Until recently the only historical connection that I was aware of between Framingham and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and one of the most famous women in American history, has been her brief term of service as superintendent of the state prison for women now known as MCI-Framingham. But now I am pleased to report that I have been able to confirm a stronger and more personal connection – one that goes back to the very origins of Framingham as an incorporated town.
Clara Barton circa 1866
Clara Barton was born Clarissa Harlow Barton in 1821 in Oxford, a town about twenty-four miles west of Framingham. She came to fame during the Civil War as a tireless advocate of relief and care for wounded soldiers, organizing field hospitals, and searching for men missing in action. While doing similar work in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War, she learned of the International Red Cross, and on returning home she worked to establish the American Red Cross, which was accomplished in 1881. When Civil War General Benjamin Butler became Governor of Massachusetts in 1883, he asked Clara Barton to become the third superintendent at the state prison that was then called the Reformatory Prison for Women at Sherborn. She complied reluctantly and spent an unhappy nine months running a prison whose mission was contrary to her deep humanitarian instincts. After her time at the prison, her career of bringing relief and aid to people stricken by war and natural disasters continued until her death in 1912.
Women’s State Prison – Framingham
As the prison was located on land that was within the Town of Sherborn during Clara Barton’s tenure (a boundary change brought it into Framingham in 1924), Framingham’s historical claim to Barton has been a tenuous one, until now. My suspicion that there may be a deeper connection began with three clues: 1) one of the settlers of the Salem End district of Framingham, which was populated by refugees from the 1692 witchcraft prosecutions of the Salem area, was a man named Samuel Barton; 2) many of the families that settled at Salem End, including John Town’s and Samuel Barton’s, migrated farther west to the town of Oxford; and 3) Clara Barton was born in Oxford one hundred years later. It therefore seemed likely that Clara Barton may have been a descendant of one of our founding families at Salem End.
The possibility of an early Clara Barton connection with Framingham was made even more interesting when I learned from Temple’s History of Framingham that Samuel Barton was married to Hannah Bridges Barton, who was a daughter of Sarah Clayes by her first husband, Edmund Bridges. If Clara was a direct descendant of Samuel Barton, then she would also be a direct descendant of Sarah Clayes, the most renowned of our Salem refugees. Sarah Clayes had been indicted for witchcraft herself and was imprisoned in jail in Ipswich. Two of her sisters were convicted of witchcraft and hanged on Gallows Hill. Sarah managed to escape and fled to Framingham Plantation where she and her husband Peter Clayes founded the Salem End colony in 1693, and where they helped to establish the Town of Framingham in 1700.
Sarah and Peter Clayes House, built in 1693
The answer to my mystery finally came via the Internet. I had been doing some genealogy research for a woman in Virginia who found me through the Framingham web page. One of her family lines involved the Clayes family. I asked about tracing the descendants of Sarah Clayes and referred to James Roome, official genealogist of the Towne Family Association. Sarah Clayes’s maiden name was Towne. To my delight Mr. Roome’s response to my inquiry was a detailed genealogy chart linking Sarah Clayes to Clara Barton in a direct line of descent.
After leaving Framingham, Samuel Barton settled in Oxford where he died. His son Edmund had been born in Framingham and eventually settled in Sutton, the town just east of Oxford. Edmund’s son Stephen apparently moved back to Oxford where his son, also named Stephen, was born. This second Stephen Barton was Clara Barton’s father. One wonders if Clara was aware that her ancestry included some of the “Salem witches”. When she lived in the brick superintendent’s house at the women’s prison, did she realize that only a few miles away her great-grandfather was born? And did she know the story of Sarah Clayes and her dramatic escape from Ipswich? During Clara Barton’s time that background may have been considered a dark family secret. Now the secret is out, and our appreciation of both Sarah Clayes and Clara Barton is all the stronger for it.
Originally published in the March 1998 Framingham Historical Society Newsletter by Stephen Herring, Framingham Town Historian