To read the first blog entry on Lt. Jonathan Church and his portrait please click here:Lt. Jonathan Church, A Wethersfield Marine.
In 2007, Wethersfield Historical Society received word from a descendent of Wethersfield’s Jonathan Church (1763-1804), one of the first members of the United States Marine Corps, who was considering donating two very special Church-related objects to its collections. Mrs. Meredith Seikel and her husband Oliver began discussions with WHS staff about the possibility of donating Lt. Church’s portrait as well as the sideboard that once stood in his tavern on Broad Street. While the staff knew of the famous portrait’s existence, the sideboard developed into a welcome surprise.
The Seikels graciously donated both pieces, as well as additional Church family objects, arriving in Wethersfield in October of that year. While Lt. Church’s portrait has been the subject of several national and regional studies, the story of his sideboard has the potential to inform about the social history and material culture of Wethersfield at that time. Research continues regarding this intriguing piece. A recent appraisal describes the Church sideboard as “late-18th century American”, but its maker and acquirement by Church remain a mystery.
The Church sideboard combines strong, sturdy construction with highly-figured mahogany veneers and restrained decoration. A massive, squared piece, the sideboard measures 5′ 2.5″ in height by 3 2.5″ in length. Its substantial depth of 2′ 4.25″ is made more striking by the fact that its top is a single mahogany board. Crafted in a Hepplewhite style, the Church sideboard stands on short, slender, squared tapered legs with narrow spade feet, ending in early 20th century casters. The piece is unsigned and it is unclear from which workshop it came, most likely in the Northeast. Refinished in the late twentieth century by the family, its brasses were also redone.
The sideboard contains two long shallow drawers just below its top surface, with two brass knobs with a raised spiral pattern on either side of a decorative lockplate. The lower portions of the sideboard contain three main cupboards or compartments accessed through square doors with decorative lockplates, matching those of the top drawers. Family correspondence reveals that the sideboard remained in storage for some time, and that its doors were cleaned and rehung during the 1940s, but they interestingly chose to preserve the crack in the veneer on the right door.
For several decades, a drawer in the Church sideboard contained the small unframed oil portrait of Lt. Jonathan Church, whose image is the earliest known depiction of a U.S. Marine in uniform. By the end of the 19th century, the family had removed the portrait and placed it in its present frame. Family tradition states that a vessel for ice accompanied the sideboard but did not survive with the piece.
Lt. Church’s motives for coming to Wethersfield with his young family are unclear, as both he and his wife Dosha (Theodosia Morley) were from the Springfield, Massachusetts area. Coupling Church’s seafaring background in the U.S. Marines and the town’s prosperous maritime industries, Wethersfield may have proved a natural fit. In any case, Lt. Church left active service in 1801 owing to poor health contracted while serving in the Caribbean and moved his family to Wethersfield to run a tavern.
The Church Tavern was ideally situated on the corner of Broad and Garden Streets, fronted by the Broad Street Green. It must have seen considerable traffic for the period as it was located on the Middlesex Turnpike, the primary North-South route stretching from Hartford through Middletown to Old Saybrook, following the path of the Connecticut River. Wethersfield’s commercial center, shipyard, busy waterfront and the road to the ferry were within easy walking distance. Additional nearby establishments of this period, such as the Chester Tavern and the Bunce Tavern among others, all prospered.
With Church’s death in 1804 at the age of 41, it is presumed that his wife Dosha continued the business with their surviving daughters and married Hezekiah Crane. The establishment became the better-documented Crane Tavern, which burned down in 1827; the cause of the blaze is uncertain. Dosha’s second marriage was not a happy one and she eventually divorced Crane; she is buried next to her first husband in Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground.
How the sideboard and portrait survived the fire is unclear, unless they had already passed to one of the Church daughters or were rescued from the fire by concerned citizens and the nascent volunteer fire brigade. Both objects passed through the family to Robert Hale Kellogg, one of Wethersfield’s Civil War heroes, who brought several family pieces with him to settle in Ohio. While Church descendents revered Lt. Church’s portrait, his sideboard was sometimes kept in storage and narrowly missed being sold during the mid-20th century. Fortunately, the Seikels gratefully inherited both pieces, among other objects from Wethersfield, preserving their history and condition.
This blog entry was written by former WHS Assistant Director Melissa Josefiak, who presently serves as a museum mentor with the StEPs-CT program at the Connecticut Humanities Council and serves as the Exhibitions Review Editor for “Connecticut History”, the scholarly journal of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History.
Resources: Jonathan Church vertical files and Church genealogy files, Wethersfield Historical Society; unpublished annotated index, “Catalogue and Summary of Documentation Concerning Jonathan Church Portrait and Sideboard from the files of Meredith Miller Seikel,” assembled by Oliver Seikel, 2007. Special thanks are owed to Beverly Lucas as a peer reviewer of this article.