By Joel Lefever, Executive Director of Old York
The extraordinary set of crewel-embroidered bed hangings in Old York’s collection, have been in the public realm since being donated to the Old Gaol Museum in 1908. They have been on display in York since at least 1910; photographed for publication since the 1920s; and exhibited in Boston, Masachusetts, and London, England in the 1970s. Yet until recently, little was written about the families connected to the hangings, or how they descended from Mary Swett and Alexander Bulman of York, Maine to Anna Sophia Tielston Everett of Roxbury, Massachusetts.
In 1730 Mary Swett (1715-1791) married Dr. Alexander Bulman, Jr. (1701–1745), and the couple settled in York where Alexander served as the town’s physician. Their house, now numbered 192 York Street, still stands and is located directly across the street from the main campus of Old York.
Bulman House, York, about 1860
Recent research into the genealogies of the Swett and Bulman families has revealed much about their connections to Boston, Massachusetts, and York, Maine. Alexander Bulman, Sr., arrived in Boston by 1684, and established a bakery. His wife Margaret Taylor was a young English Nonconformist refugee whose family followed their minister, Rev. John Bailey, from Limerick, Ireland, to Watertown, Massachusetts, around 1684. The couple married in 1690 and settled in Boston where their son Alexander was born and educated to be a physician.
Mary Swett’s paternal family helped to found Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. She was born there, but moved to York when she was young. Her maternal relatives, the Sayward family, had lived in York in 1692 during the infamous Candlemas Raid by members of the Abenaki tribe. Her grandmother and two of her aunts were taken as captives to Montreal. Her grandmother was ransomed in 1695, but her aunts lived the remainder of their lives in French Canada—one of them, Mary Sayward, became a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Marie-des-Anges. Mary Swett’s mother, Hannah Sayward, was born in York in 1688 and died there in 1761.
Mary’s father, Joseph Swett was born in Hampton, New Hampshire in 1689, served as a Lieutenant in the Indian Wars, and operated a leather tannery. He moved his family to York, Maine in 1718 after purchasing 150 acres at Western Point, also known as Swett’s Point, a property with beautiful vistas at the mouth of the York River.
Joseph Swett and Hannah Sayward had at least seven children, with Mary being the oldest. Following marriage to Dr. Bullman in 1730, Mary’s unmarried sisters Susanna, Elizabeth, and Esther (who wed in 1735, 1736, and 1755) lived nearby and perhaps assisted with the embroidery of the hangings. A past evaluation of the hangings’ stitching suggested that perhaps three different embroiderers, with varying skills, worked on them.
An often-repeated story claims that Mary Bulman created the hangings in 1745 to “occupy her mind” after her husband died while serving as regimental physician during William Pepperrell’s (1696–1759) Siege of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. However, there is no contemporary evidence to support the story. Pepperrell’s forces left Maine in April of 1745 and defeated French forces in June. Alexander Bulman died of disease at Louisbourg on 11 September 1745. The hangings, apparently complete, appear in his York probate inventory of 7 April 1746 as “1 sute wrought brown Holland Curtains” assessed at £20, the same value as a ten-acre plot of land also listed in the inventory. (In the description, wrought means “embroidered” and brown Holland means “fine unbleached linen.”) It is unlikely that Mary acquired the linen and embroidered the hangings in the seven months between September 1745 and April 1746 as a bereaved widow busy with a young son, and faced with the uncertainty of settling her husband’s estate.
Mary and Alexander had two children, neither of whom survived past young adulthood. Following a second marriage to Reverend Thomas Prentice (1702-1782), of Cambridge Massachusetts, Mary died in York in 1791 and is buried in the Old Burying Ground of First Parish Church, across the street from where she had lived. Her niece, Abiel Hovey Sargent (1751–after 1840) inherited the hangings, along with the rest of Mary’s household furnishings and York property, and continued to live in the Bulman house. Upon Abiel Sargent’s death in the 1840s, the bed hangings passed to her daughter, Mary Sargent Lyman (d. 1858), and thence in the 1850s to Abiel’s granddaughter, Frances Joann Ruggles Sargent Bullard (1818–1887).
Reminiscing later in life, at nearly age 60, Frances Bullard wrote of experiencing the hangings in the 1820s while visiting her “Grandmother Sargent’s house,” the former Bulman house in York: “They used to hang upon an old-fashioned, high-posted bed. When I was a little girl of eight years of age I remember sleeping on such a bedstead, and then curtains hung over the top and around the sides, and I could read the legends on the lambrequins and look at the strange birds and flowers.” Having descended through three generations, the Bulman household furnishings probably remained intact, including the bed hangings, until the York house was sold out of family ownership in 1853.
Bulman Bed Hangings in Old York’s Emerson-Wilcox House Museum, about 2005
Frances Bullard, who inherited the hangings in the 1850s, stored them in an attic for twenty-five years until the 1870s, when she gave them to Anna Sophia Tielston Everett (1825–1909), a cousin from her father’s family, who had “an interest in all ancient things.” In 1908, just months before she died, Anna Everett, who lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts, donated the hangings to the Old Gaol Museum in York, where her friend, Sophia Steed Turner (1856–1936) was the museum custodian. Anna Everett included letters of provenance with the bed hangings hoping “that the data given therein may be of some use in locating the birth of the curtains, and that some of the oldest inhabitants may know something of the Bulman and Sargent families.” The original letters are lost, but were quoted in 1908 in the Old York Transcript newspaper.
Few sets of early 18th century American bed hangings survive, and those that do often are fragmentary, having been cut up and distributed to family members as mementos. The hangings created by and for Mary Swett Bulman, kept together by family circumstance, truly are extraordinary.
An Historical Catalogue of the Old South Church (Third Church) Boston (Boston: David Clapp and Son, 1883).
First Church Record Book, Watertown, 1668–1818, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Coleman, Emma Lewis. New England Captives Carried to Canada (Portland, Maine, Southworth Press, 1925), vol. 1.
“Museum Receives Valuable Gift, Historical Society Enriched By Generosity of Miss Anna Everett of Roxbury,” Old York Transcript [York, Maine], February 14, 1908.
Probate inventory of the Estate of Dr. Alexander Bulman, York, County of York, Maine, April 7, 1746.
York Historic Landmarks Architectural Survey, undated, Old York Historical Society.
Old Gaol Museum Book of Gifts, undated, Old York Historical Society.