A skillful physician and a good man
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle, November 9, 1994
A.A. Earle, editor of the Irasburg Independent and Standard, devoted a good deal of his issue of November 1, 1861, to the obituary of John Baptiste Masta, M.D., late of Barton.
“When men have attained to eminence in life by their individual efforts, and are beloved for the good they accomplish,” Mr. Earle began, “there is a commendable desire to form an intimate acquaintance with their history – to study the motives by which they have been actuated, as well as the principles and efforts which have guided to success.”
“But a few days ago and Dr. Masta was in our midst, actively engaged in going about doing good,” the editor wrote. “Now he sleeps in death, and the community unites with the afflicted friends in mourning the loss of a skillful physician and a good man.”
At that, the journalist turned the matter over to a professional, and printed a lengthy excerpt from the funeral sermon of the Reverend Mr. Pond of the Congregational Church of Barton.
The minister offered a remarkably detailed account of the life, the achievements, and the death of Dr. Masta. And he left no doubt that Barton’s community physician would be badly missed.
“As a physician his field of operations was broad, extending through several counties in this State, and to a considerable distance into Canada, and his success appears to have fully warranted its extent. The advantages of his services now gone, will doubtless be to many a great loss. His public spirit and liberality found many an expression not only in his counsels and donations to the rebuilding of churches in Barton, but in his forwardness beyond others in the prosecution of measures to purify and elevate the public morals.”
Among the qualities that had endeared Dr. Masta to the Reverend Pond was his generosity. “He always regarded it a privilege to afford gratuitous medical services to Ministers of the Gospel, and a pleasing duty to relieve such of the poor as were unable to compensate him for his services.”
Despite his eminence at the time of his death at the age of 42, Dr. Masta seems to have pretty much disappeared from the list of Barton’s leading citizens over the intervening century. His name was brought to the Chronicle’s attention by local historian Robin Tenny, who in turn had heard from the doctor’s descendants in Massachusetts. They had two projects in mind.
The first, accomplished this summer, was to raise money within the family to straighten and clean John Masta’s grave, a handsome white six-foot column at Welcome O. Brown Cemetery. Small stones nearby mark the bodies of his widow, the former Emeline Burleigh Quimby of Lyndonville, and three of their four children, who died young.
The stone has been set right by Garon-St. Sauveur Granite Company of Newport.
The family’s second project was to locate a handsome two-story house that they believe must have been the Mastas’ home in Barton. There are two photographs of the house in the family archives, but no written information except, on the back, “J.F. Ruggles Photo, West Burke, Vt.”
So far the house has not been found. Research through land records, however, suggests that the Mastas lived in a home purchased from one Pierce, on the northwest corner of Main Street and Congress Court near the center of Barton Village. That site is now occupied by the Congress Court apartments for the elderly.
Dr. Masta’s career, and his importance to this community, fits nicely with the current interest in Native American culture in general, and the area’s Abenaki heritage in particular.
John Baptiste Masta was part Abenaki. His living descendants point to this fact with pride, as a particularly interesting fact about his — and of course their own — heritage.
But the family’s view of their distinguished ancestor has changed over time, much as the attitude towards Native American culture has changed.
To begin at the beginning, when the doctor was a leading citizen of Barton his Abenaki ancestry was no secret. It figured prominently in the Reverend Pond’s funeral oration.
“John Baptiste Masta was born in 1819 in the Parish of St. Francis, Lower Canada,” the excerpt begins, using the old name of what is now the Province of Quebec. “His parentage, in which there was an infusion of Indian and French blood, were included in the Catholic Church, and under the forms of that church he was christened, and his name and date of birth recorded.
“From the earliest period when he began to think for himself, it became his earnest desire to acquire an education; and though by his humble parentage and other circumstances beyond his control, surrounded by many embarrassments, he made his way in 1938 into the States, and began the study of English.”
The Reverend Pond’s sermon leaves little doubt that Dr. Masta was fully aware of his Abenaki ancestry and made no bones about it.
Yet 85 years after his death, there are indications that his family had gently suppressed this feature of his background.
Richard Ebens of Hudson, Massachusetts, has kindly shared the family’s archives on his ancestor. Among them is a letter from Mr. Ebens’ great aunt, Bessie Delight Davis, who was Dr. Masta’s granddaughter. The letter, dated December 1937, is addressed to Eric Kelly, a professor at her grandfather’s alma mater, Dartmouth College.
