The Fascinating Story of Mary Gray and Barnabas Bidwell

By Richard Bidwell Wilcox, a seventh generation descendent of Rev. Adonijah Bidwell

The opening page of Dr. Brian Burke’s 2007 article The Grand Lottery of Life encompasses the portraits of both Barnabas and Mary Gray with the following footnote: “Above: Mary Gray Bidwell was charming, intelligent and devoted. Her sudden death at age 44 changed her husband’s life forever.

“Barnabas Bidwell’s life didn’t exactly spin out of control after his wife, Mary Gray Bidwell died suddenly in February of 1808. But without knowing it, he had suddenly become more vulnerable to the tides of political fortune. If historians have justly appreciated the critical importance of Abigail Adams to her husband John, the same can be said for the relationship between Mary Gray and her husband Barnabas—Berkshire County’s shining political star.

When Bidwell was accused of embezzlement and forgery as Berkshire County Treasurer in 1810, Mary Gray, his dearest friend and closest confidante, was not longer at his side. At that fateful moment, when facing imminent arrest, Barnabas Bidwell, second son of Tyringham’s first minister, Attorney General of Massachusetts, and the man most likely to succeed William Cushing on the United States Supreme Court, chose to flee to Upper Canada and start a new life.”[1]

Sarah Williams, the older sister of Ephraim Williams, Sr., married John Marsh of Hadley in October 1718. After his death, she married James Gray, Sr., a weaver of Hadley, and they had two sons, James and John Gray. In February of 1749, James Gray, Sr. and his wife Sarah Williams Gray sold their land in Hadley and in October of that year they purchased 200 acres[2] from Col. Ephraim Williams, Jr. at the north end of Stockbridge, described as running from the north end of the Great Pond (Lake Mahkeenac) to the north line of the town (Lenox). Col. Ephraim Williams, Jr. died in battle in 1755 and willed 50 acres to his cousins, James and John Gray. This land was at the north end of the great pond of Stockbridge and abutted the land owned by their father, James Gray, Sr.

The Panopist and Missionary Magazine United, Conducted by an Association of Friends of Evangelical Truth[3], for the year ending June 1, 1810, provided the following: “A Sketch of the Life and Character of Mrs. Gray: Mrs. Gray (Sarah Spring Gray) daughter of Mr. Henry (and Kezia) Spring of Watertown, where she was born, February 25, 1737. She married February 5, 1761 to James Gray, Esq. of Stockbridge, in which town she resided from her marriage to her death, and during the 16 years last years of her life in the family of her son in law Barnabas Bidwell, Esq. For more than 40 years, she sat under the ministry of her friend Rev. Stephen West[4] D.D. Her life was chequered with vicissitudes. Col. Gray, her husband, having served in the Revolutionary War, as Commissary General of the United States for the Northern Department, was obliged, by declining health, to resign that office, and quit the service. After a long and painful sickness, died of consumption, August 25, 1782[5]. By the circumstances of the times, his engagements in the army and his premature death, his affairs were so deranged, that his estate proved insolvent, and his widow was left quite poor and destitute. In the midst of this trial, her oldest daughter, Mrs. Sarah Hunt, a beautiful and lovely woman, in the prime of her life, fell into decline. Mrs. Gray tended her in her last sickness, and closed her eyes, February 20th 1788. Her daughter Mary Gray, who in the meantime resided with her Uncle Dr. Marshall Spring was married to Mr. Bidwell and she became a member of their family, and enjoyed every attention and accommodation, which her heart could wish. But earthly joys are short lived. In February, 1808 she was called to mourn Mrs. Bidwell’s death. Satisfied with life, and humbly confiding in the mercy of God, through the atonement of the Savior, she waited with patience and pious resignation for the expected call from the eternal world, and on 26th October 1809, she died of apoplexy.”

