Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Colby descendants make mark as social reformers

From My Story in Newburyport News Part 2 Macy-Colby House See Part One Vibrant energy of the Colby family 

The descendants of Amesbury’s frontier crusader Anthony Colby inherited his avant-garde spirit. The archives are brimming with Colby movers and shakers whose roots hinge from the sturdy foundation forged by the paternal patriarch in “the tenantless town in the wilderness.”

The Macy-Colby house is where Colby line emerged and comrade families like Sergeant, Hoyt, Blasdell and Bagley bred and fostered several generations of progressive souls.

In this home lived soldiers, shipbuilders, farmers, men of the cloth and others of worthy callings. Among the treasures not mentioned in yesterday’s column to visit at the home: the ancient horn beam barrel, Quaker hat of John Greenleaf Whittier, original communion table with pewter chalices from the Sandy Hill Meeting House and portraits gracing the walls of the Colby ancestors.

Among the potent pedigrees are social reformers openly ready to take on the tasks to build a better world. Here are a few among these notable men and women.

George J.L. Colby juggled several vocations. His crafty knack for the oral and written word matched his effervescent passion for social reform. He was in the Liberty Party, editor for an abolitionist paper in Amesbury and a traveling lecturer.

In 1856 George became co-owner and editor of the Newburyport Herald. He was made postmaster, Naval Officer of Customs and elected to the General Court. In 1872, he launched The Merrimack Journal, which his colleagues in the Port applauded as “a good looking, well-made newspaper” (Lowell Daily Citizen).

In politics, George was known to be bold and savvy, as one newspaper reports he “came down on the state constables with forty horse power” and dubbed them with “hard names,” more specifically “pimps,” and that his assertiveness made him a “Hail Columbia” champion type (Herald 1870). He was cherished among his peers, well known in Washington for his strong support of the coalition and became county commissioner.

Over the years, George contributed several articles to “The Standard History of Essex County.” He is noted for his valuable contribution and labors by George Wildes, author of “The Memoirs of Captain William Nicholas”: “I have been throughout indebted to the notes of George J. L. Colby, the intimate friend of Capt. Nichols.” He adds that if George had not “prepared extensive notes of the personal history of Capt. Nichols,” a heroic and noble character may not have been preserved.

Luther Colby published a Spiritualist paper “Banners of Light” (1857) with William Berry, who worked with him at the Boston Daily Post. Although Spiritualism was referenced to a Victorian trend where the rage became table wrapping and seances, Luther forged a campaign to establish creditability in the religion. He believed if society could fully embrace the ideals of Spiritualist enlightenment, it would inspire one toward social reform and thus heighten the moral conscience of each individual.

Luther had the longest run for a publication in his genre; Bennett in “World Sage: Thinkers and Reformers” asserts: “It is impossible to estimate the great influence Colby has wielded, and the vast amount of opinion he has been instrumental in forming.” Colby family from all over the country was advocating Luther’s “Banner of Light.” Some were Quaker abolitionists and others fighting for women’s suffrage.

Amelia Colby Luther (direct from Philbrook) lectured throughout the Midwest, speaking out against slavery and often participating in the Spiritualist sessions run at Camp Chesterfield.

Clara Bewick Colby, wife of Gen. Leonard W. Colby (direct from Zaccheus), (Pic below) was president of the Woman’s Suffrage Association and founded the Woman’s Tribune in 1883. In her speeches, the femme fatale applied the Spiritualist practice of non-resistance, “instantly aligning themselves with infinite strength” as did the ancient sages “who stopped the mouths of lions; quenched the violence of fire; escaped the edge of the sword; out of weakness made strong” (Portland, Ore. 1908).


Myra Colby Bradwell (direct from Ensign Enoch) was one of the most influential forces in the Woman’s Suffrage movement. She was denied the right to practice law in Illinois because she was married, but truth be told the old boys club just was not ready to accept a woman in this position. Myra remedied her loss by establishing The Chicago Legal News (1868), which became the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the United States. Her influence was massive and she helped pass laws giving women equal rights in guardianship custody cases, wages and property.

There are many more Colbys to explore at a visit to the old homestead. And one thing is for certain — little did Anthony and his “band of exiles” know their sacrifices spurred a force that will never expire. Anthony “is not dead,” affirms James W. Colby; “greatness and goodness are not perishable commodities.”

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