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Unraveling the 1694 Murder of Ursula Cutt

Cherub from the house of Ursual CuttHISTORY MATTERS 

Two cheeky, slightly creepy, wooden cherubs may be among the oldest artifacts at the Portsmouth Historical Society. The hand-carved toddler-sized figures have been greeting visitors to the museum for almost 100 years, but they are much older than that. And they come with a story. These figures once decorated the home of Ursula Cutt who was murdered in 1694. (Read the story below) 

 

The Ursula Cutt story is deeply embedded in Portsmouth lore. The earliest and most authoritative account comes in a single sentence from Rev. John Pike. On July 21, 1694, Pike wrote in his journal: "Mrs. Ursula Cutt, with three others, was slain by the Indians as they were busy about hay upon her plantation near Boiling Rock."

"That's all he wrote," says Sandra Rux. "That is the most primary resource." 

This old house 

Ursual Cutt detailAs curator of the Portsmouth Historical Society, Rux has been digging for the truth about Ursula Cutt and the two wooden cherubs.  She points to a photograph of Ursula's house taken around 1900. It shows a good-sized two-story home with a large central chimney, and many additions. The two cherubs are clearly visible standing above the front door. The house burned in 1912, but the wooden figures survived. They became part of the museum collection when it opened in 1920.  

Early accounts locate the Cutt farm somewhere between Boiling Rock and Pulpit Rock, not far from Freeman's Point in the North End. That puts it, according to Rux, near present-day Osprey Landing and Spinnaker Point, where the plantation also encompassed what became Wentworth Acres and the former Wentworth School. But photographs can be deceiving.

"Ursula had a house here before her death in 1694, " Rux explains. "However, it was definitely not the house as shown in the picture ... She did not have such an elaborate house."

An probate inventory taken after Ursula's death described a two-room house including an "upper room" with a fireplace, her bed, cooking pots, sewing supplies, eight books, and her reading glasses. Ursula likely had a servant who lived in the "lower room." 

Political assassination 

 

Ursula Cutt was no ordinary citizen. She was the second wife of New Hampshire's first president, John Cutt, who died in 1682. Ursula inherited a piece of farmland and, legend says, she was an industrious hands-on manager. After decades of peaceful relations with Native Americans, however, the Piscatqua region was being hit hard by Indian reprisals in the late 1600s. Colonists were massacred in DoverYorkHampton, and elsewhere. Three days before the Cutt attack in Portsmouth, some 94 settlers had been killed or kidnapped at Oyster River, now Durham. Legend says that, despite being warned of marauding Indians, Ursula elected to stay at her farm until the all-important hay crop was gathered in. It was a bad decision.  

 

CONTINUE with ax murder of Ursual Cutt 


 

Sandra Rusx with Pooty at Portsmouth Historical Society / SeacoastNH.com photo

URSUAL CUTT CONTINUED

"Before the end of the week, she saw the end of her life," wrote Cotton Mather. A Puritan minister best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials, Mather's contemporary report was also brief and offers few details. A century later, Dover historian Rev. Jeremy Belknap added a new element to the story. In Belknap's version, after bringing in the hay that fateful day, Ursula Cutt was planning to dine at her farm with Richard Waldron. Waldron's father, a colonial major, had been targeted and brutally tortured and killed by a raiding party at Dover five years earlier. Legend says that Major Waldron had tricked and ambushed 200 Indians at Cochecho. The captured natives were later taken to Boston and hanged or sold into slavery. His mutilated body, the ears and nose stuffed in his mouth and his hands cut off, was a revenge killing intended to send a fearsome message to other colonists.  

Young Richard Waldron had succeeded John Cutt as colonial president. The powerful Cutt and Waldron families had intermarried. Modern scholars suggest that Ursula was not a random victim. Like Major Waldron, she may have been targeted by Native Americans and their supporters for her politics and her celebrity status.

In Belknap's version the young Waldron and his wife literally dodged a bullet when they met friends in Portsmouth and missed their lunch date at the Cutt plantation. The detail could be fictional. Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster, writing 150 years after the event, claims Waldron discovered Ursula Cutt shot and scalped in her field. Brewster adds a gory detail; the attackers had chopped off her hands. Brewster says the Indians took Ursula's hands in order to steal her gold rings. But the detail, if true, also matches the mutilation of Major Waldron in Dover. Early accounts suggest that locals arrived on the scene before the Indians could burn the Cutt house, and possibly, before the symbolic mutilations were completed. Or perhaps Brewster simply conflated the two stories.