Mary Gray Bidwell was born 28 May 1764 at Stockbridge, Mass., the daughter of Col. James Gray, Jr. and Sarah Spring Gray. Little is known about Mary Gray Bidwell’s early life, but either due to her father’s insolvency, his illness, or his premature death, Mary was taken in by her mother’s brother, Dr. Marshall Spring[6], and resided with his family in Watertown, Massachusetts. It seems likely that under his care she was able to receive an education that would not have been available in Stockbridge. In January 1768, James Gray, Jr., Esq., sold to Dr. Marshall Spring, of Watertown, Massachusetts, fifty-two acres of land in Stockbridge, on the road from the meeting house to the great pond for L100[7]. No evidence was uncovered to suggest that Dr. Spring ever lived in Stockbridge.

James Gray, Jr. was the nephew of Ephraim Williams Sr. of Stockbridge.  The Williams family was related to the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, one of the River God’s of the Connecticut River Valley, who along with the Williams family, maintained political control over all of Western Massachusetts.  Ephraim Williams Jr. was killed during the French and Indian War during a battle in New York State in 1755. Ephraim Williams Jr. decreed money in his will to support a free school, which later became Williams College.

Mary Gray was married to Barnabas Bidwell in Watertown on February 21, 1793 by the Rev. Richard R. Eliot, Minister of the Gospel.  Yet, their Berkshire connections were already forged. In 1792 Barnabas purchased a house on Main Street, Stockbridge from Timothy Edwards, son of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards.[8] Barnabas had also studied law under Theodore Sedgwick[9] in Stockbridge, and Mary Gray Bidwell’s mother Sarah Spring Gray was a first cousin of Abigail Williams Sergeant Dwight, whose daughter Pamela Dwight married Theodore Sedgwick. Sarah Spring Gray, was known as Aunt Gray to Pamela’s children. Sarah Spring Gray and Mary Gray Bidwell frequently socialized with the Sedgwick family and maintained a close friendship and family ties despite the political differences between Theodore and Barnabas.

Mary’s husband, Barnabas Bidwell, (1761-1833) was the son of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, (1716-1784), and Jemima Devotion Bidwell, (1727-1771). Rev. Bidwell was the first minister of Township # 1, (now Tyringham and Monterey). Barnabas Bidwell graduated from Yale College in 1785, studied law at Brown University, Providence, R.I., was admitted to the bar in 1805, and commenced practice in Stockbridge. He served in the State Senate from 1805-1807, was elected to the Ninth and Tenth Congresses and served from March 4, 1805 until his resignation on July 13, 1807. He served as Attorney General of Massachusetts from June 15, 1807 to August 30, 1810. Bidwell moved to Canada about 1815, settling in Kingston, Ontario, practiced law there, dying in 1833.  Bidwell served for a number of years as Berkshire County Treasurer[10], beginning in 1791, during the same period of time he held the other political offices.

Although frequent and lengthy absences, necessitated by a fast moving political career, may have been difficult for Barnabas and Mary Bidwell, history has been blessed with a   correspondence during his tenure in Boston as a State Senator, while he was in Washington as a member of Congress and as Attorney General of Massachusetts. This correspondence provided a series of vignettes of both political and home life in the early 1800s. Mary’s letters to Barnabas offer news about neighbors and friends as well as domestic life, from the cost of food, to the reoccurring concerns about firewood, to her mother’s health, and to the needs and education of the three children.

Two letters[11] written by Mary to Barnabas are embedded in the text below.  The first was sent to Barnabas while he was a Congressman and away in Washington, D.C. and described her aunt’s wedding.  The second was written while he was working out of Boston and announces the death of Pamela Sedgwick.  Both letters demonstrate Mary to be an erudite and sophisticated woman, while also providing a window into their close and loving relationship.  Both letters also capture the friendships between the two families, giving no indication of events that would soon unfold and alter the course of history.

Woven into these letters was information about the lives of their two children, Sarah Gray Bidwell, born in 1796, and Marshall Spring Bidwell, born in 1799, describing her attention to their education and general well being.  After the death of Theodosia Bidwell Brewer’s husband Eliab Brewer, Mary and Barnabas took in one of their nephews, Josiah Brewer, later a minister, missionary and father to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court bench with his Uncle Stephen Johnson Field, as well as their Stockbridge neighbor Henry Billings Brown.

On January 13, 1807 Mary wrote to Barnabas, who was in Washington, D.C., describing her aunt’s wedding.

