Family Life in Revolutionary-Era America

Course: United States History Survey (11th grade)
Topic: Family life in Revolutionary Era America
Name/School: Colleen Kyle, Deerfield Academy

Lesson: Analysis of Stebbins House, a prominent family’s home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, built in 1773 for Joseph Stebbins, Jr. and his bride, Lucy Frary Stebbins.  Stebbins was a Colonel in the Revolutionary War, seeing action in Lexington, Bunker Hill, and other key battles.  Later he opened mills with his brother Asa Stebbins in the south meadows of Deerfield.  This family can be understood as representing the pinnacle of wealth and success for the town of Deerfield—its golden age.

The lesson will come between our study of the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  It will provide needed local and social history context in the midst of our examination of extraordinary national and political events.

Overview: Students will do an object study of the exterior and interior of Stebbins House, a grand example of Connecticut River Valley Georgian architecture.  By observing the construction and layout of the home they will determine the following:

  • What does the style and technology of this building say about the culture and economy that produced it?
  • What conclusions can be drawn about the people who lived within it?

Students will then study legal documents concerning the patriarch’s probate record of 1811, and the widow’s dower.  From the probate record students will figure out how the family lived based on the belongings they leave behind.  From the wife’s legal documents they will gain an understanding of the legal identity of women at a time when citizenship is being redefined for American men.

Time: Two 50-minute class periods.  In the first period we will observe the exterior and first floor of Stebbins House (it is a five-minute walk from our classroom); then a 50-minute period to discuss the probate record and dower, which will be examined by students overnight.

Materials: The house itself; sketches of the interior plan; 1811 probate record; widow’s dower; supplemental readings; worksheet.


Concepts (Big idea/central theme): How did Deerfield women and men experience home life in the late 18th/early 19th century?  What do houses and other objects tell us about their owners?

Content (What students should know): In the end, students should be familiar with the technology of handmade homes of the 18th century—timber-frame construction, and the labor ramifications of such buildings.  They should have a better sense of the sort of materialism demonstrated by ambitious families of the late 18th/early 19th centuries.  They should gain an understanding of early American family life through the example of a wealthy rural family in western Massachusetts, and be able to draw meaningful comparisons of this family with the other colonial peoples we have studied so far in the course.

Skills (what students should be able to do): Students should be able to make perceptive and insightful observations about an inanimate object—a house—in order to better understand a past era.  They will analyze a probate record and determine for themselves the usefulness of such documents in reconstructing the past.  These are two kinds of historical evidence that they may not have encountered in previous coursework; in doing so they will better understand the range of sources historians and anthropologists consult when explaining the past.


Homework before: read Kevin M. Sweeney, “Gentlemen Farmers and Inland Merchants” (pp. 235-240, The Deerfield Reader, Fraker/Heise/Heise), and an excerpt from In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century by Catherine E. Kelly.  This background reading will help students to understand the lives of Revolutionary-era men and women in the region.  The questions for consideration upon viewing the house will also be distributed so that students can familiarize themselves with the sort of observations they ought to be making the next day on site.

First day: We will meet in our classroom and walk to Stebbins House, next to the Deerfield Inn.  We will first examine the front façade of the house, taking note of its several unique characteristics: its imposing size; the Connecticut River Valley front door with Ionic columns; the gambrel roof; the symmetrically spaced windows; the wood block detailing along the corners; and the center hall construction with two chimneys.  We will then enter the house and take a look at the first floor layout, noting private and public spaces and how they may have been negotiated by the Stebbins family and their servants and guests.

Homework: Students will analyze the 1811 probate record along with Lucy Stebbins’ widow dower.  They will be provided a worksheet to guide them as they attempt to draw some historical conclusions from this evidence on their own in preparation for the class discussion.

Second day: The class (12 students) will break up in two groups.  One will put their heads together over the probate record; the other will examine the widow’s dower.  After 20 minutes of discussion and preparation, they will report their findings to the class.  Each group will have 5-7 minutes for reporting.  The final 15 minutes will be a whole-class discussion that will address the following questions:

  • What was typical about the Stebbins family? 
  • What was atypical about them? 
  • What conclusions may we draw about early American life through this exercise? 
  • What do we not know?

Evaluation/Assessment: Assessment for this activity will include an oral participation comment and grade, which will eventually be incorporated into the student’s participation grade for the trimester (20% of the total term grade). In addition, students will prepare a written response to the following questions, in approximately 200-300 words:

  • What conclusions can be drawn about the Col. Joseph Stebbins, Jr. family based on their home and Col. Stebbins’ 1816 probate record?  Is this a typical New England family of the Revolutionary era?  Why or why not? 

Extension Possibilities/Interdisciplinary Connections:

There is an architecture elective at Deerfield; students may be able to extend their understanding of Stebbins House through further study of early American homes in Deerfield and in their own hometowns.  They may also find applications in their mathematics and physics classes as they consider the technology of the building structure. 

Tips and reflections from the author:  

I am planning to do further research on the Stebbins family, especially regarding their involvement with the founding of Deerfield Academy in 1797.  Joseph and his brother Asa Stebbins contributed materials for the first academy building in 1798 (now Memorial Hall), and I would like to find out which of his sons and daughters may have attended.  I have not yet been able to learn the names of all thirteen of Joseph and Lucy Stebbins (a look at the family archive collection only provides the names of five)—I would like to find out if Caroline Stebbins, creator of the Mt. Vernon needlepoint shown to us by Cathy Kelly, was a daughter; she was related somehow.  The Deerfield Academy archives are closed in the summer, but I plan to investigate the family’s relationship to the school when it reopens in the fall.  My initial sense of the Stebbins family papers is that they are focused primarily on the men of the family.
When I submit this syllabus to Deb for the Institute’s website, I will include digital photos of the exterior of the house so that others may adapt this syllabus for their own classes.  Alternately, perhaps the plan will serve as a useful model for others as they develop similar house studies in their own cities and towns.

Sources Consulted:

  • Conradsen, David H. “Tradition and Change Under the Roof: The Joseph Stebbins House in Deerfield, Massachusetts.”  (paper, Historic Deerfield Fellowship Program, 1987).
  • Fraker, G. Alan, Thomas and Karinne Heise. The Deerfield Reader. New York: American Heritage Custom Publishing, 1996.
  • Kelly, Catherine E. In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Moorhead, Andrea and Robert. Deerfield 1797-1997: A Pictorial History of the Academy.  Deerfield, MA: The Deerfield Academy Press, 1997.
  • McGavan, Susan, and Amelia F. Miller. Family and Landscape: Deerfield Homelots from 1671. Deerfield, MA: The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, 1996.
  • Stebbins House, the Street, Deerfield, Massachusetts.  Currently faculty housing at Deerfield Academy (sold to the Academy in 1952).
  • Stebbins, Joseph, Inventory of (1749-1816).  Docket # 4/660.  Document #6 therein, Franklin County Courthouse.  Probate Office, Greenfield, MA.
  • White and Hunter.  Teaching with Historic Places: A Curricular Framework.  Washington, DC: The National Trust for Historic Preservation.