"If you're living in the 17th century," Rux says, "are you going to wear your gold rings out to the field? It is not likely. It's a very strange detail." 

CONCLUSION OF URSULA CUTT on next page 

Ursual Cutt House 1900 in Portsmouth NH / Portsmouth Athenaeum

Historical fiction 

Two local authors further expanded the legend, Rux points out. Sarah Sayward Keating Wood of York, Maine is credited as the first gothic novelist in America. Madam Wood, who was related to the Cutt family,  published her account of  Ursula's murder in the Portsmouth Journal in the early 1800s. Wood placed the story in Kittery rather than Portsmouth.  Poor Ursula "fell by the tomahawk by an Indian to rise no more," Wood wrote. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne suspected that Wood's account contained more fiction than fact.

Helen French Cochrane of Derry, NH offered a highly dramatic and detailed version in 1872. Cochrane published her story in the weekly Youth's Companion magazine, adding an African servant and a host of colorful Portsmouth characters. The Indians had by this era become "copper-colored wretches."

"You can't calculate on the doings of these savages as if they were Christian... being devils incarnate, they will do all the mischief they can," Wood wrote in a melodramatic style. Begged to flee, the widow of President John Cutt stands her ground.

"Run away in the midst of haymaking for a mere idle rumor? That I will not, as sure as my name is Ursula Cutt," she declares.

In this imaginative telling intended for young readers, Ursula scolds her maid and her farm workers for being cowardly. Moments later she falls, shot through the heart. 

What about the cherubs?

Ursula Cutt's house, like her legend, was reshaped and enlarged over the centuries. Each new owner left a mark on the property. Sandra Rux spent months doggedly tracking the history of the house in an effort to discover when and why the two mysterious wooden figures showed up. 

Technically, Rux says, they are not cherubs, but are called "putti"  (pronounced "poo-tee"). These are secular carvings, not religious -- part cupid and part wingless angel -- and usually represented as chubby, semi-naked, male children. As garden statues they signify heaven on earth. They might also represent prosperity, peace, romance, even humor. Since the carvings were not among Ursula Cutt's few possessions, where did they come from?

Sandra Rux has a theory. First, she traced the ownership of the Ursula Cutt farm through its many owners with familiar local names like Wentworth, Warner, Rhymes, Pike, Langdon, and Bartlett. According to Ichabod Bartlett, the two putti were on the house when he bought the property in 1835. And, according to one early Portsmouth guidebook, "it is reasonable to believe that Madam Ursula herself had them placed there."  

No way, says Rux, because Ursula's modest original house was later enlarged by many intervening owners and tenant farmers.

 "The figures were definitely not there when Ursula was killed," she says, but they could still be almost as old. The "putti" style was popular at the beginning of the 18th century. But by the 1760s, prior to the American Revolution, "these guys were out of style," Rux says.

Here the scene shifts to downtown Portsmouth. In 1760 a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Warner married the daughter of Capt. Archibald Macp­head­ris. Their stately brick mansion (built by Macpheadris in 1716) still stands on Daniel Street near the new Memorial Bridge. The Macpheadris-Warner House museum is famous for its carved wooden interior and its ancient murals with painted images including Indians and cherubs.  

Captain Macpheadris was a man of "eccentric style" says Rux, who is also among the Warner House board of governors. At one point he even imported a live lion to the city.

"We can certainly imagine Macpheadris having these guys in his garden," Rux says of the two carved figures.

In 1765 Jonathan Warner purchased the Ursula Cutt Farm, along with other Portsmouth farms stretching to the Newington town line. Warner owned about 700 acres of farmland in all. At the same time, he and his wife Mary renovated the Warner House.  Perhaps, Rux suggests, they simply moved the old out-of-style cherub figures from the downtown Warner House and attached them above the door of the enlarged Cutt house, which they renamed Long Lane Farm.

 It's only a theory, but it all finally makes sense. Sandra Rux has even more myth-busting theories, so stay tuned.     

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local bookstores.

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