“On Tuesday evening Mrs. Spring renounced her title to that once dear name and assumed that of Vallett, perhaps more dear, time only can tell. Dr. West[12] was engaged to perform the hallowed rites, but indisposition prevented. He recommended Judge Sedgwick. The old gentleman was diffident, Aunt, delicate, was peculiarly embarrassed. In this dilemma my pen was the only resource. Perhaps you may think me too officious. I had not indeed a moment to reflect. But seizing my pen stated the circumstances to the Honorable, and requested his assistance in this exigence. He returned a polite assurance of the pleasure he should feel in uniting the aged lovers, at my request. In five minutes, the Judge, appeared as magistrate, requesting I would permit Catherine and Laura, to witness this novel scene. Hunt was instantly deputed to attend the ladies. The cabalistic ceremony was brief, but comprehensive, each, merely avowing, to perform the duty of a Christian, in their respective characters. What more could be enjoined? Mr. Vallet insisted that the Judge should accept the customary fee; but he politely declined, adding ‘they must consider that as a part of the blessing.’ After supping upon turkey, etc., etc., our sleigh conveyed the happy pair to ‘Spring Hill.’[13] This day (Thursday) the old gentleman has removed his bride and furniture to Lee. She was much affected at bidding adieu to the dear spot where she had passed so many happy days, with the friend of her youth. They called on us, and all our vivacity was necessary to enliven her dejected spirits. I never had advised – though after the interesting point was decided I endeavored to exhibit the agreeables of her intended change. Dr. West has at this moment called to take tea. I must therefore close assuring you that I am, Ever yours, M. B.”

Mary’s second letter to Barnabas describes the death of Pamela Sedgwick.

“Stockbridge, September 21, 1807: By intelligence, which you have doubtless received from the messenger dispatched for Judge Sedgwick, you will I presume, my dear friend, be prepared to hear that our excellent neighbor is numbered with the congregation of the dead. She was unusually well, or rather comfortable, last week until Saturday morning, when she appeared rather languid, but took a seat at table as usual. Her attendant Betty (Mumbet), tells me, she was alarmed while dressing her this morning by the appearance of a livid spot over her right eye. If the family noticed it, they imagined it occasioned by some slight contusion. She supported her customary pleasantness through the day, Sally Fairman[14] happening to be in Mrs. Sedgwick’s room, with her, towards evening, when Catherine with other company, were in a high sense of mirth in the front parlor. Sally inquired if the noise did not disturb her? ‘No, I am pleased to find they are cheerful and happy,’ was her reply, or words to that effect.  I relate this characteristic anecdote, to show you that she retained this self-rewarding philanthropy to the last. She retired, as usual that evening, and without special complaint, at two in the morning, she seized with a fit, similar to those which have so long afflicted her. She endured twenty of these distressing paroxysms, it is judged, before nature yielded under this severe conflict. Cato, was dispatched after the Judge, and another messenger for his sons at Albany, a little before eight yesterday morning, and in fifteen minutes after, Mrs. Sedgwick closed a life of uncommon suffering; commencing as we have reason to hope, a happy immortality! When I reflect upon the unmurmuring, and even cheerful submission, which she uniformly exhibited in her lucid hours, under a most distressing personal calamity. When in considering her many virtues, this is added to the number.  I feel I must pronounce her, one of the most exalted of her sex. The family is deeply afflicted. Catherine fainted yesterday repeatedly.  The unconfirmed state of my health prevented my going over while Mrs. S. was living, as the street was very damp from rain of the proceeding night. But I called on the family to offer my assistance in the forenoon; and omitted attending the morning service for that purpose. Today, I sent to know if I could be useful, but finding my services were not required, I rode with Sally and Marshall as charioteer since the sun softened the air. Tomorrow morning I am informed my assistance will be acceptable. Mr. Watson has this day been called to Hartford to attend his expiring mother. (Sedgwick son-in-law.) And now, my friend, I render you my affectionate thanks for your letter from Northampton. To find you arrived so seasonably was very gratifying.  The indisposition you felt, just before you left home, authorizes me to repeat my parting injunction and entreaty, ‘be cautious of your health’ and employ a physician seasonably. The frequent deaths in our neighborhood, seem calculated to enforce the conviction that we too are indeed mortal. How many deaths, my dear friend, have I loved to announce! Soon may the pen of another record mine! My health indeed, at present, is as good perhaps better, than when you left home. Levi has conducted rather more to my wishes the week past. Mr. Hunt has engaged a cow. Mr. Kasson returned this evening and will continue a few days in the office. You have another clerk added to the number – Mr. Sherrill from Richmond. I promised Sally the opposite page, but I shall find a spot for a post scrip tomorrow. I will now say only good night. M. B.

