What They Don’t Teach Us

A sepia toned 19th century photograph of the brick retail building at 283 Washington Street in downtown Boston, MA.

The pretty brick building at 283 Washington Street in Boston is still known as the Old Corner Bookstore. In 1832, William Davis Ticknor and a business partner turned the space into what would become a bustling bookshop as well as the publishing house and hangout spot of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and dozens of other famous authors, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, who called Boston “The Hub of the Solar System.” Abolitionist and editor George William Curtis, enchanted with the bookstore, called it “the hub of the Hub.” Today it is a Chipotle.

In the 17th century, an earlier building on the site served as the residence of Anne Hutchinson, an English-born Puritan colonizer kicked out of the Massachusetts Puritan cult for being too culty. Today it’s not far from a very convenient parking deck with rather lovely views of Boston’s historic downtown core. Across from the Old South Meeting House, where several thousand angry white men once gathered to complain about taxes they were made to pay on the stolen land they occupied, there is a profoundly elegant Walgreens.

Hutchinson and six of her children were later killed, a couple hundred miles to the south, in the colony of New Netherland, on land the Dutch West India Company stole from the local Indigenous peoples. The people who killed the family had apparently given a warning ahead of time that they would invade the tiny settlement near Pelham Bay.

I cannot tell you why 283 Washington Street caught my eye, or why I had to learn more about it, and who had lived in the buildings that were built before this one. I am not a historian. I am piecing this together on my own.

I wanted to write about an old bookshop. I did not want to write about this, because I did not know about this. They did not teach us this in school. They never do, when it’s like this. It’s ugly. There is nothing scenic about this story.

The Hutchinson murders constituted an act of retribution for the mass extermination of over 120 Lenape people, including women and children, by Dutch settlers during the so-called Pavonia Massacre, also known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. This took place in what is now Hudson County, New Jersey, near or perhaps in what is now Jersey City. Dutch navigator and farmer David Pieterszoon de Vries, who had apparently urged against the attack, wrote a graphic and horrifying description of the February 25, 1643 act of terror in his journal:

Infants were torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.

The mass murder served to unite regional tribal factions in an effort to oust the European colonizers once and for all, in what came to be called Kieft’s War. Several members of the Hutchinson household were casualties.

Anne Hutchinson, once an infamous religious leader in Boston, died in August of 1643 what is now is the Bronx, in the city where I live. A plaque near the Old State House in Boston memorializes her as follows:

IN MEMORY OF ANNE MARBURY HUTCHINSON

BAPTIZED AT ALFORD

LINCOLNSHIRE ENGLAND

20 JULY 1595 [sic]

KILLED BY THE INDIANS

AT EAST CHESTER NEW YORK 1643

COURAGEOUS EXPONENT

OF CIVIL LIBERTY

AND RELIGIOUS TOLERATION

That bit about “religious toleration” is, of course, incorrect — Hutchinson was not so much a proponent of religious tolerance as a proponent of her own specific version of Puritanical Christianity, first articulated at women’s Bible study meetings — but historical plaques are not always known for accuracy, especially in cities like Boston where History, Inc. is the primary driver of business.

I do not know if there is a plaque or memorial to the babies and others killed at the Pavonia Massacre in Hudson County, New Jersey. There is, however, still a statue of Christopher Columbus in Jersey City.

Growing up in New Jersey, they never taught us about the Pavonia Massacre. But that’s the story of America, and American “history,” and what we leave in and what we leave out.

I am a New Yorker now, as I have been in the past, in a city where the 2005 New York Historical Society Museum exhibition Slavery in New York broke all previous attendance records. I was an intern there back then. What I saw and heard was deeply moving, not just from the historians and the tour guides, but from the students and visitors. A lot of visitors, adults and children alike, hadn’t even known there were ever enslaved persons in New York City. Nobody had ever talked about it on such a large scale.

There are so many things we still don’t say, and they need to be said. But to say them, we first need to know them.

I drove from New York to Boston to take a little road trip, to jog my mind into creativity. I almost lost said mind during endless hours on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, a stretch of road that is very pretty and which apparently turns into a 38-mile long Trader Joe’s parking lot on weekends now that the pandemic is releasing its grip on the region. This traffic is, of course, mainly the fault of people from Massachusetts and New Jersey, not people from Connecticut, who presumably just want to stare at their grass and their trees and their abandoned railroad tracks in peace.

While stuck on that parkway in Connecticut, I looked outside the passenger side window of my car and saw a doe, not ten feet away.

“Is this the way to Boston?” I asked, like she would laugh, like we would do bits, just two fun gals hanging out at Cheers, or at the Old Corner Bookstore, back when it wasn’t Old®.

The doe looked back at me and kept eating. Nobody in Connecticut had time for my nonsense, not even the deer. After approximately one hundred thousand hours in Connecticut, I got to Massachusetts.

If I could say only one thing about Boston, a city that cherishes its giant Citgo sign, it would be this: Boston is spooky. I lived there for a couple years, until I dropped out of college. Whenever I go back I can’t quite shake the feeling that an earlier part of me is stuck there, while the rest of the city has kept moving forward, as it always has, as perhaps it always will, while clinging relentlessly to a past real and imagined, to all of its pasts, layered atop one another like translucent maps smudged with the dirt of time.

Everything that survives there becomes important one day, when the people who built it are long dead. It won’t be long before the Citgo sign (erected 1940; updated 1965) is the Old Citgo Sign, I have no doubt.

I have tried to find more to say about Boston, and I will. But at present I can only register my complaint that there is no public bathroom at the aforementioned Walgreens. The story I was looking for was not, as it turned out, a Boston story. It’s not even a 283 Washington Street story. Anne Hutchinson’s home burned long before the current building was erected.

I thought I was researching the history of a Chipotle that used to be a pretty important bookshop. But then I learned what came before the bookshop, and who lived there, and where she went afterwards, and what happened to her, and why, and the story took me to my current home of New York City and then to my forever home of New Jersey.

And that story, the story of the Pavonia Massacre, the Slaughter of Innocents, is the story of this country, and of so many others. Colonizers destroy those who occupy a place that has what the colonizers want: gold, oil, diamonds, wild game, water, and land, always land. The colonizers try to kill what is in the people who become the colonized, or they simply kill the people. This is the same story, over and over again, and it never stops.

215 children in a mass grave at a residential school in what we call Canada. 120 men, women and children slaughtered somewhere in what we call New Jersey. Where is the dust of their bones? Where do their teeth sleep? First molars freshly pushed through the flesh of a child’s gums, old incisors barely hanging on — the colonizers killed infants and old people and everyone they could find. Did anyone escape? Who took them in?

I’ve heard the body remembers, and those who survive pass the memories down to their children’s children’s children. These stories are walking around in bodies. They are screaming from beneath the ground.

You try to tell a story about one thing, maybe something light or funny or airy, a little travelogue, maybe with a joke about a fast-food restaurant where an historic landmark used to be (this is America!) but a truth finds you and it won’t let go until you speak it aloud, or write it down.

This is America. You can’t smell the blood in the grass, or in the water, or in the air, but it’s there, and so are the tears. Everything here is haunted, and it all tastes like iron and salt.

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