Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1374
Sam Patch moved with his family to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1807. Samuel Slater had built a mill there a few years before, and already the town had taken its place as a center for textile manufacturing. The poor flocked to Pawtucket in droves, and Slater and his fellow mill owners recruited families—and especially children—to work in the mills. The Patch family was among these poor people seeking a better life in the new manufacturing town, and Sam was only seven when he first laid eyes on Pawtucket.
The Patches had been down on their luck for several years. Sam’s father, Mayo Greenleaf Patch, was the descendent of a landowning farm family from Wenham, Massachusetts, but Greenleaf’s father, Timothy Patch, had thirteen children and plenty of debt. Timothy’s two oldest sons inherited the farm, and records suggest that young Greenleaf was apprenticed to a shoemaker.
By 1787, Greenleaf had moved to North Reading, Massachusetts, where he married Abigail McIntire and entered into a prominent family that had emigrated to America after a military defeat at the hands Oliver Cromwell. Abigail’s father, Archelaus, was a prosperous man who set up his new son-in-law with a small house and shoemaker’s shop, giving Greenleaf limited independence. Shoemaking was a common occupation for families in rural areas, and at first Greenleaf and Abigail did moderately well, even hiring outside help for the business. When Archelaus died, leaving only daughters and one underage son, Greenleaf became the executor of the estate. He seems to have earned the respect of his neighbors, for he boarded the local schoolmistress and witnessed legal transactions.
Greenleaf, however, began to take advantage of his McIntire connections and the status they provided. He arranged for his half sister, Nancy Barker, to be married to Archelaus Jr. in 1795 to gain further influence in family affairs. Greenleaf soon grew arrogant and entered into various disputes with his neighbors. He was evicted from his house, which had always belonged to the McIntire family, and he no longer provided boarding for the schoolmistress. When Archelaus Jr. died, Greenleaf did not become the guardian of his two young nieces. Apparently, the family no longer trusted Greenleaf Patch or wanted anything to do with him.
In 1799, Greenleaf and Abigail moved their family to Danvers, but circumstances continued to worsen for them. They seem to have continued in the shoemaking business, but they no longer hired help. Even after Greenleaf inherited some property from his half brother and took the family to Marblehead to run a butcher’s shop, nothing went right. The new property was mortgaged, and Greenleaf soon found himself more deeply in debt than ever. Within two years, he lost his house and shop and moved the family one hundred miles south to the milling town of Pawtucket.
Moving to Pawtucket was a sign of defeat for Greenleaf Patch. He lost himself in drink and violence while his wife and children worked in the mills. Abigail divorced him in 1818, though he had abandoned the family years earlier. Greenleaf eventually went to prison, but he was never heard from again after his release in 1818. Abigail, like many women in Pawtucket, was left to support her family on her own.
The story then backtracks to describe Abigail’s family heritage. For her whole life, up to her days in Pawtucket, Abigail remained firmly in a subordinate role, first to her father and then to her husband. She attended quietly to her duties in her role as supporter of her husband and family but had little or no authority in her household. Greenleaf appears to have chosen the names of their children (after his own relatives) and controlled the family’s religious life. Abigail had been a faithful churchgoer prior to her marriage, but there is little evidence that she continued afterward, for neither she nor her spouse was a member of the church, and their children were not baptized. Clearly, Greenleaf made most of the decisions for his wife and children, and Abigail probably had little input.
This changed, however, after the family’s fortunes reversed. Abigail joined the First Baptist Church in Pawtucket, and her daughters changed their names to reflect a connection to their mother’s side of the family. After Greenleaf left, Abigail lived with her daughter and grandchildren. She was active in church, and two of her granddaughters conducted a school from their front room. They led a quiet, simple life and tried to forget the past. In fact, Abigail seems to have worked hard to change the parts of her story that she did not want to remember. Her granddaughter Emily once told a reporter a nearly completely invented family history that included reference to her grandfather, Greenleaf, dying before the family moved to Pawtucket.
The author now focuses on Sam Patch himself. Sam usually presented himself as having no family connections, an omission that reflects the difficulty of his childhood. His father left the family when Sam was thirteen, and before that Greenleaf was often drunk and violent. Sam worked at Slater’s White Mill from the time he was seven or eight years old. Child labor was the backbone of the mill, and children worked hard for many hours each day carding and combing wool, tending machines, and aiding the spinners. While this work was not overly difficult or dangerous most of the time, it was monotonous and exhausting, and overseers used physical punishment to keep children working.
Sam worked his way up to the role of boss spinner, one of the skilled men who ran the mill’s spinning mules. These boss spinners were the elite of the mill world, for their work required expertise, a quick mind, nimble hands, and significant strength. They were also “fiercely independent” artisans who demanded respect.
The village of Pawtucket centered around Blackstone River and Pawtucket Falls, but the latter was partially obscured by the village’s bridge. Sam Patch and his friends frequently played at the falls and learned to jump from the bridge, dropping over fifty feet into the water below. They considered falls-jumping an art that required bravery and skill, and Sam Patch used it, along with his job as a boss spinner, to forge an identity for himself
In this first chapter of Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper, Paul E. Johnson highlights the combined role of choice and circumstance in shaping people’s lives. Greenleaf Patch grew up in a world of limited opportunities. As one of the youngest children in his family, he did not inherit land from his father and had to make his own way in the world. His family appears to have apprenticed him to a shoemaker to give him a trade, but it is unlikely that Greenleaf himself had much control over the matter. His course was set by his elders.
Greenleaf, however, made his own decision when he moved to North Reading. He also chose the act that made Abigail McIntire pregnant and led to their marriage. The author speculates that Greenleaf may have acted deliberately in this area in order to move up in the world by marrying into a prominent family. He wanted different circumstances and control over his own life, and he seems to have found it. Greenleaf took full advantage of his new family connections to set up a shoemaking business, and for a while, he earned the respect and trust of the community.
After his father-in-law’s death, however, Greenleaf embarked on a series of poor choices that led to his downfall. Greed made him commandeer the personal property of his wife’s mother and sister. His desire to expand his holdings led him into debt. His arrogance and scheming led to disputes with relatives and neighbors. Eventually, he had to move his family to Danvers and Marblehead, again making a series of bad decisions that carried nasty consequences. Having lost everything, Greenleaf finally settled into poverty and drunkenness in Pawtucket and eventually chose to leave his family and dedicate himself to crime. He did not have to do any of this. Certainly, his early life was difficult, but the McIntires gave him a fresh start. Indeed, Greenleaf’s own choices brought about his downfall.
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