Stockbridge, Sept 22nd, 1807: “It is now Tuesday 2 O’clock P.M. Judge Sedgwick has not yet returned. The funeral obsequies are appointed tomorrow at 10 O’clock A. M. I passed the forenoon at the house of mourning. Catherine is very ill – distressed deeply. I shall wait with fond solicitude for the weekly mails. Your clerk Sherrill enters the office the first of next week. We are all as usual except Marshall. He has a boil, poor fellow on his knee pad. I hope that good will be effected by this evil, not being able to run off, he will seek amusement in his studies. He joins his Grandmama in affectionately greeting his dear papa. Judge Sedgwick has this moment arrived. May we, my beloved friend be preserved to meet again in health, ever yours, M. What can you say now in vindication of Judge Marshall?”

As late as October 24, 1807, Mary was writing from Stockbridge to then Attorney General Barnabas Bidwell in Boston, describing her cousin’s wedding that she hosted in his absence, catering to a large group of family and friends with joy and enthusiasm. Within just a few short months tragedy would strike, leaving Barnabas without the companionship and support he would need to deal with the political struggle that would soon unfold.

Pamela Dwight Sedgwick’s passing marked the first of three deaths that may well have allowed events to unfold in Berkshire county that would have political repercussions for Barnabas Bidwell’s political future in Washington D.C.  Pamela’s second cousin, Mary Gray Bidwell, died February 1, 1808, and Pamela’s Aunt Gray, Sarah Spring Gray, died in October of 1809, the last family connection to Judge Sedgwick.

In 1810, just as Barnabas was being considered as a likely candidate for a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court replacing his friend Judge Cushman[15], questions came up about the management of funds in the Berkshire County Treasurer’s office, where he had been treasurer in name only since 1791, allowing his clerks to run the office in his absence.  Questions arose regarding a possible nexus due to the falling out that occurred between Judge Sedgwick, who was a staunch Federalist and Barnabas, who after leaving Judge Sedgwick’s tutelage became a Jeffersonian Republican, President Jefferson’s confidant and floor manager while serving in Congress. Barnabas’ name was withdrawn from consideration for the Supreme Court seat.

Bidwell family letters suggest that the Berkshire County Clerk of Courts, Joseph Woodbridge, of Stockbridge, played a role in Barnabas’ fall from grace. The letters mention Woodbridge’s attempted arrest and prosecution of Barnabas. Joseph Woodbridge was born in Stockbridge July 22, 1771. He graduated at Dartmouth College in 1792, studied law with Judge Sedgwick, and was admitted to the bar in April 1796. In 1800 he married Lousia, daughter of Mark Hopkins. Mark Hopkins was married to Electa Sergeant, daughter of the Rev. John Sergeant. Electa was the stepsister of Pamela Sedgwick. In 1803 Joseph Woodbridge succeeded Henry W. Dwight, Pamela’s brother, as Clerk of the Courts, which office he filled until 1821. He died April 23, 1829. Woodbridge, by marriage, if not by political affiliation, appears to have had sufficient motivation to try and end the political career of Barnabas Bidwell. Somewhat ironically, Barnabas Bidwell and Joseph Woodbridge were distant cousins.

As Brian Burke suggests in the Grand Lottery of Life, without the love and support of Mary, Barnabas might not have been able to find the strength to fend off the slings and arrows of political opposition and fled to Canada. In addition, Judge Sedgwick no longer had three women in his life whose family connections to Barnabas and presence may have prevented him from exacting political revenge. Had Mary, her mother, or Pamela lived just a few years longer, how different life might have been for the Bidwell family and for the legacy of Barnabas Bidwell.