“You gained your interest in the Indians from having seen them when you were a boy,” she wrote. “I gained mine from having heard about my grandfather’s connection with them. But he died when my mother was only nine years old and he seems never to have told her much about his early life. My grandmother’s family, the Quimbys, were very conservative and evidently did not lead her to show interest in her husband’s Indian associations. I even doubt whether grandfather knew he had Indian blood in his veins; for mother says he always said he was adopted into the Abenaki tribe and was wholly French.”
Miss Davis goes on to explain that her mother, the doctor’s only child to survive to adulthood, married into Cape Cod stock who could trace their ancestors back to the Mayflower. “Never having had contact with Indian traditions,” she wrote, “Father did not develope an interest in them.”
The suggestion that Dr. Masta was adopted by the Abenaki is refuted by his nephew, Henry Masta.
The son of Dr. Masta’s brother Ignace, Henry was for a time presiding Chief of the Abenaki Indians at St. Francis and teacher at the Dartmouth school on the reservation.
He addressed the subject in a 1932 letter to Miss Davis, which begins “Dear Cousin Delight.”
“I never heard that Uncle John was a member of the tribe through adoption,” Henry Masta wrote. “If it were so my father would have told me of it. I am sure Uncle John was not ashamed of his mother, Catherine Vassal. She had the reputation of being very handsome, good and pleasant, intelligent and clever and of her cleanliness beyond measure.”
In an article he wrote for the Dartmouth alumni magazine, Henry Masta supplied a bit more information about his grandmother, John Masta’s mother.
“Mr. Vassal who married an Indian woman of this tribe was a colonel of the Carignan regiment,” Henry Masta wrote, “and my grandmother Catherine Vassal must have been his granddaughter.”
The article, “When the Abenaki Came to Dartmouth,” says a good deal about how a French-Indian youth in a Quebec village would find his way to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
In a nutshell, he walked.
John Masta had an older half-brother, Peter Paul Osunkhirhine, who started a family tradition by going to Dartmouth College in 1822.
“Peter was a leader, and that also is the meaning of Osunkhirhine,” Henry Masta wrote. “He was the first Indian schoolteacher and minister of the Gospel here. He was about ninety years of age when he died and he had spent the first and best part of his life in teaching and evangelizing his own people. He was much interested in the education of all the young people of his tribe (Abenaki) but especially in that of his brothers Joseph and John Masta. He headed them to Dartmouth at Hanover, NH, not so much by drawing along or going before as by instruction or counsel.
“As the old saying goes: ‘An Indian is always ready when about to go on a journey’ (because he has nothing to pack up) – what he wears on his back is all that he carries. As for the Mastas they each had only a white blanket coat and toque with hawthorn prongs instead of buttons. They covered the whole distance on foot and they were amazed at their good reception, even as if they were rich. Everybody was good and kind to them. The students supplied them with clothing and shoes. The poor Indians in return did everything in their power to show their thankfulness while the invisible proof therefor was in their hearts never to be forgotten.
“While at school they were employed as boot-blacks, waiters, messengers, and jacks-of-all-trades.”
When it came to Native American students at Dartmouth, kindness clearly had its limits.
Mr. Ebens supplied another article from Dartmouth’s alumni magazine which explains the school’s early commitment to the education of Native Americans.
Samson Occom, Dartmouth’s first Indian student, studied under the school’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock. Professor Leon Richardson writes that Occom played a key role in raising the money that established the college. It was chartered as an institution for the education of Indian youth.
“Perhaps a word is necessary to explain why, for so many years, Indians continued to be received in what had come to be an ordinary institution for the education of white youths. That resulted from the existence of a fund of about 2500 pounds, raised in Scotland by Whitaker and Occom during their mission of 1767-68. The funds received in England by these envoys, amounting to over 8000 pounds, were placed under the control of an English board of trustees, headed by the Earl of Dartmouth. By 1775 all this money had been drawn by Wheelock and used in the building of the college. The Scotch donations, however, were not under the control of the English trustees, but were administered by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge. Upon none of the fund under Scotch control, except for about 190 pounds devoted to the expenses of missionary expeditions, was the elder Wheelock able to lay his hands. Its existence, intact and out of his power, was a source of extreme exasperation to him in the poverty-stricken later years of his life.”
