, married on 24 April 1712 to James Kettle, my 7th great grand uncle, brother to Jonathan Kettle (1681 - 1764) my 7th great grandfather.  That makes Mary Drowne my 7th great aunt by marriage, as well as my first cousin 8 generations removed.  

For the truly curious:

Blog posts about Shem Drowne's weathervanes: 

1.  Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts:

2.  First Church,  Cambridge, Massachusetts    

3.  Old North Church, Boston, Massachusetts   

A weathervane by Thomas Drowne (Shem Drowne's grandson):   

Massachusetts Historical Society   

Museum of Old Newbury   

A great book!  Yankee Weathervanes by Myrna Kaye, New York:  E.P. Dutton. 

A journal article:  Baker, Daniel. "The Grasshopper in Boston.", New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 49, no. 1 (January 1895), 24-28.

Two webpages with the news of the newly discovered sixth Shem Drown weathervanes, a copy of the famous Faneuil grasshopper:

Boston Globe     

Antiques and Arts Weekly  

Check out the page with the grasshopper weathervane at Sotheby's website:  

Click here to see nearly 500 weathervane posts!  


To cite/link to this blog post: Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Weathervane Wednesday - Weathervane by Shem Drowne, at the Massachusetts Historical Society", Nutfield Genealogy, posted January 18, 2023, ( accessed [access date]). 

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