THE BLACKBIRDER: Hit and Run History on WGBH

Crowell Hatch

The subject: Captain Crowell Hatch, another investor in the Columbia Expedition. Hatch grew up in Marshfield, Mass. During the American Revolutionary War his family split apart when Crowell became a Patriot (Patriots are also known as Whigs) and his brother, Noah, sided with the British.

Crowell Hatch had, like other men who commanded privateers during the Revolution, a background in another risky and profitable market: the slave trade. Crowell Hatch was one of the most notorious "Blackbirders."

This webisode of Hit and Run History takes on a more sinister tone as the crew heads to the South Coast of Massachusetts, following up on an interview from 2009 with James Lopes at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Producer and host historian Andrew Giles Buckley's discussion centers on the brutality of Hatch's day. To better understand how people can become so deeply involved in the dehumanizing business of slavery, we only need look to the pre-war events of Hatch's hometown to see how differently Americans regarded their fellow man in the 18th century. 

Matt Griffin and Andrew Buckley of Hit and Run History at Fort Hill Roxbury

Watch THE BLACKBIRDER here on WGBH.

Andy's Note:  This was a tricky one.  First, we had no portrait of Crowell Hatch.  That makes doing something as visual as a film bio pretty tough.  And as we looked into his background, there seemed to be plenty to suggest that Hatch was not an obscure individual.  Rather, he was a fairly prominent and wealthy player in Boston.

At the time Columbia and Washington left Boston Harbor on October 1, 1787, Hatch was shown as "Captain Crowell of Cambridge."  But that must have been a short-time residence.  On our first day of shooting this summer, while at the Boston Public Library we came across plenty to show Hatch lived much of his life in Roxbury.  In fact, his home there was reported to have been atop Fort Hill -- headquarters of American forces besieging British-held Boston during the war -- was so extensive as to descend in terraces practically all the way to Boston Harbor.

Cochituate Tower Fort Hill Roxbury

At the Mass. Historical Society, we found records of a Crowell Hatch who was buried at the Two Mile Cemetery in Marshfield.  But this was clearly a child.  Plus, a trip to the Mass. Archives showed our Crowell Hatch died in Roxbury many years later.  But if there was someone of the same name buried at a tiny boneyard in Marshfield, we thought maybe we could learn more by heading there.

What we did learn is that Marshfield was split, and Crowell's brother Noah remained loyal to the British crown.  He's not buried in Two Mile cemetery, however.  The place is full of Hatch graves, and tells the familiar story of generation-upon-generation of growing up in a Yankee environment that valued perseverance, ingenuity, self-reliance, independence and thrift.  If Crowell found a way to make money and succeed on the Patriot side of the War, and Noah was jailed and fined for being on the losing side, well, clearly Crowell made the right choice.  

Hit and Run History's Andrew Buckley in Marshfield

The irony of all this becomes so much more poignant when we visited the State House.  Atop Fort Hill in Roxbury is a the Cochituate Standpipe - one of Boston's first water towers.  Looking more like something out of Disney World, it has no connection to Crowell Hatch except for location.  We had been told the person to speak to would have been State Rep. Byron Rushing, who represents the district, about getting up into the tower.  But we always had bad timing.  And then for our episode on John Derby we ended up ascending the Washington Tower at Mount Auburn Cemetery -- and we didn't want to have successive episodes of us in a tower.

Slaves on board ship

The interesting thing is that we later found that Crowell Hatch was himself State Representative for Roxbury.  Considering the racial makeup of the place these days, it is entirely likely that Hatch, in his role as a blackbirder, transported many of the ancestors of Rushing's constituents -- if not Rushing's own.

As a slave trader, and without children as we later found, there isn't much of Hatch's legacy to survive.  So with precious little to go on, in contrast to our preceding episodes on Charles Bulfinch, Joseph Barrell and Derby, we felt it was time to take a new turn.  Halfway through our series with WGBH, it was time to get serious. 

Jim Lopes of the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Hit and Run History

My vision for this episode was the make our audience stop and think about brutality.  The brutality that is in everyday life for these people pervades their existence.  What is pouring boiling tar on a naked wealthy white man when you make your money selling poor black men?  Or vise versa.  What is any of that when even in richest of homes, child after child after child will die in the first year of life from nothing more than a cough?  When all your cherish and have worked so hard for can be taken away so quickly, do you really care about anyone else?

So we recalled what Jim Lopes said during an interview for our second full episode from this spring.  "It was commerce."  I had saved his analysis of how differently people looked at slavery back then.  I was saving it for an opportunity just like this.  And follow it with a simple sit-down with our viewers, just to say, "Hey, look, there's just no way to make Crowell Hatch fun.  We're not even going to try." 

Andrew Buckley of Hit and Run History

Hit and Run History:  The Columbia Expedition is the centerpiece of the history page for PBS-powerhouse WGBH.  Watch THE BLACKBIRDER online at wghh.org/history. Soundtrack generously provided by Jenn Vixx.  For more information on Hit and Run History following the story of John Kendrick and the Columbia Expedition visit hitandrunhistory.com.

Photo credits:  Jay Sheehan, Matthew J. Griffin

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