True Tales from Canton’s Past: ‘The Gift’ Excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from “The Gift,” the latest installment of True Tales from Canton’s Past by local historian George T. Comeau.

The little girl sat straight, her hands in her lap, holding a pink flower. Mary dared not smile; she simply fixed her gaze at the painter as he worked to capture her youth. The boy — her brother — on the other hand, fidgeted and could hardly wait to get outside.

Mary Elizabeth Dunbar, around 15 years old, circa 1843-1845

Mary Elizabeth Dunbar, around 15 years old, circa 1843-1845

Sitting for the painter was a chore that young John could hardly stand. Yet both of these children sat before Azel Capen of Stoughton and had their portraits painted at the request of their father. These were the Dunbar children, and wealth along with history was their inheritance.

To sit for a painter, one that was talented, in the early 1800s was largely a passion of well-to-do families who had the time, money, and inclination to hang portraits in their homes. The Dunbar family of Canton met all of the criteria. Samuel Dunbar, the Son of Thunder, was one of America’s greatest patriots and orators and in 1727 preached in that part of Stoughton that is now Canton. Samuel’s son, Elijah, was a founding father of Canton. Both father and son had mixed feelings about the war for independence, likely as a result of Elijah’s close Tory friends at Harvard University. Early in the fight, however, both men became zealous supporters for liberty and quickly earned their place in American history.

In 1787, Elijah’s son James was born. James was the youngest of nine children. He married Sarah Kinsley, the daughter of Adam and Sarah Kinsley. Adam Kinsley was a partner with Jonathan Leonard in the manufacture of iron implements. Later the partnership dissolved and Kinsley started the Kinsley Iron and Machine Company. Surrounded by industrialists, young James was a man with a head for business. An early venture at age 22 found him manufacturing swords with James Bent. In 1814, James was the custodian of the powder house, which was located at present-day Pequitside Farm. There is reportedly a rock with iron bolts still to be found today at the location of this powder house. By 1828, James Dunbar was a clerk at the so-called “Stone Factory” and managed the affairs of the textile business. With the construction of the Canton Viaduct in 1834, the population in Canton grew along with the rise of wealthy factory owners. Canton needed a bank, and in 1835 James left his position at the Stone Factory and became a founder of the Canton Institution for Savings.

A rival bank was begun in 1836 and named the Neponset Bank of Canton. By 1836, James, already quite wealthy, became the cashier and would run the bank for many years. Settling on what is now Chapman Street, the Dunbars were long associated with most of Canton’s elite, and owing to their heritage, they too were considered among the finest of our families.

James married into the Kinsley fortune when he was 32 and settled onto a large farm that is now present-day Spring Lane. The marriage to Sarah when she was 25 years old yielded plenty of heartbreak. A first child died at birth; a second, born in 1824, died at age 15; a third child, born in 1827, died at less than a year old. The fifth child, Mary Elizabeth Dunbar, was born in 1830, and along with a brother — John Danforth Dunbar, born in 1834 — they were the only two children to survive into old age.

And these are the children in the portraits: Mary Elizabeth and John Danforth. The father commissioned the portraits of his two children simultaneously, painted sometime between 1843 and 1845. Dunbar turned to a local artist by the name of Azel Capen from Stoughton …

See this week’s Canton Citizen to learn more about the Dunbar portraits and their recent return to Canton. Not a subscriber? Click here to order your subscription today.

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