John Masta’s half-brother Peter was a victim of this long-standing dispute. Professor Richardson provides the following sketch of Peter Osunkhirhine’s academic career, which began in 1822 but ended abruptly in 1823:
“Received by President Tyler, but bills were not paid on his demand by the Scotch Society. They were finally paid for one year, but notification was given that no further draughts would be honored. The Indian was sent home. In 1827 the Society resumed payments and the same Indian returned. He became, perhaps, the one Indian in whom the purposes of the school were most fully realized. He passed his life in laborious services as schoolmaster and minister of his tribe.”
The younger Masta brothers get shorter treatment in the Professor’s article:
Joseph Masta, 1827-1830. “Sent home as ‘lacking in intelligence.'”
John Masta, 1839-1845 and 1847-1850: “On his first stay remained until 1845. President Lord did not consider him intelligent enough for a college training. He returned, however, in 1847 to the Medical School, and after attending the customary three courses of lectures, received the M.D. degree in 1850. He practised in Barton, Vt., and died in 1861.”
Commenting on this material in an interview, Richard Ebens suggests that Dartmouth’s insults to the young Mastas’ intelligence reflect a nineteenth-century bias against Native Americans.
His view is supported by the subsequent careers of both Joseph and John Masta.
The Reverend Mr. Pond takes up the tale in his funeral sermon. At Dartmouth, the minister says, John Masta “suffered from ill health, and he was often advised to turn to some occupation which would carry him more into the open air and require of him more physical activity.”
At the end of his first stay at Dartmouth, John Masta continued his studies in Derby and in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He entered the school of the French Protestant Mission near Montreal to become a minister, but his feeble health again compelled him to withdraw.
“At the close of one year he came to Barton and joined his brother Joseph A. Masta, M.D., now of Lowell, Mass., and engaged in medical study and practice. After six months he entered the office of Dr. Richmond at Derby, where in one year he fitted himself to attend the regular course of medical lectures.”
With his medical diploma finally in hand, Mr. Pond said, “he returned to Barton and entered more thoroughly into the practise of his art in connection with his brother who had established a large and successful practice. The latter removing from town in the course of a few months, he was left to pursue it alone, which he has done regularly up to his last days.”
John Masta was responsible for bringing another distinguished citizen to town. In June 1859 he scrawled a note to his wife’s younger brother, George Quimby, suggesting that he accept a position at Barton Academy.
An 1861 advertisement for the fall term at Barton Academy offers instruction “under the charge of G.W. Quimby, A.B., Principal, with competent assistants.”
“This Institution has already acquired a popularity that warrants confidence and public patronage. Further comments are unnecessary.”
From his pulpit at the Congregational Church of Barton, Mr. Pond described Dr. John Masta’s last days in painful detail:
“His last sickness, which was of typhoid fever, at first seemed of so light a form that strong hopes were entertained of his recovery, but its progress developed graver symptoms. His reason soon became disturbed and did not return to him save at brief intervals. During the later stages of his sickness, he at times suffered great pain, but he appeared to grow easier as death stole upon him, and at seventeen minutes before ten o’clock, Monday evening, Oct. 21st., he ceased to breathe.”
George Quimby did not, in fact, preside over the fall term at Barton Academy. The Civil War intervened, and his letter of condolence, dated October 31, 1861, came from Camp Griffin, Virgina, in a schoolmaster’s fine italic hand:
“I barely know how or what to write you tonight my feelings are such – but I will try and make you know how deeply I feel the sorrow that has come upon you and us all.
“It does not seem possible that the Dr. was not there at Barton, that he so generous and ready to help others should now be beyond all earthly help but, although I cannot scarcely believe it yet I know it must be so.
“Oh Emeline how much I have thought of how lonely you must be how much sorrow there must be in that family that so long was a home to me!”
In a more practical vein, the young officer turned to his widowed sister’s financial affairs.
“You will have great deal of care and anxiety in putting up the estate and I wish there were more in Barton that I should feel like trusting,” he wrote.
“You know something of what I think of Barton folks, especially some. Don’t let yourself be influenced by a show of friendship to trust any too much.”
George Quimby regretted that the doctor’s untimely death would leave him forever in his brother-in-law’s debt.
“He had done much for me more than I could have asked and I ever felt so, and had hoped to be able in his life time to repay the kindness,” he wrote to Emeline, “but the dead need no such favors from the living. But I may be of some service to you if I ever return to old Vermont.”
George Quimby never did return, but that’s another story.