The Mystery of Reuben Moore, Part I

Note: I appreciate the kind words folks have said about my previous post, “Into the trenches.” I’ll return to Stephen Joseph McNally’s story when I can fill in more — probably when I get either his militia service records from England or his death certificate from Alberta. And at some point, we’ll look for evidence of his time as a constable in what is now the ghost town of Coal Creek.

When I go into the museum, one of my first tasks is to walk the museum, making sure everything is appropriately set for guests. Yesterday morning, I noticed a bench had been moved. When I checked with my manager, M., to see if this was a new set up or whether I should move it back, he laughed and said he’d moved it when he was snapping some quick shots of a bunch of portraits that were in the closet in that room and had neglected to move it back. Then he said, “Oh, you should look at these!” and sent me the images.

Two of them were Henrietta Durants — two women, three generations apart. On the left is the younger Henrietta Durant (complete with reflection of M. in the glass), and on the right is the older one. As it turns out, both are in the same line: The woman on the right is the great-great-aunt of the woman on the left, descending from Ned Durant, privateering son of Edward Durant III. Ned was lost at sea, but that’s a story for a different day.

[Portraits in the collection of Historic Newton.]

These ladies were easy to figure out, particularly because they belonged to a line I’d done some work with already. The image on the right may be the earliest Durant likeness we have, but I’d have to do some further checking into that.

What we couldn’t immediately identify was who this dude, labeled “Ruben Moore,” was:

Ruben Moore Cropped

[Portrait in the collection of Historic Newton.]

He didn’t otherwise appear anywhere in the family trees of the Durants, Kenricks, or Dewings, at least not as far as I’d sussed them out (which is pretty far). If he was family, he would have had to have entered by marriage, but due to the particular history of who owned our historic house, when, and for what purposes, we also have in our collection some miscellany with little or no connection to the families that lived there. So there wasn’t an obvious origin story for our wannabe Napoleon.

I put the name “Ruben Moore” into Massachusetts Town and Vital Records and got a handful of results in various parts of the state, including Middlesex County. Then, I tried, where I found a few other matches in Middlesex County. But I had to look twice before I spotted it — a burial in Newton’s East Parish Burying Ground that didn’t identify the birth or death years or include a picture of the stone. But knowing that a Reuben Moore went into the ground in Newton was a start. That led me to a Newton death record from 1837, which I in turn crossed with the US Censuses from 1800-1830 to identify the household of my likely Reuben. Downside? Those years just list head-of-house, so I still didn’t know much about who he was. That’s when I looked at the portraits a little bit differently.

The matching style told me these were the same artist. The matching frames told me either the artist had a standard or, more likely, these were intended for display together. That presented the following conundrum: Henrietta (1762-1855) didn’t live at the house past about 1782 (her family sold it), and Reuben (17??-1837), as far as I could tell, had never lived at the house. So how did these two matched paintings end up in a house where only one had lived, particularly when they’d been done in an era (early 1800s, by the clothes and death dates) when the house belonged to a different family (Kenricks)?

It seemed from the 1800-1830 censuses that Moore and the Kenricks might have been neighbors. Maybe that was how his painting ended up there? Was this the work of some prominent local painter who did all the town’s great residents and had a particularly recognizable style?

I figured Reuben Moore’s children were the answer. I could see his family grow across five censuses, including the 1790 US Census entry I suspected was our Reuben Moore, even though he was living in Cambridge. If I could correlate the approximate birth years of his children and his name as the father with entries in Massachusetts Town and Vital Records, perhaps that would tell me more. I also planned to visit the burying ground to see who was buried with/near him.

Then, suddenly, I figured him out.


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