MARBLEHEAD — People here were at each other's throats. Sometimes they didn't even share the same language. The crime rate went through the roof. Many grew fearful of the strangers, newcomers barging in, taking advantage of what others had established, living among them and siphoning off scarce resources.
It all sounds very familiar. Yet it isn't contemporary America — it's Marblehead nearly 400 years ago, in the Colonial era. Historian Lauren Fogle has captured it as never before in her new book "Colonial Marblehead, From Rogues to Revolutionaries."
The past can always benefit from a fresh look. Fogle began her book realizing that other historians had already trod the same ground. Yet each generation brings a fresh perspective. As the modern world values diversity and multiculturalism, Fogle found remarkable echoes of those issues in Colonial Marblehead.
"My goal was to write a social history," she says. "I was interested in the tensions between different people."
She records fishermen squaring off against merchants, Anglicans against Congregationalists, English people against Channel Islanders, not to mention the odd Welshman, Irishman or Scot.
"Marbleheaders were a rough lot," Fogle writes, "and they had that reputation throughout the colony. The prevalence of taverns in the town may have had much to do with this."
Life on the edge
The stakes were much higher then. As she did her research, Fogle was stunned by the scarcity that Marblehead settlers had to confront. With its rocky terrain a bar to farming, fishing seemed the only alternative. Even that was not without risks, as Fogle's study of town records revealed.
"There were a lot of widows, a lot of fatherless children." When a man was lost at sea, it could be a disaster for his entire family. "I never had a sense before of how serious that was. There were people who starved to death."
By the 1700s, infanticide was not unknown. And with few doctors in the colony and few safety measures, ordinary accidents — some of them connected to strong drink — could easily result in fatalities.
Fogle, 34, grew up in a far different Marblehead. Her father, John Fogle, is a driving force behind the local theater group Mugford Street Players, and her mother, Jean, is a painter. "They're very visual," Lauren says. "I'm not that visual."
She limited her own theater experience to back stage and finally turned her attention to history.
Graduating from Marblehead High School, she attended American University and then earned a master's degree and doctorate (2006) in history from the University of London. She studied for a time in London alongside her husband, Andrew Boyd, an American raised mainly in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At one point, the couple lived in Dublin before coming back to Marblehead. Boyd works on information systems.
Home and history
Meanwhile, Fogle is a new mother, managing to conduct an interview as she feeds her broccoli-loving toddler. "You'll turn green in a minute," she warns.
Fogle was anxious to find a way to work and stay at home with her daughter. "I decided to do research that was local." Thus, she would write about Colonial Marblehead, a time and place already close to her heart. In fact, she has little interest in the years that followed. There are no plans to continue the story, which ends with the Revolution.
Ironically, Fogle notes, Marblehead's patriotism in those years was its undoing. The pre-war economic boom that made the town's merchants rich came to an abrupt end when trade with England was stopped by the Revolution.
Her research suggested a new task — publishing Marblehead's 18th century records. Located in various places in town, it will require some effort to gather together and reproduce them. "It's a really big project," Fogle says. "But I think people would want it."
Especially, she says, if they knew the current condition of the records — the only copies in existence. The work won't pay a great deal, she acknowledges. "Maybe we can get a grant." Yet, she believes strongly that it ought to be done.
And everyone who loves Marblehead history would likely agree.