History

Erasmus Darwins in 19th century Massachusetts

When I was doing research in Ashfield Massachusetts in 2009-ish, I transcribed the Vital Records of the town onto 3x5 note-cards. It struck me as odd, how many people were given the name Darwin, especially since the birth records end at 1849. In all, six children were named “Darwin” or “Erasmus Darwin” between 1803 and 1847. Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived from 1730-1802, and was a prominent physician, poet, inventor, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and proponent of evolution by natural selection.

That’s right. Erasmus Darwin came up with the idea that all life on earth was descended from a single microscopic ancestor in 1770. In 1796, he published the first volume of his
Zoonomia, which was heralded as the Principia of the medical profession and which discusses his ideas on evolution. And in 1803, Darwin’s posthumous poem The Temple of Nature elaborated his position even more explicitly. Erasmus Darwin also founded Birmingham’s Lunar Society, translated Linnaeus, and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the American Philosophical Society. When his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species, his critics thought they’d be able to silence him by quoting verbatim from tracts written against his grandfather’s theories.

Erasmus Darwin never visited America, and although he was a political radical and a supporter of American independence (and critic of the Pitt government’s repressions in the 1790s), After all, the town's famous freethinker, Dr. Charles Knowlton, didn't arrive in Ashfield until 1830. The first of the seven children apparently named after the author were Erasmus Darwin Clary (born 12/4/1903) and Darwin Dwight Sears, (born 8/11/1818). I was quite surprised that Darwin was so well-known in a remote western-Massachusetts hill-town like Ashfield. But it turns out Ashfield wasn't as unique as I supposed. Looking a little farther, I found there are sixty-three towns in Massachusetts where children were apparently named after Darwin before 1849! I also found 96 towns where there is no record of a child named “Erasmus” or “Darwin” in the
Vital Records. (these two groups represent all the Massachusetts towns whose records I was able to find online)

It’s possible that a few of the children named “Erasmus” may have been named for the fifteenth-century humanist, or for remote family members (close ones would have showed up in the same records I was searching). But I think most of them were named for the scientist, especially because in most cases they’re actually named “Erasmus Darwin” rather than simply "Erasmus" or Darwin" separately. Similarly, there is no record of “Darwin” being a common family surname in these Massachusetts towns, and Charles Darwin’s only significant publication before 1849 was his
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 5 parts, 1838-1843. Charles Darwin's big book, On the Origin of Species, didn't come out until 1859.

In all, I found 112 children named “Erasmus,” “Erasmus Darwin,” “Darwin,” or, in a couple of cases, “Erastus Darwin.” But this initial search of
Vital Record books available online missed 187 towns, whose records were not yet available electronically. So the odds are high that there are many more Erasmus Darwins I haven’t yet discovered!

As bizarre as the mere fact of all these young Darwins in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts towns, is where the towns were. If people were going to be naming their children after a British scientist (obscure or famous), you’d expect them to live in cities, close to institutions of higher learning like Harvard, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be dead wrong.

Most of the people naming their children after Darwin lived in central or western Massachusetts. I found most of them in Worcester, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties. Though they weren’t completely absent from the Boston area, there were more towns close to the coast
without a Darwin than with one. The towns marked in green on this map have at least one “Darwin.” Several have more than one. Two, Ashfield and Leominster, have six or more.

darwins

I started looking into the histories of these towns, to see who these “Darwins” were and, perhaps more important, who their parents were. In looking at the first dozen or so, it seemed that some of them were educated people, ministers or doctors. But others were farmers, shoemakers, and tavern-keepers. The whole thing suggests that people in some of the remotest parts of Massachusetts were thinking about issues and reading books I would never have expected them to be so interested in. It’s a completely different picture of the intellectual life of regular people in the early 19th century than you get in your average American History book!

I was going to try to write little sketches of the lives of some of these people, because I thought they might turn up interesting insights. I didn't get as far as I hoped — maybe I'll go back to that project someday. In the meantime, it's a reminder that there are always surprises out there, waiting to be discovered.