The Hopkins Chest Goes to Washington
My family had a national treasure and didn't even know it.
In 2003, I inherited an old chest from my mother. She was moving to assisted living and had no room for it. I moved the chest from the house where my mom lived for 38 years in Pasadena to my home in Sonoma. During that same time period, I was researching the genealogy of my mother’s family. Mom’s maiden name was Hopkins. The chest had belonged to her grandfather, Charles Harris Hopkins, who was the 5-x-great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger, Stephen Hopkins.
I’d never looked at the chest closely. My mother’s bedroom in Pasadena, where she kept the chest filled with her sweaters, wasn’t that well lit. And, simply, I never had any reason to look closely. Then one day, while doing yoga on the floor in my sunny home in Sonoma, I couldn’t help but notice how very old the chest was. (For a close look, check out Part I of my video series.) Why would my great-grandfather have kept such an old chest? He was a wealthy man. All the other furniture my mother inherited from him was new for the 1890s when Charles and his wife, Mary, built their family home in Santa Barbara.
Charles and his wife Mary (Booth) Hopkins built El Nido in 1897. The chest probably lived here from 1897 to the time Mary Hopkins died in 1955.
I asked my mother about it. “For as long as I can remember, that chest was in my grandparents’ dining room in the Santa Barbara House,” she said. “It had the Russian samovar on top of it [an older samovar than the one I show in the photo above].”
It took a while to get around to hiring an appraiser. I found Brian Witherell on the Antiques Road Show website. He has appeared on the show numerous times. He doesn’t live too far away, Sacramento, so he consented for a smallish fee to come to my house for a look-see. Taking home with him some photos, he consulted the former director of Sotheby’s. Mr. Witherell wrote that he and the director “were of the opinion that the chest was English of the Pilgrim Era.”
By this time, I had learned a lot about Charles Harris Hopkins. I traced ALL his ancestors back to the Pilgrim era. Without exception, every family was living on Cape Cod by 1635. Stephen Hopkins and his son Giles Hopkins built the first European home on Cape Cod, in Yarmouth. One of those Pilgrim ancestors must have brought the chest with him/her before 1635. Who would move from England to Cape Cod in later times and bring an old chest with them? What would be the point in that? We know the chest didn’t belong to Charles’ wife, Mary, because her parents were recent immigrants from England and Ireland. Why would they transport a (then) 300-year-old English chest from Europe to Boston, then across the country to San Francisco?
Charles’ two sets of grandparents moved from Cape Cod to Maine, one set in 1802 and one set in 1804. Family lore claims that Phoebe Hopkins, Charles’ paternal grandmother, didn’t want her sons to go to sea as whalers like their father. She and Prince settled in New Sharon, where Prince became a farmer. Charles’ maternal grandparents, Prince and Betsy Hawes, settled in North Vassalboro, which is 47 miles southeast of New Sharon. Their children, Prince Hopkins and Olive Hawes, married in North Vassalboro. That is where my great-grandfather Charles was born. (BTW, the name ‘Prince’ comes from Thomas Prence, an ancestor on both sides of Charles Harris Hopkins’ family who had been a governor of Plymouth Colony.)
A Prince Hopkins purchased this house in the 1830s—either Charles’ father or grandfather. When the chest moved to North Vassalboro, it may first have lived here. Kent G. London, the curator of the North Vassalboro Museum (and another Stephen Hopkins descendant), did the research and took this photo for me. He also sent me the map below. It was drawn in 1879. The wood house above is circled on the left side of the map.
By 1879, Charles’ family lived in the brick house circled on the upper right. Charles was probably born in one of the two houses. We know with certainty that Charles lived in the brick house before he moved to California, so the chest must have lived there too. Here is an old photo of the brick house on Main Street that Kent London sent me.
