Sorry, Nate–you didn’t make the cut.


Nathaniel Wheelwright (1721-66), by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1760, from Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society (1988)

I’ve been pulling together the images I’d like to include in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. My publisher is very generous and is permitting me to include up to twenty of them (!)–and because Esther moves around so much (especially for a girl and a woman) and crosses so many cultural, religious, and linguistic borders, I’ll really need twenty illustrations to give readers a sense of the material culture of all of her different worlds and families.

The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a crude oil portrait on paper of Esther Wheelwright’s nephew, Nathaniel, by John Singleton Copley. Nathaniel becomes a diplomat on behalf of Massachusetts and goes to Montreal and Quebec in 1752-53 to attempt to effect the return of some New England child captives being held by Native allies of the French. In the course of this trip, he meets twice with his aunt, and gives us one of the only personality sketches of her that we have.  I’ve been considering including this portrait in my book, but I’ve decided not to.

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), ca. 1763

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), ca. 1763, Massachusetts Historical Society. Do you see any family resemblance?

First, as far as a Copley portrait goes, it’s about the least glamorous I’ve ever seen, and seems rather hurried and smudgy, not to mention unflattering!  (Judge for yourself–that’s him on the right.)  But in the end, what set me against including it is the fact that every other image in the book is of a girl or a woman, or is a photo of an object either made or used by a girl or a woman.  Nathaniel would really stand out, and quite frankly, it’s not an image that opens itself up for visual analysis.  I’m sure someone else can see a lot more here & do something with it, but Nate is marginal rather than central to the story I’m telling.

Since one of the larger arguments of my book is that girls and women matter in early America, and that we need to examine our preference for nationalist biographies of men (such as the so-called “Founding Fathers”), Nathaniel would seem to be entirely out of place.  He’s a useful informant, and I’m certainly grateful that he kept a diary of his journey to Canada, but that doesn’t rate a starring role in my book.

So, tough luck, buttercup:  Nate didn’t make the cut.

14 thoughts on “Sorry, Nate–you didn’t make the cut.

  1. Terrific post Historiann! Thank you for sharing the criteria and thought process behind the images you are including in your book. I especially like this passage:
    “and because Esther moves around so much (especially for a girl and a woman) and crosses so many cultural, religious, and linguistic borders, I’ll really need twenty illustrations to give readers a sense of the material culture of all of her different worlds and families.”

    I always like to see how historians explain their selection of images that they include or exclude to support the arguments they are making in books and articles. There are a lot of books where the images are left to stand on their own, with little thought or explanation for how they support the analysis. Frequently the images themselves are left unanalyzed and I think that is a shame. I hope that you get a chance to include this explanation in your manuscript somewhere.


  2. Thanks! I don’t know that I’ll explain my choices in the book so much as just write really good interpretive captions for each of them. (And I certainly won’t explain why there aren’t any images of men in the book–that’s a message I’ll permit to be implicit rather than explicit, unless someone Googles “why aren’t there any images of men in Ann Little The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright?”)


  3. I would just say, contrarian-ly, that when I click on Nate’s image on the blog over the serrated blue line, the image turns on its head in the upper left hand corner of the linked page. I take that for a sign (of something or other) and if the publisher could make that effect happen in the e-book (if there is to be an e-book) I would just go for it. Esther, by contrast, squares her shoulders in the linked page, and holds that “who you lookin’ at?!?” gaze. I like the cracked-and-frayed aspect of the MHS portrait, which suggests something of the ironic exhaustion of New England just before Canada falls. But, author’s call, and the book is still slotted into a future syllabus as soon as it’s available. I’m always too exhausted at the end of a project to do good picture research, and I always end up regretting that. Lastly, now that you mention it, I think I do see some resemblance, through the chin-line.


  4. Ha-ha–and thanks for the tip! I’ll cite it in my book.

    I didn’t know anyone not named Wheelwright was ever interested in Nate. (I don’t subscribe to Massachusetts Banker, so I must have missed your article when it came out!)


  5. I think if you threw a habit over Nate’s head, and did a little bit of work on the browline, it would look like Esther on a day where there had been just one or two too many acolyte screw-ups, or initiates to be yelled at.


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  7. Is he the one who made off with a lot of other people’s money? His family ended up in Stoke Newington (where I used to live), and my grandmother was their descendant. So there you are, somebody’s interested in Nate W! Cool to have a crooked American ancestor. So he did some good in his life?


    • Nathaniel died in the Caribbean before he could do much good for anyone–he was indeed a bounder in the end. His wife died young, before he absconded and then dropped dead himself–perhaps one of their (few) children survived and moved to Britain? I don’t know.

      There are a lot of British Wheelwrights–my friend and one-time collaborator Julie Wheelwright, who herself published a book about Esther five years ago–is descended from some of the Wheelwrights who ended up in England or in Canada. Her book, Esther (HarperCollins Canada, 2011) gives more information about the other Wheelwrights, whereas my focus is pretty strictly on EW (and briefly, in chapter 5, on Nathaniel).


    • Yes, absolutely – even voluntary claustration is a kind of captivity. Her captivities as I see them are 1) living as a girl child in an Anglo-American village, 2) living as a Wabanaki girl, and 3) her move to Quebec and decision to enter the monastery. As you can see, I see “captivity” as something also hugely conditioned by her sex as well as (or even moreso than) her specific seizure as a prisoner of war.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Teaser Tuesday: Puritan, Captive, Catholic, Spy? | Historiann

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