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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hannah Hull's Dowry

Her Weight in Gold by Jean Leon Jerome Ferris

There is a charming tale called The Pine-Tree Shilling told by 19th century author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair (1840). It tells the story of a colonial maiden and how her father ascertained the worth of her dowry.

Miss Hannah Hull was the only daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Boston, Mintmaster John Hull and his wife Judith. In 1652, due to the increase in trade in the Colony, uncertain conditions with England, and to prevent fraudulent money, John Hull, a silversmith, and Robert Sanderson were authorized to erect “a mint for coining shillings, sixpences and three-pences.” Hull guaranteed that each of the Pine-Tree Shillings contained 15 ounces of silver. Massachusetts was the only one of the thirteen colonies that had a mint before the Revolution and it's Pine-Tree shilling circulated up until that time. John Hull’s share in the profits of the mint was fifteen pence of every twenty shillings. He rapidly amassed a fortune.

When twenty-four year old Samuel Sewell came courting and wished to marry Hannah, eighteen, the matter of her dowry came into the picture.

"She saw me when I took my degree and set her affection on me,
though I knew nothing of it until after our marriage, which was Feb 28th. 1675/76."

~ From The Diary of Samuel Sewell

Tradition says that John Hull placed his daughter in one of the scales and heaped in the other with silver, filling it with Pine-Tree shillings until the scales balanced. The wedding present amounted to a dowry of £500. The weight of this amount being 125 pounds may very well have approximated the bride's weight, giving credence to Hawthorne's tale. Samuel received a portion of the dowry seventeen days prior to the marriage nuptials and the remained a fortnight after the wedding. Hannah's marriage to Samuel gave him early wealth, an established merchant business, and a start to his illustrious career in public office. Yet biographers have attested that the marriage was built on mutual happiness and shared love and faith.

"Then the great scales were brought, amid laughter and jest,
And Betsy was called to step in and be weighed;
But a silence fell over each wondering guest
When the mint-master opened a ponderous chest
And a fortune of shillings displayed.
"By handfuls the silver was poured in one side
Till it weighed from the floor blushing Betsy, the bride;
And the mint-master called: 'Prithee, Sewell, my son,
The horses are saddled, the wedding is done;
Behold the bride's portion; and know all your days
Your wife is well worth every shilling she weighs.'"
 ~ Poem by Florence Royce Davis,
Historic Shrines of America, John T. Farris

You may read about the marriage of Hannah Hull and Samuel Sewall online in Puritan Family Life: The Diary of Samuel Sewall by Judith S. Graham.


  1. I'd never heard this, what a great tale! If it's not true ... it should be. :)

  2. That is such a great story! Thanks for sharing, Carla!

  3. I can just imagine that the richest man in town had the audacity to actually do that. A bit eccentric, but it makes for a good legend!

  4. Hadn't heard this story. It's very interesting.

  5. Very interesting story, had not heard it before.


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