Backtracking to before the map was drawn, in 1861, when Charles was 24, he joined the tail end of the Gold Rush and moved to San Francisco. He wrote on his application to the California Mayflower Society, for which he was the 24th founding member, that he moved to California “by sea.” He probably crossed the continent by land at the Isthmus of Panama, then caught another ship to San Francisco. Only a tiny percentage (as small as 1%) of those early travelers dared sail under the Horn. Did Charles ship the chest to San Francisco then? He returned to North Vassalboro many times. Maybe he moved the chest by train after his parents died, his dad in 1892 and his mom in 1896—the year before Charles and Mary built their home in Santa Barbara. The first passenger train to Santa Barbara arrived from Los Angeles on August 17, 1887.
Unfortunately, Charles and Mary’s only child, my grandfather, Prynce Hopkins (he changed the spelling so he wouldn’t be confused with royalty), was never particularly interested in his early American ancestry. He married my grandmother in England, which is where my mother was born. Mom considered herself English, not American. Even though she came to live in California when she was fourteen, she didn’t even lift an eyebrow when I informed her that Charles Harris Hopkins was directly descended from twelve of the one hundred and two passengers on the Mayflower: Stephen, Elizabeth (Fisher), Giles, and Constance Hopkins; John, Joan (Hurst) and Elizabeth Tilly; John Howland; William and Mary Brewster; Edward Doty; and Francis Cooke.
This chart shows Charles’ four ancestral lines to Stephen Hopkins. The lines merge with Charles’ grandparents, Prince Hopkins and Phoebe Morse. (Click on the chart for a higher resolution image.)
Even though I didn’t learn for certain which one of Charles’ Mayflower ancestors brought the chest to America, I realized it was a special piece of furniture. This old wooden box is nearly as old as the Mayflower would be if she still existed. It is one of the first pieces of furniture to arrive here from Europe. It represents the migration of New Englanders to California during the 19th century. It needs to be treated to protect it for the future. It needs a safer place to live than my living room, which is not temperature-controlled and often occupied by tiny rambunctious grandsons. What really scared me were the recent California fires near me. My house is in a high-risk fire zone. How would I ever get the heavy chest out of my home if I needed to evacuate?
So, I made a video about the chest with close-ups photos and an explanation about Charles Harris Hopkins’ ancestry. After uploading the video to YouTube, I contacted the Smithsonian’s American History Museum in Washington DC, Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the North Vassalboro Museum. It turned out they all agreed with me. This is a special chest. After lots of back and forth and sending more photos and information, I finally got this email from Barbara Clark Smith at the Smithsonian:
“Hurray. Our well-informed and highly intelligent [collections] committee has agreed to pay for shipping of your chest from your home to the National Museum of American History. ... We anticipate with great pleasure adding [the chest] to the National Collections for its historical value both as a 17th-century chest with a history of use in early New England and as a treasured family possession that traveled from east coast to west coast in the 19th century.”
The Hopkins Chest is going to Washington! Since the curators at the National Museum haven’t actually seen the chest yet, just my videos and tons of detail photographs, they still need to check it over and make sure it isn’t a pile of rubbish in disguise. But the plan is to restore it and have it on display to help celebrate next year’s 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage.
If you want to know more, check out my YouTube Videos. To other Stephen Hopkins descendants, I think you will find Part 3 the most interesting. Besides telling the SeaVenture story, I talk about Stephen’s father, John Hopkins, and Stephen’s wife Mary Kent’s family:
Part 1 discusses why, I believe, the chest was shipped to Plymouth, then Cape Cod during Pilgrim times.
Part 2 describes the many other pilgrim ancestors who might have brought the chest from England in the early 1600s.
Part 3 tells Stephen Hopkins’ story before he sailed on the Mayflower, particularly when he shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609 on his way to Jamestowne Colony, Virginia.
Stay tuned for Part 4, “Stephen Hopkins sails to America on the Mayflower.”
P.S. I learned that back in the 1600s, these old chests that were used to store valuable objects and transport goods were known as coffers, as in “There is no money in the coffer.” The German word Koffer means suitcase.