Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Hannah Savage Gookin snuff box. (Photo: Caleigh Lyons)

Why look into the history of a pretty-looking piece of silver? This snuff box tells the story of a minister’s wife and daughter and reminds us that Cambridge was a site of colonialism, where Indigenous people were told to assimilate, leave or die, and where Africans were enslaved as cheap labor. This snuff box reveals a story that the historical records make hard to find.

Tobacco is a plant indigenous to North and South America whose people introduced powdered tobacco “snuff” to European colonists. They praised it initially for its medicinal use and became addicted quickly. Tobacco pipes and snuff became fashionable among European men and women. Pocket-sized boxes with tight-fitting lids kept the snuff from drying out were given as gifts to friends and lovers.

The decoration and form of the snuff box we’re looking at point to the late 1600s; the first owner was probably Hannah Savage (1667–1702). When Hannah Savage was 18, she married her stepbrother, the Rev. Nathaniel Gookin, who was the minister of First Parish Church Cambridge. Perhaps Gookin gave his wife a fashionable snuff box in the late 1680s. As a fancy box made in England or the Netherlands to contain snuff native to the Americas, this snuff box becomes a symbol of colonialism.

Hannah Savage Gookin’s stepfather and father-in-law Daniel Gookin (1612–1687) was a Cambridge magistrate who worked to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. When Metacom’s (King Philip’s) War began in 1675, he moved many of the Christianized Indigenous people (“praying Indians”) to Deer Island in Boston Harbor to protect them from Puritan settlers and Metacom’s warriors. Daniel Gookin admitted that English settlers committed atrocities to Christian Indigenous people, unlike other contemporary accounts that never found malice in English settler violence. This snuff box is a reminder of the complicated legacy of colonialism and its effects on Indigenous culture. 

Snuff boxes were often decorated with allegories and flowers. A sun with a human face is an allegory of a Freemasonry motto: “Sit lux et lux fuit” (“Let there be light, and there was light,” Genesis 1:3). Hannah Savage Gookin, a minister’s wife, probably appreciated the sun symbol on her snuff box in this Christian vein of thought, as a symbol of God’s absolute power.

Hannah Gookin circa 1746, when she was “Mrs. Richard Kent,” in a detail from a painting by Joseph Badger. (Image: Yale University Art Gallery)

In 1933, Julia Baynard Pickard Bailey presented her research to the Cambridge Historical Society on every woman who ever was “the minister’s wife” at The First Parish Church, including the finding that Hannah Savage Gookin had three children: Nathaniel, Habijah and Hannah (1692–1758). Hannah was born the year her father died; 10 years later, her mother died. “The affection and esteem cherished by the church and town towards [Hannah Savage Gookin] are manifested by their frequent donations while she lived, and by assuming direction and charge of her funeral, as they had previously defrayed the expense of her husband’s burial,” Bailey’s research found.

First Parish Church helped the now-orphaned Hannah Gookin by making her the ward of the current minister, William Brattle, a man who enslaved two Africans: Scipio and Cicely. The first recorded Africans arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. Three years later Massachusetts justified and legalized the enslavement of African, Indigenous and mixed-race people in the Body of Liberties (1641), a legal code precursor to the Massachusetts Constitution. European colonists turned to enslaved Africans as a cheap source of labor to meet the increasing demand for tobacco (and tobacco accessories, such as snuff boxes), cotton and other agricultural products.

As Brattle’s ward, Hannah and her cockleshell and silver snuff box became part of the history of enslavement in Cambridge, representing one of the causes of enslavement in colonial America.

Hannah Gookin Carter identified her snuff box by etching her name inside. (Photo: Caleigh Lyons)

Hannah Gookin married twice and outlived her husbands: Vincent Carter (whom she married in 1710 and lived with until his death in 1718), and Richard Kent (whom she married in 1724, but who died in 1740). After the death of her first husband, when she was still Hannah Gookin Carter, she marked her snuff box. The name “H. Carter” inside the cover and the date 1720 inside support this timeline. She had nine children and probably gave the snuff box to a child she had with Carter – one of his descendants, Caroline Carter Davis, brought the snuff box to the Cambridge Historical Society in 1966.

Cambridge Historical Society curator Carolyn Ames investigated the history of this snuff box before loaning it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1978. In 1982, it was part of the MFA exhibition “New England Begins: The 17th Century.” The snuff box remained on loan until this year, when it was returned to the society, now named History Cambridge.

This snuff box tells the story of a minister’s wife and daughter otherwise unrecorded in history. It reminds us that Cambridge was a site of colonialism. This snuff box is evidence of the coexistence of Puritan faith and tobacco.

This snuff box is just a snuff box, yet it hints at the many untold stories of people who were not so fortunate to own a silver box for tobacco. This snuff box is a reminder that there are many more people in the past who don’t exist in the archives, but did exist. Their writing or belongings may be lost to time, but they did exist. 


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at

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Caleigh Lyons is a volunteer for History Cambridge.