[1] The Grand Lottery of Life, 2007, Dr. Brian Burke

[2] Now Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

[3] Congregational Church

[4] Rev. West’s wife Elizabeth was James Gray’s first cousin

[5] Revolutionary War ended by treaty in 1783. British troops surrendered in October 1782

[6] Dr. Marshall Spring, 1741-1818, was Sarah’s brother, and helped to bring his sister’s family to Stockbridge. He was graduated from Harvard in 1762 and studied medicine under his mother’s brother, Dr. Josiah Converse. Dr. Spring “ was of high professional repute and eminent as a wit. When completely a Tory he arrived at the Battle of Lexington, yet devoted his best skill and care to the wounded earning the admiration and appreciation of all. A the election of  Jefferson he joined the popular party. He married first, Mary, widow of Dr. Barnabas Binney, son of Barnabas Binney a prominent merchant of Boston. There was one child Marshall Binney Spring. Married second, 1797, Hannah Lee of Cambridge, Mass. His son Marshall Binney Spring married Eliza Willing of Philadelphia,   granddaughter of Thomas Willing, 1st President of the 1st Bank of the United States.

[7] Church, North Church and Hill Road.

[8] The Elms, 27 Main Street, at the intersection of Pine Street and Main Street

[9] Mrs. Sedgwick was the daughter of General Dwight and Abigail Williams Sergeant Dwight who was the daughter of Ephraim Williams Sr. Theodore Sedgwick, a Delegate, a Representative, and a Senator from Massachusetts; born in West Hartford, Conn., May 9, 1746; attended Yale College; studied theology and law; admitted to the bar in 1766 and commenced practice in Great Barrington, Mass.; moved to Sheffield, Mass.; during the Revolutionary War served in the expedition against Canada in 1776; member, State house of representatives 1780, 1782-1783; member, State senate 1784-1785; Member of the Continental Congress 1785, 1786, and 1788; member, State house of representatives 1787-1788, and served as speaker; delegate to the State convention that adopted the Federal Constitution in 1788; elected to the First and to the three succeeding Congresses and served from March 4, 1789, until his resignation in June 1796; elected as a Federalist to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Caleb Strong and served from June 11, 1796, to March 3, 1799; served as President pro tempore of the Senate during the Fifth Congress; elected to the Sixth Congress (March 4, 1799-March 3, 1801); Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sixth Congress; judge of the supreme court of Massachusetts 1802-1813; died in Boston, Mass., January 24, 1813; interment in the family cemetery, Stockbridge, Mass.

[10] Bidwell held the office for a number of years, probably never setting foot in the office and allowing the clerks to run the day to day business. Mrs. Charles A. Bidwell, letter of May 25, 1942:” …I found in the Registry of Deeds office in Pittsfield the Power of attorney which he gave to his attorneys, whereby he turned over his estate to settle all reasonable claims before he left the country. The Clerk of Courts found that the sum he was accountable for was but $303.64. (The Federalist newspapers’ spread the story that he absconded with $12,000.00 and that information Is still being repeated by historians and biographers. The book keeping had been done by several clerks in his absence in Washington and Boston, as he was county treasurer while he was a Congressman.”

[11] Copies of the original letters, some of them transcribed and typed are in the Bidwell House Museum archives.

[12] Dr. Rev. Stephen West was the third Congregational minister in Stockbridge. January 1759, it was voted to pay Rev. Stephen West an annual salary of L6 13s 4d and 40 loads of wood delivered at his door, besides L40 settlement, lawful money, provided he remain as pastor. Soon after his settlement, he married Miss Elizabeth Williams, daughter of the late Col. Ephraim Williams, Sr.; and commenced housekeeping in the dwelling erected by that gentleman, and used during the war as a Fort. (Now 8 Prospect Hill Road. There was a well in the cellar when the house was fortified as protection against Indian attacks and ruminates of the well can still be seen.)

[13] Prospect Hill Road, the majority of the land owned by the Williams family, to include, Sergeant, Spring, Gray, etc.

[14] married James Gray Hunt another cousin of Mary Bidwell, October 1807

[15] While in Washington D.C. serving as congressman Barnabas would on occasion have tea with Judge Cushman and his wife, mentioning those visits to Mary by letter.

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