I had once written a piece for the “Did You Know” section of From the Housetops about Lydia Longley, who has the distinction of being the “First American Nun.” The Tarbells and the Longleys were contemporaries; both were from Groton; both families had children kidnapped by Indians; and, strangely enough, they were cousins. Lydia Longley was taken captive in 1694 during an Abenaki raid on their homestead in the aftermath of King Philip’s War as it played out on this side of the ocean. Lydia’s family was all killed in the raid and she was taken, eventually, to Canada, ransomed by the French, and given over to the Ursuline nuns in Montreal. While there, she became a Catholic and later joined the order.
Before moving on to the story, here are some interesting Catholic trivia concerning “saints” and “firsts” in America:
1) Lydia Longley is the first woman, born in colonial America, to become a nun. The story of Lydia Longley was first popularized by Helen A. McCarthy Sawyer of Groton, Massachusetts. She wrote a children’s book called “The First American Nun.”
2) Frances Allen, daughter of Ethan Allen, was the first woman, born after 1776 in the United States, to become a nun. She was converted while studying with teaching sisters in Montreal. In 1811, she made a religious profession with the Religious Hospitaliers of St. Joseph, and took care of the worst of the sick and indigent. She died of consumption in 1819.
3) Mother Cabrini was the first United States citizen to be canonized, although she was not a native-born American. She died in 1917.
4) The first native-born United States citizen to be canonized was Mother Seton. She died in 1821.
5) The first United States male citizen to be canonized was John Nepomucene Neumann, although he was not a native-born American.
Thomas Tarbell III, was the son and grandson of original proprietors of Groton and once served as Town Clerk. His wife was the daughter of Richard and Isabel Blood and was named Elizabeth. They had ten children, born between the years 1687 and 1707. The family homestead was on Farmers Row, the present site of the James Lawrence estate.
In the early Summer of 1707, the inhabitants of Groton were beginning to feel reasonably safe from Indian attacks. The local Indians had been killed off or pacified during King Philip’s War, and King William’s War, between the French and British, which had seen an invasion by Indians from Canada, was some five years past. There were rumors that some settlers had been attacked recently but the Tarbell family didn’t feel that they were in any immediate danger. How wrong they were!
It was early evening, June 20th, three of the Tarbell children, Sarah, John and Zachariah were playing in the branches of a cherry tree behind the house when a band of Caughnawaga Indians suddenly surrounded the tree. Cautioning the children to be quiet, Indians and prisoners vanished into the nearby forest. At that time, Sarah was thirteen, John was eleven, and Zachariah was six or seven. Sarah never saw her home or family again.
Traveling swiftly, the Indians returned with their prisoners to the Indian village of Caughnawaga near the city of Montreal. Sarah was soon bought by the French and placed in a convent. In all probability, Sarah met her cousin, Lydia Longley, who had been captured by the Indians, eleven years previously. Lydia had become a nun and, no doubt, influenced her cousin to do likewise. She joined the Congregation of Notre Dame at Lachine.
And what of the two boys? They soon became as Indian as their captors. Reaching manhood, they married daughters of Indian chiefs and, later, moved up the St. Lawrence to found the Indian town of St. Regis.
Some thirty years later, John and Zachariah returned to visit relatives in Groton. Dressed as Indian chiefs and speaking haltingly in English, they attracted much attention. No amount of pleading could induce them to return permanently. Governor Belcher, the Governor of Massachusetts, made an impassionate speech before the General Court, pleading with that body to give the two Tarbells some sort of an inducement to stay in their native town. The worthy gentleman was much distressed over the fact that the two had embraced Catholicism. The free life of the forest proved too much of a magnet to the Tarbells and they returned to their squaws and families.
In the year 1744, Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts was in Albany, New York, and his attention was called to a band of Indians who had come down from Canada to trade. Two of the “Indians” turned out to be the Tarbell brothers, one of whom was said to be the wealthiest of the Caughnawaga tribe.
Sometime during the next century, Dr. Samuel Green visited the village of St. Regis and talked to the parish priest. He was informed that some forty persons carried the name of Tarbell in the village and that they were among the most prominent. Strange to say, the given names of these Tarbell descendants corresponded to names of their distant cousins in Groton.
When Thomas Tarbell III, died, he left the three missing children an equal share in his property but with the condition that they return to Groton to live. The condition was never fulfilled.
One must wonder if the three Tarbells ever regretted their choices and what would have been their lot if they had returned to live in Groton.
And how did the Tarbells become involved in the dangerous trade of building high structural steel buildings and bridges? When the first suspension bridge was built across the St. Lawrence at Quebec, the engineers were astonished by the lack of fear of height displayed by a group of Indians, among whom were some of the Tarbells. The word soon spread and Indians soon became much in demand.
Of all the stories about captured children of New England, surely the story of the Tarbell children is the most interesting.