Tracing our house's historical roots

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In talking with a woman who is a town historian, I looked up more information to share with her so that we can get added to the historic map she keeps.
As previously discussed, Stephen Cross sold the plot of land our house sits on to Josiah Thing, a blacksmith, in 1795. There is no record of a house being here at the time. Historians, architects, and preservationists all agree this house was moved here pre-1800 (likely in 1797 based on other records). Based on the building materials, the manner in which it was built, its style, and an exhaustive investigation into the original paint layers, original construction is estimated to be in the 1760s. There is a theory this was Cross's house that existed on Water Street, a couple of blocks away, and it was sold to Thing and moved here. Right now I do not have any proof of this, but we do know that Cross's house is no longer at its location, and there's no record of it being torn down. One complication we're encountering is there was a fire in the 1800s that destroyed most records, so a lot of this research is forensic.
While I am more than happy to call our home The Josiah Thing House (what a cool name!), Stephen Cross is the much more interesting character with strong ties to the start of the nation's birth.
From The U.S. Customs Service: A Bicentennial History, by Carl E. Prince:
An examination of the much smaller Massachusetts customhouse in Newburyport -- a tiny hamlet on the rocky and forbidding coast of northern Essex County -- reveals much the same phenomenon: Customs employees drawn from the ranks of the town's elite and working classes cemented a close social affinity between customs operations and the merchant community. But the political infighting around lucrative customs appointments could often become brutal, as it did in this home of the "codfish aristocracy."
The Newburyport customhouse was, from its establishment in 1789, enmeshed in the party politics of the Federalist decade. The political turmoil began when the dominant Federalist party ...
... prevailed on (Alexander) Hamilton to appoint Stephen Cross collector. The Federalists assumed Cross to be one of their own politically, but he proved to be a strong supporter of Hamilton's arch rival, Thomas Jefferson. Given the local independence of the collector, his control over the lower appointments of the customhouse, and thus his political leverage, which Cross decided to use for the Jeffersonian cause, the Newburyport Federalists quickly realized their mistake and decided that Cross had to go.
Still, Cross was a formidable local figure in Newburyport. A member of a well-to-do and high respected local clan, he and his brother were third-generation operators of the family shipbuilding industry. That firm had built two frigates for the Continental Navy during the war. Stephen had also held several local offices during the Revolution. He was for many years (including his tenure as collector) a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and highly regarded by many of his fellow townsmen.
His removal by Hamilton for "misconduct" in 1792 was tainted by politics. Cross, whom Jefferson returned to office in 1802, claimed that he had been dismissed for political reasons, and the record bears him out. None of his repeated requests to Hamilton for the specific instances of his misconduct were ever satisfactorily answered. A final demand by Cross for a full investigation into the nature of his misconduct was also turned down, yet he was neither prosecuted nor sued for recovery of public monies or violations of federal law, the usual procedure in this period for customs officials charged with fiscal misconduct. Cross himself claimed that he "gave satisfaction to all [in his office] until Mr. Hamilton ... thought it necessary to destroy [him] by obtaining his removal and disgrace.
I mean, COME ON. How amazing would it be if we could trace our home's history to this man? Mary gave me the name of another women in town who runs the house plaque operation for Newburyport, so hopefully I can sync up with her and get to the bottom of this once and for all.

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